Monday, 23 December 2013

In need of being cheered up? Off to your local butcher's shop then!

A butcher's shop - many things have changed - but not the humour!
I am blessed with 4 really good butcher shops within quarter of an hour from where I live. I always wanted to be a butcher when I was a nipper. I used to happily join my mother when she was going to “Baxters the Butchers”, based in an old, leaning black and white building in Upton-upon-Severn, my home village in Worcestershire.

As we pushed through the multi-coloured ribbons in the doorway and entered the shop with its floor covered with sawdust, I usually felt a small buzz of excitement as the place was always crowded with locals that I knew or recognised, chatting and laughing - it was such a happy place!

It did not matter to me which butcher served us as I liked them all and the greeting was always the same anyway! “Aahaa, I spy Master Peter if I'm not mistaken and you will be wanting one of our delicious lollipops no doubt!” A large Kilner jar on the counter held a range of different coloured sugary balls on a short stick – orange ones were my favourite.

As I sucked on my treat, my mother would buy the Sunday joint and other bits and pieces. There was always a “special” which would be announced in a rather hushed tone as though it was not being offered to all customers, only the favoured ones. My mother invariably fell for this ploy and the butcher would then go out the back of the shop to get the “special” joint, nothing on show in the cabinets could possibly be good enough for such a valued client! As mum paid the bill, I would be given an oddly shaped plastic bag with “a few bones for those dogs of yours”.

Meanwhile someone in the shop would be telling a story or a joke, often at another local character’s expense. There was always plenty of banter in Baxters, gossip too, which made the shopping experience here so different to all the other shops in the village. For me, butcher shops and laughter somehow go together and it was this that made me think that I wanted to become a butcher when I grew up.

I have been reminded of all of this as I popped into one of my local Butchers today to collect various Christmas goodies, only to be greeted with - yes you have guessed it - gales of laughter and the hum of excited chat. Despite the shop being packed, there was time for a story:

“My father was a butcher too and the shop was attached to our home. One day when I came home from school, there was a man in our front room who was wearing a suit.  I was told to behave as it was a health and safety inspector. I went upstairs to go to the loo, only to find an enormous dead pig in the bath! I ran back downstairs and asked why there was a pig in the bath, whereupon my mother clipped me around the ear and told me not to talk about granny like that!!”  
My love of butcher shops remains undiminished.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Government starts to shed light on CAP reform

Government is beginning to shed some light onto the future of the countryside 
So, Mr Paterson has chosen to move 12% across from pillar one to pillar two, which means that there is less in the pot which goes straight to farmers (pillar one), but more in Pillar two (which funds environmental schemes and rural business development etc) which is good news. Mr Paterson has also stated that 87% of the 12% transferred into rural development will be spent on Agri-environment – so around £926 million, which is also good news.

This is new funding made available for fresh commitments, not including the £2.155 billion that has already been committed, so that in total there will be about £3.1 billion over the 2014-2020 period for spending on Stewardship type schemes. This is a compromise between what the NFU were asking for – 9% and what the environmentalists wanted – 15%.

Wales has decided to go for the full 15%, while Scotland will have a 9.5 % and Ireland 7%. But wait for it, in Germany they have gone for 4.5% and in France 3%, while in Italy it has been set at 0%!! Call me naive, but I could have sworn that one of the main reasons for joining the European Union was to have a “level playing field” when it came to trading. Just my luck to be reincarnated as a farmland bird in Italy!!

As yet there is no news on many other aspects of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform. In particular we await the changes made to Cross Compliance, in other words what farmers are obliged to do on their farms to enable them to receive the single farm payment – ie: money from pillar one.  
Once we know this segment of the whole, we can get down to sorting out exactly what the new Stewardship scheme will look like, rather than drafting and somewhat guessing the outcome. 
These are indeed interesting times for the countryside!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The mist clears a little on trapping birds

Large stretches of coastline are mist netted
Back in the spring, I caught up with a bird watching chum who had just returned from a North African bird watching trip. I could tell that he was genuinely shocked by the amount of bird trapping that was taking place along the North African coast. He said that there was literally mile after mile of mist nets.

So I am delighted to read that a one-day coordination meeting focusing on the issue of bird trapping in Egypt and Libya took place at the UN Campus in Bonn, Germany, on 29th November 2013 and I report some of that meeting below.

