Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Weasels abound

Over the last month I have seen an increase in Weasel sightings on my trail cam. I know weasels frequent the site as do all the other mustelids, I have records of badger, otter, stoat, mink and polecat, but there is something about the weasel. The badger will always be my favourite animal but there is something about the character of this tenacious beast that interests me.

It always surprises me how small weasels are, between 175 and 248 cm and they can move like lightening. Due to their frenetic foraging pace getting a photo of a weasel is difficult. I stumbled upon one in 2014 which hid in a tiny hole in the trees and managed to get a few shots as he watched and waited for me to leave.

Mostly diurnal their daily activity occurs in periods of 12-130 minutes. Its high metabolism and hunting style means that it must eat up to a third of its body weight a day. Foraging is usually done undercover and quickly presenting two problems for camera trapping. In fact reviewing my records shows that all sightings have been in September and November or March April.

The first clip shows the weasel in the bottom right moving out of shot and then running back around the field of view.

Earlier on the 7th November I got a good clip showing the Weasel climbing a tree, showing of its agility. Weasels are primarily predators of small mammals and this particular tree is a favourite of Wood Mouse who forage around it and themselves climb it. Interestingly the mice are never seen before it is fully dark so it is possible that the weasel is following a scent trail.

It might seem the weasel is adept at climbing but two days later on the 9th it had less success at climbing as captured in the third clip.

To finish with a statement about what this means. Recent sightings represent a significant increase of presence for this species. It suggests, that given weasels  foraging distance of between 549 and 840m often with preferred foraging areas within 100m of the den suggest that at least over this winter an individual has taken up residence. With the vegetation gone this means that further sightings maybe be made or this could be an individual dispersing through this area and will be gone soon. It will be interesting to see.

To finish I leave you with my picture taken back in 2014. Note the barbed wire to give you some sense of scale of this enigmatic creature.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The General Election and the Environment

With just 11 days until Election Day I thought it was about time I had a look at the environmental policies of the three main parties.  I went through each manifesto and tried to extract the relevant policies and statements. The Labour manifesto was the easiest to read with their whole first section entitled 'A Green Industrial Revolution', this was a promising start and laid down an early marker, very few parties put the environment so high on their agenda.

The Liberal party had the most environmental policies and whilst the Conservative manifesto was harder to decipher had some very good policies. Interestingly there are several points on which two or more parties agreed. Some of the policy areas are bold statements of legislation or action but many are vague notions of hopes and wishes and we all know what they can turn into.

I have laid out the findings in the grid pictured below:

Overall this hasn't made my decision of who to vote for any easier. Only labour categorically plans to cancel the Badger Cull and no party talks of rescinding HS2 both of my two big policy areas. The Conservatives mention reviewing the HS2 but early details show that HS2 will continue. The Liberals have good biodiversity plans and labour is better on Climate with the Conservatives better on Plastics and Marine protection.

I know the environment will not be the only policy area of interest to most people but it is important that it is considered. With Brexit possible there is a massive opportunity to strengthen our environmental laws and equally as big of a risk of them being watered down or lost.

Take time to read the manifestos and take time to look at the environmental policies. We need action now and our government whatever colour it maybe needs to act. They have all laid out their plans for us to see and now it comes down to reading, understanding them and forcing them to enact them when elected. The last sombre point I will make is trust, many parties renege on their manifesto pledges, we should not allow this, we should hold them to account. The time of faith in our politicians seems to be over and so evaluating which party is to be trusted to work for our environment and planet is up to each individual.

Good luck in your deliberations and I hope this analysis helps you in small way. Take your time, think and vote intelligently.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

State of Nature - Is there a disconnect in nature conservation?

This week saw the start of another one of the BBC Natural History departments flagship programmes helmed by our national treasure, Sir David Attenborough. ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ looks at the planet’s natural resources continent by continent with the BBCs usual blended of stunning cinematography, ecological measures and dramatic storytelling. These programmes are something we in this country do well and Sir David himself has done so much to spread the word of what is happening to our planet.

Common Darter
Here at home however things are not as rosy as they seem. Earlier this month the annual State of Nature Report was published. This yearly stocktake of our own natural capital paints a mixed picture and raises an interesting question, why are things still so bad in this country.
The report highlights some staggering results, species abundance has fallen by 13%, 41% of terrestrial and freshwater species show decreases. Of species classified as critically endangered 111 vertebrates, 440 fish, 232 fungi and lichens and 405 invertebrates are at risk of extinction. Our protected spaces do not all have favourable conditions, and many are not managed exclusively for nature. Whilst pollution has declined the effects of climate change are not being mitigated. Woodland cover is increasing but management is not keeping track. We have lost 1000 hectares of wetland between 2006 and 2012 although some there has been some great post-mineral extraction remediation. As for invasive species 10-12 non-native species are establishing in the UK each year of which 10-20% cause serious adverse impacts.
If we look at the Aichi Targets, the measures we have committed to on the international level and should meet by 2020 however the UK government has assessed that as a country we are only on track to meet 5 of the 20 targets.

