Tag Archives: nature

Election focus: protecting nature

For my second election focus, I’ve chosen the issue of protecting nature. Looking through the manifestos was a lot quicker for this topic than climate change, as the parties had a lot less to say. I’ve grouped what they have to say into the following topics:

  • wildlife legislation
  • protected areas (NB. I’ll do a separate post on marine conservation areas, so haven’t included that here)
  • international wildlife protection
  • fox hunting
  • the badger cull
  • neonicotinoids
  • woodland
  • other wildlife issues

Remember, this is just based on what they say in their manifestos (some of which had lots more detail than others) – I’ve kept my own thoughts out of the table. Click on the image to see it at full size.

What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues

My reflections

  • The Lib Dems had the most to say on these issues, and generally it looked pretty good to me. I particularly like their promise to set legally binding natural capital targets.  I’m disappointed they didn’t come out and say they would keep the fox hunting ban. Their phrasing on the issue of bovine TB is obviously carefully selected not to upset anyone, but I find it’s lack of a direct statement on where they stand on the badger cull unsettling. The badger cull isn’t  effective, humane and evidence-based, but the current government is fond of saying it is.
  • I was surprised how many of the parties had things to say on woodland – they obviously think there are votes in protecting trees rather than bees or badgers. The Tory promise to “continue  to ensure that public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation” made me laugh, given their previous (failed) attempt to sell off publically owned forests. They must think voters have very short memories.
  • Once again the Tories make bold claims (“We pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”) withour providing any information on how they will achieve it. But they say they will produce a 25 Year Environment Plan. We’ll just have to imagine what might be in that plan.
  • The Greens have surprisingly little to say on this topic – maybe they feel it goes without saying.
  • UKIP don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic, but what they do say doesn’t look too bad.
  • SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic either.
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And another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers

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:

and some new ideas below.

  1. Window feeder for birds: these trans
    Window bird feeder with mealworms
    Window bird feeder with live mealworms

    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.

  2. Wildlife-related clothing: this one’s probably found its way near to the top of the list today as it’s so darned cold. I’ve got my eye on a badger jumper to keep the chill away. PTES have some good designs, as do Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Close-up of insect house
    Close-up of insect house
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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)
  7. Dormouse Christmas tree decorations
    Dormouse Christmas tree decorations

    Something beautiful and handmade: One of the members of the dormouse group I’m part of makes fantastic wildlife-related ornaments, jewelry and decorations. I fell in love with her dormouse Christmas tree decorations, but she does wonderful birds, butterflies and other mammals as well.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Cycle races, quiet and learning to share

I left the house at 8.30am this morning, and immediately noticed something was missing. Something that I don’t usually notice at all – the background hum of traffic. Today is the Prudential RideLondon cycle race, which comes through my home town, and means the roads are all shut for most of the day. As I walked to church the main sound was a distant plane overhead, and the whir of the first few cyclists to make it this far. (By the time I was walking back from church it was another story – the streets were lined with people cheering on the cyclists who were still coming through).

The RideLondon event is a bit controversial where I live. Many people are inconvenienced by not being able to get anywhere by road for the day. Some locals enjoy the festive atmosphere, and the chance to see some of the top cyclists in the world come past their doors (I fall into that camp, even though I’m not normally a cycling fanatic). Those who haven’t noticed the numerous signs warning of road closures that have been up for the last month or so are left frustrated – we heard one driver at the end of our road talking to stewards, asking how he can get to Gatwick. I wouldn’t like to be in that situation (although at least the trains are still running). And while some businesses on the route do well out of the custom of the crowds who come to  watch the cyclists, others who aren’t on the actual route, but whose customers can’t reach them, lose out.

Once the 25,000 amateur cyclists have been through, we wait for the professionals to arrive. They do 5 laps of my town, so I get plenty of chance to see them. And the race is televised on BBC1, so the whole country gets to see the splendour of the Surrey Hills (on a day like today they look glorious).

It’s such a treat to have a day without traffic. I’d love to know what effect it has on air quality and carbon emissions. It’s made a noticeable difference to noise levels (although when the pros come through the filming helicopters and support vehicles will make up for the absence of ordinary traffic). I wish we could have a few more car-free days. Some South American cities have them regularly, but I can’t see them taking off here anytime soon.

