Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Strike a light - its bright out there!

Do we really need all these lights blazing away? Just look at England in particular! 
It’s a good job that the three wise men were following the “Star of Bethlehem” over two thousand years ago, because if they tried to do the same in today’s light polluted skies, for instance around Glasgow, the UK city twinned with Bethlehem, they would have a fat chance of finding the baby Jesus!

Perhaps it was this fact that set Glasgow city council members thinking. I imagine that, having finished their mid-winter meeting on twinning arrangements with the holy town, they all wandered out into Glasgow’s cold winter air and looked up at an orange, milky sky, completely devoid of any stars at all.  

The city has however begun to take action; recently it has won a contract worth millions of pounds under plans from the governments green fund. Street lights will be replaced with low-energy LEDs so that the familiar sodium glow gives way to bright white light, while lights are also being switched off or dimmed to save money.

As well as saving money, it will be a boon to sky watchers in the surrounding area, as LED lights provide more illumination on the ground and less to the clouds. Close to 100% of the light goes downward, unlike conventional street lights which send a third of their glow into the night sky, causing light pollution. So, well done Glasgow I say!!

So it was with great interest that I read a report which the Labour party has just unveiled, where they had surveyed 1141 councils in England responsible for a total of 5.7 million street lights. It found that 558,000 lights are now being switched off at night, eight times as many as in May 2010. A further 797,000 are being dimmed, ten times as many as when the Coalition came to power.

This is great news is it not? Well, no actually, apparently not. The Labour party lambasted the Government for “plunging Britain into darkness", claiming the number of lights switched off had "soared" in recent years. Hilary Benn, the shadow (get it!) community secretary, suggested that the safety of people walking in the dark could be put at risk by the money saving measures.

Apparently, across all councils, 29 per cent of lights are being turned off or dimmed at night in Conservative-controlled areas, compared with 13 per cent in Labour areas. As street lighting in England costs councils approximately £616m per year and can account for up to 30% of their carbon emissions, I will leave it up to you to make your own conclusions. 

It’s easy to forget that being bathed in light is a relatively modern phenomenon. Although electric streetlights first began appearing in European capitals in the mid-1800s, widespread street lighting did not become common place until well into the 20th century. Nowadays, less than 10% of the UK population can see the beauty of a natural night sky full of stars.

Also, it is worth remembering that nearly a third of vertebrates and some 60% of invertebrates are nocturnal, depending on darkness for survival. High levels of light pollution can mean that they may become disoriented, which can disrupt migration, cause a decrease in reproduction and reduce the time allowing them to forage properly for food.

Just one final thought on the importance of seeing the night sky clearly. The stars have always played an important part in religious ceremonies, while navigators used them to travel at night, both over land and at sea. 

As galaxies go, the Milky Way which we see from earth is a bit of a “middleweight” really, as it only has between 100 to 400 billion stars. However, when you look up into the night sky, the most you can see from any one point on the globe is only around 2,500. (The largest “heavyweight" galaxy that we know about on the other hand, has over 100 trillion stars).

I always feel that this unbelievable display should also play another important role, making sure that if any one of us ever becomes rather “full of our own importance”, then a quick look up at the galaxies should promptly put us firmly back in our place.

But if we cannot see the stars………………………

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Good vibrations!

The Pheasant - perhaps more clued into their surroundings than we might sometimes think!
I was interested to hear that US scientists tracking Golden-winged warblers, found that they "evacuated" their nesting site one day before a massive tornado arrived. Back in April this year, the scientists, who were using tiny geolocators to monitor the bird’s movements, showed that they left the Appalachians and flew 700km (400 miles) south to the Gulf of Mexico. Remarkably, the warblers had completed their seasonal migration just days earlier, settling down to nest after a 5,000km (3,100 mile) journey from Colombia.

The next day, devastating storms swept across the south and central US causing widespread destruction.

Working with colleagues from the Universities of Tennessee and Minnesota, Dr Streby tagged 20 golden-winged warblers in May 2013, in the Cumberland Mountains of north-eastern Tennessee. The birds nest and breed in this region every summer, and can be spotted around the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains.

After the storm had blown over, the team recaptured five of the warblers and removed the geolocators. These are tiny devices weighing about half a gram, which measure light levels. Based on the timing and length of the days they record, these gadgets allow scientists to calculate and track the approximate location of migratory birds.

In this case, all five indicated that the birds had taken unprecedented evasive action, beginning one to two days ahead of the storm's arrival. They escaped just south of the tornadoes' path - and then went straight home again.

The scientists believe that the birds were “tipped-off” by the deep rumble that tornadoes produce, well below what humans can hear. Noise in this "infra-sound" range travels thousands of kilometres, and may serve as something of an early warning system for animals that can pick it up.

This amazing story reminded me of my own little tale related to sound carrying over big distances.

On the morning of the 11th December 2005, I was awoken by what seemed like every cock Pheasant in my neighbourhood “crowing” furiously. I always sleep with the windows wide open and so the noise was really loud, and what was so unusual this time is that they all kept going on and on. Often something will trigger cock pheasants off, sonic booms or thunder for instance, but within a few seconds they have fallen silent again.

But on this particular morning they seemed to be really upset by whatever had disturbed their slumbers. I looked at the clock which read a minute past 6am, so I got up to make a cup of tea and thought no more about this unusual pre-dawn chorus.

It was not until later in the day that I turned on the news to find out that people across Hertfordshire were awoken that morning by a huge explosion, described by Hertfordshire's Chief Fire Officer as "the largest incident of its kind in peace time Europe". The Fire Brigade and other emergency services were called to attend Buncefield Oil Depot in Hemel Hempstead following reports of a number of huge explosions as 20 large tanks blew up.  

