Saturday, 23 August 2014

Anecdote vs Science

For my sins I am a reader of the Daily Telegraph. I say reader but I m more of a skim reader and picture observer. Some articles that piqué my interest are fully digested but most pass me by. One column that I began to read with interest was Robin Page’s Country Diary. I thought this would reflect some of my views on the countryside and the traditions therein, this was not the case. His column is in the Weekend section of the Saturday paper and is a mix of country and farming comment and opinion.
The opinion part is what riles me. He like anyone has a right to express an opinion but unlike many he has a wider platform. He has a particular problem with the RSPB and many of the other nature conservation bodies. He seems to be in favour of culling birds of prey to protect other species and espouses some rather weak evidence to support him.

My biggest issue are not his views, as I said he is entitled to express them but his vitriol for science. Take for example today’s piece on Butterflies, he counter poses the idea that British butterflies are on the decline with the anecdotal evidence that he has seen more Small Tortoiseshells this year, and this is the problem, much of his evidence is anecdotal. Such evidence is useful it raises ideas and perhaps prompts research, but it cannot replace hard science.

There are many reasons why Small Tortoiseshells could be prevalent where Robin lives and I could challenge Robin’s assertion that Butterflies are not in as much trouble with my own anecdote that on my patch Tortoiseshells are declining. The difference is I can analyse my assertion through science. I have taken population data on wildlife on my patch for the past 12 years and am just in the process of producing a 10 year study report. This analysis shows a general declining trend but the graph seems to indicate a fluctuating population structure 7 year peaks. This is a guess my data is not extensive enough to say anymore than that the general trend is down and that 2003 and 2010 were amazing years.

My data does not say that all Small Tortoiseshells are declining everywhere; I cannot extrapolate my small patch to represent the whole country in the same way that Robin can say that the species as a whole is okay because he say plenty where he lives.

Accurate science reporting is an ongoing battle and I do think there is a major issue to be handled here. There seems to me to be a disconnect sometimes between the research that is carried out and how much that research can inform and guide conservation policy. Sometimes we need to act without science, how many species could become extinct whilst research is conducted into whether they are declining or why?
Nature conservation needs to science led but it needs to have science that is focused on the practicalities of on the ground conservation workers. Local wildlife trusts need to know how they can maximise their work on their small budgets and be prepared to make hard decisions regarding policy areas.

I applaud Robin on his passion and gusto but hope that he can balance his annoyance with the science of nature conservation a little more fairly in his column. Nor should his views be ignored or his anecdotes treated negatively. There is a lot of wisdom in the countryside but there is much to be said of balance and supporting your arguments with peer reviewed research, a hallmark of scientific practice.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Feral Re-wilding for all

After a week’s pleasant reading I have now finished reading George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’. I mentioned I had started this book in one of my previous last blog posts (22nd July), I also commented that in the past I have found George’s approach to environmentalism idealistic and unrealistic. When I was younger I found this vexing but now as I get older and start to feel that yearning for how things used to be, and have watched the travesty of decision making coming from government I am beginning to find my views more in line with his.

The central thesis of ‘Feral’ was that nature conservation should be taking a more hands off approach to conserving wildlife. That nature should be able to reclaim its own balance encouraged by the reintroduction of what many call ecosystem engineers – key species that enable a cascade of effects down through the system. One of the key examples of such an engineer is the European Beaver. Such reintroduction projects using this species have been trialed in Knapdale in Scotland with some success although escaped Beavers in Devon are facing capture and possible execution.

George uses the example of Wolves in the Yellowstone to illustrate the idea of rewilding quite eloquently. He can be seen in this clip explaining what happened.

The book carefully explores the types of animals that could be introduced into the UK and he lists a range of species from Wolves and Lynx to Wild Horse and Grey Whales! He has arbitrarily graded each of the species suitability and I agree with his estimations. He ranks Lynx as more suitable than Wolves. He also highlights the hypocrisy inherent in Britain today. We pay thousands of pounds to Africa to protect big cats some of which threaten villagers whilst living comfortably in a land with no dangerous predators to contend with. We lambast Brazil and Indonesia for its logging of rainforest, whilst we deforested much of the country centuries ago. As in charity I do think conservation should start at home and with less condescension to local people. For people who watched Charlie Hamilton James’ excellent ‘I bought a Rainforest’ series he showed beautifully that world conservation is a much more complex affair than just fencing off an area. In fact such fencing can adversely affect people and in the long term wildlife.

