Saturday, 29 March 2014

WOW! A good news story about farmers in the press!!

Two proud lads!
As I have mentioned before on this blog, there has been an enormous sea-change in the attitude of farmers across the country towards conservation in the last 20 years or so.

Not only have farmers embraced conservation and now most (73% are in a Stewardship scheme) integrate management options for soil, water and wildlife into their farm businesses, but they have also started to work alongside the local community in a much better way. I think that most farmers would freely admit that they have not engaged that well with the folk that live around them in the past, but events such as “open farm Sunday” and “Farmer’s markets” have helped to start to strengthen these links.

I have also discussed how important it is to involve young people from all walks of life, so that they start to understand a little more about how the countryside is run, where their food comes from and to “open” their eyes to some of the beauty that surrounds them, whether that is a stunning landscape or a tiny flower.

One great example of the progress being made, which I happen to be involved with, is the formation of the farmer led Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area.  Farmers have joined forces to manage a whole landscape, rather than just their own individual farms, so that they can collectively have a greater impact by all “pulling in the same direction”.

Here is a link to demonstrate how farmers, local conservation experts and youngsters have all come together to great affect:

Now if this isn't a good news story – then I don’t know what is!!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Advice: Don't linger with a Reeves!

A cock Reeves pheasant
I was out doing a bird survey the other day when I came across this handsome looking chap – a Reeves pheasant.  I was immediately on my guard as these guys are pretty fearless and if a male has his “dander up”, he can actually be jolly aggressive, attacking anything that deigns to enter his territory, including people, quad bikes and even land rovers!! He "escorted" me through the woodland, walking very close to me, but was actually not aggressive at all.

Reeves were introduced from their native China by the British naturalist John Reeves, who was a tea collector for the East India Company, based in Canton. He brought back live specimens to England in 1831.

This spectacular pheasant is actually mentioned in the Guinness book of records for having the longest natural tail feathers of any bird species, which can apparently measure up to 2.4 metres or 8 feet in length! This chap’s tail, although most impressive, still had some growing to do if he was going to compete with the record!

I expect the odd one is released to keep walkers from dawdling as they pass through the wood or maybe to raise a little bit of money on a shoot day – shoot and miss at a Reeves and it will cost you (donation to a charity) – kill it cleanly and it is yours to take home!

Monday, 17 March 2014

The spider man and his toothbrush.

You need guile to fool a spider!
Ecologists are nothing if not imaginative, using guile and stealth to enable them to study their given subject. Take for example Arachnologists, those folk who scientifically study spiders; they appear to be able to think well “out of the box”!!

Luring web-building spiders out of their lairs in order to identify and study them has never been an exact science; too much of a vibration on the cobweb in an attempt to imitate a struggling fly and the crafty spider will not be fooled. Too little on the other hand, might not even wake the beast from its slumbers! No, it has to be just right – a fly-weight of pressure to be precise.

In the past a favoured, cunning ploy was to use a tuning fork, tapped and then placed gently onto the web. The only problem with this is that it has to be “re-tapped” all the time, so fell a little short of ideal. Then one day a clever spider-man called Greg Hitchcock was cleaning his teeth with an electric toothbrush, when he had one of those “ping” moments. His toothbrush...... vibrated! What is more, he could charge it up and take it out into the countryside with him, as easy as saying “incey wincey spider”!

So off he went to the local British Arachnological Society walk in Devon, that he just happened to be leading, armed with his brand new precision tool tucked away in his breast pocket. Before long the assembled spider enthusiasts came across a large web, whereupon to everyone’s surprise Greg produced his whirring electric toothbrush and applied it to the web to produce a prolonged vibration, as only a true professional could. Almost immediately a large Amaurobius (a big variety!) spider came hurtling out from its lacy silken tunnel and pounced onto the vibrating brush, attacking it with real aggression! Unbelievably, it set about the brush with such fervour that it returned to its corner, probably in a rather disgruntled state, with a severed bristle in its jaws!   

So, should you happen across a chap wandering through the countryside with no luggage save a toothbrush in his top pocket, think twice before writing him off as a tramp, as he may well be an extremely distinguished Arachnologist!!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Abandonment & divorce in the swan family!

Bewick's swan have started on their long migration
I read that a Bewick's swan cygnet appears to have been abandoned by his parents at Wildfowl & Wetlands's Trust reserve at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Bewick's migrate in large family groups and due to recent mild weather all but ten of the Slimbridge flock have departed already. 

 The lone cygnet has latched onto Slimbridge regulars Wooton and Stinchcombe and their four cygnets, but is spending much of its time calling in the hope of being reunited with its own parents.

Occasionally cygnets become separated from their parents during migration when there is perhaps bad weather, however it is rather more unusual to see such a separation before the journey has begun. It will be interesting to see if it leaves with its adopted family and manages to stay with them to be guided back to Russia on the 2,500-mile journey. 

The Bewick's Swan study at Slimbridge celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month. Its findings have opened up the social structure of Bewick's Swans' lives, revealing their lifelong pairing and strong family bonds. 