The British Geological Survey measured the first and largest explosion which occurred at 06:01 at 2.4 on the Richter scale. So, that was what had set my local, mid Hampshire Pheasants off on their early morning raucous outburst!

Just out of interest I looked up how far away Hemel Hempstead is from my house as the crow (or Pheasant) flies – approximately 63 miles away. Doesn't quite match the antics of the Golden-winged warblers – but still pretty fascinating don’t you think!   

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Please stop the ruddy bickering - important conservation issues need thoughtful debate.

I was listening to the radio first thing yesterday morning while have a bath, when the sad news that Angalifu, a 44 year old Northern White Rhino had died of old age in San Diego Zoo Safari Park, California. The presenter lowered his voice and seemed genuinely shocked by this sad news, as he interviewed various people about the desperate plight of these last remaining Rhinos.
The Northern white rhinoceros is a species on the brink of extinction. Following this death, there are now just five northern white rhinos left worldwide, all in captivity. What is more, only one of them is a female.

I lay back in the bath thinking about what I had just listened to. “Experts” had talked about how hard they had been trying to get these Rhino’s to breed in captivity, so that one day they could be put back into the wild. They had lost the battle to save them in their natural environment largely due to poaching and of course to an extent, habitat loss as well.

Everyone seemed genuinely upset that we have allowed such magnificent creatures to get to this pathetic situation, where surely they must now go extinct.

My thoughts then turned to the recent correspondence that I have been following on a “Birding Website” about Ruddy ducks and the White-headed duck. Let me firstly explain the situation.
Ruddy ducks are native to North America and, like White-headed ducks, are a member of the “Stifftail” family. They were brought to the UK in the 1930s and 1940s for captive wildfowl collections. Escapees first bred in the wild in 1952, and by 2000 the UK population numbered 6,000 birds. They would not have made it here, however, without the help of humans.

Meanwhile, in Spain a recovery programme to protect and manage breeding sites for the native White-headed duck and a ban on hunting, has enabled the Spanish population to recover from just 22 birds in 1977 to 2,500 birds currently. The White-headed duck is a symbol of successful conservation in Spain.

Now, here is the problem. Ruddy ducks interbreed with White-headed ducks, producing fertile hybrids. This is happening in Spain, and there is a real danger that if the number of Ruddy ducks arriving in Spain were allowed to increase, they would inundate the White-headed duck population. As Ruddy ducks are more promiscuous in their mating behaviour, the likely result would be a population comprising increasing numbers of hybrids showing fewer characteristics of the White-headed duck, until the species eventually disappears.

So, the European Commission has decided to support the efforts to eradicate the non-native Ruddy ducks from both Spain and the UK.

Even our own RSPB commends the high priority for action that the UK Government is giving this issue, and are facilitating the eradication project where possible.

The RSPB goes on to say “Difficult as it is, our position is based on lengthy and careful consideration of the detailed scientific research carried out into this issue. We are faced with a stark choice: either we act to stop Ruddy ducks spreading from the UK, or we stand by and watch as the White-headed duck is pushed ever closer to extinction. Taking this action will help secure the future of the White-headed duck, while the Ruddy duck will continue to thrive in its native North America.

So it was with interest that I read some “Birders” thoughts on this dilemma. One wrote “Personally I don't mind if the White-Headed Duck's (which I think are ugly) interbreed with the Ruddy Ducks”.
So the conservation decision here seemed to be based on the attractiveness of the species – perhaps this particular bird enthusiast would not have bothered much about the Rhino’s plight either then, because let’s face it, Rhinos are not that “pretty” are they.

Another correspondent wrote “If the Ruddy Ducks do proliferate here, which I hope they do as I think they are great little ducks …” So, now a vote to save the Ruddy ducks because they are “great little ducks”.

There were those correspondents from the birding community who were trying to quietly put a reasoned side to the argument, stating some facts and encouraging purposeful discussion. But it appears that for some, facts just get in the way.

The comment which finally put pay to any further conversation on the subject, described the DEFRA officials who carry out the culling of Ruddy ducks as “Disgusting perverts. Nearly as bad as Ray Teret and co”.  (For those of you who do not know this man - he was recently convicted of rape and indecent assault against children, and sentenced to 25 years in jail).

I have always said that “Jaw, Jaw not War, War” is the way ahead. So, please – whatever walk of life you come from, can we all try to debate important conservation issues with integrity and thoughtfulness, always placing the issue in question to the fore – not just thinking about our own selfish little preferences. Bickering and pathetic point scoring has no place.

The plight of the world’s habitats and species are so much more important than that.   

Ruddy Duck - could drive the White-headed duck to extinction

The White-headed duck

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

CFE help farmers to cover up properly this winter!

Big audiences have been turning up to CFE cover crop trial events - here farmers talking about the role that "Vetches" might play. 
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) now has a coordinator in every county and organises topical training events for farmers, bringing in experts to up-date growers with the latest data. Go to: http://www.cfeonline.org.uk/home/ for more information.

I coordinate Hampshire for the Campaign and recently joined forces with my CFE colleague from Bucks, Berks and Oxon (BBO) Tim Clarke, who organised an excellent series of cover crop demonstrations across the South East, including one in Hampshire.

Farmers have really started to turn their attention to the overall condition and well-being of the soil that they farm – the “shop-floor” where all the production takes place if you like. I think that for far too long many have just relied on artificial inputs, whether that be fertiliser or pesticides – in the belief that all can be supplied out of a can. In the process, many of us have taken our eye off perhaps the most important thing on the farm – the soil. 

Ask farmers what the organic matter content of their soils is currently and many do not know. Ask when they last dug a hole in one of their fields to look at the structure of the soil and only a minority will raise their hand. Ask how many have begun to get a serious problem with Blackgrass, despite spending a small fortune on herbicides in an attempt to control it and most will raise their hands.

