Friday, 25 April 2014

Skylark, Bullfinch and Spadgers!

Male Bullfinch - what a stunner!
I seem to have been on a run of early morning wake-ups over the last few days, but it has given me the opportunity to hear the start of the local dawn chorus. 

Rather surprisingly, well to me anyway, was that at exactly 4.45 am each morning, the first bird to kick off the show was a Skylark. With darkness still fully in command and only a hint of light in the sky, this little bird has ascended into the heavens to announce the start of a new day and proclaim that this little part England is his patch! 

As I lay in bed I was regaled by this wonderful song for a full 10 minutes,completely uninterrupted by any other sound, before eventually a Blackbird, Dunnock, Pheasant and Robin all joined in, seemingly as the organised chorus behind the soloist. Then it was the turn of the Song thrush, who never seems to start first, but continues his song relentlessly for three hours or so into the morning! He was then followed by Wren, Blackcap, Chaffinch, Mistle thrush, Wood pigeon and Greenfinch, with minor parts played by Great and Blue tits!

On another topic, I am lucky enough to have Bullfinches in my garden throughout the year. The male Bullfinch must surely have amongst the finest plumage of any British bird and they have always been one of my favourite species. I regularly talk to people who have Bullfinch visiting their feed hoppers to take various seeds, especially it seems black sunflower seed and sunflower “hearts”. I have to say "I'm jealous"!

Can I get my Bullfinches to even look at one of my hoppers? I have tried flat trays with mixed seed, seed on the ground, different perches attached to numerous hopper types and even though I have seen Bullfinch sitting within feet of these various feeders, never have I seen any of them eat as much as one seed!

That is until last weekend, when my wife casually announced that there was a lovely Bullfinch on the seed hopper.  I wandered over to the window to look at what would surely be a highly coloured male Chaffinch, only to find out that she was damn well right – it was a Bullfinch, and what is more it was a beautiful male in full spring plumage! Since then, both the male and female are regularly visiting the various hoppers dotted around my garden to feed on mixed seed.

So why now, after about 14 years of trying to persuade them, what has changed? Well, the thinking is that maybe it is a “learning” thing and that somewhere along the line an individual Bullfinch has to be shown what to do by another Bullfinch. This seemed to be the case when Blue Tits used to open the tops of milk bottles to take the cream off the top, it appeared that parent birds would take their young to the doorstep and “teach” them what to do to get the reward. 

Over the years, Goldfinch, Siskin and Redpoll all seem to have started using feed hoppers in gardens and certainly the Goldfinch is now a common sight at bird tables. Presumably they too went through this learning process. I fully expect that Bullfinch will soon be a fairly frequent visitor at feeders too, as this new “skill” is passed from bird to bird.

Talking of waking up early, I have to be up at the “Crack of Sparrows” tomorrow – an odd phrase, especially as House Sparrows always seem to be the very last bird to emerge from their slumbers! The reason for my early start is that I am off to the Extremadura region of central Spain, to immerse myself for a whole week amongst its magnificent natural history. I will report back on what I come across in a week or so's time!    

Monday, 21 April 2014

Is it not surely, a question of balance?

Does Britain have a "balanced" ecosystem?
Back on the 3rd of April I blogged about the “Fox and the Leveret” and since then I have had some interesting comments (see comments at the bottom of that blog). Firstly, thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts and secondly, how refreshing that we can have a “grown up”, thoughtful debate on this subject, which so often seems to not be the case on many other forums.

One of the comments particularly caught my eye. “Predation is obviously a normal and essential part of a 'balanced' ecosystem. Healthy predator numbers are general indicative of a healthy and productive ecosystem. The predator-prey relationship, and the fluctuating populations of each, is a basic ecological principal”.

How true. This is after all, what we are all taught at some point in our education.

I would however like to add, that although this probably still holds true in the Serengeti or maybe in some remote parts of South America – does it really still apply in Britain? Does Britain have a “balanced” ecosystem?

I want to suggest that you walk out of your house, wherever you live, and look at the landscape that surrounds your chosen abode. Lots of you will see houses or high rise tower blocks, factories or offices, many of which may have manicured gardens with striped lawns and a road, busy with cars rushing past.

