Monday, 30 June 2014

Advice: So crucial to establishing top notch habitats.

Sue Everett - outstanding in her field!

Take good advice and outstanding flower habitats can be created.
I attended an event last week that was delivered by Sue Everett of Flora Locale on behalf of the Winning Ways for Wildlife project and the North Wessex Downs AONB.

If you are interested in planting wild flowers and want to know how to do it properly, then you really should visit the Flora locale website  which has a wealth of information on establishing wild flowers.

The morning once again reminded me of the importance of good advice and Sue has plenty of down to earth practical advice to pass on to those who are interested in “getting it right”. 

Believe you me, if you are prepared to put some effort in, then the creation of wild flower areas is perfectly possible, but if you think it is just a case of scattering a bit of seed around and you will have years of colourful flowers to look forward to – then dream on!!!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Brown Hares are thriving - but not everywhere.

Hares enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun

I stood on the Cornish Devon border a few years ago with a group of 17 farmers (what do you call a group of farmers? Your thoughts please!) and I asked them if they had seen any Brown Hares on their farms lately. Only one chap put his hand up to say that he had seen one about a year ago.

In parts of the western side of the country, the Hare is not doing that well, probably due to farms becoming less “mixed” (arable and grass) and generally more dominated by grass, in particular silage grass rather than hay, which is not ideal for leverets. These all grass farms tend to be difficult for those lucky leverets that survive the silage operations to hide away, as the grass is so short and that makes them incredibly vulnerable to Fox and Buzzard predation. Leaving areas of uncut rough grass dotted around the farm can certainly help. 

Across much of the rest of the country though, Hares are thriving and seem to be doing particularly well this year. Early morning is a great time to see Hares and the photo that I have just taken shows eleven individuals enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun! There were actually 15 present – but I did not have a wide angled lens with me to get them all in!

Leverets can be wonderfully naive, as this little one demonstrated by ambling along and stopping just a couple of metres or so away, taking its time to check me out, before continuing on its way. Good job I wasn't a fox disguised as a grey haired old man!! 

A Leveret checking me out!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Wine, Orchids and an ancient barn

The group!
A great part of my job is the wonderful places that I get to see! One day I will be on a small mixed farm in Devon and a couple of days later I will be on a 5000 acre estate in Lincolnshire. Last week, I helped to run a Conservation Grade training day for growers which took place on Rebecca Jordan’s farm in Great Bardfield in Essex. What a delightful spot and with so much going on!!

The morning was spent in the beautiful old farmhouse, learning more about being “Fair to Nature”, followed by a delicious lunch that Rebecca had kindly prepared and a glass of the farm’s excellent white wine from the award winning vineyard, situated not a 100 metres from where we were drinking!!

Then a tour of the farm to see all that is been achieved, from wild flower areas to Barn Owl boxes, to tree planting and wild bird seed mixes. We also saw Rebecca’s prized Bee Orchids!

Perhaps the Crème de la crème for me anyway was the most amazing barn, built in the 1540’s and currently being renovated – what a structure!! As you can see from the picture, we were all dwarfed by the sheer scale of this incredibly ancient building.

A wonderful day; only ever so slightly ruined by a tediously slow journey around the M25, on my way back to Hampshire. When I talked to the Duke of Westminster at the Silver Lapwing awards, I told him that the only real minus to my job was the amount of hours spent behind the wheel and that a small helicopter would sort this problem out. Unfortunately he did not “rise to the fly”, so I will have to continue with the Skoda Yeti!!   

Wonderful barn built in the 1540s

Bee Orchids grow on the farm

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Heroin is surely an Afghan crop? Maybe, but central southern England grows it superbly well too!

Opium poppies - a wonderful sight in the English countryside!
I came across this field of poppies on Tuesday - not our usual red ones - but a mass of the lilac opium poppy. 

Identical to the plant used to produce heroin, opium poppies are becoming an increasingly visible crop in the British countryside. The flowers are harvested in the late summer and the heads are dried and the seeds – up to 10,000 in a single flower – removed from the capsules for use in the food industry. Yes, your cup cake, topped with poppy seeds – could well have been grown in England!!