But change is afoot if the attendance at these Cover Crop Workshops was anything to go by!  The Hampshire CFE event for instance, had well over 50 attendees and there was a lot of debate and questioning of the experts. Farmers were clearly hungry for information.

Growers are realising that Blackgrass in particular, is becoming increasingly resistant to the sprays that they are applying and that they now need to start to introduce “spring” cropping into the rotation. Blackgrass is largely (but not entirely) autumn germinating, so this allows them to destroy most of the weed growth before they plant a spring crop.

Also, farmers now have to have part of the farm put over to “Ecological Focus Areas” under the Government’s “Greening” policy. One of the things that Growers can do towards this “Greening” is to grow these cover crops over winter.

The growth from certain cover crops can help to smother out Blackgrass, protect soils from erosion during heavy rainfall and importantly too, really improve soil structure and organic matter content – so this certainly starts to look like a no-brainer!

What is still needed however, is a better understanding of what each type of cover crop offers. Some produce lots of leaf and grow rapidly once they are sown in the late summer, others do most of their growing underground, producing long tap roots which can help with soil structure, while others are more suited to a slower growth, perhaps over a whole year or more. 

I genuinely believe that the CFE is providing a wonderful resource to local farmers, by listening to what they are telling us that they need and then providing the practical facts and figures that they require, so as to help them improve their farms for both profitability and the environment.

The CFE has seen 780 people attending their events this autumn – and that is just in the South East of England, while the total number rockets to a much higher figure if you count many other events run in conjunction with partner organisations such as the NFU or CLA. There is obviously a real hunger for information.

I genuinely think that if I ask the same questions about soils again in five years’ time, nearly all farmers will raise their hands and that will undoubtedly have helped to improve soil, water and biodiversity on farms!   

How about that for a tap root! Tillage radish after only 3 months or so of growth!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Farmers already starting to get twitchy!

Patrick Barker talking about the habitats he has created on the farm

Last Friday I was at Patrick Barker’s farm near Stowmarket in the Eastern counties, helping to launch the next GWCT “Big Farmland Bird Count” (BFBC).

Patrick farms the 1,260 acres at Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, with his cousin Brian and I must say, they combine superbly well to run a profitable, efficiently run farm with the environment right at the top of the agenda.

My GWCT colleague Jim Egan had organised a really good day and had got an impressive array of representatives from land connected organisations including the NFU, CLA, FWAG, RSPB, LEAF and sponsors BASF, along with journalists from the Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian amongst others.

The whole point of this exercise is to get farmers to spend half an hour or so out on the farm in February to see what birds they have on the farm. The RSPB is fully supportive of the initiative and have kindly helped us to illustrate ID cards of farmland birds to aid surveyors.

I often give talks to non-farming members of the “public” – if I can call them that! Having told them about the Stewardship scheme that pays farmers to implement various options for wildlife on their farms, I then ask them what percentage of farmers do they think has taken up this scheme. Invariably I get the same answer – around 5-10% is what they envisage.  I then tell them that it is in fact 74%, which usually results in gasps of surprise!

I think that people are so used to constantly reading bad news about farming – food poisoning scares, pesticide fears, TB, polluted water and so on, that they don't realise just how much wonderfully positive stuff is taking place on our UK farms. As an industry, historically agriculture has not been the best at shouting about what it does well, although it is now without doubt starting to improve this situation. 

I visits farms all over the country and I am constantly amazed by how much farmers are doing for wildlife. Of course there is always room for improvement, but generally the farming industry has come on with leaps and bounds from where it was a number of years ago, and I really do think that it time that some credit was given.

The BFBC gives farmers a chance to stop work for half an hour and go and check out the birds that are using the habitats that they have put in for them on the farm. Not only will they thoroughly enjoy the experience I'm sure, but once they have sent in their records to us, we can then collate the data and shout about what they have found!
Last year, the first year of the count, around 500 farmers got involved and an unbelievable 116 species where spotted! This year, after such an excellent launch with fantastic support from key countryside organisations, which will undoubtedly help to create lots of publicity, we are hoping for many, many more farmers to take part.

The GWCT is also going to be running a number of farmland bird ID sessions across the country prior to the survey week, which is the 7th and 15th of February 2015, so that farmers can brush up on their spotting skills!

All being well, we can then give the media an upbeat, really positive farm-based news story for once, reflecting much more closely what is actually happening on British farmland.

For more details of the BFBC and to download survey sheets – go to:  https://www.gwct.org.uk/farming/big-farmland-bird-count/   
Spot the birdie - training in progress.
From left: Graham Hartwell (BASF), Guy Smith (NFU vice president), Iain Dillon (RSPB),
Joe Martin (Chairman of the FWAG association), Sir Jim Paice (GWCT's Allerton project Chairman)
Tim Breitmeyer (CLA vice president), Jim Egan (GWCT BFBC organiser).

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Smartly dressed for long December nights!

A smart moth - the December moth
I put out the moth trap last night, as the forecast was for a very mild night for this time of year and the winds were coming from the continent, so the possibility of a late migrant perhaps?

The catch was a little disappointing, consisting of 7 December moths and nothing else. Although they are called December moths, they actually fly from October to late January.

I rather like December moths with their peroxide, slightly punky off white foreheads and creamy-white wing markings on a charcoal background! They sort of look as though they have evening wear on, having made quite an effort to dress up smartly for a cold December night.

What is more, the males have stunningly enormous antennae, which they use to detect the scent of un-mated females from several hundred metres away! Having mated, the females will lay eggs on various trees such as Blackthorn, Birch, Oak and Sallow and the eggs will then hatch out in April or May to coincide with leaf growth.

So why should this moth, along with a few others, choose to fly in the winter months? Well for starters, you are less likely to be eaten by a Bat as they are in hibernation and when it is mild enough to take to the wing, you have a good long night ahead of you to find that mate! 