In the UK pretty much all wildlife sites are heavily managed to maintain them in ecological terms they are kept at plagioclimax, an arrested state of development. Naturally the ecosystem wants to develop into in most cases in the UK woodland. Woodland supports the greatest number of species than any other terrestrial habitat, but is nature conservation just a numbers game?
Every year we read of declines in Farmland Birds for example. These values are admirably quantified by the British Trust forOrnithology. But given years of agri-environmental schemes both domestic and European, why is this decline continuing? Again it is a complex answer but at its heart lies the basic premise that wildlife is separate from farming. That the bottom line is the cost of the land and the produce on it, the emphasis is always on the productivity and not the conservation. A key marker for this is that protection of the Environment is paired with Food and Rural Affairs in DEFRA. The government agency contains two areas that are antagonistic to one another. Yes we want a balance between the two. I m not in favour of hounding landowners out in favour of wildflowers... not entirely, but the Environment deserves a government department of its own, one that enables it to carry the same weight as others. In recent years the language of conservation is continually one of compromise.

This brings me to what I am beginning to view as one of the death knells of conservation – sustainability. It rose to prominence whilst I was still at university in 2000 despite being coined much earlier. It has led to, in my mind, the constant flood of green wash. Tiny amounts of offsetting and other techniques to enable construction or development. Builders and planners use sustainability as a byword for getting more. Its okay this housing estate is sustainable – we have planted 30 trees and dug a pond
Having rambled off from the point I now return to George’s book. His vision for a rewilding of the UK is very exciting and something I see real potential in. Work is already going on in Glen Fleshie, Scotland and I hope that this will serve as a flagship for more work. ‘Feral’ is a well written work, both at turns humorous and engaging. It is well researched and does try to balance the disparate views. I would suggest that every ecology student read it as part of a reading list.

For those who want to know more and do not wish to read the whole book, this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine has an excellent article in which I read with interest Georges ambition to launch a rewilding charity later in the year. I will keep you posted on this.

Feral is available from all good bookshops.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

I Spy with my Infra-Red Eye...

As you may know I have been keeping track of a small piece of my patch with a Bushnell Trail camera. I have been using trail cameras for about 8 years now. My first camera was bought from a company in America as at the time there were few on sale in my price range, although I was stung by the import duties.
I am what some might call a lazy naturalist. I enjoy listening to the dawn chorus only from my bed. I m not one who gets up at 5 am nor am I able to manage to stay up much past 11 pm. This proves somewhat of a problem in that most of our countries more interesting species only come out at night. The trail cam allowed me to explore my patches wildlife through the night whilst I selfishly slept the hours away. At first I experimented with a number of locations and was pleased with reasonable picture of badgers coming out for bait – peanuts. I found later that the smaller of my now two cameras was perfect for catching the antics of mice. I lowered its positioning and began to record the antics of Wood mice and Voles.

With my latest acquisition I have opted for a more scientific approach. A fixed camera point on a well used animal track along a hedgerow separating a wet meadow and Alder Carr from a barley field. The camera is mounted at about chest height on a beech tree. The trees canopy ensures there is little understory providing clear lines of sight.

To track movements rather than get good sightings I decided not to bait the camera and just record what passed by over the course of several weeks. I started on the 14th April and barring 2 weeks when I moved the camera to the river, it remained in situ until today when it was revealed that the batteries had run out (these will be replenished tomorrow and the survey will continue with only a week’s gap). I now therefore have 11 weeks’ worth of data and patterns are beginning to emerge.

It has been a pleasure to watch the Vixen rearing her single cub that seemed to use the tree as a marker as to how far he could travel from the earth whilst she was absent. It has been fascinating to watch the Badgers rocketing by. They seem to not stop to forage in the spot. Instead this is definitely a highway and one that is used intermittently perhaps once or twice a week. It is some 200 metres from the sett and not far from a latrine pit area that probably marks the edge of their territory. Muntjac are an occasional visitor. They do not seem to be residents, moving into the area for a day or so before moving on. 