The Surrey Hills have always attracted plenty of cyclists (weird people who ride up hills for pleasure), but the numbers have noticeably increased since it was first announced the 2012 Olympic Road Race would come through the area. Every hobby cyclist wants to test themselves of the route that Wiggins, Cavendish and the rest competed on. That does lead to some conflicts, particularly on narrow country lanes. On a sunny weekend it can take much longer to get anywhere on the narrow lanes round here, as there are so many cyclists out and about. And, while most are considerate, there are a few who take unnecessary risks, zooming round blind bends in the middle of the road.

Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills
Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills

As I’m not a cyclist myself, I don’t know how much riders get to enjoy the views, and being amidst the woods and hills of this area. Does it all rush by in too much of a blur? Or do they get to experience the same feeling of communing with nature that I do when I’m walking? I think everyone should spend time enjoying nature, and if cycling is what gets them to do it, and seeing the pros race through our beautiful countryside inspires a few more people to give it a go (or even just come and visit), then that’s a good thing. If that means that next time I’m driving to my dormouse site it takes me an extra five then I can live with that. I just need to learn to share what I have the privilege to enjoy.

 

Defend Nature

The laws that protect otters are under threat: defend nature by supporting the RSPB campaign to protect the EU Nature Directives
The laws that protect otters are under threat: defend nature by supporting the RSPB campaign to protect the EU Nature Directives

We have some special, wild places in Europe (and the UK), and some remarkable wildlife. This isn’t by accident: without strong protection in law many of these places and species would be no more. The EU Nature Directives, laws which protect precious species and places, are under threat.

European leaders are considering making the Directives weaker. Now is not the time to be despondent about politics, despite last week’s results – it’s time to take action to protect what we value. Take action now to tell them EU leaders that you support the Directives, and the protection they offer to our wildlife, and don’t want to see them weakened. And share this with others, so they too can defend nature.

 

The shrew hunter: part 1

Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.

Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.

As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.

During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.

A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.

The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.

The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted
The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted at

Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.

For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?

hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day.  As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.

Luckily I get a chance to try again this week.

Photo special: Lundy Island

Lundy is a small British island, marking the point where the Atlantic becomes the Bristol Channel. It’s a lovely destination for wildlife lovers, as it’s a breeding site for many seabirds, including puffins. The waters surrounding it have been protected for 40 years, making it one of the best spots for diving in the UK.

Here are a few photos from my trip there a few years ago.

 

The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The sheltered east coast of Lundy
The sheltered east coast of Lundy
Sika deer
Sika deer
Sika deer
Sika deer
Seabirds (including puffins) nesting on the sheer cliffs of the west coast of Lundy
Seabirds (including puffins) nesting on the sheer cliffs of the west coast of Lundy
Seabirds (including puffins) nesting on the sheer cliffs of the west coast of Lundy
Seabirds (including puffins) nesting on the sheer cliffs of the west coast of Lundy

Bird View of the sea through an old windowframe Lambs

Two rabbitsBunny rabiit having a bath

Box Hill and The Lark Ascending

My walk on Box Hill the other day was lovely. The sun was shining and the slope alive with butterflies. But I felt that something was missing. There was no skylark song.

I recommend you listen to this YouTube video while reading the rest of this post. You’ll thank me for it!

Skylarks are plain-looking brown birds, smaller and duller to the eye than starlings. But to hear them sing is to have your ear filled with molten silver, and your thoughts lifted to the heavens.

Patrik Åberg, XC27004. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/27004.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

Skylarks are ground nesting birds, found mostly in farmland. A few years ago we visited Lundy, which seemed to be bursting with skylarks. Elsewhere in Britain skylarks are a rarer sight. Their numbers halved in the 1990s, and continue to decline.

The main reasons behind the plummet in skylark numbers seems to be changes in farming practices. The move from spring to winter sowing of crops, overgrazing and a shift from hay making to silage have dramatically reduced the habitat available for skylarks to breed in.

I missed skylarks on Box Hill because it felt like the right sort of habitat for them. But I think there was also a sub-conscious expectation that there would be skylarks there, because of its links to skylarks in poetry and literature.

The 19th century writer George Meredith lived on Box Hill, and wrote the poem The Lark Ascending that inspired one of my favourite pieces of English music, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams lived in Dorking, the town Box Hill protects and shelters. His The Lark Ascending is said to describe the English landscape in musical form, as well as capturing something of the soaring beauty of the lark’s song. While I love this piece, I hope it isn’t the closest our next generation gets to hearing skylarks.

Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?

Sometimes places that look barren or dull can be full of diverse wildlife, on closer inspection. I am a bit of a tree fan, so it’s always been the woods of Box Hill, with their rare box trees, that have excited me. While the grassy slopes of the hill have appealed to me aesthetically, I assumed that the real wildlife was elsewhere.

The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill
The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill

A recent walk up the hill on a sunny day made me suspect I might be wrong.  What, from afar, looks like boring old grass, is actually a huge variety of plant species, including many different flowers. And these plants were buzzing with insect life.

An orchid and moth
Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of plant and insect species

A bit of reading up on the subject has confirmed that my earlier assumptions were well wide of the mark. Chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and unfertilised, is one of the UK’s richest for plant and insect diversity. The poor, thin soil, and regular grazing, means no single species can dominate.  A square metre of chalk grassland may have up to 40 different plant species, leading to some calling it Europe’s answer to the rainforest.

The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill
The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, looking towards the woods

This diversity of plants gives food and shelter to a wide range of insects.  41 different types of butterfly have been found on Box Hill, including some of the rarest in the UK. I didn’t even know there were that many butterfly species in Britain.

Chalk grassland is in itself quite rare. It is an internationally important habitat and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.Besides the North and South Downs there aren’t many other large areas of chalk grassland left. Much has been lost in the last 50 years due to changes in farming, (intensification including use of fertiliser and over grazing), encroachment of scrub where grassland isn’t grazed, and development of land for other purposes. Only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

Looking south from Box Hill
Looking south from Box Hill

There’s been quite a lot of controversy locally about a recent Court of Appeal judgement allowing some chalk grassland to be turned into an exclusive golf club. Neatly manicured, fertilised and herbicided greens and fairways are deserts compared to natural chalk grassland.

While it may not have the immediate feel of the wild that you get in woods or at the coast, chalk grasslands are rich habitats, and need protection. Losing chalk grassland means losing a unique and fragile ecosystem, which we will be poorer without.

Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking

How to build a hedgehog box

You’ve probably heard that hedgehogs are having a tough time these days. Numbers in Britain have fallen by around a third in the last 10 years. So they need all the help they can get.

If you have a garden, there’s lots you can do to make it hedgehog friendly. Leaving gaps in your fence, having a variety of lengths of grass and good dense undergrowth, and avoiding slug pellets all help. They also need places to sleep in summer, and hibernate in winter.

Open compost heaps and piles of dead wood are good, easy ways to provide hedgehog hotels. When we had to get our fence repaired after the winter storms the fencers found a hedgehog hibernating in our compost heap.

When we found out that we had regular spikey visitors to our garden, we decided to offer them some luxury accommodation, in the form of a hedgehog box, to encourage them to spend even more time eating our garden bugs.

If you’ve spotted hedgehog boxes for sale, you’ll probably have noticed that they are very expensive. A good wooden one could cost you £50. We had some spare wood, so decided to save some cash and build one ourselves.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society have an excellent leaflet on how to build hedgehog boxes. It includes several designs, ranging from a quick and easy ‘council tax band A’ one made from a sturdy cardboard box, to a luxury ‘band H’ one suitable for the David Beckham of hedgehogs.  Living in Surrey, home of most of the Chelsea squad, we had to go for that one.

Besides the wood and screws, it also required a small length of hose for ventilation, and some plastic sheeting to keep the water out (both of which were easily obtained from our local hardware shop – the type of place you could buy four candles from). We also bought some hay from the pet shop for the hogs to use as bedding.

Neither Dr C nor I are DIY experts, but the instructions were clear and it was straightforward to build. We made it in a (not too long) day.

Hedgehog box in situ, before burying
Hedgehog box in situ, before burying

We sited in the shade next to the fence and a small hedge. We then built a little entrance tunnel from leftover bricks, and covered the whole thing in some earth and greenery.

Finished hedgehog box in situ
Finished hedgehog box in situ

We’ve evidence that hedgehogs have used it, although I don’t know how regularly. I plan to install a camera in it to find out what goes on in there.