So perhaps not as daft as they may at first appear to be then!

How about these for antennae! 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Woodcock - Sexing, migration and Christmas presents

The first tagged Woodcock is back here for the winter! 

So, the first of the GWCT tagged Woodcock is back in the UK to spend the winter here – Monkey 111 (who does come up with these names!) has completed His/Her return journey from the breeding grounds in Western Russia and is now pootling about back in Hampshire.

You might well think that GWCT scientists should have paid enough attention in biology lessons at school to able to determine the sex of a Woodcock in the hand - but apparently it is not as easy as it might seem! Find out why and also see how all the other tagged birds are faring here

The British woodcock population comprises of both resident and migratory birds. In a typical winter we would predict around 10% of woodcock in the UK are home-bred, whilst the other 90% are visitors from Northern Europe and Russia.

Those percentages roughly translate into a resident breeding population estimated at 78,000 males and a total wintering population that could rise to 1.5 million individuals in some years. That is a lot of Woodcock who are due to hop across the North Sea in the next few days and weeks. Having said that, they don’t seem in any particular hurry to join us this winter, as mild conditions have meant that many of them are mucking about in Western European countries, taking a somewhat leisurely attitude to migration - and why not!

Finally, do you have that really difficult aunt or uncle, granny or cousin to buy a Christmas present for? Is Dad seriously problematic too, as he appears to already have drawers full of socks and the drinks cabinet is positively bulging, whilst Mum really, really does not want another scarf to be hung up with all the others!

Well, help is at hand! What about buying them a seriously interesting present, (rather than all the glittery tat that is on offer in the shops) – why not buy them a “sponsor a woodcock” present and help with this fascinating project! There are other woodcock related presents on the Woodcock Watch blog as well!

WOW – You know what - this is a seriously good blog – I've even helped you sort out your Christmas present buying!!    

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Don't let kindness land up killing your garden birds.

Greenfinch - often seems vulnerable to disease
It has been such a mild autumn with an incredible abundance of food, (especially a colossal beech mast year) that I have only just started to think about ordering some bird seed to begin feeding my garden birds.

I am quite often asked if one should feed birds all the year round, or just during the lean winter and spring months. Personally, I prefer to see birds collecting “natural” food to raise their young, so once there is an ample supply of food – usually towards the end of April or early May, I pack up the feeders and put them away for the summer.

You should always concentrate on the hygiene aspect of putting out food and water, regardless of what time of year you feed birds, although perhaps if you do feed birds all the year round and also offer them water, it becomes even more vital to make sure that you keep feeders and bird “baths” clean due to the constant use.  
There are a number of diseases that garden birds can pick up if you do not keep feeding sites well managed.

Trichomoniasis (or ‘Canker’ as the disease is also known), has been known in Poultry and Game for some time, however for some unknown reason the parasite then jumped from its usual host group to the wild finch population. The parasite survives in moist conditions, needing water to survive, so that in hot dry conditions it will be killed by desiccation.

Greenfinches are most frequently affected by this disease and birds that become infected with the Protozoal parasite (called Trichomonas gallinae ) will not usually survive. The disease was first recorded in April 2005, but then exploded in 2006 and 2007 as infection spread across the country.

Birds take on a fluffed up, lethargic appearance and in some areas up to 35% of Greenfinches and 21% Chaffinches have died. The disease lives in the upper digestive tract and therefore the most likely way that it is spread between birds is via saliva-contaminated water and food.

Salmonella organisms also invade the digestive tract of wild birds and bacteria are present in large numbers in infected droppings, which are the source of contamination for uninfected birds. 

Avian Pox is also a relatively new disease in the UK, which seems to be increasingly identified in garden birds. The disease is caused by a virus which stimulates excessive skin growth and nodular warty lesions, often around the face of the bird.

Great tits seem to be particularly prone to Avian Pox infection, but I have also seen lesions on Blue tits and I know that other birds can get this pox too. Most birds build up immunity to the infection and survive, however, it seems that Great tits can develop big wart like growths which in the worst case scenario can prove fatal, especially if the growth impedes the everyday functions of the bird in any way.

Because it is a relatively resistant virus it can survive on contaminated perches and feeding stations for a considerable time, infecting a number of birds in the local area.

Finally, there is a disease that is specific to Chaffinch, called “Chaffinch Viral Papilloma” (CVP). CVP is thought to affect around 1% of the Chaffinch population at any given time. Cases usually occur in clusters and quite high proportions of local populations may be affected in outbreaks.

This disease causes wart-like growths on the feet and usually, but not always, only one leg is affected. The growths vary from small nodules to large irregular shaped and deeply-fissured masses which almost engulf the entire lower leg and foot and which can distort the toes. Affected birds usually seem in otherwise good health but some may show signs of lameness and hop mainly on the unaffected foot.

The fact that cases occur in clusters suggests that the presence of affected birds presents a risk to others that are susceptible. The mode of transmission is not known but it seems likely that the virus may be spread via surfaces the birds stand or perch upon or by direct contact.

The most effective method to avoid cross-transmission of all these problems is to follow good, regular hygiene practice at your feeders and take steps to minimise crowding at perching or feeding sites. So, you should try to ensure that you clean and disinfect feeders on a regular basis and the same applies to bird baths.

Try to only put out enough food on the ground for each day, so that it does not become contaminated with droppings or start to rot in mild, wet weather. It is also a really good idea to move feeding stations around the garden and maybe have a number of sites rather than just one main one, if the size of garden allows.

One final thought. I often see pheasant feeders that have obviously been situated in the same place for some time, as the ground is completely bare underneath them. Remember, all of the above is also relevant to game birds and the small birds that regularly feed alongside them at these hoppers.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

How about this for an amazing story!

