Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Rooks are back in the Rookery!

Old "baggy trousers"!
The Rooks are back at their nests high up in the trees of “my” local rookery!  How utterly reassuring it is each year that they return, on almost the very same date in late February, to once more argue and fight over the best nest sites.

The plumage of the Rook is all black, although in certain lights it has a reddish or purplish gloss to the feathers; however, around the base of its beak, including the nostrils and chin, there is bare, white skin. This is one of the distinguishing features that separate it from the Carrion crow, although Rooks also have long feathered legs, making them look as though they are wearing baggy trousers!

If you happen to have a spare half hour or so in the next few weeks, try watching the goings on in your local rookery as you will see the life of the rook played out before your very eyes! I have to say, I always think that there are many human traits to be observed in a busy rookery!

I expect that after the recent gales we have been experiencing, many nests will have been blown from the tops of the trees, so that most pairs will have to start building from scratch. All Rooks, whether they are starting off a new nest or still find some remains left from last year, need to keep an eye on the foundations of their new home, as other Rooks will quickly descend and dismantle the new nest, freely taking twigs to create their own home.

Fights, squabbles, posturing, sex, shouting, tiffs and lots of unacceptable behaviour reigns in the rookery. But eventually nests are completed and for a while the rookery settles down a little as eggs are laid and incubation starts. But this uneasy peace does not last, because before long noisy chicks add their raucous calls to the general mayhem and life in the tree top rookery continues in its typically boisterous fashion.

Eastenders and Coronation Street – eat your heart out – you have nothing on the goings on in a rookery!!

If you want to read a little more on Rooks – click on the “Species of the month” tab on the left of this page and go to November 2009.   

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A pondered précis on pesticides

Pesticides play an important role in growing crops such as this barley
Farmers nowadays have to deal with a much reduced availability of pesticides than they were once used to. Since the introduction of EU regulation 91/414 in 1993 the number of active ingredients has fallen from over 900 to around 300. A further fall to around 150 actives (as they are known) by 2020 should be anticipated, which means a reduction of around 85% in all actives over a 20 year period.

This is further compounded by the slowing down of the development of future actives, as agro-chemical companies have a reduced the pool of money needed to produce new chemistry and also baulk at the huge costs of “re-registering” older products to conform to new legislation, especially if the product is for a niche market and thus not widely used.

I expect many of you will view this as great news – less of those beastly pesticides that we know are so incredibly damaging to our environment, because we have read all about them in the newspapers – so it must be true.

But maybe, just maybe, that is a rather complacent attitude as we sit in our comfortable houses, having just eaten a large meal, discussing what we might take out of our packed freezer to defrost for the next meal.  It is so easy to criticise on a full tummy.

Yes, of course we all want to produce our food more sustainably – that is, I hope, obvious to us all. However, pesticides play a hugely important role in providing enough food to put on our plates. Without them we would need much more land to turn over to arable crops, simply to grow what we do presently. Is that the sustainability we are looking for?

Meanwhile, the hoops through which a new chemical has to jump well before it gets anywhere near to being sprayed onto a field are extraordinary, and rightly so.  If for instance you had just discovered salt and decided that it potentially could be turned into a useful pesticide, it might surprise you that it would get kicked into touch long before it got anywhere near to a field trial.

The decline of available pesticides, especially if new chemistry is not forthcoming, will undoubtedly see a growing reliance on just one or two products, risking the likelihood of resistance building up amongst insect pests, fungus and weeds. If that does happen, we could see massive declines in crop productivity across the world, at a time when we need to be producing more food to feed an ever increasing population.

If the above scenario plays out in reality, it would of course rapidly increase food prices, affect the availability of certain produce and result in a big rise in the already unacceptable human starvation figures.

A little food for thought.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Pesky pests are peered at with precision!

Wheat Bulb fly larvae munching away at cereal plants 
I expect it is just the farmers amongst you that have ever heard of Wheat Bulb fly, and even then it is only the Eastern based arable farmers who actually have to take much notice of this pest.
Wheat bulb fly is most prevalent in eastern England, the East Midlands and north-eastern England, because the female adult fly likes to lay her eggs in bare soil in July and August, therefore she most often chooses crops that are harvested early, such as vining peas. She also targets the bare soil in between rows of crops such as potatoes, sugar beet and onions and it is in the Eastern parts of the country were most of these crops are grown. These crops are invariably followed by a cereal crop which will be sown in the autumn.

Meanwhile the Wheat Bulb fly’s eggs, which have lain dormant through the winter, start to hatch out between January and March and the little grubs make straight for the cereal plants, attacking the new small shoots that are now a couple of inches or so high. If a farmer has a bad outbreak of this pest, then large yield losses can occur. As a guide, if just 20% of plants are attacked, a potential loss in yield of about 0.7 tonnes per hectare can be expected, which could easily result in the field making a financial loss.

