Thursday, 31 October 2013

Nick Clegg bangs another nail into the DEFRA coffin

I thought I would spare you a picture of Nick Clegg.

Not only have we lost two excellent ministers from DEFRA in recent times, Sir Jim Paice and Richard Benyon, who both (for a change) actually understood farming and the way the countryside works, but now it also appears that DEFRA has been weakened further. Apparently, it was Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who was responsible for the decision to remove the Ministerial rank from Defra’s farming role, the Department’s chief civil servant told MPs this week.

The recent Ministerial reshuffle saw Lib Dem David Heath replaced by Tory George Eustice as Farming Minister. But whereas Mr Heath carried the rank of Minister of State, Mr Eustice is a more junior Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, leaving Defra as one of the few Whitehall Departments without a Minister of State.

The downgrading of the farming role has been criticised by MPs and industry leaders, with former Farming Minister Sir Jim Paice, suggesting it raised questions about the Government’s commitment to DEFRA and its agenda. NFU president Peter Kendall said the industry ‘ought to have an explanation’ over the apparent downgrading of the farming role in Defra.

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton said, “Agriculture has never been a more pressing issue than it is today and farming is a vital part of the rural economy. Food security is a grave challenge facing governments around the world. By 2050 the global population estimated to reach nine billion and it will take innovation and political will to increase food production to meet this demand. Many people in rural areas and the food and farming industries will see this as a snub from the deputy prime minister and I hope he will reconsider and give farming the support it deserves." 
I agree.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Young photographer sheds light on British countryside

The winning photograph

16-year-old Christopher Page was named the winner of the award earlier this year by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and I had the pleasure of presenting him with his trophy  the other day. The Julian Gardner Award is named in honour of the East Sussex farmer who was tragically murdered while defending his property in 2010. Julian was a life long supporter of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Christopher's winning photograph depicts an atmospheric  woodland scene bathed in soft golden sunlight and autumnal colours.  It was taken at the Polesdon Lacey estate in Surrey while Christopher was 15, and entered into the 16-and-under category of the Julian Gardner Award. Christopher's talents have also been recognised by The Sunday Times Magazine, who made the same photograph one of the finalists in their Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards 2013.
Christopher said, "I particularly enjoy taking photographs of landscapes. I love the way it makes you really look at the detail."
Why don't you think of entering this competition?

Christopher Page being presented with his trophy by me!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Volunteering to be trained!!

The cheeriest bunch of volunteers you are ever likely to meet!
 I ran a course last week on “Farming & Wildlife” for the South Downs National Park volunteers and I have to say, what a lovely bunch they were!! The request had come through as many of them felt that they could find courses to go on about chalk grassland and woodland habitats etc, but not necessarily about what happens on our farms. Of course most of the South Downs is made up of farmland, so if they are to influence and work across the whole landscape, it is important to understand how our farms work and what makes farmers tick!

The morning was held indoors at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park near to Petersfield in Hampshire, hosted by good friend and top notch countryside advisor, Nick Heasman (South Downs National Park Ranger – to give him his correct title!). I always like to hold informal meetings so that people can ask plenty of questions as we go along – nothing worse than a one way lecture! Well, I certainly need not have worried with this lot – loads of questions, which also turned into useful discussions - fantastic! 
In the afternoon we went onto George Atkinson’s farm – an award winning mixed farm with stacks to talk about and lots to see first hand. George is a great ambassador for the farming industry and speaks with passion about the way he farms and the wildlife that he looks after on his farm – no wonder he was a finalist in this year’s RSPB Nature of Farming awards. Read more about George at:

Volunteers do a fantastic amount of work across the countryside, whether it is turning their hand to a bit of coppicing or scrub clearance to surveying areas for plants or birds. I think it is especially rewarding to those who perhaps live and work in our towns and find themselves hankering for a job out in the fresh air!

I think everyone enjoyed the day and hopefully learnt a lot about the farmland that surrounds them when they are up on the Downs. I certainly enjoyed their company – they were as enthusiastic a bunch as you are ever likely to meet!!

Why not think of volunteering yourself – it is a wonderful way to meet people and to put your energies to something really useful. This is the link to the South Downs volunteer’s page:
However, don’t forget there is work to be done wherever you may live in the country!
The South Downs is largely made up of farmland

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Not all is well down on the farm, despite many farmer's best efforts.

The Lapwing continues to decline on our farmland
The latest official figures on farmland birds have recently been released and continue to show further declines. The Farmland Bird Index – which covers 19 species reliant on the farmed countryside – has seen a five year decline of eight per cent.

Looking back over 40 years the long term decline in farmland birds is 50 per cent, however the decline has slowed in recent years.
Turtle Doves are the fastest declining species – down 95 per cent since 1970, and reports from earlier this year suggest it is the worst year ever for sightings. Other species hit hard include Lapwings, which are down 63 per cent since 1970; Corn Buntings, down 90 per cent; and Skylarks, down 59 per cent.

The overall decline has however slowed, probably as a result of many farmers targeting their Stewardship options specifically towards these farmland birds. Just over 70% of English farmers are in a Stewardship scheme of some sort which is great; however those who make best use of the options available have nearly always taken advice from a qualified farm conservation advisor. Advice is the key if conservation schemes are to be correctly integrated in with individual farming business practices, and actually deliver what these birds need.

If we are serious about turning the fortunes of these farmland birds around, Government has to make sure that payments to farmers who are taking land out of crop production to provide habitat for these beleaguered birds, continues into the future and do not get swallowed up in sweeping budget cuts.
Not all species associated with farmland are doing badly though. Ironically, two of the less popular birds with farmers are doing spectacularly well such as Jackdaws, whose numbers have increased by 140 per cent since 1970, and Wood pigeons, which are up 134 per cent.

The Wild Bird Indicator statistics also cover seabirds and woodland birds. The figures for seabirds have shown an increase of 17 per cent since 1970 although they have declined in recent years. The figures for woodland birds have shown a decrease of 17 per cent.   
The Woodpigeon population is up 134% since 1970!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

And they are off! Follow satellite tracked woodcock on their long journey back to our shores.

Head project scientist Dr. Andrew Hoodless with one of the stars!
In autumn and continuing through December and January, Britain and Ireland see a large influx of migrant woodcock escaping freezing weather in northern Europe. ‘Falls’ of woodcock are often most noticeable around the full moon in November, commonly referred to as the ‘Woodcock Moon’. As many as 700,000 to 1,200,000 migrant woodcock from Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia may spend the winter with us.
GWCT scientists have been radio tracking woodcock and have revealed that these birds can fly up to 750 miles over a 30 hour period, averaging almost 25 miles an hour. It has also shown the birds are faithful to their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and Russia, returning to the same sites each year.
One male Woodcock called Monkey, tagged in Cornwall last year, recently completed what is at least his third annual migration, and researchers estimate he has flown more than 24,000 miles (39,000km) in his lifetime. Monkey, has returned to exactly the same breeding ground in Siberia for the last two springs after over-wintering in the UK, the satellite tracking has shown. It will be fascinating to follow his progress and the other radio tracked birds as they make their way back to our shores to spend the winter months here – often to be found feeding in the exactly the same field that they were originally caught in!!

Most of the Woodcock have now started their long journeys - you can follow their individual routes back to the UK by going to:

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Filming fabulous fungi!

Fly Agaric - a great love of mine!
 It has been a rather damp and dull weekend – but very mild – the ideal conditions for fungi to thrive I thought to myself! So I set off with my two fellow fungi foragers - Butter (Labrador) and Rosie (Lurcher) to see what I could find in my local woodland. It is an unbelievably productive autumn for nuts and berries and it very soon became apparent that it is also a fabulously fruitful fungi year too!

