Monday, 29 September 2014

Calling all farmers - Do not fear, CFE is here!

"Phil the farmer" giving lots of sound, practical advise to CFE advisers. (If only the jokes were as good!)
CAP Greening measures. Ecological Focus Areas. The 3 crop rule. Water Framework Directive. Soil Protection Review. Cross Compliance. GAEC. Tried & Tested. Voluntary Initiative. NELMS. Believe you me I could go on and on and on!

All of the above will most likely be complete jargon to the non-farmers amongst you, but it is just a tiny fraction of what anyone running an agricultural business needs to be up to speed on nowadays, otherwise it could result in hefty fines or penalties.  But what do they all mean and how do they translate onto individuals farms?

It is a very big ask for busy farmers to get abreast of so many edicts, so step up the CFE – yet another acronym – but this time a free, friendly and helpful one!! CFE stands for the “Campaign for the Farmed Environment” which has an advisor in every English county, there to help farmers deliver the best possible practices for water, soil and wildlife on their farms.

CFE advisers are not in competition with other conservation groups, but work closely with all locally based experts, organising timely events so that the farmers attending, quickly get a distilled, succinct, clear message as to what they should be doing. At a time of so much change in the farming world, this can literally be a God send to farmers, already overloaded by the burden of red tape.

Last week the CFE advisers from across England attended a training event at the GWCT’s own farm at Loddington in Leicestershire. Training courses such as this are important so that advisers are clear as to what the message is and confident that they clearly see how decrees, often created in Brussels, are then translated and adapted to fit into a typical English farm – not always an easy transformation!!
GWCT’s Jim Egan, a wonderfully grounded, clever organiser of people, headed up the morning with his usual enthusiasm and the lively discussion was full of tips, successes and indeed failures, as to what works well and what does not! Then, following lunch, we all spilled out onto the farm to hear the wise words of Phil Jarvis, the farm manager.

Phil has the great ability to unscramble reams of regulations and instructions, deciphering them all into a down-to-earth, practical and usable format. Don't you reckon that the best advice usually comes from the person who actually has to do it for real!

I head up the Campaign in my own county of Hampshire and have found one of the most rewarding aspects to be the “bringing together” of a really quite diverse array of organisations, to work alongside each other, so that farmers receive a joined up clear message. That is so important. 

If you would like to find out more about the campaign go to;

And if you would like to read Farmer Phil’s blog, then go to:                

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Showing off country sports

I have to attend some of the larger “countryside” shows as part of my work – hefty events such as the Game Fair and the snappily titled “Cereals”! Non-farming friends often ask how a whole show can possibly just be based on growing cereals and I find myself explaining that it should really be called the “Arable” or “Crops” show as this would actually describe the occasion far better. Anyway, having spent long days working on show stands, my enthusiasm to attend rural events in my spare time is somewhat diminished.

However, some of the small countryside shows that are true to their core elements, minus all the candy floss and trinkets, are still very much worth a visit. Near to my home is the small town of Alresford in Hampshire and each year the Alresford show is held on the nearby Tichborne estate grounds. It remains a good show, even though it has grown in size, it still offers all that you might expect – many breeds of farm stock, a wide mix of stands and of course plenty going on in the central ring.

Once this show is over, most of the marquees are left in place so that another event can be held the following weekend. The Countryside Alliance put on a wonderfully compact little show called the “Hampshire Country Sports Day” and I must say that it reminds of the very early days of the Game Fair. Incidentally, many people are unaware that the original Game Fair was started by the organisation I work for – the GWCT - until it grew so large that we passed it over to the CLA to run. We still continue to run the highly successful Perthshire based Scottish Fair though.

Anyway – back to the Hampshire Country Sports Day! It is all about Hunting, Shooting, Fishing, Falconry and country crafts and not a lot more – perfect! Dogs almost outnumber people and there is a real feeling that the show is all about a pleasant family day out, with something on offer whatever your particular interest is in the countryside!

Of course the show is well attended by country folk – easily identified by the clothes they wear - but also many people visit from across the county and as I watched the crowds, it dawned on me that this might be the only occasion all year that many of them would see a Peregrine falcon stoop, a huntsman and hounds or watch a fly being expertly cast.

These events provide an important show case where people from all walks of life can mix, watch demonstrations and ask questions. I feel that far too often, those of us who practise country sports don’t spend enough time talking to those people who would no more kill something than fly over the moon. We are not asking them to become over-night devotees of field sports, but instead we simply want them to learn a little of the ways of the countryside, so that terms such as the GWCT’s “Conservation through wise use” does not seem too ridiculous.

I also popped into the Hampshire Hunt (known as the HH) open day – whose kennels are in earshot of my home if the wind is in the right direction! Almost more of a country sports fete really – but most enjoyable!

