I have been in partial hibernation this last couple of months, hence the lack of blog posts. But I have managed to do somethings, one of which is sift through my dormouse data from last year. I’ve made a little animation showing how dormice and other animals have used the boxes at my monitoring site over the last couple of years.
It’s great to see dormice making use of the boxes we put up in 2015. Hopefully it means this year they’ll start making use of the boxes we put up at the start of 2016.
2016 has been short on good news, and I have been a bit despondent of late. Luckily this little fellow arrived in the post on Friday, to remind me that not everything has been a disaster this year. I’ve called him (unoriginally) Justin.
I’m intrigued to see how the trial goes. Beavers, like humans, shape the landscape they live in. Chopping down trees, creating lakes and changing the course of rivers. I got to see some of the effect they were having when I visited the River Otter. There’s evidence that the changes beavers make may benefit other species, and reduce flooding downstream. But can we learn to live with a species that can make such dramatic changes in a short time?
If the trial is successful, it will give me hope that native species we have driven to the brink of extinction may, one day, make a comeback. If Devon Wildlife Trust can’t raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the trial to 2020, the beavers will have to be rehomed in captivity. I hope it succeeds, and one day I will see a beaver in the wild. If you’d like more info, or to donate to the crowd funding appeal, visit SupportDevonsBeavers.org
For the third year running I entered the world of commerce, setting my photos to work raising money for charity. The craft fair I had a stall at was ideally timed for Christmas shopping. Once again I was selling cards, bookmarks, large prints and calendars featuring my wildlife photos. As ever, the craft fair was a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife.
This year my bestsellers were the 2017 calendar (now sold out!) and the kestrel and barn owl bookmarks. I am really pleased bookmark sales have been good this year, as I sold hardly any in previous years, but I really like them (if I am allowed to say that). It’s also good the calendars have all sold, since they obviously have a use-by date.
The other thing I am pleased about with this year’s calendar is that most of the photos were taken this year. I haven’t had much time to process my photos this year, but I have taken quite a lot, and some of them made the grade for the calendar.
Disappointingly, I only sold one large print. Since I do the same craft fair each year, I wonder if I have saturated that particular market. Do you have any suggestions for other photo products I could sell, next year?
It’s the first of December – advent calendar doors are being opened around the world. Tonight is Gala Night in the town I live in, where all the local shops put on a bit of an extravaganza for late night Christmas shopping and general jollity. If you’re in need of some inspiration for what to get the wildlife lover in your life, you might want to check out my previous posts on the subject:
parent bird feeders stick to your window, giving good views of whatever’s taking the food. We’ve had one for years, but never really used it until this year, when we started feeding live meal worms during spring. The robins loved it, and we got plenty of good views from the comfort of our own dining room. You can get them from various places, including the RSPB. If the person you’re shopping for isn’t too squeamish, you could even get them some mealworms to go in it. They’re ugly, but just about every bird and mammal that visits our garden loves them.
Solitary bee house: bees of all sorts have had a tough time over the last few decades, but they’re essential pollinators, so we need to help them out. We were given one last Christmas and have really enjoyed seeing the leafcutter bees make use of it. The charity BugLife have a selection. As do NHBS.
A wildlife calendar: I’m a bit biased, as I sell calendars of my wildlife photography to raise money for charity, but I think calendars make great presents (as long as the person you’re buying for doesn’t have too many already). Mine have pretty much sold out this year, but there’s plenty of thers out there. Wildlife Photographer of the Year always produce great ones. The RSPB has a good choice as do WWF and the Wildlife Trusts calendar looks super.
A good thermos: I’ve come to hot drinks quite late in life – I still don’t like coffee or normal tea. But having a flask of steaming hot drink to warm you up on a cold walk or wildlife survey (or football match) can really make a difference. Some are better than others – look at the details on how long it will keep a drink warm for before you buy.
