Saturday, 29 November 2014

Smartly dressed for long December nights!

A smart moth - the December moth
I put out the moth trap last night, as the forecast was for a very mild night for this time of year and the winds were coming from the continent, so the possibility of a late migrant perhaps?

The catch was a little disappointing, consisting of 7 December moths and nothing else. Although they are called December moths, they actually fly from October to late January.

I rather like December moths with their peroxide, slightly punky off white foreheads and creamy-white wing markings on a charcoal background! They sort of look as though they have evening wear on, having made quite an effort to dress up smartly for a cold December night.

What is more, the males have stunningly enormous antennae, which they use to detect the scent of un-mated females from several hundred metres away! Having mated, the females will lay eggs on various trees such as Blackthorn, Birch, Oak and Sallow and the eggs will then hatch out in April or May to coincide with leaf growth.

So why should this moth, along with a few others, choose to fly in the winter months? Well for starters, you are less likely to be eaten by a Bat as they are in hibernation and when it is mild enough to take to the wing, you have a good long night ahead of you to find that mate! 

So perhaps not as daft as they may at first appear to be then!

How about these for antennae! 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Woodcock - Sexing, migration and Christmas presents

The first tagged Woodcock is back here for the winter! 

So, the first of the GWCT tagged Woodcock is back in the UK to spend the winter here – Monkey 111 (who does come up with these names!) has completed His/Her return journey from the breeding grounds in Western Russia and is now pootling about back in Hampshire.

You might well think that GWCT scientists should have paid enough attention in biology lessons at school to able to determine the sex of a Woodcock in the hand - but apparently it is not as easy as it might seem! Find out why and also see how all the other tagged birds are faring here

The British woodcock population comprises of both resident and migratory birds. In a typical winter we would predict around 10% of woodcock in the UK are home-bred, whilst the other 90% are visitors from Northern Europe and Russia.

Those percentages roughly translate into a resident breeding population estimated at 78,000 males and a total wintering population that could rise to 1.5 million individuals in some years. That is a lot of Woodcock who are due to hop across the North Sea in the next few days and weeks. Having said that, they don’t seem in any particular hurry to join us this winter, as mild conditions have meant that many of them are mucking about in Western European countries, taking a somewhat leisurely attitude to migration - and why not!

Finally, do you have that really difficult aunt or uncle, granny or cousin to buy a Christmas present for? Is Dad seriously problematic too, as he appears to already have drawers full of socks and the drinks cabinet is positively bulging, whilst Mum really, really does not want another scarf to be hung up with all the others!

Well, help is at hand! What about buying them a seriously interesting present, (rather than all the glittery tat that is on offer in the shops) – why not buy them a “sponsor a woodcock” present and help with this fascinating project! There are other woodcock related presents on the Woodcock Watch blog as well!

WOW – You know what - this is a seriously good blog – I've even helped you sort out your Christmas present buying!!    

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Don't let kindness land up killing your garden birds.

Greenfinch - often seems vulnerable to disease
It has been such a mild autumn with an incredible abundance of food, (especially a colossal beech mast year) that I have only just started to think about ordering some bird seed to begin feeding my garden birds.

I am quite often asked if one should feed birds all the year round, or just during the lean winter and spring months. Personally, I prefer to see birds collecting “natural” food to raise their young, so once there is an ample supply of food – usually towards the end of April or early May, I pack up the feeders and put them away for the summer.

You should always concentrate on the hygiene aspect of putting out food and water, regardless of what time of year you feed birds, although perhaps if you do feed birds all the year round and also offer them water, it becomes even more vital to make sure that you keep feeders and bird “baths” clean due to the constant use.  
There are a number of diseases that garden birds can pick up if you do not keep feeding sites well managed.

Trichomoniasis (or ‘Canker’ as the disease is also known), has been known in Poultry and Game for some time, however for some unknown reason the parasite then jumped from its usual host group to the wild finch population. The parasite survives in moist conditions, needing water to survive, so that in hot dry conditions it will be killed by desiccation.

Greenfinches are most frequently affected by this disease and birds that become infected with the Protozoal parasite (called Trichomonas gallinae ) will not usually survive. The disease was first recorded in April 2005, but then exploded in 2006 and 2007 as infection spread across the country.

Birds take on a fluffed up, lethargic appearance and in some areas up to 35% of Greenfinches and 21% Chaffinches have died. The disease lives in the upper digestive tract and therefore the most likely way that it is spread between birds is via saliva-contaminated water and food.

