Sunday, 30 June 2013

The tale of two rare needles

Francis with his rare Shepherd's needle
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has many research projects running across the country including one on the beautiful Rotherfield Park estate in Hampshire, which is not far from where I live.
Dr. Francis Buner, the GWCT Grey Partridge biologist lives on the estate and he and I carry out farmland bird surveys through the summer and winter months. Francis, like so many of the research staff at the GWCT is interested in all wildlife, not just partridges! So I was not hugely surprised to receive a rather excited text from him saying that he had found some “Shepherd’s needle” growing in a cultivated margin on the estate.
These are field edges that are cultivated, but not drilled with a crop, so as to allow the arable flowers to flourish. These flowers in turn attract many insects so that the farmland birds, including Francis’s beloved partridges, have plenty of readily available food for their chicks. The other purpose of these margins is to allow the rarer plants to appear once more – and we have both been looking without much success over the last two to three years, to see if we can find any of these so called “rare arable plants”.   Now we have one!
Shepherd’s needle used to be so common that small boys were employed at harvest time to climb into the reaper machines to unblock them from this irksome weed, so called because of the long needle shaped seed pods they produce. Nowadays, grown men get very excited when they find just a few plants!!
Then I hear that the fastest bird in the world has turned up in the UK for only the 10th time ever - a White-throated needletail  - jetting around on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Two exciting needles in one day - WOW! The tom – toms soon started to work their magic amongst the “twitching community” and before long there were 30 or so birders gathered together in a huddle, watching this superb bird which should really be racing around the skies of central Asia and southern Siberia at this time of year.
As the assembled birders were being rewarded with some spectacular “fly bys” from this large, cigar shaped swift like bird, with its needle shaped tail, the show ended rather abruptly. Fairly nearby was a small wind turbine, which hardly anyone had even noticed, that is until 30 pairs of binoculars followed this mega rarity straight into the rapidly turning blades. Death was instant.
So, the tale of two rare British needle species, one of which has become even rarer, but the other one hopefully now has a brighter future!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Sharing wildlife and a beer or two with a fellow enthusiast!

Neil in action!
Occasionally, it is really great to leave behind the pressures of work and everyday chores, to indulge in something you really enjoy - although it may appear to be a bit of a "busman's holiday"! A good friend of mine, who is an excellent photographer and has a similar passion for wildlife as I do, came to stay for the weekend. We visited some wonderful sites to see what we could find and potentially photograph, anything really from a plant to a butterfly.
I enjoy his company because he is the opposite of a “twitcher” - happy to pootle around a site, spending time observing both the common and occasionally, the less common in equal measure. We chat about what we find, learning from each other’s knowledge, but we often don’t speak for long periods too. This silence is usually broken by an expletive as one of us, having spent a number of minutes getting into a good position to photograph a butterfly or such like, has it speeding off just as we were about to press the shutter!!
What is also most enjoyable is retiring to the pub or back home to discuss the day’s findings and to put the world to right over a bottle of wine or two. What is less agreeable is seeing the quality of his photographs over mine – I really must book onto a photographic course this coming winter!!            

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Helping to knit together a green Jersey

Jersey Royal potatoes - can only sold as such when grown on Jersey!

I spent the day on Jersey yesterday, discussing ways to progress their new Stewardship scheme that only came into being in 2005. Jersey Royal potato growers are keen to “green up” the way they grow this important and profitable crop on the island, which covers 18,000 vergees (2.25 vergees to the acre!) of land each year. Much of the crop is grown under plastic and the earliest seed potatoes (and therefore most profitable) are planted on southern facing slopes in December and January and harvested in March! This can then be followed by a spring sown crop, meaning that much of the land is annually double cropped.
The key problem is that the island is only 9 by 5 miles and has a population of 100,000 – so land is really at a premium. They also have more cars per capita than any other country in the world!! Add to this the vital grassland area, kept in place to produce the other well known produce of the island – delightful Jersey cows (25 herds of around 3,000 head) and the milk, cream and ice cream that come from them and you begin to see that conservation can easily get squeezed out! Oh, also don’t forget tourism of course – that is pretty demanding too!
Anyway, we hope to trial some new ideas to see how they fit in with the rotation of crops and other demands on the land. If everyone is up for it, and they certainly seem to be, I’m sure the wildlife can be catered for as well as everything else!