But help is at hand from both the chemical companies and the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) who continually up-date farmers on the likelihood of there being a problem. Soil samples are taken during the autumn from sites considered to be at risk, to establish the number of Wheat Bulb fly eggs present. From this survey, fields are selected which have high or very high egg numbers present. Weekly soil sampling is then carried out on these selected fields during January, February and March to monitor egg hatch and then plant invasion. Monitoring sites normally cover a range of soil types from East Anglia and Yorkshire.

The HGCA and companies such as Dow then produce constant up-dates for farmers through the period of concern, so that agronomists and growers, who will also walk across their cereal crops to see if there are signs of attack, are helped  to make sensible decisions about the need, or otherwise of applying an insecticide.

This is just one example of a process called “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) which is now practised throughout farming nowadays, resulting in a much better targeted approach to pesticide usage and consequently, only applying a product when absolutely necessary.

The good news is that Wheat Bulb fly seem to be at low levels this year. The latest HGCA Wheat Bulb fly survey indicated that only 7% of sites sampled were above the 250 eggs/m2 treatment threshold, which is the third lowest recorded since 1984.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Sea birds run out of puff due to the storms

A Puffin
A number of seabirds, in particular Puffins, have been found washed up along the south coast, joining the odd dead turtle and dolphin, all having succumbed to the recent exceptional storms.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have received a record number of reports of Puffins, wearing uniquely-numbered metal rings, that have also been washed up dead on the coasts of France and Spain. 

In a normal winter, the BTO would expect two or three ringed Puffins to be found in France and Spain, but during the last few weeks, over 35 have been reported. The previous highest number of ringed birds found was back in 1979 when 17 dead Puffins were reported.

It is well known that British Puffins head out into the Atlantic for the winter months, riding out the worst that the weather can throw at them.  As the winter progresses, our Puffins make their way into the Bay of Biscay before heading back to their breeding colonies and the burrows that they used the previous summer. Birds found in this current wreck have come from colonies in west Wales, northern Scotland, Orkney and Shetland.

Mark Grantham, Ringing Officer at the BTO, commented “Up until the last couple of weeks it seemed that our Puffins might have survived the worst of the winter. However, from the reports of ringed birds that are being washed-up on the Biscay beaches it would seem that the recent storms were just too much for many of the birds.“

He added, “It is still early days and the number of ringed birds found is likely to rise further, but we must remember that if over 35 ringed birds have been found, many un-ringed birds must have been affected too.”

As if all of that is not enough to contend with, there are also reports of seabirds being drowned in gill nets in the Weymouth Bay area. At least 38 dead birds were discovered in just 4 hauled nets. Most of the casualties were auks and possibly the problem arose because both birds and nets are unusually concentrated in the relatively sheltered waters of the bay.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

New posh "superfood" - to us country folk it is SO yesterday!

Quinoa - the new superfood!
“New” healthy Superfoods, such as Quinoa, are fast becoming all the rage amongst the young, health conscious foodie brigade, but to us country folk this is SO yesterday! Farmers have been growing Quinoa for years in this country, admittedly not for human consumption however, but for feeding farmland birds!! Birds such as the Linnet and Goldfinch love it, so farmers include it in the wild bird seed mixes that they grow for feeding hungry birds over-winter!

Quinoa is a plant that has been grown for centuries in Central and South America, providing a complete source of protein, unlike grains, and contains all nine essential amino acids as well as magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium, making it a perfect food for vegetarians.

It is a little like Cous-cous to eat, but I reckon it has much more of a nutty crunch to it, so you should give it a try. Beware however, because if you go into a health food shop and ask for “Quinoah” as we pronounce it, you will get a blank look and probably a shrug of the shoulders! These health conscious foodie types call it “Keen-wah” you see - quite how they got to that pronunciation God only knows!

Now a bright young farmer named Steve Jones, who hails from Shropshire, is growing around 22 hectares of Quinoa to feed us humans. Good luck to him I say – it will certainly improve the “carbon footprint” by transporting it from Shropshire rather than Chile!!

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Break free from the commercial foresters spell!

Newly planted small wood - boring with a capital "B"
I start this piece by admitting that I'm not a forester. However, I do love the wide range of different woods that this country has to offer, including those that have been planted in straight lines in the hope that they will produce fine timber one day and return a tidy profit.

But I am becoming more and more frustrated at the way we plant ALL new woodlands as though they are commercial forests. I expect it is just that I am becoming more cantankerous in my old age, but it has really begun to bug me!

Anyway, here goes – this is my problem.

