What is going on?

When we watch and observe wildlife, there are two questions that generally come into our heads (well they do in my head anyway!) and they are what is it and what is it doing. The identification of species can be extremely easy and extremely difficult depending on the species in question. I know I have spent many hours trying to find out the identification of a whole host of UK Wildlife and have learnt a great deal over the years. After identification is established you start to look at what is this species doing and why have I found it here. With these thoughts you are starting to enter the science of behaviour.

The behaviour of our wildlife can be studied on all sorts of levels from casual observations to full blown PhD studies. For us humans who have an interest in the wildlife around us and take a bit of time to observe it, there is nearly always something to see and understand.

When I try to think of the thousands of occasions I have observed wildlife during the course of my life, I realise that I have been very fortunate to see these things, but I have witnessed a lot of wildlife species and a lot of behaviour.

One thing I have realised is that you can never stop learning about the behaviour of wildlife and often you see them do things that you weren’t expecting. The behaviour of a species can depend on many different factors like where they are, when they are observed, the age of individual and the weather to name a few of the many factors and I find it fascinating how individual species can behave differently in different habitats. I recently observed this with two very familiar bird species that are commonly found in a variety of different habitats. Birds in general are one of our most observed wildlife groups and my observation also has a common factor that they involve food, a very important area of a bird existence and all other species in reality. The food in question was provided by other humans as well.

Robin by Steve Duffy

A few weeks ago, I had to attend a hospital appointment and the clinic I was attending was in an outbuilding that had some bird feeders outside the window. I naturally gravitated to a seat close by and watched the comings and goings at the feeding station. I was quite amused to see up to see up to six rabbits grazing on the grass area around the feeding station which was being visited by a good array of species with Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Robin and Dunnock all being noted. There was also a Carrion Crow

Carrion Crow by Steve Duffy

and a Wood Pigeon

Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

on the ground collecting all the bits that had been dropped. The behaviour of these two species caught my eye and made me ask myself a few questions about this vast subject.

Both these species are familiar and are commonly seen in a variety of habitats which indicates their adaptability and both species have been reasonably well studied and their behaviour is well known. The crow family are known to be highly intelligent and capable of problem solving generally in order to obtain that all important food. Over the years I’ve watched Carrion Crows, feeding on afterbirth of newly born lambs, dodging cars on motorways to eat the run over pheasants, grabbing sandwiches out of bins, catch a live eel and seen their close relative, the Hooded Crow, drop shells on roads to crack them open to show some examples of their ingenuity.

Carrion Crow by Steve Duffy

All this behaviour shows a distinct intelligence and shows why the crows are generally doing well in the UK.
Now the other species I mentioned, the Wood Pigeon, is also a familiar sight in a variety of habitats and in recent times has spread into urban areas and is now a familiar sight in many UK towns. I have observed many Wood Pigeons over the years and watched flocks of 1000s feeding on winter fields, seen them stuffing down acorns, watched migrant birds arriving from the continent and in more recent times they are regularly attracted to bird feeding stations. Wood Pigeons seem to be mainly interested in two things; food and sex. The food issue seems to be relentless in their daily lives apart from when their having sex! So, as I sat and watched the bird feeding station at the hospital, the Wood Pigeon was busily hoovering up all the left overs but seemed to get quite agitated when the Carrion Crow arrived. The Crow was typically flying in and grabbing a few beakfulls of food before flying off. I thought this was quite normal behaviour knowing how wary they are when so close to humans. After a few minutes I watched the crow repeat this procedure but this time was what I can only describe as ‘attacked ‘ by the seemly enraged Wood Pigeon. It seemed a little strange to me as I assumed, the Carrion Crow with its hefty bill and ability and intelligence to defend itself against a Wood Pigeon. The Pigeon repeated this manoeuvre on a number of occasions as I waited for my appointment, all with the same result.

