The Right Side of Balance

All living species are looking for a similar situation in their everyday lives, including us humans, and that is the right balance. I know I personally have to find the right balance to be more productive each day and when I reflect on my days working on various nature reserves, I realise that the work under taken from the site’s management plans, were also seeking to create or recreate the right balance for the species living there. 

This is where it starts to get rather interesting and the playing god tag, that many conservationists have been labelled by the non-understanding general public when controversial management takes place, will continue to remain controversial but as I always say with controversial ideas, find out the real facts before passing judgment. 

I was reminded of one of the most controversial areas of conservation management recently by news stories in the general press. The stories have told of how two well know species are going to be controlled because of their negative affects upon the habitats they inhabit. The two species are the bright green Ring Necked Parakeets and the bold over familiar Grey Squirrels. Both species are introduced species with the Parakeets originating from India and were a commonly kept pet in this country in the 1950s and 70s from which the now widespread wild UK population originated from.

Friend or ?

Grey Squirrels were brought to the UK in the 1890s and are native to North America. They were released at several sites around the country from where they started to spread but the main reason they have spread to so many places around the country is because of human introductions. This is, what I call Victoria vanity introductions, and this continued into the 1930s aiding the spread of the species.

They are a tenacious in their behaviour and adaptability and through my own observations I can understand why there has been a call to control their numbers and again from my own personal observations I can see why there has been a call to control numbers of Ring Necked Parakeets. I am also very aware of the ‘ love of all animals and birds ‘ runs very deep in some of rich comfortable countries around the world and the idea of killing them is an unthinkable thought. As always in our free-thinking world, it is very difficult to please everyone but let’s start at the beginning and look at why some experts are calling for control of these two obvious and some might say characterful species.

Now let’s look at the Ring Necked Parakeets first and as I like to form my opinions from my own observations, my birth place in Kent was not too far away from the established population in Thanet and after childhood holidays and early bird watching expeditions I had watched the noisy parakeets stripping buds off trees, raiding garden fruit trees and competing for nest sites with Stock Doves. Various studies have shown how the Parakeets are responsible for depriving a whole variety of native hole nesting species of potential nest sites. The parakeets are larger and more aggressive than our native woodpeckers, various tit species and Restarts. Several of these species are in long term decline for a whole variety of reasons and competing with Ring Necked Parakeets has increased their decline and added problems to survival prospects in the long term.

Lone Parakeet

In recent years the population of Ring Necked Parakeets has exploded roosts of several thousand have been counted in some London parks and they are quickly spreading across the UK. I have noted their increase locally in recent years and there are regular flocks of 50 plus birds around Guildford these days. 

This species has made enemies in the world of farming because of the damage they do to fruit trees and other trees species which has reduced the money made from these crops and its obvious why the cry to control them has come from various people in the farming community. In some parts of the South East of the UK they have begun to nest in buildings often causing significant damage in the process 

All in all, they are a troublesome species and they have started to have some serious affect on the UKs wildlife species and in some parts of the country to human lives as well. As usual on the other side of the argument many people, particularly in urban and suburban areas, enjoy the presence of these bright, noisy and intelligent species and help their survival by providing garden feeding stations for them to gain vital strength from. A number of who have already made their fury obvious at the proposal of controlling them recently. At the moment we can only watch this space to see how this story progresses.

The spread of Grey Squirrels has been well documented and the threats to native Red Squirrels has also been studied very well and having been present in this country for 120 years, the results of the presence of Grey Squirrels is very obvious. The Greys are larger and more aggressive than native Reds and have out competed them in food and nesting sites. Studies have shown that where Grey Squirrels have occurred in existing Red Squirrel populations the Reds will die out in a short space of time and have also carried a virus known as squirrel pox which kills the Reds but the Greys recover from. They are a very serious threat to Red Squirrel survival and whilst I worked in Northern Ireland, I worked at several sites where Red Squirrels were present and were only surviving because Grey Squirrels were controlled/removed. As well as the obvious problem with our native wildlife, this species has also had a major impact on all of the bio diversity of habitats where they occur which has also started to include us humans, which sometimes make me feel like the natural world is saying to us humans ‘ I told you about upsetting the balance ‘.

