Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Lots of fun on a "grey" themed evening!

John Phillips addressing this enthusiastic crowd!

Grey partridge are a much loved bird in our countryside and nearly always attract a good audience when we put on a GWCT event to promote best practice for this iconic farmland bird. Last night was no exception as around 60 people turned up at John Phillip’s Far Hill Farm near Fairford in Gloucestershire on a lovely summers evening.

John is last year’s winner of the Cotswold Grey partridge trophy, which is so kindly sponsored by Calmsden Ltd. The trophy is awarded to the person that the judges feel has done the most in the area for the Grey partridge by providing suitable nesting, brood rearing and over-wintering habitats across the farm, as well as supplementary feeding over-winter and targeted predator control.

John farms organically and has put in a wonderful array of different habitats and in particular, the visitors thoroughly enjoyed looking at his striking wild flower margins that grow alongside his incredibly weed free good looking organic crops!

At each stop there was question after question about the intricacies of managing farmland for Greys and other wildlife – indeed we discussed brown hares, lady’s bedstraw, chicory, corn buntings, skylarks and beneficial insects! I could go on!! In between each stop, as people walked along the track-ways through the farm, there was constant chatter, which is of course why so many people attend these events – not only because they love grey partridges but also to meet up with fellow enthusiasts to chat about all things “green”!  (They also attend because it offers a great chance to “snoop” around someone else’s farm!!)

The GWCT grey partridge count scheme is the biggest farmer led scheme in Europe with over 800 people counting their Greys each spring and autumn and sending the results into us to analyse. We also have around a dozen grey partridge groups’ right across the country – the Cotswold group being one of these.     

Do these groups and interested people actually make a difference though? Well yes they most certainly do. For instance, there was an 81% increase in partridge pairs on count farms from 2000 to 2010 when over the country as a whole there was a national decline of 30% in same period. So, still a lot more work to be done, but this core of enthusiasts are spreading the word and proving that modern farming and wildlife CAN co-exist.

Last night we finished up with a Bar-B-Q and a drink or two, where the chatter got even louder, rounding off a splendid evening.

My thanks go to John and his wife Rachel for working so hard to put on such a successful event and for showing us around their beautiful farm.  
If you want to find out more about these grey partridge groups - contact Neville Kingdon at : for more information  

Chat, chat, chat - a big part of the evening is catching up with like-minded folk!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Have you been on a GWCT shoot walk lately? If not - you should try it!

A GWCT shoot walk in Surrey: A warm sunny evening on a beautiful estate - most enjoyable! 
Edward and Lulu Hutley kindly hosted an evening for the GWCT this week, showing us around their delightful estate at Bramley in Surrey. Around 40 people enjoyed looking at the fantastic terrain, made up of hills and valleys, with little copses dotted about here and there. Closer inspection shows however, that these little woods had been specifically laid out to show quality birds over the guns in the valleys below.

We walked into a number of woods to discuss the on-going management of opening up the canopy to allow light onto the woodland floor so as to encourage natural shrubby growth. We also chatted about coppicing and shrub planting - all the things that Pheasants and other wildlife require to thrive within a woodland habitat.

The estate also has a number of impressive fishing lakes enabling an incredibly varied discussion ranging from fish, duck, dragonfly and Mink control.

This was the first time I had visited the estate and I must say - it is a little hidden away gem!
Following all the discussions and debates on the various habitats across the estate, one thing quickly became apparent on returning back to the house - the Hutleys certainly did not need any advice whatsoever on how to entertain their guests!!

We were treated to an enormous hog roast and delicious local beer brewed just down the road, while sitting overlooking yet another lake.

People sometimes say to me "you have such a lovely job, it can hardly seem like work" which can occasionally grate somewhat as you sit in a queue on the M25! However on this particular evening, they were spot on - all pleasure!!

So, thank you Edward and Lulu for your wonderful welcome and for sharing your beautiful little bit of England with the rest of us!

PS: There are plenty of GWCT walks to attend across the country, so why not go click here and find out what is near you.
Picture speaks for itself  - delicious!

A wonderful way to round off a most enjoyable evening. 

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The "one show" that arable farmers attend to keep up-to-date.

The Cereals 2015 show was well attended by farmers who came armed with plenty of questions! 
I spent the day at the rather stupidly named “Cereals 2015” event just south of Lincoln yesterday – it really is time they changed the name to the “Arable event” (or something equally snappy!!) as it covers so much more than just growing cereals!  This 2 day show is the big event in the arable farmer’s calendar and anybody who wants to sell something or get a message across to the farming community attends this show, along with of course, thousands of farmers.

I was wearing my Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) hat yesterday and was very lucky to be given space on the huge Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) stand. For those farmers amongst you reading this who have never heard of this organisation – it is the old “Home Grown Cereals Association” (HGCA) who have changed their name!

AHDB had set up a demonstration area on how to control the ever growing problem of the pernicious Blackgrass weed. Going by the enormous interest farmers showed in this area, I think the penny has finally dropped that we really cannot any longer expect to control this weed by only using a spray out of a can! In fact, with the ever decreasing number of active chemicals that farmers have in their armoury and resistance appearing against many products from a wide range of organisms, agro-chemicals really should only be considered now as a part of a wider, cultural control programme.