 

Young Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

Why was this happening? Did the Wood Pigeon see the crow as a threat to its food supply? Was it an inbuilt mobbing reaction to the crow knowing that Carrion Crows will regularly eat Wood Pigeons eggs and young or was it something else? I was a little puzzled and even more so a few days later as I stood in my partners house and watched the birds in the back garden busily feeding on the delights that had been put out for them. It wasn’t long before a couple of Wood Pigeons appeared below the feeders. They started to feed but were quickly dive bombed by one of resident Carrion Crows who chased them out of the garden as quickly as possible. My mind instantly went back to my hospital visit! I continued to watch for 20 minutes and saw the same behaviour on 3 more occasions. These resident crows had often been observed chasing Magpies, Collared Doves as well as Wood Pigeons

In my mind these Carrion Crows were defending a food source that they used regularly and by chasing the Wood Pigeons and other species mentioned away they were protecting a valuable food source and were prepared to aggressively defend this valuable food source. So, the behaviour of these two species appeared to be completely different at these two locations and looking at some of the reasons I’ve explored here I feel it’s safe to say that the aggression shown by both species was about protecting food but am still questioning the apparent reversal of aggression shown at the t wo different sites. As I said earlier there are potentially many reasons why these species behaved in the ways I observed them and I could waffle on about possible theories but in an ideal world I could spend time at both sites observing the behaviour to try and uncover more evidence to aid my understanding. This is starting to sound like a PhD study! I’m not that intelligent and unfortunately have real life to contend with as well but what I have tried to show you with my simple observations is an introduction of what you can observe yourself if you take a little time to watch our wildlife. As I said earlier there are always several factors that influence how species behave and the more observation, the more knowledge gained which in turn may lead you to more understanding.
Next time you are out looking at wildlife I suggest you take a few moments longer when you see a species and see if you can note any behaviour patterns, you never know where it may take you and the species in question. Go and see what you can discover!

Peace of Mind

I was recently asked a couple of questions relating to the benefits I find from going out in the countryside at this time of year, made me think about the countryside as the core part of my life, offering a constant amidst the surrounding chaos. In some ways I would admit I cannot conceive of living without knowing I am able to find solace and comfort in, and with, all things green and natural.

Still green path

Over the last couple of weeks I have taken advantage of breaks in the rain to have strolls with my wife and then with my son. Though I love walking on my own the right company seems to add another dimension, shared experience and another pair of eyes and ears. As autumn progresses to winter the countryside quietens but there are different things to wonder at. Walking from Wood Street towards the Hogs Back might be muddy but in the crisper, colder light the sense of slowing down, pause, is palpable.

Sleepy oaks

There is however new life and signs of continuing activity to be encountered.

Next years crops showing

It’s been a great year for many fungi which are increasingly fascinating my wife. Looks like a better field guide is needed. Good timing….

Not so much a fairy ring, more snake

The time of berries is here but have to admit that most seem consumed by the time I write this. One consequence of this reduction in hedgerow food means my bird feeders appear to be used to excess. More on that another day.

Glorious Spindle

I walked with my son Tom from Sheets Heath in a loop including the Basingstoke canal. Part of the area I roamed with friends in my youth, where it all started if you like. What struck me was this bubble of countryside hadn’t really changed very much over nearly 50 years. Trees must have grown and yes you can now walk over much of Brookwood farm, which was a real no no in my youth, but the feel of the place is as my senses remember.

 

Birds now tend to be encountered in small groups and as winter progresses these may join up to form large flocks to create the misleading impression of a quiet countryside, unless of course you bump in to  one of these super flocks. On the day we did find a real surprise in the shape of 2 Firecrests! These gem like tiny birds were feeding in the trees by the canal but were too fast and tiny to capture on camera. I had never seen Firecrests locally and this was a real treat.

Where Firecrests roamed

Sheets Heath is remnant of heathland that is one of the areas that has been grazed for a number of years and was, I think, the first road inSurrey to be cattle gridded. It is an indication that there may be reasons to object to grazing on heaths but in reality beneficial conservation grazing really can be become normalised over time.

We did notice one of the other effects of the blurring of seasons, the remarkable inconsistency of tree leaf loss, even between trees of the same species.

Late November

As we returned to the car a final surprise, lots of this fungus…

Coral like fungus

Haven’t noticed this species before, another reason for a new book!

 

 

Will Things Change?