Membership of a wildlife organisation: I’m a member of many wildlife organisations, from huge international charities to local species-specific groups. There are loads out there, and many offer gift memberships. The benefits of membership will vary between organisations, but might include a regular newsletter or magazine (some of these are really good), access to events for members, and opportunities to get into the wild to help nature. And of course, the membership fee supports the work the organisation does. Some of the bigger ones offer special memberships for children as well – I remember being given membership of the children’s wing of Devon Wildlife Trust when I was growing up, and enjoying the activities that were part of that. If the person you’re buying for is particularly keen on a specific species or type of wildlife, see if there’s a group that matches. (Some that spring to mind that offer gift memberships include the Barn Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF, the Mammal Society, the National Trust, RSPB)
Books: Books are always on my list. Check out what natural history books your local bookshop has to offer. I quite fancy ‘That Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley, as I like the thought of being able to navigate without a smart phone or GPS.
A sea safari: In Britain nowhere is that far from the sea, which holds some of our most exciting wildlife. A holiday is not complete for me if it doesn’t include a boat trip, and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing dolphins race and play, or the leisurely trawling of a basking shark. Look out for your local operator, but make sure they’re members of the WISE scheme (which means they’re accredited to run their trips in a way that’s safe for wildlife). Dr C still hasn’t booked me on a whale watching cruise of the Bay of Biscay yet (see 2014’s post), but maybe I can persuade him to let me go for a day trip at least.
Wildlife Gardening Information Pack: This was part of my prize for winning the small private garden category of the 2015 Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards, and I’ve found it packed full of ideas – highly recommended!
As the alarm went off at 5.20am the other day, I did wonder why I had let myself in for such an early start on a precious day off. The rain beating against the windscreen as I drove through the dark, empty roads didn’t encourage me, either. I pulled up in the near deserted superstore car park, and it crossed my mind that this was not a normal thing to be doing.
The rain had stopped by the time I had got out of the car and wellified myself, and the remains of the supermoon cut cleanly through the sky. Our small group of like minded eccentrics congregated and headed off down an obscure path in the corner of the car park, lighting headtorches as we moved out of orange glare of the street lamps.
The path went under the dual carriageway, beside the river, to an isolated area of waist-high marshy grasses, visible only in the small patches illuminated by head torch beams. After a bit of searching, we found the cached hoard of straw, food and weatherwriter, and stocked up the black bin bag. It didn’t look at all suspicious, four people walking around deserted wasteland at 6am in the morning carrying a black bin bag. I did wonder what anyone looking out of a window from the houses across the river must have thought.
We headed into the grass towards the scrap of striped tape that marked the first trap point, where two longworth traps (one on the ground, and the other set a couple of feet up on a stake) waited.
There’s always a frisson of suspense as you approach a small mammal trap. Has it been tripped? If so, what will it contain? We had a bumper harvest that morning – 8 woodmice, 2 field voles, 2 bank voles and one fiesty pygmy shrew. But none of the animals we were really searching for: harvest mice.
As the bright November morning dawned, we were able to get a better look at what we caught. If you think that one small mammal species is much like another in temperament, you’re mistaken. As you can see from these photos, voles are pretty chilled. I didn’t get any photos of woodmice (it was too dark when we found them, and they move too quickly). The tiny pigmy shrew was my personal favourite. You’ve got to admire a creature that, though about as big as a thumb nail, decides to try to bite its captor’s hand (it’s teeth weren’t long enough the penetrate the skin, but it gave it a good go).
The check was part of Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust’s harvest mouse project. We’re trying to get fur samples from harvest mice populations in different sites in the county. These samples are then DNA tested to allow us to see how closely related they are, or whether harvest mice at different sites have very different DNA to each other. The point of this is to see how good the connectivity between sites is for wildlife. Connectivity is important, as isolated populations are vulnerable to being wiped out.
This is our third year of the project. In the first year we were able to get enough samples for the lab scientists to identify plenty of DNA markers that will allow us to compare different harvest mice populations. Last year, when we went back to survey the sites that had had lots of harvest mice the previous year, we found very few. And we’ve not had large numbers this year, either.
We repeated the survey that evening, starting and ending in the dark, and found similar numbers of woodmice, bank voles, field voles and a single pygmy shrew, but again no harvest mice. The voles decided that sitting on hands was a morning activity – in the evening it’s all about climbing onto heads. This one seemed to particularly enjoy Derek’s hair – it looked like it was planning to settle down up there. Glen and Keith also got scaled by intrepid vole explorers.
By the end of the check it was bucketing down, and I was very pleased to get home to a warming bowlful of food, prepared by Dr C.
