Will anything stop the driven man?

Have you been following Mark Avery’s one-man campaign against driven grouse shooting? If you haven’t, visit his blog to catch up on latest developments.

Dr Mark (pictured below) has kept at his fight down the years and has refused to be fobbed off by nonsense like Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. Against expectations he managed to get no fewer than 123,077 right-minded members of the public (actually that’s 123,076 right-minded people, and me) to back his petition to get driven grouse shooting debated he-manin Parliament.

That debate happened in Westminster Hall this week – you can read Hansard’s report here – and it sounds as though it was a bit of a disappointment. Few MPs bothered to turn up, and those that did were the sort of people you’d expect to support the rich man’s hobby, like south Carmarthenshire’s Simon Hart, who used to be the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.

By the way, if you are a voter in Mr Hart’s constituency you might like to ask him how much time and effort he puts into representing you. He always gives the impression that he is much more engaged with Countryside Alliance business.

Back to the debate; the tone of contribution from the pro-shooting MPs seems to have been the usual ‘we know best’. As ever, those who oppose blood sports are dismissed as townies who have no right to a say about what happens beyond the outer suburbs.

The shooting lobby definitely reckons it won on the night. But Mark Avery won’t have any truck with that – he’s planning for the next battle, saying the only way forward is ‘upwards and onwards’.

Secret life of the high-flying swift

Most years ‘our’ swifts turn up on cue. For a dozen years or so I’ve made a note of the date of the first sighting, and it’s usually around May 5.

One pair usually nests in the roof space over our bathroom, while two or three others use the neighbouring houses. It’s harder to say when they leave.

This summer a group of 10 or so were around each evening until early August, then they were gone. What happens next?

They just keep flying. For the youngsters, leaving the UK is possibly the start of years on the wing, until the time comes for them to raise young of their own.

For their parents, departure is the start of a 10-month flight. They won’t come to earth again until they come back to look for a nesting site the following May.

In the past the theory that the swift’s life is one of near-constant flight has been the best-guess about where they go, and what they get up to. Now a Swedish study has put flesh on the bones.

Seven swifts were tracked over two years. Three never stopped flying, while the others only landed for a night or two now and again.

Amazing. Ten months soaring free, then two listening to me singing in the shower.

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Keta, Wikimedia

 

Count maps flutter-free summer

This was the year when my butterfly-counting was supposed to have done a ‘quantam leap’. Or, I suppose, you could say take flight.
I’ve been doing my bit for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count for years, but decided this year it was time to give up on scraps of paper and blunt pencils and start using the charity’s app.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sadly, though the app is good, 2016 wasn’t as good for butterflies. I’ve had my phone handy whenever I’ve been out and about, but there hasn’t been much for it to do.

Across Britain the weather wasn’t that bad, but the survey results show a Wales-wide collapse in many species’ populations. For example, small tortoiseshell numbers were down on 2015 by close to half.

Most others species saw downturns that were between 30 and 40 per cent. One or two did buck the trend – most notably, red admiral and large white.

Sadly, records show the sharpest drop in numbers has happened in Wales, although England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all experienced something similar. You can read a break down of the results here.

The strange thing is that 2016 had the sort of weather that would usually have been good to butterflies. It was warmer than average and fairly dry.

BC admits to being mystified, saying that the very mild 2015-16 winter may have had a negative effect, or perhaps it was the cold spring. Or, maybe pesticide use is really beginning to take its toll.

View on subsidy from down on the farm

How the UK’s relationship with the EU will change our countryside is definitely a hot topic at the moment. And the impending shake-up of farming subsidy has put rewilding right at the heart of the debate too, largely thanks to George Monbiot.

What you might not see is the article about what an end to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) could mean for Wales in the latest Natur Cymru. It’s worth finding a copy because it’s a fascinating read.

The magazine’s editor James Robertson is a farmer himself and argues that taxpayers’ money should go to farmers who are delivering public benefits, but not to ‘commodity’ farmers.It could bepaying recipients to do things like reducing flood risk, capturing carbon and encouraging wildlife.