These are gloomy statistics many of which most conservationists are more than aware of. Day to day those on the frontline see the changes in fortune for all our species, and there are a lot of conservationists out there. The UK has a strong tradition of voluntary support for nature conservation and the public invest large amounts in conservation charities. The RSPB has 18,000 volunteers and more than a million members, the National Trust has 5.6 million members and the Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of over 800,000. There may be a degree of overlap between the organisation, but this is a substantial voting and lobbying block. The report shows that volunteering has increased by 46% since 2000 which is also reflected in the rise in entries to the National Biodiversity Network. Financially the public sector has seen a decline in spending in the UK but over the same period spending on international biodiversity has increased by 111%.

What does this all say? To me it says there is a fundamental disconnect in the way we view nature in this country. The BBC flagship programmes give us a vital understanding of the nature of the world and their spectacular sights force us to address the problems that we see. Perhaps we view those problems a little imperialistically, many of the countries with the richest biodiversity and most in need are the poorest and our donations ‘help’ them make the right decision, whereas we as a rich country have nothing to fear from our perhaps less eye catching wildlife. Its easier to sell a majestic lion or magnificent elephant than the elusive pine marten or humble hedgehog. I am not saying supporting world biodiversity is wrong nor that the BBC has the wrong focus, just that our ability to translate this into local action. Volunteering is increasing and membership is blossoming, but nature is still declining. We need to use this State of Nature report as a wake-up call, cull out the dry statistics and try and convert it into a call for action. Saving the rain forests is important but so are lowland wetlands in the UK. This is not an either-or situation, local and international need to work in tandem. The challenge for all conservationists is to convert this public culture of involvement and support into actual action, action at the ground level and at the governmental level. Balanced with this we need to extol the positives to avoid the negative becoming too overwhelming and promoting green fatigue.

The State of Natures is sombre reading and Seven Planets, One world is a marvel lets use both to inspire and motivate all to turn things around.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

A Visitor to the Mill

Things have been remarkably quiet the last few weeks. We are somewhat in the doldrums of birding on the site, the summer visitors have left and any of the possible winter visitors have yet to arrive. Mild weather however has kept the insect populations alive and well. Even today I still recorded a Red Admiral and there are multiple species of dragonfly present.

I have been having some difficulty with these larger dragonfly, this late in the year I usually see the odd Brown Hawker and the abundant Common Darter but over the last few weeks I have been seeing a number of greenish blue dragonfly. At first I assumed these were Emperors however their flight behaviour and size didn't seem to fit. I tried getting closer views but none seemed to help.

If they weren't Emperors which I only see in small numbers in high summer then that left perhaps Common Hawkers or Southern Hawkers. Then today I came across a pair of dragonfly locked together in mating in perfect sight. I took several photos and even a short video clip.

The images were perfect for identification showing clearly the eyes, thorax and key colours on the abdominal segments.

 A careful exploration of my guidebooks revealed that these dragonflies were Migrant Hawkers. It is known as a species of late summer and autumn and only became a British species since the 1940's and is continuing to expand north and westwards. In the south-east populations are still buoyed by migrants from the continent.

Its hawking pattern following a pattern is similar to that of the Emperor but it periodically breaks off and will hunt higher and deviate more from its path, fitting the behaviour I had noted. This is the first time I have managed to confirm a new dragonfly species on the site and I will have to review my notes from last year to see if some mis-identifications may have crept in.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Jewels on the Wing

I have been collecting data on the wildlife of 'my patch' for over 15 years now and its about time I did a little more with that information.

At this time of year we are approaching the end of the Banded Demoiselle flight period and so I thought it appropriate to explore their population dynamics since 2003.

How has their population size changed over time? Has the time they first emerge got earlier or has the length of their flight period changed. I can answer all these questions in a series of graphs.

Graph 1 - Number of maximum individuals recorded each week

This graph shows that between 2003 and 2013 the population was fairly static at less that 150 individuals in flight er observation. This increases markedly in 2014 with number rarely dropping below 200.

Graph 2 Date of First Emergence

Over the 16 years of study there is very little change in the week number in which the first Banded Demoiselle is seen. The trendline does indicate a very small trend for slightly earlier emergence times but is unlikely to be significant.

