Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Patch Round Up

Another year draws to the close and so does another year of record keeping on my patch. Every weeks survey is inputted into Bird Journal. This software is an excellent way to store data and I have found it very useful, especially some of the graphs it auto generates.

The first graph shows the number species recorded over the year. In 2015 I recorded 54 species of bird over 45 visits. This was better than last year but still below average.

 This next graph shows the percentage make up of the birds seen during 2015. The species mix shows that my patch is comprised of a river, wetland, carr, woodland and farmland.

This next graph shows the checklist counts for all species recorded in 2015.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Hide and Seek

Today was an interesting day down the mill. It was very springy. It has been all over the news how mild the weather has been this year and evidence of this weather was everywhere this morning.

For a start the birds song seemed very spring like in the air. Then down on my patch of land the White Nettles were in flower and most surprisingly a young willow with catkins.

Another nice sighting was a Chiffchaff along the riverbank. It is not unusual anymore to see this small warbler in the winter, In fact more and more Chiffchaff's and Blackcap's are overwintering in Britain each year rather than migrate to Africa.

The last key sighting of the morning was the Kestrel. Since breeding in the summer they have remained ever present through Autumn and Winter. This male played a game of Hide and Seek with me, ducking from tree to tree before hiding in a pylon.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

November - The month of the Sparrowhawk.

This month has been a good month for raptor spotting. As the weather has turned more wintery garden bird life can take a shift, blackbirds arrive from the continent and and squabble between themselves and the natives for seed and berries. Sadly one of these failed to survive when one flew into our bay window. It hit with an almighty thump and although I was out quickly I was only in time to comfort it as it died. It was bitterly cold and I tried to keep it warm by cupping it in my hands. Shock is a big killer in birds and its body temperature can plummet fast. I think its neck was broken or at least fractured and it lasted barely seconds.

Sparrowhawks have become a much more common site at our house. They regular hunt along the stretch of gardens in our street and in the summer spent sometime perching in the lilac by the bird bath. Today a juvenile female Hawk appeared in the same location.

You can tell it is a female because of its brown back and wings.

Note the bright super-cilium (stripe above the eye) this is only present in females

Note the rufous v-shaped barring on the chest. In an adult female this barring will become more linear with horizontal bars. The beak is also more grey at the base, in adults it becomes yellower.

The legs show the bright yellow typical of Sparrowhawks as a species. They are often described as 'knitting needle' thin. You can see how well they are adapted to catching small birds and holding them tight.

I managed to get these shots through the conservatory window and I m quite pleased with the outcome although it did take some work to crop and remove the window glare.

A sparrowhawk was recorded in the garden on the 10th November as well. This one was a male. As you can see from the picture below, they are more grey/blue, and have an orangey hue to their cheeks which extends down their barred fronts.

On this occasion he sat on the top of the cameras and was at a greater distance, this made it harder to screen out the effects of the window make the image look more washed out; but its enough for a comparison, note the lack of white supercillium.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Someones listening... I think.

It has been quite awhile since my last post mainly because I wanted to do a post on my local patch however with all the wet weather and it being that lull time between the summer visitors leaving and the winter visitors arriving things have been pretty quiet.

In actual fact much of the town has been quiet in terms of wildlife. In this time I have started to work on my next project... as if I need anymore! This time I am going to use the Habitat Suitability Index I wrote for the Hedgehog to survey my local estate. a) this will test out my methodology and b) it will build in the spring to a survey regime to estimate the population and distribution in the area. I m quite excited about this project and have already started digitising the estate in QGIS to create the necessary maps.

This wasn't really what this blog post was to be about. Instead with all the rain induced in door time I have moved my mini palm oil campaign on a little.  At the start of the month I wrote to two of the companies I have currently decided to boycott - Cadburys and Nestle to ask them about their views on Palm Oil usage and what they are doing about it. My letter read as follows:

Dear .......,
I am writing to you to express my concern that your company is still using unsustainably sourced Palm Oil in its products. I acknowledge that Palm Oil is a widely used additive to many products and not just your chocolates however its impact on the world is too great.

As you are no doubt aware monoculture palm oil plantations are responsible for the loss of vast areas of rainforest in south east Asia and is having a critical effect on many species. In particular the keystone species – the Orangutan is under particular pressure.

As a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil it is clear that as a company you acknowledge the need to act on this issue. I would like to urge you to step up your progress. My stance is not of one of an outright ban on palm oil this is unlikely to be achievable but for large companies such as yourselves to lead the agenda for reducing the quantities used and using only registered sustainable sources.

I would like to ask you to label their products clearly as to what palm oil it contains. I hope you would support a kitemark label system so that consumers are able to make informed decisions and companies can champion their own work on the issue.

I am a huge fan of your products but have sadly decided to boycott your chocolate until you reach a target of 100% sustainable sourced palm oil and have more clearly marked your products. As a multinational company you have a responsibility to act.

I sent these two letters on the 1st of November and I recieved my first and so far only reply from Nestle's just three days later. 

I will let you read the letter for yourself as scanned below before I make my comments.

