Friday, 31 October 2014

Harvesting mice in Guildford!

The Harvest mouse "Team"
My alarm went off this morning at 5am – but I didn't mind being woken up this early as I was off to visit a fascinating little project.

A couple of weeks ago I met a chap called Jim Jones who works for the Surrey Wildlife Trust and after a while we started chatting about Harvest mice – as you do! He told me about a live trapping project that the Trust was involved in, attempting to find out the best way to trap these fantastic little mammals, as in the past researchers have found them difficult to catch. Jim then very kindly invited me along to one of the study sites near Guildford to help check out the over-night catch.

We were due to meet at 6.30 am and I had to find my way through Guildford housing estates and industrial parks until I eventually got to the location – a reed, sedge and grass rich area alongside the river Wey. The A3 roared past on one side, huge pylons strode straight through site and as I have already said, all sorts of industry was just a stones throw away. Was I in the correct place? Well yes it appeared so! 
I was warmly welcomed by the project leader, Dave Williams who immediately took me under his wing to make sure that I did not miss anything and quietly chatted away about the various small mammals that we found in the traps – wonderfully absorbing information that you don’t get from a book – but from years of field work!

Well, to cut a longish story short, what a morning it turned out to be! We eventually found out that the catch comprised of 23 mammals including an amazing 9 Harvest Mice!! The other species were Wood Mouse, Yellow-necked Mouse, Bank Vole, Common Shrew and Pigmy Shrew.

I have been working on plans to hopefully carry out some work within Hampshire on this stunning little mammal the Harvest mouse, concentrating on how they are faring on farmland, so to tap into the wealth of knowledge these folk have begun to build up was very exciting for me.

To spend a couple of hours or so with such a thoroughly pleasant group of dedicated wildlife experts and incredibly importantly, also the volunteers who help out and put in lots of unpaid time, made for an unforgettable morning!! So a big thank you to the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

If you would like to find out a little more about Harvest mice - I wrote them up as one of my species of the month - so go to the link on the top right hand side of this page - and then go to August 2010.
Here are a few pictures of the morning’s work!   

A beautiful little Harvest mouse

A close up !
The wonderfully rich brown coat of a Bank Vole
What do harvest mice do when trapped? Well some spend the time shredding the straw to make a nest!
The habitat - which obviously holds an excellent population of all sorts of small mammals

A live catch  Longworth trap placed off of the ground  - just one of many combinations being tried out
Jim on the left and Dave on the right - could not have been more welcoming.
One last look at these delightful creatures - a bright eyed Harvest mouse! 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Do you have Leopards and Cows in your own back yard?

Field Cow-Wheat - a real rarity in this country!
I expect many of you will have read about the discovery of a brand new species of frog found living under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

The new species of leopard frog was located in ponds and wetlands in the area of Staten Island, and it was only discovered because a scientist who had been studying Leopard frogs elsewhere in the States, did not recognise the distinctive call of this particular frog. He sent tissue samples away to be analysed and with the help of modern genetic techniques, aided by an acoustic analysis of its characteristic mating call, it was indeed deemed to be a brand new species!

If a totally new species can be found in such an area as New York, just imagine how many species remain un-discovered in the rest of the world! In fact this story reminds me of another amazing find in this country a few years ago.

There was a wonderful old lady who lived in Wiltshire, who grew quite naturally, a lovely little flower in her garden. She had no idea what it was but as it was so pretty, she let it get on with life, just turning the soil over a little every year to help it re-seed itself.

Then, just by chance one day, she happened to sit down and watch a television programme on endangered British plants, including one called “Cow-Wheat” which she learnt was now only found in 3 sites in England, and on one of those sites it was thought to have probably become extinct!

“I recognised it immediately as the little flower in my garden, but always thought that it was just a pretty weed” she told the botanist who visited her garden. However the botanist was not really listening - he was concentrating on trying not to faint, as he surveyed the incredible display in front of him. He eventually counted 7000 plants happily growing in her back garden!!