The last sightings have encouragingly include a male and female pair rather than a lone male. Lastly there are the smaller mammals, Grey Squirrel, Brown Rat and Wood Mice. These are all infrequent visitors.

I am hoping to keep up this tracking of animals for as long as possible with as few gaps as possible and see what further patterns emerge. At present I have recorded 6 species of mammal and 7 species of bird but am holding out for my holy grail species, a Weasel. I have recorded them at this exact location in the past but have never managed to catch them on trail cam. Heres hoping the next few months are as productive.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Wild Life

Some of you may be aware that I am currently reading George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’. It’s a book I have been meaning to read for some time and although I know the central precepts of his thesis I am finding it interesting. In my youth I found Monbiot somewhat of a fool. I lauded his ambition and common sense but shook my head sagely as I read his ideas that seemed unwieldy and impractical in todays world. In recent years I have softened towards George and have begun to come round to his way of thinking and in particular his views on re-wilding, both of the wider ecology and ourselves.

I have yet to get the crux of George’s central point in the book; he is still building up the picture in a series of Bear Grylls like encounters, but something he did elude to was something I encountered today; the connection with wildlife and the outdoors. I am lucky, I grew up in a family that appreciated nature. Weekends were spent walking in the country and holidays were spent in this country in a caravan. Camping of an kind inevitably brings you closer to nature, even if it is just the mosquitoes in the gloom, the harvestmen on the ground sheet or the occasional frog in the welly. I therefore am one of those people comfortable with wildlife, I would go as far to say I am more comfortable with wildlife than I am with people. Sadly this isn’t true for all. I can recall meeting someone who on going to Wales saw their first ‘Wild’ Cow! Or the children I work with who cannot complete a Food Chain worksheet because they don’t know what the animals are on the sheet let alone what they eat.  I would like to stress that their lack of engagement is not to do with boredom or apathy merely circumstance. When I have taken classes out bug hunting or surveying nearly all light up and find themselves enthralled, the tadpoles in the pond are a particular favourite. It just took someone to take the time to explain to them what they were looking at. To turn over the stone revealing an ants nest and to show how the workers frantically worked to drag the eggs below ground.

In one of the early chapters George described searching for a certain place. Somewhere he found tranquil and energised him. For him it was in a canoe out in the sea in Cardigan Bay, Gannets above him and Mackeral beneath. My place is my local patch that I have visited weekly for the past 13 years, but I can get that same attachment, that moment of calm and awe at any moment.

and I headed this morning to the local park that I knew would be good for Butterflies. With camera in hand I spent an hour coming the long grass chasing crickets, all of which turned out to be the southern invader Roesell’s Bush Cricket, and identifying butterflies. I paused to sit on a rock in the baking heat beside a brook. Here I watched as an Emperor Dragonfly hawked along its length and attacked the preening Banded Agrions. Whilst sat quietly a Peacock butterfly fluttered into view and made a beeline, well as much of a beeline as butterflies are able towards me. It alighted on my knee, its tongue outstretched probing my hairy legs. I assume scientifically it was attracted to the salt in my sweat but alongside that analytical thought came the engagement with the animal itself. I could gaze into its swirling eyes and watch as the tongue rolled and unrolled.

From this encounter I sought the shade and remembered a few lines in an old book that claimed that in the 1970’s the park had a colony of Common Lizards. I had tried to see if they still existed before but thought today’s heat might help. I sought out the old walls and fallen trunks that seemed likely spots. As I ventured down one of the mown strips in the grassland I came upon a mother with two five year olds sat in the shade of a tree. They each carried little fishing nets, the kind you buy from the seaside and were gleefully chasing butterflies in the vain hope of catching one. The mother called them together and showed them how to take a bark rubbing from the cherry tree that offered them protection. It was at that moment that I had one of ‘those’ moments. A moment of peace despite the squeals of children, the discarded beer can and the noise of the traffic only metres away. It was a realisation that despite the struggles we interested in nature conservation face we have a lot to be thankful for. We all need and should have a moment or place, ideally both that energise us before we are worn asunder by the reports and government decisions, somewhere that nature can touch our core. It was also reassuring that there were at least two more budding ecologists who knows what they could do now that their mother had taken the time to show them what was out there.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Getting Foxy

Following on from my review of the Bushnell Trail Cam I can say that I am well impressed. So far I ve had it in the field for 5 weeks and its only just used half of the battery life.

