Monday, 31 January 2011

In the North-East

It didn't take long for my temporary optimism to be dissolved away. The point in the last post was that despite the well-documented threats to our wildlife, there is more and wider protection now than ever before and we should recognise that fact before considering the future.

Today, however, I spent a day off from work travelling around the north-east tip of Kent, and was appalled to find only two Sanderlings, one of my favourite species. TWO! Dos, due, deux, just a couple, a pair, TWO! There are normally between 100 and 200 around Foreness, with 50+ Ringed Plovers and at least double figure counts of Purple Sandpipers, or which there were absolutely none this time. Even the Turnstone numbers were low.

The only other interesting bird was an oiled Guillemot being chased back into the water by a dog - and there's the rub.... despite the notices, the dog-walkers keep scattering the roosts and I suppose on a Monday morning the waders haven't returned from their weekend refuges.

I went to my farm shop of choice and bought up as much fruit and veg as I could carry, in a fit of retail therapy.
Thence to Reculver, where a considerable eastward movement of divers was evident, but where there was little close in, apart from a Grey Plover on one leg.......
... and a flock of 400+ Brents that flew noisily from the fields to the sea and back again, entertaining us while we searched for three little pebble-sized, pebble-coloured birds.
When the three Shorelarks appeared, they were easy to see, but when you're trying to find them it's another matter.

The sun appeared when I got to Stodmarsh, but again all was quite quiet apart from a party doing some winter work - no complaints from me, as the efforts that these volunteers are putting in now will reap benefits in years to come.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Reasons to be (a little bit more) Cheerful

Recent blogs here and here have worried away at the concern that things are inexorably getting worse in the British natural world, which led me thinking about the wider picture, and I ended up with a reasonably optimistic feeling.

As a historian I try to go back a bit, and we don't have to look far before we see a world of lush and varied vegetation, fields and woods echoing with calls of multitudinous birds, and a myriad of insects flying or crawling over it all.

These kinds of habitat still prevail in some undeveloped parts of Europe, but for us the combination of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, environmental pollution, concrete, tarmac, cars and people destroyed much, no, almost all of this beautiful richness.

By the 1960s our environment was not only in a serious mess, but almost nobody cared and the few that did (arise Rachel Carson and others) had little information and less influence. But gradually these few managed to be heard, and the environmental organisations that already existed like the RSPB and the National Trust grew quickly and were joined by many others - wildlife trusts, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth as well as local groups of people who saw the need for change.

The strength of protest in other areas like Civil Rights showed the environmental campaigners what could be done, and showed politicians the benefit of listening to arguments outside the mainstream. CND protests in the UK swayed popular opinion, and while some nature organisations raised money to protect "reserves", others improved the general environment - toxicity of farming chemicals was reduced, lead was taken out of petrol, industries and rivers have been cleaned up. Planning consent should now only be given if there are no serious environmental effects, and you should hear what developers say about bats, great-crested newts and white-clawed crayfish.

European legislation has also, of course, played an important part in forcing reluctant governments to "do the right thing".

Which brings us to today. Many of the species that were decimated by the devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century have not returned, but some have - red kites, sparrowhawks, peregrines at the top of the food chain show improvements in conditions of their prey, while fish and otters have returned to rivers. Improvements in agriculture will have a slow effect, but hopefully although the field of corn will be sterile its surroundings may become richer.

Outside nature reserves, these improvements depend, of course, on "government policy" encouraging or enforcing good environmental practice. The voice of the environment is loud, and embraces right and left (hence the broad opposition to the sale of forests from green-wellie dog-walkers to green smelly eco-warriors). And although the Green Party seems destined to remain on the fringe of politics for the moment, voters should keep their MPs and councillors aware of the strong feelings on this matters.

There is a lot of lovely countryside out there, and although we know that much has gone, the patchwork of National Parks, marine and local nature reserves, SSSIs and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty covers much of our land and has a protection that could only be dreamed of a few decades ago.

That's the positive bit - we are currently just about holding the line.

This article was brought to you by Optimists Anonymous - terms and conditions apply. Effects from climate change, government cuts, privatisation, nuclear fallout, oil leaks, chemical spills, genetic modification and Japanese Knotweed do not apply.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

What's the difference between a wood and a forest?

What's the difference between a wood and a forest?