So, it does not matter where you live or maybe take the dog for its daily walk. Keep your eyes and ears (and maybe nose!) open, as you just never know what you might discover in your own back yard!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Elephant in the room - world population growth.

Fellow GWCT colleague “Farmer Phil” Jarvis wrote an interesting piece on the difficulties that the agricultural industry will face, if in the future we continue to loose active agro-chemical ingredients and don’t replace them with new technology. You can read what he had to say on:

Phil finished his article by saying “The elephant in the room - 'population growth'... who would like to continue that debate?”

Well Phil, you know me - so here are a few thoughts on the subject!

At the moment there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, all of whom need feeding and we are already falling short as more than 800 million people are hungry. According to the United Nations, we will need 60% more food than we currently produce to feed the world’s projected population by 2050.

Listen, I’m certainly no expert on this, but that sounds all a bit scary to me. So I have turned to two people who are experts in this field – namely Malcolm Potts, Bixby professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley and Martha Campbell, who is president of Venture Strategies for Health and Development and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.
This is what they have to say on the matter.

“The United Nations Population Division has made a radical shift in its population predictions. Previously, the organization had estimated that the number of people living on the planet would reach around 9 billion by 2050 — and then level off. Now everything has changed: Rather than levelling off, the population size will continue to grow, reaching 10 billion or more at century's end. Rapid population growth inhibits many of the factors of development from proceeding apace — including education and health. 

In all our research, we have not found any country, with the exception of a few oil-rich states, that has developed or extricated itself from poverty while maintaining high average family size. Countries with high birth rates tend to find it difficult or impossible to expand their education systems or their health systems adequately to keep up with the need. However, at present many women across the globe, especially poor women, do not have access to family planning.

This matters beyond any one country or region. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable world, we'll have to meet the needs of the present without compromising the natural resources and services our children and grandchildren will need. Given time, and a great deal of scientific ingenuity, we might still be able to reduce our consumption and pull a world of 8 billion people back to a biologically sustainable economy by the end of the century. But a world of 10 billion could do irreversible damage to the planet. It's just too many people.

We've now been warned. If measures are taken now, we could still keep the 2050 world population at around 8 billion. We have to ensure that the population can be slowed by purely voluntary means and within a human rights framework. We need to galvanize the political will to make it happen and invest now so that family planning options are universally available. Fail to do so, and we may give birth to a new, difficult era of poverty instead”.

So, it appears blatantly obvious to me anyway, that if all life, including humans, is to have any sort of future on this planet, then we need to act quickly to introduce widespread contraception across the world, making sure that the wealthier nations help to fund the poorer countries so as to make this possible.

So Phil, as requested I have continued the debate. But actually what is needed now is action, not more words.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The National Trust turns the wheel of fortune for two young farmers!

Camilla, Roly and Belle in front of the Donkey wheel which was built in 1865

A few days ago I visited a young couple who have just completed their first year farming Saddlescombe farm, a 450 acre National Trust farm which is situated in the South Downs National Park just 5 miles north of Brighton in Sussex. 

Camilla and Roly Pusey run Saddlescombe as a mixed farm, which at the moment has 300 breeding ewes, lots of lambs, 5 rams and a small herd of pedigree Sussex cows. They are selling boxed lamb direct from the farm and also through their website. They have also recently started to supply their lamb to local pubs which will undoubtedly begin to put them firmly on the map I'm quite sure!

The farm has a large Higher Level Stewardship scheme which helps Camilla and Roly to integrate conservation in with the production side of the farm. They leave weedy stubbles over-winter, coupled with good sized plots of Wild bird seed mix for farmland birds to feed on (They have Corn Bunting on the farm amongst many other species). They leave a large cultivated plot for Lapwing to nest on and are planting wildflowers across the farm.

They have also inherited some wonderful steep banks of old chalk grassland and Roly, with the help of the Sussex cattle and local volunteers is tackling the encroachment of scrub, which has slowly been enveloping the whole area. Roly was chuffed to see an amazing response to all his first winter’s hard work scrub bashing and organising the stock grazing, as the following summer a wonderfully colourful display of flowers appeared, including a number of Orchids! 

