Precious Space

Here in Surrey, we live in one of the most populated areas of the UK and rarely do I go out for a walk in my local area and not meet other humans. Call me unsociable but I sometimes like to be on my own in the countryside away from other people, so I can get the chance of actually seeing some wildlife. None the less I still regularly go out despite the pressure of the local population.

With regular visits to an area your knowledge of the local wildlife will increase and with this knowledge you may know where to find certain species. With my local knowledge I found myself the other week standing on the footpath by the river overlooking the scruffy wet corner of the field. I had often stood at this place and had seen a number of interesting things over the years, from feeding Roe Deer to singing Reed Buntings. Dusk was approaching so I had stopped to see if any deer had ventured out in the field. There didn’t appear to be any present and I was just about to leave when there was a loud scream from the other side of the field and I saw someone shouting at and following his large dog that was currently charging towards the overgrown corner near where I was standing. In a Nano second 3 Roe Deer erupted from some long grass and ran through some wet areas and flushed 4 Snipe and continues to run towards the other end of the field. The dog owner had managed to recover his wildly excited dog. This is a typical example of the pressure upon our wildlife here in busy Surrey.

This incidence not only scared the deer and Snipe but Pheasants and Mallards were also flushed and I’m sorry to say that I have witnessed this type of thing on a number of occasions at the same location.

Mallards by Steve Duffy

I call on all dog owners to make sure that their dogs are well controlled when they are out and about in the countryside. At this time of the year it can mean life to many species if they have to waste value able energy resources by disturbances from marauding dogs. I am not an anti-dog person and I have lived and worked with dogs but L know they were well trained animals and were not allowed to disturb the wildlife. I hope more dog owners can learn to share the space with respect for our wildlife.

January passes and new challenges

The first month of the year has passed and I find myself looking at the wildlife I have observed in the past month and I find myself asking myself some familiar questions and this piece is an amalgamation of those questions, a challenge to myself and some points Steve raised in his recent article about his walk round Old Woking.

I decided to keep a year list of birds in my local area and those further afield as well. Over the course of the month I managed get a few walks in and even after my first walk I noticed a few things that concerned me. In Godalming, where I live, I will often look at the Lammas fields that run alongside the River Wey and they often provide the most interesting sightings and only today I observed 7 Snipe in a wet corner of the field. These fields have also shown me a pair of Shoveler, Kestrels and Stonechats all of which were good to see. In my travels I was seeing various species of birds but was noting that birds in general were not present in any large numbers and species that I would have formerly regarded as common seemed to be more difficult to find. I didn’t see a Starling for nearly 2 weeks which indicates my last point precisely.

Starling by Nick Spencer

Starling is a good example to look at, as this familiar species has undergone an 87% decrease in England since 1967. Reasons for this decline are currently being researched into but there are similarities with many other species that have suffered at the hands of agricultural changes in the last 70 years. There will certainly be a few more reasons for their decline and the same could be undoubtedly said for Chaffinch, Greenfinch, House Sparrow, Dunnock and Song Thrush which are ‘ common species that are in decline at this time.

On my travels I also noted some species that were the opposite to the species just mentioned. I was on the river one afternoon last week near Peas lake when a Little Egret got up from the water meadow and flew down stream over my head slowly. This would not have happened 10 years ago as this species had only been breeding in the UK for 12 years. They have spread throughout southern Britain and there are now over 900 pairs breeding in the UK and are fairly regularly seen in Surrey. Their spread has been helped by global warming and an increase in well managed wetland habitats in southern Britain. On the same afternoon I walked back towards Godalming and near Farncombe I watched a pair of Ravens fly around calling for a few minutes before they drifted off. This species is at the centre of a controversy at the moment with licences having being recently issued for some farmers to shoot them. The reason that Ravens are now being seen in Surrey and south east England again was because the numbers of gamekeepers has fallen and they were being legally protected and were given a chance to recolonise areas they had been driven from in the past.