If you live in the uplands, you will probably see sheep grazing the short turf or perhaps conifer trees planted in rows and in the South West you are quite likely to see black and white dairy cows grazing highly fertilised green rye grass, or standing in a line in the barn chewing slowly on silage.

A number of you may look out over arable farmland, with fields of bright yellow oilseed rape at the moment or straight lines of weed free winter cereals stretching as far as the eye can see.  You might well take a walk out across your local landscape, following the footpath, occasionally stopping to chat to neighbours out walking their dogs.

Eventually you reach the isolated wood down in the valley, where you see the large resident Fallow deer herd and also startle a small Muntjac deer. A cock pheasant sits on the gate at the entrance to the wood, looking handsome in the sunlight, while a Grey squirrel scampers up the Sycamore tree to its hidden drey.

The river is busy with small boats chugging up and down and fishermen are dotted along the bank, concentrating on the various bits of equipment that surround them. You stop to talk to one of them and he tells you that he is fishing for Zander, as there are some really big ones along this stretch. He also asks if you have seen any water voles lately, as there used to be lots along this river, but he reckoned that the Mink has had them all.

As you return home, you realise that the wind has now dropped and the sun is getting low in the sky. Across on the other side of the valley a farmer is out spraying, making the most of the stillness to avoid drift. Suddenly, a glint of sunlight, reflected off of the new solar panel farm, catches your eye making you turn your head away.

On reaching home, Tibbles the tabby cat brings you the kind offering of a small bird and you put it in the bin, remembering to re-place the breeze block back on top to stop the Foxes emptying all the rubbish out.

So, does Britain really have a balanced ecosystem?  I think not. Almost every square inch of this country is influenced by humans in some way.

Some species have thrived under this human management; however others have not, with some having already been lost forever. There are a myriad of reasons behind why some species flourish and others find survival more problematic in this rapidly changing world.

As a conservation adviser, I have to tailor my advice to be realistic otherwise few would listen to me. I know that farmland birds thrived before pesticides were introduced back in the 1950s, but with a burgeoning human population to feed, am I really going to tell farmers to stop using sprays. No, but I do have plenty to say about how to minimise the impact of pesticides on biodiversity.

Likewise, when virtually everything has been tried to help a species to recover, (good round the year habitat in place and plentiful winter and summer food supply etc) it sometimes becomes apparent that it is predation by other thriving species that may be holding numbers down. This for instance seems to be the problem with certain ground nesting birds. Take the Lapwing as an example. 

Despite large amounts of Stewardship money being spent along the Hampshire Avon water meadows on improving the habitat, Lapwing are not doing at all well. Fledging of at least 0.70 young per pair, on average, is required for maintenance of a stable breeding lapwing population, but in the Avon Valley this level of productivity has been achieved just once in the last seven years. It appears that predation from Foxes and Corvids, species that are doing extremely well in our humanised landscape, are the culprits.

So, do we intervene, targeting seasonal control of these predators on a small area around the breeding Lapwings, as electric fencing off water meadows, even if it were possible (which it is not), still allows Corvids in, or do we just stand by and watch the Lapwing become extinct here as a breeding species, as the Snipe and Redshank have virtually become.

The choice is ours. It is a question of balance.





Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"Our green and pleasant land - yeah right!"

Burnt out cars - not an uncommon sight
I live down a single track lane, nearly a mile from my nearest neighbour - and yet most mornings there is some sort of rubbish to pick up, ranging from a simple crisp packet to the full blown contents of a tipper truck. 

So I for one am pleased to see that the NFU has just launched the latest strand to the "Love your Countryside" campaign, highlighting the issues of fly-tipping on farms.

In England alone during 2012/13 there were 711,000 incidents of fly-tipping with a case occurring every 44 seconds. It’s estimated around two thirds of farmers are affected by fly-tipping. 

Items that are routinely dumped include old fridges, chairs, mattresses, tyres and contaminated waste, with farmers and landowners then left to pay the clean-up bill. 

A previous study revealed the cost of clearing fly-tipped waste from agricultural land was around £47m. 

Find out more on:
Almost every gateway seems to have some sort of rubbish dumped there

Friday, 11 April 2014

My Swallow is back home!!

"My" Swallow is back!
I know that the first Swallow you see each year does not make a summer, but hey, it doesn't half make a good start! 

“My” Swallow turned up sometime today – he was not around at all this morning, but  was flying in and out of my shed this afternoon when I got home and then twittering his happy, bubbling song from my TV aerial!

I am saying that it is a “him” as usually the males arrive a little before the females to check out the nesting area in preparation for the “missus” to swan in a little later on – how chivalrous! Males also have slightly longer tail streamers, which can be quite noticeable if they sit together on a wire.

I must now go out to the shed and place a little bit of wire netting around the light, as last year they decided that this was the best place to nest, despite putting up numerous man-made nests (which they have used in previous years) and also strips of wood placed in strategic places, ideal for supporting nests!

I try to get them to nest in a place where the “guano” that mounts up below does not matter. That failed miserably last year, as everything that came out of the shed was greeted with “bloody Swallows!”

This year the weather is much more conducive to getting straight on with nest building and egg laying than it was last year, when the cold, bleak weather meant that there was little insect activity and it was well over a month before any sign of nesting started.

So, here’s wishing you all a long hot summer – Swallows included!  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Fill bellies, not bins

Fresh produce simply thrown away
Those of you who read this blog will know that I feel strongly about the amount of food that goes to waste in the world. So why does this get me in a lather?  Well, all the world's nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe – that’s why.

So I have huge admiration for Tristram Stuart, who is the founder of “Feeding the 5,000”. I hope he does not mind that I have not only nicked his title for this particular blog, but I have also copied out part of an article he has written, as I think that everyone should be aware of what is happening out there! Here it is:

“Farmers visited by the Feeding the 5000 team in Kenya are wasting 40% of the food they grow thanks to the unfair and unnecessary trading practices of European supermarkets whom they supply. One exporter outside Nairobi visited by the team, while working in partnership with UNEP, wastes at least 20 tonnes of edible produce every day. Worst of all, waste handlers collecting the unwanted produce are made to sign a contract guaranteeing that none of the “green waste” will be used to feed people, even though most of it is perfectly fit for consumption – and meanwhile millions go hungry on the other side of the depot’s perimeter.
Typically the produce is wasted either because the European retailer has cancelled a forecast demand at the last minute, or because it has failed the ultra-fussy cosmetic standards of the retailers. Farmers incur the cost of this waste even though it has been caused by the policies of European supermarkets.

A recently passed law in the UK, the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, ensures that UK supermarkets abusing their power in this way can be subject to public naming and shaming and ultimately fines of up to 1% of turnover (the equivalent of up to half a billion pounds). Measures to introduce similar regulation across Europe are under way and Feeding the 5000 will indicate that this would help to reduce waste by encouraging supermarkets to make more accurate forecasts, and avoid unfair trading practices.

Within Europe, much needs to be done to optimise the conditions for donating unsold food for charitable purposes. The parliament of the Brussels region recently voted to force supermarkets to donate unsold food rather than destroy it: should other countries follow suit? Or should we follow France and the US in offering companies a tax rebate on the value of donated food? At the very least, all countries that still impose VAT on food that is donated, presenting a clear barrier to food redistribution, should surely follow Poland and Belgium’s example and scrap VAT on food donations”.

I hope that many of you will find this as unacceptable as I do. If you want to find out more of what Tristram’s “Feeding the 5000” project is up to – then go to:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Fox and the Leveret

The Fox - a top predator

A Leveret - very vulnerable to Fox predation
I have just finished giving a number of talks around the country on various topics, including the Brown Hare, a much loved species that seems to hold a special place in people’s hearts and always seems to draw a good sized audience.

The talk on Hares is quite wide ranging and covers history, mythology, ecology and reasons for population declines where they have occurred and how we can go about restoring these low or lost populations.

As well as managing habitats on farmland to make sure that Hares have a good round the year food supply and cover for leverets to hide in, I also talk about the predation on Hares by, in particular, Foxes. Research by the GWCT has shown on numerous occasions that Fox predation plays a key part in holding back population growth, even where suitable habitat has been put in place.  To support this I put up a graph which clearly shows the importance of reducing Fox numbers if you want Hare numbers to thrive.

It is interesting how people from all walks of life recognise the impact that one species may have on another and will often raise questions about the need for “predator control” and welcome the chance to have a discussion on the topic.

However, the other night almost the first “question” was “I’m an ecologist and I have come along this evening to learn more about the Brown Hare, not the “demonisation” of the Fox”.  It was quite interesting that the audience immediately leapt to my defence (not that I needed them to but it was kind of them anyway!)  I tried to start to answer his question rationally, because I certainly don’t expect everyone to understand the necessity to control one species to help preserve another; however he did not appear to be interested in my response, saying that all the figures I had displayed were GWCT figures and therefore they would show that wouldn’t they!   (I pointed out that all the data had been peer reviewed by yes, “Ecologists” – but he just smirked.

Eventually, the Chairman asked him to continue his rant with me after the question session was over as other people also had things they wanted to ask about. As soon as the evening wound up, he came straight up to me to continue his outburst, literally shaking with anger and red in the face. He was completely past any sort of rational debate, so I gave him my card and suggested that he come to our headquarters in Fordingbridge to talk to the scientists who carried out the research. I haven’t heard a thing from him.

So, why am I telling you this! Well, it really is all about a question of balance I think. The countryside is a complicated place, with numerous different things impacting on wildlife and the habitats that they live in. There is also a plethora of opinions out there as to how we should go about managing this countryside of ours and I spend much of my time working with people from other organisations, finding common ground so that a clear message can go out to the land managers, who also of course have varied opinions on what is Ok and what is not!

GWCT research clearly shows that sometimes, but certainly not always, part of the problem behind the decline of a certain species, or the reason why it is not responding to good habitat management, is predation. The Brown Hare and Grey Partridge are two such species. This is however, not always the case. Take the RSPB’s excellent Cirl Bunting project in the West Country, which is a resounding success without even a passing mention of bashing a Magpie or Carrion Crow on the head.

 This is why we need good, practical research science carried out by good practical ecologists BEFORE we know how to properly manage habitats and the species that rely on them.

The whole episode has left me wondering; Do you think that there are ecologists out there, who on finding something that helped the species they were studying, but that they disapproved of, would just sweep it under the carpet?   

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A plant to be taken with a pinch of salt!

Danish Scurvy grass - a clever little plant! 
I was sitting in my car on the M3 yesterday, going absolutely no where as you often do on our motorways, which gave me time to study the central reservation. This is one of the major benefits of being interested in Natural History, as it really does not matter where you are, in a stuffy office in London (as long as it has windows, which some don’t!) on a train or stuck in a queue, you can always resort to a bit of wildlife spotting!!

My attention turned to a small, low growing plant with four delicate white flowers, some of which had a slightly pinkish or mauve hue.  It was Danish Scurvy grass, a species that was traditionally considered a coastal plant, growing on shingle beaches, so what on earth is it doing growing on the central reservation of the M3 in Hampshire?

Well, if you stop to think about it, if you take the gravel based area under the crash barriers and add plenty of salt, washed from the roads during wintry periods, you land up with a long thin line of “coastal shingle!”
In recent times it has begun to colonise the verges of our roads and motorways thanks to extensive gritting in winter and has now moved into most areas during the past half-century, giving it the title of the plant that has seen the most dramatic change in distribution of any wild plant in Britain.

Most plants of course hate salt as it gives them “salt burn” which kills them or at least severely stunts their growth, however, if you like living in salty conditions, then this scenario creates plenty of vegetation free zones to colonize!
But how has it got from the coast to grow alongside just about every main road in Britain? Well, it probably only took the odd small seed, perhaps stuck to a holidaymaker’s car wheel, to become established in its new noisy habitat by the tarmac and flourish, producing thousands of tiny seeds, which are then easily blown along the road in the slipstream of any passing vehicle!

Despite being called “Danish” Scurvy grass it is actually native to our shores, but what about the Scurvy part of the name?  Well, scurvy is an affliction caused by a lack of Vitamin C and sailors were particularly prone due to spending long periods at sea with no fresh fruit or vegetables to hand. Step up Scurvy grass, as the leaves are particularly rich in Vitamin C so it was often taken on long journeys as a tonic drink and also eaten between journeys - hence the name.

So, next time you are travelling along a main road, take a look at the road side and see if you can spot this remarkably nimble little plant, which on certain occasions if probably travelling to its destination more quickly than you are!!