Standing for a whole day talking to farmers from across the country, gives you a wonderful insight to what is currently the major issues facing the industry. Along with Blackgrass control, there is also a surging interest in improving soil and water quality. For much of my time working in the agricultural world, we have concentrated on the health of the plant from where it emerges out of the ground to the tip of the highest leaf, with very little thought given to the well-being of plant beneath the surface.

The new Stewardship Scheme reflects this awareness by including many more options to enable farmers to enhance and improve the quality of soil on their farms, which is of course directly linked to water quality. I rarely go on a farm nowadays that does not have grass buffers running alongside watercourses, but there is still much to be done to improve UK soils and further protect water.

There is a lot changing on farms at the moment - new stewardship schemes, greening, cross compliance as well as keeping abreast of farming best practice! I was asked literally hundreds of different questions yesterday which demonstrates to me once again just how important advice is to the hard pressed farmer. The CFE delivers advice on a county by county basis and has in my opinion, never been as relevant or more needed than it is today!

This poster speaks for itself! Anything  below a 97% control of Blackgrass means it is increasing on your farm.

CFE - more relevant than ever!

Boys and their toys! Big machinery always attracts lots of attention!!


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Horses, partridges and weather - its that time of year!

A wild game bird keeper checking insect levels in a specially created weedy habitat.   
The next two to three weeks weather will largely determine how the grey partridge’s breeding season fares this year. Peak hatching time is usually the middle two weeks of June – around Ascot week as many say!

I have already had reports of bumble bee sized chicks spotted, scurrying along behind their parents – such a wonderful sight when you come across this family scene. I have often said it before, but a truly wild pair of grey partridge’s parental skills are hard to beat in the bird world.

Should the family be threatened by a predator (including us!) often the cock bird will feign injury, flapping around and dragging what appears to be a badly broken wing. The predator is usually fooled into thinking that it is being presented with an easily caught meal and so follows the “injured” bird. Once the clever cock bird has led the hunter away from the hen bird and her chicks, he will burst into flight, leaving a somewhat bemused pursuer on its own! 

Keepers who manage wild bird shoots, as opposed to rearing game birds and releasing them, have a nervous few weeks ahead now. Not only are they keeping a watchful eye for the odd fox or carrion crow that they might have missed, but many will be out sampling insect numbers around the various brood rearing crops that they have planted.

Grey partridge have to have an ample supply of small insects in order to thrive – beetles, spiders, weevils, caterpillars etc. These they need to find for themselves as they follow along behind mum and dad and so habitats that allow easy access for tiny chicks, including unfertilised, weedy cereal strips or wildflower margins, both of which are full of insect life, will have been created for them to forage in. Many other farmland birds such as Yellowhammer and Whitethroat will also use these insect rich habitats to gather beakfulls of insects for their hungry chicks.

However, despite a year’s worth of hard work tending the every need of the grey partridge, the one thing that all keepers are keeping their fingers firmly crossed for now, is reasonably warm and fair weather. Temperature is particularly important as not only will chicks be OK if it rains, but stays warm, but balmy weather also brings out lots of insects for the chicks to eat too. It is cold wet weather that is so danaging to these newly hatched chicks.

So my wish for Ascot week is that ladies wide brimmed hats do not get blown off, but are needed to keep sunburn at bay and that ice cubes are in great demand to make sure that the Pimms stays wonderfully cool!    

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

It is time we dumped heavily on the dumpers.

Fly-tipped junk - an increasingly common sight in the countryside

I'm sure that the white flower in the top right corner - Woodruff (an ancient woodland plant indicator) would be somewhat lost on the people who dumped this engine and dishwasher
Of the 852,000 recorded instances of fly-tipping in England in 2013-14, just 2,000 resulted in conviction.

 In April 2014 I blogged about this problem and quoted that 711,000 instances were recorded in 2012-13, so we can clearly see the upward direction in which this anti-social behaviour is heading. Remember too, that this is just the RECORDED instances, which tend to be the big van loads of rubbish dumped, but certainly not the crisp packets, glass & plastic bottles and tin cans hurled into the hedgerow without a thought. 
It is also important to remember that it not just the big scale fly-tipping that causes problems, but also the careless discarding of something as small as a glass wine bottle. Mike Barker, a farmer in Kent, lost a £16,000 oat contract when fragments of glass were found in the grain he was selling. He said “we are constantly picking up stuff from the edge of fields that has been chucked from passing cars”.

Councils now spend 1 billion a year on clearing up rubbish. In these days of austerity, do we really not have better things to spend our taxes on? Surely, now is the time to really address this disgustingly anti-social habit, by hitting back hard on those who commit this crime. We should follow their lead and dump heavy fines on them.

So, step up Liz Truss, the Government’s Environment secretary. She said “On the spot fines are set to double to £150”. Oh, that should clear up the matter once and for all then Liz! Keep Britain tidy is calling for fines of £1000, which is a little nearer the mark I would have thought.

If my maths is correct, taking the latest figures, you currently have a 1 in 426 chance of getting caught if you fly-tip. A fine of 150 smackers at those odds – “Oh well, I had better take it all to an official dump and pay for it to be dealt with in a correct manner then”!!

Come on Government, you really need to stop shilly-shallying around and get real, otherwise I will just routinely blog about another substantial increase in a year’s time!