I am always skeptical of large companies and the PR machines and so I was expecting a greenwash letter from some functionary. Did I get this... Yes and No. The letter reads as a standard response to the issue but it did highlight the companies awareness of the issues and the efforts that they are taking. I think their 95% traceablilty goal is good  and achievable and I like how they acknowledge that certificates are just a sticky plaster and not a realistic function of sustainability.

I would have liked to see more evidence of their doing. They state their commitment and goals and give some evidence of there green credentials with a link to their cocoaplan but why is their no link to work on their palm oil plan?

I was also disappointed with their lack of addressing the issue I raised about helping consumer choice with a charter mark or symbol.

On the whole better than nothing and much better than cadbury's but what do you think?

My next step is a follow up letter and one to my local MP. Watch this space.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Deer Family...

A few weeks ago my camera picked up a female Muntjac with a fawn. Muntjac are able to breed practically all year round and so this was not too surprising. This week I managed to catch the whole family.

The female was in the lead with the male with distinctive eye stripe and horns bringing up the year.

On a related note I am starting see differences in patterns between last years sightings with the camera and this years, The number of Grey Squirrel sightings is much reduced this year relating to the fact that the beech tree on which the camera is fixed to has not fruited at all and there is no ground fall beechmast.

The rabbit I caught was a one off, it was seen on that day and that day only. Its possible that this was a buck exiled from a warren and was off to find a new colony to join or found his own.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Badgers and TB

The topic of Badgers and TB is an emotive and explosive one. It will come to no surprise to me that I am opposed to the culling of badgers to reduce bTB in cattle.

There are facts and counter facts banded about by all sides. Sadly even the government does not seem able to focus on the science and data being revealed in the UK.

I decided to put down quickly some facts about the issue in the form of an infographic and here is the result:

The infographic is by no means a complete picture and I have tried to be as objective as possible in presenting the information. Anyone looking into this issue will find a wealth of information on the government websites and many farming and wildlife sites like wise have reams of information. I have restricted my information to government information or papers presented in peer reviewed journals.

Next I am interested to investigate the results of the Welsh approach to controlling the disease that seems to have resulted in a significant reduction of the disease without the use of culling.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

R.I.P little mouse

Today was one of those days that tend to put things in perspective and reveal something deeper. I was still feeling a little under the weather following a heavy cold had laid me up under the duvet for two days and so instead of my usual full Sunday morning survey I decided instead to embark upon just a simple visit to replace the video card in my long running Trail Cam experiment.

I fought my way through the undergrowth that shows no sign of abating as autumn draws on and reached the camera, as I struggled to find the key to unchain it I was distracted by movement in the leaf litter. I was surprised to find a mouse. I had obviously surprised it on my approach but unusually it had not fled, instead it lay on its side. I bent down to examine it and noticed that one eye was screwed up and the legs on one side flailed frantically.

It was clear the mouse, a large Wood Mouse by the looks of it, was unwell. If you can approach an animal especially a mammal then it is usually very sick. Carefully I used a twig to turn the mouse over to reveal that the mouse seemed paralysed. Only the limbs on the left side seemed to be working. It gasped with an audible wheeze with slow deep breaths.

Another sign of impending mortality was the number of flies which seemed to be present. It was a warm sunny morning but the flies were circling for other reasons and alighted on the mouse in anticipation as if they could sense the mouse’s clock had run down and that here was the offer of one last egg laying bonanza at the end of the year.

Sentimentality got the better of me and a sat myself down beside the dying mouse and gentled stroked the fine fur on its back and kept the flies at bay. Did this soothe the mouse or terrify it more, I don’t know but at that moment it seemed more important that the mouse did not die alone. We are species apart; our understanding of our respective worlds was infinitely at odds but it seemed the right thing to do. The mouse’s breathing continued in deep gasps and then stopped. There was no tailing off, no shudder, no whimper or sigh... just nothing. The indescribable glint of agency in the eye had fled.

All ecologists and natural historians must face the death of the wildlife they study. I have been called to rescue injured animals many times and some of those failed to survive. I have encountered recently dead animals and admired the beauty of their form and figure and I have watched the cycles of nature take place as predator despatches prey, but this was different. I was there at the end and I was unsure of the cause.

The mouse was perhaps 12cm long not including the tail and the body was unmarked. It wasn’t thin or malnourished. It struck me then to banish my growing sadness over the small creatures passing. There was nothing I could have done to rescue or save it and it had died a natural death. This was an animal that had successfully completed the game of life. Mice have a short life span rarely surviving past the winter and rarely longer than 12 months. This mouse, if a female, could have been pregnant up to six times in its short live and produced between four and seven pups in each litter; and if male then it could have sired many litters. Instead of mourning its loss perhaps it was better to celebrate its short but potentially successful life. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

What can I eat? - Palm Oil!!

It has been a few weeks since I first posted about my campaign to cut out Palm Oil from my diet and after some investigation and changes to shopping I have started to settle into a new pattern.
After deciding to give up palm oil I first went through my cupboards to find out which main products were palm oil or palm fat/shea free. The list of convenience foods was frighteningly small.

The extent of Palm Oil exploitation

My Hovis loaf, Cadbury’s Twirls, Iced Buns, Digestive biscuits, Jammy Dodger biscuits and most bizarrely my Bisto gravy all contained the dreaded additive. These are several of my staple food products; please no comments on the healthiness of my diet.

