Saturday, 19 December 2015

Book now for bird ID courses, so you don't miss out - as they are filling fast. We are counting on you!

What's that birdie? This lot know because they have attended a farmland bird ID course! 
Well, well, well! It is nearly time once again to dust those binoculars off and take part in the GWCT’s third “Big Farmland Bird Count”. Whether you took part last year or if it’s your first time, this is
your chance to see how numbers have changed or to find out what different species are around on your own farm, or indeed if you are not a farmer, then on a nearby farm (with permission of course!!).

Last year nearly a thousand farmers took part and recorded an amazing 127 species!  Farmers from every county in England participated and there were responses from Ireland, Scotland and Wales too. Very well done to the county of Norfolk as they had the most returns with 64 farmers completing the survey, closely followed by Yorkshire with 62. 

Yorkshire second – surely not! Now that has to be a challenge to those who farm in “God’s own country” – their words not mine!! (Norfolk farmers – don’t let them beat you this year as we will never hear the end of it!!). As for my own county of Hampshire – I have some chivvying to do – surely we can come top, both on the number of farmers counting and species recorded!

Guy Smith – well known farmer and NFU vice president says; “I often hear farmers grumble that while they are quietly proud of how much wildlife they have on their farms they get fed up with reports in the media that modern farming is bad for birds. I can understand the frustration but to my
mind the answer is, don't just be proud – be loud. So, come next February get the binoculars out, dust off the notepad, sharpen the pencil and get recording!”

So why am I shouting about the BFBC if it doesn't happen, as Guy says, until February? Well my little budding twitchers, I am giving you time to get some training in beforehand! No, not fitness training after Christmas's debauchery, but some preparation time before the big event, so that you can tell a Dunnock (little grey and brown job – LGBJ) from a Meadow Pipit (little brown job - LBJ).  

Yes, this is your chance to come on a farmland bird ID course before you go out to check up on what you have got on the farm. Let’s face it, some of these LBJ’s are just that and not a lot else, as they sit silently in a thorn bush or shuffle about in a stubble field.

But wait, this ID course will tell you all about the bird’s “Jizz” – a fabulous birding word that is used to describe what the bird does and how it behaves. How does it sit in that thorn bush – on its own or in a flock, in an upright way or horizontally, on top of the bush or skulking around at the base? How does it move about in the stubble field – does it hop, walk, shuffle or run!  

All these things help you slowly eliminate some birds and home in on others, eventually nailing the bird that you are looking at! Each course will also cover what different bird species need to over-winter successfully on your farm and give details of how you can help them do just that, by providing what they need. Indeed, once you know what species you have in your locality, then you can target your management directly at those birds.

So, how about signing up to one of these ID days that is happening near you – we have arranged 18 locations across the country, so there should be one not too far away. This will then enable you to strut, stride, skip or stomp, (depending on your personal jizz) around the farm for about half-an-hour, on one day between 6-14 February, with enormous confidence that you are noting down birds that you really have identified correctly with your newly learnt skills!

Finally, this year we have a superb new offer. Along with our very loyal sponsors BASF who enable us to hold these training days and the great BFBC event, if you complete all the relevant information and send your forms back to the GWCT, you will automatically be entered into a prize draw for a fantastic pair of SLC 8x42 binoculars, donated by Swarovski Optic. These are seriously good binoculars that will last you a lifetime.

Go on a training course AND win these superb binoculars and you will really have absolutely no excuse - any bird preening before you will prove to be an absolute walk in the park for you to ID!

To sign up to our Bird Identification Days being held in 18 locations across the country, or to download count forms, please visit: or telephone: 01425 651000. 

Come on everyone - lets smash last year's totals!!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Congratulations Paris. But now the real work starts.

Soil and water management; carrying on as we are currently, is not an option
So, with the bang of a gavel last Saturday evening, representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. This is of course very encouraging news, however, only time will tell if collectively, humanity can deliver on this agreement.

Climate change is of course caused by a host of different reasons and is intricately linked to the way we manage and use the resources that the world offers us. If you just look at two such resources, soil and water, you can see that we need to change our ways big-time and rapidly.

A new report on soils published this month by the Sustainable Food Trust, is to put it bluntly, alarming. I have taken some extracts for you to read:

“Soil is a vital resource for the future of humanity. It needs to be protected and enhanced. Instead, more than half (52%) of all fertile, food-producing soils globally are now classified as degraded, many of them severely degraded (UNCCD 2015).

Throughout human history, at least twelve past civilisations have flowered on fertile soils and made huge advances, such as the development of written language, mathematics and financial systems, only to disappear over time as their soils progressively degraded and could no longer feed their populations.

These civilisations occupied, or depended on, defined geographical regions: the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire’s exploitation of the once highly fertile soils of north Africa, parts of ancient Greece, China, Central America, India and elsewhere. The damage done to soils in these regions is still present today, but new civilisations were able to spring up elsewhere, converting forests and native grasslands to agriculture and thriving on the fertility that had built up over thousands of years in the soil.

Today, however, due to the global trade in food, the global adoption of exploitative farming methods and the extent to which forests and natural grasslands have already been converted to crop production, it is the entire global civilisation that is threatened by progressive soil degradation.

Research by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative in 2015 calculated that soil degradation is costing between $6.3 and $10.6 trillion dollars per year globally, but these costs could be reduced by enhancing soil carbon stocks and adopting more sustainable farming methods.

A research group at Cranfield University estimated that in England and Wales soil degradation costs £1.33 billion annually. Half of this cost relates to loss of soil organic carbon (SOC), and the intensity of farming is a major cause of soil carbon loss.

Agriculture and the food we eat depend on soil. Under appropriate management soils are an infinitely renewable resource, while under inappropriate management they are effectively a very finite resource. Under natural conditions it can take 500 - 1,000 years to form an inch of soil from parent rock”. (I have highlighted this).