But it is in the seed pods that the important chemicals are found, and the pods are chopped, dried and turned into pellets in order to be transported. The pellets are then sent to a processing plant, where the opium is extracted from the seed head pod or husk and turned into morphine – or heroin.

The seed pod of the opium poppy contains a gummy substance. Opium is produced from this, and both codeine and morphine are derived from opium, to be used mainly for pain relief within hospitals. The medicinal properties of opium have been known from ancient times, and it was used as a narcotic in European cultures as early as 4,000 BC.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A few stunning species encountered this week

This is such a wonderful time of year and yet I do get frustrated sometimes, as June is always such a ridiculously busy time for me! This week I have visited the counties of Herefordshire, Somerset, and Oxfordshire, whilst also attending the “Cereals” show near Royston in Hertfordshire.

This all means that I spend for too many hours behind the steering wheel, however, when I arrive in these different parts of the country, the distinct local character of each county is amazing and the range of people, habitats and wildlife that I come across, reminds me just how lucky I am! 

Last weekend, in amongst all this charging around the countryside, I snuck a couple of days away from work to indulge myself in June, joined by my good friend and all round naturalist Neil Harris, who came down to Hampshire from his home in Worcestershire to stay with me. Each year we spend a weekend “pootling” around, visiting great places in search of species that, shall we say, “are not your everyday stuff” and attempt to photograph them. The word “attempt” applies to me, but certainly not to Neil, as he used to be a professional photographer before joining Natural England as a farmland adviser.

Amongst the huge array of species that we saw, we were lucky enough to find the rare day flying Dew moth on the Hampshire coast, whose larvae feed on Lichen that grows amongst the shingle – now that’s a niche requirement if ever there was one! In the same place we also encountered the striking Cream-spot Tiger moth – don’t ever let it be said that moths are rather non-descript and boring! Nearby we watched elegant Little Terns hovering liked Kestrels, before diving into the water with an audible plop, to collect some unwary small fish or sand eel.

I took Neil to see Forester moths as he had never before come across these green, day flying moths with their large black antennae. It is always a bit of a risk to tell someone that you will show them a new species, as all wildlife retain the wonderful ability to go “missing” for no apparent reason, but on this occasion these delightful little moths obliged us with their presence!!

My visit to a farm in Somerset delivered yet another day flying moth, the superbly named Chimney sweeper moth, which as you might imagine is sooty black save for the outer edges of the wing, which are white. Also here, there is a small colony of the beautiful, yet declining Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (SPBF).

The upper wings of this butterfly are a rich pattern of orangey yellow and black, but it is the underside that you need to take a look at to differentiate this butterfly from its close relative the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, as the patterns here determine which species you are observing. The SPBF has seven silver “pearls” round the hind-wing border, six or seven more within the wing, while the rest of the underneath is a contrasting mosaic of pale yellow and red-brown outlined with black. What a cracking butterfly!!

These are just a small sample of some of the more unusual species that I have seen in the last week. So don’t miss out – there will be wonderful creatures showing near you – get out there and see what you can find!

The rare Dew moth

The spectacular Cream-spot Tiger moth

Dew moth habitat

A Forester moth

The wonderfully named "Chimney Sweeper" moth

The underside of the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

What a stunner - a Small Pearl-bordered from above. 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

What makes a national conservation winner?

Ashley receiving the trophy from the Duke of Westminster 
Last week I went to Norfolk to attend the 37th FWAG Silver Lapwing awards, which this year was held at the Raveningham estate near Norwich, and is the home of Sir Nicholas Bacon.  This lovely estate has been in the Bacon family since 1735 and is managed to a very high standard by Jake Fiennes, who has planted flower rich margins everywhere, grows large areas of wild bird seed mixes for his beloved Grey partridge, and also looks after a wonderful marsh that is currently teeming with wader chicks.