A Jersey cow on Jersey - such pretty animals!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Conservation course held at new university

Royal Agricultural University

I spent today at the Royal Agricultural University teaching the “Biodiversity section” of the 3 day course in BASIS certificate in Conservation Management. Many of you will know this establishment as the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, but it has recently gained university status and has changed its name!
There was a great bunch attending the course – Professionals, students and even someone from the island of Jersey! They were all very keen, full of questions and I hope got a lot out of the day. They particularly enjoyed getting out onto the University farm to talk practicalities of conservation and how to successfully integrate it into a modern farming system. I’m sure that such a sparky lot will do just fine when they take the exam - lets hope so!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Is yoghurt making any good for birds?

A very early start today, as I was doing a bird survey for Yeo Valley farms in Somerset – yes, that’s right the yoghurt makers!  They farm organically and are interested to know what birds are to be found on the farms they manage and also if over time the numbers are increasing because of the way in which they farm.
I must say that they do appear to be a tremendously forward thinking company – full of ideas and projects, and certainly engage with their market – in other words you and me! If you take a look at their website – I think you will get what I’m saying in an instant!!
Traditionally, British farmers have not been great at dealing with the public, however, what with farmers markets and farm shops opening up and “open farm Sunday” being such a success, to mention just a few projects - I think things are really changing now.
Over time we shall see if the wildlife in the Yeo valley is prospering too!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Noisy birds up at the "crack of sparrows"!

Urban Blackbirds work long hours

You only have to stand still for the briefest of moments on any busy city street, to realise that the whole world seems to be in one massive hectic rush! Now it appears that it is not just human “townies” that are burning the candle at both ends – birds are too!! New research from Glasgow University has revealed that city birds wake up around 30 minutes before dawn, while forest birds start their day as the sun rose. What is more, city birds stay up later too, meaning their day is lengthened by about 40 minutes.
The team said its research added "to a growing consensus" that towns and cities "have a profound effect on the internal clocks" of both humans and animals.
Another report from scientists at Aberystwyth University found male great tits in 20 UK towns and cities sang at a higher pitch to be heard above the man-made noise. Project scientists said the urban great tit reacted to man-made noise by raising the pitch of its song, but in quieter rural locations a few miles away the pitch was found to be lower.
When the calls of town birds were recorded and played back to rural birds, they did not react quite as they should! The researcher said "They were less aggressive and not quite sure what to make of it. It was like the city birds were speaking a different language. Likewise, we found city birds didn't understand the lower rural pitch."
Thank goodness I live in the middle of nowhere – I’m off for an early night!

City Great tits have to shout to be heard!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

A cathedral full of flowers!

"Wildflower meadow" in Winchester Cathedral

Flower drum - ready to play!
I went to Winchester cathedral’s festival of flowers today and really enjoyed the enormously diverse mix of flowers on show. Walking through the main entrance you were instantly hit by the aroma of sweet smelling blooms, with scent wafting from strident, strong coloured “firework” like displays, through to the more typically restrained English country garden arrangements, with their calming, gentle pastel colours.
Some displays were extremely clever, such as those inspired by Timpani or kettle drums containing a plethora of brightly coloured flowers in a concave fashion, with two large “Pom-pom” headed Allium drumsticks lying casually on top, inviting someone to play them!
Pleasingly, right in the centre of the cathedral had been created a “wildflower meadow”, unfortunately not using native wildflowers, but nevertheless reminding us all how nature can quite happily compete with the best of our cultivated floral displays.
As I wandered slowly around the different displays, I couldn’t help eavesdropping on some of the conversations taking place in rather hushed tones. Before long, it became apparent to me just how deeply people love flowers and how certain plants conjure up distant memories and bring forth little stories. Just one example of many overheard snippets came from a mother and her teenage daughter who on seeing a tumbling display of white “Avalanche” roses remarked, “Oh, doesn’t that remind you of granny’s walled garden! How funny it was that she always invited us all to tea every June without fail, because she wanted us to admire her roses!” The mother then added “White roses were always her favourite - she had them in her wedding bouquet and on her coffin”. Then after a pause “wouldn’t she have loved this festival”.
The natural world is perhaps more significant to all of us than we realise and flowers in particular I think, are an important symbolic link to our past. Although technological gadgets appear to engage most people’s attention nowadays, in evolutionary terms this is a very, very recent occurrence and I believe that for most, a strong connection with the environment still lies just beneath the surface.         

