Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Defra responds...

It's been amazing to see how quickly Defra's buzzard trial has ripped through the news outlets this week, seemingly propelled by an impressive tide of outage on some social media outlets. Given the kicking they've take on this one, the other afternoon they released their statement in the response. To follow up my last blog, here it is (from the website):

The Myth: 
There have been recent reports that Defra is proposing to cull buzzards or is about to implement a new policy to control their numbers. 
The Truth: 
Defra is absolutely not proposing to cull buzzards or any other raptors. 
We work on the basis of sound evidence.  This is why we want to find out the true extent of buzzards preying on young pheasants and how best to discourage birds that may cause damage to legitimate businesses.   This would be only in areas where there is a clear problem, using non-lethal methods including increasing protective cover for young pheasants with vegetation, diversionary feeding of buzzards, moving the birds elsewhere or destroying empty nests. The results of this scientific research will help guide our policy on this issue in the future. 
As the RSPB have said, the buzzard population has recovered wonderfully over the last few years, and we want to see this continue.

So what do you make of that?

It strikes me as pretty cursory response and releasing it in 'mythbusting' format seems a rather light-hearted means of regaining public face (if that was the intention)

Of  the 'myth', I haven't actually seen any articles that refer to a cull of buzzards but I suppose I could've missed that given the extensive coverage of the issue.

Of the 'truth', it claims, once again, that they are working 'on the basis of sound evidence' yet not apparently on the basis of rational thought, financial sensitivity or ecological understanding. It also mentions the damage caused to legitimate business. While there are no qualms here about the legitimacy of pheasant shoots, what they totally fail to address is that, aside from the wholly unnecessary and callous methods proposed of managing buzzards (captive removal and nest destruction), what's got most people riled is that taxpayers money is being used to boost the profits of private businesses (which are hardly in dire straits) They cannot seriously qualify spending this amount on economic grounds since the margins are minimal - how long would it take to recoup an investment of £375k? Livelihoods are not at stake and there is no benefit to the wider public at all. This is not how a government department tasked with protecting the environment, promoting an environmentally sustainable economy and good quality of life should be spending money. Perhaps they'd like to bust that myth?

Anyway, I'm sure we're all on the same page with this, no point banging on what's already been said elsewhere. I guess the issue will keep rumbling on and we'll just have to wait and see just how much this lives up to the claim of being 'scientific research'. Will it be the kind of scientific research that results in sound, progressive policy making? Or will it be the kind of 'scientific research' that whaling nations use to legalise the pointless slaughter of hundreds of cetaceans every year?

In the meantime though, it would be great if everyone who reads this blog signed this petition (if they haven't already) to Richard Benyon MP. And while you're at it, sign this one as well! Write a letter, go birdwatching...lets poke Defra out of their tree before they get started. Ha.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

DEFRA Buzzard Trial: WTF?

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) soaring over the North Kent Marshes, August 2011

If you're reading this, you've proabably heard by now the shocking announcement this week that DEFRA has sanctioned a £375,000 trial to assess 'management techniques' that would reduce the apparently 'significant' effects of Common Buzzards on Pheasants reared and released by the Game industry. Based on some pretty dubious science, this absolutely mystifying decision has come about at the 'urgent' request of the National Gamekeeper's Organisation, who are presumably, about now, laughing themselves silly.

The trial is apparently a response to increasing Buzzard numbers in some areas resulting in pheasant numbers  being impacted; thus reducing the numbers available for lucrative shoots and impacting financial rewards. The most controversial aspect of the whole sorry deal is it proposes 'Nest Destruction' as one of the methods of displacing buzzards in the survey area: "destroying nests under construction, for example, using a squirrel drey-poking pole or shotgun from below thereby forcing  the pair to move on to find another nest site or not breed that year".

Please read about the details of the trial on the Raptor Persecution Scotland website here and see what you think. Here's the project specification according to DEFRA.

Re-reading the details, it seems more and more absurd each time. It is wrong on so many levels:

  • Common Buzzards, as a wild bird, are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). The same Act which which states "it is an offence under Section 1 (of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981) to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built"
  • Common Buzzards are a native species, pheasants were introduced in the UK predominantly for sport
  • They are a species recovering from persecution in many areas by some members of the game fraternity; the precise extent of that persecution, like that of other raptors, will probably never be known. That rise in number (146% between 1995-2009) is surely largely in part to them recovering ranges where they were previously extinct. Isn't it telling that since 2009 the increase has levelled off to a 0% change?
  • It is estimated that 40 MILLION pheasants are reared and released into the countryside by the Game industry every year. The DEFRA project spec states that "Buzzards are generalist feeders that respond to local variations in prey populations...It is claimed that individuals may target pheasant release pens if they learn that they can find a readily available food supply at them.  It is in these situations where they can come into conflict with game interests" - well then surely the problem lies with the management of the pheasant pens?!

What does this decision say about the influence of MONEY and lobbying on the government? In challenging economic circumstances, where jobs in the conservation sector are disappearing and money for projects has to be bloody scrapped for, HOW ON EARTH can they justify spending £375k of taxpayers money on this? Who benefits? I don't have a problem with people making a living off the land, or the game industry as a whole, but this is way off line.

The RSPB released their response today and pretty much nailed it, it's worth a read.

Love Buzzards? Hate stupid, wasteful, inefficient governance? Email Richard Benyon MP (DEFRA Minister) and let him know:

Hands off our Buzzards!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Nightingale Survey 2012

On Friday morning I finished the Nightingale survey that I volunteered to do on behalf of the BTO. I’ve really enjoyed doing it; here’s some background about it and thoughts on how it went.