This little chap experiences the feeling of  deja vu! 

I have recently read about an amazing coincidence involving this little bird above!

Colin McShane writes:

"Over the last 8 years I have been leading an Autumn ringing trip to the Parque Ambientale, in Vilamoura, Portugal with support from Vitor Encarnacao who heads up the Portuguese Ringing Scheme. Our trips have been successful on several levels and many British ringers have joined us over the years to expand their experience.

We have also controlled a number of birds from northern Europe, including Reed Warblers from Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, and Bluethroats from France. On 06 October 2014 during this year’s trip, I extracted a male Blackcap from one of our standard mist nets and was very pleased, although not too surprised, to find that it was carrying a BTO ring. Back at the processing station, Dave Clifton (who has been an ever-present fixture on these trips) was doing his stint as the scribe. Having announced to the group what I had extracted, I began to process the bird - first reading out the ring number several times for accuracy.

Dave went quiet. He quickly got onto the phone to his wife, who checked in his ringing book back home. Hey Presto!! The bird was indeed one (of only two Blackcaps ringed at the site) he had ringed at Duckley Plantation, on the north shore of Blithfield Reservoir, Staffordshire on 11th September 2014 - only a few weeks before we had left for Portugal!!

Unfortunately Dave wasn’t able to buy a Lottery ticket on that day, but it must be a given that he was pretty certain of a big win with that kind of luck". 

How incredible is that!

I have done a bit of checking and there are about 1.2 million pairs of Blackcap here during the summer, which will of course raise a number of broods, raising the overall population significantly. It must be said that not all Blackcap leave our shores to over-winter elsewhere, some 3,000 elect to spend the winter in southern England. But nevertheless a remarkable story.

So another little gem of migratory information gleaned, plus one very chuffed bird ringer. Lets see if he can re-trap it back in Staffordshire next summer!!!   

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A famous person and assorted wildlife turn up in strange places.

City Duck - a Mallard 5 floors up!
 I spent some time in London over the weekend, staying with great friends who live in a Westminster apartment, which is situated 5 floors up and so looks out over the roofs of other buildings. They have a small roof terrace with potted shrubs and plants and have also installed a bird “feeding station” with nuts and small seeds on offer.

Now, you might think that you would not get many visitors to a roof terrace 5 stories up in central London, but actually you would be quite wrong, as my friends report of a steady flow of visitors such as Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed tits, Crows and Magpies, Pigeons, Robins, Blackbirds, Seagulls (I presume Black-headed and probably Herring) and Greenfinch. They also tell me that now and again they see the “Hawk thing” – probably a Peregrine or Kestrel I imagine!!

But there are also some lovely surprises in the form of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jays and a Mallard! Also little Jenny Wren is seen frequently, obviously reckoning that it is worthwhile flying to this height to search out the shrubs for hidden insects! As yet no Parakeets, but I expect that these colourful invaders will turn up before too long.

So it seems that wherever you live, there will be wildlife to keep you company, which is really rather comforting don’t you think!

I also visited Westminster Abbey and was fortunate enough to be shown around this incredible building by the Dean. I was shown the colourful, marbled mosaic floor that has recently been restored, which dates back a thousand years and depicts the world in the middle of the surrounding universe. Incidentally, this is the exact place that the coronation chair is placed when a new king or queen is installed, putting them at the head, quite literally, of everything. An interesting take on our somewhat heightened importance in the cosmos I would have thought!

I was also fascinated by the array of famous people buried here, starting perhaps with the enormous central tomb in the middle of the Ladies’ chapel in which Edward the Confessor lies, through Kings and Queens, Politicians, poets and writers and scientists – including somewhat surprisingly Darwin.

Darwin had in fact expected to be buried in St Mary's churchyard at Downe in Kent where he died, but at the request of Darwin's colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswood (President of the Royal society)) arranged for Darwin to be buried in the Abbey, close to Isaac Newton.
This is quite something for a man who rocked the whole establishment, especially the church, by writing “On the origin of species” in which he described evolution.  In 1879 he wrote that "I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally, an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Still, there is one consolation for Darwin being laid to rest in the middle of such a huge city – there certainly seems to be plenty of wildlife just outside the door!

A Jay frequently pops in to the feeding station!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Hedgerow management

Earlier on this week I held a hedgerow management workshop for the farmers involved in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (http://www.mdnia.org.uk/) which is situated between Marlborough and Swindon in Wiltshire. 

The morning was hosted by John White of Overtown Farm, Wroughton, but kicked off in Overtown Manor where daughter Nancy provided a spacious room (+ Tea, Coffee & scrummy biscuits), enabling me to give a presentation all about hedges. (Incidentally, Nancy runs a high quality B & B, which if the home-made biscuits are anything to go by, will most definitely be worth a stay!! 

We then went out onto the farm to see first-hand different hedge cutters in action, finishing up with the Crème de la crème of hedgerow management – hedge laying.

We watched as a circular saw cut through some thick stems, bringing a tall hedge back down to a more manageable height. This is also a brilliant piece of kit for taking off overhanging branches that have become too much of a good thing.

A reciprocating knife was also on show and we were all mightily impressed with how neat a job it did on the hedge alongside a wood. Then onto the flail cutter, perhaps the most commonly used machine, again noting how well the SHARP blades cut through the growth leaving a clean cut, “A” shaped fashioned hedge – demonstrating that these machines used correctly, need not leave “battered and smashed” hedges in their wake.

Finally, we watched a true professional in the form of Guy Robins, who lays hedges from September through to the end of March. To many people, this looks such a brutal way to treat a hedge, but to return and see how it has grown back into a thick, stock proof, wildlife friendly hedge just one year later, is something that I never cease to marvel at. Also, did you know that there are some 30 odd different styles of hedge laying!