It’s not hugely surprising we didn’t find any harvest mice at this site – it really is cut off from other harvest mouse habitats (I suspect voles and woodmice are a little less particular in the sorts of neighbourhoods they’ll live in). And, while we didn’t succeed in our aim for the checks, it was still great to see small mammals at such close quarters. And it was worth braving the elements and giving up a lie-in to have that privilege.
I have data from 36 observation days, spread across the year. On average, I saw eight individual birds from 4.5 species per day. This is the lowest average number of birds and species in the six years I have been collecting data, by quite some way. It’s a fall by more than half on the previous year’s average number of birds.
This averages hide a range from no birds at all (one day in February) to 19 birds from 9 species in June. In total, I saw birds from 16 different species.
As the graph shows, I started off with high numbers, which declined steeply in the first couple of months (as is fairly usual for the time of year). But the numbers never really picked up again, and December, which is usually the busiest month, saw very few birds visiting the garden.
How did different species get on?
The most regular visitor to the garden was woodpigeon, being recorded on 81% of observation days, followed by the reliable robin, on 78% of observation days. House sparrows were on seen on 36% of observation days, but turned up in numbers, giving a mean average of 1.8 individuals per observation day.
As the next chart shows, it was a bad year for most of the common species. The house sparrow population seems to have dropped dramatically from last year. I saw fewer starlings, collared doves and blackbirds than any previous year. Numbers of woodpigeons, magpies, dunnocks and jackdaws also seemed to be down on the previous year. Two species had their best ever year in our garden: robins and feral pigeons.
How does this fit with the national picture?
According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch survey (which my data feeds into), There were low average numbers during the second half 2015. But they report that many of the seed-eating and insectivorous species were seen in very high numbers toward the end of the year, something my data doesn’t reflect. There were low winter migrant numbers, which could have been driven by relatively mild winter.
Looking at the individual species, the latter half of 2015 does seem to have been bad for house sparrows, collared doves, blackbirds and starlings nationally.
What caused this decline?
I don’t really know what caused the decline. I haven’t changed the food, water or shelter features in the garden for birds. A couple of possible factors spring to mind.
Last winter was very mild, so maybe birds didn’t need to visit the garden so much for food
Cats and kittens: our garden is now used by next door’s cat – he probably arrived during this period. And our backdoor neighbours have got a couple of naughty kittens. So perhaps these are scaring the birds away.
And of course there’s the bigger picture that’s affecting birds nationally: Jazz, Roja and Kiki are not responsible for low numbers of birds nationally. Climate change, habitat loss and farming intensification are part of the longer-term story.
What to do?
I can’t change the weather, so I guess if I want to see more birds, I may need to discourage the neighbourhood cats. I am not sure how best to achieve this, without making the garden unappealing to Fat Cat as well, which would be a shame (she’s not a hunter – she once got scared out of the garden by a baby bluetit). Maybe we could use some kind of cat repelling sound device that we could turn off when Fat Cat is taking her constitutional stroll.
What do you think?
Have you noticed any decline in the number of birds visiting your garden?
Do you have any alternative hypotheses for why the birds have disappeared?
Do you have any suggestions on how I can discourage the neighbours’ cats while not spoiling Fat Cat’s chance for fresh air and grass?
The mild weather of October has given way to a chilly November. Time to get ready for winter. So Dr C got the ladder out to take the camera out of the birdbox, which is hidden behind a tangle of clematis by our front door.
So it was a little galling when he discovered a birds nest on top of the nest box. It looks like birds did nest this year, on rather than in the bird box. And all this time, it was easily watchable from our sitting room, if only we had known to look.
I am not sure what sort of birds nested there – it looks quite different from the many bluetit and wren nests I have seen, but they have usually been in a box, rather than freestanding. Any ideas? My best guess would be robins, given how frequently I saw them in the back garden this spring.
I’ve no idea what happened in this nest. Was it abandoned before any eggs were laid, like the one in the box? Did they lay eggs? Did the chicks fledge. I will never know. I would like to think they did, and that perhaps they will be back next year. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for them!
It’s not a huge secret that my political views are left of centre. Over the years I have met a few MPs about various issues. But I have always struggled to put my point across effectively to Conservatives. How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t share any of your values? I knew I needed a different approach when meeting my MP for the Speak Up Week of Action on climate change.