I decided on further investigation that I needed to set some ground rules for what I could and could not eat. Palm Oil is only effective as a cash crop if cultivated as a monoculture in large plantations hence the large loss of rainforest and their impact on orang-utans. Of course the human side of this product is that the trade gives local Asians gainful employment in otherwise poverty stricken countries.  So how do you balance out the environmental impact with social impact? I have decided to plant my flag in the sustainably produced crops. Palm oil is such a vast industry and in so many products that my individual protest is unlikely to have little effect. Campaigning for an outright ban is like trying to move a mountain, instead I think it is more prudent to ensure that any palm oil I buy can  be traced to have been sourced sustainably. This means that my palm oil’s impact has been mitigated.

Global Forest Watch have excellent maps showing the extent of palm oil plantations follow this link to compare sustainable and non-sustainable plantations.

By far the most useful website I have come across in researching the companies using palm oil is the site for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Using this website I quickly discovered that the best companies are actually the supermarkets. All of them have signed up to try and reach 100% of own brand products being sustainable by the end of the year. Some are doing better than others.

The table below shows the percentage of sustainable palm oil used by the main retailers using ACOP reports on the RSPO website.

% of own brand goods using renewable Palm Oil
Joint 1st
Waitrose and Marks & Spencer’s
Couldn’t be found on the RSPO site

Having done this work I now know that my best approach is to swap to own brand products, luckily I shop mostly at Sainsbury's and so they have a good score. I can also go back to my Co-op Iced Buns.

However all is not as good as it seems, Cadbury's United Biscuits, Mars and Nestle, large multinational brands do not seem to as good at sourcing their palm oil. So as of last week I have started to boycott their products and will start to look into their policies on the issues. More news as and when I find it.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Bunny Rabbit Bunny Rabbit Bunny Rabbit

After a year and a half of camera trap observations a Rabbit has finally been seen on film.

I have recorded Rabbits on  the site several years ago but recently there has been little evidence of them. This is in part probably due to the Fox den on the site last year. There was no evidence of breeding this year and Fox frequency seems to have reduced perhaps allowing Rabbits to recolonise the site.

It is possible that the Rabbit is a lone individual and only further records and study will establish the extent of the population.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

And so it begins

This week’s blog post is not covering my patch but looking a little farther afield. Earlier this week a friend pointed out to me how bad Cadbury’s were as users of Palm Oil in their products. Those who know me know I have a penchant for chocolate and I was quick to do some research.

You may wonder what the issue with Palm Oil is. Palm Oil is an edible oil produced by the nut of the tree species – Elaeis guineensis. Demand for the oil has increased since the 1980’s and can be found in a vast range of household and supermarket products. The oil can be used as a simple frying oil, a biofuel and an additive.

As an additive it can be found in margarines, chocolates, shampoo, soap, ice cream and lipstick. It is a highly productive crop with a greater yield that than other vegetable oils.

Palm oil only grows in the tropics and mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia even though it is native to West Africa. Today it is grown mostly in vast plantations as a monoculture crop. Huge areas of tropical rainforest have been converted to palm oil production resulting in habitat loss, species loss, soil erosion and air pollution. Species especially affected by the Palm Oil industry include the Asian Elephant, Orang utan, Sumatran Rhino and Tiger.

In the case of the Orang utan their numbers have plummeted from around 230,000+ in 1900 to an estimated 60,000 today. They exist in small populations few larger than 200 individuals and are fragmented. They are unable to live in Palm Oil plantations and face threats from habitat loss and the pet trade on the plantations.

It is easy to sit here and condemn this trade but we are the main consumers of this product and so we have a responsibility to act. Palm oil is ubiquituous and having done some research I have found that many of my favourite foods, chocolates and iced buns contain them, something I was aware of before but am now more concerned about the more I research.

To this end I have decided to start taking action. Firstly by raising money for Act for Wildlife and secondly by changing my buying habits. I am not going to out right boycott palm oil. It is too widely used and native communities do rely on its income, instead I will only buy sustainably produced palm oil, thereby helping local communities and encouraging sensible production.

I do not think this will be easy and I hope to chart my progress on this blog as I work towards this goal. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Weasels, Buzzards and Woodpeckers

Just a short round up this week.

First off is an exciting sighting  from my Trail Cam - A Weasel. Well you have to trust me on this a little. The footage is very brief. I have cut the clip and duplicated it a few times to make it easier to see...

Look at the bottom left just after the Bushnell Tag. It will pop out a a bunch of sticks and then run off towards the camera.

I have recorded Weasels twice before on the last time I saw one at the same location - the same tree and got this picture:

Elsewhere on my patch I saw my first Bullfinch of the year, which is very late and I had up until now assumed they had gone!

The buzzards were in fine voice confirming the presence of three individuals one of which was a juvenile. One of the adults was chased off by a pair of crows and was even buzzed by a swallow.

To add to the noise a fine Great Spotted Woodpecker tapped away happily all morning on an old decaying branch filling up on grubs.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Balsam and a Cat

This week I evaluate a little experiment I undertook last year. On the patch of land I look after there is present that invasive species - Himalayan Balsam.

