Back in the Raspberry Fields

I know that I have been casting my mind back a lot more recently and this has been down to the constant number of reports I have read in the last few months that tell of the decline of many species that were common when I was a child in the 70s and the 80s.  This fact really hit me hard the other day after watching the small flock of 21 Linnets on the Lammas fields in Godalming. The other factor is that I’m getting old!

After seeing these Linnets, I suddenly thought about when I was a child; part of my school summer holidays were spent in Raspberry fields. I was already supposed to be helping my mother pick the soft fruits but spent most of the time wondering about playing with the other kids there in the fields. There was a wheat field at the bottom of the raspberry lines. Often there were small birds feeding on the field edge and they would fly into the lines of raspberries when disturbed by noisy children. Often whilst walking along the lines you could hear a loud twittering, buzzing, whistling and trilling song of the Linnet. I distantly remember nests being found in the Raspberry bushes and remember seeing eggs and young in the nest. I also remember how efforts were made to steer a few bushes clear ‘of the nest site to try and let them carry on undisturbed. As I got older and starting venturing further afield in the Kentish country I realised that Linnets were relatively common birds of grasslands, farmland, hedgerows, coastal salt marshes, sand dunes and a few other habitats that can provide a good supply of seeds of both wildflower and agricultural type. Typical of the finch family, Linnets rely on a good supply of seeds to see them through the winter. The field near me does have a good supply of wildflower seeds and this is the logical reason why I have seen this little flock

 

Now I have to be honest and say my recent sightings haven’t given me the best views as it was in poor light and the birds were quite restless just before roosting. Linnets are members of the finch family and around 14cm in length that look quite slim in appearance. Their winter plumage sees brown streaks on chest and flanks with a white belly and a greyish head and brown flecks across brown wings with a medium length tail with a small notch. Male birds have a pinky buff colouration on the chest but the sexes are much easier to distinguish during the breeding season when the males have a bright pink chest with a flash of pinky red just above the bill in the grey head that all beautifully contrast with chestnut brown wings, a pinkish rump and white belly. Females are typically subtler and lack the pink colours but are beautifully streaked with browns and greys. The habitats that they breed in has to have thick cover for nest building and they like to build in thick hedges, Gorse and Bramble bushes to name a few. Here in Surrey they are often found breeding in stands of Gorse found on the heathland areas. Like other seed eating species, they change their diet during the breeding a bit to incorporate insects that they will feed to their young for vital proteins.

 

Linnets breed across Europe to north Africa and eastwards to central Russia. Birds that breed in northern and eastern Europe will migrate south and west during the winter months and some of these birds will spend the winter in the UK. In the past I have seen, in the early spring, migrant birds on the east coast heading north possibly on their way to Scandinavia or Russia.

The status of Linnet in the UK has been declining steadily since changes in agricultural practices have occurred since the end of the second world war. With the mass use of herbicide and pesticides and the ‘ cleaning up’ of agricultural land   that has occurred in this time, many species of our native wildlife have badly suffered. Like many small seed eating bird species, Linnets have suffered with the loss of winter stubble fields that used commonly occur throughout our countryside. This habitat was a vital winter food source to this and many other species and good fields would often provide food throughout the winter. Linnets scientific name is Lineria cannabina which shows how long their association with seed supply has been observed, for Hemp used to be commonly grown as an agricultural type crop across Europe. Strangely enough back in 2000 a number of experimental Hemp crops were grown around Guildford and in the autumn, I observed a flock of about 150 Linnets along with various other finch species and House Sparrows all feeding on the hemp seed. I think this was one of the last stubble fields I have seen in Surrey. Interestingly enough from the mid 1980s the population decline steadied and levelled until further declines were noted from the mid 1990s and the reason being for this was probably due to the increased planting of Oilseed Rape crops that provided a vital seed supply for the Linnets. This point shows us how birds will adapt to new food supplies and on another level, this shows how government agricultural policy can affect the wildlife in that area but unfortunately most polices seem to have harmed our wildlife rather than helped it. Interestingly enough, of all of the local breeding Linnets I know of, are all in conservation areas and not on agricultural land. Proves the point really. I’m sure there are a few pairs on some farms locally but probably not as many as there used to be.

My recent observations have made me happy to know that there are still in the area and I will try to keep a closer eye on the situation this year and hopefully find a few pairs of breeding Linnet in the loyalty and look forward to hearing their amazing song in the spring being sung by a pinkie brown male bird in a Gorse bush. Keep your eyes and ears open for them when you’re out and about and you will see and hear what I’m talking about. Good luck!

News Update

At least 48 birds were observed going to roost the following evening. There’s a few more about than I realised which is good to see

A little bit is worth a lot.