 

Surrey Sunrise

The environment, the natural world, wildlife decreases, climate change and various other environmental issues under a variety names have never been in the general media as much as they are currently. Every newspaper will have a story somewhere about the perils that the natural world and humanity faces in the time we live in. Personally, I am pleased that more awareness to these serious issues is being made more public and also the fact that many more young people are challenging the way we live and the affects humanity has on the world environment, these are all moves in the right direction. I am slowly starting to feel that public pressure is working and was encouraged to see and hear people at the Extinction Rebellion demo in London the other week and to see how many people had gone out to let politicians know that it’s not just few hippies that are worried about the environment. I met and talked with many different people on the day I went up and in general felt encouraged that 1000s of people are willing to talk about the issues and hopefully make a difference.
We are, as always, are in the hands of government and as you have probably gathered from some of my previous articles I have, in the past, had little or no faith in politicians when it concerns the environment and so you can imagine my joy to find out that we were having another General Election on December 12th. Its obvious that the public pressure about environmental issues is starting to have an effect on the various political parties that will be standing at this next election. Good job as its about 50 years or more too late.

With this added political madness of an election I have been trying to keep tabs on what the various parties are saying about environmental issues and what they propose to try and do to halt the destruction of our country and planet.
There have been a few interesting things said already but I’m still feeling sceptical about some of these big claims
So, we currently have all the political parties claiming that they will make a significant change in policy, trying to halt the environmental crisis. Whoever wins next month has a lot of big promises to live up to and despite my scepticism and fears I also feel quite intrigued to see what actually happens and as always, cling to the hope that serious change will happen. We shall see …..

Before any serious change in the UK starts, we the voters have our own personal decisions to make about who we may vote for and we have to ask ourselves what are the most important issues that this country faces. I read an article last week saying that despite the pressure from many people and despite all the scientific data that has been accumulated about environmental issues, the environment in general is only the 4th most important point that a poll of UK voters named. I find this an equally worrying statistic despite many of the points I raised earlier about being in the news on a daily basis, the British voter still needs to wake up more and think more about the state of the planet we all live on. Unsurprisingly the number one reason given in the above-mentioned poll was Brexit, which in my nature conservationist mind has been a very dangerous distraction from the environment crisis.

I ask all readers of this site to think of environmental issues before you vote and I’m certainly not going to talk political viewpoints or make suggestions on how/who you should vote but if you genuinely care about our planet and its wildlife you will be thoughtful about where you put your mark.

Surrey Moon

Missing the Point?

Feeling like a mushroom?

 

Having kept my powder dry for a couple of weeks, and aware of the fact that nobody is likely to listen, I have finally decided to put words to my concerns both for Surrey and the rest of England.

Call be narrow minded or over focused on one issue but I find the existence of “elephants in the room” hard to ignore.

Much is being written and spoken about the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity in the UK. Comment and commitments are continually being made by national and local government, pressure groups, NGOs, in fact it seems that everybody has something to say on the 2 topics.

The government finally put forward an Environment Bill (without any certainty that it will now become a reality) and we can now all read the latest State of Nature report. Nearly all of it perfectly laudable in its intent and desired outcome. So what is my problem?

It is stating the obvious  that an essential part of protecting Biodiversity and helping to reverse its dramatic decline is to protect what Biodiversity you still have. To at least attempt this requires immediate, constant, sustainable management which requires immediate, stable, sustainable funding. 

Hoped for improvements in funding countryside management through the use  of planing system and offsetting or the expansion of the principles of Natural Capital are at this time hopes and do not address the fundamental question of who pays, right now, for the management of countryside and the protection of our increasingly appreciated but threatened Biodiversity?

In Surrey we have  the largest public open space (largely sites of major importance to Biodiversity) landowner, Surrey County Council still bizarrely promoting the importance of enhancing Biodiversity on one hand whilst maintaining the ridiculous position that managing the countryside should and could be self financing! I could puke at the stupidity of it.

Council Folly

Treating Biodiversity as some weird kind of political issue extends to national government as well.