Of course, we’ve heard that elsewhere, but he also has interesting things to say about the politics of agriculture.

Being paid to manage land would be an attractive option for many struggling farmers across Wales, he argues, but that they are unlikely to be heard. He predicts that what we will hear – loud and clear – is the megaphone voice of a minority, the commidity producers whose interests are championed by the farming unions.

Brexit’s threat to the lie of the land

All those castles rather give the game away, don’t they? When William the Conqueror’s friends and relations wound up in Wales they weren’t coming to enjoy the view.

Now you may be wondering why I’m on about the robber barons of another millennium, but bear with me. Today, we learned who is currently getting the best out of the CAP payments system.cilgerran

Huge sums of money go to landowners largely for doing not much more than owning land. Apparently, the top 100 shared no less than £89m.

The lucky 100 are a mixed bag, but its no surprise that ‘old’ families seem to do very well from this hand-out. A couple of years ago two economists looked at how surnames relate to wealth, and it turned out that people with Norman names are still doing better than the rest of us centuries after their ancestors’ land grab.

On the whole, a Baskerville, Darcy or Mandeville is likely to be better-off than a Bowen, a Davies or a Morris. No surprise then that as you look down the list of those getting the biggest slice of the farm subsidy cake there are plenty of dukes, earls and the like.

Take the Duke of Westminster, whose distant ancestor was William I’s chief huntsman. Many generations later the current duke’s farming company chases subsidy, winning a handsome £437,434 in the latest hand-out.

You can find out how much your neighbours have had in recent years by visiting the website of the body that co-ordinates UK payments. It lets you put in a postcode and then up comes names and numbers, so I now know that in my postcode area alone 70 recipients share no less than £1.2m.

Brexit means Brexit, and it also means that this sorry system has to change. The situation was summed up nicely this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme by the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin. If you weren’t up before 7am you can catch up with it here on the BBC website (fast forward to about 35:00).

In a few mintues of chat he takes you from the wine lakes and butter moutains of the 1970s to the current (crazy) arrangement, which sees landowners get paid by the acre. He also explains how that has pushed up land values, which prices many wannabe farmers out of the market.

Of course, things are going to change with Brexit. And optimists look to a future that serves the majority of people far better; for example, George Monbiot says we can bring an end to what he calls the ‘unembarrassed robbery of the poor by the rich’.

It would be nice to think it could happen. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed – but maybe not holding my breath. The current arrangement is a system that has served people who have know exactly when to pull up the drawbridge.

 

Ivy, death and autumn’s insects

Over the last few years I’ve kept track on the passing of a big, old apple tree. When I first ‘knew’ it, it had some leaves and an apple or two – and there was some ivy on its trunk and some boughs.

Then, the leaves didn’t appear one spring a few years back. Since then, the ivy (Hedera helix) has grown to engulf the dead tree.

Now, I know there are ivy-haters out there. I’ve run into them in the past and know that the most extreme feel they need to be out and about ‘rescuing’ trees, otherwise ivy won’t stop until it has felled every last one.red-admiral

In one case someone told me that he kept a saw in the boot of his car and would use it to cut through ivy stems so that the climber wouldn’t kill its supporting tree. I tried to put the case for ivy, but worried that he might use the saw on me if I didn’t move on sharply.

I’ll say it here though, ivy does not harm trees. A healthy mature tree and the grow that’s growing on it are more of a partnership than host and parasite.

The ailing apple tree was an opportunity for its ivy. As it sickened, its canopy thinned and the ivy flourished in the full light.

In time the weight of the ivy over-balanced the dead tree, and it began to shift as its decaying roots lost grip. It took a storm last winter to finally bring tree and ivy down.

Since then, it’s been fascinating to watch as the ivy has adjusted to its new orientation. The plant has been able to re-set its bearings and respond accordingly.

Now there are flowers at the tips of its uppermost stems. Ivy heads for the sun and then forms flower heads at the limits of its reach.