The origins of the words give a clue.... wood is derived from Old English, while forest is a Frankish word that came to Britain with the Normans and which included any wild area, not necessarily tree-covered.

As the Norman nobility were more concerned with hunting than the more mundane aspects of life, the word forest was applied to lands appropriated for this pastime but not for generally smaller woods that would have been used by the Anglo-Saxons for fuel, timber, pasture etc.

In East Kent, therefore, would Lyminge Forest have been owned by a Norman warrior, whereas Blean Woods, although larger, were not generally used by nobility for hunting and so retained the other name? Both Lambarde (1570) and Hasted (1778) wrote that by then there were no forests of protected hunting land in Kent, however.
Much of the Blean, extending in an arc from east to west of Canterbury, was owned by the Archbishop, Christ Church and other clerical houses, and is described well in a book The Blean, The Woodlands of a Cathedral City. It argues that, contrary to popular opinion, most of the countryside structure that we see today was already in place before the Romans arrived. Earlier settlers had cleared most of the areas that are now farmed, and had discarded unproductive land where now the woods and forests grow, and where slow-growing plants like Butcher's Broom confirm their age.
The Blean lies on poor soil which not only does not support arable crops, but also grows relatively poor trees, better for the underwood for fuel than standard trees for building, as they rarely grow straight and true.

The remains of ditches and hedges that were set up to mark ownership and rental, and to keep deer out, are still to be seen in places - below is a grown-out laid hedge in The Blean....
.... and at Lyminge the Forestry Commission's conifers are edged by coppiced beeches.
So who owns the woods and forests? In England, 80% is owned privately or by charities (including the Woodland Trust, RSPB etc), some better managed than others, and with varying degrees of access. The remaining 20% is owned by the Forestry Commission which was set up in 1919 with a wide brief to manage the land - and to increase timber production at minimum cost to the taxpayer which led to the damaging policy of increasing the amount of non-native conifer plantations that are now environmental deserts. Consequently Lyminge Forest looks more "foresty" with high densities of softwoods, while the Blean retains its English woodland image with mostly broad-leaved trees.

Now that biodiversity is higher on the list of the Commission's priorities, the price of timber and other wood products has fallen so that the cost to the taxpayer is £64m per year, according to the latest accounts. This is presumably due for the chop, to be axed, to be cut down (chose your own headline-grabbing metaphor) and large parts are for sale.

Last October, a press officer for the Forestry Commission vehemently denied Lyminge Forest would be sold. She said: "It isn't under consideration for sale - it's not true at all."

That's OK then. We won't need to call Swampy back to defend it again.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

New Local Wildlife Site - The Beach

After I commented upon two Local Wildlife Sites last week, the White Cliffs Countryside Project have announced a management plan for another one, along the beach from the Zetland Arms north past Walmer Castle, to the yacht club.

At a meeting in the Village Hall, WCCP staff explained that the Site would not have any more legal protection from development or damage, but that the habitat would be assessed and managed in a sensitive way - hopefully by local residents in the spirit of "Big Society" [my words, not theirs, I hasten to add]. Funding to groups like the Project has, of course, been slashed on all sides.

They have identified four zones within the Site, each with its own characteristic identity:
Zone A was described as the most important one and I agree, as it holds the large colony of Small Blue butterflies, as well as Bright Weave and Sussex Emerald moths and an interesting and rare shingle heath flora.

Zone B includes grassland near the old lifeboat station, Zone C runs along the shingle beach and includes sea pea, sea sandwort and Babbington's orache, while Zone D is the close-cropped lawn between the shingle and the road, with its population of Autumn Lady's Tresses.
The experts were clear that much of the site is suffering from non-native invasion, and would benefit from the clearance of holm oak, valerian, red-hot poker and other garden escapes. I can see that this could be controversial but with education I'd hope it would be accepted. The Project has no powers to force landowners to do anything (or indeed not to do anything) but "have only persuasion and assistance".
On the positive side, the shingle means that invasion is only slow, so control should not be too difficult.
I look forward to hearing more about the plan, and hope that a working party will be arranged. In the meantime, it's a good opportunity to show some summery pictures :-)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Nice Pair

Oh come on, I need a break - the hit counter of this blog needs improvement, hence the unashamed title today.

