Sunday, 31 May 2015

A new GWCT Blog has just been launched and will become a "must read" I'm sure!

An early morning view on the Rotherfield Park estate, taken while I was doing a recent bird survey.
The GWCT has just launched a new Blog all about one of our major research projects at Rotherfield Park in Hampshire, so that you can follow the different activities from season to season on this wonderful rural estate.

Dr Francis Buner heads up the project and lives on the estate, so is very well placed to keep you up to date on what is happening on the farming, game bird and wildlife fronts. Francis is a passionate conservationist and a very good all round naturalist, but has a particular love for the Grey partridge.

Francis and I carry out the bird surveys on the estate on behalf of the GWCT, so I have a fairly regular catch up with him and know the estate well, so I am really pleased that this Blog has been launched, because I’m quite sure that he will fascinate you with snippets of interest, covering an incredibly wide range of topics.

So, save this link to your favourites as I’m sure it will in time become just that – a favourite!!     

I have also just been reading another one of the GWCT’s blogs which never ever ceases to amaze me – the Blog all about our Woodcock research. I have just taken this from the latest up-date to give you an example of what I mean!

“As you probably know, the satellite tags attached to each of our woodcock are solar powered which is why we sometimes go weeks without hearing from certain birds, depending upon their location.

It is therefore quite amusing to note that 
Nellie is currently in the Norwegian town of Rjukan, located in a valley where three giant mountainside mirrors are used to reflect natural sunlight on to residents in the winter months”.

Now that is what I call a considerate Woodcock! Read more about these incredible birds at:

Monday, 25 May 2015

No way! This is not acceptable.

A trashed pathway - more needs to be done than one or two signs being put up.  
Off road vehicles that use public rights of way that are not open to them, has been an issue for as long as I can remember, but in some places this abuse is reaching such a level, that rather ironically, you ideally need a combination amphibious / 4 wheel drive craft to negotiate some of these paths!

I was up and out early again this morning, as it is the time of year when surveys of all sorts kick in and dry sunny mornings just can’t be allowed to pass, while one dozes away in bed. Absolutely not a problem however, as I adore this time of year, especially the first 3 hours of daylight which are so magical.

My bird survey took me through some wonderful ancient semi-natural woodland, bluebells just beginning to go over, roe deer barking alarm calls as I quietly walked along the narrow path, whispering the great array of species seen and heard into my Dictaphone, to be written up at a later stage.

Eventually my little path joined a larger track-way, which I have to say resembled some of the tank roadways that I have seen criss-crossing the Salisbury plain army ranges. It was in such a state that I struggled to make my way along it and was grateful that I had decided to wear wellies rather than walking boots. It will take a lot of effort to get it back into a passable state.

I know that this path is a public right of way, but is certainly not a BOAT – “Byway open to all traffic” (could have done with a boat though to navigate the deeper water!) so why was it in such a state?

The answer lay in the form of a sign, displayed on a post as the track eventually joined the tarmac lane – it had been trashed by numerous motorbikes and various jeeps that seem to spend Sundays charging around the countryside. The police are obviously trying to address the problem, however they will need to do more than just put up a few signs, as I have often stopped young lads on motorbikes and older men in jazzed up Range Rovers, who should know better, and they are really not the slightest bit bothered if they are allowed or not. 

Impound a few vehicles and make them walk home – that might change their minds. I know I’m becoming thoroughly cantankerous in my old age – but can I really not find anywhere to walk in the countryside without hearing the vroom, vroom of a vehicle racing up behind me, resulting in pathways trashed beyond recognition?  

It could not be any clearer could it?

It is a start, but the police need to follow up these words with action!  


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A bout of "Sharming" shatters the early morning tranquility!

A water rail fleeing the battle after a bout of "sharming"
I was out early this morning to make the most of a bright and sunny, but chilly May dawn. I decided to have a wander alongside the river Itchen for a change, as water always looks so amazing on these sparkly mornings, with a little steam lifting off the surface as the sun’s first rays strike the clear water.

We (Lurcher Rosie, my trusty companion alongside) walked quietly along the water meadows next to the bubbling water, listening to the birdsong as we went. Song thrush, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Blackcap and Blackbird filled the air with their constant bursts of song, while a Grey wagtail flitted about, seemingly unhappy about Rosie being in the vicinity of a nest, safely hidden away somewhere close by.

