Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Friday, 30 March 2012

Photoblog: Spring on the Marshes

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is one of the first shrubs to flower in Spring.
The tell-tale white flowers attract many insects; the sharp thorns and dense growth make it a popular choice for nesting birds such as Nightingale.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) at Cliffe Pools. Sunny inflorescence peeking through the grass.
A heifer and her calf in the yard at Northward Hill.
The cattle came in off the fields in early February and the calving commenced a few weeks later. I loved watching their first few days: tottering around, curiously tasting the air. These heifers are good mums.   
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) in display flight, tumbling and swooping over the marsh.
The calls are something else; imagine a shedful of detuned radios - all static beeps, whistles and whirrs
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) from my bedroom window.
It's strange, until 2 months ago you'd barely see sparrows around the yard. Then one morning in February there were a dozen or more. The incessant cheeping is a comforting sound; if ever there was a bird not to take for granted, it's this

Bonus! Caption Competition!

The art of seduction: Woodpigeon style

Suggestions below, an exciting prize for the best*

*excitement not guaranteed

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Going nowhere fast

"Environmentally sustainable must always be fiscally sustainable."
George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 21st March 2012
What a week. On the surface, it was sublime; the first sunny days of spring, the first Chiffchaffs singing, the first butterflies on the wing. But, look elsewhere and it was bleak. Various claims that it would be the most ‘important week for the environment in decades,’ were not without reason. Following the Autumn Statement and after much debate and conjecture, we are now a bit clearer on what David Cameron meant when he promised his would be “the greenest government ever”. Ha! Tory spin - whoever saw that coming?!
Wednesday’s Budget Announcement didn’t make easy reading. We wanted some responsible leadership on energy issues; a blueprint for how industry and environment might be able to coexist in challenging times. We wanted some reassurance that Osborne’s unforgiveable comments about “gold-plating” of environment regulations in November were merely the headline grabbing rhetoric of a jumped up toff fed on a diet of nothing. What did we get? Fossil fuels, tax breaks for oil companies, new exploratory drilling rigs off the coast of Shetland and more roads that I can’t fucking afford to even drive on. Oh and THAT airport in the South East issue. These are the policies of men who have been in a coma for 20 years. Outdated, short-sighted and unsustainable - haven’t we learned anything?! My Grandma’s pretty pissed off too.
As far as the environment goes, it was not a favourable budget. The Habitats Regulations Review that followed on Thursday however, did at least stem the tide of arrogance. The review, put forward in the Autumn Statement to assess whether the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives were putting an “unfair burden” on businesses concluded that in “the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained”. It points out that “Natural England receives around 26,500 land use consultations annually; of these, they ‘object’ to less than 0.5% of these on Habitats Regulations grounds. Most of these objections are successfully dealt with at the planning stage” (page 13).  This is a significant step, those directives are a lifeline for so many species.
Preceding all this though were the Red Tape Challenge proposals, unveiled this week; that dressing up of planned cuts to those oh so burdensome environmental regulations as a popularity contest. Thankfully I think this is an area which also showed some traces of logic. The cutting of regulations is a worrying thought but in some cases I think the wording is misleading (Read Damian Carrington’s blog here). One of the key issues of concern arising from it regards changes to the Commons Act (the act which aims to protect ‘common land’ such as village greens etc). The RTC is in favour of “a range of further exemptions for works on common land”; introduced to “eliminate applications that are invariably approved” (is this good or bad?) Further regulations have been tabled for removal, which immediately has negative connotations. However, basis for this is given as being “improved protection and management of commons”.  We have little choice but to accept their word on this.
Of the 255 such regulations affected, 132 are earmarked for improvement (“through simplifications and mergers”) 70 remain as they are and 53 are deemed obsolete. I suppose we should ask whether “simplifications and mergers” mean an improvement or just more admin? I guess we’ll find out. The RTC also succeeded in opening up the streamlining process to the public. And the public stepped up – apparently 97% of those responses were in favour of stronger protection or no change in the rules governing the environment. That sends a pretty clear message
The RTC was established to save money and promote development, two things which in their own right are positive.  A few examples aside (eg waste management) by and large the RTC has served a purpose, the real test will be the National Planning Policy Framework announcement next week. As that quote at the top shows, these are worrying times. What comes out of it more than anything is that in the short term, NATURE NEEDS US. Decisions we make now will set the pattern for things to come. And In the long run, we need it more than it needs us.
According to the news this morning, for a fee, David Cameron and George Osborne are available for a private chat! What do you say we have a whip round? They clearly don’t check their emails.
NEXT WEEK: National Planning Policy Framework – stick around for more cheery ramblings!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Look who's 'ear...

Wheat right 'ear, while I get the camera.
A useless photo of a Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) Seaford Head, E Sussex, 18/3/12

And another

They're back!

I don't know if it's because I recently turned 30, but I've noticed myself beginning a worrying number sentences along the lines of "It seems like it was just last week that I (did that/went there/etc)..." Such is life. Anyway, it DOES seem like it was just last week that outgoing wheatears were popping all over the place here. But in reality it was 5 months ago. What have YOU done in that time? I bet you haven't flown all the way to Sub-Saharan Africa and back.