After paying my dues pounding the clifftop and rifle range to check how many of the previous days' auks, divers and kittiwakes were still offshore (answer: some but not many) I was on my way home when I met Nigel, who shouted "Northern Long Tailed Tit!" and gestured wildly at the undercliff vegetation. He had been calling them in around the village and had found a flock with two Northern individuals near the toilet block, then of course they had moved on.

We split up and he soon found the flock on the clifftop but as soon as I struggled up there they moved on again, but fortunately only back down to the original site, where they stayed browsing the holm oaks for a while.
I had to tear myself away, due to a prior engagement, but managed to get a record shot to remember the day by - they are lovely little powder-puff birds, and I've always wanted to see one - today I was able to see two, thanks to Nigel's ability to charm rarities from thin air.

A quick look at the BTO Migraton Atlas confirms that although Long Tailed Tits are generally rather sedentary, the nominate Northern race occasionally irrupts from its base in northern Europe and Asia. This Dutch birding site has recorded unusually high numbers this year too.

While watching the tits, a Peacock butterfly flew past, the first of the year.

Back in the garden, as I chopped up the Christmas tree a fox that has adopted the garden was chewing on something just a few feet away. A vixen's scream has been heard nearby, so perhaps this is she.
It seemed well-fed and healthy, and treated me with the contempt I deserve.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

An inundation of auks

Last year we saw very few auks passing by the south-east corner, but yesterday there were about 100 on the sea off Kingsdown, and this morning they were fizzing past at a rate of about 10 per minute.

Some of the auks were preening energetically, and some perhaps desperately as if oiled - this razorbill floated into the shore, attended by gulls waiting for a meal.

The wind had strengthened from the south-west, and there were good numbers of divers and great crested grebes as well as the auks, flying south.

The waters off Kingsdown seemed to be good for food, and newly-arriving birds would land near others, assuming they had picked a good spot. The auks are hilarious when they land..... slow, slow, stall and collapse in a heap on the water but it's more important for them to be able to land on their cliff-side nests, I suppose.*

A few kittiwakes joined the usual resident gulls just offshore, while gannets (notably all adults) fished a little further out. A small grey-and-white grebe flew past - a Slav or a Red-neck?

I was pleased to take an old family friend, Andy from Chew, down to the beach in the afternoon and it's humbling to talk to someone who has recorded a patch for 40 years, and who has such good technical knowledge. I have much to learn, Andy, so keep those anecdotes coming!

* back to auks.... extract from the Pegwell Bay Report 2010:

I’m putting forth a motion here to change the name of Razorbill to Razorbob? What do you reckon eh? It would be much better saying I saw 21 Razorbob’s, now wouldn’t it as were all bored with Razorbill after years of saying it now aren’t we? They have a bill like a razor and they do ‘bob’ on the sea when they land and it’s choppy? I also want to change the word ‘choppy’ in this instance for the words ‘chip choppy’ because then you could say if a Razorbill landed on a choppy sea “look there’s a Razorbob sitting there on the chip choppy sea” etc and so forth. This would surely enliven any dull and boring sea watch? Odds ones were seen in January whilst looking for Dovers and Guillebobs across the chip choppy sea.

A classic.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Flower Map

At my drop-leaf table

I am bent like a snowdrop over pages

of my January nonsense

with a flower-map as guide.

The revised Atlas of Kent Flora has arrived, after two decades of preparation by the redoubtable Eric Philp, and it's a labour of love......... thousands of records of about 2,500 species in 1043 tetrads, all apparently seen by the author.

The comparisons with the previous Atlas in 1982 is fascinating, we can clearly see the gains and losses.

It's also useful (if saddening) to know that an expert plant-hunter has sought but not found some species that I've failed to find...... like Deptford Pink at Sandwich Bay and Common Dodder on Deal seafront, which both seem to have disappeared from these places. Wild Candytuft is apparently still to be found on the downs at Folkestone though.

One of the greatest gains is shown by Danish Scurvygrass (note: it's a native species, despite its name), which was reported to be "rather scarce" and found only by the sea in 17 tetrads in 1982......
.....but having "suddenly found another niche" along salted roads, has spread to at least 209 now:
Hours of fun will be had by the fireside, comparing the two atlases, writing notes in the margins and planning "planty twitches" for the summer.

Incidentally, the cunning clear perspex grid that accompanied the first book is almost (but not quite) the same size as the new maps.