One of my first conservation jobs was working at a field study centre on a working farm in the West of Kent. My first weeks of work were quite dramatic as they occurred just after the big storm of October 1987. The farm had quite large areas of native deciduous woodland. There were also a few pine plantations and most of these were flattened by the storm. Some of the old plantations were cleared and re planted with Oak and Cherry trees as part of the first wave of replanting deciduous trees as opposed to alien softwood species that had happened widely across the country after the second World War. I helped plant some of these new plantations and can remember thinking about how the area would look in 20 or 30 years time. I didn’t have to wait that long as by the first spring after planting all the emerging buds and shoots had been eaten by Grey Squirrels and another non-native species that was present on the farm and that was Sika Deer that had been introduced back in the 1970s. I actually witnessed the Squirrels on the tree tubes jumping from one to another and chewing the buds and shoots. This kind of behaviour make Grey Squirrels very unpopular and if you add to that, stripping of tree bark, killing nestling and adult songbirds, digging up gardens, stealing of bird food, disturbing & killing Dormice and moving into your loft for the winter you may be able to understand why conservationists have called for control of this controversial species.

As both of the species I have talked about so far are introductions from abroad; you can see the common link. This is a far too frequent situation that has occurred for a long time and on a large scale since the Victorian era in the UK and many of these alien species have had a very negative effect on the native species in similar ways to Grey Squirrels and Ring Necked Parakeets.

Another major problem that has occurred within the same timescale of most of these introduced species, is the loss of natural or more traditional habitats. These two facts are never going to be very helpful in increasing natural bio-diversity and will do the exactly the opposite as we can see from the losses we have seen in the last 3 centuries. Some of the statistics are truly frightening with the 97% loss, in the last 100 years, of wildflower grassland being a prime example of habitat loss. It’s no wonder our natural bio-diversity has been reduced by so much. 

Big Changes

Winter Dawn

Summer feels like it was a long time and as we enter the final month of this most chaotic of years, plans for the reserve have been kicked into action for a number of reasons. There are presently a number of tasks to perform that will keep me busy for most of the upcoming winter months. Throughout the year I had looked at the woodland behind the reserve and as you know I found out last year that the boundary line of the flat’s garden/reserve area extended into the woods and I had already removed a few Ash and Sycamore trees that were shading the garden area and the flats themselves. I had earmarked a few more trees to be felled when the leaves came down. Now in keeping with the chaos of the year, two major things happened.

Before the works commence

 Firstly, I ended up in hospital for a week and that kind of got in the way of some of my plans. Upon my release I was instructed to rest for up to 2 months! This was not part of my plan but was needed to be done and as I started to feel a bit stronger I did venture out and eyed up some of the trees to be felled. I realised that it would take quite a bit more time and strength before I could begin to deal with some of the larger trees. The slope of the woodland also made things a tad more difficult. Well sometimes your wishes can be met from unexpected sources and this turned out to be the case with regards to my plans for the said trees.

Secondly, in early November, I received a letter from the council informing me that the woodland behind the flats was to be thinned and reduced by 10 metres from the woodland edge My earmarked trees were in this 10-metre section and realising this potential effort saving proposal would save me a lot of time and energy. I decided to check the situation with the council tree officer who would be overseeing the job.

I often forget that I’m a member of the public when discussing environmental issues with ‘ official organisations ‘ to which the local council belong. I was also very aware that the proposed work was not being carried out for conservation reasons but according to the letter that all residents along the road received, the thinning was to stop the shading of the gardens and houses and to deter anti-social behaviour which presumably refers to the youngsters that were visiting the playing fields during the lockdown earlier in the year. The two things I was keen to find out was whether any of the felled trees would be taken away and if any of the felled tree stumps would be treated to stop them re- growing. The answers I got to both questions, as expected, was no! 

After some work

From my wanderings in the woodland I had noted a lot of logs that had been left there from the previous time they thinned the woodland edge. The tree officer informed me that because of the terrain of the area, getting a chipper in would very difficult to get in and all the felled wood would be left to rot on the ground. Part of me agreed with him and I am very aware of the benefits of dead wood for a variety of invertebrate species which is in general a good thing but from my aforementioned wanderings I had noted a few contentious issues that were having an effect on the biodiversity of the general area.

After some more work

As we know, all wildlife species have to fight to survive and in simplistic terms, some are better at fighting than others and during my wanderings I had noted that where the rotting timber was laying, 2 species had practically covered the whole of the woodland floor. The 2 species in question will be very familiar to most gardeners as Ivy and Brambles seem to be present in all the gardens I’ve ever worked in. They had managed to set seed in amongst the decaying timber and had spread out and covered the whole woodland floor and out competed any other wildflower seeds that may have been in the soil. The woodland itself is north facing and some of the more delicate species would find it hard going even without the competition from the Ivy and Brambles.

