Friday, 27 February 2015

RSPB project celebrates success by putting out lots of Bunting!!

A Cirl Bunting (RSPB image)
Historically, Cirl (pronounced “Sirl”) buntings were not only present in many parts of southern Britain, but were actually quite common in a number of places. I have recently been looking through an old Winchester College bird club book, which describes them in 1954 as “several near Micheldever, whilst pairs can also be found breeding around the villages of Morstead, Twyford and Brambridge”.

But shortly after this, it soon started to go badly wrong for the “Village Bunting” as the Cirl was often called, because there were very few records received following this account. Before long they were not only lost from Hampshire, but also from most of their former range, so that by the late 1980s they could only be found as a small and vulnerable population of 118 pairs in South Devon.

So, step up the RSPB who in 1988 began to research Cirl bunting ecology and the reasons behind the decline. By the early 1990s and with a much better understanding of what made a Cirl Bunting tick, they started to target the new Government Stewardship scheme at halting the decline of this lovely little bird. They also created a Cirl bunting special project within the scheme, which in particular encouraged farmers to leave spring barley “weedy” stubbles over-winter, which was now known to be really important to this birds ability to over-winter successfully.

But the real breakthrough in my opinion, came when in about 1993 the RSPB employed Cath Jeffs as the Cirl bunting project officer, with the specific remit to work alongside farmers and encourage and advise them on how to manage for this great little bird. A couple of years later funding also came into the project from English Nature (the old name for Natural England).  It was around this time that Cath invited me down to speak to farmers and I have been keenly interested in the project ever since.

What a difference Caths arrival made! It clearly demonstrated that good, practical advice, especially when coupled with bucket loads of enthusiasm, can deliver big time! Between 1992 and 2003, the Cirl bunting population increased by 146 per cent on land that was within the targeted Stewardship scheme! By 2009, another survey estimated the Cirl bunting population to be 862 pairs, another fantastic increase of 24% since 2003.

Remember that all of this success has been delivered by farmers. It is they who have listened to the practical advice, understood the plight of this little bunting and acted together on a landscape scale, by implementing the habitats required, using the options available in the Stewardship scheme. So don’t tell me that farmers are too busy to care or are disinterested in delivering conservation on their farms – this project, working alongside farmers, blows that myth (if it ever existed) right out of the water.
On the strength of this Devon project, the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project - a partnership project between the RSPB, Natural England (NE), the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London – began in 2006. The aim of this project was to re-establish a self-sustaining population of Cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall, by taking chicks (under license from NE) from nests in healthy populations in south Devon, and translocating them to the site in south Cornwall.

Has this re-introduction project worked? Well, “yes” in a word it has! Cath has just sent me an up-date – so have a look for yourselves by going to this link:

Friday, 20 February 2015

Partnerships - working together delivers!

Outstanding in their field! Farmers out on the field scale cover crop trial plots
I have had my “Campaign for the Farmed Environment – CFE” hat on this week and been involved with two events which attracted an impressive 150 farmers and advisers. What I think has made the meetings so good is that they have very much been delivered through “partnerships” – different organisations working together and pooling their diverse expertise. Add to this a healthy dose of “practicality” and you have the right ingredients to put on an informative and interesting session.

The first one was in Devon and was organised by Roland Stonex of the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (South West), who lined up an array of speakers to cover soils, water and the environment. Following the demise of the national FWAG organisation a few years back, many new independent FWAG groups have formed and are now thriving – FWAG SW being a prime example! A couple of farmers spoke at the conference of how incredibly important FWAG had been to their businesses and there is no doubt that they are delivering good, local, practical advice which is vital if a farm is to have bright green credentials. 

Then I was back in my own county of Hampshire, helping with a Cover Crops Event organised by Test & Itchen Catchment Sensitive Farming, Growhow, Kings Seeds, Agrii and Wheatsheaf farming. Add to that CFE as well and it sounds a bit of an overkill doesn’t it! But if you have to plant and look after trial plots of crops, take measurements and get them analysed, organise venues and find knowledgeable speakers to enable a discussion on all aspects of what a cover crop can offer – well you need a few folk!

There is another important message in organising events with partner organisations too. Farmers are busy people, so if they can go to a “one-stop-shop” and get all the information that they require on a topic, that is also relevant to their area, then they see this as a win-win.

Hopefully, gone are the days when you had to go to a soils event, then a water workshop and finally if you had time attend a wildlife based day. They are of course intricately linked and so advice needs to be across the board.

Finally, by working together within partnerships definitely helps to clarify the “ask” – what collectively we would like farmers to deliver. We have been guilty in the past I believe, of delivering rather mixed messages to farmers, leaving them slightly bewildered as to what exactly they should be doing. I'm not saying that all organisations agree on everything nowadays – but a simple, joined up practical message from us goes a long way to getting things achieved on the ground.

And that surely, is what it is all about!    

Tim Clarke from CFE - the main organiser of the cover crops meeting 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Professor Oliver Rackham - a very short tribute

The great man himself - encyclopaedic knowledge about our countryside
I heard today that one of the true greats of the conservation world has died. Professor Oliver Rackham OBE MA PhD FBA, died in Papworth hospital on 12 February 2015, aged 75 years.

He had a lifelong connection with Corpus Christi college, Cambridge, having been an under-graduate there, he went on to specialise as a historical ecologist. He became Master of the College 2007-8, Fellow of the College 1964-2007 and 2008-2010, Honorary Fellow 2008-2015 and Life Fellow 2010-2015. He was awarded the OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours in 1998 for "services to nature conservation". 

I suppose that “services to nature conservation” is OK as far as it goes, but I expect quite a number of people have been given gongs for that. Also the word “services” sounds so boring, when in fact there was little that was dull about this extraordinary man.