What I like about using the trail cam is the stories that develop through its recording.

When I started the first few images included Foxes, most seemed to be of a Vixen. Then towards the end of the 2nd Week I caught her twice carrying food, once a bird the second a rabbit. The fact that she was carrying it suggested the presence of young and lone behold in the next week a young cub was seen.

Over the next few weeks the cub was seen more often and you could begin to see behaviour develop. The protectiveness of the Vixen, how the cub doesn't seem to be allowed past the tree on its own and how the cub is starting to forage around by itself.

Below is a collection of clips showing them.

And just to finish off an interesting clip of a Fox being pestered by something in the tree and getting something up its nose.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

What do you want for nature conservation from the next government?

I read with interest Mark Avery's column in this months British Wildlife. It outlined a reappraisal of last election manifestos from the big three parties in reference to wildlife conservation. He reiterated his view that all three of the statements made were bland and non-committal. No surprise there. Of the big three Labour doesn't have a great record during their time in office and who can forget that whopper of 'Vote blue go green' that ushered in the current Conservative government.

Mark finished his article with a list of things he would like to see the parties to address in the run up to next years General Election, inspired by this I have created my own list (Some I have borrowed from Mark - they are too good to waste):

Dear Government please implement the following.

  1. Ensure that 80% of SSSI's are in favourable or better condition by 2020
  2. Reduce bTB using scientific advice involving the deployment of vaccines and biosecurity.
  3. Ensure that for a start 25% of all new buildings are built with water recycling facilities and come with renewable energy options such as solar panels/heating or ground source heat pumps.
  4. Ensure that all new housing projects have at least 10-15% of land set aside for wildlife refuges.
  5. To reduce the risk of flooding invest in the reforestation of headwaters and on unprofitable/nonviable farmland beside rivers create wetlands and reedbeds to soak up excess water.
  6. Ideally scrap HS2 and if not to ensure that a wildlife corridor at least as wide is created along its length.
  7. Seriously examine the reintroduction of certain species such a Lynx and Beaver to act as ecosystem engineers in rewilding projects.
  8. Designate all of the 127 marine conservation zones that were proposed/
  9. Take lessons from NGO's and best practice conservation farming to model a better balanced agri-environmental scheme.
  10. Be on track to meet our climate change requirements.
  11. Create a new National Park with in the next 5-10 years and increase the number of SSSI's and LNR's.
  12. All schools should be required to have a designated wildlife area.
  13. Develop the role of the JNCC to act as a liaison to all NGO's to help co-ordinate fundraising, research and work to enable nationwide action.
  14. Ensure biodiversity offsetting does not just become 'greenwash'. Regulate to ensure replacements are like for like and that they are protected from further development.
  15. Place even greater emphasis and incentive to use brownfield sites before greenfield ones.
  16. Develop a new designation of No-build Zones to stop urban sprawl and the conglomeration of towns and villages.
  17. Increase penalties on all aspects of wildlife crime and environmental law.
  18. Untie the hands of English Nature, SNH and CCW and Environment Agency to do their job more independently of central government.
  19. Actually appoint a minister for the environment who has a background or at the very least an interest in the subject.
  20. Lastly and most importantly listen to the scientific advice given by the NGO's and government bodies consulted. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Bushnell Trophy Cam

This post has been awhile in the making. I had hoped to get it posted earlier but I wanted some footage to show how it performs and so needed to wait a week or so to get some.

I am a big fan of trail cams and have been using them for the past 6 years or so. I have put them out at intervals on my bit of land to record the fauna present. At one point I had two devices. One a simple device imported from America but that actually served me well and an old Bushnell that these days seems enormous.

Over the winter my old Bushnell died and so over Easter I invested in a newer model - the Bushnell Trophy Cam.