I was only out for a few hours, but managed to find a wide range of different fungi. What I love about having an interest in natural history is that it is such an enormous subject. Far from finding this daunting, I thoroughly enjoy trying to put a name to all sorts of different species and as a consequence I have a folder on my laptop entitled “In need of ID!!” My knowledge of fungi is poor, but that does not mean that I don’t find it a fascinating subject to dip into – the time spent pootling around my local wood in search of these bizarre and often colourful species, not only shot by ridiculously quickly it seemed, but was also completely and utterly absorbing - a wonderfully relaxing way to spend an afternoon!
I have put up a few photos of those that I came across and have managed to identify (correctly I hope!) and one that I'm not so sure about, but should without doubt be called the “Vienetta ice cream” fungi! Needless to say the “In need of ID folder” has swollen in size somewhat with lots of new fungus related images, waiting to be mulled over during a cold, wet Sunday sometime this coming winter.
Parasol Mushroom

Shaggy Ink Cap

Yellow Stagshorn

Should be Vienetta Ice Cream fungus -
but is probably Silverleaf fungus?   

My fellow fungus foragers!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Clinton Devon Estate - the perfect host!

A good mix of people attended the course 
 I ran a course on farmland wildlife last week in a beautiful part of south Devon, on the Clinton Devon Estate, which is not far from Budleigh Salterton. Sometimes when running a course, but certainly not always, everything slots neatly into place, so that I too can actually enjoy the day. This was one of those days!

You would not believe the unforeseen things that can exercise the mind when running these events, even though you think you have covered everything twice over! I could give you many examples, but for the time being how about this one. A number of years ago I organised a “farm walk” to see and discuss how best to manage for wildlife on the farm. It stated all the usual stuff on the invite – bring suitable footwear and wet weather clothing as this was an outside event etc. So, I was quite surprised to see a chap struggling out a car with his whole leg in plaster and being handed crutches, having apparently broken his ankle just the week before!! I quickly changed the well planned route so that he could follow around behind the walking group, in a four wheel-drive vehicle.
The event at Clinton Devon however was definitely at the other end of the scale. The inside part of the course was held in the very plush board room and the estate staff could not have been more helpful. The afternoon session was held out on the farm, in a most glorious part of Devonshire countryside and the weather was sunny and warm. What’s more there were lots of excellent habitats to look at and discuss.
We also had a great mixture of people attending – Farmers, Keepers, RSPB and National Trust amongst others. I find it very rewarding when you see this mix of folk talking together and in most cases finding out that they actually have much in common – tremendous!
So a big “thank you” to the Clinton Devon estate for hosting this enjoyable day and for helping me to keep any potential gremlins at bay!
A wonderful "weedy" stubble - perfect for a wide range of wildlife!

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Cranborne Estate - ahead of the game!

Viscount Cranborne and his estate team receiving the trophy from GWCT's Mike Swan
Congratulations to the Cranborne Estate who has been awarded the GWCT's Wessex Grey Partridge trophy this year. The estate team has put in place a programme of measures which combine together to support grey partridges (and many other farmland bird species) throughout their life cycle. These include improved hedgerow management, grass margins, beetle banks and insect rich brood strips to provide food for chicks.

There is also abundant winter escape cover, large areas of wild bird seed mixes and a generous winter and spring supplementary feeding programme. All of this has been coupled with targeted predation control to maximise the number of pairs that successfully rear their young. This has resulted in an increase from just a few pairs to a total of 34 pairs in 2012. Sadly the dire summer of 2012 saw very few chicks surviving, and resulted in a reduction to 18 pairs in the spring of 2013. Despite this halving of the pair count, there were many more partridges to be seen this autumn than last year, and we can anticipate continued population growth from here on. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Don't feed your birds to death.

Greenfinch are particularly susceptible to the disease
Many of us will soon start to think about feeding our garden birds once more, even though the countryside is full of nuts and berries at the moment. I suppose we not only enjoy watching them at close quarters, but also like to make sure that our local birds are well catered for!  There does however seem to be an increasing chance that you might come across some birds looking rather lethargic and in poor condition. This is because they may be suffering from Trichomoniasis – a parasite which typically causes disease at the back of the throat and in the gullet. In adult birds trichomoniasis is usually spread through food or drinking water being contaminated by the droppings from an infected bird.
Greenfinch and Chaffinch seem to be particularly susceptible to the disease, so it is important to try and keep hygiene standards to a high level if we are not to find birds suffering in our own gardens. For more information go to:

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Dewick's Plusia - what on earth is that!