My MP is a Tory with all the confidence a 25,000 vote majority gives. My previous attempts at communicating with him have not been massively successful. You can see his voting record on climate change – it didn’t fill me with hope that this was likely to be a productive meeting. But I remember one speaker at an eco church event telling us never to give up on our MP. So I needed to come up with a plan of how to persuade him.
In preparation for the Week of Action, the Climate Coalition organised a webinar focusing on how to talk to MPs from the centre right about climate change. It was massively helpful, emphasising the need to think about what they value, and how tackling climate change relates to that. They also talked about not using language that will automatically put them off.
Inspired by the webinar, I met with John and Roger (fellow Christians with a concern for environmental justice) to discuss our strategy. The plan was that we would all meet the MP together. Each of us would talk about why we care about climate change, using language that would speak to the MP’s values (protecting the landscape of where we live, leaving a positive legacy, and action on climate change making sense financially as well as environmentally). We would then ask him to write to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calling on him to publish an ambitious low carbon investment plan.
Confident we had a good plan, I emailed the MP’s researcher to double check the arrangements. It was at that stage I learnt that only I would be allowed to see the MP. This was a blow. Added to the fact that my MP only holds surgeries on a Friday afternoon, meaning that I had to take time off work to meet him, it gave the impression that he’s not terribly keen on meeting his constituents. I felt that this was an attempt to give him the upper hand, making me determined not to be phased.
One of the points the webinar encouraged us to make was that we speak for the ‘silent majority’. People are concerned about climate change, and want the government to act. Now, that’s easy to say, but harder to back up, especially to a sceptical Tory. The turnout at the nature walk was a bit disappointing. Hardly convincing evidence of the strength of feeling in the constituency. Luckily we had another string to our bow. We were able to get almost 100 signatures for the big green heart at church, calling on our MP to take action. That gave me confidence to go into the meeting knowing that I was speaking on behalf of many others.
Another of the top tips the webinar gave was to dress in a way your MP would respect, so I dressed in my smartest work dress, and walked across town carrying the big green heart.
The meeting went as well as could be expected. He listened while I said my bit. I refused to be riled when he said a couple of things that I suspect were meant to provoke me. Generally his body language was quite defensive. The bit of the conversation he really engaged with was when I told him my solar panels were generating more electricity than we use each year.
He didn’t agree to write to the Secretary of State, but said he would forward on a letter if I sent one to him. At the end I asked if he had any message for the people who had signed the heart. He said to tell them that he was “on side”. Time will tell if his voting record on climate change improves. But even if he just looks into getting solar panels on his house, that will at least be some progress.
There’s a parable in the Bible about a widow who gets an unjust judge to give her justice because of her persistence (to shut her up). Climate change isn’t going away, so perhaps she provides a useful example to follow when dealing with MPs whose actions don’t match the importance of the issue.
Last week was the Climate Coalition’s Week of Action on climate change. People across the country got together to let their MPs know that they care about climate change. As part of it, I organised a nature walk for the Mole Valley constituency.
Organising a walk in October is rather risky, so Roger (who helped me promote the event) and I were both praying hard for good weather. And our prayers were answered: it was lovely and sunny as we gathered, and the rain held off until the end of the walk.
One of the ranger team at a nearby National Trust property had volunteered to lead the walk, which was great. Stu told us about the different trees we encountered, and how the rangers plan for the long term, planting trees now to replace those that will die in the next 100 years. I think we all learnt something, as well as having a very pleasant stroll in the beautiful Surrey Hills.
Things I learnt:
beech trees have very shallow roots
stinking iris leaves smell of beef crisps
what Ash dieback looks like
you need to plan decades ahead when looking after an estate
one little pot of Rodda’s clotted cream was enough for my big scone, after all
Our MP wasn’t able to make it, but we knew that in good time, so have a plan. Three of us have an appointment to meet him at his surgery next week. We’ll present him with a big green heart with pictures people have sent me of things they care about that will be affected by climate change. The local Brownies have contributed, as have kids at church. We’ll also include some photos from the walk. We just need to work out what to say to persuade him to vote for action on climate change.
It was quite a lot of work, organising the walk, particularly promoting it to local groups and the local paper. I don’t think it played to my strengths. My efforts weren’t spectacularly successful, but the crucial bit will be meeting the MP.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk