Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A wildly exciting day at Knepp Castle

GWCT staff on a visit to the Knepp Castle estate

Sometimes, just sometimes, everything falls into place and you experience a day to remember. 

Yesterday, a group of around fourteen Game & Wildlife Trust Staff visited the 1,400 hectare (3,500 acre) Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex, on a glorious high summer day.

Up until about 15 years ago, the estate was run in your bog standard way – you know the sort of thing – Wheat, Oil seed rape and a Maize crop grown for the dairy herd. Then Sir Charles Burrell (very much “Charlie” to everyone!) decided that enough was enough and that he could not continue to run the estate as it was, with the stresses and strains of large overdrafts, resulting in poor returns.

Charlie took the radical step of pulling out all the internal fences and, over a period of a few years, turning most of the estate into the UK’s largest lowland rewilding project. Now, this does not mean pulling the plug on all management and allowing nature to take its course, well not entirely anyway.

The project is interested in trying to “recreate” the wildwood of ancient Britain, but in today’s world. He has introduced Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, Red & Fallow deer which munch, browse, strip and root about in the growing vegetation. In effect, they represent the large prehistoric herbivores that would have existed way back in time, which created a mosaic of habitats from open pasture, through scrub, right up to closed canopy woodland – and everything in between! 

What is really interesting to me is that the estate’s finances now look in good order; but how can that be? Well, the pork, beef and venison which is raised in such an extensive and natural way from across the estate commands a decent premium. Many of the buildings that used to house stock, have since been converted into small business units, making a regular monthly income.

Another venture has brought the public onto the estate, who not only can go on “wildlife safaris” to see and learn about the wildlife and varied habitats, but also potentially to stay on site in a variety of luxurious bell tents and shepherd’s huts. Add to these estate businesses, the money from both the Common Agricultural Policy and Stewardship schemes and you begin to see how it all comes together.

I found the mosaic of different habitats amazing. I expected to see a more uniform scrubby/woodland scene, but the animals are certainly having a major impact on the end result. You can see from the few photos that I have put up, everything from young, thick, shaded woodland to grass fields which look as though they are cut for hay each year! 

Even arable plants survive. One might well think that this would be a group of plants that would suffer once the cultivators have been sold. But now the pigs do the “ploughing”, leaving churned up areas that quickly fill with a community of these plants such as Scarlet pimpernel and the rarer Sharped-leaved Fluellen.

We stopped at a good spot for viewing the wonderful Purple Emperor butterfly and almost immediately saw some flitting at speed around the tops of their favourite oak trees. The resurgence in young sallow – their caterpillar food plant – seems to be helping numbers increase. Penny Green, the estate ecologist, had found a young caterpillar which she followed through to the chrysalis stage and eventually, successfully hatching out into an adult. The photo of the empty pupal case is pictured and it was great to think that we were probably watching the original occupant high up in the canopy!
Finally, we landed back at the Charlie’s wonderful home, where his wife Isabella had prepared us all a superb summer lunch. As you might well imagine, with a table surrounded by scientists, conservationists and land managers – the discussion was robust and wide ranging!!

This is a fascinating project and I hope that it continues for many, many years to come as it is helping to reshape much of our thinking about the countryside and how it is managed. I would very much like to thank Charlie, Isabella and Penny for imparting their knowledge so freely, coupled with their infectious enthusiasm and wonderful hospitality. Here are some pictures of the visit:

Charlie Burrell

Track through open scrub land

Vegetation varied widely

Enclosures to exclude animals shows how effective they can be in controlling growth

Tamworth family doing what pigs do!

Pig cultivation

Arable flowers survive because of the pig cultivation - here Scarlet Pimpernel 

Here thick young woodland has got away from the herbivores

This scrape was created, but the surrounding sallow is entirely natural

Exmoor ponies enjoy "meadow" grazing

Empty Purple Emperor pupal case  

What a wonderful way to round off a superb visit!

If you would like to find out more, then go to:    

Friday, 8 July 2016

Silver Lapwing flies from Sussex to Wales!