While considering maps, the Kent Landscape Information System (K-LIS) is useful, showing SSSIs, Local Nature Reserves etc, and also so-called Local Wildlife Sites that, although giving no right of access or change in status, at least acknowledge the habitat assets of a place.

The extract below shows as an example that the golf course and camp site are both designated as Local Wildlife Sites, and if (Gold forbid) there were to be a planning application to build on either of them, this status should alert the public of their status.Planning applications........ don't get me started........ talk about a charter for NIMBYs.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Ham Sandwich, and veggie options

Driving around today I was pleased to see that the "Ham Sandwich" sign has been restored - it's fair game for "collectors" and the local council had understandably tired of replacing it whenever it was nicked.
Nearby is Fowlmead Country Park which has belated gained the attention of local birders as a flock of a dozen Waxwings have taken up residence. I find it a fascinating place, a regenerated coal spoil heap with interesting plant introductions and enough variety of habitat to attract and shelter plenty of diverse wildlife, as well as enough space for plenty of people.

There is an observation point that surveys the surrounding flooded fields including the RSPB's newly-acquired Lydden reserve. The photo above shows part of this area, and includes a rather distant Great White Egret. I took my scope up there and had a peaceful hour watching the Egret, a Marsh Harrier, duck and waders. I met chap whose father was gamekeeper of this area in the fifties, and he's hoping that the RSPB's changes will bring a return of the large numbers of birds that overwintered here before the land was drained.
Back at the carpark, the Waxwings were still being harried by the long-lens lads, and although I saw the birds drink, I didn't see them feed - another piece of poor behaviour by the photographers.
Talking of feeding, a trip to London included a visit to Borough Market and another welcome burger at the Veggie Table stall.......
...... and later an excellent meal at Mildred's, surely one of the great veggie restaurants in London, with some of the best staff.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Now that's the way to start the Year!

I started the New Year in the good company of friends, and the walk back over the fields in the darkness was marvellous, with a Little Owl calling in the distance.

Cobwebs needed to be blown away in the late morning, so in keeping with tradition I walked the the estate, up towards St Margarets and back along the clifftop, meeting other friends and acquaintances on the way. The tick-list of birds was similar to normal (30) including pleasing sightings of Yellowhammers, a Firecrest and a flock of 28 Skylarks. There were no Divers on the sea (remember that for later).

On the 2nd January I'm allowed to venture further afield, so with a film crew (S Ray) we drove to Pett Levels in Sussex, which has had an impressive run of good birds recently.
Clearly plenty of others had the same idea and the seawall was littered with telescopes, but we stopped at the eastern end where the densest group seemed to be. It transpired that they were not at all dense, but knowledgeable locals who had the best views of a mixed flock of Barnacle and Brent Geese, including a Black Brant (a first for me) and four Pale-Bellied Brents (also a first). Excellent!

While enjoying their good conversation we gazed idly out to sea, where a motor boat was puttering towards us, flushing Red-throated Divers in front of it........ we counted over 500 in just a few minutes, our scopes showing up to 30 at a time. So that's where all our Divers have been wintering!

A scattering of waders (Curlew, Grey and Golden Plover, Dunlin and Knot) just added to the richness of the marsh but we had to move on to see what else was around - we said thanks and farewell to the locals (including the talented blogger Cliff Dean) and walked a bit of the canal path to warm up.

Our return to Kent was timed to coincide with the return to roost of a flock of Hawfinches at Denge Wood, and when we arrived they were already in the treetops, eight of them rather than the six that I saw on New Year's Eve. They may be very scarce, but at least they are faithful to a roost site and hang around for half an hour in full view before dropping into their chosen tree, giving ample time for us to watch them. They have apparently been coming to this site since November.
What bills - it's just like cost of Christmas.
In betweentimes and at a various places, we managed to watch Tree Sparrows, White-fronted Geese, a Green Sandpiper(!) and perhaps best of all a Rough-Legged Buzzard that flew into some trees near us, giving a good look at its light-coloured tail in flight. Its head was majestic, captured well by the film crew.
Now that's the way to start the Year! And the good company was the best bit.

[PS a burst of activity on the sea off Kingsdown on the day after produced 454 divers flying north - could these have been the birds seen off Pett...... a helpful Cliff Dean suggested checking for colour-rings]