Suddenly, an incredibly loud “squeal” shattered the morning’s peace, putting Rosie almost onto a full “point” – ready to give chase to the wild piglet sounding creature should it try to flee! As we stood and waited, more loud squeals, shrieks, grunts and groans emerged from the rushes beside the river. There was obviously quite a battle in progress and Rosie dearly wanted to join in as it all sounded such fun!

Eventually one of the culprits, I suspect the loser, emerged from the thick cover to flap and run down the water’s edge to safety – a Water rail. Battle over, the morning returned to a more tranquil setting, birdsong and bubbling waters once more dominating the morning airwaves.

I quite often hear these rather shy and retiring birds, who like to remain hidden away as much as possible. In fact to see one and not just hear it is quite a treat. When they produce these outbursts of noise, far more mammal like than bird like I always think, it is known as “Sharming”. They can be heard from late winter and throughout the spring, as they defend their territories and hold explosive courtship displays.

I would have thought that all this would have been organised by mid May, but obviously there are just one or two more battles still to be fought out before final territorial boundaries are firmly in place! 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Dirt fishing and screamers are discussed in the local!

I do love a good pub! So, I'm very lucky that I have a really excellent local in the village where I live (Cheriton in Hampshire) – the Flower Pots. They brew their own award winning beer in a barn on the other side of the car park, play no music and much prefer dogs to children!

All of this is very conducive to actually holding a conversation with whoever happens to be propping up the bar, resulting in an absurdly wide range of topics covered over the years! The other night was no exception as the banter turned to “dirt fishing” and “Screamers”!! Let me explain!

I got chatting to Paul McTaggart, someone I have known for many years, and the discussion turned to his hobby of metal detecting. He told me about many of the fascinating things he has found on his local patch - basically hunting across just three fields which immediately surround the village.

While we chatted about the history of these objects, I became acutely aware of how little time any of us spend on this earth, and that we come into it with nothing and we leave it with nothing – even treasured possessions discarded for someone to find centuries later and natter about over a pint or two. We all need to remind ourselves of this fact on a regular basis as it might, just might influence how we behave. 
Paul has since lent me some of these artefacts as I said I would love to blog about them – see below:
But before you take a look, you might be interested to know that the metal detecting fraternity have a language all of their own! “Dirt fishing” means metal detecting on soil – not beaches. A screamer is a super high quality signal that is loud in the headphones and often results in a high quality find, such as a large silver coin or artefact.

They also sign off with the letters HH, meaning “happy hunting” – which just by chance was also once the name of another pub in the village – the HH pub, now unfortunately closed, which took its name from the Hampshire Hunt – which thankfully is still in good health!

Some of the artefacts found from just 3 fields around the village of Cheriton in Hampshire 

C.1070 - 1140, copper alloy stirrup-strap mount, depicting a lion, standing on three legs with one foreleg raised and the head thrown back

C. 1400 - 1500 copper alloy strap fitting, possibly relating to a sword-belt hook or for suspending a purse  

C 1600 - 1700 incomplete copper alloy hooked tag and attachment link, probably from a sword belt or baldrick 

A worn, 17th century halfpenny trade token of James Withers, tallow chandler from nearby Alresford

C. 1250 - 1300 copper alloy pointed-oval seal matrix on the right. When used, on the left, you can see it depicts a four-legged creature, probably a dog. It is possible that the letters spell out the word "S Ricardi de Wivelsdene". A Wilvelsden farm is located close to the village of Wivelsfield near Haywards Heath in East Sussex.  

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Black & blue, yellow & white - the countryside is in a vibrantly colourful mood!

I was out doing a bird survey this morning and found it quite difficult to concentrate on them - there is just so much to look at - the countryside is so stunning at the moment! I did see two different Spotted Flycatchers - the first two of the year - so that was a treat. Thought I would put up a few photos for you to enjoy.

Bluebells and Ransoms (wild garlic) - such a stunning sight at this time of year

Add a little yellow in the form of oil seed rape in the distance - WOW - a colourful scene!

Oh no! Oil or some pollutant in the pond.

Phew - a closer look just revealed thousands of Taddies!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

A marginal decision from Europe - but I welcome it!