Here are a few statistics to ram the message home – if it really needs to be, any longer, that is. Recent estimates indicate that every year:
Soil degradation affects 1.9 billion hectares
12 million hectares (23 hectares a minute) of land is lost to food production
24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is irretrievably washed or blown away (3.4 tonnes for every human on the planet).

If you would like to read more from this report, go to:

Meanwhile, perhaps the most important world resource of all, water, is also causing major concerns.

Across the globe, reports reveal huge areas in crisis today as reservoirs and aquifers dry up. More than a billion individuals – one in seven people on the planet – now lack access to safe drinking water. The world faces a water crisis that will touch every part of the globe, a point that has been stressed by Jean Chr├ętien, former Canadian prime minister and co-chair of the InterAction Council. “The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating,” he said. “Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future.”

With expected increases in population, by 2030, food demand is predicted to increase by 50% (70% by 2050) (Bruinsma, 2009), while energy demand from hydropower and other renewable energy resources will rise by 60% (WWAP, 2009). These issues are interconnected – increasing agricultural output, for example, will substantially increase both water and energy consumption, leading to increased competition for water between water-using sectors.

The world runs on water. Clean, reliable water supplies are vital for industry, agriculture, and energy production. Every community and ecosystem on Earth depends on water for sanitation, hygiene, and daily survival.

Yet, around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity.

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions. With the existing climate change scenario, almost half the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.

So you can see that although the Paris agreement is all about “climate change” – if you lift off the lid and look in, it is in fact about so, so, much more. I have just highlighted two elements here. Let us all hope that it truly marks a monumental turning point in the way we treat the world’s resources, otherwise, the future really does not bear thinking about.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Ramblings on Bramblings!

I think it going to be a good winter for spotting Bramblings, maybe even in your back garden! 

Last year, we had an enormous Beech tree mast supply in the UK – “mast” being the name of the Beech tree’s seed. Bramblings simply love this seed and large flocks will spend the winter foraging around under Beech trees, so accordingly they don’t really need to rely on our garden bird table hand-outs. I only occasionally saw a lone male visiting my garden last winter.

However, this year the Beech mast harvest has been quite small and already I have at least 6 Brambling visiting my garden on a daily basis.  So, what exactly does this bird look like, because to be honest, it could easily be over-looked and noted down as a common old Chaffinch!

Brambling are similar in size and shape to the chaffinch, and they do team up in the winter months with their close cousins, feeding together as a mixed flock. The noticeable difference is that the male has a dark head and appears to look like a rather “orangey” Chaffinch. The other clue to look out for is when they fly up and away from you, as they have a bright, really strikingly obvious white rump patch, so keep a good look out for this.

Bramblings are winter visitors to this country, as they breed in Scandinavia and Western Siberia. They come to our shores to escape the harsh continental winter, and turn up in particularly big numbers here, when snow and lack of food forces them to venture across the North Sea.

They particularly like to feed on the ground, but will also perch on feeders to eat various small seeds. They love sunflower seeds – in or out of their husks!! So I chuck some mixed corn and a few sunflower seeds onto the ground each morning and they fly down and are pecking around before I am even back in the house! 
To help you know what you are looking out for, I have put up a picture of both the Chaffinch and Brambling – so keep an eye open for them and do let me know if you a lucky enough to get a visit from this great little finch in your garden.

The "orangey" male Brambling

The much more "pinky" male Chaffinch

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The new Agricology website is launched - for everyone to use!

From left: Dr. Alistair Leake, GWCT's Allerton project; Dr Susanne Padel, Organic Research Centre; Sonia Phippard, Director General of Policy at Defra; Patrick Holden, representing the Soil Association. 
I get invited to quite a number of work related events, but invariably I turn to the relevant page in the diary, only to find that once again I already have a commitment for that day. So it was a pleasant surprise when an invitation to attend the launch of a new website, “” for Friday the 27th of November, was shock horror, FREE! 

I was quite well briefed on this new initiative as GWCT colleague, Alistair Leake, (Alistair heads up the GWCT’s farm at the Allerton project, Loddington, Leicestershire) has been a one of the key players in getting this initiative off of the ground and I have also supplied a few photographs for the new website.

More than seventy people attended the launch, which was held at the wonderful Daylesford organic farm near Kingham in Gloucestershire, by kind permission of Carole Bamford. I must say that the staff from the centre made everyone extremely welcome and provided us with a delicious lunch too!

So what exactly is “Agricology”?

Well, it is a collaboration of independent organisations and farmers that provide practical and knowledge-based information about sustainable farming. It promotes sustainable farming regardless of labels and encourages good agricultural practices by using the best ideas from organic farming and integrated conventional farming. The aim of this new website is to bring together information and knowledge to help secure a productive, resilient and sustainable future for agriculture and the farmed environment.

The three key players that have come together to create this exciting new initiative are, the Daylesford foundation, the Allerton Trust and the Organic Research Centre at Elm farm. But importantly they have a wide range of support from across the industry, from organisations such as NIAB, Rothamsted research, LEAF, FWAG, Natural England and DEFRA, just to mention but a few.

Following a welcome from the host, Carol Bamford, there were three really excellent talks, indeed dare I say it - refreshingly so!

Patrick Holden, the well-known supporter of organic farming, told the audience how important it is that all sectors of agriculture work closely together and share their collective knowledge. Indeed, he was humble enough to say that perhaps in the past, there were times when the organic movement had not communicated well with other forms of farming and maybe vice-versa. 

Alistair Leake spoke eloquently about the importance of research and how sharing and accessing practically based science, is so absolutely key to both the success of sustainable farming and the environment as a whole.

Finally, Sonia Phippard, Director General of Policy at Defra, gave her fulsome support to the initiative and seemed really delighted that she could be there to say how important she thought the Agricology initiative is going to be, in delivering practical information for sustainable farming going forward. 