They’re in bloom now and will be until late November, providing an excellent source of food for all sorts of insects, like flies, bees, wasps and butterflies.

At the downed tree today they were out in force, warmed by some afternoon sun. Few wasps this year, at least here in Pembrokeshire, but it was good to see few late butterflies – a comma, a small tortoiseshell and a couple of red admirals, both as good as new.

 

Wales and the ‘State of Nature 2016’

It took me a few days to get around to reading the State of Nature 2016 report, which was launched last week. It’s not that uplifting to know that the UK is one of the “least natural countries in the world“, so I put it off.

But there’s no point playing ostrich, is there? And it turns out to be a very impressive piece of work, pulling together a compelling case for the change that Sir David Attenborough demands in his foreword.state-of-nature-report-2016-cover

There’s not much on how that change should happen though. It’s a very detailed examination of a gravely-ill patient, but offers less on how to effect a cure. Maybe that’s understandable given that it has been created by pooling the knowledge of just over 50 conservation and research organisations.

You can find both the UK and Wales-only reports here. As the debate about a post-Brexit approach to the countryside gets going, they make it clear that the something different has to happen.

For example, the audit of the populations of Welsh priority species says 33 per cent get a red light because they are declining, 43 per cent are amber, or stable, and only 24 per cent are in the green ‘improving’ category.

It all adds up to a rather depressing picture, so I’d recommend that you read the report alongside the speech that Trevor Dines, from Plantlife, made at its launch. It’s an inspiring call to action.

Hunt is on for hedgehog visitor

We’re on the look out for hedgehogs in the garden. A few years back one visited  every night, but through recent summers we haven’t been so lucky.

Now though, the hunt is on. This morning there was a clue – a dropping, jet black and shining with dew. So, tonight I’ll be out on patrol with a torch.

This picture is one we took of our last hedgehog, an autumn juvenile. Found in September, it was taken in and weighed. It was well under-weight, so spent the winter in the garage in an old rabbit hutch.

By the time spring arrived it was healthy, heavy and ready for release. If I track down our new nocturnal caller I’ll put it on the scales too (and am half hoping that it might spend the winter with us…)

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Image: Holly Rollins

 

‘Petrel Station’ opens for business

When I last went to Skokholm Island I spent some time helping out with the job of checking which of the storm petrel nests were occupied. The birds nest underground, usually under big boulders, so to do the job properly involved a bit of trickery.

We had to play a recording of a petrel into each hole and crevice and then listen out for an answering call. Getting your head as close as possible to each potential entry hole took some doing.

Now Skokholm has some new, tailor-made nestboxes for petrels, which have been designed to make checking the chicks much easier. Take a look at the ‘Petrel Station’ at the Skokholm blog; it looks impressive.

Hopefully the petrels will think so, too.

Learning to live with ash die-back

At first I told myself that I was adding two and two to make five, or 555. Perhaps the withered leaves and greying bark were just a reaction to a run of dry days.

Now though, it’s official – I have the dreaded Chalara fraxinea, or ash die-back. Or at least, my trees have.

The ash trees in the hedges around my Pembrokeshire garden nearly all now show the symptoms of the lethal fungal infection and the diagnosis has been confirmed by the Forestry Commission’s Tree Alert service.

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It is a depressing prospect. The spread of the disease is unstoppable and it promises a transformation of landscapes to rival the one that came in the 1970s with Dutch Elm Disease. In the long-term there’s a hope that some ashes will show a resistance to Chalara, but by then the vast majority will be decaying and dead.

There’s nothing I can do about my hedges except to start thinking about what will happen when the ashes are dead and gone. So, this autumn is going to be about gathering tree seed (acorns, hazelnuts and sycamore ‘helicopters’) and starting my own back-garden tree nursery.

*The Tree Council has been running an annual Seed Gathering Sunday for years and it has now become Seed Gathering Season. This year it begins on September 23 and runs until October 23. More info here.