Sunday, 19 April 2015

Why not go for a walk in the countryside? Fat chance!

The countryside offers many ways to help tackle obesity
The other day I followed a family of four out of a supermarket and as they got outside, they all stopped so that each of them could open up the tin of Coca-Cola that they were carrying. Why am I mentioning this rather boring everyday occurrence? Well, the reason is that this family were all incredibly obese, to the extent that the parents obviously found walking quite difficult.

I wondered if they knew that to get the same number of carbs contained in each one of their 12 oz cans of Coca-Cola, they would need to drink roughly two 750 ml bottles of wine. As for the sugar content, to get the same amount of sugar from just one can of Cola would mean that they would need to drink roughly 6 bottles of red wine or munch on the equivalent of 10 sugar cubes. 

Now, I quickly want to say that I am no angel! I love my food and I drink way more alcohol than is recommended as a sensible daily rate.

However, eating a poor diet which includes too many high-fat and sugary foods, coupled with inactivity, has now become a major issue in this country.  Many of us are spending too much time watching television or stuck in front of a computer.

There has been a marked increase in the proportion of adults that were obese in 1993, from 13.2 per cent to 26.0 per cent in 2013 for men, and from 16.4 per cent to 23.8 per cent for women. One in three children in the UK are also now overweight, while one in five is obese, with the number of children who are classified as obese, having more than tripled in England over the past 25 years. 

This is putting huge pressure on our National Health system, with around 12,000 hospital admissions a year for obesity related conditions. Experts believe that being significantly overweight is responsible for a wide range of health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and infertility.

So, what role can our countryside play in trying to address this crisis?

Well, I think there are two very obvious ways it can help.

We need to collectively get off our backsides as a nation and get walking, jogging, cycling, fishing, shooting/beating, riding, hunting (beagling – now there is a way to get fit!), orienteering, rock climbing, bird watching and just about anything else that gets us out of the house and into the beautiful countryside, for some fresh air and exercise.

Secondly, we can source good, fresh, British food and prepare and cook it ourselves! I believe that so much of this problem lies in hidden “additives” such as the vast amount of sugar that is in prepared foods. I have mentioned Coca-Cola, but even an ordinary tin of baked beans can contain up to 3 teaspoons of sugar – how ridiculous is that!

Children need to be taught how to cook and be involved in food preparation from an early age. They need to handle the “raw” ingredients, so that they know what to do with an onion or a Chicken and realise that not everything comes out of a packet or can.

This is just not happening in many homes, so I believe it should be given a much higher priority in our primary schools. Teaching kids about their nutritional needs and fostering healthy eating habits early in life is so important, as it can help children form a solid foundation for good health and well-being throughout their life!

What is more, ALL children should have visited a farm at least once before leaving primary school, to find out where their food comes from. This should be built into the curriculum, and made much easier for schools to accomplish. Some red tape needs cutting – how daft that you must have wash basins available in case a child has touched something "dirty" such as a farm animal, and yet we seem to be very relaxed that a company can add the equivalent of 10 sugar cubes into a can of soft drink.

Jamie Oliver can’t do it all on his own – whatever the make-up of the next government, they need to seriously tackle this problem as a priority. We keep saying how we need to do something otherwise we are storing up the most monumental difficulties for future generations. Well, I'm not so sure, I think the problem is already here!  

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A rather "barren" foraging time for me this summer!

A Thrush? No, a baby Robin!
On the 7th April I wrote a blog entitled “Ancient & modern, massive & tiny” in which I made a comment about wild strawberries - “later in the year it can produce its tiny strawberry fruits, which taste so deliciously sweet”. A couple of days later I received an E-mail from a reader of my Blog, which said:

Dear Peter
Sorry to be a spoilsport but the plant in the picture illustrating the elegant piece of writing is Barren Strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) not Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca). You can tell this because the petals of the flower do not overlap - in the true Wild Strawberry they do. Barren Strawberry, true to its name, produces only a small dry fruit - nothing edible.
Best wishes,
Mike Lock.

Obviously, Ray Mears I am not! Foraging for a “wild” picnic in the countryside with me could be a wonderful new way to diet!!