I was out on Saturday morning, checking my new BBS square that I'm taking on from an elderly local gent. It's predominantly flat, intensively managed, arable land but given it's slight elavation I had a little inkling in the back of my mind that it might be good for a passage Wheatear or two. Three minutes 50 yards ahead, on the rough farm track, was a fine male bird. The dark mask and wing panel, the 'proud', alert posture - unmistakeable. It wearily clocked my approach and skipped off into the verge, flashing its white rump, before popping up again on a pile of rubble further ahead. 17th March: First Wheatear of the year - it's always a nice moment. Swallows take the glory, but me? Dammit, I'm all about the "White arses". (Disclaimer - this is apparently where the english name 'Wheat-ear ' comes from, that's all I'm talking about)

Wikipedia fun fact of the day: the latin name (Oenanthe) is derived from the greek for 'ainos' (wine) and 'anthos' (flower). Evidently ancient greeks noticed the birds arrived as the spring grapevines blossomed. Cute, but I prefer the english version.

Down on the south coast yesterday, visiting my Grandma, I took a quick detour to Seaford Head. I knew there had to be a Wheatear or two up there. Again, I'd barely reached the top when I set eyes on one. Scanning the rough, tussocky grassland between the cliff edge and the golf course, there it was. Another striking male bird: fresh from a flight across the channel, across Europe, across the Med, across North Africa, across the Sahara, across the Sub-Saharan plains. The migratory instincts of birds such as these never fail to amaze me. Instinct is one thing, ability is another.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Shorty at Cliffe Pools

Some photos of the Short-eared Owl that's been at Cliffe Pools this week. A really stunning bird:

I was hoping to get a shot of it in silhouette. It really highlights the long, broad, rounded wings 

I was out checking water levels when the bird first appeared hunting on the causeways between the Black Barn pools. It felt like we were tracking each other, the bird appearing several times as I made my way across the site. But from the path near the Thames viewpoint I was able to pause and appreciate a spectacularly close encounter with it. No wind, perfect light, it caressed the grassland in an effortless flight for 20 minutes or more. Occasionally it would perform an amazing mid-air turn 'on a sixpence', like a feathery, winged Johan Cryuff in '74, and launch itself towards the ground and presumably a possible prey item. At times it passed so close I couldn't focus my camera properly. In these moments the meaning of it's taxonomic latin name became clear; Asio flammeus...I'm not sure about 'Asio' but 'flammeus' in my old latin school dictionary translates as 'flaming'. One look at its piercing yellow eyes shows why.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Name that Bird: Feather round

Feather whoa! Any guesses what birds these belong to? Clue- they were recovered from a variety of habitats across the north Kent marshes.

17/3/12 Answers (top to bottom):

Pheasant (f) *I think*
Teal (hindwing)
Green Woodpecker (primary/tail feather)
Barn Owl (wing)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Mad March

Popping home the other week I was intrigued to find an envelope waiting for me boldly marked ‘House of Commons’. Interesting mail is a rarity these days so I was quite excited. As it turns out it was a response from my local Conservative MP regarding an email I had sent questioning the government’s commitment to the environment in the forthcoming budget. It’s a nicely worded letter: he shares my view that the natural environment is “central to economic prosperity” and goes on to highlight that the government really is committed to being the “greenest ever” (citing the Green Deal, the Green Investment Bank and energy reforms, hmm...think I’ll save that for another email) He also assures me that he has bought my issues to the attention of the Treasury team which is jolly nice of him.
Ok, so it’s a fairly standard letter (no doubt one of many) but from it, there are two points which I think are particularly worthy of note. Firstly, it highlights what an important month March will be for the environment. On March 21st George Osborne will reveal the government’s spending blueprint for the coming year. If his Autumn Statement is anything to go by, the environment is in for a pasting. Will that ‘greenest government ever’ claim be proven or will it just be exposed as cynical, vote-pandering, hyperbole? Watch this space. The letter also mentions the proposed Thames Estuary Airport and the draft sustainable framework for aviation which is due to be published later this month. The outcome of this is also likely to have a significant impact on the environment at a local and international level, as it will lay out the government’s plans for the future of aviation in the UK.
The second point about this letter and one I found to be a helpful reminder, is that y’know all those online campaigns you read, those email templates you dutifully fill in and send off...well they do get read. I passionately believe that the environment is worth fighting for, that it needs a voice, especially in the political arena. But I guess there’s a small part of me that sometimes doubts whether these online tactics are effective. On bad days I envisage an aide hunched over a laptop, hitting ‘delete’ on all the messages clogging up their boss’s inbox. Of course, I don’t expect replies and its good PR when they are acknowledged, but it’s encouraging to know that some do get read. I still, and will always, keep sending them off (although I'm not expecting a reply from George)

Your MP might be a hip young gunslinger or they might be a characterless fool, but at the end of the day he or she is your hotline to the Commons and your best chance of being heard since angry mobs barging into Parliament wielding lists of DEMANDS went out of fashion. I won’t be voting for Gareth Johnson, Conservative MP for Dartford, at the next election because we have very different views, but I appreciate his reply.
Not sure who your MP is? Check here.
Make sure the environment gets a good deal in the budget here,
Dft Website: when the framework is launched, click on ‘consultations’ to have your say. Who knows?