The camera is a revelation. It is half the size of my old one and has a much better interface. A standard On/off/setup switch is supported by a colour monitor with a range of buttons to enable playback.

The big draw for me with this model aside from the price and size was the use of no-glow LED lights. On previous models whilst the normal Infra Red LED's provided excellent lighting - often too bright - they disturbed some of the wild life. Badgers in particular seemed to become spooked by the activation. This newer model doesn't attract any unwanted attention.

Battery life claims for the unit are impressive. My last models ran on 6 size C batteries that drained fast. This newer model takes 8 AA batteries and has been out in the field for 2 weeks now with no appreciable loss of battery life it claims to be able to last 6-12 months.

Resolution is good with the ability to take 8 Mb pictures and record video in HD.

Examples of the Video quality:


Its still early days but I have to say that for the moment I am impressed. I ll keep everyone posted as time progresses to see it the camera keeps up the good work.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Homes for all - revisited

Yesterday I received my copy of the BBC Wildlife Magazine. I have been a fan and avid reader of this august publication since 1991 and have the last 4 years worth of issues stashed under my bed. It is a magazine that continues to thrill and inspire me. The photograph is outstanding and the articles engaging and fascinating. It balances a novice’s eye for wildlife with the greater need of those with more experience.

Whenever the magazine arrives I have somewhat of a ritual that has developed. I start with a run through the magazine. I don’t really stop and read any of the articles just browse through each page and soak up the images and get a feel for each article. In my mind I start to develop an idea of which parts I want to gloss over and which I want to read at quiet leisure. Next I find myself a pen and try and complete the crossword. Thankfully I m pretty good if I do say so myself and get very frustrated with the last clue that eludes me.

So this morning I actually came to digest some of the articles. I had returned from my morning survey work grabbed some biscuits and sat down to read the short pieces by Bill Oddie and Richard Mabey I then moved on to an article that real made me think  and reassess my standpoint on an issue I have discussed here on this blog.

I have a tendency, as you may have noticed, to very swiftly leap upon my high horse and pour scorn upon the bureaucrats and foolish civil servants who rule our realms and this action led me to consider my position regarding that hottest of topics – house building.

The article was a double-spread and entitled ‘Developing New Homes for Nature’. The author James Fair explained that in Swindon Wiltshire Wildlife Trust had gone into partnership with a Housing company to make a housing development as green as possible. This may have seemed like green wash, the token effort companies make to pass planning permission and to soothe local anger but whilst this could have been true it was also true that wildlife would actually benefit.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine 200 ha of monoculture agricultural land on the outskirts of a town. The hedges have been removed over the years and the ditches are cleared every year to maintain drainage. Harvesting takes place early each year to maximise the ability to fit two yields into a year and few ground nesting birds like Skylark are able to raise even a single brood. Pesticides and Herbicides are used regular to maximise the potential of the crops. This piece of farmland is essentially barren in terms of biodiversity and species richness. 

A developer wants to use this land which is designated Green Belt land to build a new housing estate. In the past I would scowl and frown. Lament the loss of yet more Green Belt land. Bemoan the nibbling chomp of our wild spaces and expanding urban areas. Not once would I have considered the intrinsic wildlife value of these fields. Here instead is a chance if Wiltshire Wildlife Trust were to have its way the local groups would work with the developer to maximise the site for people and wildlife. People don’t want soulless housing estates full of concrete and tarmac, they want outdoor spaces and a pleasant vista. 

In this case 50 ha could be put aside as wetlands or planted as woodland. It could have a wildflower meadow or all three. In an instant the biodiversity of the site would rise and that’s before the gardens are included. It’s amazing how much wildlife exists in urban areas and by putting aside such land the area benefits from greater biodiversity, new homes are built and people get to life in connection with that wildlife. 

Obviously this idea of co-operative building will not work on all sites but there is the potential here for wildlife trusts and nature groups to install benefits into something that is often inherently bad for wildlife. I hesitate to use the word sustainability, since I studied the term some 15 years ago its meaning has changed and been co-opted out of all recognition, but this notion to me conforms to the original ideals of this oft quoted maxim. Now if we could just get these new houses built with solar panels as well... well one step at a time hey.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Making a home for all

It’s been several years in the coming but in the last month what used to be the school field where I work is being turned into a new housing estate. Warwick is bursting at the seams and there are new developments planned all over the place.