Before leaving the event, a number of people were giving a tour around the Daylesford dairy enterprise by Richard Smith, the senior farms manager. Listening to Richard talk so passionately about his dairy cows, made me begin to see why these people and their associated organisations have fitted so well together and launched this new website.

They all truly believe that profitable, sustainable farming and a thriving healthy environment can go hand in hand. However, to achieve this, ALL forms of agriculture must work closely together, using the very best, up-to-date practical science.

I for one, fully endorse this and hope that you too will take time to look at the new Agricology website, following it over the coming months as it becomes more and more populated with world-class examples, taken from a range of applied and academic sources and of course, from the practitioners themselves – the farmers!

A few more photos of the launch event:

Alistair Leake spoke of the importance of practically based research

Sonia Phippard was very enthusiastic about Agricology

Delegates thoroughly enjoyed looking around the dairy unit

Richard Smith's enthusiasm was a typical trait of the day!  

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The incident of the woodpecker and sheep's wool, a ladder and scissors!

The Sheep's wool was well and truly tangled around the unfortunate bird's legs. The small red patch on the back of the head tells you that this is a male bird, as the female lacks this.
 Once you have lived in a village for a good while – 25 years in my case – a number of local folk get to know you and also what you particular passion is. We are blessed with experts on UK local breweries, old planes, vintage cars, metal detecting, botany and countless other interests! A visit to the Flower Pots pub will without fail teach you a little something, even if it is only that you cannot down as many pints as you used to, without feeling a little jaded the next day!

Over the years, helped along by writing a little wildlife piece in the parish magazine each month, people have learnt about my passion for “all things countryside”, and so come up to me to tell me of their sightings and snippets of interest, which is wonderful as it keeps me informed with what is happening locally. They also send me an array of varying quality photos of thing to be identified! A Chinese painted Quail pecking around under someone’s bird table, is the best so far I think!

So I was not that surprised when the phone rang this morning and good friend Annie Bishop started off by saying “hi Pete – this is going to be one of the stranger calls you will receive today!” She went on to tell me that a black and white woodpecker was hanging up-side-down from a nest box on the neighbour’s house, held tightly by a thick strand of sheep wool!

“I’ll come round, get the ladder out and a pair of scissors!”

Well to cut a long story short, we managed to cut the unfortunate male Great-spotted woodpecker free and take it into the kitchen, were Greg, Annie’s husband discovered that he could easily have been a Vet rather than a Maths teacher! He very carefully and expertly snipped away at the entwined mass of wool that was well and truly wrapped around both feet, while I held the bird and stoically took the frequent sharp jabs from the indignant bird’s extremely sharp beak!

The lady who lives next door, loves the wildlife that visits her garden, so she not only feeds them assorted food, but also puts out a large hanger full of wool for birds to gather when making their nests. Obviously quite a lot of this had found its way into the nest box, high up on the wall. I expect this particular inquisitive guy had explored the box to find spiders and hibernating insects and in the process had got himself in a bit of a tangle – literally!

The neighbour was of course mortified that this had happened and was incredibly grateful that Annie had spotted the unfortunate bird, as it would surely have died a miserable death if she had not been so eagle eyed while putting on the kettle for the early morning cuppa.

Eventually, after a good quarter of an hour or so, the bird’s feet were free and so we took it out into the garden to set it free once more. It just happened to be Annie’s birthday and she declared that to see this beautiful woodpecker fly away unharmed, had been a really great present.

Meanwhile the neighbour set off with a purposeful stride to take down the wool container and clear out the nest box!

It might be an idea to cut the wool into very short lengths if any of you intend to do this in future, rather than long strands, as it is incredible tough stuff to pull apart.
Back to normal and ready for release after the attentions of  "Greg the Vet"! The red patch is not a blood stain - all Great-spotted woodpeckers have this red patch under the tail. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

The farmland around the village of Selborne was alive with action this weekend!

The Selborne Landscape Partnership group - ready for for either hedge laying or Harvest mouse nest hunting!

The Selborne Landscape Partnership – a group of farmers based around the Hampshire community of Selborne was in action over the weekend!

You may well have heard of this village, as it was put firmly on the map because many, many moons ago the famous naturalist, Gilbert White, was born here and eventually wrote his book in 1789 “The Natural History of Selborne”, which chronicled the local wildlife and day to day life of this picturesque part of England.

This group of farmers has come together to see if they can collectively manage the land that surrounds Selborne in a more “joined up way”. This particular weekend was a chance for local farmers and volunteers to come and learn all about the old tradition of “hedge-laying”.

Rob Nicholls, a countryside Ranger with the South Downs National Park in conjunction with farmer, Kate Faulkner, did a superb job of arranging the event by bringing in an expert tutor, laying on lunch and of course providing a suitable hedge! 

An enthusiastic assortment of folk turned up to learn this fine art and I think you will agree that the finished article is something to be mightily proud of!

Meanwhile, another group had also turned up to hunt for Harvest mouse nests around Kate’s farm as we are keen to learn more about this tiny mammal and find out how its population might have changed since Gilbert White’s day. The volunteers had a briefing in the barn, before setting off to hunt the field margins to see what they could find.

This is just one of a number of days nest hunting that will be organised over the next few weeks and I will let you know through this Blog how they all got on!

It was wonderful to see so much activity on the farm. I'm sure this is a group that is going places and I will make sure that you are the first to hear about future happenings!

Here are a few more photos of the action!   

Harvest mouse briefing in progress

The hunt in progress!

Meanwhile - elsewhere on the farm

All starting to look good!

The finished article - what a superb job!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Farmer and the Birder - a happy tale of two enthusiasts working in tandem!

Reed bunting are flocking into George's wild bird seed mix
Where on earth are all the Dunnock coming from!!

Over 3% of the Yellowhammers ringed in the country this year will be from George's wild bird seed mix plot!

