February Photography Challenge: Still Life

February’s Photography Challenge pushed me beyond my comfort zone: still life. But that was a good thing – the whole idea of the Photography Challenge is to get me experimenting and trying new techniques. So, I set myself up a little still life studio, using greaseproof paper as a backdrop, and tin foil to reflect light towards the subject. I stuck with a 50mm prime lens, and used a combination of flash and a lamp to light the scene.

Candle flameBarn owl sculpture Barn owl sculptureThe photos I’m most pleased with are the single skeletal hydrangea flowers – I like the simplicity and detail. It has a melancholy feel that is right for late winter.

Skeletal hydrangea flowerHydrangea flower - black & whiteI used the challenge as an excuse to get some flowers, although I’m not satisfied with the flower photos I took – flower arranging isn’t my strong point, and the composition looks messy for all of them. But it’s still nice to have the real thing to look at.

White roses and irises White rose and Iris still lifeThen, although it’s not really ‘still’, I took some long-exposure shots of the fire. I like the vibrant colour and movement this has captured – warming on a cold winter day.

Flames Flames Flames Flames

 

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Election focus: the badger cull

If you live in the UK you’ll have noticed the political parties have started jostling for position, ready for the general election in May. As much as it would be nice to avoid the murky world of politics, who we vote (or don’t vote) for will have a big impact on our environment, as well as society and the economy. So, over the coming months, I will examine the main parties’ policies on various issues that I think are important for nature.

Since it’s something that I’ve covered a bit here before, I thought I’d start with the badger cull. (As the badger cull is only being done in England, I’m only going to look at English parties for this issue). Both the Conservatives and Labour have announced the line they will take on the badger cull in their manifestos. But since other parties are likely to play an important role in the outcome, I’ve also contacted the Lib Dems, UKIP and Green Party for their position on this issue.

The Conservatives

Speaking to the National Farmers Union, Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss has announced that the Tories will roll out the cull to other areas of the country, if they are elected. “We will not let up, whatever complaints we get from protesters groups. We are in it for the long haul and we will not walk away.”

The Tories see the cull as a central part of their 25 year strategy to end bovine TB. They have promised farmers to roll the cull out to other areas with high levels of TB. This is despite the pilot culls failing to reach their targets for number of badgers killed, being expensive and being found to be inhumane. When the independent committee set up to monitor the cull reported unfavourably last year, the Tory-led government disbanded the committee and carried on the cull without independent scientific oversight.

The strategy does say that any culls should (eventually) be funded privately, although the government will consider providing transitional financial support. The strategy is decidedly luke-warm on badger vaccinations, which it says should be developed, implemented and financed privately.

Labour

On the other side of the House of Commons, Labour have announced that they will scrap the “ineffective and inhumane” culls, if they are elected. Instead, they will bring in stricter measures to limit transmission between cattle, and increase both badger and cattle vaccination.

Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, said this week: “Labour has consistently said that to get bovine TB under control we need to bring in stricter cattle measures and prioritise badger and cattle vaccinations, but these culls are not the answer. It’s time the Tory-led government stopped ignoring the overwhelming evidence and got together with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control.”

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have been quieter on the issue in public. When I asked them for their position, a Lib Dem spokesperson said: “We need to maintain a consistent government strategy including developing science-led ways to control this terrible disease. Badger cull trials in Gloucestershire and Somerset will continue, alongside investment in a vaccine. But we would only support further culls if they are shown to be effective, humane and safe. The TB Eradication Strategy will be fully implemented, to make England TB free within 25 years, while maintaining a viable cattle sector.”

So, it seems like, regardless of whether they are effective, humane and safe, the pilots will continue. Further culls will have to pass this test.

Perhaps their quietness on the issue is because their policy is unlikely to please the National Farmers Union, who are keen for the culls to be rolled out more widely, and also unlikely to appease the campaigners who think the cull has been a costly failure.

The commitment to implement the TB Eradication Strategy is important to note, as this document says: “The Government considers that licensed badger culling, delivered effectively, is an important bTB control measure in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB in cattle epidemiologically linked to endemic TB infection in badgers.”

UKIP

When I asked UKIP for their position on the badger cull, their press office replied: “UKIP supports the trial culling of badgers for the control of Bovine TB, if veterinary opinion substantiates it.”