This started me thinking about how many things are misidentified in the countryside and wondering how many observations are sent in as records that are actually not quite correct.

There are common ones such as spotting a Yellow Wagtail in January – almost certainly a Grey wagtail, (which does have lots of yellow on it) as Yellow wagtails do not over-winter here. Tree sparrows and House sparrows are muddled up, as are Willow tit and Marsh tit. Baby Robins that have no redbreast to start with, are often recorded as baby thrushes. These are just a few mistakes from the bird world.

I do find it refreshing that often so called “experts” also quite often get things wrong – even if only momentarily!
Here are a few:

The late, great Sir Peter Scott was sea-watching one day with an enthusiastic and adoring crowd of admirers. As he scanned the horizon, he confidently called out ''Hobby chasing a Swift''. As the 'birds' moved closer, it transpired that the 'Hobby' was in fact a Swallow and the 'Swift' a bumblebee!

A Shrike had been recorded in the Norfolk Brecks and several birders were gathered at the point where the bird had last been seen. Suddenly a shout of ''Got it! Third gorse bush from the left to the right of the second pylon!'' One co-observer calmly replied ''Erm, where exactly is it in relation to the faded cheese and onion crisp packet?''

Another good one is the story about a group of “twitchers” who had gathered on the Isles of Scilly to 'tick' a tired Nighthawk (a kind of North American nightjar) which had settled down in a grass field. After quite a long time taking photographs and discussing the rarity, it was suggested that they might all be able to move a little closer. Slowly, the assembled group moved silently forward, only to discover that they had all been watching a cowpat!

So, thank you to Mike Lock for pointing out my mistaken strawberry plant – this is how we all learn – from each other. I am absolutely sure however, that it will not be long before I blunder again on something else! (Please correct me if I do!).

I often say that if one could spend the whole of one’s life studying an individual species or niche habitat such an old tree, we would still not know half of what there is to discover. Multiply that across the whole countryside and it becomes a big, fascinating subject!

Anyone want to come with me to forage a few wild mushrooms for supper?


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Winter in Hampshire, summer in Iceland - for quite a few years now!

The well travelled Black-tailed Godwit

A good friend of mine Eric Trickle contacted me the other day, to tell me that he had photographed a Black-tailed Godwit on Friday 27 March 2015 on the Hamble River near Warsash in Southampton. This individual had a number of coloured rings on its legs and was therefore obviously part of some project, so Eric made some enquiries.

To cut a long story short, well known ornithologist Pete Potts from the Farlington Ringing Group supplied the information on this bird and revealed that it was quite an age!

It was first ringed on the 16th of November 1998 by Pete at Farlington Marshes on the outskirts of Portsmouth and has since been seen many times over the years, mostly along this stretch of coastline.

However, on the 2nd of May 2002 it was recorded at Alftafjorour, south of Djupivog in South East Iceland. Many of our over-wintering Black-tailed Godwits go to breed in Iceland. 

It was spotted again in Iceland on the 20th April, 2011 this time at Landeyjar, Rangarvallasysla in the Southern part of the country.

It was spotted on the 14th September 2012 at Snettisham RSPB reserve in North Norfolk, probably resting up as it travelled back to the south coast,  to find its favourite over-wintering quarters once again.

So it was great that Eric has now confirmed that this bird is still alive and well at the ripe old age of, well at least 17. It still has a bit to go if it to break the UK longevity record for a Black-tailed Godwit though, as this stands at 23 years and 3 months old!      

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Ancient & modern, massive & tiny!

The ancient Yew at Dunsfold

I went to have lunch and catch up with old friends over the weekend, which took me to Dunsfold in Surrey. After lunch we all went for a walk, which gave me the chance to familiarise myself with this rather hidden part of Surrey, which is as some of you might know, the most wooded county in England.

As we walked back into the village we passed the church of St Mary and All Saints. William Morris, the renowned artist, designer, writer and socialist, said of this building that it was, "The most beautiful country church in all England".

Dunsfold Church is a complete 13th Century building situated in an idyllic rural setting and is indeed very lovely. However, as I walked around the corner of the building on my way to the main entrance, my eyes fell on the most incredible sight – one you could almost describe as a vision!! There was one of the most enormous ancient Yew trees that I have ever seen.

