Saturday, 30 March 2013

2012 - a disaster for butterflies

Chalk hill blue

Another report recently published by the excellent organisation Butterfly Conservation has shown just how bad last summer was (as if we needed reminding!) for our wildlife in general, and in this case particularly butterflies. Eye catching statistics such as “one of the UK’s rarest butterflies the black hairstreak saw its numbers fall by 98% and the white-letter hairstreak fell by 72%”.  The report goes on "Despite the horrific weather in 2012 over 1,500 dedicated volunteers still managed to collect data from over a thousand sites across the UK. Their amazing efforts enable us to assess the impacts of wet summers on butterfly diversity." I admit that the report did also say that one or two species did buck the trend such as the meadow brown which was up in numbers from the previous year.
However, this all resulted in newspaper headlines such as “Butterflies suffer devastating year after UK’s wet summer” and “Disaster year for butterflies”. You have to admit, a 98% decline in a species in just one year does sound pretty appalling – but is it? The last dreadful year similar to 2012 was 1976, which ironically was caused by drought. So, were butterfly numbers permanently affected following this drought? No, not really.
The importance of these surveys are to gauge long term trends, which does show that many butterfly and moth species are in fact declining which is worrying and an important story to tell. The fact that populations jump up and down in number from year to year, depending on a wide range of reasons, is of course interesting too, but this has been ever thus and should be treated accordingly. Of course for some of our very rare species, an awful breeding season could be the final nail in the coffin, but for most it is just a bad year and no more than that. We need to be careful that all we ever read in the press is more and more depressing news as far as the countryside is concerned.
The summer of 2012 was in fact an incredible summer for the chalkhill blue in parts of the south of England. Phenomenal numbers emerged on some areas of the South Downs at the beginning of August, in scenes seldom witnessed since Victorian times. On one particular place near Eastbourne for instance, a conservative estimate for the whole site reckoned there to be around 820,000 chalk hill blues, which in certain favoured places were recorded at a density of up to 33 per square metre!!
Not much mention of this in the press.  

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Large scale conservation conference

Yesterday I went to a packed conference held at the London wetland centre to discuss “large-scale conservation”. Perhaps the first thing that struck me on arriving is the whole set up at the London wetland centre, having never been there before, I can start to see why they have won a load of prizes, as it is certainly an impressive place to visit. The buildings were notable, with huge viewing windows over the wetland area, perhaps made all the more unique as the whole backdrop was filled with skyscrapers and cranes!!
The second thing that was striking about the day was to glance at the attendees list!  I reckon there were around 40 different organisations represented, which made the discussions on “how to work more closely together by forming partnerships” – very relevant!
Following Professor Sir John Lawton’s report “making space for nature” all the current conservation thinking is to concentrate on landscape scale projects, rather than nature reserves and  small isolated pockets of habitat, which although important, have been described as “precious living relics”.  
Thinking more, bigger, better and joined as Lawton suggested, is of course sensible on many levels, however, I still feel that we are too keen to place red lines around “special areas” and concentrate all our efforts there and ignore the rest of the landscape. Why not a red line put around the whole country and also around large parts of our seas? No wildlife is aware of the lines we draw on a maps. It was wholesale, across the board CAP policies that sent so much of our wildlife into decline, so why are we still so happy to pick and choose these so called important areas, albeit on a larger scale than before, and highlight them for special attention? Maybe a new report will come out in a few years time saying “CCC – countrywide co-operation for conservation – that’s what we need now”.       

Monday, 25 March 2013

Brown hares

Brown hare

I ran a course today for the Sussex Wildlife Trust on the brown hare. As always, there was a great mixture of people of all ages and background attending – a couple of ecologists, two others who wanted to work in conservation, a few retired folk, a forensic psychologist and a number of people who just loved hares and wanted to learn more about them! (What better reason do you need!!) There was also one lady who loved to do stitch work and she had come along to learn more about hares so that she could improve her work. It is interesting how many painters, sculptors, carvers and photographers come along to courses on hares – they are obviously wonderful creatures to inspire creativity. Entertainingly, the course was actually held in a painter’s studio this time, with a scattering of paintings depicting nudes freely dotted across the walls, which meant I had to be on particularly good form if I was to keep the full attention of the guys in the audience!
After lunch we went up onto the South Downs to see if we could spot a hare or two and to discuss further the habitat requirements that they need to flourish. Charlie, the head keeper on the estate joined us and I think everyone really enjoyed tapping into his extensive knowledge. They also told me that they were fascinated by the work he does for the Grey partridge on this wild game bird estate and how that in turn benefits so much of the other farmland wildlife, including hares. However, as it was only one degree above freezing and a strong easterly wind was making its presence felt, we did not linger for too long. The hares too were sensibly keeping a very low profile – not one was spotted!!
If you want more information on brown hares, contact the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Proof that spring is arriving!