This is rather more nuanced than the Tory approach (which seems to be to continue the cull regardless of what anyone else thinks). The crucial “if veterinary opinion substantiates it” is interesting. So far the British Veterinary Association (BVA) have supported the culls. However, when data from the second year of the pilot culls was released back in December, the BVA expressed some reservations “The headline data continues to raise some concerns on humaneness and reveals a mixed a picture in terms of effectiveness”, and said that they needed more time to consider the data. Presumably, if the BVA came out against the pilot culls UKIP would also oppose them…

The Green Party

Like Labour, the Green Party have come out strongly against badger culling. They have repeatedly condemned the badger cull as cruel and unnecessary, and called for an immediate end to the killing. They say it is unethical and unscientific, pointing to the Independent Expert Panel report as evidence for this.

Caroline Allen, Green Party Animals Spokesperson and vet, said:  “It is unbelievable that this Government is continuing to fund animal suffering after the shambles of last year’s pilot culls and the news so far suggests that this year is just as bad. In the meantime Wales has been doing what we suggested: concentrating on cattle. The results in Wales are impressive, the number of cattle compulsorily slaughtered as a result of TB testing having fallen by more than 50% since 2009 without a single badger being killed.”

Conclusion

If you’re really keen on culling as many badgers as possible then the Tories are the party for you. If, on the other hand, you’d like to see an end to the pilot culls immediately, and no further roll-out, then vote for Labour or the Greens. The Lib Dems and UKIP both sit somewhere in the middle, although UKIP are probably slightly closer to the Labour and Greens on this issue than the Lib Dems are.

Of course, few people will vote based solely on a single issue. Over the coming weeks I’ll explore where the parties stand on other key environmental issues. Let me know if there’s any particular topic you’d like me to investigate.

 

Getting ready for spring

Right now the weather’s a bit miserable, but there are definite signs of spring outside. In the garden there are a few little irises in flower, their rich, stained glass blue a shot of colour amongst the browns of late winter. Our bluebells and daffodils have made an appearance, but aren’t yet in flower. And, as I walk to the station each morning, it’s light, and birds are singing.

So, it’s time for me to emerge from hibernation, and start getting ready for spring. Dr C and I spent yesterday in the garden, making preparations. Pruning. Tying in honeysuckle. Feeding and mulching the fruit trees. Planting seeds to germinate indoors, and lily of the valley to provide scent in April.

We’re not the only ones getting ready for spring. The birds seem to be checking out potential nesting places. Yesterday was the end of National Nestbox Week. We did our bit by getting our nest boxes ready: clearing out old nesting material from last year, and putting the camera back in, ready for whoever occupies it this year.

House sparrow about to fledge
One of last year’s brood fledging

Last year our camera nest box saw a pair of house sparrows successfully rear two broods of chicks. The year before bluetits had tried (unsuccessfully) to raise youngsters in it. I read somewhere that house sparrows tend to return to the same nest site each year, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get to witness some activity. I will keep you posted!

 

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.

Choughed to see porpoises

Having learnt that choughs have returned to Cornwall, I wanted to see them for myself. I’m not generally the sort of person who sets off on trips specifically to see a rare bird. But it’s nice to see the Cornish ‘national’ bird return after decades of absence, plus I’m a bit of a corvid fan. So, on a recent trip to the far south west, Dr C, my parents and I set out for a chough watching expedition.

I don’t normally take a telephoto lens with me when walking the coast path – I focus on the scenery. But since this walk was specifically to see choughs, I dragged my mammoth new lens along, and Dr C kindly lugged the tripod.

We set off from Cadgwith (on the east of the Lizard), and walked along the coast to Lizard Point. (We later learnt – from the pasty shop –  that this was a mistake: the choughs spend the morning on the west of the Lizard, moving towards the Point a lunchtime, at which point we had headed onto the west of the Lizard…) We saw plenty of corvids: crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws. But no choughs.

I’d have been quite disappointed about that, but luckily I was distracted by the sight of porpoises a few hundred metres from the cliff we were walking along. At least I think they were porpoises – they were small and had the gentle roll and triangular fin of harbour porpoises – they’re much shyer and quieter than the dolphins I’ve seen. This was the best view I’ve had of them – they hung around for quite a while, and there were several of them.

I was pleased with the performance of my new lens. I was too excited to set up the tripod, so this was taken at 500mm, handheld, in January light. The vibration reduction obviously works!

