Thursday, 27 August 2015

British summer time and harvest is becoming a complete wash out!

Harvest weather. At least this field has been combined and the straw baled.

Oh dear - another great British summer in progress! Here in Hampshire yesterday we had monsoon conditions, with many roads flooded and arable fields resembling paddy fields, full of ripe ready to harvest grain, but completely sodden.

Farmers across the country are now beginning to pull their hair out as this ghastly weather continues day after day, as not only are crops ready to be harvested, but Oil seed rape needs to follow in behind,  once the cereal crop has been removed. As a consequence a lot of Rape may be drilled late, missing out on the optimum timing, making it more vulnerable to flea beetle and pigeon attack later in the winter.

Farmers will be forced to get the combines rolling as soon as a gap in the weather allows, however, this will almost certainly mean that they are collecting grain with a high moisture content, so that it will have to be dried once it is back in the farm store. This is an unwelcome additional cost to production, in a year when market prices are already only offering a meagre return at best. 

The other problem that will start to kick in before too long is that the quality of grain will be affected, as prolonged wet weather will increase the likelihood of grain diseases occurring and in the worst case scenario, grain actually starting to sprout, while still in the "ear" or head of the crop. I have been told today that this has in some cases already started to happen.

So, if you come across a farmer drowning his or her sorrows in the pub this weekend and moaning about the weather - please show some sympathy towards them as they really do have something to groan about! The situation is starting to become really quite serious.

Even if the weather improves, for many it will be a number of days before the ground will allow a combine to travel

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Never mind the elephant in the room – there are four in the garden!

The Elephant hawk moth caterpillar is meant to resemble an Elephant's trunk

A friend contacted me to say that he had found four Elephant Hawk moth caterpillars while doing some gardening, and would I like to see them. Well, it seemed like a great idea, especially as he also suggested a pint or two afterwards!

I regularly catch these beautiful pink and green adult moths in my moth trap, but rarely see the spectacular caterpillars, even though I often stop to check patches of Rose Bay willow herb – a favourite food plant of the larvae.

I expected that these four might well be munching on fuchsias as they were found in a garden setting, as they often accept these cultivated plants as a substitute food plant instead of willow herb. But in fact they were feeding on a close relative to Rose bay - Broad-leaved willow herb - which had been allowed to grow up in a corner of the garden. A great example of not being too tidy in the garden and allowing a few "weeds" to thrive!
Three of these enormous caterpillars were the usual blackish-brown colour, but one was the less common vivid green in colour. All of them of course had four large ‘eye’ markings on the head and a curved horn on the rear. When startled the caterpillar draws its body in towards its head, causing the ‘eyes’ to inflate, in an attempt to scare off predators. The brown version of the caterpillar is where it gets its name from as it is meant to resemble an elephant’s trunk.

The time most people come across these wonderful beasts is when the caterpillar leaves its food plant and starts to wander round looking for a place to pupate. This occurs during August or September, and they often roam around for some time before finding a suitable place to burrow down into the earth and turn into a pupa, where they stay until the following May. 

Then the superbly beautiful adult moth will hatch out and start the process off all over again, maybe choosing a plant in your garden to lay her eggs on.

So keep an eye open for two eyes peering back at you – you may well have found an elephant in your garden too!

The less common green version of the caterpillar

Here's looking at you kid!

What a stunning species - a pristine adult Elephant hawk moth

Friday, 14 August 2015

Ash dieback disease hits my neck of the woods

Death in our midst. Potentially healthy looking Ash saplings surround one that has already succumbed to the disease - will it be their turn next? 
Back on the 24th May 2013, I wrote a piece on this blog about Chalara dieback in Ash trees, saying that it spreading out of control across the country. Well, it’s arrived in my neck of the woods - here in central Hampshire, and I am now finding it fairly regularly, mainly in small and medium sized saplings, but in a couple of cases, in trees as high as 10 metres.

The disease was first confirmed in the UK in February 2012 when it was found in a consignment of infected trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire. It has since spread to most parts of the UK.

At present we do not know what percentage of trees will become infected, but in Denmark well over 90% of Ash trees have succumbed to the disease. The hope is that our UK trees have a wider genetic base than on the continent, and the best hope for the long-term future of Britain's ash trees lies in identifying the genetic factors which enable some ash trees to tolerate or resist infection, and using these to breed new generations of tolerant ash trees for the future.

So, there is not much we can do but watch and see how the disease progresses throughout our native Ash trees, all the while hoping that a good number will be resistant and in time, spread their windblown, resilient keys (Ash seeds are called keys) to restock areas that have succumbed to this particularly nasty disease. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

The delights of a sunny weekend!

What a nice change to have some decent weather over a weekend! I had to finish off a butterfly survey for a local farmer, so the warm sunshine on Saturday suited me well.

I found one particular clearing in a wood that had lots of flowering wild Angelica – the name is said to have come from the Angel Gabriel who according to myth, revealed its many medicinal uses. Angelica is extensively used in herbal medicine to stimulate gastric secretion, treat skin disorders, flatulence, and rheumatism, while it is also valued in perfumery where dried leaves are used as potpourri mix and as a bath scent.

However, I was more interested in the plant as a nectar source, because like many plant species in the umbellifer family, (or carrot family) they attract many insects to their blooms. I spent a very pleasant half hour studying the flower heads, while Silver-washed fritillaries flitted and glided around, occasionally landing on tall Marsh thistles to imbibe some nectar. Meanwhile, overhead in the trees, a family of young Spotted flycatchers were being fed by their parents.