Despite getting rather wet and cold, I think everyone enjoyed the event and hopefully will now provide an even higher quality of hedge than they already do. My thanks to Jemma Batten (MDNIA farmer “wiper-in” and all-round brilliant organiser!) for getting people and machinery in the correct place!

One thing to note is that we held this meeting at this time of year, so that when land managers come to cut most of their hedges in January and February – which is the best time if possible – then they will already be fully up to speed!

Here are some pictures of the morning!

Circular saw in action

Here you can see the saw - it will carve through some hefty stems

The reciprocating cutter 

The Flail - if sharp and used on the correct size of growth - does a good job  

Guy in action - a wonderful skill

Just laid in the forefront - with last year's effort behind (already trimmed) 

The finished article - demonstrating the "Midland style" - used here
in Wiltshire because it produces a great hedge for keeping stock in! 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembering our links with the natural world

During this week of remembrance, a couple of things have struck me about our relationship with the natural world and have got me thinking. Of course there is the incredible display of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London's moat, each poppy representing a British military fatality during the first world war which is one obvious link with nature, but actually it was two other happenings that sent my thought processes into overdrive!

First of all I heard an interview with Helen Macdonald who has just been awarded the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, for her book “H is for Hawk” – a lyrical depiction of the relationship between a human and a Goshawk.

Consumed with sadness after her father's sudden death, she acquired the Goshawk as she had always been fascinated by falconry, throwing herself completely and utterly into training the hawk, as a way to deflect her suffering. She talked eloquently, not only of how much she had learnt about the ways of the hawk, but also nature, and indeed herself.

“We’re increasingly enforcing the boundaries between humans and wild animals: there are very few opportunities these days to interact closely with them at all. I think this impoverishes human lives. And it also makes animals small and far away, so we don’t care about them as deeply.

It’s one thing to read that there are fewer Wood Warblers now than thirty years ago, but it is a different thing to read how it feels to sense their absence in a wood that was once a place made of Wood Warblers as well as trees in your mind. Communicating the pain of losses like that can’t be done with statistics”.

Oh, how very, very true. As vital as good data is, we must of course always interpret “cold” figures, turning them into a “warmer” reality – making them come alive if we are to effect change. Scientists please take note.

Then I heard the famous "Ode of Remembrance" taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem "For the Fallen", which was first published in the Times in September 1914.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Over looking the Rumps

How interesting that Binyon wrote the poem while sitting on the cliffs between Pentire Point and the Rumps in north Cornwall – an area I know well. He was not in front of a typewriter in an office with no windows, but instead he was “feeling” every word he wrote, on behalf of those brave men who had lost their lives, by being part of the very landscape they had fought for.

Many folk (myself included) acknowledge having “special” places which are often (but not always) situated far away from the noise and bustle of everyday life. Places where they admit to feeling close to departed family or friends and where spiritual emotions become heightened.

I don’t think that we should be at all surprised that the natural world still has an impact on us despite the so called “civilised” way that we now claim to live.  It is estimated that the first members of the human family (hominins) lived in Africa about 6 or 7 million years ago and so we have evolved over a long period of time.

Only very recently have we become the first “urbanised” nation and thereby potentially started off this disconnection process from the natural world. By the 1850s, more than 50% of the 21 million population of this country was living in towns, of which 2.3 million were in London, making Britain’s people completely unique in the world at that time.

I agree with Helen Macdonald that if we lose these important links with the natural world, we are potentially discarding part of our evolutionary make up, which must surely lead to more impoverished lives in general. That might be when it comes to dealing with grief, writing prose or, indeed, sorting out who and what we are and how we could all live in harmony, not only with each other, but with all other life in this beautiful world in which we find ourselves.   

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

There's gold in them there hills!

Hampshire countryside - heavily sort after by investors
If you don’t like the banks, are wary of investing in stocks and shares and have become increasingly suspicious of financial advisers, then it appears that you should consider buying up a few acres as a sound investment – if you can still afford that is!!!

Just up the road from where I live in central Hampshire, a 980 acre farm (with a barn converted, 4 bedroomed house) has recently gone on the market for a staggering £12 million. Surely, at this price, they have not really gauged the market properly. Well true, it appears not.

There have been more than 40 viewings which has resulted in 30 bids, sending the price rocketing to what is now believed to be over £16 million. So it looks as though this farmland will be fetching somewhere in the order of £16,000 per acre!

So why this extraordinary price?  Well most agents will tell you that location is always hugely important (easy to get to London), and will then undoubtedly go on to add that it also has a renowned Pheasant and Partridge shoot situated in attractive countryside, which always helps to attract potential buyers. Another driver stated by a number of agents, who are regularly contacted by investors who have around £10 million to invest, is that it is exempt from inheritance tax.

But there is probably an even bigger reason which is pushing up prices within our over-crowded country – long term returns. The average value of farmland in England has increased by 12% so far this year and by an incredible 187% over the last decade.

This outstrips the housing market as a whole, even in central London, with only the gold market notching up better figures, making farmland a fantastic long term investment.

So this green and pleasant land of ours seems to be turning to more of a golden colour me thinks!


Friday, 31 October 2014

Harvesting mice in Guildford!

The Harvest mouse "Team"
My alarm went off this morning at 5am – but I didn't mind being woken up this early as I was off to visit a fascinating little project.

A couple of weeks ago I met a chap called Jim Jones who works for the Surrey Wildlife Trust and after a while we started chatting about Harvest mice – as you do! He told me about a live trapping project that the Trust was involved in, attempting to find out the best way to trap these fantastic little mammals, as in the past researchers have found them difficult to catch. Jim then very kindly invited me along to one of the study sites near Guildford to help check out the over-night catch.