No, he should have been given his award for “opening the eyes of countless people, enabling them to understand the landscape in front of them and for his ability to enthuse, educate and inspire!” 

His books about the British countryside, perhaps especially “The History of the Countryside” and “Ancient Woodland” should be read by everyone with even just a hint of interest in what makes our landscape look the way it does. These two books, amongst others he wrote, certainly had a great impact on me when I first read them and I continue to dip into their fascinating pages with regularity to this day.

I was lucky enough to have heard him lecture on a number of occasions, and what always struck me is that once he started talking, he almost became part of the landscape himself, completely living and breathing it!

Yes, he was quite an eccentric and had many strong views on the rights and wrongs of how we “manage” the countryside in today’s world. What is more, he certainly did not shrink away from telling you exactly how he saw it, (how refreshing!), but with his outstanding, encyclopaedic knowledge, gleaned over many, many years of practical research, I for one found him totally inspiring.

So, if any of you reading this blog have not been influenced by this great man – then this is your chance – do not let it pass – get hold of his books now. You will not regret it.

A walk through the woods and fields will never ever be quite the same again!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Love those game birds - feed them well!

At this time of year Pheasants will start to move into areas that are good nesting sites

I would like to take an opportunity to remind ALL shoots that just because the season is over, does not mean that our responsibility for the game that remains on the land that we manage, has also finished.  

We often talk about the “hungry gap” for farmland birds and of course the same applies to Pheasants and Partridge, especially as they have been used to being fed throughout their lives so far.
Most shoots have clearly got this message as I usually still find fully topped up grain hoppers and keepers continuing to scatter grain and small seed to feed both game and small birds. However, I think that there is still a minority that allow their hoppers to run out once February arrives.

The GWCT has clearly shown that if hen game birds are well fed once they start to lay and incubate eggs, then they are far less likely to desert in poor weather conditions. Also, should the nest be predated, but the hen bird survives, then once again, she will probably lay a second clutch and try once more. But if the same scenario happens to poorly nourished birds who are under-weight, they will simply call it a day and give up.

I think that supplementary feeding should therefore continue into April, and should it turn out to be a late cold spring, then well on into the month of May too. 

If hoppers are still in their “winter” positions within woods, then they should now be moved to good nesting areas, such as along the edge of woods and beside thick shrubby hedges with grass margins. Game birds like to nest within good ground cover, with sunlight shining down, not in the middle of dark, bare woodland!  

It is important to keep feeding game birds through the spring months

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Protected habitat gets in a right old pickle!

Surely the correct place for solar panels?
Question: When does “being green” become more of a “dirty brown” in colour?  Answer: When you want to put a huge new solar farm on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Honestly, I naively imagined that we had moved on somewhat from the Twyford Down days in the early 1990s, when the M3 motorway carved straight through one of the most protected sites in the whole of the UK. We could quite easily have tunnelled beneath it. However, the reason that the tunnel was not chosen was that it added too much to the overall cost.

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics always come to mind when I drive down the M3 and go through the Twyford Down “cutting”:
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone.

Now we find a new proposal to trash a SSSI. This time involving the erection of some 119,280 photovoltaic panels mounted on steel frames fixed by short driven piles. These assemblies are to be arranged in rows along an east-west axis, with the panels facing south. It is proposed that approximately 40.5ha of the site (56%) will be covered in this way, leaving 33ha undeveloped.

And the site for this “green” proposal? Well, this time it is an ancient grassland SSSI at Rampisham in Dorset.

The principle behind the SSSI protection, as reiterated in the recently produced National Planning Policy Framework, is crystal clear: "proposed development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest ... should not normally be permitted.

Natural England, who oversee SSSIs, stated that not only would the construction cause huge damage, but the shade and shelter created by the panels would also substantially alter the habitat and damage the rare and precious ecosystem.

So, that’s that then.

Not a bit of it. On the 15th of January 2015, West Dorset Council's Planning Committee voted to approve the application by British Solar Renewables to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down.

So it comes as very welcome news that Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary for Communities and Local Government, has made his admirably swift decision to put West Dorset Council's grant of planning permission on hold, with an 'Article 25' notice "not to grant planning permission on this application without specific authorisation”.

Government has made a commitment to improve the quality of all of our SSSIs by providing advice and money to enable better management of these top ecological sites. I really don’t think that plonking a massive solar farm on a SSSI was behind their “green” thinking however.

So, come on Mr Pickles, please will you not only pull the plug on this ironically daft project, but also give the council a damn good ear bending at the same time.

While I'm on the subject of Solar panels – can someone tell me why we are using up great chunks of good agricultural land and wildlife habitats for siting these solar farms, when we have thousands and thousands of acres of roof space available? Whenever I have to sit in a motorway queue while trying to drive around one of our major cities such as Birmingham, I always study the vast expanse of roof space that stretches away as far as the eye can see. 

That, Mr Pickles is where you should suggest they put up their solar farm – Birmingham, not rural Dorset.    

Friday, 6 February 2015

The time has arrived to dust off those binoculars!

Don't forget to go and spot some birds during the next week, but remember, some may be quite well hidden!
The Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC) starts tomorrow and lasts for a week, so come on everyone let’s get out and record some birds!

An amazing 1800 people have downloaded the recording sheets from the GWCT website so far, so you are going to be part of something pretty big! If you haven't already got yours - go to:

Having recorded them – please don’t forget to send the records into the GWCT.

Also, you might want to tune into the early evening BBC 1 Countryfile programme this Sunday as they are going to feature the BFBC.

Once we have collated all the results, the GWCT media department will make sure that the press get to know all about what you have discovered!

Most of all – enjoy yourselves – the weather looks set to be fine but cold – so lots of warm clothes!