If you have a reasonably large area that you decide to plant up with hardwoods and perhaps some conifers too, as a long term commercial venture, then talk to a forester and plant it and maintain it exactly as they suggest. 

On the other hand if you have an acre or two that you wish to plant, are you seriously thinking that this will give a profitable outcome in a hundred years or so? I think not. So why do we all appear plant new woods in an identical fashion – close spacing and straight lines, just as one would plant large scale forestry blocks? It is almost as though there is a commercial foresters “spell” cast upon those who plan to plant trees – “thou shalt do it as we say or you will be doomed”!!

How about planting a small area with mainly shrubs and one or two trees? You might include shrubby species such as Hawthorn, Buckthorn, Guelder Rose, Wild Privet, Holly, Hazel, Pussy Willow and Dogwood. Then some smaller trees such as Crab apple or Field maple and then one or two big trees such as Oak or Small leaved Lime. You should also leave at least 10% unplanted in the form of rides and open areas.

Move on ten years and you will have an amazingly diverse, beautiful area that is literally brimming with wildlife. Spring time will see the new wood covered in an array of different blossoms and the hum from assorted bees and insects will be deafening!  This will attract newly arrived migrant birds which will join our resident species to feed up on the insects and possibly stay on to nest in the shrubby cover.

Autumn will see the branches weighed down with various berries and fruits offering a wonderful food supply during the winter months. Meanwhile the tree species will be now begin to grow above the shrubs and start to spread their branches out to form the classic shape of a tree given space – one day to become a majestic Oak or Lime. They will start to cast a shade across the shrubs below, but because you have only planted one or two trees and left open spaces, plenty of sunlight will still pour into the wood.

Managing the area is straight forward – “little and often”. Simply coppice a few shrubs each year so that you create diversity within your little wood, which will soon make it look as though it has always been there! Management such as this will bring in more wildlife such as butterflies which will nectar on the wild privet and sunbathe in the newly formed glades that you have created.

Many small woods are planted because landowners want to create a habitat for Pheasants. If that is the driving force behind your small woodland planting, then I will wager you a bet that after 10 years “my shrubby little wood” will knock spots off of your “trees in a line” planting when it comes to holding Pheasants!!

So come on all you tree planters – break free of the foresters spell – and create a wonderfully different wood to these boring, regimented plantations that cover our countryside at present. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Ironically, plans are already in place to sort out the flooding issues on the Somerset levels.

Flooding in the Somerset levels
A plan for future management of the flood-stricken Somerset Levels has been drawn up by a task force addressing the region’s water problems.

Dubbed a ‘vision’ of what the Somerset Levels and Moors might look like in 2030, the task force's plan embraces the area’s flood management head-on, as politicians have demanded short-term responses to the current crisis.

The task force was actually set up last year to find ways of guiding water and land management policies over the years ahead, and included representatives of farming, conservation, local authorities and government agencies.  DEFRA’s excellent environment minister at the time, Richard Benyon, created the task force in the wake of the floods of 2012-13, which also coincided with the ending of many of the conservation agreements that had protected the area for the last 28 years. It should provide a long-term plan which will eventually control and hopefully prevent such disastrous flooding in future.

The floodplains will be managed to accommodate winter flooding – widely recognised as part of the special character of the Levels – while reducing flood risk elsewhere. The frequency and duration of severe flooding, and hence flood risk to homes, businesses and roads, will be reduced. During the summer there will be an adequate supply of irrigation water for farmers and wildlife in the wetlands. On the low-lying peat moors, water levels will be adopted to conserve the soils and avoid the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. Water quality will be improved and meet all EU requirements. Unsustainable farming practices will be adapted or replaced to secure a robust, sustainable base to the local economy.

A spokesman said “The really encouraging thing is the degree of consensus which the vision represents. We all want the Levels’ landscape to remain the green grid-iron of withies (barriers made of osier branches), rhynes (drainage ditches), meadows and droves (herds of cattle) that we know and love. We all want it to continue to be farmed productively, but in ways that enhance the nature conservation interest. We all want the water to be managed so that the flood risk is reduced. We all want an even richer mix of wildlife than we've got already, and we all want a thriving local economy built around the Levels’ special qualities”.

“For the first time, all of the organisations and interests in the Levels and Moors are speaking with a single voice in saying 'this is how we want the area to be'.  The action plan to deal with flooding gives us a priceless opportunity to get things right for the Levels, its people, its farmers and its wildlife.” 

Let’s hope this is the case. Time will tell.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Scots make a big garlicky mistake!

Not a good pitch to play on!
All is not well at Scotland’s Murryfield  rugby stadium in Edinburgh -  something underground is munching away at the grass roots, leaving large bare patches of mud all over the pitch. Add to each earthy patch a bucket load or two of rain water and you have the potential for some very slippery surfaces – not a good scenario for set scrums that’s for sure.

