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

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?

 

 

 

Free Therapy and Heaths

Most people now accept the powerful positive effects on the human spirit, and body, of enjoying the countryside. For me personally I cannot imagine a life without daily contact with the green environment and recent events have brought in to sharp focus its calming effect on both my mind and body.

In the company of good friends I recently returned to two famous heaths, one of which I know intimately, Chobham Common, and the other, the Devils Punchbowl at Hindhead, less so despite the familiarity of having driven round it for decades. The contrasts between the two sites is worth noting both as to the differences in consequences of different owners and the level and type of public usage.

Most access to the Devils Punchbowl is via the owners, National Trust, car park for dog walkers and site seers whilst there seem to be many mountain bikers taking advantage of some well way marked trails. Unless you are a NT member there is a charge at the car park but this is a long established “destination” car park with a rather good cafe, loos, and the facility to do some fun crafts with kids and interpretation with the adults. Yes it was sunny, the car park was packed! In other words visitors know they are getting something more than “just countryside” for their money unlike visitors at Chobham Common who are largely regulars and not getting anything new or extra for the car parking charges imposed. Not surprisingly many visitors to Chobham Common are now using any alternative parking that is available free!

My brief rant for the day!

Back to therapy. Though I had driven round the Punchbowl many times on the old A3, and drunk many a cuppa at the cafe, I have never wandered much of the site other than close to said cafe. I have a vague recollection of helping with some work with the NT wardens but that was probably over 20 years ago. Always intended to have a look but probably wimped out at the thought of having to climb back up if I went down!

Our friends however guided us up the easy path up Gibbet Hill where the views are just glorious.

Recently cleared view

On the way up you pass a commemorative stone which if you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it by explaining too much, go and discover it yourself!

Sailors Stone

The views from this path are great all the way to the top

but really I should have paid more attention to the pony grazing on the heath to the other side of the path. Though many may still have some reservations about grazing heathlands that are open to the public, most issues can be minimised by using what appears to be a common sense approach. On the NT site it seems that the grazing animals have been excluded from the area of most public use, the path up Gibbet Hill and the path along the route of the old A3. Have to say that the fencing is for the large part well sited and now largely invisible behind gorse and scrub. If I was to get all professionally picky I would probably prefer a little more scrub removal from the Punchbowl but heathland management is often a subjective thing and maybe the site managers have a different vision!

If you have never been to the Devils Punchbowl but you have driven through the A3 tunnel, you really should make the time.

View down to the old A3

The old A3 followed the curve of the Punchbowl and was locally famous for the dramatic view (and for interminable traffic jams exacerbated by the traffic lights just round the bend). The opportunity to erase the road after construction of the tunnel was taken and to be honest its now almost impossible to imagine that a major trunk road has been replaced by a sandy path.

No more traffic jams….

The whole place feels well managed with good sign posting and paths in generally good condition. I am not aware of staffing and funding levels for the place but I would be surprised if the cafe and parking charges make up more than a small part of the running costs of the whole site. More likely is that Agri Environment scheme grants combined with National Trust membership fees core fund the Hindhead Common complex, all of which is in stark contrast to the situation at Chobham Common.

Visiting my old haunt, with another friend a couple of days after the Punchbowl, it is clear that the continued Surrey County Council cuts to the grant made to Surrey Wildlife Trust and the long term reduction in site based staff is now clearly beginning to manifest itself as an appearance of neglect.

It is simply not possible to reduce a countywide workforce of 32 to 12 over 20 years without there being severe consequences. The subtlety of some of these consequences does not mean they are unimportant.

Heathlands have always been prone to both wildfires and acts of deliberate arson but with the lack of site based staff with detailed site knowledge (and some equipment) the risks of more frequent and more damaging fires has greatly increased.

One of this years wildfires

Fire has often been used on heathland for centuries as a management tool, particularly to encourage a flush of grass for grazing animals, BUT was always during the autumn or winter when conditions were more favourable. Happily this approach fitted in with the needs of wildlife unlike spring wildfires that can be devastating for newly emerged reptiles and small mammals.

As always there is an opportunist in the natural world and the fires on Chobham Common appear to have encouraged Woodlarks to breed in much better numbers than previously. We saw several Woodlarks including young birds.

Woodlark

Snatches of song form tree tops and some odd contact calls (which were new to me) were frequently heard and I suspect the high altitude ethereal song will have to wait till early next year when their cycle starts again.

Chobham Common is still a beautiful and wondrous place with regulars like

Female Stonechat

and increasingly rare

Distant Tree Pipit

Dartford Warblers are frankly all over the place! And difficult to catch with a small compact camera!

More unusual plants can be found if you know where to look

Petty Whin

And insect life is beginning to crank up! Always something new.

Black Headed Cardinal Beetle

Heaths and therapy, yes it works for me.

 

 

To Build or not to Build

Much has been written concerning the proposed development of Blackwell farm to the west of the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford and I am not well informed enough to speak with authority on its merits or with outrage at its failings.

Last week I did however walk over the land adjoining the proposed site and was frankly rather surprised at what we found (I was with a mate). My intention was to check on the status of 2 rather rare Surrey visitors previously found on a forgotten piece of land near Wood Street Village, Nightingales and Turtle doves. Sadly no burst of song from the scrub or quiet purring from the trees or hedges. I will be repeating the visit next week much earlier in the day as though I expect to be disappointed again the habitat still looks and “feels” right and there is always hope that an odd pair of these 2 threatened species will have returned.

We did hear and glimpse lots of regulars, tits, Nuthatches, Blackcaps but the surprise came on leaving the scrub behind and crossing in to the the farmland that then runs along the southern face of the Hogs Back.

Hedgerows

Well not so much the hedgerows! But what was singing at intervals along the hedges, Yellowhammers, quite  a few for a birder like me who has worked on heaths for years where they are now largely absent. A further surprise were singing Skylarks. I cannot tell you how bittersweet it is to experience the joy of encountering both these 2 birds when they used to be such a normal part of my environment (up to about 20 years ago). The habitat needs of both these species are thought to be well understood but the complexity of their needs is certainly not going to be served by greatly increasing the numbers of local human residents and their accompanying dogs.

Ok, I know the following photo isn’t great but its the best I could do with a compact!

“Could do better” pic of a Yellowhammer!

The fields, paths and small pockets of woodland were also dotted with some magnificent trees including some casualties that have been ignored, hooray!

Fungi and wind victim

Always amazing to me that fungi, so incredibly important, can help fell such strength.

Source of the vulnerability

Take wood and add the wrong/right fungi equals paper like rot.

Precursor to a collapse

Some of the standing landscape sentinels are just awe inspiring

In it’s prime

Some years behind its declining neighbour

You can think of Oak trees like these as almost a whole world on their own. Problem is the rest of the world intrudes on their health, air quality and soil compaction from machinery can be catastrophic.

Yes it was the middle of the week but there really is little sign the paths are heavily walked or ridden. The impact on this wonderful area, with fantastic potential for wildlife, of large-scale adjacent residential development is difficult to underestimate. The farmed landscape is broken up not just by hedges but by copses of trees like Wildfield Copse and the traces of an older planned landscape.

Old planted beech avenue?

Anybody who isn’t filled with wonder at spring colours needs to have a word with themselves! Get out there and breathe deep.

As we walked past a copse a final surprise amongst the Bluebells

Early Purple Orchids

Uncertain future yes but what is certain is that if people don’t get out in their local environment then they won’t know what’s threatened till it’s too late.

Misleading Green

Resolved to try and walk a new, to me, path and area of Surrey at least a couple of times a month. Had a couple of hours to fill last week and decided to explore an area of land bounded by the Wey navigation, Old Woking and a newish development at Westfield.

My wife and I frequently park near Trigg’s Lock and walk along the river to the New Inn at Send. Beautiful walk, decent beer and food, beautiful walk back. We never park at Trigg’s Lock and walk across the fields and it was to this end I set out.

Looks good?

Clear blue sky, distant woods and pretty good hedge, what’s not to like? Trouble is it just felt too quiet and lacking in life to begin with.

Look the other way and the view is sadly more……..industrial?

Horse paddocks

Well managed for horses? Certainly. Good for the countryside and wildlife? Depends on where you are standing I suppose.
Horse culture and modern beef cattle production both cause unintended consequences for both the appearance of the countryside and the wildlife that live in it. Little attention is given to maintaining hedgerows and wild flowers/weeds are given little chance to seed and provide food for farmland birds.