I have made my peace with this development in regards to its placement and design. I’m not pleased with the number and spread of houses in the county and feel that it won’t be many years before there will be a single conurbation from Warwick in the south to Cannock or Lichfield in the north but what I feel necessary to state is the way in which housing is handled.

I don’t know if anyone has been watching ‘Permission Impossible’ on BBC2 but the series is an interesting insight into the planning world. My concern at this moment is not where the houses are put although this is a major issue but more how they are made.

As a country we have a looming energy crisis and climate change targets to meet. Governments seem to be focused on the short sighted schemes of biodiversity offsetting that can often be just green wash for developers. 

At present the government offers periodic subsidies for householders to fit solar panels to existing houses. This is a laudable goal but again is short-sighted. Homeowners, in this economic climate, who may have the economic wherewithal to implement such a scheme, may not see the benefit of the scheme in the payback time therefore limiting the pool of possible properties it can be used on. But when the cost of fitting solar panels for electricity or heating are weighed against the cost of a new house it is a wonder why new houses are not built with this as an integral part of the build. 

I m not saying that every new build must have solar panels but that as with affordable housing a legislated percentage of all homes in a development must have some renewable energy source, green roof on the garage or rainwater reservoir system. There are then the simple additions such as bat bricks, house martin and swift nest boxes that could be added to houses. 

To me its a no-brainer  the cost of a solar panel system can be incorporated into the price of the house and the benefit of pay back and electricity that can be sold back to the grid as an offset should be workable.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Go on take a walk

Instead of complaining and grumbling about the state of nature conservation policy I am going to exalt the natural world. This past week has been half-term and working in a school means that I was on light duties for the past seven days. I spent some of that time in the school eco-garden. It’s normally a complete mess. The kids do their best but they aren’t gardeners by any stretch of the imagination and sadly hard work is an alien concept. I spent about an hour pottering about clearing up blown flower pots and dredging leaves from the pond (more on dredging in a future blog).
I was delighted to see the hitherto trampled space beneath the cherry tree covered in delicate snowdrops and the Robin who came down to feast on the insects I disturbed as I shifted logs and slabs. It may not be tidy, it may not be big but I have found this small garden a haven for wildlife and one that can be used for teaching. In the summer months I bring Year 8 students down to hunt for invertebrates and I am constantly amazed by the things that they find and the interest they show.
Today, being Sunday, was my usual day for visiting my little patch of land and path beside the River Avon. I have been collecting Natural History data on this stretch of river for 12 years and at Christmas completed enough visits to develop a solid 10 year block of data on Birds, Butterflies and Dragonflies one day this will be analysed and published but for now I am content to revel in the tranquillity this patch brings me. 

It is no doubt Warwick’s premier beauty spot and only a 10 minute walk from my house on the edge of town. It started as a way to get me out when I suffered from agoraphobia many years ago. I would visit regularly and became enchanted by the wide diversity I found. It has always been a place that has soothed my soul. When Henry my dog died it was here that I was able to tackle my grief, when access was stopped for 2 months when they repaired the bridge I was lost and found myself desperate to get back and see what I had missed.

Here I have had close encounters of Foxes and Shrews. I have watched Sparrowhawk nests succeed and fail and became so well known to the resident swans that they would come to a whistle that I developed to identify myself. Both these swans are no both sadly departed but I still have a Robin – likely a different one each winter – that feeds from my hand. 

I guess what I am getting at is something that conservationists have known for many years; wildlife is good for health and well being. There are planning suggestions that people have access to open spaces within certain distances of their home. Not everyone is perhaps as connected to the site as me, many walkers walk blithely past the wrens nest or barely notice the Buzzard on the ruins but they still seem to be taking some aesthetic value from the site as a whole.

So this afternoon take a walk and open yourself to what is out there. You may not be able to identify it all, you may not see much but you can relish in what the fresh air can bring to you be it the amazing or the sweet song of a Wren or Dunnock.