The flagship wildlife sites, Biodiversity hot spots, are meant to be the designated National Nature Reserves. There are presently 224 of these wonderful places in England, some small but most are hundreds of hectares. So you would think that at least the management of these gems would be secure?

Of the 224 NNRs the majority of them, about 150, are managed by Natural England. By my very rough estimate that means about 60,000 hectares of land is meant to be managed by an organisation that has been financially gutted by successive governments. Natural England’s annual budget has been cut over the last 10 years from £242 million to under £100 million and its staff from around 2500 to around 1500. Now I know that managing the NNRs is only one part of the duties of Natural England but I also know that cutting the overall budget has had real and pretty dire consequences for the teams trying to manage these supposedly critical reservoirs of Biodiversity. We now live in a political world where even the Chief Executive of Natural England stating they have insufficient funding to manage the NNRs raises little comment, not even criticism from ill informed MPs.

What I find even more bewildering is that we are not really talking about huge sums of money, 10s of £millions not the £billions promised to tackle climate change or build HS2. Surrey County Council should be contributing at least a £million to manage their estate and I would suggest that a sustainable budget for the NE managed NNRs should be ring fenced and protected from cuts.

Why is the funding for managing sites of such importance to Biodiversity so ignored or marginalised? If you are a conspiracy theorist then there is plenty of scope for imagination to run wild but my tendency is that the overwhelming majority of politicians either just don’t care or simply don’t believe that government should have a role in directly managing land at all, least of all land important for Biodiversity. My suspicion is that the latter group of politicians think it’s easier and maybe better for conservation land management to be undertaken by charities like the RSPB and National Trust.

Recent history shows that even the Royal Parks were not regarded as important enough for the tax payer to fund directly and have quietly been charitablised. There have been past attempts to sell of the state forestry land and an aborted attempt to shift the Natural England NNRs to a further new charity, the first became such a hot political potato that I doubt that any government will repeat the attempt but the second I fully expect to be revisited.

What is so wrong about using tax payers money to protect Biodiversity directly through the conservation management of land that all of us as tax payers own?

Why is it politically acceptable to spend billions on anything related to climate change but not Biodiversity?

When you vote do ask yourself these questions.

A real product of people power

Connections

I realised the other day that it had been quite a long while since I had written about the progress of my wildlife garden/ reserve. As I thought about this, the news of the latest report on the state of the UKs wildlife was being reported by the mainstream media and although the two different points,  my reserve and the state of the country’s wildlife may seem very different, there are connections between the two and some hope to be found. So, with this piece I write a “two in one” , information on my back yard and some of the points raised in the latest report on our wildlife.

 

Firstly, the back yard.
The weather over the summer was quite variable, there was no long weeks of sunshine this year and there were quite a few days of overcast and rainy weather. Even with this variable weather the temperatures overall were warm again with some record temperatures being recorded in July. The reserve has shown progress in the variety of flowers that have come in to bloom with over 50 species now being recorded and with these flowers there seemed to be an increase in the variety of insects that have been noted in the area.

This increase in insects has obviously come from the increase in flowering plants which as we know are vital food sources for many insect groups and not just the obvious groups like bees and butterflies with hoverflies, Hairy Shield-Bug and Bristle Thighed Beetle all being noted.

After all these points I’ve made about the insects and the flowers in the reserve I’ve realised that I have not mentioned that the reserve is only getting about 2 hours of direct sunlight each day which will have an effect on how the plants grow and which insects may occur.

Large Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

I noted that butterfly activity is at its peak in the sunny couple of hours in the morning and would become less so when the area when shaded. It never seemed to bother Large and Small Whites much and they were ever present from July to September with a few still about in early October.

Almost the last butterfly

In nature this is common and environments will adapt to availability to the suns and its movement.