One of my favourite websites to keep an eye on, especially at this time of year, is that run by the Portland bird observatory, where I check out the latest sightings page. Martin Cade, the warden and excellent all round naturalist, keeps an informative diary of events taking place at this key site for migrants.
I checked out the activities from this equivalent weekend last year and it read “A day of constant warm sunshine” and the following day, “Another day of unbroken sunshine and unseasonable warmth with 5 species of butterfly on the wing”. This year’s entry started “Another uniformly foul day – blasting, cold easterlies and frequent spells of rain”. Nevertheless, although the butterflies are not prepared to venture out, the migrants are starting to appear on our shores despite the rather bleak welcome.
The highlight of yesterday was a white-spotted bluethroat, a stunning little bird caught in the observatory mist net and photographed. Also beginning to arrive in numbers are wheatears, sand martins, swallows, chiffchaffs, willow warblers and a couple of Ring ouzels thrown in for good measure. So, if you are beginning to despair that spring is never going to arrive this year, then cheer yourself up by taking a look at the comings and goings at Portland, because things are definitely livening up!     

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Mallard's strange nest site

Mallard's nest

While I was out walking with my two dogs in a large Hampshire woodland today, they flushed a duck Mallard (females are known as "Ducks" and males as "Drakes") out of some old tussocky grass. She flew weakily and soon "crash landed" a short distance away - a common technique used to try and attract potential predators to follow her and in doing so, take them away from her nest. Having called the dogs to heel, I checked out the position that she had taken off from. Sure enough, their was her nest of eggs, well concealed amongst the old dead grass that would help to camouflage her so well. But what was she nesting here for? The nearest water - even a small pond - must be all of two miles away and she will need to get her ducklings to water if she has any chance of raising them. Mallard will often nest quite some distance from water (including quite high up in trees or on roof tops!) and then trek their newly hatched ducklings to the nearest water. But two miles - I think not.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Organic market share

I have just spotted that the UK organic area has shrunk still further in 2012 by a rather alarming 8.7% and now only represents 3.8% of overall UK production - around 656,000ha. It is interesting isn't it that most surveys asking people about to enter a supermarket, if they would consider buying organic food usually answer "yes". However, most then go on to fill their trolleys with non organic food! It is of course difficult for shoppers in the middle of a long recession, when money is tight and every penny is being closely watched, to pay more for organic food. 
 It is not all doom and gloom for organic producers however, as the under 35s age bracket significantly increased their average spending on organic products in 2012, which may in time point to a healthier future for the organic market. The under 35s are of course as poor as the rest of us, so there is probably much more to it than a simple price issue. Perhaps the younger generation are just less fickle than older folk and stand by their principles through thick and thin!        

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Farmland birds & FWAG

I have just given a talk to the South West Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (SWFWAG) all about farmland birds, such as this yellowhammer.

This group of birds are reliant on farmland all the year round and require seeds and grain during the winter, good places to nest like hedgerows and grassy areas and also an abundance of insect food in the summer months to feed their hungry chicks. Although they have declined badly over the last 50 years, we now know what we need to do to bring them back in good numbers. So, giving an evening talk to a bunch of Somerset farmers in a Glastonbury pub, is a great way to spread the "gospel"!!

There really has been a massive sea change in farmers attidudes across the whole country and this room full of red faced healthy looking folk was no exception, if the multitude of questions asked was anything to go by!

It is also fantastic to see farmer backed regional FWAG groups such as this South West group, re-appear from the ashes after the collapse of the national FWAG organisation. The advisors who work for FWAG play a vital local role in helping farmers deliver the best possible habitats for wildlife. I wish them all the very best of success in their new smaller regional groups. Go to for more information and to join up - they need your support!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


So, Europe has decided not to ban Neonicotinoids. The vote resulted in a stalemate. 13 of the 27 European Union member states voted in favour of a ban, while nine voted against and five, including Britain, abstained.

The issue here is do these products affect bees - especially honey bees? If you listen to many Bee keepers and some environmental scientists you would soon be convinced that they do. On the other hand, Bayer and Syngenta, the two major manufacturers of Neonicotinoids say that they have carried out extensive trials and that there is no evidence to suggest that bees are harmed. Our own Environment Secretary, Owen Patterson, has said that he wants to see his own Government's trial results on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees, expected later this year, before he makes a firm decision.

My own thoughts are that we do need more urgent research before banning these products. Neonicotonoids are usually coated onto crop seeds and therefore the insecticide is buried along with the seed at drilling time, keeping it out of harms way. I prefer this technique in most scenarios to an overhead broad spectrum insecticide spray delivered out of a sprayer, which potentially kills most of the insect life living in the crop (which would of course be the case if Neonicotinoids were banned).

Having said all of this however, if real proof is found that months later bees feeding on the nectar of treated crops are affected, perhaps in a non-lethal way, for instance by disorientating them so they cannot find their way back to the hive again, then of course action should be taken to put a ban in place. I for one will be watching this debate very closely and will keep you posted!.