The pretty pink plant found along much of our water ways was introduced to Britain from India in 1839 along with Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed, both of which exist on other stretches down the river,

Balsam is incredibly prolific and spread via impressive exploding seed cases. There is much debate about what to do about this species and many believe it should be hand pulled and burned. My take on it is slightly different and specifically tailored to my patch.

On my patch the balsam is a mosaic species one of many including nettles, meadowsweet, Epilobium and Purple Loosestrife. It has not come to dominant the area and exists on patches, often out competed by natives on much of the patch. It is not acting invasively here... yet. Whilst the plant itself is not favoured by many of our insects the characteristic sweet smelling pink helmet shaped flowers are adored by Bees.

With Bees suffering I find it hard to rationalise the removal of a potential food source so last year I attempted a little control method. Along the bridge path I have responsibility for the right hand side and so went in August and cut the flower heads just before they set seed. This year as you can see comparing the two sides of the path that there is much less balsam on my side than the other.

Left Side - Note the number of Balsam flowers close to the railings (Control)

Right side - note the lack of balsam close to the rails (Experiment)
Now this is not the greatest experiment I haven't quantified this in any way but it does prove to me at least that where I want to control balsam it is most effectively done by dead heading in early-mid August.

On a very separate note my trail cam has detected a new visitor to my patch - a Ginger Cat. I have had a black and white cat pass through in the past but this ginger cat with white socks spent much of Monday pottering up and down the hedge-line between 7.43 am and Mid-day. Most interestingly he seemed to enjoy a spot of Muntjac baiting.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Mouse and the Snake

A change of pace this week. Today I present a short moral story that coalesced in my mind after seeing a grass snake in the meadow last weekend.

The Mouse and the Snake

As a snake slithered her way across a field she came across a mouse sat on a log deep in thought,

“Oh you scared me” the mouse said leaping to his feet looking for somewhere to hide,

“You need not fear me today mouse” snake said softly, “I ate yesterday and do not need to feed again until tomorrow.”

Mouse paused unsure whether to believe the snake or not but noticed the bulging stomach and settled back down on to the log.

Snake slithered around the base to sit beside him.

“What is the matter little mouse. Were I hungry I would have gobbled you up before you had a chance to leap away?”

Mouse sighed deeply and stroked his whisker,

“I have a problem and I don’t know what to do.”

“Perhaps I can help. A problem shared is a problem halved”

Mouse looked at Snake suspiciously and then shrugged his little shoulders.

“I have a secret stash of nuts and seeds that I keep for the winter. I met Vole yesterday and she and her family are starving. Should I tell them about my secret or keep quiet?

“I see” Snake hissed “A difficult problem. I suppose if they were Mice it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Of course not. We look after our own, but Vole has babies. She needs that food.”

“Then give her the food.”

“But I need those seeds for the winter, if it is bad I’ll need them for myself.”

“Then keep the food”

Mouse shook his head violently “But then the Voles will die.”

Snake sighed deeply,

“I see your problem, quite a quandary. My choice would be to keep the food but of course I am cold hearted and therefore cold blooded.”

“Well obviously I am nothing like you Snake, I have a heart and worry about others.”

Snake smiled,

“My heart is just as good as yours. My advice to you though, is that you already know the answer and the quicker you realise that the better.”

“Fine lot of help you are” Mouse said turning his back on the Snake "What nonsense, if I had the answer I wouldn't be here"

“Very well, I shall leave you to your deliberations” Snake uncoiled herself and slithered off into the meadow.

Mouse returned his attentions back to his problem and settled into a long night. He sat there thinking hard as the sun dipped down behind the horizon and the watched as the stars came and went. Slowly he began to realise what he could do just as the sun came up again.

“Aha I’ve got it” he exclaimed in delight,

“Got what?” asked Snake as she slithered back into view,

“Oh it’s you” Mouse smiled “Good morning. I have the answer. I will give half my seeds to Vole and keep half for myself. That way we both get to survive.”

Snake nodded,

“There is just one problem"

"A problem?" Mouse asked his brow already furrowing in concentration

"Yes you won’t have chance to help Vole.”

“Whatever do you mean Snake. Don't be so silly you’ve already eaten. I m perfectly safe”

“Oh no” Snake hissed, “that was yesterday, today I m hungry” and with that Snake ate the mouse in one gulp and went on her way.

Monday, 17 August 2015


For the past few weeks that intangible change between seasons seems to have begun. It is still most definitely summer. There are still blue skies and sun scorched days. The crickets and grasshoppers are in full melody and the Brown Hawker dragonflies are on the wing but nevertheless there are indications of the seasons close.

Early mornings seem to have a crisp stillness  to them. Bob Robins song has changed, usually the first sign for me, In fact many bird songs alter at this time, the blackbird becomes more chippy and the starlings soo and coo in ever growing numbers.

On my patch it is the absence of birds that is most striking. The swifts have departed and the usually ubiquitous Whitethroats are now furtive and skulking. These warblers are this years young, their parents already left for Africa. The chiffchaffs and blackcaps are still around but no longer announce their presence in bold song and a single swallow remains to finish stocking up for the journey.

