Sunday, 29 September 2013

Listen up everyone - farmers ARE doing their bit for wildlife!

Hertfordshire farmer Barbara Sapsed in her "wildlife crop!"

Suffolk farmer, Steve Honeywood - doing so much for wildlife
Last week I was working in the Eastern counties – in Suffolk and Hertfordshire to be precise – doing farm based assessments for ConservationGrade (CG). Farmers who grow crops for CG have to have a minimum of 10% of the farm in wildlife habitats, such as flower rich areas which provide pollen and nectar or wildlife seed mixes which produce lots of different seeds for over-wintering birds to feed on. I check that they are indeed meeting the CG requirements and also give advice, were necessary, on how to improve what they are doing.
When I give talks to the general public – in other words not a farmer based audience – I often ask them “what percentage of farmers do you think are in a voluntary Government Stewardship scheme, which funds them to manage and provide habitats for wildlife?” The usual answers I get range from around 10 – 20%. The actual answer is over 70%.  
What is more, on the farms that have decided not to go into one of these Stewardship schemes, (often because they want to do things their own way – without Government rules and regulations) it certainly does not mean that they are devoid of wildlife habitats. There is often plenty to see such as grass buffer strips along water courses, over-wintering stubbles and game cover crops.

OK, Conservation Grade farmers tend to be amongst the very best in the country at growing crops, not only for us to eat, but for a wide range of wildlife too. But we really have to begin to shout more loudly about the vast majority of farmers out there who are playing their part in managing the countryside for much more than just food production.  Sure, there is still more to be done to really turn around the fortunes of certain farmland species with are still declining, but the public perception that very little is happening on farms, is way off the mark.

PS. Steve also has a thriving horse feed business which is accredited by Conservation Grade! Use this link to also see his on the farm page as it will give you some idea just how much he is doing!             

Monday, 23 September 2013

A Small Tortoiseshell - but not as we know it!

A Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly with a difference!

A normal Small Tortoiseshell butterfly
I came across this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (top photo) the other day with very odd markings – you can see in the photos that it has large amounts of black along the top of its wings when compared to a “normal” Tortoiseshell below. I will try and find out how rare this actually is and report back – just because I haven’t seen the like before, doesn't mean it is frantically unusual!!
I am pleased to read that it has generally been an excellent summer for butterflies, with long warm sunny periods, resulting in lots of butterflies being recorded. I wrote on this blog back on the 30th March, that although the summer of 2012 was an awful year for most butterflies, it was probably not the disaster that the press would have us all believe – butterflies and many other insect species are renowned for boom and bust years. I do feel that we are far too quick to “sensationalise” reports on the countryside – we really should keep our powder dry, so that when we REALLY do have a problem, the public don’t just think – “here we go once more, probably wolf, wolf again”.
I repeat, as I did back in March that this piece is not a dig at the excellent organisation Butterfly Conservation, but more of an observation on our great British press, who only ever seem to create reports on the “astounding”, making even relatively ordinary reports look dramatic by carefully selecting certain lines and “sexing” them up into eye catching headlines.
Read more on this “butterfly summer” on the Butterfly Conservation website:


Sunday, 22 September 2013


Ballymaloe Hotel

The cookery school
I have just returned from a week in Ireland, where amongst other places, I stayed at the Ballymaloe hotel near Cork and also visited their renowned cookery school.
It was Myrtle Allen who started the whole story off by opening a restaurant in her own home in 1964 – but this was no ordinary place to eat, as Myrtle was determined to use only local produce, some of it grown on her husband’s farm, or brought from local farmers in county Cork and even “foraged” from the surrounding woods and hedgerows. Eventually, the restaurant became so popular that Myrtle turned most of her home into a hotel, so that well fed customers could stay over night.

She championed the wonderful local food that small scale growers were producing and started to show just how conducive the Irish climate and soils were in this part of the country for food production. She had her own food programme on television, which became a huge hit, but not content with only promoting Irish food in Ireland, she opened a stall in the middle Paris, selling and promoting a wide range of fresh Irish produce, including fish. Myrtle was also the first person to bring the whole idea of farmers markets to Ireland (long before the UK had thought of it!) having seen first-hand how the markets were run in parts of America.
In 1968, a young girl called Darina O’Connell arrived to work at the hotel, attracted by the reputation that had now put Ballymaloe firmly on the map. Darina worked alongside Myrtle and learnt quickly that “fresh, local and seasonal” were key words in the hotel. She not only learnt to cook but also to teach cookery, as Myrtle was by now running classes during the winter months to keep the hotel filled.
In 1970, Darina married Myrtle’s oldest son and in 1983 she opened up the Ballmaloe cookery school which is now internationally famous having attracted guest chefs such as Rick Stein, Madhur Jaffrey and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall amongst many others.
The cookery school has just celebrated its thirty years by publishing a delicious new book (with a hundred plus recipes) on the history of the school, aptly named "30 years at Ballymaloe" - a real must for those of you who love "real" food! For more info go to: 


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Save our birds - stick to the speed limit!