The irony in this instance was that feeding in the horse paddocks was the largest flock of Meadow Pipits, 40 odd, I’ve seen for quite a while!

Walking on the path crosses old flood meadows, largely improved grasslands but still with lots of wet scruffy bits.

A herd of Canada geese was happily minding its’ own business but I was amazed to find a dozen Teal hidden under some fallen willow.

Hiding Teal

Long time since I’ve seen these pretty little ducks locally.

Clear skies and wonderful open grown trees make interesting views.

Nearby Woking rises

Path skirts the old printing works, now rather lovely looking flats with some hidden gems to find.

Just as you reach Old Woking there is a small common open to all for a wander and for beady eyed wildlife.

Spot the Kestrel

Fortunately for me Yes moved lower!

Returning across the field and through a farmyard there was a notable absence of any finches and buntings which only a few years ago would have been common place.

Then whilst bemoaning about farmers obstructing paths and missing way markers (carry an OS map!) I stumbled on a tiny field where an old brassica crop had long gone to seed.

Scruffy corner?

Impossible to photograph but I estimate that there were a couple of hundred finches and buntings of half a dozen species crammed in to a small area. Not green or attractive in appearance but clearly really important as one of the few bits of the local environment that was supporting biodiversity.

Did I enjoy my walk and the birds? Absolutely yes but do I think green can sometimes be misleading? Sadly also yes.

Cause and effect

As the countryside continues to change it’s pallet through golds and orange to starker dark outlines the time for much countryside management recommences.

Happy wife and dog

Having just attended Surrey Wildlife Trust’s AGM the consequences of Surrey County Councils belligerence are becoming more and more stark. With the justification of massively reduced central government funding and the frankly fatuous excuse of “funding the countryside is not a statutory function of a local authority ” a small number of councillors have continued with the deluded approach that the countryside can pay for itself.

In simple revenue terms IT CANNOT!

It is not possible to reduce budgets, even if assisted by additional so called commercial income, without really serious effects. The most obvious of these “harms” is to the ability of SWT to convincingly maintain engagement with local communities and communicate accurately with their concerned membership. The loss of so many skilled staff as a result of justified fear of continued cuts has ramifications.

Sadly it feels like Groundhog day for me and probably for many others among ex colleagues and those old enough among the local communities. The antagonistic relationship between SCC and local communities that existed in the 80s and 90s is returning with SWT caught in the middle and increasingly being identified as part of the problem.

Again let me emphasise that I continue to believe that the best option is for SWT to continue to manage the SCC estate but not on the present basis. It is not in the interest of Surrey residents for the estate to be broken up and managed by other, national, NGO’s with even less accessible accountability. Breaking up the estate would also have another not often recognised effect in that all the minor sites (of so much importance to their local communities) would slide back in to complete neglect.

I remain dismayed at the betrayal by SCC of their own legacy but at least it has given me a title for a thesis, “The Rise and Fall of the acquisition and management of the countryside by  SCC”.

November dawn

 

My place of peace

Winters coming

I suspect most people have a special place or a room where they find a level of peace. For me , though the countryside in general often facilitates, a hill top in south west Surrey is my favoured spot.

Some years ago my then boss, Gavin, asked me to pop down and have a look at a small countryside site a few miles outside Farnham which had been recently added to the list of places managed by SWT on behalf of SCC. I found a small rural car park at the bottom of a wooded hill with a summit that presented magnificent views across to Hampshire and Hindhead.

Overcast Autumn View

Frankly it was like finding a little secret jewel. Yes I know that lots of people have enjoyed this special place before but the personal surprise at such a discovery is always a joy.

A couple of days later I was visiting my dad in hospital and whilst chatting mentioned my happy couple of hours walking up and round Crooksbury Hill. At the point where I explained my pleasure at discovering somewhere “new” he chuckled and said “but you have seen it before” which led to insistent denial from me and then amazed capitulation. My paternal grandfather died when my dad was young and we only have 1 photo of him, Andrew Ben Fry, with my dad, Stan and his Mum. This photograph had hung at my family home for years and this photo was taken on the top of Crooksbury Hill!