Dubbed “Maggotfield by the media, the little wrigglers have already forced the Edinburgh rugby club to move home fixtures and staff at the venue have been working hard on a solution. I expect that the culprits are certainly not maggots but wireworm, leatherjackets or Chafer grubs that are in fact causing the problem.

The Scottish Rugby Union’s ground staff has been treating the pitch with a garlic spray in a bid to solve the issue and to preserve the pitch for next month’s Six Nations meeting with France. A spokesman said, "we've been working with some of the leading experts in this area to examine and treat one of world rugby’s best pitches, and by using natural remedies, including the spraying of garlic, we are hoping to have solved the problem, however it may take a number of weeks to get rid of the pests and then to recover root strength.

Scotland have struggled against France in recent years and therefore I not at all sure that I would have chosen garlic as the preferred treatment – talk about making the French feel at home when they turn up next month!!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The illegal poaching of Hares - may have begun to run its course.

A "longdog"
Illegal coursing with “longdogs” – a collective name for Greyhound, Whippet and Lurchers – can cause huge amounts of damage, disturbance and angst amongst the farming community. 

During some weekends it is not uncommon to have up to 50 people, with assorted vehicles and dogs charging across fields and through gates (sometimes literally) in pursuit of hares. Big sums of money are placed on certain dogs in the hope that they will be the one that demonstrates the most skill and ultimately catches its quarry.

On a smaller level, but still hugely disruptive are local poachers who enjoy running their dogs at hares and can turn up at any given time, day or night, disturbing wildlife, letting stock out and damaging property. In some cases farmers have been so completely distraught by the constant hassle and threatening behaviour, that they have reluctantly been driven to completely cull out the local hare population to stop the constant intrusions.

So, I was delighted to hear of the following cases local to me, that ended in prosecution.
In a case heard at Aldershot Magistrates Court, two men pleaded guilty to entering land at night as a trespasser with the intention of taking game in Quarley, near Andover. One was fined a total of £825 and the other a total of £620. The two dogs involved in the offences were ordered to be forfeited and re-homed by the police.
In a different case, Basingstoke magistrates fined a man £165 plus court costs after he entered a guilty plea for daytime poaching near Whitchurch in Hampshire. The court ordered two of his three dogs that were seized to be forfeited. These are the first prosecutions by officers in Hampshire where courts have ordered the forfeiture of dogs which have been used in poaching or hare coursing activity. The successful partnership agreements put in place by the force’s dedicated Countrywatch officers allows forfeited dogs to be re-homed across the UK with responsible owners. The dogs used in these offences are considered a factor in the commission of a crime by the offenders and are seized as evidence. Historically, offenders have considered themselves at low risk of sanction; even if prosecuted, dogs and vehicles would not be seized, allowing them to continue their criminal activity.

I am also beginning to hear of reports from across the country that at last, the police, working closely with keepers and farmers, are also beginning to be successful in the courts. Hopefully, this will dampen the appeal of this widespread criminal activity with its far reaching consequences.   

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Up-lifting meetings can and do happen!

Some of the attendees at the MDNIA meeting
I am involved in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA) which is one of 12 NIA’s across the country, but the only “farmer led” one.  A Government sponsored project, it sets out to discover if conservation can be successfully delivered across a whole landscape, rather than on individual farms.
Last week we had a meeting to look at how we are all getting on and to see if we are actually making a difference on the ground. The meeting was attended by 17 farmers and 18 other different “interested parties”, all herded into order by the superbly organised Cathy Williams.

We had up-dates from the leaders of various mini committees, set up to concentrate on making sure that plans are being delivered on the ground and not just talked about. I chair the species delivery group, so gave a short presentation on all the things that the MDNIA farmers are doing – planting flower rich areas, growing seed bearing crops for birds to eat, putting up nest boxes for barn owls and creating new ponds, to mention just a few!

It is wonderful to hear the farmers speak of how proud they are of what is being accomplished and to see their enthusiasm for trying out new ideas. Perhaps the most heartening of all the projects that have been implemented so far is carriage driving for the disabled. Farmers have voluntarily opened up access across the downs, joining up what was once a fragmented, unconnected series of track ways.

As a direct result, last summer for the first time, a number of severely disabled soldiers from the nearby army barracks at Tidworth, drove horses and carriages across the Marlborough downs on a scenic round route; their smiles spoke volumes.
So, not only is conservation being delivered big time, but also some superb local community projects are now getting established.  Mind you, any project such as this needs a central figure to encourage and cagoule and we are very fortunate indeed to have “Bossy J” as she has become known.   So, well done Jemma Batten and well done to all the farmers too – collectively you have have certainly highlighted the Marlborough Downs on the map!