I was really struck by the enthusiasm that Camilla and Roly showed throughout my visit. They have a big task ahead of them to bring the farm up to scratch and develop other projects to help make the whole enterprise profitable. But they positively seemed to be thriving on the task, despite also having two small children in tow, they have an assortment of ideas afoot.

Already Camilla runs a Bed & Breakfast in the house and another clever idea that they have evolved is to “be a shepherd for the day or evening”! On offer, depending on what time of year it is, which includes all sorts of hands on activities and challenges to help people spend time together with the sheep. This ranges from helping deliver new born lambs, to handling and weighing sheep, through to working with the one and only farm employee - Belle the sheepdog - who will help the visitors gather and move a flock of sheep.

Camilla and Roly are working in a truly beautiful part of England and along with a range of different farmland habitats to manage, they also have some wonderfully old and historic buildings under their care. Once again the couple are brimming with ideas as to how these buildings might be utilised in the future. My favourite was a superb Donkey turned water wheel built in 1865, although the well from which it raises the water from has apparently been there for “Donkey years before that”!

As a National Trust member of long standing, I am very pleased to see the organisation placing young farmers into their properties, rather than potentially considering the easy option of renting out the house and contract farming the land. In Camilla and Roley the Trust has found two very hard working, committed and forward thinking tenants and I wish them the very best of luck.

So, my message to the National Trust is very simple: Look after them until the business is fully up and running and they will do the Trust proud, of that I'm sure!

If you want to watch how Saddlescombe farm is getting on through the year – go to:

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Good summer weather means success for most birds - but not all.

Grey Partridge have had a good breeding
season - as long as they have been looked after!
In general, I think it has been a good breeding season for birds here in the UK, with encouraging reports from a number of quarters. Even some birds returning to our shores to over-winter, having spent the summer breeding elsewhere seem to have done well! 

For instance, a record number of at least 45,800 Pink-footed Geese have arrived at Lancashire's Martin Mere WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust), counts have revealed. This beats the previous record of 36,000 in 2010. Over the next couple of weeks, numbers will continue to increase as more of these birds make the 500-mile journey from Iceland to spend the start of winter in Lancashire. The geese will ultimately winter to the south and east, particularly in Northumberland and Norfolk.

The Grey Partridge breeding season seems to have also fared well this year, following two poor years. Reports of large sized coveys are coming in from those estates and farms that have provided good nesting cover, insect rich foraging habitat and have also implemented legal, targeted predator control. Some Eastern areas such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire do not seem to have performed quite as well as the rest of the country however, with keepers telling me that there were prolonged cool winds in from the North sea during the peak chick hatching time, which may well have reduced insect numbers at a crucial time.

Two other species which I'm particularly pleased about this year, because they had taken a real bashing from the weather over the last couple of breeding seasons (not helped by the lack of small mammals) is the Barn Owl and Kestrel. I have had a number of farmers excitedly telling me of the “biggest ever clutches” eventually fledging from the boxes that they had put up in trees and barns.

As with all things in life though, not all birds have had a brilliant year. A farmer in Hampshire told me just this last Thursday, that his long term House martin colony that had been in existence as long as he could remember, had this year fallen silent, with not one nest being occupied. He was genuinely upset as he said it was very much part of his summer to watch these delightful birds flying overhead.

It was with great interest then that two days later, a letter popped through the post box from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), asking for help in order to study the worrying decline in House Martin numbers – a UK decline of 16% over the last decade, but an English decline of as much as 65% longer term. What is interesting is that there have been alarming declines in the south of England and yet some healthy increases in the North and across Scotland and Ireland.

Of course, with migratory species, these regional differences may not necessarily be as a result of what is happening here during the summer, but might be that more northerly House Martins go to a slightly different place to over-winter than southerly based birds and may therefore have had better weather or habitat conditions during their winter stay there.