As I look at the site now I am making plans for some winter work to increase the sunlight in the area.
Two bird species have increased in breeding numbers quite dramatically over the last 20 years and one of them, the Red Kite, can now be described as common in many parts of the country, including here in Surrey. The reintroduction of this species has led to 1200 breeding pairs present in 2018. They have been greatly aided by various conservation organisations and have even become tourist attractions as some people have started feeding them. The other species I saw had increased was the Bittern, a heron species that needs large reedbeds to breed in but can be found in smaller reedbeds when on wintering grounds. In 1997 there were only 11 calling males heard during the breeding season and the
the Bittern faced extinction for a second time. Conservationists started a scheme to protect, enhance and create habitats that were suitable for breeding Bittern. 20 years on and the UK has its largest Bittern population it has ever recorded with 188 booming male birds being recorded from over 70 different locations nationwide last year and there have been a few locations around Surrey where birds have wintered so how long will it before there’s a big enough reedbed for them to breed in? There’s the clear evidence that if humanity helps our natural world and its inhabitants nature can recover which takes me back round to my reserve/ garden where 18 months ago there was an area of rank overgrown grassland full of old rubbish and now there are many species of wildlife using the area to feed, breed and prosper. If this was done by more people over larger areas of our country and world-wide we may have a chance to repair some the damage that humanity has caused.
Let’s do what we can and see if people worldwide can make a difference politically and physically.

Late harvest

After a pause.

 

Glorious stroll along the Wey navigation.

Suspect both Francis and I now suffering a little guilt that we haven’t written for a while but there are times when the demands of life allow for little distraction.

Yes, we have been wandering about a bit and no it’s not because late summer and the advent of autumn is a quiet time for wildlife and we are short of subjects!

It would be easy to launch in to a rant about politics and the issues around biodiversity to which only lip service is being made but thought I would first quickly share the joys and places enjoyed over the last few weeks.

We walk the Wey navigation as pictured above, probably more often than anywhere else. The stretch we haunt never ceases to soothe my thoughts whilst providing endless little surprises.

Unusual planter!

The lure of Chobham in late summer on a fine day is too much to resist. Purple and pink pleasure…

 

And unbelievable blue..

Some of the colonies showing very poor numbers and others the best for several years. Rarely are wildfires good for heath but by chance one fire 2 years ago led to a great increase in flowering plants. Not all beneficial management is deliberate!

More annoying than distressing is the reappearance/germination of alien Pitcher plants which were thought to be pretty much eradicated  3 or 4 years ago.

Unwelcome return

Some alien or introduced species are harder to tolerate

 

False Black Widow

Whilst wandering about on the NNNR it was pleasing to find another rarity

Marsh Clubmoss

Not really a moss but a miniature fern, this lime coloured “tail” of a plant has been identified as meriting its own species recovery plan. Small doesn’t mean insignificant.

Autumn rains shouldn’t put any one off exploring, as we discovered.

Effort brings reward.

The beginning of a rather wet walk was in Surrey, the National Trust car park at Black Down, but we did stray across the border in to Sussex.

Rain but with a light sky creates wonderful effects with the light through the canopy of trees and initially the walk along the ridge was sheltered under old beech giants.

As we arrived at the southern end of the ridge the rain eased and the view was breathtaking.

Temple of the Winds

Standing high enough to be above fast moving cloud in the south of England felt truly surreal. The place is well named and celebrates the poet Tennyson who spent much time here. I like to think that his first reaction on arriving at this point was similar to mine, awe and wonder.

Though clearly a special place, one of the most beautiful I have ever been to (yes really), it simply doesn’t feel heavily visited. Please go, in any weather it will put an enormous smile on your face!

Memorial stone bench for the view

The views continued as the sun woke through and we returned through an open area of heath.

Almost sunshine

And yes I have also been out of the county for holiday……

And not even I can pretend that this was Surrey!

And yes wildlife still surrounds me at home.

The new boss?

Next post likely to be a tad more stroppy so here’s a photo of dawn 2 days ago to engender a little peace.

Never Seen That Before…..

Strange happens…

Over the many years of observing wildlife I’ve heard the phrase ‘never seen that before ‘ uttered many times either by myself or my friends with me. To me, this is one of the joys of studying wildlife and I always know that I will never be bored because there so many facts concerning the wildlife that is around us and without the best memory of our own observations or having so much time to continually observe wildlife we can never know everything about all the species that are present around us. The chance of observing something new is always a strong possibility whenever you go out to look for wildlife and if you see something new it often means you will learn something new as well.