Anyway – here are a few photos from these local, smaller shows.

She had to run to the far end of the arena before the hawk got the lure!

Wow! She had a great turn of speed!

Nearly there!

Made it. An ice cream was her prize!

The falconer also got his young Peregrine to fly under the horse!

Black Lab trio waiting for the gun dog trials

Just to complete the scene - Tichborne Park Cricket club were also in action

A trio of HH hounds

I could photograph hounds for ever!

Part of the HH pack

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mind your Rhea

Not something you would expect to come across in the English countryside - a Rhea

If you happen to be out and about in the Hampshire countryside any time soon, just be prepared that you might wander around the corner of some field and quite literally come eye to eye with what might at first look like a bird on steroids, but is actually a small Ostrich type species called a Rhea!

By all accounts, this bird has been living quite contentedly for the last couple of years in the wild. The bird would normally be found in South America and differs from an ostrich in being smaller, with a feathered neck and only three toes. The flightless bird is regularly spotted around the village of Long Sutton, which is situated about 3 miles to the south of Odiham.

The bird is “known to police” and the RSPCA, having escaped from its owner about two years ago and has so far evaded attempts to capture it. You would think that a large flightless bird would not be that difficult to catch, but do bear in mind that these long legged creatures can run up to 40 MPH and if caught, can give you one hell of a kick!   A statement from a rather relieved police spokesman said: “Generally the bird keeps itself to itself and clearly appears to be coping with living in the wild".

I do suggest it keeps its head down though (not necessarily an easy thing for a Rhea to do!) as back in their homeland Rheas have many uses. Feathers are used for feather dusters, skins are used for cloaks or leather, and their meat is a staple to many South American people. In fact, the Gaucho people traditionally hunt rheas on horseback, throwing Bolas, a throwing device consisting of three balls joined by rope, at their legs which immobilises the bird.

Last spring, another Rhea, named Rita, was also on the loose roaming the East Hertfordshire countryside. Rita, chose a bad area to reside in however, as in the end she had to be shot. A statement from Hertfordshire Constabulary said: “Police have received notification that the missing rhea has been lawfully killed near a carriageway in Anstey, as there was fear of it getting onto a main road and causing a collision.

I have a large number of folk gathering at my house for Christmas this year. Wonder where that South American cookbook is…….

Friday, 26 September 2014

Now is the time for action on Climate change - no more hot air please.

The world is hotting up and that's a fact

A few thoughts on the UN Climate summit in New York.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said - "Climate change is the defining issue of our times and now is the time for action."

The purpose of the 2014 Climate Summit was to raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015 and to galvanize action in all countries to reduce emissions and build resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change.

So what’s the problem?

The world emitted 28 billion tons of carbon in 1992 when many world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro and agreed to do something about it. This year we are likely to emit 40 billion tons.

The Arctic ice cap had an average thickness of 16.6 feet in 1976, but now it averages 2.6 feet.

The distance from the North Pole to the sea is now just 350 miles – the shortest distance ever recorded.

Sea levels are expected to rise between 7 and 23 inches by the end of the century.

Seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.

97% of climate scientists—the experts in their field—agree that human activities are causing the current warming.

Very rarely would I quote an actor on a subject such as this, however, I thought that Leonardo DiCaprio made an interesting point in his speech at the Summit. ”As an actor I pretend for a living. I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe humankind has looked at climate change in that same way: as if it were a fiction, happening to someone else’s planet, as if pretending that climate change wasn't real would somehow make it go away”.

So with these sorts of words and facts being bandied around – has this summit really come up with something that the world leaders can work towards, sign and act upon at the Paris summit next year?

Well, you might imagine that Scott Barrett, a natural resource economics professor at Columbia University's Earth Institute and a former lead author of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, might be the person to ask.

 Unfortunately, he is not convinced anything concrete will come out of the Paris climate conference, despite the enthusiasm on display in New York. "The real problem is at the global level," said Barrett. "We have not found the means to change the incentives to get the countries to actually adopt limits, essentially on emissions."

"Unfortunately in the climate area, strategy is the last thing that anyone is ever thinking of as far as I can see, because they keep coming up with ideas like pledges which imply that you can, by some kind of central planning, ordain a collective outcome and the world doesn't work that way," he said. 

"We've been doing this for 25 years and we've failed for 25 years," he said. "We need to come up with newer approaches, people don't want to repeat the past mistakes."

There is one bright spot, he noted however, in the effort to fight climate change — the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to protect the ozone layer by phasing out chemical substances that deplete it. 