From these local observations I had witnessed there were the obvious winners and losers but one factor tied them together and that is good habitat availability. To further this point, I sat and read a report on how some of Britain’s rarer breeding birds were doing. There was some good news I’m glad to say and there were increases in a variety of species including Avocet, Bittern, Stone Curlew, Chough, Crane and Carl Bunting. All of these species have benefitted from good habitat availability much of which had been specially created/ managed by a variety of conservation organisations. The increase in Cirl Bunting numbers is a particularly interesting one where the R.S.P.B. had identified the requirements of the species and approached local farmers in Devon, where the last wild population remained, and Cornwall to manage their farms in ways that would help the species to survive and now their number have reached over a 1000 breeding pairs. This is the highest number that have been recorded for many years. This is a classic example of the good habitat availability and when I look at the drastic fall in many birds’ numbers because of habitat changes, I am very aware that serious changes have to be made in the way we manage all our green spaces if we’re are to save our formerly common species such as House Sparrow which we have lost 44 million of since the second world war.

There are many things that can be done to halt the decrease of these bird species and the associated wildlife that would live alongside them. The rare Bird report shows that good habitat will increase numbers and this needs to be carried out over larger areas to redress the losses of the bird species and the associated wildlife. We can all start to help if we have gardens by not using pesticides, leaving the hedge trimming till the end of the summer or having a nettle patch. If these simple ideas can help imagine if councils or County councils took up these ideas. I can guarantee wildlife numbers would increase.

In these politically unstable days it is of great concern to think about the future of environment and we are going to wait a while longer to see what the future holds. I hope the politicians can see sense and actually do something to help stop the decline of our wildlife

New Year, New Issues


Winter Dawn


Winter finally arrived and we have actually experienced some freezing weather this winter. You might think that we don’t want freezing cold weather that ends up costing us money on heating our homes and making us put on our winter clothes. The weather so far this winter has been incredibly mild and I was regularly seeing Bumblebees through December into the new year and the flowers that were planted in the late summer were still trying to flower in what used to be called winter. There were still Cornflower in flower at Christmas and it is only this recent spell of cold weather that has finally killed off the flowers and stopped the growth of the other plants.

Even when I look at the site today there is still a lot of green plants that have not been killed off but there were signs that the cold weather was having an effect on the local wildlife. As always, the birds were showing their presence with almost continual visits to the feeders with a number of species being seen daily. It was at this point when I realised that I was going to eat my own words when I had just topped up the feeders and returned to the kitchen and whilst watching the squirrels and Magpies wreak havoc on the feeders, I spotted an unwelcome face at the bottom of the old hedge. Yes, there was a Brown Rat busily feeding on the bird seed that had fallen on the ground. I stood and watched for 20 minutes and observed what the rats were doing and it was fairly obvious that not only was the bird and Badger food attracting the rats. I went and had a closer look and could see all of their runs in the old hedge and also realised that I had created a hotel for them by dumping all the vegetation from the reserve in a corner at the top of the site. This was their home!

Well When you look at the situation it’s not really much of a surprise that they have turned up as they have a home and food very close together and as I stood and watched a large adult Rat and a Grey Squirrel sitting next to each other eating the fallen bird seed, it was obvious that I would have to stop feeding the birds for a while.
I have realised that there were a number of options that I could carry out to try and make the site less attractive to the rats.

Knowing that this issue is happening has made me look at other management ideas for the site. I have also realised that time is starting to become little bit more precious and unless this winter finally catches up February and March could be quite hectic with clearance work and the final bits of ground preparation for the new insect attracting plants. That was a point I had started to look at and was looking at plans for the planting season. As always there has been some weeding to be done as after all last year’s clearance I had given the hidden bulbs a new lease of life and I have removed quite a few Daffodils and Crocus shoots. You may think that I should leave them as their flowers will bring early colour and food for early insects. I’m probably going to leave a few in but remove most of them as I don’t want them to take over areas that are for more sensitive insect attracting plants.

I was a little disappointed that the local predators had not dealt with my rodent issues and to be honest I’ve not seen the badgers for a few weeks and they had been leaving food which probably helped the squirrels and rats. It is not uncommon for Badgers to become inactive in the winter months and although they don’t hibernate they will lie low for a few nights and I’m guessing that these badgers are well fed and will easily survive the cold we are currently experiencing. The local Foxes were very noisy around Christmas and there were several nights of murderous screams in the woods behind the flats. There were more signs of spring and the days were brightened up with up with the first birdsong of the forthcoming spring starting to happen on a daily basis and this morning I could hear Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush and Blackbird all in song around the reserve and flats. It’s starting to get busy out there.

Blackbird by Steve Duffy