Clever old crow!
Have you noticed how some birds are so much better at getting out of the way of cars than others? The Crow family seem to be particularly good at avoiding cars, whereas Pigeons, doves and Pheasants seem to be particularly dozy! Well, some interesting new research has thrown some extra light onto this – read this extract:
Scientists tested whether common European birds changed their flight initiation distances (FIDs) in response to vehicles according to road speed limit (a known factor affecting killing rates on roads) and vehicle speed. We found that FID increased with speed limit, although vehicle speed had no effect. This suggests that birds adjust their flight distance to speed limit, which may reduce collision risks and decrease mortality maximizing the time allocated to foraging behaviours. Mobility and territory size are likely to affect an individual's ability to respond adaptively to local speed limits.
Birds such as Carrion crows, House sparrows and Blackbirds all took flight earlier after spotting their car in areas where the speed limit was higher. Curiously, the birds did not seem to pay attention to the car itself. "They reacted the same way, no matter the speed of the car," the researchers said.

The scientists speculate that some combination of two things might be happening. First, it may just be a case of natural selection in which individuals that failed to take off quickly enough are killed. As a result, only those birds with traits that help them successfully escape oncoming traffic go on to reproduce. Another possibility is that the birds are actually learning to adapt to different traffic speeds.
But why did the birds seem to ignore the speed of the scientist's car itself? It's possible that the birds might have just learned that it's simpler to react the same way for any given section of road. "This way, they are not spending a lot of time being vigilant by looking at the speed of each car."  

So, don’t speed - especially in restricted areas with speed limits, as you may well kill lots of birds as well as the possibility of knocking a human over!! 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

What a bunch of wasters.

Wasted food
I have taken an extract below from a United Nations report, which should make every one of us stop and think. I suspect we are all guilty to some extent, although as my children would vouch, I hate waste and have instilled in them not to needlessly throw anything away.
Why oh why do UK supermarkets still market FRESH produce – “buy one get one free”.  My local Tesco recently had enormous cauliflowers with this marketing ploy splashed across them. I watched as shoppers couldn't resist the offer – but to get through this amount you would ideally be planning to make cauliflower cheese for your local rugby club – waste was inevitable.
This is what the report stated:

“The food the world wastes accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any country except for China and the United States, the United Nations said in a report on Wednesday.
Every year about a third of all food for human consumption, around 1.3 billion tons, is wasted, along with all the energy, water and chemicals needed to produce it and dispose of it.
Almost 30 percent of the world's farmland, and a volume of water equivalent to the annual discharge of the River Volga, are in effect being used in vain.
In its report entitled "The Food Wastage Footprint", the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that the carbon footprint of wasted food was equivalent to 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.
In the industrialized world, much of the waste comes from consumers buying too much and throwing away what they do not eat. In developing countries, it is mainly the result of inefficient farming and a lack of proper storage facilities.
"Food wastage reduction would not only avoid pressure on scarce natural resources but also decrease the need to raise food production by 60 percent in order to meet the 2050 population demand," the FAO said.
It suggested improving communication between producers and consumers to manage the supply chain more efficiently, as well as investing more in harvesting, cooling and packaging methods.
It also said consumers in the developed world should be encouraged to serve smaller portions and make more use of leftovers. Businesses should give surplus food to charities, and develop alternatives to dumping organic waste in landfill.
The FAO estimated the cost of the wasted food, excluding fish and seafood, at about $750 billion a year, based on producer prices.
The wasted food consumes about 250 cubic km of water and takes up about 1.4 billion hectares - much of it diverse natural habitat that has been cleared to make it arable”.

So, let us all start to do our bit right now – to throw away a third of all fresh food that we buy is nothing short of abhorrent.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Widespread death caused by just two teaspoonful of chemical.

Aquatic life such as this rainbow trout are particularly vulnerable to insecticides
A couple of months or so ago, there was a really nasty pollution incident in a river in Wiltshire and of course the attention turned immediately to local farmers as to the cause. In fact, as it turned out, two teaspoonfuls of insecticide poured down a kitchen sink has been held responsible for wiping out insect life on a 10-mile stretch of one of the country’s prime fishing rivers.
The incident on the river Kennet caused ecological devastation on a stretch of river, showing just how, if certain pesticides get in the wrong hands or are miss used, major problems can occur. The DEFRA minister Richard Benyon, has asked his officials to draw up curbs on the domestic sale of chlorpyryifos, the chemical responsible.