All this insect activity had not gone unnoticed by the local Hornets who zig-zagged through the vegetation, occasionally knocking into a plant to see if they could dislodge some insect on which they could prey. They remind me so much of miniature tigers prowling through the forest in search of a victim! When they do strike, there is certainly no indecision, as they suddenly dart with great speed, grabbing the unfortunate target off a flower head and tumbling down into the undergrowth.

The prey is quickly subdued and within a minute, both wings and sometimes the head are bitten off and the “meaty” body is then carried away to the nest.

This hive of activity was all occurring here because the wood had been “opened up” by removing some of the trees and coppicing the shrubs, allowing the sunshine into the newly formed glade. Woodland flowers play such an important part in providing our pollinators with the pollen and nectar they require.

I also set the moth trap in my garden this weekend and was rewarded with one of my favourite moths – a Clouded Magpie – such a beautiful species and one that I have not recorded for some years. All in all - a great weekend!

A warm and sunny woodland glade - a wonderful place to watch wildlife

A Tachinid fly - Phasia hemiptera feeding on Angelica

A Hornet sets about removing the wings from its prey - in this case a "Flesh fly" 

A Silver-washed Fritillary sits on a tall Marsh thistle up above my head 

A Clouded Magpie - one of my favourites!

Friday, 7 August 2015

Urgent sea change is needed on this "chuck away" world we live in.

Single use plastic bottles. Things need to change.
Selfridges has become my favourite shop at the moment (OK, I admit that I have never ever had a favourite before now!) because they have begun to take a bold and sensible lead on plastic bottles. 

The department store has banned water bottles from its shelves, including the Food hall, and has installed a water fountain for thirsty customers instead. Selfridges sell about 400,000 plastic bottles of water annually, so this is quite a big thing for them to do.

This is all part of Project Ocean 2015, held in association with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Marine Reserves Coalition (MRC), driven by the frankly terrifying idea that within the next decade oceans could hold as much as 1kg of plastic for every 3kg of fish, as the scourge of single-use plastics continues. 

Can you believe that the UK uses around 15 million plastic bottles per day, many of which are simply discarded once we have consumed the contents?

A substantial amount of plastic in our oceans comes from consumer waste. Unfortunately, only 24% of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used in the UK each year is reused or recycled and according to a recent study, globally 13 million tonnes of plastic waste enters our ocean every year. If you think that plastic bottles can take between 450-1,000 years to break down into smaller pieces, you do not have to belong to MENSA to realize that this has become a big issue. 

The problem has become so bad that one giant floating debris patch in the Pacific, has grown to become twice the size of the state of Texas.

A 2014 study found that ingestion of debris has been documented in 56% of cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) species, with some individual species having rates as high as 31% of the population effected.

"The whales that wash up on the beach are only a small percentage of those that die," says Frances Gulland, a senior scientist with the Marine Mammal Centre in Sausalito, California. Sperm whales are particularly susceptible to plastic debris ingestion, she explains; they mistake debris for squid, their main prey. "Every sperm whale that I have necropsied has had a lot of nets and pieces of plastic in its stomach", she said. “One of the whales had at least 400 pounds of debris in its stomach”.

Around the world, an estimated one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from becoming entangled in plastics or other materials, as well as a result of swallowing discarded litter.

Through Project Ocean 2015, Selfridges is leading the charge and saying no to single-use plastic water bottles, which are unnecessary when we have healthy water in our taps and easy access to reusable vessels. 

So, well done Selfridges for highlighting the problem and making a start on doing something about it. What about other major outlets – come on – let’s see you do something too. 

It is not just retailers that need to act of course, all of us can start to make changes in our everyday lives too. There has to be a major sea change to this “chuck-away” world we live in and it needs to start right now.. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

A Game Fair catch up!

I have just spent a couple of days at the three day Game Fair, which this year was held in the glorious surroundings of Harewood house in Yorkshire, owned by David and Diane Lascelles, Earl and Countess of Harewood.

The GWCT always has a large stand at Game Fair as it gives us a great opportunity to meet our members and hopefully make a few new ones! The stand is always busy with people asking questions and finding out about our research work, while others come to have a good chat and renew acquaintances. It is also a focal point to aim for when the tummy starts to rumble, as we have a large catering area where you can have a jolly good breakfast or lunch and relax and chat with like minded folk.

When you have worked in the agricultural, sporting and conservation world for as long as I have, I suppose it should not really come as a surprise as to how many people I have got to know over the years, but still it never ceases to amaze me just how many familiar faces walk onto the stand! It is a wonderful way of catching up on the latest news in the countryside, a snapshot of what is occurring out there and of course meeting up with good friends. However, it comes at a cost - after two long days my voice was deep and croaky as a result of far too much nattering!

Among the many highlights during the three days, we awarded the GWCT’s Julian Gardner photo competition trophy to the overall winner of the adult competition – a wonderful picture of an Osprey. The junior winner who lived on the Isle of Man and unfortunately could not make the event, so we will  award this trophy at a later date. I will post pictures of the junior winner on this site at a later date.

I have put up a few photos below for you to get a feel of the event, so that if you have never been to a Game Fair, you might make a note in the diary that it is being held at Ragley Hall on the 29th – 31st of July next year. If you do go, come and say hello! 

6.30am - the Fair begins to wake up - Harewood house in the background

Part of the GWCT's huge stand

The GWCT's catering area is always hugely popular - time to rest weary legs and refuel!

Owen Williams (well known wildlife artist) and GWCT CEO Teresa Dent, present the Julian Gardner photographic trophy to the winner Bill Doherty

This stunning photograph of an Osprey by Bill Doherty was the pick of over six hundred entries this year! 

We always have time for a little fun - Head of GWCT research, Professor Nick Sotherton shares a light moment with two
research students!

It is true you know - in Yorkshire, even dogs wear flat caps!