Friday, 29 November 2013

Badgers extend their range to Israel!

I couldn't help smiling when I heard on the radio that a little boy came home from a day at his primary school in Gloucestershire, and announced that he is be a “Badger” in this year’s nativity play!

Firstly, I never ever remember Badgers peering over the edge of the crib in Bethlehem – do you? And secondly, dressing up as a Badger in Gloucestershire of all counties, could have profound consequences if there happen to be any DEFRA sponsored marksmen around!! Whatever they do, they should not let the little chap run around outside, practising how to be a badger, as he may well never make it as far as the stage!! Either the teacher is not too strong on the old faith bit, or perhaps she just has a rather wicked sense of humour – perhaps dad is a local farmer!!    

Monday, 25 November 2013

Small songster is superbly successful!

Little Jenny Wren
I spent a while this morning trying to catch a wren which had flown into our utility room (polite name for the room that has everything chucked into it!) through an open window. Eventually I caught it and having admired it for a few seconds, I released it back into the garden. To my surprise it flew to the top of a large bush and burst into song! They may be small, but they certainly have plenty of spirit!
I see from the new bird Atlas, (not yet got my own - but soon!) that the Wren was the most widespread breeding bird across Britain between 2007 / 2011, which was when the surveys were carried out for this book. In Britain, out of the 2,860 10-km squares covered in the Bird Atlas, the Wren was only absent from 73 of those squares!
Bet you would not have guessed the birds that came in second and third in the widespread stakes – the Skylark and Pied Wagtail were in 2,753 and 2,746 respectively. I would definitely have got it wrong!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Irish Grey partridge - back from the brink.

Grey partridge hiding by a crop planted specially for them
The alarm went off at 4.30 am yesterday morning as I had to catch an early morning flight to Dublin to visit one of the Irish Grey partridge re-introduction projects. The North Dublin Grey partridge project covers three farms, totalling about 1000 acres and is organised by the Irish Grey partridge Conservation Trust, working alongside local biodiversity Government officers, who are also funding the project.

Because Grey partridge have been completely lost from most of Ireland, lots of habitat restoration has had to be put in place prior to any thought of releasing Grey partridge back into the area. Plenty of good nesting cover, in the form of tussocky grass margins has been created and alongside them, cereal and Kale strips have been planted, which are left for two years so as to provide food and cover throughout the year.

Supplementary hopper feeding and areas of wild bird seed mixes are also used, while a targeted, spring and summer predator control programme has been put in place to limit numbers of Fox, Crows, Magpies and ground predators such as rats.

The project has already had some success with breeding taking place and broods successfully reared. We were treated to a lovely covey of 12 birds bursting out of cover, flying away over a tall hedge, the sunlight picking out their heart shaped brown chests as they turned.  A wonderful sight!   
I managed to advise on a number of points which will hopefully tweak what they are already successfully doing, so that even more coveys are established by this time next year.

Incidentally, the news from one of the other projects in Boora, county Offaly, that I visited a couple of years ago is very positive too, with Greys doing well. What is equally important is that the local breeding population of Lapwing (which has all but disappeared from Ireland too) is thriving on the back of the Grey partridge project.  This year was exceptional, with 81 nests producing 178 fledged chicks on just 694 acres. Not bad for a bird which had previously been almost lost as a breeding species in the country!

So, well done to Kieran Buckley and his team from the Irish Grey partridge Conservation Trust, and also the Irish Government for the vital funding they are giving to these projects. Not only are they saving the Grey partridge, but the Lapwing too! I should have added that Skylark numbers are also going through the roof too!!  
The enthusiastic project team - although they don't look that keen in this photo!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Wood pigeon are on the move!

Wood pigeon on the move

I noticed some big movements of wood pigeon over the weekend, flying high in a westerly direction. Most autumns we see big flocks of pigeons flying along the south coast, sometimes westwards and sometimes straight out to sea heading towards France. On the 14th of November ornithologists counted 45,000 moving over Chichester harbour and on the 10th a count came from South Wales where 156,000 were counted in 4 hours.