Annie Brown left (2015 winner) hands over the prestigious Silver Lapwing award  to Richard and Helen Roderick
I attended the 39th Silver Lapwing awards yesterday, organised by the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and kindly sponsored by Waitrose. Heather Jenkins, Waitrose Director of Buying, attends the awards each year and told the audience how much importance the company places on these awards.
The event was held at Annie Brown’s stunning farm, high up on the Sussex Downs, with distant views overlooking Shoreham-by-sea, while passing container ships far out on the ocean completed the backdrop.

Annie was deservedly the winner of this prestigious award in 2015, as she and her team have over-seen a remarkable transformation of this part of the South Downs. Ironically, the whole farm was put into grass under the “Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme” as conservationists at the time thought that this was the right thing to do with the Downs (severely criticised by the GWCT at the time I hasten to add!).

In 2007, Annie took over the running of the farm following her father’s death and she realised that the grassland was not delivering any sensible grazing nor any environmental benefits either. Indeed, the wildlife had exited the farm big time, as species such as Corn Bunting and Brown Hare disliked the mono-culture of grass.

As Annie says “The excitement as the plough transformed some tired grassland on the Downs was palpable, and the fact that the Corn Bunting returned to the farm so quickly shows just how resilient nature can be”.
After a delicious lunch of local lamb and an assortment of fresh Waitrose produce, we all jumped on trailers to take a look around the farm. I have known this farm for some time, but WOW – it is a long time since I have heard this number of Corn Bunting singing! Every time the tractors pulled over and engines were turned off, there was a constant background of “rattling keys”, the song of one of the UK’s fastest declining farmland bird species.

Skylarks, Meadow pipit and even a couple of calling Quail added to the wonderful cacophony of sound. Meanwhile, many rare arable plants such as Night-flowering catchfly and Prickly poppy have come back in profusion, having patiently waited under grassland for this opportunity – colourfully reminding us all that the Downs were indeed one of the first parts of this country to be cultivated by our distant ancestors!

So what exactly has Annie and her team done to bring a silent grassland farm back from the dead? Well, she has taken good advice from a range of people and is also very lucky to have a top Natural England advisor in the form of Sue Simpson to oversee her Stewardship agreement. She has also created a hard working farm team around her, who are as dedicated and enthusiastic as she is. How often do I find myself saying this after visiting top award winning farms!

She has introduced Beetle banks, wildflower margins, wild bird seed mixes, fallow plots and also carries out supplementary feeding in the depths of winter, amongst many other things. The arable cropping is not in huge blocks of the same crop type, but broken up, and of course she has still retained plenty of downland grass, which intersperses the arable. What is more, the grass is grazed by both cattle and sheep.

I did say on the way around the farm that should I be re-incarnated as a Corn Bunting – then please may it be on this farm!!

So, who has won this year’s award? Well, a charming couple called Richard & Helen Roderick, from Newton farm, Scethrog, who manage a mixed farm of 650 acres in the Usk valley near Brecon in Wales. They were obviously absolutely delighted and I would like to pass on my congratulations to them, as it is no mean feat to win this prestigious, national award. 

I would also like to congratulate Dominic Gardener from Lee farm, Angmering in West Sussex for coming second in the competition. I know Dominic well and can vouch for just how dedicated he is to farming with wildlife in mind.

I greatly look forward (if invited of course!) to looking around the Roderick’s farm next year in the knowledge that it has to be one hell of a place to have picked up the 2016 Silver Lapwing award!

After a delicious lunch, everyone thoroughly enjoyed looking around Annie's beautiful farm



Sunday, 5 June 2016

Keep an eye on your Brassicas - lots of Diamond Geezers about!

A tiny Diamond-back moth - only around 7 or 8 mm long! 
On Saturday night I set my moth trap out in the garden, as the night looked set to be warm and still - not something we have experienced much of lately.

In the morning I was amazed to find the outside of the trap covered in little Diamond-back moths! On opening the trap, clouds of the tiny creatures flew out and the egg cartons (where the moths hide in the trap) were covered with yet more.

By the time I had finished examining the catch - a rough guesstimate was that I had caught around a 1000 of these little migrant moths.

Despite their minute size these micro moths travel to our shores from the continent and then have several broods during the summer. It is quite normal to have catches of double figures in the late summer - but a 1000 moths so early in the year is incredible.

The reason I have titled this blog so, is that the food plant of Diamond-back larvae is brassicas of all sorts. So you gardeners and commercial veg growers beware - we are being invaded big time!