The award celebrates the environmental achievements of farmers, and is aimed at those in particular who show outstanding commitment to good environmental practice. The award is sponsored by Waitrose, a business that leads the field, certainly amongst the Supermarkets chains, for its green credentials.

The winner of this national award was Ashley Cooper from Hill farm, Gestingthorpe in Essex. The 280 hectare (692 acres) farm is predominantly in arable cropping and the judges commented on the high quality of the crops alongside the protection and enhancement of habitats and species on the farm. Ashley is particularly keen to show school children around the farm, demonstrating the process of growing food while carefully looking after the countryside at the same time.

For me, the highlight of the day was Ashley’s speech, which was excellent. Firstly it was short! Secondly, you could immediately tell that he spoke from the heart and had great passion for the little piece of England that he looks after. In fact he became quite emotional – such a huge plus in my eyes. Lastly, he spoke about how important advice had been throughout his journey, particularly from his FWAG adviser Rebecca Inman, who he thanked profusely.
Rebecca has worked for FWAG since 1998 and I have probably known her for most of that time, always rating her as a top notch conservation adviser, who is greatly respected by the farmers in her “patch”.

So, what in my opinion makes a national winner of a competition such as this? Well, the ingredients were laid out right in front of us, for all to see  – passion coupled with great advice.

Well done Ashley and Rebecca – the award is richly deserved.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Just for the record - are you a "Twitcher"?

First for Hampshire - a Beautiful Marbled
 Keeping records is an important part of monitoring wildlife and I do try to play my part. Bird watchers, especially men, can often be quite obsessed with their lists – World lists, UK lists, County lists and lists comprising the “most seen in a day” or totals from a certain “favoured patch” and some will go to great lengths to add a new “tick” to the list – which is known as “twitching”.

I admit that I have jumped into the car to go and see a rare bird locally, but twitching does not really seem to be in my genes. I prefer to have real purpose behind the recording that I do, so that it hopefully adds to our greater understanding of a habitat or species. I must admit that I do usually keep a record of species seen on a foreign birding holiday, but that is about it.

During the year I do however carry out organised surveys, such as walking transects or monitoring a particular kilometre square of countryside, for both the British Trust for Ornithology and the GWCT, the results being sent in as part of national recording scheme or a research project. I also try to send in the records of the moths that turn up in my moth trap or interesting species that I happen to come across when out in the countryside.

In England, each county has a Biodiversity Information Centre (BIC) where all these records, sent in by a wide range of people, are collected together so that we have a reasonable handle on what exists where within the county! To any land manager, whatever their particular interest may be, these BICs are an invaluable resource. If you have to give advice on the management of a block of woodland or some farmland, it is vital that you know what species are present or likely to be there, BEFORE you go charging in with your “expert” advice. Many a species (or opportunity to improve a habitat) has been lost through well intended actions, because the adviser did not know what was present.

As important as these centres are, they have felt the Government’s axe recently and most are now running on a much reduced staffing level. If Government is truly serious about the well being of the British countryside, then in my opinion it is absolutely vital that these BICs are properly funded. Apart from anything else, what on earth is the point of all these volunteers (me included!) beavering away to collect important data, if it is not accessible to those who can then use it in a meaningful way?

Having told you that I don’t keep lists, I do keep a few notes however – but that does not mean you can call me a Twitcher! Here are 3 “firsts” for my garden!

On the 31st of July 2004 I caught a Beautiful Marbled (Eublemma purpurina) moth in my garden which turned out to be only the second record for the UK and the first for Hampshire.
Last Saturday I walked into my garden and was immediately greeted by the rambling, scratchy song of a Sedge warbler – the first record for my garden since I moved here in 2000, which just goes to show that you never quite know what might turn up.
Also last Saturday, I saw my first Humming bird hawk moth of the year, an insect that will have crossed the channel from France to nectar on the pink Valerian in my garden that I grow specifically to attract them.  

First for this year - Humming Bird Hawkmoth 

First for my garden - a Sedge Warbler