We get flocks arriving from the continent and a general movement to the south and west, related to cold air and food sources – although this year there is so much food around, they should have an easy time of it this winter.

The local pigeons seemed to be mainly feeding on beech mast, with large flocks clattering away from under these trees as I approached. Hopefully, with abundant source of natural food around this year, farmer's oil seed rape crops will be left alone at least until the new year anyway!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Play outside - you must be kidding!

Even inner city children used to play outside alot

Do you know that only 1 in 10 children regularly play outside?   Do you also know that children between the ages of 11 to 15 years old, on average spend 7 ½ hours in front of a screen of some sort every day, which equates to half of their waking life. Interestingly, those kids who spend the most time in front of a screen also report the lowest levels of well-being.

Apparently, fitness levels amongst the British are falling faster than any other country in the world and this sedentary lifestyle, coupled often with over-eating and a poor diet generally, is leading to a sharp increase in child obesity. For the first time in human history, many of these children face a lower life expectancy than their parents.

My childhood was unbelievably fortunate as I was brought up in a rural community with masses of freedom. In fact it was often hard for my parents to entice me back indoors. During school holidays I would wave a cheery goodbye to my mother as I set off on my bike, without her even knowing which direction I had gone in, relying only on the knowledge that I would return when I was hungry!  Nowadays, of course things are very different, however parents seem so completely obsessed with their children’s security, that by current accepted standards of health and safety, it makes me wonder how any of my generation ever reached adulthood!

We must all surely be concerned about these few statistics that I have mentioned above, as it does not make for comfortable reading. But what are we able to do to change things? Well, here are a couple of initiatives under way (I'm sure there are many more) that I am aware of, which are attempting to change the mindset of both parents and children.

The National Trust has produced an interesting website page entitled “50 things to do before you are 11 ¾” - and the organisation Countryside Learning offers many ideas and events -
Finally, how about introducing children to a brand new hobby? For instance, why not book them onto next summers GWCT's young shots course - find out more at:

So, lets loosen up a little about our children being in danger the moment they leave the house. As one outward bound teacher put it at the end of an activities day, surrounded by smiling, mud splattered children with rosy cheeks - “the most dangerous thing that they have done today by far is driving here in their parent’s car”.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Soil Matters

How we manage this stuff........
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) was re-launched back in the autumn and now has a co-ordinator in every English county. I continue to head up the campaign in Hampshire, but the difference is that CFE now covers all grassland farms and encompasses much more about soil and water within its remit, while continuing to promote practical farm conservation.

I feel that one of the biggest strengths of the campaign is that it has so successfully brought together advisors, industry and experts from right across the farming and conservation sectors. Let’s face it, there is an enormous amount for a land manager to grasp if he or she is to run a farm efficiently and within the law! Yesterday, I attended just such an event with my CFE hat on which showed just how well different organisations can work together to disseminate practical, local advice.

The event entitled “Soil Matters” was organised by Kathryn Mitchell, the Integrated Farm Management (IFM) Development Manager from Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) and Serena Leadlay, the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) officer for the Hampshire rivers, the Test and Itchen. (Crumbs, it makes you realise just how many acronyms we use nowadays – I have put links to all if you want to find out more!!)

The morning started with a series of indoor talks about soil and water and how best to manage them from both a cropping and environmental point of view. We then went out onto the Leckford estate, which is owned and run by the John Lewis partnership and is also a LEAF demonstration farm. Here we heard from a Lucy Roberts a groundwater technical specialist from the Environment agency (EA) and also from Kevin Ashford, an agronomist specialising in soils. Add to this heady mix the Leckford estate manager, Andrew Ferguson, who added his local expertise to day and you can see that anyone attending the day had a wealth of knowledge present to tap into.

We still have so much to learn about how we manage our soils and the impact that different management techniques have on our environment, especially the quality of our water. Talking to the farmers who attended, the general consensus is that we have only just started to “scratch the surface”. Sorry for this awful pun – but it is true!!

Impacts on the quality of this stuff!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Are Badgers evil? Discuss.