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Buffalo, bumble bees and brown trout - Hampshire at its best.

A water buffalo - such a placid gentle creature

I had an interesting morning earlier this week when I went to visit Dagan James’s farm at Broughton in Hampshire. Now, it has to be said that this “ain’t no ordinary farm” as they say down these parts - no sir – because it’s not growing wheat and barley or raising cattle and sheep – instead the 500 acre farm supports a superb 250 water buffalo herd!  

The great Indian water buffalo has been farmed for thousands of years. Originating in the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan, the buffalo is farmed across the world, and is highly valued as a reliable and hardworking draft animal, as well as a producer of rich creamy milk and excellent meat. Well known for great resistance to disease and with a very hardy nature, the buffalo is able to thrive on marginal land and young stock grow well without any need for concentrates.

I had not really come to see these magnificent beasts however, as Dagan had invited me over to see the wonderful grass and herb mixed swards that he grows, as not only do they offer a rich diet for his stock, but also potentially they offer a lot for wildlife too.

Of course ignoring these beautiful beasts was not an option – so I followed Dagan over to meet the stars of the show. I could not help noticing that there was only one strand of electric fencing between me and an awful lot of “meat on the hoof”!

But I soon relaxed – a gentler breed of farm animal you could not wish to meet. In fact, within just a few minutes I had got over the novelty factor and instead enjoyed watching them go about their daily business – looking totally at home in the Hampshire countryside.

Dagan then showed me his grass and herb lays – what a treat! He explained how he has tried a number of different combinations, but a grass mix based mainly around cocksfoot with the addition of red and white clovers, sainfoin, chicory and salad burnet forms much of what he grows. In places Lucerne is added too.

I missed some of what Dagan was telling me, as the din of singing Skylarks over-head was making it really quite difficult to hear. An “exaltation of larks” were certainly telling me what they thought of this type of farming!!

I found what Dagan had to say fascinating. He openly told me of the mistakes he has made – but had learnt from. He digs holes in the fields and counts the worms (when his back allows) as he is fully aware of their importance. He was keen to show me the hedges and woods that he has planted and how he has completely “restored” part of the brook that flows through the farm by fencing the stock out, pollarding the willow and creating shallows and deeps within the water course. Here was a farmer managing the whole farm, not just the fields.

He is also keen on the public – yes people – not something that every farmer wants to tell you. He has created a farm shop in which to sell his produce and also attends local farmers markets as he sees the relationship between farmer and customer as incredibly important.

I hope the farm goes from strength to strength – not just for Dagan and his family, but also for the skylarks and bumble bees enjoying the herb rich grassland and the wild brown trout lurking beside the flag iris in the newly restored river. As for the water buffalo? Well, they looked in magnificent condition and by the end of my visit, seemed no more unnatural in the landscape than a Hampshire Down sheep!    

What a tasty mouthful!

Dagan examining one of his herb rich swards - the buffalo had only been taken out of this field a fortnight earlier - look at the growth already. 

Are you sure one strand of wire is enough?

Buffalo in Hampshire? They looked as though they had always been here!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!

Doe with nesting material
I came across a very busy rabbit while out doing a bird survey the other morning. She was collecting large mouthfuls of grass so as to create a nest at the bottom of a newly dug hole, called a “stop”. She will then line it with hair plucked from her own body.

If conditions allow, rabbits will breed throughout the year and can produce a litter of 3-7 young (known as kittens) per month. The young kittens are born blind, deaf and almost hairless, unlike the young of Brown Hare which are born all singing and dancing and ready to go! The kitten’s eyes open at around 10 days and by about day 16 they will start to venture out of the stop, and begin eating solid food. They are weaned by about 21-25 days old, by which time their mother will already have mated and be expecting another litter.

As for the young, well a male or buck rabbit can mate at 4 months old and does can become pregnant at just 3.5 months of age.

Now for a bit of fun (farmers turn away!). A clever mathematician sat down to work out that a single female rabbit will have 184,597,433,860 descendants in just seven years. Translated into words, that is - one hundred eighty-four billion, five hundred & ninety-seven million, four hundred & thirty-three thousand, eight hundred & sixty!!

OK farmers – you can turn back now! What the mathematician did not do of course is factor in all the different ways in which rabbits can come to an early death. Many predators will regularly dine on rabbit, while Myxomatosis still takes its toll and large numbers get squished on our roads. If it wasn’t for these reasons along with many, many others, you can see that we would literally be knee deep in the little critters!

Despite all of this, I found myself secretly wishing my particular busy little doe, the best of luck as I went on my way.

She seemed to be in quite a hurry to get the job done!!

Monday, 9 May 2016

There is love in the air!

A stunning male Emperor moth attracted to a pheromone impregnated capsule. Note the huge feathered antennae which it uses to "smell" the scent.
Many creatures give off Pheromones (including us!), which can be used to trigger a number of types of behaviour, including attracting a mate, sexual arousal, bonding (mother to baby), claiming territories, raising an alarm and even as a warning to “back-off”!

I have just acquired a pheromone which (hopefully) attracts male Emperor moths. (If any pretty girls turn up, I won’t be that upset!) This particular group of scents are called Bombykol pheromones and are secreted by female moths to attract their male counterparts.

Male Emperor moths fly by day and the females fly by night.  Female Emperor moths have a gland at the end of the abdomen which emits a pheromone scent to attract the male moths, who use their large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones drifting past them on the wind. Unbelievable, when you think how many other scents there must be blowing around at any given time (farm animals, flowers, pollutants etc), it is believed that male Emperor moths can detect the pheromones from several kilometres away and then home in on the female.

So at the weekend, Rosie (my Lurcher) and I set off for the New Forest, which has plenty of suitable heathland/moorland habitat particularly favoured by Emperor moths. I parked up in a likely looking spot and we walked away from the road for a short while, Rosie gambling around pleased to be on a brand new walk, while I rather excitedly clutched my little phial of scent.

I took the little pheromone impregnated capsule out of the sealed bag and placed it on a piece of dead wood at about waist high. I stood and waited, slightly self-consciously, imagining the invisible scent drifting off across the scrubby heather landscape. Rosie sat down close by, hoping that this was not going to be a long stop.  A couple out walking their dog, passed by a short distance away and I prayed that they would not come over to ask me what I was up to!

After what could only have been a couple of minutes at the most, a large insect flew rapidly past me – was it a peacock butterfly, or could it have been an Emperor?  Having obviously overshot – it came fluttering noisily back, a wonderful male Emperor moth, stunning! But wait, there are two! No, three!

Over the next half an hour or so, I moved the phial a couple of times and must have attracted a dozen or so different male Emperors. They were not the easiest subject to photograph as they never really settled for any length of time at all, but instead frantically flew around trying to locate the “female”. Even when they did briefly land near to the phial, their wings vibrated excitedly and then they were soon off again.

I then began to feel rather guilty that I had caused such a frenzy of excitement amongst these beautiful creatures - all of which was obviously to no avail. Meanwhile, Rosie lying patiently nearby had acquired a very bored expression and so I popped the phial back into the sealed bag and continued on my walk. 

As I looked out across the wide open landscape, I realized that I had briefly tuned into just one of the many amazing species that inhabit this country, and yet so secretly go about their fascinating lives, completely unbeknown to the vast majority of us. 

Rosie with a very bored expression!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Bijou thatched cottages sought by beetles

A Scarlet Malachite Beetle

I do like discovering a “new” species that I have been blissfully unaware of, until someone happens to mention it and sets me off to find out more about it! The Scarlet malachite beetle Malachius aeneusis is just such a species, a beautiful red and green insect found in only three counties (Hampshire, Essex & Hertfordshire) on just eight sites in the UK.

The beetle emerges in early May and will be out and about until the middle of June. It used to be widespread in the southern half of the country, but is believed to have declined enormously, although it may well be lurking in undiscovered places, waiting for its whereabouts to be revealed by an eagle-eyed naturalist.

The most distinctive things to look for when identifying the scarlet malachite beetle is its bronze-green coloured body and section where the two wing cases meet, its bright red wing cases and it’s yellow face. It can be found feeding on a range of plants, although the buttercup does seem to be a particular favourite.

It has quite a strange life cycle does the scarlet malachite, but Ian Hughes, a freelance naturalist with support from Natural England and Buglife, is on a mission to secure the future of the handsome beetle, by shedding more light onto what it gets up to during the year.

Ian explains, “I do believe that the loss of meadow habitat in this country is partly responsible for the beetle’s dramatic decline and this is one of the elements of their life-cycle that I am investigating. They appear to need thatched properties to lay their eggs, and once hatched in early May they need a direct flight path from the thatch to a meadow habitat where they need to feed on specific meadow flowers and grasses and then breed.”

It might also be that modern thatched roofs may offer a less good habitat than they used to, perhaps because they are kept in better condition than in days gone by. Also quite a lot of thatching straw is imported from Poland nowadays and most of it is treated with chemicals to help it last longer.

So, Ian is installing small but perfectly formed thatched ‘beetle cottages’ on sites where the beetle once thrived, in the hope that they may to choose to lay their eggs there. Not only should this give the beetles exactly what they require, but also help Ian to study the beetle at close quarters, which is not the case normally, as he can’t clamber around over people’s houses!

To help secure the future of this threatened species, Natural England has also come to the rescue by providing advice and financial support through its Innovation Fund. David Andrews, Natural England’s adviser in the New Forest has been supporting Ian and said, “The beetle is a national priority species and therefore features in Natural England’s species recovery plan.

“We would urge people to go out and look out for the beetle this spring and early summer so that we can assess the current state of play for this beetle in Britain and potentially find previously unknown territories.  It is a stunning and unmistakable looking beetle and it seems to be clinging on in just a tiny portion of its former range. It could be that with the help of the public and landowners we might uncover other areas where the beetle is surviving. This would be a fantastic discovery and could make a massive difference to their survival.”

To take part in the survey, please visit Buglife’s website at

Potential Scarlet Malachite beetle residence!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Big farmland Bird Count (BFBC), 6th - 14th February - don't miss out!!

Budding Birders on the Ovebury estate bird ID training day
Yesterday, I ran one of the 17 bird ID days that are being held across the country prior to the Big Farmland Bird count. This particular day was held on the Ovebury estate situated on the Gloucestershire/Worcestershire border near Tewkesbury, by kind invitation of Penelope Bossom.

This delightful estate has an equally charming estate staff to go with it! I was joined by estate manager, Jake Freestone (known to many of you I’m sure because of his prowess as a blogger/tweeter!), head keeper Paul Gillett and office based staff Claire, Becky and Ros – who all combined into a force to be reckoned with!

From homemade chocolate brownies to a delicious lunch and a walk already planned out for me – I embarrassingly had to do very little to make the day a success – even the weather was dry and sunny! So my thanks go out to all of them.

We spotted 28 species: Mallard, Coot, Heron, Robin, Dunnock, Wren, Pied wagtail, Blackbird, Song thrush, Redwing, Fieldfare, Rook, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Raven, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Yellowhammer, Goldfinch, Linnet, Chaffinch, Skylark, Blue tit. Great tit, Long-tailed tit, Pheasant and Red-legged partridge.  Not bad for a chattering, rambling group of mixed bird ID skills!

Don’t forget – the big week approaches! We are asking people to spend 30 minutes on any one day between the 6th and 14th February, recording the species and number of birds seen on one particular area of the farm.

Nearly (but not quite!) a 1,000 farmers, managing nearly one million acres of UK farmland, took part in the 2015 count. We just have to beat that 1,000 total this year – so please dust off those binocs and get out there next week!

Not only do I want to thank all the farmers who have allowed us to hold these bird ID days on their farms, but also to all the various organisations that have helped us to put on these ID days and also promoted the BFBC across a wide range of media.

Finally, we could not have done any of this had it not been for our main sponsor – BASF and their ever enthusiastic, environmental specialist, Graham Hartwell. 

So a huge thank you from Jim Egan (who actually does all the organisational work) and myself and all at the GWCT – we most certainly could not do it without all of you! 

Here’s to a very successful 2016 BFBC next week! I will let you know how it goes!

Monday, 25 January 2016

Secretary of State Liz Truss visits farmer group at Selborne

I have chatted on this blog (16th November 2015) about the great work that the Selborne Landscape Partnership have been achieving, so it was a real boost to all those concerned to have a visit last week from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Liz Truss. She had heard all about these various farmer cluster groups, which have been formed around the country so that they can manage the countryside on a “landscape scale”, and specifically requested to come down to Hampshire and find out more.

We started off by meeting in local farmer Kate Faulkner’s kitchen, for a cup of coffee and an up-date on some of the activities that the group is achieving.