We were due to meet at 6.30 am and I had to find my way through Guildford housing estates and industrial parks until I eventually got to the location – a reed, sedge and grass rich area alongside the river Wey. The A3 roared past on one side, huge pylons strode straight through site and as I have already said, all sorts of industry was just a stones throw away. Was I in the correct place? Well yes it appeared so! 
I was warmly welcomed by the project leader, Dave Williams who immediately took me under his wing to make sure that I did not miss anything and quietly chatted away about the various small mammals that we found in the traps – wonderfully absorbing information that you don’t get from a book – but from years of field work!

Well, to cut a longish story short, what a morning it turned out to be! We eventually found out that the catch comprised of 23 mammals including an amazing 9 Harvest Mice!! The other species were Wood Mouse, Yellow-necked Mouse, Bank Vole, Common Shrew and Pigmy Shrew.

I have been working on plans to hopefully carry out some work within Hampshire on this stunning little mammal the Harvest mouse, concentrating on how they are faring on farmland, so to tap into the wealth of knowledge these folk have begun to build up was very exciting for me.

To spend a couple of hours or so with such a thoroughly pleasant group of dedicated wildlife experts and incredibly importantly, also the volunteers who help out and put in lots of unpaid time, made for an unforgettable morning!! So a big thank you to the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

If you would like to find out a little more about Harvest mice - I wrote them up as one of my species of the month - so go to the link on the top right hand side of this page - and then go to August 2010.
Here are a few pictures of the morning’s work!   

A beautiful little Harvest mouse

A close up !
The wonderfully rich brown coat of a Bank Vole
What do harvest mice do when trapped? Well some spend the time shredding the straw to make a nest!
The habitat - which obviously holds an excellent population of all sorts of small mammals

A live catch  Longworth trap placed off of the ground  - just one of many combinations being tried out
Jim on the left and Dave on the right - could not have been more welcoming.
One last look at these delightful creatures - a bright eyed Harvest mouse! 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Do you have Leopards and Cows in your own back yard?

Field Cow-Wheat - a real rarity in this country!
I expect many of you will have read about the discovery of a brand new species of frog found living under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

The new species of leopard frog was located in ponds and wetlands in the area of Staten Island, and it was only discovered because a scientist who had been studying Leopard frogs elsewhere in the States, did not recognise the distinctive call of this particular frog. He sent tissue samples away to be analysed and with the help of modern genetic techniques, aided by an acoustic analysis of its characteristic mating call, it was indeed deemed to be a brand new species!

If a totally new species can be found in such an area as New York, just imagine how many species remain un-discovered in the rest of the world! In fact this story reminds me of another amazing find in this country a few years ago.

There was a wonderful old lady who lived in Wiltshire, who grew quite naturally, a lovely little flower in her garden. She had no idea what it was but as it was so pretty, she let it get on with life, just turning the soil over a little every year to help it re-seed itself.

Then, just by chance one day, she happened to sit down and watch a television programme on endangered British plants, including one called “Cow-Wheat” which she learnt was now only found in 3 sites in England, and on one of those sites it was thought to have probably become extinct!

“I recognised it immediately as the little flower in my garden, but always thought that it was just a pretty weed” she told the botanist who visited her garden. However the botanist was not really listening - he was concentrating on trying not to faint, as he surveyed the incredible display in front of him. He eventually counted 7000 plants happily growing in her back garden!!

So, it does not matter where you live or maybe take the dog for its daily walk. Keep your eyes and ears (and maybe nose!) open, as you just never know what you might discover in your own back yard!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Elephant in the room - world population growth.

Fellow GWCT colleague “Farmer Phil” Jarvis wrote an interesting piece on the difficulties that the agricultural industry will face, if in the future we continue to loose active agro-chemical ingredients and don’t replace them with new technology. You can read what he had to say on: http://loddingtonestate.blogspot.co.uk/

Phil finished his article by saying “The elephant in the room - 'population growth'... who would like to continue that debate?”

Well Phil, you know me - so here are a few thoughts on the subject!

At the moment there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, all of whom need feeding and we are already falling short as more than 800 million people are hungry. According to the United Nations, we will need 60% more food than we currently produce to feed the world’s projected population by 2050.

Listen, I’m certainly no expert on this, but that sounds all a bit scary to me. So I have turned to two people who are experts in this field – namely Malcolm Potts, Bixby professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley and Martha Campbell, who is president of Venture Strategies for Health and Development and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.
This is what they have to say on the matter.

“The United Nations Population Division has made a radical shift in its population predictions. Previously, the organization had estimated that the number of people living on the planet would reach around 9 billion by 2050 — and then level off. Now everything has changed: Rather than levelling off, the population size will continue to grow, reaching 10 billion or more at century's end. Rapid population growth inhibits many of the factors of development from proceeding apace — including education and health. 

In all our research, we have not found any country, with the exception of a few oil-rich states, that has developed or extricated itself from poverty while maintaining high average family size. Countries with high birth rates tend to find it difficult or impossible to expand their education systems or their health systems adequately to keep up with the need. However, at present many women across the globe, especially poor women, do not have access to family planning.

This matters beyond any one country or region. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable world, we'll have to meet the needs of the present without compromising the natural resources and services our children and grandchildren will need. Given time, and a great deal of scientific ingenuity, we might still be able to reduce our consumption and pull a world of 8 billion people back to a biologically sustainable economy by the end of the century. But a world of 10 billion could do irreversible damage to the planet. It's just too many people.

We've now been warned. If measures are taken now, we could still keep the 2050 world population at around 8 billion. We have to ensure that the population can be slowed by purely voluntary means and within a human rights framework. We need to galvanize the political will to make it happen and invest now so that family planning options are universally available. Fail to do so, and we may give birth to a new, difficult era of poverty instead”.