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Spaghetti grows on trees - most of us know that don't we?

"I didn't know that pasta grunted dad!"
Ok, I’ve only just come across this survey a week after it was released – but hey – I’ve been busy! Anyway, it doesn’t matter if it is a week, month or year late – it still makes for pretty shocking reading. The British Nutrition Foundation surveyed over 27,500 children across the UK and asked them all about the food they eat. Yep, you’ve guessed it – their knowledge on this subject is dreadful!
Almost a third (29%) of primary school children think that cheese comes from plants, and nearly one in five (18%) say that fish fingers come from chicken. I’m not quite sure how to react really – “FISH” fingers – I would have thought there was just the tiniest clue in the name!      
The good news is that the study found that almost 4 out of 5 primary school children had visited a farm, which is a good start, however it goes on – and I quote - “Through this survey one in five (21 per cent) primary school children and 18 per cent of secondary school pupils told us that they have never visited a farm. This may go part way to explaining why over a third (34 per cent) of 5-8 year olds and 17 per cent of 8-11 year olds believe that pasta comes from animals.” How very depressing. We once all roared with laughter at the BBC's April fool joke about spaghetti growing on trees, but I suspect it wouldn't even raise a smile today. 
Michael Gove, the education minister, just yesterday announced radical changes to the exam system in England, but it appeared to be all about algebra and Shakespeare – important subjects of course – but what could be more vital than the very stuff that sustains us all, food and water? We must surely give water, food, farming and the environment a much, much higher priority in the educational curriculum. If we realistically hope that the children of today, have any chance of overseeing a sustainably managed world in the future, we all need to act now, including Mr. Gove.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Monkey makes it home, but two others don't!

A nesting Woodcock
I’m pleased to announce that Monkey, the male woodcock that was radio tagged in Cornwall by GWCT research scientist Dr. Andrew Hoodless has successfully made it back to his breeding ground in Siberia, completing his third annual migration! Andrew reckons that Monkey has already clocked up 24,000 miles (39,000 Km) in his lifetime! Hopefully he is one of many woodcock now “roding” – the peculiar display flight that male woodcock perform at dusk to attract females – around his Siberian woodland territory.
16 woodcock with satellite tracking devises have arrived safely on their breeding grounds, but unfortunately 2 have gone missing including Busy, also tagged in Cornwall in February 2012, who was found by a member of the public being eaten by a Sparrowhawk in a wood near Andover in Hampshire! Don’t forget to follow how these birds fare over the coming months on the woodcock website.   

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Open Farm Sunday - a great success!

The delight of holding a duckling!

Watching sheep being sheared
Well, if the crowds attending “Open Farm Sunday” at Middle farm, Cheriton, Hampshire today are anything to go by, then all the farms opening their farm gates to the public today, will have had a very successful day! The GWCT farm in Loddington, Leicestershire opens today too, with all farms aiming to entertain and educate the public in actually what happens on a modern day farm and importantly, to explain where our food comes from.
This excellent initiative is nationally organised by “Linking Environment And Farming” (LEAF) – and each year more and more farms sign up, spending a lot of time preparing to make the farm safe and providing plenty to see. I think these two pictures show just what an enjoyable day it is for people who rarely get the chance to get close to farm animals!     

Friday, 7 June 2013

Belgians - good with chocolate but not conservation - yet!