Salmonella organisms also invade the digestive tract of wild birds and bacteria are present in large numbers in infected droppings, which are the source of contamination for uninfected birds. 

Avian Pox is also a relatively new disease in the UK, which seems to be increasingly identified in garden birds. The disease is caused by a virus which stimulates excessive skin growth and nodular warty lesions, often around the face of the bird.

Great tits seem to be particularly prone to Avian Pox infection, but I have also seen lesions on Blue tits and I know that other birds can get this pox too. Most birds build up immunity to the infection and survive, however, it seems that Great tits can develop big wart like growths which in the worst case scenario can prove fatal, especially if the growth impedes the everyday functions of the bird in any way.

Because it is a relatively resistant virus it can survive on contaminated perches and feeding stations for a considerable time, infecting a number of birds in the local area.

Finally, there is a disease that is specific to Chaffinch, called “Chaffinch Viral Papilloma” (CVP). CVP is thought to affect around 1% of the Chaffinch population at any given time. Cases usually occur in clusters and quite high proportions of local populations may be affected in outbreaks.

This disease causes wart-like growths on the feet and usually, but not always, only one leg is affected. The growths vary from small nodules to large irregular shaped and deeply-fissured masses which almost engulf the entire lower leg and foot and which can distort the toes. Affected birds usually seem in otherwise good health but some may show signs of lameness and hop mainly on the unaffected foot.

The fact that cases occur in clusters suggests that the presence of affected birds presents a risk to others that are susceptible. The mode of transmission is not known but it seems likely that the virus may be spread via surfaces the birds stand or perch upon or by direct contact.

The most effective method to avoid cross-transmission of all these problems is to follow good, regular hygiene practice at your feeders and take steps to minimise crowding at perching or feeding sites. So, you should try to ensure that you clean and disinfect feeders on a regular basis and the same applies to bird baths.

Try to only put out enough food on the ground for each day, so that it does not become contaminated with droppings or start to rot in mild, wet weather. It is also a really good idea to move feeding stations around the garden and maybe have a number of sites rather than just one main one, if the size of garden allows.

One final thought. I often see pheasant feeders that have obviously been situated in the same place for some time, as the ground is completely bare underneath them. Remember, all of the above is also relevant to game birds and the small birds that regularly feed alongside them at these hoppers.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

How about this for an amazing story!

This little chap experiences the feeling of  deja vu! 

I have recently read about an amazing coincidence involving this little bird above!

Colin McShane writes:

"Over the last 8 years I have been leading an Autumn ringing trip to the Parque Ambientale, in Vilamoura, Portugal with support from Vitor Encarnacao who heads up the Portuguese Ringing Scheme. Our trips have been successful on several levels and many British ringers have joined us over the years to expand their experience.

We have also controlled a number of birds from northern Europe, including Reed Warblers from Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, and Bluethroats from France. On 06 October 2014 during this year’s trip, I extracted a male Blackcap from one of our standard mist nets and was very pleased, although not too surprised, to find that it was carrying a BTO ring. Back at the processing station, Dave Clifton (who has been an ever-present fixture on these trips) was doing his stint as the scribe. Having announced to the group what I had extracted, I began to process the bird - first reading out the ring number several times for accuracy.

Dave went quiet. He quickly got onto the phone to his wife, who checked in his ringing book back home. Hey Presto!! The bird was indeed one (of only two Blackcaps ringed at the site) he had ringed at Duckley Plantation, on the north shore of Blithfield Reservoir, Staffordshire on 11th September 2014 - only a few weeks before we had left for Portugal!!

Unfortunately Dave wasn’t able to buy a Lottery ticket on that day, but it must be a given that he was pretty certain of a big win with that kind of luck". 

How incredible is that!

I have done a bit of checking and there are about 1.2 million pairs of Blackcap here during the summer, which will of course raise a number of broods, raising the overall population significantly. It must be said that not all Blackcap leave our shores to over-winter elsewhere, some 3,000 elect to spend the winter in southern England. But nevertheless a remarkable story.

So another little gem of migratory information gleaned, plus one very chuffed bird ringer. Lets see if he can re-trap it back in Staffordshire next summer!!!   

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A famous person and assorted wildlife turn up in strange places.

