Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Strike a light - its bright out there!

Do we really need all these lights blazing away? Just look at England in particular! 
It’s a good job that the three wise men were following the “Star of Bethlehem” over two thousand years ago, because if they tried to do the same in today’s light polluted skies, for instance around Glasgow, the UK city twinned with Bethlehem, they would have a fat chance of finding the baby Jesus!

Perhaps it was this fact that set Glasgow city council members thinking. I imagine that, having finished their mid-winter meeting on twinning arrangements with the holy town, they all wandered out into Glasgow’s cold winter air and looked up at an orange, milky sky, completely devoid of any stars at all.  

The city has however begun to take action; recently it has won a contract worth millions of pounds under plans from the governments green fund. Street lights will be replaced with low-energy LEDs so that the familiar sodium glow gives way to bright white light, while lights are also being switched off or dimmed to save money.

As well as saving money, it will be a boon to sky watchers in the surrounding area, as LED lights provide more illumination on the ground and less to the clouds. Close to 100% of the light goes downward, unlike conventional street lights which send a third of their glow into the night sky, causing light pollution. So, well done Glasgow I say!!

So it was with great interest that I read a report which the Labour party has just unveiled, where they had surveyed 1141 councils in England responsible for a total of 5.7 million street lights. It found that 558,000 lights are now being switched off at night, eight times as many as in May 2010. A further 797,000 are being dimmed, ten times as many as when the Coalition came to power.

This is great news is it not? Well, no actually, apparently not. The Labour party lambasted the Government for “plunging Britain into darkness", claiming the number of lights switched off had "soared" in recent years. Hilary Benn, the shadow (get it!) community secretary, suggested that the safety of people walking in the dark could be put at risk by the money saving measures.

Apparently, across all councils, 29 per cent of lights are being turned off or dimmed at night in Conservative-controlled areas, compared with 13 per cent in Labour areas. As street lighting in England costs councils approximately £616m per year and can account for up to 30% of their carbon emissions, I will leave it up to you to make your own conclusions. 

It’s easy to forget that being bathed in light is a relatively modern phenomenon. Although electric streetlights first began appearing in European capitals in the mid-1800s, widespread street lighting did not become common place until well into the 20th century. Nowadays, less than 10% of the UK population can see the beauty of a natural night sky full of stars.

Also, it is worth remembering that nearly a third of vertebrates and some 60% of invertebrates are nocturnal, depending on darkness for survival. High levels of light pollution can mean that they may become disoriented, which can disrupt migration, cause a decrease in reproduction and reduce the time allowing them to forage properly for food.

Just one final thought on the importance of seeing the night sky clearly. The stars have always played an important part in religious ceremonies, while navigators used them to travel at night, both over land and at sea. 

As galaxies go, the Milky Way which we see from earth is a bit of a “middleweight” really, as it only has between 100 to 400 billion stars. However, when you look up into the night sky, the most you can see from any one point on the globe is only around 2,500. (The largest “heavyweight" galaxy that we know about on the other hand, has over 100 trillion stars).

I always feel that this unbelievable display should also play another important role, making sure that if any one of us ever becomes rather “full of our own importance”, then a quick look up at the galaxies should promptly put us firmly back in our place.

But if we cannot see the stars………………………

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Good vibrations!

The Pheasant - perhaps more clued into their surroundings than we might sometimes think!
I was interested to hear that US scientists tracking Golden-winged warblers, found that they "evacuated" their nesting site one day before a massive tornado arrived. Back in April this year, the scientists, who were using tiny geolocators to monitor the bird’s movements, showed that they left the Appalachians and flew 700km (400 miles) south to the Gulf of Mexico. Remarkably, the warblers had completed their seasonal migration just days earlier, settling down to nest after a 5,000km (3,100 mile) journey from Colombia.

The next day, devastating storms swept across the south and central US causing widespread destruction.

Working with colleagues from the Universities of Tennessee and Minnesota, Dr Streby tagged 20 golden-winged warblers in May 2013, in the Cumberland Mountains of north-eastern Tennessee. The birds nest and breed in this region every summer, and can be spotted around the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains.

After the storm had blown over, the team recaptured five of the warblers and removed the geolocators. These are tiny devices weighing about half a gram, which measure light levels. Based on the timing and length of the days they record, these gadgets allow scientists to calculate and track the approximate location of migratory birds.

In this case, all five indicated that the birds had taken unprecedented evasive action, beginning one to two days ahead of the storm's arrival. They escaped just south of the tornadoes' path - and then went straight home again.

The scientists believe that the birds were “tipped-off” by the deep rumble that tornadoes produce, well below what humans can hear. Noise in this "infra-sound" range travels thousands of kilometres, and may serve as something of an early warning system for animals that can pick it up.

This amazing story reminded me of my own little tale related to sound carrying over big distances.

On the morning of the 11th December 2005, I was awoken by what seemed like every cock Pheasant in my neighbourhood “crowing” furiously. I always sleep with the windows wide open and so the noise was really loud, and what was so unusual this time is that they all kept going on and on. Often something will trigger cock pheasants off, sonic booms or thunder for instance, but within a few seconds they have fallen silent again.

But on this particular morning they seemed to be really upset by whatever had disturbed their slumbers. I looked at the clock which read a minute past 6am, so I got up to make a cup of tea and thought no more about this unusual pre-dawn chorus.

It was not until later in the day that I turned on the news to find out that people across Hertfordshire were awoken that morning by a huge explosion, described by Hertfordshire's Chief Fire Officer as "the largest incident of its kind in peace time Europe". The Fire Brigade and other emergency services were called to attend Buncefield Oil Depot in Hemel Hempstead following reports of a number of huge explosions as 20 large tanks blew up.  

The British Geological Survey measured the first and largest explosion which occurred at 06:01 at 2.4 on the Richter scale. So, that was what had set my local, mid Hampshire Pheasants off on their early morning raucous outburst!

Just out of interest I looked up how far away Hemel Hempstead is from my house as the crow (or Pheasant) flies – approximately 63 miles away. Doesn't quite match the antics of the Golden-winged warblers – but still pretty fascinating don’t you think!   

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Please stop the ruddy bickering - important conservation issues need thoughtful debate.

I was listening to the radio first thing yesterday morning while have a bath, when the sad news that Angalifu, a 44 year old Northern White Rhino had died of old age in San Diego Zoo Safari Park, California. The presenter lowered his voice and seemed genuinely shocked by this sad news, as he interviewed various people about the desperate plight of these last remaining Rhinos.
The Northern white rhinoceros is a species on the brink of extinction. Following this death, there are now just five northern white rhinos left worldwide, all in captivity. What is more, only one of them is a female.

I lay back in the bath thinking about what I had just listened to. “Experts” had talked about how hard they had been trying to get these Rhino’s to breed in captivity, so that one day they could be put back into the wild. They had lost the battle to save them in their natural environment largely due to poaching and of course to an extent, habitat loss as well.

Everyone seemed genuinely upset that we have allowed such magnificent creatures to get to this pathetic situation, where surely they must now go extinct.

My thoughts then turned to the recent correspondence that I have been following on a “Birding Website” about Ruddy ducks and the White-headed duck. Let me firstly explain the situation.
Ruddy ducks are native to North America and, like White-headed ducks, are a member of the “Stifftail” family. They were brought to the UK in the 1930s and 1940s for captive wildfowl collections. Escapees first bred in the wild in 1952, and by 2000 the UK population numbered 6,000 birds. They would not have made it here, however, without the help of humans.

Meanwhile, in Spain a recovery programme to protect and manage breeding sites for the native White-headed duck and a ban on hunting, has enabled the Spanish population to recover from just 22 birds in 1977 to 2,500 birds currently. The White-headed duck is a symbol of successful conservation in Spain.

Now, here is the problem. Ruddy ducks interbreed with White-headed ducks, producing fertile hybrids. This is happening in Spain, and there is a real danger that if the number of Ruddy ducks arriving in Spain were allowed to increase, they would inundate the White-headed duck population. As Ruddy ducks are more promiscuous in their mating behaviour, the likely result would be a population comprising increasing numbers of hybrids showing fewer characteristics of the White-headed duck, until the species eventually disappears.

So, the European Commission has decided to support the efforts to eradicate the non-native Ruddy ducks from both Spain and the UK.

Even our own RSPB commends the high priority for action that the UK Government is giving this issue, and are facilitating the eradication project where possible.

The RSPB goes on to say “Difficult as it is, our position is based on lengthy and careful consideration of the detailed scientific research carried out into this issue. We are faced with a stark choice: either we act to stop Ruddy ducks spreading from the UK, or we stand by and watch as the White-headed duck is pushed ever closer to extinction. Taking this action will help secure the future of the White-headed duck, while the Ruddy duck will continue to thrive in its native North America.

So it was with interest that I read some “Birders” thoughts on this dilemma. One wrote “Personally I don't mind if the White-Headed Duck's (which I think are ugly) interbreed with the Ruddy Ducks”.
So the conservation decision here seemed to be based on the attractiveness of the species – perhaps this particular bird enthusiast would not have bothered much about the Rhino’s plight either then, because let’s face it, Rhinos are not that “pretty” are they.

Another correspondent wrote “If the Ruddy Ducks do proliferate here, which I hope they do as I think they are great little ducks …” So, now a vote to save the Ruddy ducks because they are “great little ducks”.

There were those correspondents from the birding community who were trying to quietly put a reasoned side to the argument, stating some facts and encouraging purposeful discussion. But it appears that for some, facts just get in the way.

The comment which finally put pay to any further conversation on the subject, described the DEFRA officials who carry out the culling of Ruddy ducks as “Disgusting perverts. Nearly as bad as Ray Teret and co”.  (For those of you who do not know this man - he was recently convicted of rape and indecent assault against children, and sentenced to 25 years in jail).

I have always said that “Jaw, Jaw not War, War” is the way ahead. So, please – whatever walk of life you come from, can we all try to debate important conservation issues with integrity and thoughtfulness, always placing the issue in question to the fore – not just thinking about our own selfish little preferences. Bickering and pathetic point scoring has no place.

The plight of the world’s habitats and species are so much more important than that.   

Ruddy Duck - could drive the White-headed duck to extinction

The White-headed duck

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

CFE help farmers to cover up properly this winter!

Big audiences have been turning up to CFE cover crop trial events - here farmers talking about the role that "Vetches" might play. 
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) now has a coordinator in every county and organises topical training events for farmers, bringing in experts to up-date growers with the latest data. Go to: http://www.cfeonline.org.uk/home/ for more information.

I coordinate Hampshire for the Campaign and recently joined forces with my CFE colleague from Bucks, Berks and Oxon (BBO) Tim Clarke, who organised an excellent series of cover crop demonstrations across the South East, including one in Hampshire.

Farmers have really started to turn their attention to the overall condition and well-being of the soil that they farm – the “shop-floor” where all the production takes place if you like. I think that for far too long many have just relied on artificial inputs, whether that be fertiliser or pesticides – in the belief that all can be supplied out of a can. In the process, many of us have taken our eye off perhaps the most important thing on the farm – the soil. 

Ask farmers what the organic matter content of their soils is currently and many do not know. Ask when they last dug a hole in one of their fields to look at the structure of the soil and only a minority will raise their hand. Ask how many have begun to get a serious problem with Blackgrass, despite spending a small fortune on herbicides in an attempt to control it and most will raise their hands.

But change is afoot if the attendance at these Cover Crop Workshops was anything to go by!  The Hampshire CFE event for instance, had well over 50 attendees and there was a lot of debate and questioning of the experts. Farmers were clearly hungry for information.

Growers are realising that Blackgrass in particular, is becoming increasingly resistant to the sprays that they are applying and that they now need to start to introduce “spring” cropping into the rotation. Blackgrass is largely (but not entirely) autumn germinating, so this allows them to destroy most of the weed growth before they plant a spring crop.

Also, farmers now have to have part of the farm put over to “Ecological Focus Areas” under the Government’s “Greening” policy. One of the things that Growers can do towards this “Greening” is to grow these cover crops over winter.

The growth from certain cover crops can help to smother out Blackgrass, protect soils from erosion during heavy rainfall and importantly too, really improve soil structure and organic matter content – so this certainly starts to look like a no-brainer!

What is still needed however, is a better understanding of what each type of cover crop offers. Some produce lots of leaf and grow rapidly once they are sown in the late summer, others do most of their growing underground, producing long tap roots which can help with soil structure, while others are more suited to a slower growth, perhaps over a whole year or more. 

I genuinely believe that the CFE is providing a wonderful resource to local farmers, by listening to what they are telling us that they need and then providing the practical facts and figures that they require, so as to help them improve their farms for both profitability and the environment.

The CFE has seen 780 people attending their events this autumn – and that is just in the South East of England, while the total number rockets to a much higher figure if you count many other events run in conjunction with partner organisations such as the NFU or CLA. There is obviously a real hunger for information.

I genuinely think that if I ask the same questions about soils again in five years’ time, nearly all farmers will raise their hands and that will undoubtedly have helped to improve soil, water and biodiversity on farms!   

How about that for a tap root! Tillage radish after only 3 months or so of growth!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Farmers already starting to get twitchy!

Patrick Barker talking about the habitats he has created on the farm

Last Friday I was at Patrick Barker’s farm near Stowmarket in the Eastern counties, helping to launch the next GWCT “Big Farmland Bird Count” (BFBC).

Patrick farms the 1,260 acres at Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, with his cousin Brian and I must say, they combine superbly well to run a profitable, efficiently run farm with the environment right at the top of the agenda.

My GWCT colleague Jim Egan had organised a really good day and had got an impressive array of representatives from land connected organisations including the NFU, CLA, FWAG, RSPB, LEAF and sponsors BASF, along with journalists from the Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian amongst others.

The whole point of this exercise is to get farmers to spend half an hour or so out on the farm in February to see what birds they have on the farm. The RSPB is fully supportive of the initiative and have kindly helped us to illustrate ID cards of farmland birds to aid surveyors.

I often give talks to non-farming members of the “public” – if I can call them that! Having told them about the Stewardship scheme that pays farmers to implement various options for wildlife on their farms, I then ask them what percentage of farmers do they think has taken up this scheme. Invariably I get the same answer – around 5-10% is what they envisage.  I then tell them that it is in fact 74%, which usually results in gasps of surprise!

I think that people are so used to constantly reading bad news about farming – food poisoning scares, pesticide fears, TB, polluted water and so on, that they don't realise just how much wonderfully positive stuff is taking place on our UK farms. As an industry, historically agriculture has not been the best at shouting about what it does well, although it is now without doubt starting to improve this situation. 

I visits farms all over the country and I am constantly amazed by how much farmers are doing for wildlife. Of course there is always room for improvement, but generally the farming industry has come on with leaps and bounds from where it was a number of years ago, and I really do think that it time that some credit was given.

The BFBC gives farmers a chance to stop work for half an hour and go and check out the birds that are using the habitats that they have put in for them on the farm. Not only will they thoroughly enjoy the experience I'm sure, but once they have sent in their records to us, we can then collate the data and shout about what they have found!
Last year, the first year of the count, around 500 farmers got involved and an unbelievable 116 species where spotted! This year, after such an excellent launch with fantastic support from key countryside organisations, which will undoubtedly help to create lots of publicity, we are hoping for many, many more farmers to take part.

The GWCT is also going to be running a number of farmland bird ID sessions across the country prior to the survey week, which is the 7th and 15th of February 2015, so that farmers can brush up on their spotting skills!

All being well, we can then give the media an upbeat, really positive farm-based news story for once, reflecting much more closely what is actually happening on British farmland.

For more details of the BFBC and to download survey sheets – go to:  https://www.gwct.org.uk/farming/big-farmland-bird-count/   
Spot the birdie - training in progress.
From left: Graham Hartwell (BASF), Guy Smith (NFU vice president), Iain Dillon (RSPB),
Joe Martin (Chairman of the FWAG association), Sir Jim Paice (GWCT's Allerton project Chairman)
Tim Breitmeyer (CLA vice president), Jim Egan (GWCT BFBC organiser).