Apparently, the girth of the tree has just been measured last month and is around 7.72 metres, measured at a height of 1 metre from the ground. This amazing tree is also reckoned to be around 1500 years old and seems in good health despite a completely hollow trunk which you can walk straight into! You cannot help but stand under its boughs and wonder at the sights, sounds and changes that this tree has witnessed.

In total contrast I walked in woods close to my house back in Hampshire yesterday and marvelled at the brand new, freshly emerging flowers that covered the woodland floor. I watched numerous Bee-flies nectaring on the flowers of wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca). 

This is an interesting insect, being a bee mimic - it resembles a small bumblebee, but is no such thing! The adult flies are striking and have a hairy body with long hairy legs and a characteristically long, slender tongue which they use for nectar retrieval whilst hovering, humming bird-like, beside a flower head. The larvae of this species parasitise beetle grubs, as well as the broods of solitary wasps and bees.

Watching and trying to photograph these fast moving creatures, made me also take a much closer look at the flowers of the miniature Strawberry plants that they were feeding on, noticing for the first time that the petals are heart shaped, which I had not spotted before.

Such a beautiful little flower when observed close up. So fresh and new, waiting to be pollinated by Bee flies in the warm spring sunshine, so that later in the year it can produce its tiny strawberry fruits, which taste so deliciously sweet. Such a brief life when compared to the massive, ancient Yew tree in Surrey.

Both species had a similar impact on me though – one of complete marvel at their beauty and place in this incredible world in which we live.    
A Bee fly nectaring on a little wild Strawberry flower

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Farmers flock to record their birds!

The Blackbird was the most commonly seen bird in the BFBC this year!
So this year’s GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC) figures are published - and what a success it has been!  

In just the 2nd year of this exciting initiative, over 950 farmers took part, which is very nearly double the number that participated in 2014! (And some people say farmers are not that interested in wildlife!!) Their collective efforts recorded a whopping 127 different species, adding 11 “new” species to the list when compared to the 2014 count.

The average farm size of those taking part was 975 acres, which means that those who got involved in the survey, manage a total area of nearly a million acres!! Once again this year, more farmers took part from Norfolk (64) than any other county, with the runner up being Yorkshire (62) for the second time. Every English county was however represented and we also had lots of counts from Scotland, Wales and Ireland too. 

This year we had over 170 people attending the ten farmland bird identification days we ran during January, fine tuning peoples birding skills to help them prepare for the count. These days hopefully gave people the confidence to recognise individual birds on their farm. How good it was to see these days not only run by the GWCT advisory staff, but also with experts from the FWAG Association, RSPB and Natural England, all running workshops too.

The five most abundant birds seen were woodpigeon, starling, rook, fieldfare and chaffinch. These are the same as in 2014 just in a different order. It is great that starlings and fieldfare were seen on over 40% of the farms taking part, making them the most abundant red data list species recorded in the survey.

This year seven of the top 25 most abundant species are on the Red List of Conservation concern; these are linnet, yellowhammer, house sparrow, starling, lapwing, fieldfare and redwing. There were also 13 different species of raptor recorded, with goshawk being seen for the first time in 2015.

The GWCT would struggle to organise the BFBC without sponsorship from BASF, who also fund the bird ID workshops – so a big thank you to them, especially Graham Hartwell who has been incredibly supportive.

What has also helped this year is the fantastic backing we have had from many other organisations, particularly the National Farmers Union (NFU), Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) Country Landowners Association (CLA) and the various independent Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups (FWAG) 

But most of all - a big thank must go to all the farmers who have taken part this year - you all deserve a big pat on the back for making this such a successful project! I hope you will see that we have had a lot of interest from the press, with column after column appearing across a wide section of newspapers and magazines. Both local and national radio and television have also been covering the story.

How brilliant that we have a really up-beat, positive news story being widely reported for once!    

The third Big Farmland Bird Count will take place during the week of 6th – 14th February 2016 and we are planning more training days for January 2016. If you want to find out more – go to: