Sunday, 30 June 2013

The tale of two rare needles

Francis with his rare Shepherd's needle
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has many research projects running across the country including one on the beautiful Rotherfield Park estate in Hampshire, which is not far from where I live.
Dr. Francis Buner, the GWCT Grey Partridge biologist lives on the estate and he and I carry out farmland bird surveys through the summer and winter months. Francis, like so many of the research staff at the GWCT is interested in all wildlife, not just partridges! So I was not hugely surprised to receive a rather excited text from him saying that he had found some “Shepherd’s needle” growing in a cultivated margin on the estate.
These are field edges that are cultivated, but not drilled with a crop, so as to allow the arable flowers to flourish. These flowers in turn attract many insects so that the farmland birds, including Francis’s beloved partridges, have plenty of readily available food for their chicks. The other purpose of these margins is to allow the rarer plants to appear once more – and we have both been looking without much success over the last two to three years, to see if we can find any of these so called “rare arable plants”.   Now we have one!
Shepherd’s needle used to be so common that small boys were employed at harvest time to climb into the reaper machines to unblock them from this irksome weed, so called because of the long needle shaped seed pods they produce. Nowadays, grown men get very excited when they find just a few plants!!
Then I hear that the fastest bird in the world has turned up in the UK for only the 10th time ever - a White-throated needletail  - jetting around on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Two exciting needles in one day - WOW! The tom – toms soon started to work their magic amongst the “twitching community” and before long there were 30 or so birders gathered together in a huddle, watching this superb bird which should really be racing around the skies of central Asia and southern Siberia at this time of year.
As the assembled birders were being rewarded with some spectacular “fly bys” from this large, cigar shaped swift like bird, with its needle shaped tail, the show ended rather abruptly. Fairly nearby was a small wind turbine, which hardly anyone had even noticed, that is until 30 pairs of binoculars followed this mega rarity straight into the rapidly turning blades. Death was instant.
So, the tale of two rare British needle species, one of which has become even rarer, but the other one hopefully now has a brighter future!

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