A Dewick's Plusia moth
I caught this little beauty for the first time ever yesterday, with its punk hair-do and splash of white on its side  –  it is called a “Dewick’s Plusia” and is a vagrant to Britain, mainly being caught along the south and east coasts. August is the optimum month for this species, but records have occurred between July and October and it seems to be appearing more and more frequently on our shores.
It is named after AJ Dewick who trapped moths in Essex and caught the first one in the UK at Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, in October 1951. Plusia is a genus of moths of the Noctuidae family. How great to have a moth named after you!
The first one seen in Hampshire (where I live) was caught in 1991, however, nowadays a few are caught each year – but not many - it’s a first for me!

Strange Small Tortoiseshell sorted!

Looks as though he got a chill when he was but a mere youngster!
Since my blog back on the 23rd of September on a strange looking Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, I have been digging around for a little more information on this. I contacted my good friend Dan Hoare of Butterfly Conservation as he is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to butterflies (and most other wildlife!) and he told me the following:

The Small Tortoiseshell appears to be particularly sensitive to temperature shock, so that extreme shocks of either heat or cold during the last 24 hours of the larval stage and the first 48 hours of the pupal stage, can disrupt the natural process of metamorphosis and inhibit the normal processes in which organic chemicals create the colouration of the wing scales.
It is difficult to ascertain how frequently any of these aberrations occur in the wild, however it is a rare event that exposes the newly formed pupa or transitional larva to the necessary conditions for metamorphosis to be disrupted in this way, and this is supported by the paucity of historical sightings – especially of the extreme aberrations in the wild. This particular butterfly is known as a “partial aberration” – the really extreme aberration can be an almost entirely melanistic black.
It has been speculated that severe late frosts could possibly cause instances of these aberrant forms, as well as a larva/pupa being exposed to particularly strong sunlight after having the normally sheltered pupation site disturbed in some manner.

So thanks Dan – fascinating stuff which I thought I would share!

It's not all just Essex estuary talk - no, great results too!!

David Smart standing in a newly sown flower strip
I visited the Essex Wildlife Trust’s 700 acre farm at Abbotts Hall (not too far from Colchester) last week, as they grow crops for Conservation Grade. Trust manager David Smart showed me around and I must say I was impressed by how much is going on conservation wise – whilst the remit is still to definitely farm commercially, they are certainly accomplishing a lot besides!
This is great because it means that the Essex Wildlife Trust really understands what trials and tribulations the county’s farmers are facing, which must surely give them real credibility when they come to advise farmers locally. The Wildlife Trusts in general are improving their knowledge and advice about farmland, as maybe in the past they have concentrated on the “special” habitats and nature reserves within their given county, sometimes rather ignoring the wider farmed landscape.  I hope this does not sound condescending – but I do think this was often the case.
Abbotts Hall farm not only grows wild bird seed mixes and wild flower areas, but they have also created a large lake area which is now home to lots of birds and a thriving Water Vole colony. They also took some arable land adjacent to the marshes out of food production some dozen years or so ago, letting it go back to a natural coastal habitat – which is precisely what it has done – it is now hard to believe that it once was ploughed!
Also along this extensive area of coastline there are a range of habitats such as mudflats, marshes, saline lagoons and the "fringe" area where sea and farmland meet, and it is just here that the plant Hog’ Fennel can be found, which just happens to be the food plant of the extremely rare Fisher’s Estuarine Moth. The trust has been involved in a project to introduce this species back into suitable habitats – and the result is?  The farm now has a small but thriving population of this endangered moth!
To me however, one of the most impressive things I saw was the best field of Oil Seed Rape so far this year. Now you are talking – growing lots of food and wildlife on the same farm – that’s what it’s all about! Well done Essex Wildlife Trust!!