When I am out and about looking for wildlife I always look at the habitat I’m in to guide me to think about the potential species that may be encountered. If you visit an area with any regularity you will see certain species in certain areas and can therefore gain knowledge about the species and what requirements they like and need within that habitat. I regularly visit the river and fields here in Godalming and within these habitats there are micro – habitats that look to the untrained eye, untidy or messy. I am referring in particular to one micro habitat that anyone who takes time to walk in the country or has a garden will probably be familiar with and that is the bramble patch.

Plant of plenty

The Bramble or Blackberry is a very common plant found throughout the UK in a variety of habitats from woodland to moorland. It can grow in soils that are acidic and low in nutrients which leaves very few areas that you will not find a bramble patch. Brambles are very familiar to most people from the fact they are found everywhere and most of us have picked Blackberries in late summer at one time or another in our lives. Humanity has been doing this for a very long time as there are records of blackberry seeds being found in the stomachs of Neolithic ancestors. If humans and our relatives have been eating Blackberries for so long you can guarantee that the wildlife has been doing the same and this week whilst looking at a bramble patches near home, not only was I inspired to write this piece but was inspired to write this because of observations of wildlife involving brambles.

Why is the Bramble such a good species for a whole host of other wildlife? There are some pretty obvious examples of their importance with the Blackberry its self being the most obvious example as many species will feed on Blackberries. They form a vital food source for resident and migrating birds and gives birds energy that are vital for growing and undertaking migration. I remember when I was bird ringing years ago that when we caught birds in August / September they would leave us with a purple blackberry dropping showing us what they had been feeding on and showing the importance of Blackberries in the food chain. They are regularly eaten by Badgers and foxes and I saw Pine Martins eating them whilst I lived in County Fermanagh and a host of insect will find use for them and so from this range of species you start to understand the importance of this species.

Before the fruit appears the white or pinky white flowers provide a valuable nectar source for Honey Bees, Bumblebees, Butterflies and Hoverflies

Patch in summer

I have often enjoyed good views of a variety of butterfly species feeding on blackberry flowers including species like Purple Hairstreak which can be lured away from their usual tree top habitat to feed on bramble flowers. Even the leaves of the plant are eaten by some moth species caterpillars and grazed by Roe Deer.

If Brambles are left alone they can grow into quite large patches and these larger patches of Bramble then offer species a place to nest, rest, hide and roost. You probably know from your blackberry picking experiences how sharp the thorns on brambles are and when bramble patches get established they are like a mini fortress that some predators would find difficult to gain access to. Many UK song birds will nest in established bramble patches and over the years I have observed many different species in this habitat. Many Sylvia warblers that migrate to the UK each spring will nest in brambles and this includes Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and Blackcap. These scrubland warblers find Brambles perfect for their requirements with good nesting sites, good food4 availability, protection and warmth. All in all, this nightmare of the gardeners, this plant that I have heard people describe as messy is a very valuable part to the UK countryside.
And so, the inspiration for this piece came on two near dusk visits in the last week where in my mind I was meant to be looking for Barn Owl but was distracted by the activity around a bramble patch. I was watching a flock of tits when I saw several birds fly into the bramble patch and whilst searching through the patch I saw3 Blue Titsa Dunnock a couple of Wrens and then a Goldcrest and then another Goldcrest and this turned into at least 4 Goldcrest possibly more hiding in the Bramble fortress. As if this wasn’t interesting enough as I was trying to get a view of the Goldcrest when a small flock of Linnet suddenly flew in and settled in the bramble patch. I knew that there was a more than usual number of Linnets than I have observed here before.

Linnet is one of those unfortunate species that has declined dramatically due to changes in agricultural management. Normally a couple of pairs breed in this area each spring and they are maintaining a foothold but I was unaware that they were roosting there. I was also slightly frustrated as I wasn’t sure how many were actually in there as it was by then getting dark and the birds were in the bramble calling away. I returned the next day at the same time and saw a flock of 13 Linnets! 

Yet again I felt a strong sense of irony as I stood and watched these fascinating aspects of wildlife on my righthand side for over the river on my left-hand side was a busy noisy super market carpark. If I think about all the wildlife I have seen standing on the path by the river there I am amazed how tolerant the wildlife has become of the urbanisation of this area.

Have a good look at a bramble patch next time you are out and about and you never know what may be lurking in there. Looks can be deceiving and because of the way older bramble patches may look in the obsessive neat and tidy world we live in. As I have hopefully shown you, Blackberry / Bramble is a very important species for a whole host of other species and should be left to grow where ever suitable habitats are available.

I’m well aware of how much gardeners hate Bramble as if unchecked it can take over areas but it can be cut and managed and you can still get the benefits of this familiar plant that I have discussed.

January blues?

So, it’s a new year with our new government and as I find a little time today to do some work in the garden I realise that the problems in our environment are ongoing and from looking at the reserve/garden today I see that it is having an effect on us here in Surrey, all over the country and the whole world.
For a few weeks I had been looking at the amount of green vegetation that was still growing and obviously not dead despite it allegedly being the middle of winter.