After saying all that, sometimes you get to see things by people telling you of their observations. Over my many years of observing wildlife I have often looked at wildlife that others have told me about. The well-known grapevines amongst birdwatchers have existed for many years and have spread to many other groups of wildlife enthusiasts such as butterflies, dragonflies and moths. These days with internet, mobiles, pagers and various other modern communications; news of wildlife sightings can be shared with potentially thousands of people. However sometimes the old-fashioned way of people actually talking to each other still works and the other day this proved the case when my partners daughter returned home to inform me of loads of large moths in a tunnel by the playing fields in the village. After harassing me for a while, I walked down to the village with her to be directed to said tunnel. I jumped down into the nearly dried out stream and entered the tunnel and turned on the torch on my phone and was amazed to see a large number of Old Lady moths roosting on what you would call the roof of the tunnel.

The Old Ladies

My first word was ‘ wow ‘ quickly followed by ‘ I never seen that before ‘. Previously I had only ever seen single individuals and was unaware that they roosted communally in tunnels near water. I have learnt quite a bit about this species since I observed this roost the other day and the information that was given was by a teenager has also amazed me! It all goes to show that you can never be sure of what you can see out there and its sometimes worth investigating information that people give you as you could see something new or different.

Beauty closer

I was very happy and grateful to observe these Old Lady moths and it re reminds me that you never know what you can see in the natural world. Keep your eyes and ears open and you never know what could happen out there.

For the people ?

One of the privileges of older age, for me, is that I get to walk round wonderful places with wonderful people. Walking a new or familiar place on your on is one good thing but walking in the company of someone who is “part of” a place is just a whole different experience. You share part of the vision and experience of a much more informed and passionate friend whose enthusiasm is thankfully all too apparent.

Over the last couple of weeks amongst my regular haunts

Wey navigation
Evening light

…..and some wonderful wildlife at home

Small Copper

…..some more familiar than required!

Visitor at Work

I have walked with friends at Richmond Park and Norbury Park. Both are, on paper, greatly protected public open spaces but both are sadly showing the signs of the pressures created by the reductions in funding at the “pointed end” of service delivery and conservation need.

It is an admittedly personal view but one of the serious problems with conservationists is that we tend to be nice people who don’t want to cause a fuss. We, the public, get outraged by “obvious” harm to the countryside and wildlife like say, the threat posed by fracking or a new housing development or even fox hunting BUT the more insidious and obscured threat that financial cuts and neglect present to our environment is often ignored completely or invisible, packaged in political rhetoric.

It staggers me that no real comment has been made in response to the Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, admitting there is insufficient funding to properly manage the “in house” National Nature Reserves. These are a big share of the  premier wildlife sites in the country. Within the conservation sector this fact has been accepted as reality for some years but now its out there on the wider stage what’s the response from the establishment? Deafening silence, and I don’t believe that’s just because of other priorities (can’t think what!), more that most politicians, local and national, seem to regard the countryside as verging on the irrelevant and a financial burden that shouldn’t fall on the public purse.

In London!

Richmond Park as a Royal Park was funded directly from government but now the Royal Parks are managed by a charitable organisation that receives much reduced direct funding. Yes, the Royal Parks have for years raised income from activities and properties and yes the Royal Parks have become pretty expert in this area of fundraising but, and it is a huge but, though the overall budgets for running the Parks have remained fairly stable the money available for the pointy end of service delivery (rangers, estate workers, policing ) has diminished and will continue to decline as the costs of fundraising and property management increases. This isn’t rocket science, its inevitable when you, in essence, shift funding from direct taxation to a much more indirect tax (charity fundraising and income generation). Crudely you get less bang for your buck! The irony of all this is its seems many politicians believe that making new charities to undertake those jobs that they regard as superfluous saves money, FOR WHO EXACTLY? Taxpayers? I think not.

Glorious Richmond veteran
The other side

Richmond Park is a simply amazing place, full of seemingly impossible contrasts. Herds of large deer and the violence of the Red deer rut surrounded by the most cosmopolitan London. Ancient trees, wonderful flowers ..