This is exactly why research from organisations such as the GWCT, BTO and WWT is so vital in helping us to understand the intricacies of our wonderful bird life. So make sure you support their work!!!

Barn Owls have had an excellent breeding season

For one Hampshire farmer, there were no little House Martin heads peeking out of nests this year.

Another alien mussels its way into the UK

Quagga mussels
Environment Agency ecologists have found a population of Quagga mussel in a tributary of the River Colne in the Thames catchment near Staines. This record was confirmed by Dr David Aldridge of Cambridge University on the 1st October 2014. Further investigation has revealed that a population of these alien mussels have now also established themselves in Wraysbury reservoir.

The Quagga mussel (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) is a highly invasive non-native species, which has been expected to arrive in the UK for a number of years. Similar to another alien mussel - the now widespread Zebra mussel - this species comes from the Ponto-Caspian region (an area around the Black and Caspian seas).

Due to its filtering capacity and ability to produce dense populations, it can significantly reduce native biodiversity, and alter whole freshwater ecosystems. It is expected to occupy similar habitats to the Zebra mussel, but can survive in some places that Zebra mussel can't and can even displace them.

It feeds on the varieties of algae that compete with blue-green algae, often resulting in toxic algal blooms. It can also be a nuisance and economic problem when growing in pipes of water treatment plants, so you can see that its arrival in our UK waters is yet another headache for all those concerned with trying to maintain our aquatic environment.
There is no effective eradication method for Quagga mussel once it has established in a reservoir and the downstream river system. As recommended in a recent review commissioned by Defra of options to deal with the arrival of Quagga mussel, the best method of slowing the spread of the Quagga mussel is by applying better bio-security through the “Check, Clean, Dry” approach, which does what it says – check and wash all of your equipment and clothing and then dry it thoroughly.

Quagga mussels can be hard to distinguish from Zebra mussels, which are already widespread in England and Wales. Quagga mussels are able to colonise freshwater rivers, canals and lakes and are small in size, being quite similar to the Zebra mussel, but lack the strong ridge that gives Zebra mussel its 'D' shape. The Quagga mussel is however, much more rounded and so the best way to identify it is to place it on its front, as it will then roll to one side, unlike the Zebra mussel.

So, to all you fishermen and women in particular out there, do try not to hasten the spread of these 4cm (1.5in) beasties from river to river by carrying out bio-security procedures. I have to say though, if we follow in the steps of America were these little critters were introduced to the Great Lakes by ships discharging their ballast, it does not look at all promising. Both Quagga and Zebra mussels have now spread to 29 states across the USA.

All really rather depressing. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A is for Apple!

I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the Blackmoor estate’s apple day today – and going by the crowds, the good old British apple is still much loved!

I am going to let a few pictures describe the day – from the apple point of view anyway – there was much, much more to see alongside apples!

It is great that farmers such as William Wolmer are prepared to hold days like this – not only encouraging folk to buy British, but also introducing them to the wonderfully delicious taste of “old varieties”- which of course will go a long way in helping to save them for future generations to enjoy too! 

Lots of people attended - the car parks were packed!

Don't you just love some of the names of these old apple varieties!
(click photos to enlarge)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Educating our future land managers

The future of the countryside is in their hands

As you know I work for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and one of the Trust’s charitable objects is to “advance the education of the public and those managing the countryside in the effects of farming and management of land which is sympathetic to game and other wildlife”.

As part of this remit GWCT staff spend a lot of time up-dating a wide range of people on our research, which might take the form of showing a group of farmers or politicians around our farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, or lecturing to a wide range of colleges and universities.

Yesterday was the turn of the Royal Agricultural University or RAU as it is now often called, (previously known at the Royal Agricultural college) which is based in Cirencester, Gloucestershire.  Established in 1845, it was the first agricultural college in the country and continues to thrive, offering a wide range of courses.