On the river a handful of male Banded Demoiselles remain, wistfully searching for the long departed females and the first Common Darters emerge, sitting proudly on prominent perches drying their new wings in the sunlight.

The goosegrass has died back pulling down the nettles that lends the meadow a kind of dead air. The open spaces seem barren but offer the best chances of seeing a Grass Snake, in the past two weeks a disappearing tail has been seen heading into the undergrowth as my approach disturbed its basking.

Although the trees are still in full leaf they swell with fruit and nut. The berries on the rowan outside my bedroom have ripened from soft green to vibrant orange/red. Give it another month and the leaves will turn themselves to red, browns and oranges. For many this is the real autumn, the bit theu wait for and glory in but I prefer this transition period when one season slides slowly into the next.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


"Lion Ngorongoro Crater". Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_Ngorongoro_Crater.jpg#/media/File:Lion_Ngorongoro_Crater.jpg
It is unlikely that anyone has missed the passing of Cecil the Zimbabwean male lion. This magnificent beast who has become a celebrity in his native land was killed this week by a trophy hunter. Trophy hunting is a legal pursuit having  been previously banned between 2005 and 2008 [1]. Before I start to dissect this thorny situation I want to start by making this primary salient point. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Cecil. Any creature being hunted down is sad and the way in which Cecil died is not nice. Although radio collared he was lured out of a game reserve where he was stalked by an American dentist who shot him with a bow. Apparently bows give more thrill than a rifle, nevertheless the bow did not kill Cecil and they had to follow up and despatch him with a rifle before beheading and skinning him.

Rightly the dentist and his guides have received much criticism for their actions and may even be subject to criminal charges but in this post I want to sensibly approach a number of factors, number 1 being the Cecil is not unique.

Cecil was a well established 13 year old male lion, he was part of a study programme run by the world renowned Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They have studied the Hwange lions since 1999. The team had tagged 62 lions as part of the study 34 of whom died. Death is a part of all species studies but in this case 24 of the 34 were shot by hunters. Cecil was well known locally and a visitor favourite and his radio collar made certain that his death was noted, and this is my first point. Cecil is not the first lion to be killed in this manner. He is just another in a long line, in 2013 49 lions were killed for trophies [1] and it is estimated that 560 lions each year across Africa are killed with most carcasses being exported to the US [2] few of these animals got the column inches that Cecil got, most in fact have gone unremarked in the wider press. Due to our anthropomorphic nature Cecil however has become the poster boy for lion conservation and activism. This can only be a good thing. News stories such as this allow people like me and other writers to explain the problems and let everyone know what is happening. It is sad though that so many unnamed and less well regarded lions have died in the past until Cecil’s death has galvanised the world.

The second point I want to address is this idea of trophy hunting and how some claim that its use is somehow a viable conservation tool. Lion numbers across Africa stand at 32,00 across 67 specific areas. To put this in perspective between 1993 and 2014 lion numbers fell by 42% [3]. Since 1996 it has been listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and a lot of effort has been made to stabilise and increase populations. Much of the research supporting this effort has come from institutions like the Oxford Research Unit. Despite the doom and gloom there are sparks of light. Lion declines are not global across the board in fact in Botswana, India, Namibia and South Africa numbers are actually increasing by 11% [3].

As already alluded to Trophy hunting is not a new pursuit and has been legal since 2008. In fact the IUCN even has a suggested sustainable limit of 1 male per 2000km2 as a guideline for species management and financial gain [3]. Conservation is expensive and in poor countries there is often conflict between local business and the need to conserve. A study by IFAW questioned the financial worth of trophy hunting lions challenging claims that it raised $200 million per annum for the local economy [4]. Even if the income raised isn’t as high as this it is easy to see that this is a lucrative market, a basic hunt can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $70,000 for 21 days. Analysis of Tanzania hunting however indicates where that money goes, 3% goes in government royalties, 11% wages, a further 3% is invested in local development and 22% goes to the wildlife division (The rest on other sources). 22% is a reasonable slice going to the wildlife agencies. Wildlife authorities are often poorly financed by central governments and so such monies present a tempting lure and so here comes the ethical question.

Can lions be sustainably hunted? Licensing and permit systems exist and if managed by adherence to population trends and local densities then one is tempted to say yes. Does the loss of a lion balance out the number of species or area of land that can be protected for all species? Would the lion selflessly lay down its life for others? Would it acknowledge the good its death brings to its fellow wildlife? The answer is undoubtedly no. Lions have one goal, pass their own genes into the next generation, they care little for the plight of the Leopard, and in fact they would probably welcome their removal as a competitor.

This tragedy, the death of an undoubtedly magnificent animal allows us to question as wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists as to where we draw the line. We trap and kill mink in this country to protect Water Vole and we cull deer to protect trees, these are conservation measures necessary for species survival the key difference here is the human one. The reason we abhor the killing of Cecil is more about the human nature it displayed. That desire of one human being to despatch a wild animal, to stoke an ego or slake a dark lust for blood. Were Cecil culled by a park authority due to population size would the story be as big as it is. As usual it is the human aspect that has attracted the press and not the wildlife conservation message.

Regardless of the cause it is up to us conservationists to use this death to explain the complexities faced by field conservationists and how species can be conserved. The general public need to be aware of the issues and understand that they are not just idle bystanders, in the UK the best way to support the lion is not to lambast the dentist nor to sign a petition for extradition this does little more for the lion but to urge the African governments to end licensed trophy killing in any form and to donate money to conservation and aid agencies to ensure the local people are not driven to such efforts through poverty. There will always be people willing to pay to kill so let’s make the effort to take away their source. Take pride in making a stand.

Friday, 31 July 2015

A plethora of insects

As hoped the weather today was much improved for my day off. I had planned that if the weather was fine that I would head to Priory Park in Warwick to photograph butterflies. In areas of the park they leave the grass to grow and in patches thistles grow that attract all kinds of butterflies but nothing prepared me for wealth of insect life that awaited me.

I was distracted from my photography by the sheer number of butterflies present and there and then decided to make as best a count as I was able. This was quite difficult as you can imagine, its surprising how feisty some butterflies are chasing each other and ousting others from their perches but the following is a rough count of what was present.

Number counted in one circuit of the patch
Small Skipper
Meadow Brown
Large White
Holly Blue

This is an amazing total for a 5 minutes count in such a small patch is due entirely to the councils efforts to allow the grass to grow and provide such excellent habitat.

Small Skipper


Small Skipper

Aside from butterflies there were a myriad of other insects and dutifully I tried to identify as many as I could they included:

Six-Spot Ladybirds, Honey Bees, White-tailed Bumblebees, Red-Tailed Bumblebees, Volucella hoverflies, Syrphus hoverflies, Helophilus hoverflies, (excellent site on Hoverfly ID). Dock bug. Green Bottle Fly and a few other as yet unidentified flies.

Late instar Dock Bug

Here is a short video clip, listen to the sounds it highlights the other residents.

As you could here aside from the lens on my camera focusing and the breeze on the microphone was the near consistent buzz of grasshoppers and crickets. I spent a little time rummaging through the grass to find out what was present and managed to identify 2 species: the Lesser Marsh Grasshopper and Roesell's Bush-Cricket. The later is a species that was only found in the south of the country 10 years ago but is now spreading ever northwards and was easily the most abundant of the orthoptera present. (Excellet Orthoptera ID site)

Lesser Marsh Grasshopper

Female Roesel's Bush-Cricket - note the ovipositor 

Roesel's Bush-Cricket

Whilst crawling about in the grass I also stumbled across a small common toad that quickly disappeared into the undergrowth. This added to the Rabbits I had seen earlier, the magpies, blackbird, pigeons,Green Woodpecker, Crows Blue Tits and Nuthatch,  that were calling in the trees and the Peacock butterfly I spotted as I left leads to a total species count of 28 for the 1hr 30mins of wildlife watching. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Kestrels, Sparrowhawks red in tooth and claw

In theory summer time should be a quiet time for me but in actual fact quite the reverse is true. As an exam marker for OCR I was kept occupied with 455 exam papers to mark over May and June, on top of this I have been updating and writing new textbooks for the new A-levels being released in September. All this has had an impact on my ability to get out and see wildlife.

 I have still managed my weekly patch visits but nothing out of the ordinary has turned up in the past few weeks. I m unsure if the Kestrels have indeed bred, there has been much activity in the suspected nest tree but not enough food drops to suggest breeding. Having said that last week the Adults got very flustered by a Sparrowhawk passing by and some of the calls from individuals sounded very juvenile and in the distance they did seem like possible youngsters. As in previous years the concrete proof may well come from observing the parents teaching their young to hunt.

I have watched this happen several times in the past 10 years. The young take place on a prominent tree and when not bickering with each other watch as one or the other parent hovers over the field. If there is a catch the food is either taken up to them or the youngsters come down to investigate. Eventually they seem to take it in turns to fly up hover and then drop.  I am not certain that every drop was in response to a prey item but more like a practice run to ensure they learn how to extricate themselves from the long grass. It is whilst on the ground with prey that they are most vulnerable themselves and have to learn to despatch the prey quickly and retreat to a safe tree.

Speaking of hunting the Sparrowhawk has been very busy around the housing estate. Usually a female is seen but now a male has become more conspicuous. Perhaps the female is on eggs or with young as his hunting pattern has increased considerably. In the hot weather during the tennis on three separate occasions the male swept into the garden to perch on the lilac tree, even when people were sat in the garden. Like most birds of prey they get most of their water from their food but the sparrowhawk always seemed to be aiming for branches above the bird bath. In each case it did not seem to be in hunting mode and was always startled by us before it could either bathe or drink.

Yesterday however hunting mode was definitely in action. I was sat on the patio when an alarm call alerted me to his presence. It’s hard to explain the difference but the alarm call for Cat by birds is different to that of Sparrowhawk and I knew instantly to keep an eye skyward. Faster that I could track the male swept low over the leylandi hedge with a starling snatched from the next door neighbours feeder clutched in its talons. The starling was still very much alive and screeching in fear. The hawk alighted on the lawn barely 3 metres from me its trademark yellow knitting needle thin legs pinning the bird to the floor. Usually in this situation the hawk would bend and dispatch the bird with a peck to the head or a re-positioning of the talon to the neck. Sometimes a hawk will take time to take a few mouthfuls or to strip away some feathers but our garden is quite enclosed and so usually it heads off immediately.