After felling

With the latest thinning work being finished, I have been left with a very untidy piece of woodland with piles of brash and logs in random places. I decided that if my vision of a small piece of woodland edge with some Hazel coppice was going to happen, as a result of the recent work, this was going to be the winter to try and make it happen.

Now the badgers can watch me watching them!

You may feel somewhat confused at my talk of killing things and chopping down trees and think that I’m not much of a conservationist and I seem to be doing more to harm to the wildlife than helping the local wildlife. There are very good reasons why some of the apparent outrageous action/ ideas will benefit the local wildlife.

Ever since I had moved to my flat I had looked at the woods and realised that they were, from a bio diversity perspective, somewhat lacking

The lack of biodiversity is a result of some of the points I have raised here and I realised that it will take some effort to establish a more varied habitat and an improved biodiversity. 

End of day bonfire.

I’m quite pleased with the potential habitat improvement possibilities that are on my own door step and am hoping to link up the habitats that I have created in the past two years. I have also realised that it will be a lot of work to carry out on my own and I may not be able to do all the work I would like to. Only time will tell on that and I have only just started to implement parts of the plan but everyday am seeing a lot of potential and the regular wildlife species that I have come to know, seem to be present and doing well. In the last week a Song Thrush has started singing in the woods, which pleases me as this once common songster is nationally declining. I’m planning potential nesting sites for them. 

 I will continue the tidying up of the area ,which has this week included a good bonfire, and let’s see how far I can get in the next few months.

There are Reasons

After you have visited any nature reserve and enjoyed the wildlife that live there, do you ever ask yourself why that particular species is present at that site and what are the reasons why it is to be found there? To understand the reasons, it helps to have some basic knowledge of what a species needs to survive and prosper. From this kind of knowledge, we humans can start to help the wildlife by providing things that it will need to prosper like food, breeding sites, protection from predators (security). Most nature reserves will have a management plan that will work to support a maximum bio-diversity within their given area of management. It’s a lot easier said than done but that is the general aim of them and I have seen the benefits of management plans  carried out on reserves I have worked on and visited over the years.

I adopted this approach when I started work on my own reserve a couple of years ago and already decisions I made two years ago are starting to show some positive results.

When I began working on the site a couple of years ago I decided to try and establish a field edge type habitat that would border the scrubby woodland area.  I had been given some bee and butterfly friendly seeds and as they grew my mind began to wonder about possible species to plant that may attract certain insect species. I thought about butterfly species that I knew were found in the local area and thought about plant and flower species that these species needed. After a few ideas, I chose a couple plant species to try and establish and by the end of the first summer I had sowed some Yorkshire Fog seeds and planted a mature Red Valerian. These two plants are very different but have an equally interesting benefit for the insect community

Red Admiral on Red Valerian

Red Valerian is a flower that familiar to many gardeners and particularly to people of south west England where it commonly grows in walls and railways sidings, in fact all over the place! It is a native of the Mediterranean and was introduced to the UK about 400 years ago and is now relatively common in the southern UK. It has long been noted that a wide variety of insects love it and it was joked when it was given to me that I may get a visit from a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. I secretly hoped that this would happen and contented myself by watching various bee species and the odd Red Admiral paying a visit to this source of rich nectar. Then my wish came true the other week when as I stepped out of my front door a Humming bird Hawkmoth flew in and fed for about 2 minutes on the Valerian and then rapidly flew off. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I instantly thought of what had been said to me when I was given the plant and thankfully had been able to video the moth and was able to show it a few weeks later to the person who had given me the plant. They seemed quite impressed as well! This little action had paid off and this elegant species had paid me a visit and hopefully they may visit again in future years.

Glimpse of Hummingbird Hawkmoth


Now the other species I mentioned earlier is a grass species called Yorkshire Fog, which is quite a common species in native grassland areas and field borders. It is an elegant species that has a delicate feel and look to it with light greens and subtle pink flushes and sand coloured seed heads.

Yorkshire Fog

To a lot of people, grass is a weed and not much use for anything but to the naturalist eye glasses are an important part of the ecosystem they occur in. This is the reason I took a gamble and planted some Yorkshire Fog seeds as I am aware that the Small Skipper butterfly, which occurs locally to me, lay their eggs on Yorkshire Fog. I felt it was a long shot that they may turn up at my reserve due to the availability of sunlight which was limited but none less I planted some seeds and the following year they grew and flowered. This year I noted that it had spread to a few other locations and again thought about the Skipper butterflies. And then one morning when Steve had popped round, he suddenly said look at that skipper and there was a Small Skipper feeding on some Black Knapweed. To say I was delighted was an understatement. Since then I’ve had one other possible sighting and have a distinct feeling that they may colonise the sight next year.