The longest-running dynasty is known as the 'gambling' dynasty, after a young swan was ringed and named Casino in 1971. Over the years that she returned to Slimbridge she brought back 32 cygnets, who in turn brought back cygnets of their own. This winter three generations of this family have stayed at Slimbridge, bringing their own respective partners and families, making them one of the most dominant and successful dynasties in the flock.

The study has also revealed the occasional anomaly, such as in 2010 when a regular pair, Saruni and Sarindi, returned with different partners. It was only the second instance of a swan 'divorce' in the entire study of more than 4,000 pairs.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Arthur's pace

Arthur - "take time to sit and watch"
I spent an enjoyably “slow and gentle” sort of day yesterday with a good friend, wandering around some lovely Hampshire habitats in the delicious, warm spring sunshine. To an extent I was forced to slow down, as I was with Arthur Jolland, who at 88 years of age, can’t leap around quite as much as he used to able to!

Arthur is a countryman through and through. He was born in Sussex but has lived in or around the small Hampshire town of Alton since 1950, where as a professional wildlife photographer, he explored what seems to be every inch of the surrounding countryside.  Unfortunately, Arthur can’t drive any more and therefore relies on others to take him on trips out to “re-connect” with his local patch and his beloved wildlife.

Arthur is a good chatterer, especially if he has the ear of a fellow countryman or woman, and as you explore the wide array of natural history subjects, you soon become aware that this is someone who really knows the countryside, not just sections of it. During the car journey and over a picnic lunch sitting in a sun filled spot, we talked nine to the dozen. Topics ranged from butterflies (We saw Brimstone, Comma, Small tortoiseshell and Peacock) and dragonflies to Crossbills (which we also saw) and Bumble bees. 

As we moved effortlessly from topic to topic, Arthur would invariably drop a little gem of information in to the conversation. Adders come in many colours including the famous “black” adders (which of course he has filmed!), Cuckoos can be easily “called in” as he perfected their call when only a small boy and it never failed to bring them in close enough to photograph!

We passed a large pond not far from Alton and he told me that during a particularly severe drought he had walked into the middle of the pond and picked up some truly huge carp – “they survived for quite a while with their backs sticking out of the water, until the rains came again!” Then we passed a wood were Arthur exclaimed – “that is a good site for Earth Stars” (A fungi), there used to be hundreds. I wonder if they are still there.”  I'm fairly sure that was a sort of code and I will get a call when the right time of year arrives, “Peter, shall we go and check those Earth Stars out?”

As Arthur talked, I realised that we will lose all this incredible knowledge that he has stored away, collected during hours and hours of patient observation, when eventually he goes. I also became very aware of the ridiculous speed that we all hurtle around at nowadays, and thus so enjoyed ambling along at “Arthur’s pace”, a slow shuffle, which now and then also involves taking out a fold up chair to sit and watch.

I look forward to our next field trip out and the wonderful snippets (not available in any book) that will be so effortlessly dropped into the conversation, often about a world that many of us will not even notice as we speed by on so called urgent business.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

In praise of the "Spadger!"

Every nook and cranny seemed to be occupied by a Spadger's nest
When I was a nipper growing up in rural Worcestershire, I spent nearly all my waking hours outside, mostly mucking around with friends on local farms. One of my abiding memories of those carefree days was of  “Spadgers” – our name for the House Sparrow. They were everywhere!

As I slowly surfaced from my overnight slumbers, the first sound I would hear would be the “chirp, chirp” of a male Spadger sitting on the guttering above my open bedroom window, announcing to the other males, that this was his part of the house! They nested under the roof tiles, they nested in every available hole and once those had all been taken, they built messy domed straw nests in the creepers climbing up the side of the house.

There were constant Spadger bust ups throughout the day. An argument would kick off in a bush with two or three birds, which seemed completely irresistible to all other Spadgers in the locality, as they would hurtle headlong into the bush to join in the fracas, not dissimilar to a bunch of drunken football hooligans. Thirty seconds of flapping, squealing and squawking and all would be over as abruptly as it had started!

As darkness began to fall in the short winter days, all the Spadgers would collect in an enormous holly hedge that went down the side of a small orchard, choosing to roost amongst the protective spiky green leaves. Once they had all gathered together, the noise was almost deafening! I always thought to myself that they were chatting about the day’s events, boasting about scraps that had been won or lost, the result of which could perhaps kick off another brief skirmish.

Spadgers were totally part of my everyday life, always present wherever I went and I suppose that I completely took them for granted.

So it makes me sad to read that monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations. Strangely, whilst the decline in England continues, breeding bird survey data indicates that recent population increases have taken place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The declines in England have been so severe that the species has been made a “Red data species”. How on earth could this happen to my noisy, full-on little “Spadgers" and what exactly does this ominous designation mean? Well, here it is explained:

Red list criteria
1)      Globally threatened
2)      Historical population decline in UK during 1800–1995
3)      Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).
4)      Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period

It looks as though urban sparrows are possibly declining due to the lack of insects available within our towns and cities, which are vital for bringing up their young. On the other hand, rural sparrows are thought to be faring badly due to the lack of grain and weed seeds available over-winter.