My dad and his parents

Evidently they would walk from Farnham on a fine Sunday and picnic. In the early 30s my grandfather was a baker and few people owned cars so you walked or bused. Quite a walk, particularly as my dads sister, Doris, was often with them and I suspect a bakers picnic meant plenty to carry.

He and I were pretty certain that the photograph was taken facing north with the distant Hogs Back just visible as the distant skyline. Following my dads death a few months after the conversation we scattered his ashes and put up a bench on the spot.

My dad was passionate about the countryside, Surrey’s in particular, and celebrating him in this manner is still important to our family and many of his friends.

The countryside in surrey has been treasured by its residents and visitors for decades hence it is sad that SCC feels the need to reduce funding management of their legacy to an unsustainable level.

Gone are the days it seems where there was such pride in the authorities work that officers might be celebrated with permanent memorials like the OS triangulation pillar on the summit  of Crooksbury Hill.

Plaque celebrating Mr Durrant

Beautifully restored the plinth also includes

Viewfinder unveiled 23/7/69

Worth a visit? Absolutely. Worth celebrating conservationists like my dad and Mr Durrant. Absolutely, as a reminder that though the view may change peoples needs remain remarkably constant.

There’s lots more that I will return to regarding Crooksbury Hill but for now I will mention one last thing, or should I really say confess 1 last thing? Close to the bottom of the hill is a small village called The Sands blessed with my favourite pub, The Barley Mow. Walk up the hill then eat a delicious meal with a pint, can’t be beaten.

Too Tidy, Too Human

If there’s one thing that is going to upset me it’s when we humans apply our “values” on to the natural world. There are many examples of this in modern everyday life and with my conservation instinct at the core of how I look at things there is one that stands out. I am constantly bewildered at how many vital habitats are ‘ tidied up ‘, all because some say they are untidy. There are 1000s of people across the length and breadth of our country who on any given day, could be tidying up our green spaces. This can range from forestry to gardening where people will be trimming hedges, cutting lawns, cutting roadside verges, felling trees, spraying chemicals and countless other activities in order to keep things NICE and TIDY.

Due to social conditioning, many people seem to think this is the correct way to do things and despite various warnings, we are now living in serious times where there are real possibilities of many species becoming extinct due to habitat loss, climate change and persecution in some cases.
It was untidier when I was younger and I recall seeing a flock of 300 chaffinches feeding in winter stubble on a local Farm. You’d be hard pushed to see a flock of chaffinches that big these days let alone a winter stubble field! This is a big example of the “tidying up” of our countryside with farmers being part of the problem but government management of our agricultural land being a much bigger issue. In today’s modern farms, winter wheat is by far the commonest grain grown and is harvested in August most years. The reason winter wheat gets its name is because it is sown in autumn and will slowly develop over winter. The time of harvest till the land is ploughed up and re-sown is the only time where birds and mammals can get access to the fallen off seed. With the old-fashioned stubble field there was access to the seeds throughout winter. This fast production system has taken away a huge amount of vital food for the wildlife and this crop seems to have led to fields being enlarged often at the cost of headlands and hedges and habitats of many plants and animals.

The changes in our agricultural land use since the second World War have had a catastrophic effect on our wildlife. The statistics are proving it and most farmers would say that land productivity has increased, which it has undoubtedly has, but the price has been paid for by our wildlife. Since 1945 97% of meadow lands have gone and all of the associated species have also gone. That’s how serious things have got in these times. The pressure farmers are under from government policy is relentless and serious polices need introducing as soon as possible to redress the balance.

When I used the words tidy and tidiness in this piece I realise that the farmers are more pressurised by government policy in how they manage their farms but other issues of over tidiness seem to be more avoidable, but would need a change of thinking. I’m mainly directing this last comment at the host of gardeners amongst us. I’m constantly amazed at how many gardens have either turned into car parks or bowling greens. It saddens me to see how many gardens have been so heavily manicured and over fertilised that they are little use to wildlife. There is also the massive issue of pesticides that are used on the farms, high ways and now in gardens. We know what these pesticides are capable of and how they kill one of the most important links in the natural food chain. It seems crazy to me to see some dangerous pesticides for sale in supermarkets now days. I urge all gardeners to not use any chemicals and leave areas in their gardens to over grow and encourage invertebrates to make their home. A little untidiness can go along way!