The highlight, amongst many different projects that are being started by the group, has to be the Harvest mouse story. 

As Gilbert White, the naturalist writer who lived in Selborne, was the first person to identify the Harvest mouse as a separate species, makes this area the “home” of this delightful little mouse. There was only one old record locally in recent times (1999) for this species, and that was on a nature reserve, not out on the farmland where White would have found them. 

The farmers had not seen any for a long time either, so to all intents and purpose, this iconic little mouse had apparently been lost. White would undoubtedly have found that incredibly hard to believe, as it was such a common little mammal in his day.

Fast forward 18 months. 

Volunteers, including the farmers themselves, have been busy surveying the 28 Km squares that surround the village and almost unbelievable, have located 472 Harvest mouse nests, showing that the species is still alive and well and actually, still fairly common!!

We then walked out onto the farm in pouring rain, which was a shame as we all got a good soaking! It says a lot about the minister though, as she wanted to see and talk about everything despite the weather and asked lots of questions, appearing to be genuinely fascinated about what the farmers were collectively achieving.

Liz Truss certainly appears to think that this landscape approach to managing the countryside is the way forward, and now needs to consider ways of rolling this scenario out over the whole country.

How refreshing that it is the farmers themselves who are guiding the way forward and that Government are taking note.   Very inspirational!          

"Lead farmer" William Woolmer explains how diverse the area is to Liz Truss, while farmer Kate Faulkner holds the map 

Rob Nicholls of the South Downs National Park (SDNP), shows Liz a Harvest mouse nest.

A soggy group! From left to right: Nick Heasman (SDNP), farmers Kate Faulkner & William Woolmer, Me, Liz Truss, James Phillips and Hannah Thacker (NE) and Rob Nicholl (SDNP)

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Worms, worms, glorious worms!

"Thought for the day" -  maybe with added worms! 
I read with interest the headline “monster worms” have been found on the island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland – Malt whisky induced Anacondas I thought to myself!

They have indeed found some fairly huge earthworms having said that. These brutes measure up to forty centimetres (1.3 ft) long and weigh in at twelve and a half grams, rather than the more normal four or five grams.

Dr. Kevin Butt, who has been studying these worms, says that he believes they have blossomed due to rich soil and a lack of predators. Rum worms are bigger than average due to their remote, undisturbed location, with good quality soil and for the fact that the island also lacks predators such as badgers, moles, hedgehogs and foxes which would usually gobble the worms before they had chance to grow into monsters.

Unlike most animals, which stop growing once they reach an adult size, earthworms keep on growing if left to their own devices and can surprisingly live for at least 20 years or so if nothing eats them.

The spotlight has been turned onto earthworms lately, not just because of these giant Scottish ones, but also because of the important role that trillions of ordinary, humble worms play every day.

I have said this before on this Blog – but it is worth repeating – “Darwin always stated that the earthworm was the most important species on the planet”.

It seems to have taken most of us an age to get around to realising this, and to learn more about this vital role that worms carry out. 
One person who has known this for some time is our own GWCT soil specialist, Dr. Alistair Leake, who often quotes that research had shown an earthworm presence in soils of 400 per square metre could increase crop yields by up to 25%. They are also turning over the soil for me, without a penny being spent on diesel he often states, while grinning broadly!

Research has shown that earthworms boost plant growth by helping release nitrogen from the soil during their burrowing and feeding activities, which is otherwise locked away in soil organic matter or plant residue".

They also improve soil structure which enables better plant rooting, improve infiltration rates and moisture and their activities also stimulate microbe activity. They also carry out bio-control which reduces pests and diseases in soil. If you only have a few worms in the soil there will be an increase in surface run-off and potential erosion issues. 

A simple test you can do to find out how your earthworm numbers are faring, is to take a spade full of soil and see how many worms you can count. If at least 16 earthworms are totted up, then there will be an increased benefit, not only potentially in crop yields, but also through reduced water run-off – a very topical issue at present!

It is worth noting that worms can reach staggering numbers if the soil is in top class nick. If every man, woman and child in this country was a worm, we could fit them all into a good quality 70 acre grass field! 

 As Cilla would have said “That’s alorra, lorra worms!”