Badgers have a wide and varied diet
I have just been reading the latest NFU magazine “Farmer & Grower” which is full of good articles covering a wide range of topics and useful snippets of information.  As I flicked through the pages I came across the comments from the tractor cab page with its “star letter” entitled “changing people’s perceptions of Badgers”.

The letter described an early morning fishing trip to the river Stour one late spring morning. On arriving, out on the water meadows there was quite a commotion going on amongst the local Peewit (Lapwing) population, which were screaming and diving around. Further investigation found that the cause of all this turmoil was a group of Badgers munching up the bird’s eggs.

The letter then went on to say, and I now quote, “A lot of blood was on the egg shells, so they must have been near to hatching. It really broke our hearts that Badgers could be so evil”. The letter finished with “If more people were aware of how evil Badgers can be, perhaps those who protect them might change their minds”.

What struck me about this letter was the use of the word “evil”. Are Badgers really evil? Were the men who in the 18th and 19th centuries, collected Lapwing eggs from Norfolk marshland in their thousands and transported them to London markets, selling them as delicacies for “three shillings a dozen”, evil people? Only the other day I came across a small group of field mushrooms, which I eagerly gathered up to take home to eat – does that also put me into the “evil” category?

Badgers have inhabited the UK for 250,000 years (See November’s species of the month on Badgers by going to the tab at the top of this page) and have evolved a wide and varied diet, which includes eggs, hedgehogs and bumble bee grubs. But I don’t think that this makes it an evil animal, any more than a Dolphin killing fish or a Spotted Flycatcher taking a pretty butterfly to eat.

What I do think is that it is all a question of balance and if we find that Badger numbers in the countryside are causing problems in regard to TB or are impacting severely on Lapwing or Hedgehog numbers, then we should have a grown up debate on the pros and cons of introducing control measures to restore the balance of nature. Labelling an animal as “evil” seems to me to be very unhelpful indeed.

I have also noticed a push by the animal rights movement to label milk from outside the pilot cull zone as “Badger friendly”, which may also not be described as an “evil” move, but is certainly extremely dishonest in my opinion.

Friday, 8 November 2013

I don't know what all the fuss is about - I fancied a holiday!

A resting Barnacle goose 
Only yesterday I blogged about some of the records set by birds and low and behold I now read about another!! A barnacle goose that failed to turn up on its overwintering grounds at WWT's Caerlaverock Wetland Centre in Dumfries & Galloway (Scotland) has turned up safe and well, a record 900 miles further south in Spain! It's the furthest south that a Barnacle Goose has ever been recorded.

The goose had migrated safely for six consecutive years between arctic Svalbard and Scotland before being absent from Scotland last winter. With no sign of him again this winter, WWT staff feared he hadn't survived. But amazingly, birdwatcher Emilio Martinez spotted the goose this week in the sunshine of the Rouxique marshes near Vigo on northwest Spain's Atlantic coast.

The goose's leg ring, a bright orange one with CBZ written on it identified it as an adult male ringed by WWT at Caerlaverock Wetland Centre in 2004. There, on the Solway Firth wetlands, WWT provides protection for one of the world's three breeding populations of Barnacle Geese, which is loyal to the Solway Firth in winter and Svalbard in summer – well most of them are anyway!

Looking out of the window at the rain pouring down, I think if I had the choice of over-wintering in the UK or continuing to keep on flying down to Northern Spain – I think it would be a fairly easy decision!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

I don't believe it - how old did you say that bird is?

Rooks can reach quite an age!
I never ever tire of reading about the great milestones that some birds achieve, such as the Spotted Flycatcher (one of my favourite birds!) that was ringed in a Norfolk garden in 2004, but then unfortunately flew into a window of a nearby house almost exactly 8 years later, setting a new longevity record - having flown around 60,000 miles migrating to Africa and back each year! Just how amazing is that for such a small bird – surely it deserved a better way to finish off its days.

How about the Mute Swan in Dorset who also set a new age record for its species, 28 years and counting, when its colour-ring was read. Personally, I find that the Rook who turned out to be 22 years and 11 months old is somehow even more incredible.

Having said that though, you have to give it to the old bird of the seas, the Manx Shearwater, found to be 50 years, 11 months and 21 days old when it was captured.

If you find all of this remarkable and want to read more, then go to the BTO’s website:,1RQEL,39GZIS,6B8XV,1   

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Tree sparrow villages are a great success!

An actual MDNIA tree sparrow!
I had a meeting with the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA) today. This is one of the 12 national NIAs, but is unique in that it is the only “farmer led” NIA in the country.

I chair the MDNIA's Downland Species Delivery Group which keeps tabs on how well the farmers are actually delivering for species on the ground. Amongst many other things, the farmers have been building new Dew ponds, establishing areas of wild flowers, planting wild bird see mixes for feeding over-wintering farmland birds and creating “Tree Sparrow Villages”!

What on earth are Tree Sparrow villages I hear you ask!!! 
Well, Matt Prior is a fantastically knowledgeable and keen ornithologist in the area, who has a particular penchant for the engaging little tree sparrow and he has come up with this idea of creating summer villages for them – in other words creating the perfect environment for them to successfully breed.

He puts up nesting boxes in small groups as tree sparrows like to nest in loose colonies, but he also gets the farmers to grow nearby areas of insect rich flowers and to plant lots of shrubs and small trees, all of which provide the ideal foraging areas for the sparrows to gather lots of insect food – vital if they are to fledge good numbers of young.

This all has to be established within a maximum of 600 metres of the nesting boxes, as this is as far as the adults want to fly to forage for food – ideally much closer than that! Matt also rings these young birds so that he can begin to follow their future movements and where they may eventually bring up their own young.

Is it working? Well, Matt estimates that there were 142 pairs of tree sparrows nesting in the North Wiltshire Downs this summer and 72 of those pairs were using MDNIA boxes and they raised 397 chicks this year!!

Not only does the MDNIA pay for the nest boxes, but before too long Matt and a number of farmers will be out scattering supplementary small grain around tracks and field corners, so that when seeds supplies start to run a little thin, the MDNIA tree sparrows will still have plenty to eat! The MDNIA pays for this food too.

Now that is what I call successful targeted conservation in action! So, well done to all the MDNIA farmers, well done Matt for coordinating the work on the ground and well done to Jemma Batton as well, as she over-sees us all - the farmers, Matt and me!!!
Find out more about the Marlborough Downs NIA by going to:


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Bricks for bats and birds!

Birds such as this Blue tit are short of holes to nest in.
Bird species that utilize holes to nest and roost in, such as our tit family, swifts and even our once common, but now declining house sparrow, may well have been given a helping hand by a new, forward thinking company!

These birds, along with a number of bats species, are finding that the old houses and farm buildings that they have been using in the past are being converted and modernised, while brand new housing tends not to offer any crevices and holes at all. The result is that there is a dearth of well positioned, dry holes for wildlife to use and those that are available are at a real premium.
So, step up the Bird Brick House Company! Take a look at what they offer at:   

Sunday, 3 November 2013

BO can sometimes stink - but not always.

Biodiversity offsetting - difficult to measure
Defra have acknowledged that England faces the twin challenges of simultaneously growing its economy and improving its natural environment. Added to this is the need to ensure the planning system also delivers on the environmental front. Biodiversity offsetting has been mooted as one potential solution to these environmental challenges.
So what on earth is biodiversity offsetting? Well it a system whereby developers can attempt to compensate for losses of biodiversity on a particular site by generating ecologically equivalent gains elsewhere.
My immediate thoughts on this are that it places substantial faith in the ability of restoration to recover lost biodiversity. It also potentially increases the chances of gaining planning permission on important wildlife areas, because there is the promise of “restoring” the habitat elsewhere in a more “convenient” place. Many are very worried about this saying that it is simply a “licence to trash”.
Tom Tew, chief executive of the Environment Bank which is the company acting as the independent broker between planners and developers said, "I think many completely misunderstand how biodiversity offsetting works. It is not a licence to trash, it is the complete opposite. When you put a value on biodiversity, you are putting a financial incentive for developers not to trash it."  He said: "If done well, it could be one of the most beneficial schemes for wildlife in the last 30 years."
It has been said that if you create one wetland to replace another one you have filled in just across the road, they will never be the same, no matter what species inhabit them.  In the deepest ecological sense, ‘like-for-like’ trading of nature isn’t possible. I think this is my worry; It does depend on what you are attempting to replace.
If for instance, you are looking to build a new housing estate on arable land, that will also destroy a small copse and an adjacent pond, maybe a brand new, well designed wetland area with ponds and scrapes, plus a new woodland planting a short distance away, might potentially compensate for these habitat losses. However, I remember when the entrance to the Channel tunnel in Kent was being constructed and the total destruction of an ancient woodland took place. But all was OK because they removed the surface layer of the forest floor and carefully “replaced it” onto some land close by, for it to re-grow. Like for like? You must be joking.
The basic premise underlying the biodiversity offsetting system is that it results in a net gain for biodiversity. But do we really have sufficient guidelines and knowledge to measure this “net gain”? Currently, I don’t think we do.
Specific biodiversity offsetting pilot schemes, running in six areas in England since April 2012, have already influenced government thinking and will continue to do so. Defra have now released a Green Paper on biodiversity offsetting in England and opened their consultation on the same subject. They have outlined their proposal for a system and are now seeking views about how best it could operate.

But hurry if you want to say your bit - the consultation finishes on the 7th of November – see: 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Fighting the resistance.

Many target species are becoming resistant to sprays
I'm sure you have heard radio reports on how a wide range of antibiotics are not working as well as they used to and have also seen exaggerated tabloid headlines stating that “giant rats resistant to all poisons are roaming our streets”  - strange how they are always giant ones isn't it?

Increasingly, resistance build up to a number of important agricultural pesticides is also causing alarm within farming circles, as Steve Foster from at Rothamsted Research points out. He's been studying the peach-potato aphid and the grain aphid - the former has now developed resistance to many insecticides including pyrethroids, carbamates and organophosphates.

"Peach-potato aphid is the number one aphid pest in the UK and many parts of the world," he says. "Some have several types of resistance and there are cases when you just can't kill them with the compounds available," he adds.
It’s not just insecticides that are causing concern, with resistant blackgrass continually dominating the farming press, as its control can cost growers up to £100/ha in some cases, rendering fields unprofitable for growing a cereal crop. Resistance is also spreading across the country as highlighted by a survey that showed amongst the 20,000 farms known to use herbicides to control blackgrass, it now is estimated that 80% or more of those will have some level of resistance to at least one herbicide.
What is more, it’s not just grasses such as Blackgrass causing problems. Plants such as poppies, mayweed and chickweed are also posing an emerging threat, with reports of herbicide resistance in chickweed in the north of England and throughout Scotland  becoming more common.
Glyphosate (you may know it as Roundup or Tumbleweed) is a product that is used by just about every non organic farmer in the country and thus it would leave a particularly large hole if weeds became resistant to this particular chemical.  Paul Neve, an assistant professor at Warwick University, is working with PhD student Laura Davies to examine whether glyphosate resistance is likely to be seen in the UK. While he doesn't expect her research to uncover any resistant populations, he says it would be a "major problem" for growers if it developed.
"As we lose other available herbicides glyphosate becomes more and more important," he says. “Globally there are now 24 weed species with confirmed glyphosate resistance. Most are in North America and associated with GM crops. There are also some cases in Europe, but they are entirely in perennial crops such as vines, citrus and olive crops."
The project tested samples from 40 different blackgrass populations across affected areas of the UK. No resistance was found, and the weed was still being controlled by the field-recommended rate of glyphosate. Laura did however, find variation in sensitivity to glyphosate at lower than recommended doses, with less sensitive populations tending to be from fields with a history of more intense glyphosate use. That really does not bode well in my opinion.
With very little brand new chemistry coming on stream, the farming industry can ill afford to lose these important older products.  I feel that much more should be made of cultural control methods, such as better rotations, crop choice and even, in the case of aphids, beneficial predators. The use of many of these chemicals should kick in as more of a last resort.

I do however realize that this is sometimes easier said than done.