We can but hope that more government money will be put into nature conservation but I’m not holding my breath. With this in mind we should do what we can on a practical level; in our garden for example and if you feel motivated enough, an email to your MP may help raise their awareness that people do care about the state of our countryside. My last advice is, don’t cut the whole of your lawn if you have one, make a compost heap and plant some wildflowers.

Ever Changing World

There are very serious problems in the natural world at this time in our history and I am forever reading depressing reports on various different species of how they and their habitats are declining. I have seen this with my own eyes over 40 plus years of observing wildlife in the UK and still cast my mind back to memories of childhood sightings that would be impossible to imagine in today’s world. I live in hope that things can change and we can redress the balance very soon before we lose any more valuable biodiversity.
In amongst all of the depressing news a few species have reversed the trends and actually increased their numbers and a number of species have established themselves in UK from continental Europe. Since 1990 seven new species of dragonfly have been recorded in the UK which is quite a lot in a short space of time.
So why have some species been able to increase in such troubled times? There are many answers to this question and impossible to fully
here but a number of the reasons can be seen and felt on a daily basis right here in Surrey. As in everything I write about nature and the environment, the weather is at the root of many of the changes.

The above mentioned dragonflies species are among a number of species that are regular breeding species in central and southern Europe and with the rising temperatures that we have been experiencing in the UK over the last 30 years it is not that surprising that these insects have colonised the UK. These heat loving insects have been joined by a number of other continental regulars. Butterflies are another good indicator group into how the temperature is warming up with the Clouded Yellow being a good example of this. Once a very erratic migrant species arriving in tiny numbers if at all or on mass over southern England this species never used to be able to survive the UK winters and perished with the cold. In recent years they have now become resident on the south coast and survive the winters and can have 2 broods each year!

Autumn arrives

Things have moved fast in the last 30 years. There are numerous insects that have benefited from the warmer climate and some species that were on the edge of their range have spread greatly, the impressive Golden-bloomed Grey Long Horn beetle and Jersey Tiger moth are 2 very impressive examples.
Insects are not the only group of animals that have done well because of the changing weather patterns and again I can remember over 30 years ago the afternoon that I saw my first ever Little egret. The first breeding record for the UK occurred in 1996 and there are now nearly 1000 pairs breeding in this country! The other winter a flock of 7 were seen in the water meadows on the edge of Guildford and it is not uncommon to see them around the county.
In general it is quite obvious to see that the warmer climate has encouraged a number of new species to the country and extended the range of others but that is not the whole story. This point really hit me five years ago when one sunny late July afternoon I watched a farmer cut hay on a field on the edge of Cranleigh. In the sky above were 3 Red Kites and 2 Common Buzzard and I recall jokingly recall saying that I felt like I was in Wales not south Surrey. Both of these species have increased populations greatly in the UK particularly over the last 25 years but the reasons for their increases are very different. The story of Red Kites in the UK has been well documented and from the first English reintroductions in 1989 this species has managed to spread out and it now can be frequently seen all over Surrey. The human intervention has undoubtedly helped this species recolonise various parts of its former range. The Common Buzzard spread from south west Britain all along the southern counties then northwards and is now found all over the UK. This species has managed to spread by filling gaps in the food chain and has greatly benefited from fewer gamekeepers and a reduction in the levels of specific insecticides.

Gamekeepering is always a controversial subject and one that will forever be argued but the evidence conclusively proves that the activity of game keepers in the past has had a detrimental effect on birds of prey numbers in the UK. Buzzards have shown that through lack of persecution they can survive and prosper although there are gamekeepers and some farmers that are now calling for licenses to be issued to control Buzzard numbers. I hope this kind of mentality does not become widespread again for the sake of all predatory species that suffered unjustifiably in the past.
We have seen a few examples of how species have and can prosper and the bottom line is that humanity has caused our wildlife to become depleted. Some of the examples discussed have shown how global warming has caused some species to become regular British species. The effects of this warming has encouraged warmth loving species but let’s not forget that it will have the opposite affect on cold loving species such as several fish and seabird species. It’s a complicated issue and time for some serious action to help our struggling wildlife. Nature is adaptable and can survive, it just needs a helping hand with some sensible management. We shall see what happens in the coming years. I’m hopeful that government will finally start taking our wildlife and environment more seriously.

Francis