Small Skipper visits

These examples of plants I have put in my reserve show you some of possibilities that can be attained with some planning. When I started planning the area I obviously thought about wildlife I was hoping to attract to the area and up to now it seems to be working. I have been researching other plant species to plant in order to attract more life to the area and it certainly seems to have endless possibilities. I know I won’t be bored. Plants are a vital part of our world and without them there would be no life at all so if you have any space I suggest you plant some flowers and you never know what you may attract.

The Nightshift

Buff Tip

I can remember the first time I saw moths in close up and remember being amazed at the variety of sizes, shapes, colours and a whole collection of subtle shades and delicate markings that adorned their bodies. Fascinated that some of their English names are what I can only call funny particularly in my 14-year-old mind.

The Maidens Blush!

I was instantly fascinated by this amazing group of insects and coincidentally returned to work at the site where I had first witnessed them a few years later and my interest grew stronger as I regularly dealt with the contents of a moth trap.

Pale Shouldered Brocade

You’ve all probably heard how moths are described as dull and boring looking and how quite a number of people are actually scared of moths. From what I can make out about human nature this fear is more about the fear of the dark than it is about fear of a small nocturnal flying insect. Yes, moths will bump into your head and face when you light up your mobile but they will not hurt you in the slightest. I’ve seen too many moths get needlessly killed by over nervous humans.

The Mocha

Moths and their relatives butterflies are good indicators of the health of an area and like their more familiar cousins, moth numbers have been falling in the last 50 years due to loss of habitat and the intensification of modern agriculture, an unfortunately familiar story. There have been however some additions to the UK list with the warming of our climate, that has encouraged European species to colonise. A few species have also reached our shores by arriving in food and plant products and managed to colonise and establish themselves which can cause a few issues.

Varied Brocade

The total number of species in the UK is roughly about 2,500. Of these about 1600 are micro and pyralid moths. These are generally very small, often with very well marked patterns on their bodies and wings. Many of them don’t have English names and some are so difficult to identify that the only way to truly identify them is by dissecting their genitalia. Not something I have ever done myself but it shows the intricate nature of this group.

Orange Footman

I personally have only started to look at this group of smaller moths in recent times and am realising, again, just how much more there is to learn.
The larger moths are known as macro moths and there are about 860 here in the UK and these will be the type of moths that people are more familiar with as many have distinctive patterns and colours. These patterns fade as the moth gets older and sometimes they are so abraded they are impossible to identify. Adult moths don’t live much more than a week as after they emerge from the cocoon they dry off and, immediately, there sole aim is to reproduce with maybe some feeding as well!

Small Phoenix

The nocturnal nature of most moths is one their intriguing habits and some species, that fly later in the year, even have what can only described as a fur coat to protect them from cold nights
Not all moths are nocturnal and some day flying moths are very striking like the common Cinnabar and the impressive Hummingbird Hawkmoth which as its name suggests, does resemble a hummingbird feeding and I was truly delighted when one paid a two-minute visit to my reserve a couple of weeks back and fed quickly on the Red Valerian that I had planted to try and attract them to the area. Sometimes plans do come together!

Small Magpie

The people who do not like moths may not be aware of the vital role they play in habitats where they occur. Like many insects that feed on nectar, moths provide a valuable service of pollinating the plants that they feed on. As most species are nocturnal, this service is all carried out in the darkness and not realized by most humans. They are also a vital part of food chains and many moth caterpillars are taken by birds and a good example of this is one of the micro moths called Green Oak Tortrix. The caterpillars of this species are eaten by many small birds in an oak woodland habitat and it has been calculated that many of these bird species rely on these caterpillars to raise their young. If you have ever seen a Blue Tit in spring at a nest box, you may notice the little green caterpillars are often the most numerous food item. This shows the vital role that moths play in the ecosystems around us.
Being nocturnal moths are not easy to observe and apart from disturbing them from vegetation you don’t get to see them often unless of course you happen to have a moth trap.

Moth trap at home

These traps have ultra violet bulbs that attract the moth in and they rest on egg boxes inside the trap, which you can then look the next morning when most moths are less active and then release them later in the day. It is one of the great mysteries of nature why moths are attracted to any light, including ultra violet light. Still to this day there has been no scientific explanation to this behaviour and I think this adds to moths almost mythical status.

Magnificent Privet Hawk Moth

Next time you see a moth it’s probably worth having a closer look as you never know what you may find and you could be pleasantly surprised at what you see. As always nature can surprise you sometimes.