A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall
A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall

It’s always a wonderful treat to see our marine mammals. I’ll just have to try to see choughs another time…

January photography challenge

It’s not really news that January is probably the worst time of year to start a new resolution. In fact, I could shorten that sentence to “January is probably the worst time of year.” So it’s not a huge surprise that I didn’t do as much photography as I’d hoped in response to my first photo challenge: wildlife in winter.

On the plus side, I did treat myself to a new long lens with image stabilisation. On the down side, I managed to miss all the snow, so didn’t get to catch the frozen scenes I was hoping for.

I tried out the long lens with a tripod for some garden bird shots, and was reasonably pleased with the results.

This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit

I was even more impressed by the results handheld when I spotted porpoises(?) several hundred metres from the coast path – the image stabilisation makes a real difference. (I’m not 100% sure it’s a harbour porpoise – feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong!)

A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall
A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall

The final shot came as a bit of a surprise when I downloaded the photos, as I’d forgotten taking it. Little Egrets are such elegant birds, and it looks like this one has hit the jackpot.

Little egret with big fish
Little egret with big fish

Bird nerd part 8: Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

The last weekend in January was the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, when hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK record the numbers of birds they see in one hour. This year I was down in Cornwall that weekend, staying with my parents, so there were four pairs of eyes to keep watch.

The list of what we saw is a little different from what I’d expect if we were at home (see my report on last year’s birdwatch). Here’s what we saw down in Cornwall:

Great British Birdwatch results from my parents' garden
Great British Birdwatch results from my parents’ garden
  • 4 Blackbirds (we usually get a couple)
  • 2 Bluetits
  • 4 Chaffinches (we rarely get chaffinches)
  • 2 Dunnock
  • 2 Great tits
  • 3 House sparrows (we’d beat them on sparrows)
  • 2 Magpies
  • 3 Robins (we usually only get 1)
  • 30 Starlings (We rarely see more than 10 at home)
  • 1 Woodpigeon (we’d beath them on woodies as well – we usually get 2 or 3)
  • 1 Wren
  • 1 Greater spotted woodpecker (We’ve never seen a woodpecker in our garden)
  • 25 Rooks (there’s a rookery in the trees by their house)

No collared doves though – we usually get 2 or 3.

Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!

Later this year they’ll release the full results, which will give a useful snapshot of how the nation’s birds are doing.

 

Beavers get a reprieve

Good news: Natural England have granted Devon Wildlife Trust a license to monitor the beavers on the River Otter for the next five years!

Beavers have been extinct in the wild in England for centuries. Last year news broke that a family of beavers had successfully bred on the River Otter in Devon. It’s unclear how they ended up there, but the most pressing question was what should happen to them. DEFRA seemed determined to deport them to a zoo.

There’s lots of evidence that having beavers on a stretch of river improves biodiversity. A demonstration project in Scotland found that beavers quadrupled biodiversity compared to similar stretches of river without beavers. There were more different types of plant, insects, fish, mammals and birds – everything seemed to benefit. They can even reduce the risk of flash flooding.

Beavers have been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

Beavers have such a big effect because they are fantastic engineers. They gnaw down trees, build dams and lodges, and create new pools. This brings benefits to all sorts of creatures. But we’re not used to living closely with such large-scale wild engineers. We’re used to being the only animals who change the course of rivers.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees

Luckily the landowners around where the wild beavers are living are willing to find out whether it will work. And local residents have been very protective of their new neighbours. When plans were announced to trap and exile the beavers, beaver patrols were formed, petitions launched and a fundraising campaign started to find a way to persuade Natural England to let them stay, closely monitored, for at least the next five years.

Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA
Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA

I visited Otterton late last year, and was impressed by the support the beavers had. It had all the ingredients for a fine Ealing Comedy – faceless bureacrats from faraway threatening a defenceless creature, a local community coming together to defeat their plans, and plenty of potential for subversive activities on the riverbank at night.

Anyway, as many of the best Ealing Comedies do, this one seems to have an ending where the little guy (or beaver) triumphs over the bureaucrats. But, of course, the story doesn’t end here. No-one knows whether the engineering of the beavers will lead to unacceptable conflicts with humans along the river. The support of landowners is crucial. Devon Wildlife Trust will be closely monitoring how the beavers are getting on, and what impact they are having. They’ve already raised a large chunk of the money needed to do this, but need to raise more to ensure they can continue for the full 5 years.

I am really excited to see how this story continues. I love the thought that animals can come back from extinction in the wild, and hope that they, and their human neighbours along the River Otter, can learn to thrive together.