Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Retracting what I said about Fox's claws!

"We don't have retractable claws - OK!
In my latest species of the month (see tab), I wrote a piece about foxes in which I stated that "Foxes are capable of retracting their claws like cats do", a fact that I have read on numerous occasions over the years, both in books and on the internet and so believed it to be true - big mistake!!

I was in the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust's (GWCT) HQ in Fordingbridge the other day, making myself a much needed coffee, when Dr. Jonathan Reynolds (A good friend and top research scientist who, amongst many other things, has worked on Fox biology for a long time) wandered into the kitchen. "Hi Pete - enjoyed your Fox piece, but just one thing - Foxes can't actually retract their claws!"
My working title for the Trust is "Biodiversity" adviser. The word "biodiversity" is used all the time nowadays and it is basically a term used to describe the “variety of life on earth” – so not much there to advise on then!!
However, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to work for the GWCT, because we have around 60 research scientists working on a wide range of projects across the country, covering most habitat types and also the species that inhabit them, including fish, insects, birds and flora. Much of this research also concentrates on looking at the different ways we choose to manage our countryside, investigating how this in turn affects wildlife, while never shirking from the more thorny issues such as pesticide use or the impacts that predation may or may not have.

As an adviser, I find it incredibly helpful to have such a superb resource backing me up, being able to phone up our GWCT specialists and quiz them in depth on various topics. The fact that we also have our own study farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, where we trial much of our work, fine tuning it before we launch into the public domain, is another  amazing resource which also keeps us all firmly “grounded” in the reality of what is possible.

Finally, being surrounded by all of these experts also keeps me on my toes; If I'm going to talk about fox’s feet – then I need to make sure that I get my facts right!!  

Monday, 26 May 2014

No need to worry about them, they are as common as muck!

The "common" Large white or  Cabbage white butterfly
Oh! You don’t need to worry about them – they are as common as muck! Take as many as you like they are everywhere!

We often take for granted things that are plentiful; after all, there have been lots around for as far back as anyone can remember and should there be any sort of problem with their numbers, we would notice straight away – wouldn't we?

The Passenger pigeon was probably the most numerous bird on the planet and was found in the vast forests to the east of the Rocky mountains in North America. Enormous flocks, often up to a mile wide, would literally darken the sky as they flew over, not just for minutes – but for hours! It is estimated that in the nineteenth century their numbers reached 5 billion and comprised some 40% of the total bird population of North America.

The last Passenger Pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st 1914. Their demise was largely due to the vast numbers that were “harvested” at the breeding colonies and shipped to markets all over the world.

As I travel around England with my work, I find that what is considered “common” differs enormously. The Tree Sparrow (similar to the more common – now I'm at it - House sparrow) for instance, is not considered particularly rare in the East Midlands, but has ceased to be a breeding species in my own county of Hampshire, where it was once widespread. The aforementioned House sparrow is doing OK in Milton Keynes, but not in Cockney London or indeed in many other parts of the country. So bad has been its decline that it is now listed as a red data species. The Brown Hare I was recently told, has reached “plague proportions” in parts of Norfolk, is “doing fine” in Hampshire but has been “lost completely” from large areas of Devon and Cornwall.

There is a wonderful old lady who lives in Wiltshire, who looks after a lovely little flower called Cow-wheat, which grows freely and quite naturally in her garden.  It was not until she saw a television programme on “endangered plants” that she realized just how rare it is – only occurring at 3 sites in England! “I just thought it was such a pretty weed” she told the botanist who visited her garden, who nearly fainted on seeing some 7000 Cow-wheat plants!

So what am I trying to say here? Well, just because something is numerous in your local area or even your garden, does not necessarily mean that this is the case elsewhere. Quite often farmers will say to me “this farmland bird decline is a bit over-played don’t you think. Take the Skylark for instance. I reckon that I have one singing in every field on the farm”. My reply is that yes, they are still a common bird, but perhaps you had TWO singing above every field on the farm 20 years ago.

It is probably human nature to pay more attention to the unusual – but have many of us taken much time to stop and study the everyday things that surround us?  Konrad Lorenz wrote in King Solomon’s Ring, “in this state of apparent idleness, one learns essential truths about the macrocosm and microcosm”. Lorenz was referring to gazing into an aquarium. He was awarded a Nobel prize for his insights into mechanisms of animal behaviour that were based on his careful observations of everyday, common animals.

So, here’s a thought for you to consider. How about taking a little time to observe something really common such a daisy in your lawn or Cabbage white butterfly. You will probably be astounded at its beauty, structure, colour or whatever – and I bet that if you look really closely for a while, you will notice something that you had up until now been completely unaware of. 

Perhaps this time spent in apparent idleness might even lead to you gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of a species, which in turn may not win you a Gong, but might just give this common as muck species, more “value”.

And you know what, that worth and appreciation might well help to stop it going the way of the Passenger pigeon.       


Saturday, 24 May 2014

A "Bottom-up" approach but with far less crap please!

The Hampshire Avon
Meetings, preparation, planning, developing strategies, production of all encompassing management plans and of course a regular plethora of briefing documents and reports – the world has gone completely mad. Before too long I honestly believe that absolutely nothing will ever get done on the ground and eventually we will all disappear up our proverbial backsides! 

Here is an example.

Yesterday I went to a meeting organised by the relatively newly formed Hampshire Avon Catchment Partnership. The aim of this group is to improve and create a sustainable water environment within the catchment, concentrating on the environmental aspects in particular, but also encompassing social and economic elements as well. Meanwhile, delivery of the European Water Framework Directive will be central to their efforts. So, not an insignificant “ask” to say the least!

The first thing that the newly appointed catchment officer decided to do, quite sensibly I would have thought, was to find out exactly what else was happening within the catchment. Now, here comes the really scary bit – he uncovered 57, yes that is FIFTY SEVEN different management plans and strategies for this one, not particularly large catchment area. 

What on earth has this all cost and how many woods have been felled to create the endless stream (excuse the pun) of agendas, documents and leaflets? Apparently there are 83 catchment areas in England in which Government would like to see a catchment partnership created. If it turns out that the Hampshire Avon is an average kind of place, then the 83 newly appointed officers could be dealing with 4731 different plans and strategies already in place, no doubt fiercely protected by those who set them up as “they were there first”. 

I wonder how many of those circa 4731 different groups, started off their existence by going to the (and including in their steering committees) farmers and land managers, who will, in most cases manage the vast majority of the catchment’s surface area? I also wonder if they discussed with them the issues and improvements that they, the farmers would like to see, alongside the groups own ambitions. I suspect not.

I was rung up recently by a very pleasant chap who told me that he worked for an action group, who spent well over a year putting together their strategy, and now wanted to implement it on the ground. But he then told me in rather a pained voice, that the farming community on which the success of the project would depend seemed totally disinterested. He had heard that I was involved in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA), where farmers were apparently doing all sorts of brilliant things – how did we get them so involved?

I asked him if he had included farmers from the start. No, he replied. There was not even one on the steering committee. That’s your answer I told him. If you go to the MDNIA website you will see that it was set up by farmers and is led by farmers – it is “owned” by them and they are proud of it. It is a “Bottom-up” project not a “top-down” dictating one.

Personally, I am only interested in results on the ground. Of course there is a need for some meetings, but with strict agendas which result in actions that make a difference. Invited to those meetings should be the local, knowledgeable and trusted advisers and it does not particularly matter in my opinion, for whom they work. If they are good, they are good. Not sure who they are – a sensible start is to ask the land managers as they will have sorted out the wheat from the chaff, don't you worry.

At yesterday’s meeting there were a number of farmers present and what is more, they were actually asked what they thought was needed in the catchment to improve the situation. There were also a useful scattering of advisers who obviously had the respect of these farmers and so key issues started to emerge, with some possible solutions too. 

That is a refreshingly good start and I wish this project success - anything has to be better than 57 various groups bombarding beleaguered land managers with a multitude of different demands.     


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

RSPB should be congratulated

The Carrion crow is sometimes controlled on RSPB reserves
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director has published on his blog the number of “vertebrates killed on RSPB reserves by us and our contractors during 2012/13”.

He goes on to say “As I have written previously, vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met”:
  • That the seriousness of the problem has been established;
  • That non-lethal measures have been assessed and found not to be practicable;
  • That killing is an effective way of addressing the problem;
  • That killing will not have an adverse impact on the conservation status of the target or other non-target species.
There are four main situations where the above criteria are met. These are to:
  • Increase breeding productivity of ground-nesting birds (mainly waders), principally by controlling foxes;
  • Reduce numbers of deer where they are having a detrimental impact on the vegetation, especially by overgrazing the ground flora in woodlands and preventing tree regeneration.  Often deer management is undertaken to prevent damage or aid recovery of nationally important wildlife sites;
  • Protect nesting seabirds;
  • Benefit water voles by killing non-native mink.
Martin has also recently addressed the National Gamekeepers Organisation AGM, stating afterwards that “the debate was actually healthy and friendly. It is only through talking that we get to understand each other a bit better and that is a prerequisite to any collaboration”.

Before the AGM Lindsay Waddell, the Chairman of the National Gamekeepers' Organisation, said: "It is a great pleasure to have Mr Harper as our guest at the AGM. I'd like to extend to him a warm welcome. I am greatly looking forward to hearing his address on the RSPB's position regarding shooting and conservation and its stance on the environmental work done by gamekeepers across England and Wales."

Lindsay added: "Make no mistake, Mr Harper's landmark speech will break new ground for us. It will be the first time the RSPB has engaged directly with the NGO's membership at a national level. I hope for a constructive discussion on how game management and the RSPB can work more harmoniously for the good of our countryside and its wildlife."

As I have often said on this blog, I am a great believer in “Jaw, jaw rather than war, war” when dealing with a range of difficult subjects that arise when managing a complex countryside, and that a sensible debate, with all sides being prepared to listen and discuss these issues, has to be the way forward.

So I congratulate Martin. I'm quite sure that behind the scenes he will have taken some stick for talking at the NGO’s AGM and for openly admitting that predator control takes place on RSPB reserves, by publishing numbers of Crows, Foxes and Deer that have been culled. He has been refreshingly brave in clearly stating the RSPB’s position.

If we are to continue to be allowed to have legally targeted predator control and to stamp out the illegal persecution of, in particular Raptors, we must all work together.  By “ducking” issues that scientific studies highlight, just because they are considered a little unsavoury and may prove to be unpopular with the population as a whole, is not the answer. 

We must all be brave too.

To read in full what Martin has said,

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Can we really no longer share our homes with the birds?

House martins - such delightful birds
A local birder that I know, checks out the numbers of House Martins nesting in the small Hampshire town of Ringwood each year, concentrating on the area around the market square and high street, and last year he reckoned there were around 200 nests tucked away under various eaves. This year however he was dismayed to find that most of the nests below a certain height (Ladder height) had gone, leaving behind only the very highest nests and as a result the numbers of House martins flying around seemed to have dropped substantially.

Obviously nesting birds directly situated above a shop entrance is not ideal as quite a lot of guano collects in a mound below the nest, but to go around knocking the whole lot down seems a real shame.

On the other side of the coin, I have a friend who lives in Suffolk who always runs the hose on some soil during hot weather so that "his" House martins have an ideal source of damp mud for building nests under the eaves of his house!
I remember a few years ago giving a vicar – who will remain nameless – a short sharp lecture on why it was so wonderful to have Swallows nesting in the porch of the church and that netting the roof space to stop them doing so was hardly in the spirit of his religion, I reckoned!

Has our environment really become so sterilised that we can’t live with a little bird poo, in order to have skies filled with darting Swallows and Martins?

I have taken this advice is taken from the RSPB’s website:

With house martins amber listed due to their population decline, it is inappropriate to prevent them nesting. While most people welcome house martins, the birds can occasionally be a problem, for instance if a nest is above a door. These conflict areas can be isolated by closing in the triangle under the eaves where the nests are built with a piece of wood, fine mesh chicken wire or parallel wires stretching from the outer edge of the soffit board to c.15cm down the wall. 

Do not deny martins access to parts of the roof where their presence does not create a problem. Never put these deterrents in position to prevent access to an active nest and only remove existing nests, if essential, during the winter months when the martins are not in residence.
Knocking down an active nest or preventing birds access to their eggs or young is illegal and attracts potentially high penalties.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Make silage while the sun shines!

Silage making in fine weather
This spell of fine weather across much of the country is enabling farmers to make silage in very good conditions. The process of ensilage consists of preserving green forage crops (in this case grass) under acidic conditions, effectively pickling the crop, ensuring that it remains in a succulent and appetising state.
Silage is fed to cattle and sheep during winter months and is usually preferred by livestock to hay as it is more palatable and of higher food value. Good silage is light brown in colour, has a sharp taste and only a little smell if the lactic acid content is correct. It is a very stable food source and can be kept for years if required, provided that oxygen is restricted from the material.
As many crops are growing in height now, a field that has been cut for silage offers a “new” short hunting area for some species. Mistle thrushes in particular, quickly switch to these harvested fields to hunt for worms, along with Rooks of course. As the grass starts to re-grow Brown Hare will graze the fresh new growth.
Unfortunately, Skylarks are also attracted by the short grass and often choose to nest in these fields. If the gap is 7 weeks or more before the next cut of grass, then they should successfully fledge their brood, however if growing conditions are good for grass, the gap between cuts is often less than this, with disastrous consequences.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Darwin's dilemma

What would Darwin do? 
Introduced parasites are a threat to biodiversity when hosts lack effective defences against such parasites. Several parasites have recently colonized the Galapagos Islands, threatening native bird populations, such as the parasitic nest fly Philornis downsi which has been implicated in the decline of endangered species of Darwin’s finches, in particular the mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates).

The native range of this parasite is known to be the Island of Trinidad and also Brazil, but it appears to have been introduced to the Galapagos Islands (probably firstly to Santa Cruz) with imported fruit, as the adults feed on fruit. However, the fly lays its eggs in the nests of Darwin’s finches and other land birds in the Galapagos.

Once the eggs hatch, the fly larvae feed on the blood of nestlings and were first discovered in finch nests on the island of Santa Cruz in 1997, although retrospective examination of insect collections show that the fly was actually present in the Galapagos Islands as early as 1964. Since then the parasite has spread to 12 of the 13 main Galapagos Islands and its larvae have been found in some years, in all of Darwin’s finch nests. The blood sucking larvae can cause chick mortality of up to 100% in some nests in some years. Because of this high impact, it has been given the highest risk ranking amongst introduced insects/parasites.

However scientists have been busy thinking of ways to control the pest, before Darwin’s finches run out of time and evolve no longer, becoming extinct – and all down to us, humans.

Darwin’s finches can be encouraged to ‘self-fumigate’ nests with cotton fibres that have been treated with a permethrin-based insecticide, which the birds collect to line their nests with. Nests with permethrin-treated cotton had significantly fewer parasites than control nests, and nests containing at least one gram of cotton were virtually parasite-free. Nests directly fumigated with permethrin had fewer parasites and fledged more offspring than nests treated with water.

Overall, 50 out of 60 nestlings (83%) fledged from experimental nests, compared to just 29 of 54 nestlings (54%) from control nests. The study shows that Darwin’s finches can control this parasite with the help of permethrin-treated cotton, and that fumigation increases fledging success. There are currently no other effective methods for controlling this parasite.

Self-fumigation may thus be a viable approach for combating this parasite in the nests of Darwin’s finches, in particular the Mangrove finch which is the most critically endangered species of Darwin’s finch, with a population of less than 100 individuals restricted to a home range of less than 1 km square, on Isabela Island. Around 60 cotton dispensers could treat this entire population and self-fumigation may be a particularly efficient approach because mangrove finches often build their nests high in mangrove trees, where they are relatively inaccessible.