I have spent my last two blogs having a “bit of a go” at some of the irritations surrounding the Countryside Stewardship scheme – but not the scheme itself. I have also been told that there is quite a lot of work going on in the background to sort these hassles out, so please persevere, because at the end of the day, it will be the wildlife that suffers if options disappear from farms.

OK, but do these Stewardship options really deliver? In other words are they worth the effort?

Well, I want to show you some bird ringing results from just one hectare (2 ½ acres) of “wild bird seed mix” option, from a farm in Buckinghamshire. This is an option available within Countryside Stewardship for farmers to grow a seed bearing crop mix, which birds can then feed from over-winter.

If the mix also contains a crop within it that seeds in the second year (a biennial), then it can be left for two years, which enables birds to tap into the myriad of insects that will also inhabit the crop during the spring and summer months. Beak full after beak full of insects will be collected with ease from this fast-food diner, and taken back to hungry chicks waiting patiently in neat little nests situated in adjacent hedgerows.  

The farm in question is George Eaton’s Rectory farm, which I talked about in my blog of the 28th October, when I wrote about the course I helped to run there. George has taken this hectare of ground out of production and now grows a range of seed bearing crops for the birds to feed on. He has also planted a hedge alongside the plot and at the far end, created a small block of new woodland, making a wonderful little conservation area.

This is all brilliant – but wait – who should arrive on the scene but one qualified and highly experienced bird ringer, Garry Marsh. Although Garry has been coming to the farm for a number of years, he only started concentrating on this one particular seed mix plot in earnest from September 2014, so we now have just 14 months of data, but already some interesting results are beginning to show.

George and Garry are great mates, which is totally obvious when you see the two of them together. Both spark off of each other. The farmer is eager to find out how much his crop is being used by birds and the birder cannot ply his trade without the seed crop grown by the farmer. They have many things in common, but perhaps first and foremost they both have acutely enquiring minds!   

Garry uses mist nets to catch the birds. These are fine meshed nets strung out along the target area, which in this case is George’s seed mix. The nets are put up and taken back down again on each visit that Garry makes. They are only ever set either parallel or within the cover and conservation crop, which means that almost 100% of the birds ringed will have been using the crop for a purpose and are caught either entering or leaving.

The results are fascinating and I have picked out just some for you to see. Incidentally, all of Garry's records are sent into the British Trust for Ornithology.

Yellowhammers ringed at Rectory Farm in 2015 will be over 3% of the total Yellowhammers ringed in the UK in 2015

Rectory Farm will represent about 20% of the total birds ringed in Buckinghamshire

In 2014 all but one Yellowhammer ringing in Buckinghamshire was at Rectory Farm and similarly 85% of all Reed Buntings.

The first Chiffchaff caught in April 2015 was a bird ringed by Garry as a juvenile at the same site in September 2014. So, a little like our familiar Swallows, this warbler had migrated abroad, only to return to the very same place.

An adult Song Thrush caught in November 2014 was originally ringed near York in March 2012, some 210km to the north

An adult female Reed Bunting caught in October 2015 was originally ringed at Corsham Lake in Wiltshire as a juvenile bird in December 2011, a movement of 100km to the NE. Certainly this is the oldest Reed Bunting recorded at the site.

Of the 108 Reed Buntings ringed last autumn/winter, Garry has already recaptured 8 birds this year which he says indicates a very good survival rate. He has caught 29 adult birds so far this winter, so it means over 25% of them were here last winter. Obviously all the others caught so far this year were born this year.

The total number of birds caught so far (including re-traps) using the Stewardship plot is 1511, which included 31 different species. Remember, these are only the ones that have been caught!!

Garry has in the 14 months so far, caught 190 Yellowhammer, 172 Reed Bunting and 181 Dunnock. We know that Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting will flock together and seek out areas rich in food to feed on over-winter, but in my opinion, to catch this many Dunnock is extraordinary! The Dunnock is a sedentary species, which does not gather together into flocks, so to catch this number using just one wild bird seed mix plot, is remarkable!    

So, I have given you a little insight into one hectare of Stewardship wild bird seed mix, thanks to a committed farmer and a dedicated birder.

But let me now leave you with this thought. The clever guys at Kings Seeds, who supply George with his seed, have worked out that a good, well grown hectare of wild bird seed mix such as George’s, would fill in the region of 20,000 bird table seed hoppers! WOW!

But wait. Do you know that farmers grow around 8,750 hectares of wild bird seed mix under the Stewardship Scheme in England? The equivalent therefore of one hundred and seventy five million bird hoppers full of seed.

Now, that really is one mighty big bird table my friends!!!

Monday, 9 November 2015

A costly margin of error or silence. Both are damaging goodwill.

The outcome of an inspections can depend on a small margin of error.
Following my Blog about all the red tape surrounding the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (November 5th) and how it appears to be dampening people’s enthusiasm somewhat, (which is such a shame), I received this note from a farmer.

“I agree, just too complicated. I have applied for 7 schemes since the first Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme. But this was the most difficult to plan. Sadly I have not applied but left the grass margins and corners (10 years old) in place, in case the scheme becomes more attractive next year.  
I was inspected last April/May. What has annoyed me most is the fact that I know the inspector wrote and delivered the report in May, but I cannot see it. I have received NO communication since. Nothing”.

Another farmer told me last Friday that when he was inspected, it was found that some of his 6 metre grass margins had a few short lengths where they dropped down to only 5 metres in width, probably due to an overzealous ploughman!

The farmer was not particularly bothered by this news, because he had sensibly followed advice to always have more of an option than you are actually signed up to produce, in case this very scenario occurs. So he pointed out his other grass margins that were “outside” the scheme. The inspector was not interested in these as he was only inspecting the margins marked on the agreement map. A fine duly followed.  

Both of these examples shout to me “what a massively missed opportunity”!