City Duck - a Mallard 5 floors up!
 I spent some time in London over the weekend, staying with great friends who live in a Westminster apartment, which is situated 5 floors up and so looks out over the roofs of other buildings. They have a small roof terrace with potted shrubs and plants and have also installed a bird “feeding station” with nuts and small seeds on offer.

Now, you might think that you would not get many visitors to a roof terrace 5 stories up in central London, but actually you would be quite wrong, as my friends report of a steady flow of visitors such as Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed tits, Crows and Magpies, Pigeons, Robins, Blackbirds, Seagulls (I presume Black-headed and probably Herring) and Greenfinch. They also tell me that now and again they see the “Hawk thing” – probably a Peregrine or Kestrel I imagine!!

But there are also some lovely surprises in the form of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jays and a Mallard! Also little Jenny Wren is seen frequently, obviously reckoning that it is worthwhile flying to this height to search out the shrubs for hidden insects! As yet no Parakeets, but I expect that these colourful invaders will turn up before too long.

So it seems that wherever you live, there will be wildlife to keep you company, which is really rather comforting don’t you think!

I also visited Westminster Abbey and was fortunate enough to be shown around this incredible building by the Dean. I was shown the colourful, marbled mosaic floor that has recently been restored, which dates back a thousand years and depicts the world in the middle of the surrounding universe. Incidentally, this is the exact place that the coronation chair is placed when a new king or queen is installed, putting them at the head, quite literally, of everything. An interesting take on our somewhat heightened importance in the cosmos I would have thought!

I was also fascinated by the array of famous people buried here, starting perhaps with the enormous central tomb in the middle of the Ladies’ chapel in which Edward the Confessor lies, through Kings and Queens, Politicians, poets and writers and scientists – including somewhat surprisingly Darwin.

Darwin had in fact expected to be buried in St Mary's churchyard at Downe in Kent where he died, but at the request of Darwin's colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswood (President of the Royal society)) arranged for Darwin to be buried in the Abbey, close to Isaac Newton.
This is quite something for a man who rocked the whole establishment, especially the church, by writing “On the origin of species” in which he described evolution.  In 1879 he wrote that "I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally, an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Still, there is one consolation for Darwin being laid to rest in the middle of such a huge city – there certainly seems to be plenty of wildlife just outside the door!

A Jay frequently pops in to the feeding station!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Hedgerow management

Earlier on this week I held a hedgerow management workshop for the farmers involved in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area ( which is situated between Marlborough and Swindon in Wiltshire. 

The morning was hosted by John White of Overtown Farm, Wroughton, but kicked off in Overtown Manor where daughter Nancy provided a spacious room (+ Tea, Coffee & scrummy biscuits), enabling me to give a presentation all about hedges. (Incidentally, Nancy runs a high quality B & B, which if the home-made biscuits are anything to go by, will most definitely be worth a stay!! 

We then went out onto the farm to see first-hand different hedge cutters in action, finishing up with the Crème de la crème of hedgerow management – hedge laying.

We watched as a circular saw cut through some thick stems, bringing a tall hedge back down to a more manageable height. This is also a brilliant piece of kit for taking off overhanging branches that have become too much of a good thing.

A reciprocating knife was also on show and we were all mightily impressed with how neat a job it did on the hedge alongside a wood. Then onto the flail cutter, perhaps the most commonly used machine, again noting how well the SHARP blades cut through the growth leaving a clean cut, “A” shaped fashioned hedge – demonstrating that these machines used correctly, need not leave “battered and smashed” hedges in their wake.

Finally, we watched a true professional in the form of Guy Robins, who lays hedges from September through to the end of March. To many people, this looks such a brutal way to treat a hedge, but to return and see how it has grown back into a thick, stock proof, wildlife friendly hedge just one year later, is something that I never cease to marvel at. Also, did you know that there are some 30 odd different styles of hedge laying!

Despite getting rather wet and cold, I think everyone enjoyed the event and hopefully will now provide an even higher quality of hedge than they already do. My thanks to Jemma Batten (MDNIA farmer “wiper-in” and all-round brilliant organiser!) for getting people and machinery in the correct place!

One thing to note is that we held this meeting at this time of year, so that when land managers come to cut most of their hedges in January and February – which is the best time if possible – then they will already be fully up to speed!

Here are some pictures of the morning!

Circular saw in action

Here you can see the saw - it will carve through some hefty stems

The reciprocating cutter 

The Flail - if sharp and used on the correct size of growth - does a good job  

Guy in action - a wonderful skill

Just laid in the forefront - with last year's effort behind (already trimmed) 

The finished article - demonstrating the "Midland style" - used here
in Wiltshire because it produces a great hedge for keeping stock in! 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembering our links with the natural world

During this week of remembrance, a couple of things have struck me about our relationship with the natural world and have got me thinking. Of course there is the incredible display of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London's moat, each poppy representing a British military fatality during the first world war which is one obvious link with nature, but actually it was two other happenings that sent my thought processes into overdrive!

First of all I heard an interview with Helen Macdonald who has just been awarded the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, for her book “H is for Hawk” – a lyrical depiction of the relationship between a human and a Goshawk.

Consumed with sadness after her father's sudden death, she acquired the Goshawk as she had always been fascinated by falconry, throwing herself completely and utterly into training the hawk, as a way to deflect her suffering. She talked eloquently, not only of how much she had learnt about the ways of the hawk, but also nature, and indeed herself.

“We’re increasingly enforcing the boundaries between humans and wild animals: there are very few opportunities these days to interact closely with them at all. I think this impoverishes human lives. And it also makes animals small and far away, so we don’t care about them as deeply.

It’s one thing to read that there are fewer Wood Warblers now than thirty years ago, but it is a different thing to read how it feels to sense their absence in a wood that was once a place made of Wood Warblers as well as trees in your mind. Communicating the pain of losses like that can’t be done with statistics”.

Oh, how very, very true. As vital as good data is, we must of course always interpret “cold” figures, turning them into a “warmer” reality – making them come alive if we are to effect change. Scientists please take note.

Then I heard the famous "Ode of Remembrance" taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem "For the Fallen", which was first published in the Times in September 1914.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Over looking the Rumps

How interesting that Binyon wrote the poem while sitting on the cliffs between Pentire Point and the Rumps in north Cornwall – an area I know well. He was not in front of a typewriter in an office with no windows, but instead he was “feeling” every word he wrote, on behalf of those brave men who had lost their lives, by being part of the very landscape they had fought for.

Many folk (myself included) acknowledge having “special” places which are often (but not always) situated far away from the noise and bustle of everyday life. Places where they admit to feeling close to departed family or friends and where spiritual emotions become heightened.

I don’t think that we should be at all surprised that the natural world still has an impact on us despite the so called “civilised” way that we now claim to live.  It is estimated that the first members of the human family (hominins) lived in Africa about 6 or 7 million years ago and so we have evolved over a long period of time.

Only very recently have we become the first “urbanised” nation and thereby potentially started off this disconnection process from the natural world. By the 1850s, more than 50% of the 21 million population of this country was living in towns, of which 2.3 million were in London, making Britain’s people completely unique in the world at that time.

I agree with Helen Macdonald that if we lose these important links with the natural world, we are potentially discarding part of our evolutionary make up, which must surely lead to more impoverished lives in general. That might be when it comes to dealing with grief, writing prose or, indeed, sorting out who and what we are and how we could all live in harmony, not only with each other, but with all other life in this beautiful world in which we find ourselves.   

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

There's gold in them there hills!

Hampshire countryside - heavily sort after by investors
If you don’t like the banks, are wary of investing in stocks and shares and have become increasingly suspicious of financial advisers, then it appears that you should consider buying up a few acres as a sound investment – if you can still afford that is!!!

Just up the road from where I live in central Hampshire, a 980 acre farm (with a barn converted, 4 bedroomed house) has recently gone on the market for a staggering £12 million. Surely, at this price, they have not really gauged the market properly. Well true, it appears not.

There have been more than 40 viewings which has resulted in 30 bids, sending the price rocketing to what is now believed to be over £16 million. So it looks as though this farmland will be fetching somewhere in the order of £16,000 per acre!

So why this extraordinary price?  Well most agents will tell you that location is always hugely important (easy to get to London), and will then undoubtedly go on to add that it also has a renowned Pheasant and Partridge shoot situated in attractive countryside, which always helps to attract potential buyers. Another driver stated by a number of agents, who are regularly contacted by investors who have around £10 million to invest, is that it is exempt from inheritance tax.

But there is probably an even bigger reason which is pushing up prices within our over-crowded country – long term returns. The average value of farmland in England has increased by 12% so far this year and by an incredible 187% over the last decade.

This outstrips the housing market as a whole, even in central London, with only the gold market notching up better figures, making farmland a fantastic long term investment.

So this green and pleasant land of ours seems to be turning to more of a golden colour me thinks!