The aim of the meeting was to take stock of the latest available information on the issue of bird netting in both countries and to agree on a Plan of Action on bird trapping for the Mediterranean coasts of Egypt and Libya.

The widespread hunting and trapping of migratory birds in both countries, especially through the use of mist nets along vast stretches of the Mediterranean coast, have become issues of public concern in a growing number of European countries. Unfortunately, this is despite both Egypt and Libya being contracting parties to CMS [the Convention on Migratory Species] and a number of other international environmental treaties.

However a spokesman said "The good representation from both Egypt and Libya at the Bonn coordination meeting shows that the authorities have recognized the issue, are aware of the growing publicity and are looking to cooperate with international partners and other stakeholders to try to address the issue in their countries."

The trapping of Quail and illegal use of mist netting targeted at songbirds is indiscriminate and results in many protected species being killed. The practices have been repeatedly raised by conservation organizations and by selected media as an issue of international concern, affecting millions of migratory birds trapped by the nets as they cross the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa.

The meeting agreed that the main goal of the action plan was to ensure that the practice of bird trapping along the Mediterranean coasts of Egypt and Libya is both sustainable and legal and to undertake measures to better understand the current bird trapping practices in order to end any unsustainable and illegal practices in both countries.

"I am extremely pleased about the outcome of the meeting as well as the strong commitment and good spirit of cooperation which was evident in the room. We now have a strong basis for effective and coordinated actions on the ground in the months and years to come," a spokesman said.
So, it was obviously a very good meeting. Let’s hope that this optimism and cooperation is now translated onto the ground for the sake of millions of birds.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sea surge savages the sea shore and much more besides.

Many hectares of farmland were inundated by the sea
As we all probably know, the worst tidal surge in 60 years occurred between the 5th and 7th of December 2013. Flooding and coastal erosion occurred down the east coast of England from Northumberland to Kent and along the north coast of Wales. In some places the waters rose even higher than those seen during the devastating floods of January 1953 (when 307 people lost their lives in England) and the Thames Barrier recorded the highest tide since its construction in 1984.

Although Government officials said that improved flood defences had generally held up well and obviously, when compared to 1953 they did, that was however not always the case. Seven cliff-top homes collapsed into the sea at Hemsby in Norfolk, where a lifeboat station was also washed away. The Environment Agency reported that the surge resulted in the flooding of around 1,400 properties, with 18,000 people evacuated and 232 Flood Warnings and 71 severe flood warnings issued.

Official estimates have not yet been provided for the area of agricultural land flooded, however it is thought to be in excess of 2,000 ha. Meanwhile a chicken farm on the outskirts of South Ferriby, a village in North Lincolnshire on the banks of the Humber estuary, confirmed that they had lost 700,000 chickens to drowning, when the farm was inundated by flood water.

Also, many nature reserves and coastal habitats have been badly affected such as at the RSPB Snettisham reserve in Norfolk, where the shingle beach had been completely stripped away and the two gravel pits, once separated by a causeway footpath, have been topped up with millions of gallons of seawater creating one massive lake.

Bird hides too have been badly affected at Snettisham, one having been shifted through 180 degrees and now tilts at a 45 degree angle, while another has completely disappeared! Meanwhile literally hundreds of seal pups, which are born at this time of year, were killed by the surge, leaving many beaches dotted with their small dead white corpses.

So, the aftermath of this particular storm will take a long time to recover from in many areas and it is once again a reminder to us all that, however powerful we think we are, nature still often has the upper hand if it chooses.  

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Tuning into wildlife can be quite a hoot!

A Dunnock in full song
As far back as I can remember, I have always had an ear sub-consciously tuned into the sounds of wildlife.  It does not seem to matter what I am doing – I might be in a meeting, reading the Sunday papers or in full conversation with someone, when an alarm call or snippet of song will override everything and burst into my conscience!  Some of my friends (so called!) say that this happens to me because my ears stick out at right angles – giving me one of the many nicknames I had at school of “world cup”!!

Alarm calls in particular, are very useful to pick up, as they give me time to turn and glimpse the little male Sparrowhawk as it twists and turns through the trees or the Red Kite gliding over the fields behind me, which I would have undoubtedly missed if the calls had not made me aware.

At this time of year, it is the winter flocks of small birds, usually made up of mixed tit species, with the odd Goldcrest thrown in for good measure, that create a sudden high pitched din of various alarm calls, seemingly well before the predator appears – one of the advantages of being part of a group with numerous eyes all on the lookout for danger.