I have been saying for literally years and years in meeting rooms around the country, that it would make so much sense to train Rural Payments Agency (RPA) staff, who carry out these inspections, in the fundamentals of farmland conservation and to get them to work more closely alongside their government colleagues, Natural England (NE), who implement the schemes. 

NE staff are generally extremely helpful, working with farmers and encouraging them to produce top quality schemes. But this relationship and good will, which is often built up over many years, can be completely dashed by an RPA inspector with a tape measure.  

These inspectors can quite easily spend a fortnight inspecting a medium sized farm (I kid you not. Remember that this too is paid for from taxpayers coffers!), measuring, counting, noting down observations in minute detail, which will all then go into a final report. But the farmer only gets to hear anything if they have been a miscreant.

What is to be done? Well, how about this.

New RPA inspection scenario:

Cut unnecessary red-tape and keep rules straightforward.

Send all RPA staff on a recognised farmland conservation course (the BASIS conservation course would be a good start) so that they have knowledge about the “outcomes” that Countryside Stewardship options are trying to achieve.

Inspect a farm where obvious options are missing and rules blatantly broken – a field corner does not exist or a wild bird seed mixture has obviously not been planted even though the plot exists. No sympathy. Throw the book at them. This is public money that is being used after all.

Inspect a farm where it is obvious that the farmer has done everything that the agreement demands, however there are small discrepancies such as the grass margin story above or that the wild bird seed mix is in place, but is not very good. Point out the grass margin mistake and state that you will be back next year to pop in to re-measure it, and if it has not been re-instated by then, fines will be incurred. Advice could then be written into the report suggesting the addition of more fertiliser to grow a better wild bird seed mix. This positive, helpful approach will not leave the farmer with a sour taste in the mouth and may well encourage them to try a little harder to not make these small mistakes any longer, while also growing a better, high quality crop for birds going forward.

Inspect a farm and everything is exactly how it should be and the various options are all looking very good. How about some praise within the report, stating how excellent the conservation options are and that the farmer should be congratulated on how well the scheme has been delivered onto his or her farm. A pat on the back goes a very long way in helping to achieve excellence.  

Following the inspection, write a report and GIVE THE FARMER A COPY!!! How are we meant to improve the delivery of conservation on farms when long reports are written about a farm, only for it to sit in some dusty Government filing cabinet?  


Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme: The message from farmers is loud and clear.

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme will only deliver if farmers are on board
The National Farmers Union, following a survey of 646 randomly selected members, has put out a press statement which says that farmers and growers questioned, state that the new agri-environment scheme (The Countryside Stewardship Scheme) is too complex to take part in.

The survey confirms much of what I am discovering when I talk to farmers. Interestingly, I do not find that much fault with the scheme itself. Yes, it is a lot more targeted and those applying are strongly guided towards specific options and told how much of each option they should ideally be doing.

However, the reason behind this more “bossy” approach is backed by research, as scheme designers now have information to show how much of an option is needed to really make a difference to the wildlife that it is targeting. So, put simply, if this tactic means that wildlife, soil and water will benefit in the long term and this is explained to farmers, they too then see the sense behind this more rigid approach.

But, and it is a big BUT! You will see from the below results of this NFU survey, that farmers are raising issues over the arduous application process, which is bureaucratic and over-complicated, poor information as to how the scheme rests with other schemes such as the Governments own “Greening programme” and finally, the associated risks to an individual farmer should he or she be inspected by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and are found to be in breach of one of the myriad of small print regulations that run alongside the scheme.  The answer to the last point is a fine, which is sometimes large.

Do not misunderstand me however. Of course farmers should be inspected, as this is public money we are talking about here, but if you make the small print so utterly complicated that an inspection is almost bound to fail in some way and result in a fine, then you can begin to understand why farmers have started to wonder if it really is all worthwhile.

Therefore my message is clear. Do not attack the scheme itself, but instead take a very large pair of secateurs to the red tape madness that surrounds it.

Here is the press release about the survey that the NFU has recently sent out:

The NFU is now urging the Government to undertake an urgent review of the scheme’s implementation and to introduce a raft of changes in order to make it more accessible to the industry.

NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: “This scheme is an important tool in enabling farmers to continue to maintain and enhance biodiversity, water, soils and to address future challenges such as climate change and we are very clear - farmers must to be able to continue the very good work that has been achieved in agri-environment schemes.   

“However, final application numbers for the scheme have confirmed the poor uptake that we had feared. This is bitterly disappointing especially as we do not believe it is due to lack of interest or engagement from farmers – our survey shows that 93% were aware of the scheme and that 42% looked at it in detail. The new scheme is simply just too complex for many.

“The key issues have included last minute guidance changes and decisions on critical matters such as dual use, poorly drafted guidance and options, burdensome record keeping requirements and a narrow application window during the busiest time in the farming calendar.   

“Sadly, we are seeing an increasing amount of disillusionment among our members. The key priority now must be to make the new scheme more accessible than it is currently, particularly for mid-tier applicants, and any changes enabled quickly to give much needed certainty to any prospective applicants.

“Despite the initial problems, the NFU remains committed to working with Defra and Natural England on the scheme’s continued development and implementation and we would like to play an active and positive part in any review. 

“Farmers have always been very passionate about their participation in agri-environment and the benefits that these schemes bring to our countryside and we would very much like their involvement and enthusiasm to continue.”

The main findings include:

There was a high awareness (93%) of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme but issues with scheme design, the guidance and the application process have deterred members from applying;
Guidance is not user friendly and is insufficient for making decisions and members are considering paying for professional advice (74%);
Payments are too low compared to what’s being asked for and the associated risks (48% said that joining the scheme would not be worthwhile for their business);
It is over complicated, bureaucratic and too prescriptive;
Small farmers and upland farmers are at a disadvantage.