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Alabama rot shakes the dog world

Keep a check on your dogs for signs of lesions

When you look after animals, there is always cause for concern if they become a “little off colour”, especially as they can’t tell you what the matter is, unlike children. Mind you, when I was a child, the assorted animals always grabbed far more attention than us children even when they were perfectly well, let alone if they were ill!

Hence I had to spend a whole day with a broken arm, having fallen out of a tree first thing in the morning while checking out a bird’s nest. It was not until the evening that I managed to get someone to listen to my winging and take me down to the doctor – who confirmed the break within seconds and sent me off to the plaster room!

Anyway, I digress! 

A fellow work colleague sent an e-mail around the other morning saying “When I got home from work last night my dog wasn't quite himself and wasn't able to get out of bed and I noticed a number of quite nasty lesions on his skin. After taking him to the vet they suspected he might have the early signs of Alabama Rot”.

The GWCT just happens to have a Vet working with us at the moment and he commented “It is thought that dogs can be exposed to this toxin during the winter months in wet muddy conditions (especially wooded areas). The toxin can cause skin lesions on the lower legs or feet and damage the kidneys, sometimes causing kidney failure. Advice is to wash mud off your dog after walking and to monitor for any unusual skin lesions. It is important to stress that this is very rare disease, but if you are at all concerned you should get your pet in to be checked”.

There is not a huge amount known about this disease, although the New forest does seem to be a stronghold for it, perhaps because so many dogs are exercised there. The map showing outbreaks of this disease does however cover most of England, so I think it is as well to keep a good look out for it over the next few months, as it does appear to be on the increase. It can and does quite often result in the dog’s kidneys failing, leading to death, however, as with most things, if you catch it early enough then the Vet can certainly help.

A useful site to read up more on this disease is:

Thursday, 7 January 2016

The key to solving the flooding issues? Answer – Farmers.

We need a radical rethink on the issue of flooding
I want to start by saying how my heart goes out to all those who have had their homes flooded – it must be so utterly soul destroying. Listening to their desperate pleas, as they stand in dirty brown sludge surrounded by wrecked furniture, demanding that more money should be spent on better flood defences, is of course a totally justified and understandable demand.

However, and it is a very big “however” in my opinion.

Although these barricades to protect property and people, do of course have a role in flood defence, they are just that – defences. They play no role whatsoever in getting to the bottom of the problem, namely, stopping the floods from occurring in the first place. Spending large amounts of the flood defence budget on diverting flood waters here and there, seems to me to be the ultimate false economy of going down the “sticking plaster solution”, even though electorally it gets politicians of the hook as they are seen to be doing something tangible.

With all indications from the climate change experts that extremes of weather are going to become far more frequent, surely it is time for a wholesale, radical rethink on this subject.

Writer and biologist Colin Tudge put it across extremely well at the Oxford Real Farming Conference when he said; “We can't control floods - or drought - unless we involve the farmers. The catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be at least a thousand times larger than the area on which all that water is finally dumped. So one inch of rain on the surrounding hills becomes 1000 inches – more than 80 feet -- in the river, or in the high street if the river can’t cope”.

That sums up the whole issue in one paragraph in my opinion. This is where the money should be spent Mr. Cameron – on the wider countryside. Cameron might well retort – “OK clever dick, how?”
Well by looking at in-field cultivations systems, alleviating compaction, increasing organic matter in soils, avoiding bare soil over-winter by planting cover crops, holding back water by damming ditches or using sluice gates, creating barriers such as Beetle Banks across sloping fields, pinpointing where water run-off regularly occurs and addressing this by targeting strategic tree planting, whilst also paying farmers to allow flooding on their land rather than sending water on to someone else further downstream.

Take just one of these examples – increasing organic matter in soil, something that all farmers can start to address straight away. Generally, particularly on arable farmland, soil organic matter is fairly impoverished and is often making up only around 1 to 3 % (at best) of the soil’s make-up. A conservative estimate is that organic matter can hold four times its weight in water, so if a farmer can increase the organic matter in the soil by an additional 1.5%, they could reasonably be expected to hold in the region of another 225 tons of water per hectare, rather than watching it run away into the nearby ditch.

The GWCT’s Allerton project in Leicestershire is providing many answers to the problems that Government now face on this issue. Now is the time to make them part of future soil and water policy.