Friday, 31 January 2014

A white Hare or a plastic bag?

Today's white hare

"My white hare"
One of the best bits about my job is when people contact me about interesting things that they have seen or found. Today, hidden away amongst a plethora of yawn provoking E-mails, lay one that brought a smile to my face from a North Hampshire farmer.

He had spotted a white Hare on his farm and had managed to take a photo of it. Knowing that I had filmed one not far from his farm back in 2010, he kindly sent me the photo as he knew I would be interested, as indeed I am. 

I doubt that it is the same beastie that I caught up with three and half years ago, as it is a dangerous world out there if you are a Hare and being white does not help one little bit! But the thought that it is highly likely that his genes continue to live on in the local population is rather wonderful.

“My” hare had a rather nice story behind it. It was harvest time and the farmer saw what he thought was a white plastic bag out on the stubble field. Moaning grumpily about rubbish and litter-louts, he strode purposely out across the field to pick it up. But as he drew near, it got up and ran away!

He kindly rang me to tell me his news and as soon as the weekend arrived I went to his farm to see if I could photograph it. It took me two trips and a long “stalk” to finally catch up with it, but it was a superb experience to spend some time with this beautiful creature.

There is a lot of mythology connected with Hares which fascinates me – but that is perhaps a blog for another day (or find out by coming on one of my Brown Hare courses that I run!), but a white hare would probably have been viewed in days gone by as an omen of some sort.

Seth Lakeman, the English folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, wrote a song about a white Hare and one of the verses goes like this: 

Careful you don`t catch her
Give her right of way,
For she will look upon you,
Steal your soul away”

Friday, 24 January 2014

Stop press! Only one week left to find were on earth you put those binoculars!

Spot the birdie!
Don't panic - but there is only one week to go before the big farmland bird count!
I hope that the farmers amongst you who read this blog will dig out your binoculars and get onto the farm to see what you can spot!  

We ran a pilot scheme last year which covered about 10,000 hectares across 30 farms. The farmers who took part spotted 69 species across a wide range of birds including tree sparrows, yellowhammers, barn owls, kestrels and buzzards.

The farmers who took part also told us how lovely it was to break off from work and have a pleasant walk around part of the farm, noting birds – not something they normally have time for!!

The count can take place between the 1st and 7th February 2014, and we are inviting you to spend only about 30 minutes recording the species and number of birds seen on one particular area of the farm. So, come on – have a go!!

For more information see:

Good luck and don’t forget to let us know what you see by sending in your completed forms!!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home - but take care, its congested up there!

Ladybirds - high speed travellers! 
We hear lots nowadays about the remarkable travelling feats of migrating birds, but now insects are also making the headlines. Research has discovered that ladybirds can travel at heights of up to 1,000 metres or more above the ground and at speeds of up to 60 km/h (37 mph). This means that in theory, ladybirds could travel from London to Birmingham in little more than two hours! (So, they won’t be needing  HS2 then!) 
Most of the ladybirds were found at heights between 150 and 500 metres above the ground, flying at an average speed of 30 km/h (18 mph). But some were found at even higher altitudes, travelling even faster. 

In separate experiments, the team at Rothamsted research centre in Hertfordshire, also recorded the flight times of ladybirds in a Perspex box. The average flight lasted 36.5 minutes, with some going on for as long as 2 hours. This would mean that if ladybirds managed to do the same outside the laboratory, they could travel up to 120 kilometres (75 miles) in a single flight!

In fact, migrating birds could learn a thing or two from insects! Researchers used radar to carry out the first comparative analyses of the flight behaviour and migratory strategies of insects and birds under nearly equivalent natural conditions. Contrary to expectations, moths such as the Silver Y, attained almost identical ground speeds and travel directions compared with small birds, despite their very different flight powers and sensory capacities. Moths achieved fast travel speeds in seasonally appropriate migration directions by exploiting favourably directed winds and selecting flight altitudes that coincided with the fastest air streams. By contrast, birds were less selective of wind conditions, relying on self-powered flight in their seasonally preferred direction, often with little or no tailwind assistance.

Mind you, the tiny money spider takes some beating! They use a little strand of gossamer to lift them up into the sky when they need to move on - weather balloons positioned thousands of metres above the Hawaiian islands which are the remotest island group in the world, have recorded money spiders drifting by!