In the summer months the alarm system seems to be handed over to the Swallows and Martins, who literally have a bird’s eye view of what is lurking in the shadows. I have often thought that predators such as the Sparrowhawk must dread the return of these summer visitors, as one short alarm call from above, sends every small bird below hurtling to the safety of some thick, impenetrable cover.

The nights so far this autumn and the early part of winter, have been filled with the hoots and woos of Tawny owls. They are trying to kick out the youngsters and set up new territories, (I have some sympathy with Tawnies on this front!) but what a racket it has been this year! Although the noise goes on all night, they gather together in the large Oak outside my bedroom window as the very first glimmers of the new day appear, to have one final set to – so there has been no need to set the alarm clock for what seems like months!!

As the hootathon dies down, a little Dunnock, which roosts every night in the honeysuckle directly  beneath the open bedroom window takes over, with a short and at first, rather muted little burst of song, as though it is not quite sure if singing is allowed while it is still so dark. But it soon ups the volume as it is joined by the local Robin and from this morning, the Song thrush.

I had a meeting at the Hampshire Wildlife Trust offices yesterday and as I arrived in their car park and opened the car door, I was greeted by the drifting notes of a distant Mistle thrush, singing from the very top of a Beech tree – such an evocative spring sound. Even though 2013 has a few more weeks to run, already plans are under way for next year’s breeding season. Now that is a comforting thought!       
Tawny owls have been particularly noisy this autumn

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Cultivating brains for the future of farming

Agricultural students - the future of farming
I sort of knew this would happen. Over the last 20 years or so, I have watched agricultural colleges either shut down completely or close their agricultural courses, preferring to offer “equine studies” or “countryside management” instead – not that there is anything wrong with these courses – but how short sighted have they been in no longer offering practically based pure agricultural courses?

It is estimated that food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 40 years to feed a growing world population. It will have to try doing so with the same agricultural footprint, and without depleting our natural resources or destroying our environment. A huge ask indeed.

Meanwhile, estimates suggest that UK agriculture needs 60,000 more workers for optimal productivity, and to be internationally competitive the sector will require graduates with advanced problem-solving skills.

There are currently 7,000 agriculture students graduating from UK universities and colleges each year (and I wonder how many of those genuinely have practical skills) – insufficient to replace the 10,000 or so leaving the industry through retirement, never mind increasing their numbers.

Agricultural businesses must work with universities and colleges to design courses that will produce graduates fit for the future; they should offer student placements to ensure that graduates get the business and practical skills essential to their future employment. Government too, should support training programmes and look to promote careers in agriculture.

What is more, they need to get on with it right away.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

13 is unlucky for the wise Barn owl.

A hunting Barn owl
2013 appears to have been the poorest breeding season for barn owls in Britain since 1958. This year's round of 73 Annual Monitoring Site visits by the Barn Owl Trust has now revealed the extent of the devastation. On average nesting occurs at 51% of sites, this year's figure is a mere 12% and 47% of nest sites are completely unoccupied. At the 12% of sites where pairs have managed to survive and breed, the average number of young in the nest is just two rather than the four or five that are needed for population recovery.

This national scenario was played out near to where I live in Hampshire, when a neighbouring farmer found a Barn owl back in June, lying dead on a clutch of eggs in one of the nest boxes he had put up specifically for it. The very late cold spring, lack of small mammals and the huge effort of egg laying, had all been too much for this particular female.

A few regions of eastern England did buck the trend however, with between one and two-thirds of traditional nest sites producing young with average broods of between three and five.

This is a real setback for a breeding population which, since the turn of the century has probably risen from around 4500 pairs to nearer 8000 pairs in Britain, maybe more. The BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey - which records the population trends of UK's breeding birds, supports this increase in numbers. It reports an almost three-fold increase between 1995 and 2012, whilst data from its new Bird Atlas suggests that this bird has also seen an almost 70% increase in range expansion in Britain since the Barn Owl Survey of Britain and Ireland in 1987.

With the enormous abundance of food in the form of berries, nuts and fruits this autumn, I imagine that many small mammals will fare well over-winter and may be in good numbers come next year. If the British weather can resist from showing off all its extremes in 2014, and just deliver an average year , then hopefully the delightful Barn owl will bounce straight back with a good breeding season, and continue its recent success story.