Despite all this doom and gloom, I was thrilled to find out that the 20th of March has been declared “World Sparrow Day”!! As the most widely distributed wild bird in the world, it is obvious that others love the “Spadger” as much as I do!

Take a look at this wonderful link to see just how much is going on around the world on behalf of this LBJ (little brown job!) with attitude!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Dog attacks on sheep are on the increase.

Lambing is well under way
Dog attacks on sheep are a problem throughout the year, but when ewes are heavily pregnant or have young lambs with them, the devastation can be even more acute. I have recently seen the yearly figures for the number of dog attacks on livestock in the county of Sussex (East and West Sussex). The figures show that 139 cases have been recorded over the last year which is a rise of around 13% on the previous year’s figure of 122 attacks, and has been steadily rising over the last few years. 

We also know that there are a large number of unreported attacks which shows we have a significant problem. The county NFU adviser has been liaising with Sussex police for a long time over this issue and they are pleased to report that a joint campaign with the police is to be launched on the issue over the coming months. 

Both the police and NFU are keen to raise awareness amongst the public across the whole country and would like anyone who experiences a dog attack on livestock, to come forward to help with a media campaign. If you would be willing to speak on radio, or write in your local newspaper it would greatly help the cause and they will also provide some guidance for you. 

At this time of the year we can also start to add ground nesting birds into the scenario, so the message that really has to go out to all dogs walkers is "when you are walking in the countryside - KEEP YOUR DOG ON A LEAD"!  

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Feather, fur, fin and all.

Add caption
You may have read in the newspapers recently that for more than 100 years, butchers in the market town of Sudbury in Suffolk have proudly displayed the produce they sell in their shop windows.

But now one has been forced to stop hanging game such as pheasants, partridges and rabbits in the shop front after a vicious campaign.

Staff at JBS Family Butchers, which has sawdust on the floor and takes great pride in its link to local suppliers and the countryside way of life, spent hours every week perfecting their window displays featuring meat and game.

Un-plucked birds and the occasional pig or deer head were hung up in its shop front in a small precinct in the Suffolk town. But it has reluctantly had to remove the display after it became the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop. Others wrote to the local papers and posted remarks on Facebook calling for a boycott of the shop.

One local said "We are losing our grip on reality if we can’t abide being reminded where our sausages originate from". 

Then, almost the next day I read a well reasoned letter in the Scottish press from Katrina Candy, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust's press officer in Scotland. She just happened to be discussing the realities of food origins. I have copied a section of her letter here with was titled "Culture of Game".

"The stark reality of what we consume can be an emotive issue for some, not least the children and adults we interact with when delivering our successful Beyond the Farm Gate education programme. Integral to this project is a complete honesty about how and where game food is managed and consumed as a healthy, lean, natural food source.

Although the majority of children are wholly accepting and enjoy tasting the freshly cooked game produce we offer, we also face the inevitable remarks from teenagers who recoil at the thought of eating something which has (potentially) been shot – but who are remarkably accepting of the frozen nuggets and burgers on supermarket shelves of whose provenance and content they are blissfully unaware.

The education of the public as to what constitutes seasonal, healthy, sustainable food must continue – feather, fur, fin and all". 

How right she is. I think that all of us connected with the countryside, in whatever capacity, must make much more of an effort to explain to the public where our food comes from and how it is raised. Katrina mentioned "Beyond the farm gate" in her letter. You could start by taking a look at this website - although it originated in the states, it has a lot of good advice on using media techniques to get a message across:    

NB: Katrina has been in touch with me to add another nearer to home link! Go to: 

Monday, 3 March 2014

More bad seabird news due to the recent storms

Sea birds have not coped with the rough weather 
I have received this note from a birder on Jersey who is justifiably concerned over the number of dead birds that he is picking up on the island's coastline.

"We've picked up over 850 birds in Jersey so far. Mostly razorbills but lots of other species including 10 great northern divers, red-necked grebe, little auk, Mediterranean gull and skylark. Rings are from further north except for shags which are local. If you were planning to visit the Channel Islands to see sea birds this year, you might want to watch the news! Alderney’s gannets do look OK though, but we wait with dread to see how the numbers of puffins and shags will look this year on their breeding grounds".

I will try and keep you up-dated once the breeding season gets under way.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

For many, the floods seem to just go on and on.

Water is still pouring off the land
We know that the Somerset levels are still badly affected from the floods, but so are many other places across the country too. I took this photo today of the closed A32 south of Alton in Hampshire, and as you can see the water is still pouring off of the fields onto the road.

The flood water has also completely inundated this farm yard nearby, rendering it totally unusable for some time to come.

Although we are not hearing as much about the floods on the news anymore, for many it is going to be a long old haul back to any sort of normality.
Many farmyards are still completely flooded