Belgian group visit the Allerton project
I spent today at the Allerton project in Loddington, Leicestershire. This is the GWCT’s research and demonstration farm – where we trial numerous conservation techniques to see if they really do work and how they fit in with the farming programme. This farm is also a key way of showing all sorts of people, from farmers, conservationists, politicians and the public, exactly what can be achieved on a working farm.
Today we had a visit from Belgian politicians, farmers and Government policy makers, who wanted to see firsthand how Stewardship schemes work in England and how game management is integrated in with these schemes. They were astounded by how advanced our schemes are compared to what is available in Belgium and also how “up for it” our farmers are – certainly not the case over there!!
It is exciting when GWCT research not only influences our own UK Government, but spreads far and wide to influence and impact on European countries and also the States, which has already been the case in many instances.
I really hope that these Belgians will go back to their country inspired as to what can be achieved, so that the habitats and associated species in their nation can benefit from our research and experience too, after all in many instances their wildlife is our wildlife – human boundaries are just not recognised by many species which move from country to country during the course of a year.        

Thursday, 6 June 2013

May should be called June this year!

Hawthorn in full flower
Hawthorn is often called “May” as it flowers during that month – but not in 2013 – it should be called “June” this year as it is in full bloom right now! (If you want to read more about Hawthorn – hit the “species of the month” tab at the top of this page and go to May 2012).    
I was out at 5.00 am this morning doing a bird survey on a Hampshire estate – the first 2 or 3 hours of daylight are always special, but particularly at this time of year as you have the countryside to yourself! When you leave the peace and “re-enter” into the hustle bustle of life, you feel rather superior that you have witnessed the day awake; everyone should rise early on occasions to witness a summer day start.
Not only is the Hawthorn flowering late, but also Ramsons (or wild garlic) seems to be well over a month late! Walking through a beautiful wood this morning, the slanting, dappled morning light picked out the bright white flowers, like theatre spotlights pick out actors, which when coupled with the intense garlicy smell of the plants, made for a memorable wander along the ancient track.       
The garlic walk

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Start your day by helping wildlife!

9 owl chicks from just 2 nest boxes  wins Chris the trophy!

Did you by any chance start off your day by eating a bowl of Jordans breakfast cereal this morning? Because if you did, then you were eating Conservation Grade produced grain such as oats! So who exactly is Conservation Grade and what differences would you see if you walked onto a farm growing crops for them?
Farmers who want to become part of Conservation Grade have to have at least 10% of the farm in wildlife habitats including a minimum of 4% in flowers and 2% in crops that produce seed for birds to feed on over winter. The farm (and farmer!) then have to go through a period of assessment to make sure that they are complying with Conservation Grade’s various protocols, after which they eventually become a producer, thereby gaining a premium for the grain produced.
I personally think that this is a superb way to encourage active habitat management in the “wider countryside”, because farmers really value their wildlife and the habitats they live in, not just because they like to see them on the farm, but also because they are an integral part of the business and its profitability.
Although I work full time for the GWCT, I am contracted out by Conservation Grade to train and assess their growers, so that they get the very best out of the habitats that they are creating or improving. What is more it seems to really work, as recent research work has shown that Conservation Grade farms have up to 40% more bees and produce more Barn Owl chicks than conventionally run farms!
So, why not start your day by supporting wildlife – eat a bowl of Jordans breakfast cereal and feel good about yourself for the rest of the day!!            

Conservation Grade farmers on a training day

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Zero harvest from some fields

"Fallowed" fields
I was working in Oxfordshire yesterday and was amazed to see so many fields without a crop planted. We all know just what an appalling 12 months we have all suffered weather wise, and that many farmers did not get an autumn crop sown, but it now appears that many farms across the country have struggled to access fields in time to drill a crop this spring too.
I stood on a small hill north of Bicester and in the immediate landscape below, I counted 9 fields in “fallow” – simply ploughed and left. Multiply that up across the country and also take into account how many fields have “half a crop” growing because of flooding, slug and pigeon damage, and this harvest looks as though it is going to be well down on the average. I know that this is a heavy land area and I realize that this part of the country suffered particularly badly from prolonged rainfall, but it was the sheer scale of fallowed land that so surprised me.
I was looking at this view with the farmer who owned two of the fallow fields that we were observing. He explained that as the land was heavy clay, he has only just managed to get a tractor across the fields to cultivate them. He has decided that the best course of action is to plant some mustard before too long, simply to hold the nutrient and soil in place and to try and put a little structure back into the soil profile.
One positive benefit from this fallowed ground was that I did see a pair of Yellow wagtail, which like to nest on cultivated, un-cropped ground – so let’s hope they can harvest some broods from this ground at least!