 

Now , I’m fully aware that I write about the weather in pretty much most of the articles I have written here but Im sure you all understand the importance that our weather plays in the natural world and the un-natural world that humanity has created. For all ages of people who read this, there have been have been significant changes within their lifetimes. The statistics are ever changing with temperature and rainfall records being broken on a regular basis.

And if you take a look around the world at this precise time we see Australia burning, Delhi experiencing record low temperatures and Jakarta flooding to name a few examples of the extreme weather conditions that are now occurring around our globe with more regularity. I won’t repeat myself but looking at the reserve garden I can see the effects of climate change here, where we live.

When I was out the back looking at the plants I could see that some species had set their seed and had died off normally possibly caught by the couple of hard frosts that we have had in early December.

 

For these species the chances of seed production should be good and hopefully ready to start growing in the spring. I noted that many species were still growing new basal leaves, and the usual suspect, Creeping Buttercup were actually invading ground that I had cleared ready for the spring and were starting to undo some of the work I’d already done. I spent 20 minutes digging a few hundred of them out but there is every chance they will regrow if the weather stays mild.

Creeping Buttercup

Looking at this I thought about the articles I have read about how climate change is now confusing many of our species about when to breed or flower. I can see this on the reserve and along with the vegetation some of the local resident birds were in full song and behaving in a territorial manner and although Mistle and Song Thrushes routinely sing and hold territories during the winter months I was slightly surprised to hear Blackbirds in full song just before Christmas. We are living in some rapidly changing times and we are still not totally sure of what the results of this will be and how it will affect the environment and humanity its self.

Back in song Blackbird by Steve Duffy

Well despite all of this the natural world will keep on trying to survive and as I said the resident birds are starting to prepare for the breeding season and along with the already mentioned species I am also hearing Nuthatches, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, and Dunnocks, Wren and Robins on most days.

Blue Tit by Steve Duffy

This winter I have put very little bird food this winter as it’s been so mild and I don’t want a rat invasion again but I have noticed regular Wood Pigeons, Robin, Dunnock and was delighted the other day to see 6 House Sparrow feeding on plants in the reserve and I’m fairly sure these sparrows were feeding on poppy seeds that I had left to go to seed. The plan is coming together and various local species of various wildlife groups are using the area. The regular badger motorway cafe is established and I spotted one the other night on the road out the front the flats on her/his way to search for the next meal. I’m looking forward to see what other species of wildlife I can see in 2020 and will continue, in my own little way, to improve habitats for the local wildlife and see what I can attract to the area. As I’ve said before if people made their gardens more wildlife friendly, we could all help the dwindling wildlife populations and apologies for repeating myself about it but we can all help by doing our bit

What Now?

Okay, so 2019 was not the best of years! For many of us it would be very easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and a sense of doom as regards the future of our planet. After giving it some thought and a couple of wonderful walks I have decided to remain, perhaps misguidedly, positive about the coming year. I would far sooner encourage and support action than slide into apathetic negativity.

My deer family

Trying to bring that approach into a county-based environment is actually more manageable than, at first, I had thought. Unless you live with your head in a bucket you are likely to fully understand your responsibilities in trying to cut down emissions and waste. It is up to governments to act on the bigger issues and to encourage or in force organisations and individuals to toe the line.

So, what does that mean to us all at a local level, a Surrey level?

What can we actually do at local level past throwing money at good causes?

I do understand that some people with take issue with some of the following suggestions and neither am I implying that everybody in Surrey is affluent, food banks and rough sleepers clearly indicate the folly of believing that, but they are a few ideas to consider.
It also goes without saying that there are a lot of other priorities facing most residents, health and education are just 2.

Winter heath, Chobham

In no particular order!

• Explore and learn about the environment on your doorstep, take pleasure in the small things.

• Make the time to contribute to recording schemes either by Apps like iRecord or through Surrey Wildlife Trust. Data is an essential weapon in the cause of conservation and environmental politics.

• Learn about your local authorities and councillors, Parish, Borough and County. Engage with those authorities in an informed way and hold them to account when they fail to deliver. Don’t only engage negatively, if they deserve praise or support give it!

• Stick to the facts, the science, rather than empty rhetoric or a polarising opinion which seems to be the political norm these days. Truth and reality should be undeniable.

• If you do spend leisure time in the countryside please do consider the impact you have. For instance; Horse riding is a great pursuit but is everything being done to manage the pasture and hedges where the horse is kept? Golf is hugely important in Surrey, is your club doing everything it can to manage the course for wildlife and to minimise damage to the environment? If you shoot then you might consider reducing the complex impacts of your hobby by concentrating on clay pigeons? And, of course, if you walk a dog then be aware that wild life doesn’t really appreciate being disturbed by our lovely mutts!

I will get off my high horse next week and return to our countryside and wildlife but in the meantime, have a better year!

Winter Heath, Christmas day, Ash ranges.

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.