Graph 3 Length of Flight Period

Whilst emergence maybe getting ever so slightly earlier the duration of their flight period has remained static at approximately 15 weeks (11-20) although it could be said that this has only become more stable since 2013 with the variance in data becoming less than preceding years.

Graph 4 Maximum Emergence

This last graph partners with the first to take a more in depth look at the change in population, Here the maxima count values for each year are plotted highlighting the rising curve.

So what does all this mean? Well we can say that the population of Banded Demoiselles at the Saxon Mill is stable and actually increasing year on year within the same defined flight period. These sort of studies are very useful at looking at patterns but only go so far. We need some other level of data to explain the changes. Is the increase in numbers due to a change in sex ratio, better food availability or a reduction in predators. This opens up new avenues for investigation, I am reluctant to introduce the spectre of global warming but it is in temperature dependent species such as damselflies that its effects can be noticed.

You have to be careful in analysing data as well. You need to know about the ecology of the species, Banded Demoiselles spend two years as larvae before emerging therefore the population increase seen starting from 2013 reflects an increase in eggs laid in 2011.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

The Missing Lynx by Ross Barnett

I rarely get chance to read wildlife books but I always manage to get through at least over the summer and this year I chose The Missing Lynx by Ross Barnett. It was recommended to me in the BBC Wildlife magazine and seemed to fit my current view on the current direction ecology and conservation needs to take in the modern world.

The book looks like it is about the proposed reintroduction of Lynx to the UK but this is misleading, as the byline states this is about all our missing mammals. For me, as a child whilst dinosaurs were interesting it was the mega fauna of the Pleistocene that were more fascinating. When writing a book on the natural history of Warwick I read through the records of Aurochs and Mammoth that once roamed on the same landscape I call my home.

Ross takes a balanced and light look at the range of fauna that once lived in Britain. He devotes chapters to key groups such as Hyena, Bears, Sabre-tooths and so on. He delivers the material with charm balancing the science of how we know with humour and flair. 

As a scientist himself who works in the field of genetic analysis Ross' expertise shines through and he explains fascinating details of evolutionary theory, likewise he places these animals in an ecological context with skill.

He invokes a real melancholy in his writing for what we have lost. His passion for these past creatures is palpable. He accounts for each species disappearance and doesn't shy away from laying the blame at our (mankinds) door. You may think that this would make the book depressing but his final chapter on the future of these mammals whilst still lamenting their loss highlights the positive actions that can be taken.

Ross explains the success of wolf reintroduction's in America and in Europe and how the beaver reintroduction in Scotland is a flagship for positive conservation action he also makes a clear case for Lynx reintroduction.

This books is for anyone interested in how our landscape was so very different from today or sees the potential for rewilding and reintroduction as key conservation policy for the future in the UK.

The book is available from all good bookshops.

Sunday, 4 August 2019


Rabbits are a species in Britain that can often be overlooked. They are a common site across much of the country but their fortunes have risen and fallen considerably over the generations.

Its is believed the Rabbit that we know and love today was introduced to Britain by the Normans although the fossil record indicates that they had been present in prehistoric times but gone by the Neolithic. The Normans farmed them for fur and meat with warreners being appointed to look after the rabbit warrens.

The Rabbit is a survivalist and can thrive in a range of habitats as long as there is sufficient grass to eat and soil to burrow in to. Rabbits also have the ability to breed prolifically, the breeding season can be as long as from January to August and can produce a litter of between 3 and 7 kittens every 30 days. This amazing reproductive rate is important because lots of things love to eat them, they form the main diets of foxes, stoats and buzzards.

Such productivity brings them into conflict with farmers. In the 1950's in an effort to control rabbit numbers in Australia the myxoma virus was introduced to wild populations. This horrible disease internal bleeding and lesions on the eyes that blind them. Britain became infected in 1953 from France and began to devastate populations.

In the mid-1980's I remember you couldn't go anywhere in Warwickshire without stumbling over Rabbits, they positively filled the hedgerows and trackways. Then a contagion of myxamatosis whittled the numbers down to what we see today. Whilst the virus isn't a prevalent anymore outbreaks do occur and they are at risk from Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease.

I took the pictures of the rabbits this weekend at Priory Park, here a stable population exists in the centre of town, multiple warrens are scattered across the parkland. Beloved by dog walkers the rabbits seem to have become accustomed to them and each year at this time it is possible to get quite close to the young rabbits.

They are obviously quite wary but on my bike they seemed less concerned and I was able to approach within a few feet. I was then able to observe them as the grazed on tender grass shoots. It was fascinating to watch the ears twitching. Twitching ears and noses are a common habit of rabbits but it was interesting to watch how they swivelled. As they turned their backs on me to eat their ears would turn round to keep fixed on me, listening for the slightest sound of movement.