In this case, a case that took of all of milliseconds to take place things were different. Although I had risen from my seat the hawk had not seen me or had discounted my threat. From out of a push leapt a male Blackbird who stood proudly on the lawn wings and feathers flared in display chiming out an alarm call. The hawk glanced at the Blackbird and then tracked across to me where our eyes met.

There is something about the meeting of eyes that holds a certain power. I have noticed this in many wildlife encounters. That as soon as eyes are met something unspoken takes place, where once an animal was happy with your presence they become skittish and nervous. A kind of understanding passes between you that you in fact could be a danger... a recognition by the animal that you are an enemy to be avoided. In a split second and with a look that could have been both resentment and annoyance the sparrowhawk released the starling and flew off with characteristic agility. Acting on instinct alone I imagine, still squawking, it fled to the bush into which the blackbird had now retreated. I have no idea if the starling survived, after all it must have suffered wounds from being gripped by the sparrowhawk. Had my presence and the blackbirds interference actually deprived the predator and its possible chicks a meal whilst condemning the starling to a long slow death from wounds sustained.

It is an interesting philosophical point and one that should challenge your views on nature. Nature is ‘dog eat dog’ out there. It is complex and dynamic and to appreciate it fully you must accept both the cute fluffy ducklings and the pike that appears from below and drags one to oblivion. Life and death such as this is portrayed regularly on documentaries about the Serengeti with lions bringing down wildebeest or wolves tracking deer in Yellowstone but these patterns occur in the UK and are just as important, poignant and raw as elsewhere.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

First Report on Camera Study - Badgers

A 365 day study of Badger (Meles meles) activity using a fixed trail camera: A short report

By Mark Smith


A Bushnell trail camera was installed on a regularly used track way in a hedge line between a wet meadow and arable field. The camera recorded 24 hours a day and all species triggered by the camera were recorded.
Badger data was collated to show overall seasonal patterns and changes in daily activity cycles. The data showed three main points relating to territorial behaviour and supported established research into Badger activity.
1.       Peak activity occurred in February coinciding with the birth of cubs underground prompting a strengthening of territorial boundaries reflected by increased transit past the camera as the boundary was patrolled and the edge latrine pit was visited more often
2.       Daily over night activity exhibited two peaks of activity in spring and summer relating to foraging and territorial behaviour interspersed with rest periods
3.       Frequency of activity was relaxed in the autumn and winter but the length of nightly activity increased up to 12 hours of activity per night in line with shorter days and the need to forage more to maintain bodyweight.
More analysis to compare year on year data is needed to improve the data set and specific studies of latrine pit  usage would enable a clearer picture of territorial activity to be assessed.


Badgers live in social groups called clans of between 2 and 23 individuals (mean: 6). Badgers maintain a territory of 30ha in optimum habitat up to 150 ha in marginal ones (Harris & Yalden, 2008; Johnson et al, 2001). The boundaries of these territories are demarked by well worn paths and shared latrine pits. The size and configuration of the territory is determined primarily by the distribution of food (Harris & Yalden, 2008).
Badgers are mainly crepuscular and nocturnal emerging at around dusk and returning to their setts before sunrise (Neal & Cheesman, 1996; Johnson et al, 2001). In this short report the findings from a year long camera trap study of all species recorded moving along a hedge line have been analysed to investigate the activity of the badgers of a sett located 270m from the camera.


Between the 21st April 2014 and the 19th April 2015 a Bushnell Nature View HD camera was placed on continuous record. The camera was set to record all animals and birds that passed its field of view. It was located at SP292671 (52.301295, -1.570757). The camera was mounted 1 metre off the ground on the trunk of a Beech tree and was orientated to face northwards facing along a well used track way in the hedgerow between a wet meadow and an arable field.
The camera was set to record 30 second video clips with a 1 second refresh time.
8MB SanDisk memory cards were changed every week and the clips reviewed. All species sighted and identifiable were recorded. Notes on specific behaviours were noted.
Over the year the camera was inoperable for 42 days. Outages were due to setting errors and battery failures. Total coverage is therefore 88.5% of the year. In this time the camera recorded 152 badgers. Individual badgers were not identified in this study, just presence/absence information.
Figure 1 shows a rough sketch map of the study area. The camera can be seen located on the hedge line and the sett further down the same hedge line. It highlights the main track ways used by the badgers and other mammals as well as key behavioural locations such as latrine pits and areas where regular foraging seems to take place.

Figure 1 Site Map showing camera location and points of interest


The data from the study was tabulated in Excel and the formatted to express activity as an expression of the number of badgers recorded by the camera by week and each hour. In this way it is possible to map activity over the year and throughout the cycle of a day.
Figure 2 shows the activity over the year. Figures 3 - 6 shows seasonal differences in daily activity expressed as a mean number of Badger sightings per hour in each three month block.