Quite humbling isn't it. We have SO much more to learn about our amazing world.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Take careful aim if you are not to miss the target completely

The creation of a wetland areas can transform a piece of countryside  
Some level of targeting, when it comes to spending Government money is necessary I'm certain, but surely this approach must never leave large tracts of land within our countryside completely “untargeted” or considered to be worthless in conservation terms.

If an area is for instance a “hotspot” for farmland birds, then OK, look after them so that they don’t decline further, but at the same time we should surely be managing the outer circles to this inner hotspot, so that we expand birds back onto land that they have been lost from.

Sir John Lawton’s report “Making space for nature”, which was published in 2010, is now regularly quoted throughout Government documents, stating their biodiversity targets for 2020. Lawton’s report was all about bigger, better and more, in other words working on a landscape scale to join up special areas of habitat and create new areas in between to act as stepping stones across the countryside.

But is this happening in reality?

Last week I met up with a good friend and top notch conservation adviser in the west Midlands. He is incredibly well respected in the “patch” that he works and over a period of time he has enthused many a farmer to create all sorts of diverse new habitats in a landscape that was, quite frankly, relatively unexciting when it came to farmland wildlife.

Take one such farm. He has helped the farmer create a large area of wetland, plant mixtures to attract hoards of insects in the summer months and grown big plots of seed bearing plants to provide stacks of food over-winter.  He has put in cultivated bare plots for Lapwing to nest on and leaves weedy stubbles over winter, while many of the trees are dotted with numerous nest boxes.

So, what has been the result of all this hard work? Well, quite frankly it is staggering. The farm now boasts breeding Redshank (a species that had completely gone from the surrounding countryside as a nesting species!), Lapwing have turned up in good numbers and happily use the plots provided for them and Tree sparrows, a bird that has declined alarmingly, have established a thriving colony based around the nest boxes provided.

I have been to this farm and the first thing you notice is the bird song. The Skylarks were deafening and from what seemed like every available vantage point, Yellowhammer gleefully sang their “little bit of bread and no cheese” song. Meanwhile small groups of Linnet and Goldfinch flocked together, their high pitched trills filling the air, until they landed near to a herd of grazing cattle and fell silent. Hares too have come back in their droves and can be seen chasing each other around in the morning sunshine.

If Lawton visited here, I'm sure he would imagine that this is one of the nature reserves that he spoke about in his report and would suggest that it was somehow linked to other good areas. But no, this is not a nature reserve – it is a working farm. Take one enthusiastic farmer and add a practical and knowledgeable adviser, carefully using money from a Stewardship scheme which was available to all farmers and you can turn a previously un-exciting piece of England into a rich wildlife haven.

Meanwhile, this part of the west Midlands is a target area for woodland planting, funded by Government money too. However, trees and birds like Redshank, Lapwing and Skylark just don’t mix – these species like an “open” landscape. So my friend talked to the Forestry Commission and explained that Government money had been spent on this scheme and that it had been very successful in delivering declining target species to an area that had previously lost them. The reply was along the lines of “Species mapping does not show that this is an important area for farmland birds – so we will continue to plant trees here”. 

So, two sources of Government money clash with each other, probably resulting in time with the loss of these farmland birds as breeding species in the area. What a waste of both money and effort.

But that is exactly why targeting is necessary I here you say, so this sort of thing does not happen.

To an extent maybe, but what has happened to diversity? Are we really going to finish up with a countryside that is polarised into sections of habitat or species? If you want to see farmland birds, then go to Wiltshire. Brown Hares? Northumberland is the place to see them. Woodland? That will be the west Midlands. And what about farming? Oh! The lovely deep soils of Essex will be the agricultural area of course!

As new schemes take shape over the coming months and plans are prepared, stating how we are to use the new round of money recently allocated to the management of the countryside – we must all work closely together, making sure that we spend wisely and creatively to help maintain and enhance our wonderfully diverse British landscape. Otherwise, we may simply be funding its destruction.


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Silly little rules that make me angry to the core.

An apple a day - proven to be good for you!
Here we go again – the good old EU is messing us about by introducing silly little interfering rules, which are apparently stopping British apple growers from claiming that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” – a saying which has been in common use ever since Victorian times!

Apparently, this “gag” put on the health benefits of apples has been in place since 2010, stating that you are unable to make any health claim about apples unless it has been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Understandably, British fruit growers are totally frustrated by such pettiness.

However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel as scientists from Oxford University ran a simulation of the effects of everyone in Britain over the age of 50, who daily take statins versus apples. They found that statins, hailed as a revolutionary treatment, would save 9,400 lives a year, while the humble apple would save 8,500! So, EFSA put that on your plate and crunch it!

But wait, it gets better! The report goes on to say that side-effects from statins mean that prescribing them to everyone over the age of 50 is predicted to lead to over a thousand extra cases of muscle disease (myopathy) and over ten thousand extra diagnoses of diabetes.

Whereas prescribing an apple a day to all adults aged 50 and over would prevent or delay around 8,500 vascular deaths such as heart attacks and strokes every year in the UK - similar to giving statins to everyone over 50 years who is not already taking them – but without the side effects!

A pretty convincing home win to British fruit growers I reckon, don't you!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Pimlico, hens and mixed flowers

All sorts of plants are in flower in London
I have been out of my natural habitat this weekend – in Pimlico, London. I went up to celebrate a very good friend’s 60th birthday and a fine bash it was too. I sat next to Vicky, another friend that goes back a long way. Many moons ago, Vicky used to work for Jasper Conran and also Betty Jackson as their PR consultant, having trained in fashion at a London college. She then met Simon, who also worked in the fashion world and after marrying, they decided “chuck in” London and move to deepest Northumberland.
These life changing moves often end up in tears as the “idyll” of countryside life often proves to be somewhat different from that portrayed in many glossy, so called “country” magazines. But, 20 years later – they are on great form and thoroughly enjoying life. (Now moaning about how hot it is in London and “how do you put up with the traffic!)
 Our conversation soon turned to chickens (one of the motivations to move out of London was to be able to keep chickens!) and Vicky not only up-dated me on her own flock, but then went on to tell me about a new initiative (one of many!) that she is now involved with, called “HenPower”!
I'm sure we have all heard about dogs doing the rounds at hospitals like Great Ormond Street, giving patients the chance to pat and hold them as it so obviously gives them great pleasure, well this new scheme has taken this sort of idea and evolved it a little further. They help care homes actually establish a small chicken flock of their own!
The idea has not been running that long, but already participating homes have found huge benefits to the residents. In the past boredom had often been a real problem, but now the residents can’t wait to get involved with designing hen houses, feeding, egg collecting and general care. Some homes have even started a breeding programme.
In fact it is proving to be so popular that the HenPower initiative hopes to replicate it across the country from Scotland down to London! If you want to find out more go to: 

Meanwhile – a few nature notes on an early spring in Pimlico!
1       Blackbird singing full blast at 1am.
2       Mistle Thrush singing (rather too loudly for my head) at 7am
3       Nasturtiums, Fuchsias and  Daisies all still in flower – left over from last year
4       Primroses and Snowdrops in full flower to start off this year’s display
5       Saw a Bumble Bee on the wing – and with all the above in flower – a worthwhile outing I would have thought!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Pesticides help bees!

There is a lot going on in the modern day bee hive!
The Varroa mite, sometimes called the vampire mite, has been one of the reasons why Honey bees have been in decline of late.

These mites enter hives and suck the blood from the adult bees and from the larvae, and in this way they transport a lot of different pathogens, virus, bacteria and fungus to the bees. Also, 20 Varroa mites can turn into 1,200 in a matter of months and you only need one mite to kill more or less a whole colony.

One of the most effective treatments for removing the mites from a hive is the use of selective pyrethroid insecticides that are highly toxic to the mites, but safe for use with bees. The intensive use of these compounds over the years has led to widespread resistance in Varroa populations, greatly reducing their effectiveness.

However, Rothamsted Research scientists have now identified the genetic change that causes this resistance in UK mite populations. They have also developed a diagnostic test that allows rapid monitoring of the frequency of resistant mites within individual infected bee hives. The test provides an accurate measure of resistance within Varroa-infected hives before treatment and hence it enables informed decisions of the likely effectiveness of the available treatments.

Therefore, by carefully monitoring the distribution and frequency of the mutation in local Varroa populations using the diagnostic test, it should be possible to develop a pro-active resistance management programme. Such a programme could involve rotation of different products (including pyrethroids) aimed at maintaining a more effective control of this highly damaging pest.

I find it somewhat ironic that whereas on the one hand the big chemical companies such as Bayer and Syngenta are being attacked from all quarters over their Neonicotinoid products, which have now been temporarily banned in Europe because of the potential harm to bees, on the other hand these same companies are helping to fight this pesky little mite to save our honey bee colonies.
Funny old world isn't it?  