Harebells in the grass

We also saw hunting Hobby and nesting terns, Sand Martins and Black Headed gulls.If you haven’t been go, go and walk away from the crowds, its a little piece of wildness amongst all the civility.

Don’t go and behave like the fools we witnessed.

Well meaning stupidity? Or selfish risk taking?

Less budget for service delivery means less police and less rangers which means more illegal parking and more people approaching too close, even feeding, large potentially dangerous wildlife. Without bodies on the ground to educate and to enforce if need, then numbers of fools increase.

Norbury Park, once viewed as the jewel in the crown of the Surrey County Estate , faces a different set of challenges but the root causes are very similar to those at Richmond park. Central as a cause of continued challenges is the abrogation of responsibility by the landowner using the same mechanism of shifting the management of the countryside to the charity sector.

Norbury view

The agreement between Surrey County Council and Surrey wildlife Trust is approaching 20 years old but for the past few years a small number of councillors have decided to renege on the spirit of the agreement and push for  reducing the “cash” contribution to £zero. I am very aware of the political justifications put forward but my bewilderment and anger is that the implications of this action are ignored and even worse disguised with empty rhetoric from ignorant politicians who continue to promote 2 falsehoods; the countryside in Surrey can pay for itself and they, the politicians, know how to achieve this. Defying advice and simple common sense seems to have become “de rigueur” for many politicians together with a complete unwillingness to consider that they might be wrong. For me an admission that a person was or is mistaken is NOT a sign of weakness but of strength and to be both respected and applauded.

So what difference does less money and hence less staff with often less knowledge actually make?

At Norbury Park I would point to the lack of detailed management like at the view point above. The view is now obscured by scrub, one of the benches is now viewless! As a conservationist the signs are there that lack of management affects Biodiversity, the open areas need to be regularly cut to maintain the quality of sward (in the absence of rabbit or domesticated stock grazing).

Ever diminishing Harebells

The remaining pockets of chalk grassland should be managed or they will disappear, with all the attendant species of insects.

Downland glade barely holding on.

Beginning to rage too much so I will write a short post about the wonder of Norbury Park but just want to finish this  on pointing out another problem of lack of funding, the push to use the countryside to produce an income even though it conflicts with what we, the people, have as an image of that countryside.

There is an important conversation to be had to try and answer the questions

How do you adequately fund the management of publicly owned protected countryside?

Is it a legitimate expenditure of the public purse and tax revenues?

 

 

 

Big and small beauty

Please don’t let any conservationists or naturalists like Francis and I bully you in to thinking its essential to be able to identify everything!

For me its taking pleasure in things both big and small, place and the wildlife encounters that you experience. The place can be a small reserve like a chalk pit recently visited which felt extra special as very few people know of its existence and even fewer visit.

Nature given a chance to reclaim.

Sitting quietly among orchids and flowers it would be easy to believe in sprites, it just felt like a space outside normal life, profoundly peaceful.

Did I spend my time trying to identify all the plants and insects? Nope, just drank in the ambience. Yep sounds a bit hippy but assure you it works for me!

Land of sprites?

In contrast to place, it can be individual species or a collection of species that are the attraction.

South of Dunsfold are a group of woodlands and forestry plantations that are well known for the butterflies found there. I’ve written about the birds encountered in these woods, Nightingales included, but a recent visit was to hopefully see a legendary butterfly. The place itself, Botany Bay, is not high (or even on!) my list of beautiful places but there is no doubting the sense of anticipation aroused by an intended visit.

On this occasion there were several other hopeful naturalists, passed by tolerant local dog walkers. The dream, well, to see one of these.

The glory that is a Purple Emperor

Treated by naturalists for many many decades with an almost reverential awe I had never glimpsed more than a flash of a high speed individual before this fantastic creature was tempted down on to a forest track with a cocktail of unmentionable substances placed by a well informed Emperor “addict”. Their life cycle and behaviour is worth reading up on, you may be truly amazed.

Small beauty maybe but completely entrancing to the small group of observers that gathered.

Francis hooked!

There were more, honest!