Those substances — chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — are also powerful greenhouse gases. The power of the Montreal Protocol lies in the ability to ensure signatories follow the rules by prohibiting certain trades with other member parties.

Since its implementation, the Montreal Protocol has reduced CFCs by the equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

So it can be done! I hope that there is no play acting at the Paris summit in 2015 – but some real life, far reaching decisions made, which are then consequently acted upon. We shall see.


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Keep your eyes open for "Popcorn on sticks"

Knopper galls - look a bit like brown Popcorn on sticks!
If you go down to the woods today and stand under a common Pedunculate Oak (which differ from our other native Oak – the Sessile Oak - by having acorns on stalks or “peduncles”), take a look at the ground to see if you can find any fallen acorns. You may well spot a few, but you will almost certainly also find plenty of Knopper galls, as it seems to have been a particularly good year for them.

The Knopper Gall is caused by a tiny gall wasp, Andricus quercuscalicis, which only arrived in this country in the 1960s, but has already colonised the whole of England and Wales and has moved into southern Scotland too. This little insect has a rather interesting life cycle.

In the spring asexual females lay their eggs into the male flowers of the introduced Turkey oak (Quercus cerris). The hatching larvae induce tiny flask-shaped galls to develop on the catkins in April and May giving rise to a sexual generation.  Males and females of the sexual generation emerge in late May to early June of the same year. 

The sexual females then lay their eggs into the female flowers of our native Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), where an asexual generation develops, producing galls on the acorns in the summer and autumn.

These large galls are very conspicuous and consist of a mass of ridged, pyramidal-shaped growths, looking rather like brown Popcorn! Often there are two or three growths on an individual acorn which completely cover it.  When growing they are often coloured red or russet-green and are quite sticky. After hardening, the galls turn brown and drop to the ground, usually around this time of year.

Inside the gall is a chamber which contains just one larva.  This asexual generation overwinters in the hard Knopper gall, hidden away amongst the fallen leaves.  Around the start of February, the adult asexual female gall wasp emerges through a vent at the top of the gall and flies off to find a Turkey oak, so that the cycle can start all over again.

This little gall wasp therefore needs both the non-native Turkey oak, which we have planted all over the place, and our native Pedunculate oak in the same locality if it is to breed successfully.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

An electrifying day spent on the river Frome!

The beautiful river Frome in Dorset

I spent a most enjoyable day last week with the GWCT research fisheries team at East Stoke in Dorset, catching and tagging Salmon Parr on the river Frome. Each September the team works virtually non-stop to catch and tag at least 10,000 of these little fish, which as I discovered first hand, means long hours of hard work!

The scientists catch the young fish by putting an electric field, created by a generator situated in a small boat pulled along behind, into the water so that the fish are temporarily incapacitated (called Electro-fishing) and thereby making them easier to catch in a net. Whoever is working the nets has to have lightening (get it!) reactions because the fish are dazed for just a few seconds, as demonstrated by the captured fish which are swimming around in the bucket quite normally almost immediately they are put in.

Meanwhile on the bank, a mobile makeshift “laboratory” has been set up to process the fish caught. They are weighed and their length is measured and recorded straight onto a laptop. Then they are tagged – a minute little chip inserted into them – these are known as Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags.

Equipment on the river can now record the passage of the PIT tagged fish as they pass below on their way out to sea and in fact gives the scientists the ability to identify and follow individual fish through their complete life-cycle. Atlantic salmon numbers have dropped by 70% in some areas and this long term project is aiming to tell us why this may have occurred.

The day I went there were two teams of 7 in action and between 8.30am and 7pm, they caught around 700 Salmon Parr whose details were all fully recorded. Once tagged, all were successfully released back into the river.

One little Parr from the river Frome, just like those we caught last week, made the epic migratory journey to a Fish Market in Sisimuit on the west coast of Greenland. On October 6th 2009, the fish was picked up during a sampling programme organised by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO).

The little Salmon Parr was recorded swimming past the GWCT detection equipment on the night of 24 April 2008 on its way out to sea and was estimated as being about 14.9 cm long. By October 2009, the salmon had grown over 50 cm in length during the 500 plus days it had spent at sea, and now it measured in at 67.9 cm and weighed just over 9lb! We really do live in an amazing world do we not!!

What’s also really great about the September tagging programme is that a number of students who are currently studying such courses as fisheries management or freshwater biology, come along to help and in the process gain invaluable practical experience. Don’t let it be said that students doss about, generally not doing much, as the guys who are currently working on the project (Two from Bridgewater college and one each from Portsmouth University and Sparsholt college) were not only charming, but also worked their socks off!