Sunday, 5 January 2014

How to have a good day - lesson one - make an early start!

An unbelievably stunning sunrise

I decided to get up and get going this morning as the forecast once again talked of wind and rain coming in from the west around mid morning. So the dogs and I set off for a good stomp, not really that early, as of course the days are so short at this time of the year.

Well, what a couple of hours we had! First of all, we watched the dawn slowly break over the south-eastern horizon, starting with glimmers of pinks, greys and blues, but then turning into a blood red havoc of a display. Honestly, if you had painted this sunrise and proudly returned home with your water colour, you would probably have been told that you were “ a little over zealous with the colours weren't you!”

The dogs and I stood in amazement as it just got better and better, so that in the end the whole countryside had turned crimson – even the dogs had a pink “hue” to their coats! Eventually we wandered on, feeling very privileged to have witnessed this spectacular start to the day.

It appears that everything else had come out to cast an unbelieving eye at the dawn too! Roe deer were out in the fields in good number, as were Hares. A large flock of Fieldfare and Redwing left a tall hedgerow as we walked past, chuckling to one another as they gathered together to cross the field to another berry clad margin. A male Bullfinch sat in amongst some thorn bushes, his glorious pinkish breast seemed to match the sunrise that we had just witnessed. I stood a while to see if I could find the dowdier female, she had to be around as these birds usually mate for life. Eventually she appeared, only momentarily though, as in true Bullfinch fashion, she felt happier to skulk in amongst the protection of the thorns.

As we approached the dairy farm, I could see snowy white Little Egrets walking around in amongst the black and white cows. This happens every winter on this farm and I counted eleven in all, some walking around searching for food, others standing still, hunched into their “I'm fed up” stance. I couldn't help but feel that this resembled more of an African scene than little down town Cheriton in Hampshire!

After two hours I arrived back home with two very muddy dogs, all of us having had just the most brilliant start to a day. And you know what – I never saw a soul, which somehow made it even more special!!           

Friday, 3 January 2014

Destructive gales rip into trees - creating some wonderful habitats!

An Oak tree with it's "crown" ripped out by recent gales
Happy New Year!

Well, the weather in 2014 has certainly started in a stormy fashion, carrying on from where it left off in 2013! Many hedgerow trees have had their “crowns” blown out and in the woods, many forestry trees have come down in groups over the last couple of weeks. It is very noticeable that it appears not to be constant strong winds that are the problem, but sudden powerful gusts that trees often can’t cope with.

The photo above is of a hedgerow Oak that had its top ripped out, (actually towards the end of last year) as did another two nearby trees. You can see exactly the path that the great gust took across the fields, as these trees are in different hedges, but in a distinct south westerly line with each other.
Within the woods too, there has also been plenty of action. I stood on a track today and counted at least 20 trees down in a 50 metre swathe through forest, but the trees each side of this destructive path seemed to be totally unaffected.

Now, any forester who  is reading this, please stop and go back to what you were up to before – the rest of you can continue!

This destruction is great! The trees that have come down will now let plenty of light onto the forest floor, allowing a flourish of woodland flowers to appear next spring, along with tiny little tree saplings. This will, in time produce wonderful, dappled glades within the wood, putting some diverse structure back into an otherwise rather uniform wood.

The two great storms in 1987 and 1990 delivered some of the best conservation management that English woods have received in recent times! Certainly since the practice of coppicing stopped as it no longer made money, and timber extraction ceased to be taken from much of our broad leaved woodland, because of cheap imported wood from abroad, British woodlands have become incredibly uniform. All trees are of a similar age, tall and with a leaf canopy that shades out everything that tries to grow below. The one thing that wildlife does not like as a general rule is for everything to be the same.

Many trees have also lost branches, which have been literally ripped from them by the vicious gusts of wind. Not only is this quite natural, but it will create superb places for birds to nest and bats to hide. The gaping wound left on the tree will allow fungi to get established, but while parts of the tree rot, other parts will re-sprout new growth.  Even those deciduous trees that have had their centres completely ripped out will be fine - they will re-grow and maybe, they will have even more "character" now than they had before!

The worst thing that can happen now, is that we all rush to go and “tidy” all this mess up within our woods! Leave it to nature to tidy up, it is more than happy to sort everything out – in fact it will positively thrive on the job!