The agricultural industry has already introduced a scheme called “Say no to drift campaign”, introduced on a voluntary basis to curb any unwanted affects of misplaced insecticides. They advocate the use of low drift nozzles on sprayers and extended buffer zones (over and above what they have to do legally) as “must do” measures to give the insecticide a future.
Does this approach work? Well, if you take the orchard sector, where low drift technology had a poor up-take, with only around 7% even being aware of the low drift nozzles in 2011. We now find that 91 per cent of orchard growers are either using or planning to use this technology.

The voluntary approach can certainly work and the vast majority of farmers, who already take huge care when using any pesticide, can and will take on new advice to become even more targeted when applying chemical products.     

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Claire is chuffed with Cornish Choughs

A Cornish Chough
I have recently heard from Claire Mucklow, who is the RSPB’s excellent Cornwall Chough Project Manager, who sent me the latest news, saying that it has been a pretty good year for the Cornish Choughs.
She says: “Over in Penwith, the fantastic news is the two established pairs successfully fledged five chicks each, which is a real achievement given the harsh winter and delayed spring. And excitingly, after waiting four years, an unpaired female at last found a mate when a two year old male  appeared around Cape Cornwall in early spring (he had been spending his time up on the north coast around the surfing beaches), and they soon got down to nest building.
They successfully fledged one chick, which they were very protective over, making sure she was well hidden away every time potential hassle in the feathered form of ravens or crows or the clothed form of homo sapiens came near - the male chough ‘growling’ quite convincingly at times!”
She then goes on to say that “A chattering of a dozen choughs wheeling around the skies in Penwith is becoming a regular sight—fantastic!”
What a wonderful name a group of chough has – a chattering – it is exactly what they sound like – a rather "over the top" bunch of youths chatting excitedly!
Other chough pairs have also produced chicks, so it looks as though the Cornish emblem is getting firmly established in the county once again, having been absent for many years. Thanks to Claire’s hard work and the farmers she advises, who create short, grazed grass along the cliff tops (with plenty of cowpats!) that these birds need to find their food.
How great to be able to report a success story

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Very small, pink and nationally scarce!

Cochylis flaviciliana 
I caught a very pretty little (and by little I mean a wingspan of 11-12 mm!) moth in the moth trap the other night and thought it might be quite an uncommon one, so I e-mailed a photo to Mike Wall, a brilliant local specialist of so called “micro” moths and after a couple of days he confirmed that it is a “nationally scarce” little beastie – in fact it appears that this is only the fourth to be caught in Hampshire (where I live) since 1990 and the first since 2002!
I must say that it is great to have Mike on hand to help with the ID of some of these little critters – he runs an excellent website called Hantsmoths which helps me to ID most, but if not he is always most willing to cast his expert eye and give you a name. This little beauty goes by the name of Cochylis flaviciliana and the caterpillars are so tiny that they actually feed INSIDE the seeds of field scabious!

For me, yet another amazing discovery, plucked out of this fascinating world and caught in my garden – can’t be bad!  In case you are wondering – all the moths I catch are released the next morning – unharmed!!  

Monday, 2 September 2013

"To bee or perhaps not to bee for much longer!"

Some bees can appear lethergic at this time of year
At this time of year you may well start to find dead or “lethargic” Bumblebees, often gathered in numbers around flowering plants, in particular those that offer a good nectar source.
The whole purpose of the colony is to produce queens that will mate around this time of year and then go on to hibernate over winter, so that come spring time next year, they are ready to start a new colony. Throughout the life of the nest a large number of smaller worker bees help the nest to grow by collecting nectar and pollen - these are the bees that you see out and about during the summer, and it is these workers that live for only a few weeks, and then die. It's therefore quite normal to see a small number of dead bees in the garden.
In the autumn, once a queen has mated, she leaves the nest to hibernate and the rest of the colony will start to die. This includes the old queen, the female workers and the males, which have been produced to mate with queens. It is common to find the dead and dying bees near to flowers, because when they are close to the end of their short lives, they become lacklustre and their natural instinct is to feed on nectar. 
Equally, bumblebees may sometimes seem very lethargic just because the weather is cold, but they will usually recover when it warms up. So you don’t need to worry if you come across a few dead or dying bumble bees at this time of year, next year’s generation are ready and waiting for their time to come, inside a queen bumble bee.