Figure 2 Graph showing the activity of Badgers over the year

Figure 3 Daily activity cycle for Spring

Figure 4 Daily activity cycle for Summer

Figure 5 Daily activity cycle for Autumn

Figure 6 Daily activity cycle for Winter

Figure 2 shows a significant peak of activity in February and a smaller one in late April to May. The rest of the year activity was relatively stable.
The graphs for daily activity cycles indicate a range of patterns. Firstly autumn and winter activity is generally lower than spring and summer. Both spring and summer show two peaks of activity. In the spring these peaks are at 22.00 hours and 03.00 hours and for summer 22.00 hours and 04.00 hours. Daily peaks are less evident in the autumn and winter.
The length of activity across a day increases in length over the year between 8 hours in spring to 12 hours in the winter.


The data collected in this study supports many of the findings of other researchers. It highlights specific peaks in annual patterns and difference between daily activity levels between seasons. This study, however, is different to other studies in that it focuses on a track way rather than a sett. This means that emergence times are unknown.  The camera is located between two latrine pits and on the border of a change in habitat. Badgers are known to operate bimodally, with activity either very close to the sett or removed from the sett especially along the boundaries, this is more pronounced in males (Revilla & Palomares, 2002; Roper et al, 1993) therefore this study explores the amount of time invested in maintaining a territory. The track way does not lead to established feeding grounds and foraging behaviour in the video clips was very restricted (only in the autumn) and most behaviour noticed was either direct transit along the track or marking.

Annual Pattern

The most obvious piece of data reflecting the badgers is the large peak in activity occurring in mid-late February. Here activity increased by 500%. This coincides with the time cubs are born in the setts (Neal & Cheesman, 1996)which is usually in the first three weeks of February (Harris & Yalden, 2008)).
Footage at this time reflected a general feeling of increased activity. Passage past the camera seemed quicker and more frenetic. There was also an increase in the amount of casual marking made by the males. It is suspected that the birth of the cubs promotes a level of excitement and activity in the clan. Sows that had just given birth are now able to come out and feed. They need to maintain their body weight in order produce milk. Boars, in a burst of protectiveness could be more actively demarking their territory to ensure the new additions and their home range are adequately defended. Research supports the idea that males are more active and travel (Neal & Cheesman, 1996; Revilla & Palomares, 2002)
Secondary smaller peaks in April and May likely coincide with the cub’s first emergence from the sett. No cubs were recorded on the camera as it is likely to far from the main sett although smaller individuals were observed later in the year. Emergence from the sett would free up sows from suckling duties and enable them to forage farther. The peak also corresponds to recorded activity peaks surrounding the main mating period in early spring (Harris & Yalden, 2008).

Daily Pattern

In all seasons the greatest level of activity is recorded 2-3 hrs after dusk this relates to their emergence time and reinforces work by Neal and Cheeseman (1996). As the camera is not at the sett but on a territorial route there is a delay in activity being recorded.
Badgers in spring tend to emerge around sunset and will forage around the sett a little before dispersing across a territory to feed and mark. A figure 3 show spring patterns of activity and shows two peaks of activity across the evening, 22hrs and 2am-4am. Two peaks reflect the recorded pattern of badger activity in which individuals will forage for a period of time have a period of rest before becoming active again just before returning to the sett (Neal & Cheesman, 1996) In this season females remain closer to the set (Roper et al, 1993) and males spend greater time using latrine pits and marking the territory (Revilla & Palomares, 2002). Spring has the shortest activity period at just 8 hours reflecting the females remaining either close to the sett, giving birth or males and females being engaged in mating activity.
Through the summer activity time increases to 10 hours a night and the likelihood of observation before sunset increases. This activity period is much longer than those recorded by Neal and Cheeseman (1996) which estimated total activity time to be approximately 6.5 hours. Like spring two peaks of activity occur over the night at 22 hrs and 4 am.
Autumn (Figure 5) shows the lowest frequency of activity and there is little evidence of any definite peak in the pattern of the night’s activity. Studies by Roper et al (1993) suggest that during the autumn male activity reaches a peak of activity along boundaries, establishing the territory ready to protect the foraging space for the winter, this data does not however support this. The degree of activity over the whole night is again longer that summer at 11 hours of activity, this could be related to the reduction in day length and the increase in foraging required to build up body weight for winter survival.
During the winter (Figure 6) activity over the night is at its maximum nearing 12 hours in total, with very little variation in the frequency of activity across the night. This is supported by data presented by Neal and Cheeseman (1996) which recorded 11 hours activity per night. Activity occurs between two hours after sunset and two hours before sunrise. 


Harris, S., & Yalden, D. (2008). Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook. 4th Edition. The Mammal Society.
Johnson, D., MacDonald, D., Newna, L., & Morecroft, M. (2001). Group size versus territory size in group-living badgers: a large-sample field test of the resource dispersion hypothesis. Oikos , 95, 265-274.
Neal, E., & Cheesman, C. (1996). Badgers. London: T&D Poyser Natural History.
Revilla, E., & Palomares, F. (2002). Spatial organisation, group living and ecological correlates in low-density populations of Eurasian Badgers (Meles meles). Journal of Animal Ecology , 71, 497-512.
Roper, T., Conradt, J., Christian, S., Ostler, J., & Schmid, T. (1993). Territorial marking with faeces in badgers (Meles meles): A comparison of boundary and hinterland latrine use. Behaviour , 127, 3-4.