So, it appears blatantly obvious to me anyway, that if all life, including humans, is to have any sort of future on this planet, then we need to act quickly to introduce widespread contraception across the world, making sure that the wealthier nations help to fund the poorer countries so as to make this possible.

So Phil, as requested I have continued the debate. But actually what is needed now is action, not more words.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The National Trust turns the wheel of fortune for two young farmers!

Camilla, Roly and Belle in front of the Donkey wheel which was built in 1865

A few days ago I visited a young couple who have just completed their first year farming Saddlescombe farm, a 450 acre National Trust farm which is situated in the South Downs National Park just 5 miles north of Brighton in Sussex. 

Camilla and Roly Pusey run Saddlescombe as a mixed farm, which at the moment has 300 breeding ewes, lots of lambs, 5 rams and a small herd of pedigree Sussex cows. They are selling boxed lamb direct from the farm and also through their website. They have also recently started to supply their lamb to local pubs which will undoubtedly begin to put them firmly on the map I'm quite sure!

The farm has a large Higher Level Stewardship scheme which helps Camilla and Roly to integrate conservation in with the production side of the farm. They leave weedy stubbles over-winter, coupled with good sized plots of Wild bird seed mix for farmland birds to feed on (They have Corn Bunting on the farm amongst many other species). They leave a large cultivated plot for Lapwing to nest on and are planting wildflowers across the farm.

They have also inherited some wonderful steep banks of old chalk grassland and Roly, with the help of the Sussex cattle and local volunteers is tackling the encroachment of scrub, which has slowly been enveloping the whole area. Roly was chuffed to see an amazing response to all his first winter’s hard work scrub bashing and organising the stock grazing, as the following summer a wonderfully colourful display of flowers appeared, including a number of Orchids! 

I was really struck by the enthusiasm that Camilla and Roly showed throughout my visit. They have a big task ahead of them to bring the farm up to scratch and develop other projects to help make the whole enterprise profitable. But they positively seemed to be thriving on the task, despite also having two small children in tow, they have an assortment of ideas afoot.

Already Camilla runs a Bed & Breakfast in the house and another clever idea that they have evolved is to “be a shepherd for the day or evening”! On offer, depending on what time of year it is, which includes all sorts of hands on activities and challenges to help people spend time together with the sheep. This ranges from helping deliver new born lambs, to handling and weighing sheep, through to working with the one and only farm employee - Belle the sheepdog - who will help the visitors gather and move a flock of sheep.

Camilla and Roly are working in a truly beautiful part of England and along with a range of different farmland habitats to manage, they also have some wonderfully old and historic buildings under their care. Once again the couple are brimming with ideas as to how these buildings might be utilised in the future. My favourite was a superb Donkey turned water wheel built in 1865, although the well from which it raises the water from has apparently been there for “Donkey years before that”!

As a National Trust member of long standing, I am very pleased to see the organisation placing young farmers into their properties, rather than potentially considering the easy option of renting out the house and contract farming the land. In Camilla and Roley the Trust has found two very hard working, committed and forward thinking tenants and I wish them the very best of luck.

So, my message to the National Trust is very simple: Look after them until the business is fully up and running and they will do the Trust proud, of that I'm sure!

If you want to watch how Saddlescombe farm is getting on through the year – go to:

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Good summer weather means success for most birds - but not all.

Grey Partridge have had a good breeding
season - as long as they have been looked after!
In general, I think it has been a good breeding season for birds here in the UK, with encouraging reports from a number of quarters. Even some birds returning to our shores to over-winter, having spent the summer breeding elsewhere seem to have done well! 

For instance, a record number of at least 45,800 Pink-footed Geese have arrived at Lancashire's Martin Mere WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust), counts have revealed. This beats the previous record of 36,000 in 2010. Over the next couple of weeks, numbers will continue to increase as more of these birds make the 500-mile journey from Iceland to spend the start of winter in Lancashire. The geese will ultimately winter to the south and east, particularly in Northumberland and Norfolk.

The Grey Partridge breeding season seems to have also fared well this year, following two poor years. Reports of large sized coveys are coming in from those estates and farms that have provided good nesting cover, insect rich foraging habitat and have also implemented legal, targeted predator control. Some Eastern areas such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire do not seem to have performed quite as well as the rest of the country however, with keepers telling me that there were prolonged cool winds in from the North sea during the peak chick hatching time, which may well have reduced insect numbers at a crucial time.

Two other species which I'm particularly pleased about this year, because they had taken a real bashing from the weather over the last couple of breeding seasons (not helped by the lack of small mammals) is the Barn Owl and Kestrel. I have had a number of farmers excitedly telling me of the “biggest ever clutches” eventually fledging from the boxes that they had put up in trees and barns.

As with all things in life though, not all birds have had a brilliant year. A farmer in Hampshire told me just this last Thursday, that his long term House martin colony that had been in existence as long as he could remember, had this year fallen silent, with not one nest being occupied. He was genuinely upset as he said it was very much part of his summer to watch these delightful birds flying overhead.

It was with great interest then that two days later, a letter popped through the post box from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), asking for help in order to study the worrying decline in House Martin numbers – a UK decline of 16% over the last decade, but an English decline of as much as 65% longer term. What is interesting is that there have been alarming declines in the south of England and yet some healthy increases in the North and across Scotland and Ireland.

Of course, with migratory species, these regional differences may not necessarily be as a result of what is happening here during the summer, but might be that more northerly House Martins go to a slightly different place to over-winter than southerly based birds and may therefore have had better weather or habitat conditions during their winter stay there.

This is exactly why research from organisations such as the GWCT, BTO and WWT is so vital in helping us to understand the intricacies of our wonderful bird life. So make sure you support their work!!!

Barn Owls have had an excellent breeding season

For one Hampshire farmer, there were no little House Martin heads peeking out of nests this year.