Annually, the GWCT and the Temple estate near Marlborough, host a “couple of coach loads” of students from the university who spend the day out on the estate, learning about some of the practical ways in which a large commercial estate is run in the modern era.

Yesterday I was joined by two of my GWCT colleagues, Mike Swan and Austin Weldon. Between us we covered a wide range of topics such as general game management, predator control, Stewardship schemes, Government “Greening” options, soil, water and importantly, how all the different departments within the estate work closely together to bring out the best of the land that they all collectively manage.

We enjoy presenting this day, as long as the weather is kind to us, which it most certainly was yesterday! Standing on top of the Marlborough downs with hail coming horizontally at you on a force 8 gale, talking to a bunch of soaking wet students huddled together for warmth, (probably dreaming of a pub with a roaring fire and maybe a career change!) is not a lot of fun on the other hand!

The student feedback is always encouraging, perhaps most often picking out how practical the advice is, and watching it being demonstrated in front of their eyes – for real as it were! One student said that the day had been one of the best of her three year course! That makes it all so worthwhile!

It is also very rewarding for us when we come across ex-students from the University in our everyday lives, working across a wide range of positions to do with countryside management. Education plays such an important part in not only helping them to get a job in the first place, but then most importantly, insuring that they can carry out their role successfully and with skill.

The students enjoying the beautiful surroundings of the Temple estate
Mike Swan - offers so many pearls of wisdom based on years of experience 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Cornish farmers - doing their bit for wildlife.

The beautiful North Cornish coast looking towards Pentire point
 I was lucky enough to have a few days down in North Cornwall towards the end of last week. October is a lovely month to visit the county, as the summer hoards have now long gone and if you happen to strike it lucky weather wise, well you are in for a real treat!

Many of these Coastal farmers rely on various forms of diversification to supplement their farming businesses – tourism is an obvious one, but so too is the Government’s Stewardship scheme. As I walked along the cliff tops to Pentire point and then on round the coastline to Rumps point, where I turned back inland to Pentire farm, I was constantly aware of a variety of options that had been implemented by these farmers on behalf of wildlife.

This part of the North Cornish coast line – between the two Pentires – the one I was visiting not far from Padstow and the other one next to Newquay – is the last remaining hotspot for farmland birds in the county - especially the Corn Bunting. If this population is lost, you would have to travel through Devon and Somerset and on to Wiltshire before you could be sure of spotting another one of these dumpy little brown jobs, often called the “Barley bird” because of its love of eating early ripening barley grains.
Farmers are doing their level best to help these birds by planting large areas of “un-harvestable cereals”, which are ideal for the Buntings to nest amongst (they nest on the ground) and then feed upon over-winter. This part of Cornwall also has a rich arable flora and so the farmers are also putting in “cultivated margins” – ploughing them over but then not planting them with a crop, so that the annual flowers can emerge and flourish.This is one of the few places that I have seen the very rare Corn Buttercup with its spiky seed head. 

I did not see any Corn Buntings on this occasion, but I’m sure they were about, perhaps now all gathered into one big winter flock, they may have just been feeding over the next headland out of sight.  I was happy though, because as a consolation there were huge flocks of mixed Linnet, Goldfinch, Skylark and Meadow Pipit all feeding on the wide variety of seeds within the field left specifically for them. Kestrel hunted small mammals and the last few Wheatear stopped to feed up before carrying on with their southerly migration. It was a wonderful spectacle to sit and watch for a while. 

With less money in the pot for funding the new Stewardship scheme, these Cornish farmers would sorely miss the extra income that they are paid currently to look after the local wildlife on our behalf. Should the funding, for whatever reason be stopped, it might well not only be the wildlife that goes, but perhaps the mixed farming of cattle and sheep too, changing a whole way of life that has carried on along this coastline for centuries.

We must work hard to make sure that this does not happen.

An un-harvested cereal field with an arable flower margin around the outside -
already alive with a wide assortment of birds feeding 

An arable flower margin, this time with a brassica fodder crop in the field,
 which will be grazed off by sheep during the winter months