A grass margin - actually offers a number of benefits to the farm 
For what seems like an eternity, numerous organisations, including the GWCT, have been asking Europe to clarify if temporary grassland, including grass margins, placed on arable land under a government Stewardship Scheme can retain its arable status. This is important, because many farmers feared that if these areas of grass within their Stewardship Scheme stayed down for too long, Government might have to designate them as “permanent grass”, and in turn not allow them to ever be returned into arable production. 

This has resulted in a number of grass margins and field corners being ploughed up, not because the farmers wanted them back into production, but because he wanted to retain the possibility to do this in the future. In some cases they have been destroyed, cropped for one year and then sown back into grass once more – crazy or what! But, I hasten to add, understandable. Farmers should never have their hands tied behind their backs like this.
Anyway – good news! Finally, DEFRA’s Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has announced that the EU Commission has clarified that, in effect, the status of grassland that is placed within an Agri-environment scheme is “frozen” throughout the duration of the agreement and resumes the moment the agreement ends. So, for example, if land is in grass for three years and then goes into an agri-environment agreement for five or 10 years, on completion of the agreement the clock starts at year four, provided the land is still in grass.

This ruling will result in farmers being far happier to place temporary grass into Stewardship Schemes or Ecological Focus Areas under “Greening”, so I for one welcome the decision.

The good old grass margin has begun to receive quite a number of negative comments from a range of sources. “Money for old rope”, “they really don’t offer much”, “there are far too many of them” are just some of the comments I hear. I disagree.

I am old enough to remember the days when hedge bottoms were sprayed out and the plough was pushed in as close as possible, churning up the hedge's roots as it went along. There was no place left for wildlife and the hedges themselves suffered too, as they might as well have been planted in a narrow trough for all the room the roots were given.

So, grass margins give hedges breathing space and move agricultural inputs further out into the field, thereby acting as a buffer. This buffering element is of course absolutely crucial when grass margins are placed next to a water course of any sort – playing a fundamental role in keeping water clean.

Grey Partridge, Pheasant, Whitethroat and Yellowhammer are just some of the birds that use grass margins to nest in, as do Harvest mice. Raptors of all sorts hunt small mammals along these margins. Numerous butterflies use these grass strips to breed, and if part of the margin is left uncut, then they will successfully over-winter here too, along with literally trillions of other beneficial insects joining them to hunker down in the tussocky grass to hibernate.

I could go on (and on ….!) but I won’t as I can quite easily bore for Britain (and Europe too it now appears!) on this subject. Just take it from me - they are very worthwhile!


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Pootling in Portugal

 I have been in Portugal during the last week, enjoying good food and wine, warm sunny weather, wonderful landscapes and of course wildlife - especially birds. I love going to the Mediterranean at this time of year because the flowers are spectacular, butterflies are on the wing and many birds are in the middle of migration meaning that all sorts of species can be seen.

The birds are also in full breeding plumage, making them very smart indeed. Many of the waders are busy feeding, washing and tending to feathers and resting, before the big fly north - many going right up into the Arctic circle.

Some of the more exciting bird species seen included: Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Black Kite, Montague Harrier, Calandra Lark, Great & Little Bustard, Great Grey Shrike, Purple Gallinule, Short-toed Tree-creeper, Stone Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Little Tern, Little Stint, Whimbrel, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Ortolan Bunting, Pallid Swift, Bee-eater, Azure-winged Magpie, Hoopoe, Crested Tit, Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove, Quail (not seen - but frequently heard!), Nightingale, Common Waxbill, Crag Martin, Woodlark, Rock Bunting and Spanish Sparrow.

Here are one or two photographs to give you the flavour of the week!        

My favourite place was the central plains - not a place that many people venture to!

Still in the plains - this was Great and Little Bustard country along with many, many other species.

Many of the waders such as this Dunlin were frantically feeding up before the long haul north 

Plenty of washing and preening was going on to get feathers in good order. Here a group made up of Dunlin, Kentish Plover and Little Ringed Plover

Waders resting up. Here, Knot in spectacular summer breeding plumage join Dunlin and Little ringed plover.

Turnstone look so handsome at this time of year. These were taking a siesta between feeds!

Some species had not yet got into summer breeding plumage - just to keep you on your toes! Here a Curlew Sandpiper is starting to change from winter to summer