Monday, 2 November 2015

A man for all seasons

I'm not sure that I could ever live too near to the equator, as I do love the different seasons.

I am so reassured by certain events that take place during the year, such as the first time you hear the chuckle from a Fieldfare flying overhead, indicating that autumn really has arrived. The first really hard frost of the year or that mid-winter silence - such a deafening silence - that only ever comes when deep snow lies on the ground.

The first little yellow celandine of spring and of course the Swallow and Cuckoo heralding the arrival of warmer days once more. Then the purring of a Turtle dove, along with the background buzz of bees that accompanies the sultry heat of summer.

Not only do I find the seasons reassuring, but I also feel comforted from spotting the ways that nature gets prepared for whatever its next big job is. I know, I know, I'm getting thoroughly soft in my old age!

Here are a few photos I took during last weekend.

Fungi is such a part of that cycle of life, giving that end of year feel

A spider's web - hoping for just one last fly - not helped of course by the dew forming on it!

But so many things are already looking to next year, such as this Oil Seed Rape crop 

And these male Hazel catkins, all ready for next spring's pollination job, even though this years leaves have not yet fallen!

This Wayfaring tree has not wasted any time in getting its buds ready for next year's grand opening!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Farmers passion for the countryside abounds!

The Arun to Adur farmers group - a very exciting project
I have been involved with running a number of courses across the country over the last week or so, which sort of reminded me just how varied my role with the GWCT is!

The cluster of farmers that I helped bring together in the Sussex Downs, so that they could manage the downland that they farm in a more joined up and cohesive way, has gone from strength to strength. As a group they decided to apply for the new Natural England “facilitation fund”, which will enable them to fund someone to oversee and organise what they collectively do.

Enter Colin Hedley, a top notch local independent environmental consultant. He teamed up with the existing group who had already been working so well together, consisting of the farmers of course, ably represented up by whole-hearted and passionate estate manager Peter Knight, myself (GWCT), Sue Simpson (Natural England), Bruce Fowkes (RSPB) and Nigel James (South Downs National Park). A thoroughly refreshing team to work with as we “all sing from the same hymn sheet” – ie: the practical delivery of integrated landscape conservation.

To cut a long story short, the application Colin headed up was successful and the newly named “Arun to Adur” – (Abbreviated to A2A – and so named because it is the area between these two rivers) farmers group held its first meeting to discuss the future ways in which it will deliver the main targets, namely, to improve the conservation of soil, water and wildlife across the downs. (Plus much more besides!)

It is a fantastically enthusiastic group consisting of 24 farmers (which is already rising!) who farm and look after some 8299 hectares of the South Downs and I’m quite sure that with Colin’s leadership, the group will thrive. You will be hearing more about the A2A farmers group over the coming months.

Farmers learning about birds at Richard Matthew's farm in Oxfordshire

The next stop was to help run a “Farmland bird event” in Oxfordshire, organised by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) adviser in the county Tim Clarke and we were also joined by RSPB adviser Kirsty Brannan. The morning event took place on Richard Matthew’s farm at Caswell, not far from Witney. Richard is a good friend of mine and I have over the years seen him transform his farm into a top notch example of how to integrate conservation into good farming practice.  Richard is also a keen rugby enthusiast, so once we had discussed the woes of the England team, we set all set off to look around his delightful farm.

Birds abounded! We saw Little Egret, Heron, Kingfisher, Yellowhammer, Linnet, Goldfinch, Reed Bunting, Fieldfare and Redwing, just to mention a few! We also saw the reason behind why these birds were in such numbers – lots of wonderful habitats of seed bearing crops grown especially for them, insect rich areas, managed water courses and permanent pasture amongst the arable stubbles. A most enjoyable way to spend a morning!!

The Kings event: To learn about conservation crops, there is no better way than to get in them!

Then onto Buckinghamshire for an event organised by Kings Seeds, a highly professional company that does not just sell conservation and shooting cover crops to land managers, but also goes to great lengths to emphasis best practice while growing them. The event was held at George Eaton’s Rectory farm, the recent winner of the famous Purdy award.

There can be no farmer in the land that can match George for his enthusiasm of “all things countryside”! He is a true ambassador for the farming profession. So it was no surprise that we had a most enjoyable day hearing talks in the wonderful function room he has built. (So that groups ranging from us through to the local Brownies, can be educated in the ways of farming and conservation). This was then followed by a trip around the farm to look at and discuss top quality conservation crops.

So, do not let anyone tell you that there is not much happening out there on farms – because there is so much amazing stuff going on – it really is very heart-warming!     

Monday, 19 October 2015

Pesticide findings are blooming worrying.

A perennial flower margin next to an arable crop - safe haven or not? 
I have just read a very thought-provoking paper from a Sussex University team working on the insecticides known as Neonicotinoids. What made this paper particularly interesting is that the team not only looked at the commercial crops being grown, but also the flowering weeds within the crop and the wildflowers growing in the margins of the field too.

As you might gather from the title of the paper – “NEONICOTINOID RESIDUES IN WILDFLOWERS, A
POTENTIAL ROUTE OF CHRONIC EXPOSURE FOR BEES” -  - the report highlights some potentially very worrying details.

You may recall that “neonics” as they are commonly called, were banned for use in this country on flowering crops such as oil seed rape, while the products were investigated further. This is because the insecticide, which is usually coated onto the seed before planting and then taken up by the crop, is also being detected in the pollen and nectar of these flowering crops. Insects, including bees, then feed on this pollen and nectar, which may or may not affect them. 
The Sussex research found that the large majority (97%) of neonics brought back in pollen to honey bee hives in arable landscapes was from wildflowers, not crops. When the team then looked at these wildflowers growing in arable field margins, they found that the pollen and nectar had concentrations that are sometimes even higher than those found in the commercial crop.

For instance, pollen collected from Hogweed – a very common plant in field margins - often had levels over 10 times that normally found in the crop. “It may be that different plant species differ in their propensity to suck up neonicotinoids from the soil,’ says senior study author Dave Goulson. ‘The concentrations in the wildflowers were very variable, much higher than in the crop.’

Laboratory and semi-field studies on honey bees and bumblebees suggest that exposure of colonies to concentrations approximating those found in pollen and nectar of flowering crops can impair pollen collection, increase worker mortality, weaken immune function, reduce nest growth and the production of new queens.

However, a key point of controversy is whether bees consume enough of these compounds during the flowering period of the crop to do them significant harm. It has thus been argued that the levels of exposure used in these studies may be higher than most bee colonies are likely to experience in the field, based on the premise that exposure to neonics from flowering crops will be diluted by bees also foraging on untreated wildflowers.

What many folk seem to have over-looked is that although neonics are not currently allowed to be used on flowering crop plants, they are still widely used on non-flowering crops such as cereals. Very little of the seed coated pesticide is actually taken up by the crop itself, (not much is needed to be effective) with the vast majority presumably leaching off the seed into the adjacent soil, where it stays for a year or two at least, until it degrades and breaks down. 

Overall, the results from this study demonstrate that the application of neonicotinoid seed dressings to autumn-sown arable crops results in contamination of pollen and nectar of nearby wildflowers throughout the following spring and summer, and that wildflowers were the major route of exposure for bees.

Julian Little, spokesperson for Bayer Crop Science, one of the major manufacturers of neonics, says the paper is ‘very much aligned with the idea that if you can find something, it must be doing harm, which goes against what we know about chemistry: it is the dose that makes the poison’.

Bayer is currently awaiting the results of experiments being conducted by the UK’s Centre for Hydrology & Ecology on neonicotinoids in oilseed rape in England, Hungary and Germany. ‘We are very hopeful that when those results are published sometime next year neonicotinoids will be given a clean bill of health,’ says Little. 

The Sussex University report finishes with some advice for those land managers thinking of planting some wild flower areas to help pollinators. “It would seem best to promote the creation of wildflower patches that are not adjacent to treated crops or on soil in which treated crops have previously been grown to avoid exposure to neonicotinoid residues via this route.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Learning the art of joined up countryside management

GWCT colleague Mike Swan discussing the finer points of driving good quality Pheasants over the guns

Over the last week I have been involved with training a good mixture of different people in, well for want of a better title, countryside management.  

I joined up with work colleague Jim Egan at the GWCT Allerton Trust farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, for a two day course training a dozen agronomists. As I write this, I thought “will everyone reading this know what an agronomist is? So, I looked it up in the Oxford dictionary – even though I used to work in days gone by as a fully trained agronomist!

It says that agronomy is “the science of cultivation of land, soil management, and crop production”. Sure, this is what a field agronomist advises farmers on – but I think that needs up-dating!! For instance, I would really like to see the words “water” and “environment” in there somewhere!

So much of a modern day agronomist’s life is concerned with minimising the impact of what they do on the environment, not only within the cropped field itself, but also on the wider landscape. So the training course covered topics as diverse as the life cycles of the Skylark and Brown Hare, to the best ways to buffer water courses, through to the correct disposal of farm waste such as spray cans and controlling pests by encouraging beneficial insects that will do the job for them. None of these topics sit that comfortably under the Oxford definition!

It may sound surprising to many folk, but I think that a top notch agronomist is key to delivering quality conservation on a farm. He or she can make such a difference to every aspect of the farm. After all, along with the farmer, they probably know the farm better than anyone as they constantly walk the fields throughout the year.  

My next stop was the Temple estate near Marlborough, for the annual outing of Cirencester University students. Two coach loads (plus assorted cars!) bring students from a range of courses who hope to one day be in charge of a farm or estate themselves, or maybe working as land agents or as surveyors. Indeed, one cheerful girl told me when I asked her what she thought she might do as a career, replied very quickly – "your job would be absolutely perfect". At my age, that can be really quite disconcerting!

The Marlborough Downs could not have looked more perfect on a bright, sunlight day, as my colleagues Mike Swan and Austin Weldon helped me show the students around the estate. Once again we covered a wide range of topics around the running of a large commercial estate.

Then onto Sparsholt college in Hampshire to give a lecture to the “Ecology and conservation” students on the topic of “Landscape scale conservation”. I say “lecture” which sounds rather grand – more of a discussion really, as I like students to air their own opinions and ask lots of challenging questions. This group, overseen by good friend and course leader Matthew Norris-Hill were a great mix of ages and skill sets, so it was a lively debate and I think (hope) that they got plenty from the two hours.

Part of the GWCT’s charitable status is that we “educate” and I think that in general students and professionals alike, find our practical approach, largely based on our own research, refreshing. That is what they tell us anyway!!

It is always most rewarding when in years to come, you bump into an individual who is overseeing an estate or project, that you once lectured as a young faced student!    



Monday, 5 October 2015

Black rustic, frosted orange and beautifully patterned greens! It must be autumn!

I put the moth trap out over the weekend and despite the temperature dropping to four degrees, I had a reasonable catch!

Black Rustic

Top of the billing was a record 55 Black rustics - a sooty black moth with a couple of slightly orangey new moon shapes on the main wing. They are a classic autumn moth, flying only in September and October and although a common species, it is good to see them doing so well.

Frosted Orange 

Two Frosted Orange moths also put in an appearance, which was great as I always think that if you had to design an "autumn coloured moth" then you would probably come up with a Frosted Orange! What a great name too! Once again they predominantly fly in September and October and although not numerous, are quite a common moth.

A Merveille du Jour - one of my favourite moths!

But then, hiding away on almost the last egg carton to be taken out of the trap was the "wonder of the day" - and one of my favourite moths - a Merveille du jour!  This is such a stunning creature with the most beautiful patterned mix of greens and black, designed specifically for it to disappear when sitting on a lichen clad tree trunk!

The Merveille du jour is the least common of these three autumnal moths, being relatively thinly spread, but when it does turn up in a September or October moth trap, especially if it has recently hatched out and is in pristine condition, it really gladdens the heart!

I hope you enjoy seeing these hidden gems of the autumn night!


Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A world of birds, both near and far.

I have never been a “twitcher” – a birdwatcher whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds – however we all, I’m sure, like to come across something out of the ordinary or that we have never ever seen before. Quite a number of ornithologists will keep lists – I think it is largely a male trait (but I stand to be corrected!). Now there is a new number one “world lister” who rules the roost and can crow from the top of his tree!

American birder Noah Strycker has beaten the world year-listing record by notching up an unbelievable 4,342 species, and he still has over three months to go! I imagine this obsessive hobby is costing him an absolute fortune as he wanders the world. Mind you, I bet this quest of his is taking him to some amazing out of the way places. I only hope he is stopping to take it all in – not just the bird he is “ticking off”!

Back down to earth and a little closer to home, it must have been quite a shock for Kentish birder Martin Casemore (or is that a birder from Kent) to be pootling about on his Dungeness home patch last week, only to come across an exhausted Acadian flycatcher sitting on the beach!

The little bird eventually perked up and moved to nearby gardens, which offered it some habitat in which to shelter and find food. If the so called “experts” do indeed confirm that it is an Acadian flycatcher, then it will be the first British record of this North American species, and only the second on this side of the Atlantic after one was found dead in Iceland on 4 November 1967.

These diminutive flycatchers weigh less than half an ounce and yet amazingly, it has made its way across the Atlantic ocean, albeit probably blasted here by storm force winds. The poor little thing obviously got itself in a right old pickle as it should have been in either an eastern North American forest, where they breed, or in another woodland in northern South America where they over-winter.

Meanwhile, back on my own patch surrounding my house, I am being royally entertained each morning by the delightful song of a Woodlark; he is just a small dot flying high up in the blue sky, making the most of these still, windless mornings, brought about by the huge high pressure which currently sits over the UK. 

A woodlark singing away above my house - definitely a big enough treat for me! 

Monday, 21 September 2015

3B continues to shriek all day long!

3B in full "shriek"!! 

Back on the 2nd of September I wrote a blog about how noisy the countryside can be sometimes, mentioning one particularly loud Buzzard youngster that has become known as 3B (bloody baby buzzard!)

Well, 3B is still around and looking in good condition, but the trouble is that he/she shows no sign of quitting the monotonous shrieking call, presumably asking to be fed. The problem is that, not once in the last month have I seen a parent show any attention to the youngster at all, so I think that 3B now sees me as the best bet for a potential scoff - after all, the "other" animals around the house seem to be fed on a regular basis!

As a consequence, every time I go into the garden, 3B arrives and sits in one of the surrounding trees and watches me intently, all the time yelling at me to be given a square meal!

I imagine (and hope) that it will not be long before 3B gets kicked out of the area by other Buzzards, to find his/her own territory. My only worry is that all the other local Buzzards have also become so fed up with the constant begging, that they have cleared off, leaving 3B behind to continue this agonizing background noise for many a month to come!

On another note, you might notice in the photo that 3B is sitting in an Ash tree which is laden with "keys" - the name given to an Ash tree's seed. Lets hope that this abundance of keys is a response to the arrival of "Ash die-back disease" in the area, and some of this seed will produce saplings that are immune, so that this common tree still has a role to play in our future landscape.


Saturday, 19 September 2015

It was all happening in the South Downs National Park yesterday!

Clare Moriarty, third from left, visits the Duke of Norfolk's Arundel estate.  
My job as a “biodiversity adviser” for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust means that, to be honest, no two days are ever the same! Take yesterday for example.

In the morning I spoke at a conference in Midhurst, (My topic was working with farmers on a landscape scale to deliver conservation) organised for the South Downs National Park Rangers.

These are the guys who actually get their hands dirty and also have jobs that are often wide ranging in character too. They look after many different aspects within the Park, from managing nature reserves to working alongside landowners on various conservation matters, implementing grazing regimes and delivering a wide number of different projects.

I had one interesting conversation with a ranger over a coffee prior to the conference starting, who was overseeing the re-introduction of water voles onto the river Meon. Mink had in the past completely wiped out the species from most of the catchment, so following advice and help from GWCT adviser Mike Swan, she was now running a highly successful project using GWCT mink rafts to enable her to control Mink throughout the catchment, using many volunteers to check the rafts. 

If you would like to know more about these rafts – go to:    

Having worked with landowners to ensure that the habitat alongside the river was also in good order, as well as controlling mink numbers, water voles were then introduced. She told me that there is now good evidence of breeding and that one particular individual was filmed some 7km up-stream from the release site! 

Following my talk, I then legged it down to the Duke of Norfolk’s estate at Arundel, to help show the new “Permanent Secretary for Defra”, Clare Moriarty, around the wonderful grey partridge restoration project there.

Full credit to Clare that she has only been in post for a few weeks and is already getting out onto farms to find out how DEFRA’s money is being spent and what it delivers. This estate is ideal to showcase what can be done using Stewardship scheme money, as the team here really do produce top quality habitats, coupled with excellent targeted predator control, to deliver tangible results.

I think (hope!) that Clare was really impressed by what she saw, which of course included a covey or two of Grey partridge! I know that she was also left in no doubt that it is not just money that delivers this sort of high quality conservation, but also enthusiastic team work coupled with good advice.

Peter Knight the estate manager, runs a wonderful team of dedicated people whose enthusiasm is infectious. Importantly too, he has surrounded himself with some really top advisers who are very much part of this team - crucial to delivering on the ground results.

Let’s hope these key messages become an integral part of DEFRA’s thinking among those who sit around the top table.