They get superb tutoring too, as head of GWCT fisheries Dylan Roberts and senior fisheries scientist Bill Beaumont were both on hand to happily pass on their massive wealth of incredible knowledge. So much of this know-how only comes through years of experience of working with fish - such as when Bill casually pointed out to me the marks on the side of one little fish. "See this" he said, "they are the marks left by a Kingfisher's beak - one that got away"!  You don't pick that sort of thing up in a classroom!    

I had a brilliant day and learnt so much. I have put a few more pictures below for you to look at. This really is such an incredibly fascinating project that I'm sure you would like to find out more about it too. If so, go to:


Electro-fishing a side channel of the river Frome

Part of one of the teams in action

The boat with the generator and kit

Not a bad location for a laboratory! 

A Salmon Parr

Senior Fisheries Scientist - Bill Beaumont - such a wealth of knowledge

Other fish are caught too - such as this good sized Brown Trout

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A particularly "buzzy" Sunday morning!

Some of the Hornet catch!
 You might well imagine that there could not be a gentler, more relaxing pastime, than setting a moth trap over-night and then sitting down with a cup of coffee in the morning, to find out what might have got itself caught. Well, believe you me, it’s not always quite like that!

It is a while since I put the trap out, but experience tells me that I would expect to catch the occasional Hornet at this time of year, as they too are attracted by the strong mercury vapour light. However, to find 54 Hornets inside the trap this morning came as quite a shock, and as you can imagine, their presence begins to knock the words “gentler and relaxing” for six!

Actually, Hornets tend to be fairly benign I find, sitting together in groups on the egg cartons, waiting to be softly lifted out of the trap and placed on the garden table, so that they can fly off in their own time. Nevertheless, to get this many at one time poses quite a problem, as you are almost bound to knock one of them, however careful you are, and to aggravate any individual tends to send a wave of hostility through the ranks.

Well to cut a long story short, upset them I did, resulting in one of them being quickly nominated to see off this human intruder! It chased me across the garden and into the house, buzzing extremely loudly right behind my right ear. It must have been quite a sight as I arrived at speed into my kitchen, swearing loudly and waving my arms around frantically! What is more, this irate Hornet showed no signs of giving up its quest and now appeared to be going down my shirt collar, resulting in me ripping my shirt off – numerous buttons pinging across the kitchen floor!

Rosie, my little Lurcher, who was curled up fast asleep in her bed, awoke from her slumbers and on seeing this outrageous display of crazed madness, fled in complete panic. (I later found her hiding in the boot room!).

Luckily, the frantic buzzing now came from my button less shirt lying on the floor, so that after a few seconds of manic stamping on the unfortunate garment, all fell silent.

Later in the day I managed to take a look at the Moths that I had caught. Nothing that exciting, but a lovely Frosted Orange brightened up the day somewhat!

Despite all this frenetic activity first thing on a Sunday morning – I do still like Hornets as they are noble beasts. My Lurcher on the other hand, is still viewing me with much suspicion!


A beautiful Frosted Orange moth made it all worthwhile in the end!!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

British food self sufficiency

A British harvest scene
Following on from my last blog concerning a report on the public’s thoughts about agriculture, I keep mulling over one particular line that sprang out and hit me squarely between the eyes!

 “There is an ingrained perception that the UK could easily grow all its own food”.

In reality, if Britain relied solely on home-grown produce, we would run out of food by the 7th of August – so by now you would most certainly not be reading this, but instead, be out foraging along the hedgerows with everyone else, simply trying to stay alive. Quite a sobering thought.

The latest statistics show that we are now only about 60% self-sufficient and yet in 1991 we were about 75% self-sufficient. I find that an alarming statistic. I think that we all have an inbuilt faith that science and technology are merrily pushing these things along in an upward direction on our behalf, when in fact they are not doing anything of the sort.

For instance wheat yields have plateaued during the last decade and huge numbers of dairy farmers have gone out of milk, unable to cope with the tiny margins on offer. Lamb producers have faced massive competition from cheap foreign imports (which often do not have our stringent animal welfare conditions in place) and any vegetable grower will tell you that many supermarkets will buy from elsewhere at the drop of a hat, if there is a quick buck to be made.

I could go on and on.

We need to buy British and back our farmers if we want them to survive, grow and once again increase our percentage of self-sufficiency. We also desperately need Government to invest in future technology – it has been pitiful to watch the demise of so many research stations across the country, which under-pinned so much of the past growth that was achieved. 

But let’s not just blame the politicians - we can all play our part. It is a fat lot of good if 98% of us SAY that Britain needs a thriving farming industry, but then 45% of us go off to do the shopping and never pay any attention to where our food actually comes from.

So, ask yourself this question: In what appears to be an increasingly unstable world – are you content that we run out of home produced food in this country on the 7th of August?  If not, then we had all better do something about it.