Intimate close encounters like this allow consideration of the staggering beauty of the form of individual species. From all angles.

Yes we also saw Wood Whites, White Admirals, Silver Washed Fritillary, and many more species. Although the woods are not the most attractive place to walk (limited views, openness or exposed water like streams) the terrific variety of species of butterfly and the rarity of some of the breeding birds are proof that the partnership approach to management adopted here works for biodiversity. It does probably help that these woods are a little off the beaten track, not particularly close to housing or even a main road.

Bucking The Trend

As we have now actually experienced some typical mid-summer weather in the last couple of weeks, I made the most of my not enough spare time and got out for a few expeditions and at four of the sites I visited, one species seemed ever present and that was the Marbled White butterfly.

This striking butterfly has been a joy to watch on areas of unimproved grassland and open chalk downland areas along the Hogs Back. I saw my first ever Marbled Whites over 30 years ago at a chalk site called Folkestone Warren in Kent and remembered being impressed with this eye-catching yet subtle at times species. I’ve had the pleasure to work at a number of sites where they occurred and have always been impressed by their colours and behaviour.

In my recent wanderings I have been really pleased with the numbers of individuals that were on the wing and at one site along Hogs Back well over 150 were present and we also saw them on the grass verges along the A31 as we went home. The visit to Broadstreet Common near Guildford was nothing short of spectacular with 100s being present. It was almost an idyllic image of high summer in an English flower meadow; idyllic apart from the roar of the busy main road only a few 100 meters away!

Me and Steve who was with me, remarked on the good numbers present. I recalled a paper I had read recently saying unlike many butterfly species, Marbled White is a species that is spreading and increasing in numbers in this country.

 

Before we look at why this species is doing well in the UK it’s probably worth pointing out a few facts about this eye-catching species. Its name for a start is misleading although understandable as Marbled Whites are not even in the same family as Large, Small and Green Veined Whites which belong to the family called Pieridae. Marbled Whites belong to the family called Satyridae which contains mainly brown species including Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets which are species that are often seen alongside Marbled Whites. There habitat preferences are similar to with unimproved grasslands often being popular for all of these ‘brown’ butterflies. All of the species just mentioned lay their eggs on various grass species and the Marbled White prefers Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue although has been recorded on other grass species. These fine leaved grasses provide the caterpillars with all the food necessary to reach a size to pupate. Marbled Whites over winter as caterpillars and are at a very vulnerable at this part of their lifecycle as disturbance of sites can be life threatening during cold winter weather. They normally bury themselves in grass tussocks in cold weather. If they survive the winter they begin to feed on new grass growth in the spring. They enter pupation late May and early June and can be seen as adults from late June through to August.

So, what has happened in the UK over the last 40 years to create the spread and explosion in numbers in recent years. When I was a teenager and first started taking a real interest in butterflies, I associated Marbled Whites with chalk downland and read that it also occurred in Limestone and sand areas as habitats of preference. Since those days this species has spread into new habitats like the previously mentioned unimproved grass land areas. Broadstreet Common near Guildford is a site I have known of for nearly 30 years and it is only in the last 10 years that Marbled Whites have occurred there. So why is this happening? The answer is a very familiar one and probably won’t shock you to find out the biggest reason for the spread of the Marbled White in the UK over the last 40 years is the heating up of our planet. This is the key reason why there are more about nowadays and to a smaller part their colonisation of different habitats as Broadstreet Common shows driven by the warmer temperature we have been experiencing in recent times. Butterflies across the world are feeling the effects of global warming already as the Marbled White and several other species in the UK are already showing. I feel caught between a rock and hard place over this issue as watching the Marbled Whites has been a brilliant experience and to have seen many so close that you could see the slight variations in the markings between the male and females’ butterflies, the male being smaller and darker than the larger females with their brown/orange hues on the undersides of the wing being noted.

Only in the future will we see how far the effects of global warming can affect our insect populations. I do advise you to go and have a look at some Marbled Whites if you get the chance for they are beautiful butterflies and should be on the wing for a short while yet for you to find them and it’s worth checking the grasslands near you to see if any are about. Good luck and enjoy