Once again we are faced with a dilemma. I wonder what Darwin himself would make of this intervention, even though I'm sure he would have been delighted at the cleverness of the idea.  Would he observe and make notes of the eventual demise of “his” finches that so helped him to prove the process of evolution and make his name, or would he step in, regarding this as a totally “unnatural” human induced problem and therefore not “real” evolution at all.

I would be most interested in your thoughts having read this piece?  

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Completely avoiding bees while spraying and creating a right stink - two new exciting ideas

A smelly greenhouse helps tomatoes grow!

Avoiding bees completely when spraying Oil seed rape
would be a great improvement 

Companies are constantly looking at ways of improving the way that they apply pesticides so that they hit the target problem with minimum impact on non target organisms. So I was pleased to read of a new spraying technique in oilseed rape which could reduce the amount of pesticides that bees are exposed to and also see added benefits of better pest and disease control.

Trials carried out at the University of Hohenheim in Germany have shown that by using a dropleg device, which extends the spray nozzle down below the flower canopy, farmers are able to significantly reduce the amount of pesticides found in beehives.Rather than covering the flowers that provide food for bees, the spray is distributed lower down the plant, with a 98% reduction in spray drift.

About 90% of Oilseed rape crops are sprayed in Germany, which has led to high number of different pesticides being found in the stored pollen in beehives and some honey being rejected for human consumption. During the initial research an analysis of more than 100 beehives showed at least 10 actives were detected in each beehive, albeit at very low levels, any pesticide is of course unwanted
Dr Döring, the lead scientist said “Cabbage seed weevils are one of the main pest threats in Germany, but the shyness of these insects may benefit growers should they try this type of spray system. If the weevils feel something is moving within the crop, they quickly drop off the plant as a defence mechanism, falling down to the soil and so come into contact with the pesticide.“There is still a long way to go until this technology will be established on farms, but with current pressures it may be needed sooner rather than later if it proves successful,” he adds.

Another completely different project being worked on by scientists at Newcastle university, is bombarding pests with smells from many different plants, temporarily confusing them and hindering their ability to feed.

Biologists at Newcastle University have been exploring the potential of harmless plant odours as an alternative to pesticides in greenhouses.The team pumped a mixture of plant smells into a greenhouse growing tomato plants, exposing the whitefly pest to a heady aroma of cucumber, courgette, watercress, watermelon, cabbage and bean which resulted in the insects became temporarily disorientated, so that the whiteflies failed to feed at all while they were being bombarded with the different smells.

 “It’s like trying to concentrate on work while the TV’s on and the radio’s blaring out and someone’s talking to you. You can’t do it – or at least not properly or efficiently – and it’s the same for the whitefly explained Dr Colin Tosh, (What a great name!) Whitefly use their sense of smell to locate tomato plants, so by bombarding their senses with a range of different smells we create ‘sensory confusion’ and the result is that the insect becomes disorientated and are unable to feed."

Two rather clever ideas I think you will agree!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Extremadura, Spain

The Extremadura region of Spain is twice the size of Wales and abuts the Portuguese border. (Fly to Madrid and then about 200 miles in a south westerly direction on excellent roads, with little traffic) It was my first visit to this stunning area, attracted there because of the amazing array of different habitats that the region offers - all within about an hours drive of each other. The wildlife at this time of year is nothing short of spectacular, with flower filled fields stretching as far as the eye can see and birds and butterflies everywhere! 
I can't wait to go back!
I have put a few pictures up for you to get a flavour of the area.

Mountains - some still with snow on the peaks

Fresh, bubbling streams

Flower filled plains that go on and on
Cork and olive trees 

Sensational wild flower fields

More wild flowers - always with a constant hum of insect life
And now for a few birds........

Collared Pratincoles


Bee-eater at nest hole

Bee-eaters were everywhere!

Spanish Imperial Eagle - a stunning bird

Griffon Vultures are helped with supplementary feeding and are doing well

Rock Bunting

Black Vulture