The last survey on this scale was carried out by the BTO in 1999. A lot has changed in 12-13 years; elsewhere in the countryside numbers of similarly iconic migrant birds such as Turtle Doves, Cuckoos Yellow Wagtails have plummeted. This survey will help determine how nightingales have fared since then, making 2012 an important year for this amazing bird.


For the survey I was given two tetrads (or 2km x 2km squares) to cover on an area of the North Downs near my home in Kent. These were squares that had previously had nightingales recorded. The aim of the survey was to record the number of singing males in each tetrad. An additional important factor to consider was habitat. The BTO survey methodology stated that each site was to be paid a minimum of 2 visits, between 21st April and 14th May, between dawn and 8.30am in fair-good conditions. Any nightingale encounters were to be annotated CBC fashion (the standardised recording of a bird’s activity eg singing male, in flight, with nest material etc) on accompanying sample OS maps. Nightingale territories (likely nest sites with at least one male in song) were also required to be logged in a results table. Besides the two daytime visits, two nocturnal visits were suggested after 18th May, between midnight and 3am, on any squares which logged males in the daytime surveys, to locate any males still singing. The theory behind this is that any males singing at this time are likely to be non-breeders, or those without a mate. Interesting - presumably this distinction then gives a far more accurate overview of breeding populations. I was really hoping to get some birds on the daytime visit so I could go for a midnight ramble on the downs!


I visited each site a total of three times. I made an initial visit (as suggested) to refresh my memory, check out paths and habitats etc. These visits were worthwhile and revealed that both squares did contain suitable habitat but in varying amounts. I highlighted these areas on the map for later reference. The habitat assessment is important because nightingales are known to favour certain areas, particularly low, dense scrub with some bare ground and young growth woodlands/thickets with canopy cover. One square in particular looked really promising as it held a large disused quarry with steep sides and ample dense vegetation. I knew access would be impossible but reckoned I would be able to cover most of the perimeter from footpaths and some minor, well-intentioned trespassing.

For my two subsequent ‘daytime’ visits my approach was a simple one – looking and listening (hard!) Generally, each square had large areas that were clearly NOT suitable Nightingale habitats; arable fields, maturing Oak/Ash woodlands with little understorey and to these I paid little more than cursory ‘birdwatching’ attention. Instead I focused on the ‘key’ areas, spending as much time as necessary walking, stumbling and just standing still to listen. By and large, each visit took around an hour and a half. One major downside of the visits was the weather. I know it’s largely been the same everywhere but the conditions were not really favourable. I didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing days, I was limited to a few and had to take the best I could. It rained to some degree on 2/4 visits and on all bar one, the conditions were cool, overcast with some breeze – not great for singing birds! I was thankful of the decision to extend the survey period by several days.

A view from the Downs looking South East towards Holborough and Snodland.
Much of tetrad incorporated arabale fields like this - an unsuitable habitat for nightingales

Young trees, scrub and brambles - a much better example of Nightingale habitat...
...but access was difficult.

So what did I find?

Well, for all those lost hours under a duvet, all those miles walked and all those hopes raised, unfortunately neither square recorded a single Nightingale. There was a smattering of Yellowhammer, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler but not quite what I was looking for. It’s disappointing, however I think it’s worth noting two things. The first is that just because I didn’t find any, it doesn’t mean definitively that nightingales are not present. There are a number of variable factors to consider, including the weather, which hardly helped. Secondly, the result is still statistically significant. Simply put – there are no nightingales where there used to be. Once submitted that will play a part in establishing the local, regional and national trend.

When the results from all the tetrads are in, the BTO will be able to analyse the data and gain some understanding of the abundance, distribution and habitat preferences of nightingales in the UK in 2012. Having swapped notes with other volunteers in the area, the first indication is that sadly, my result is in-keeping with the general trend for our patch of the North Downs. National results will follow but this raises the question that why, if nightingales were present here in 1999 or thereabouts, they aren’t here now?

Assuming there is a local decline, the challenge will be looking into to the causes behind it. Are fewer nightingales returning to Kent because of conditions in their sub-saharan wintering grounds or through the hazards of their 5000km annual migration? Or is the problem closer to home, in their breeding grounds of southern England? Is it a combination of all these factors?

Once they leave our shores in the summer, the fate of the birds is still relatively unknown. This is the focus for long term research that may yield crucial answers. Closer to home though, attention must focus on conditions in our countryside.

  • The practice of coppicing which traditionally took place across the Downs has virtually ceased in the last few decades (although I’ve read that it is returning in places). This activity, whereby trees are cut to a stump and routinely harvested on rotation across a number of years, was responsible for creating the kind of dense young growth habitat favoured by nightingales. As coppicing has declined, many coupes and woodlands have suffered a loss of biodiversity, largely through excessive canopy shading. With little light reaching the floor, shrubs and brambles are outcompeted resulting in a limited variety of structure. The decline of traditional woodland management also extends into that of farmland and hedgerows.
  • Similarly climatic changes may be affecting nightingale populations in the area. Despite a wet spring in 2012, this was preceded by drought warnings and exceptionally dry seasons in previous years. For a bird that has traditionally shown preference to habitats near water bodies, a contracting range may be a result of this. The Hoo Peninsular in Kent, an area which meets this requirement in places, appears to be a particular stronghold for the species.
  • More recent studies have looked at the impact of deer browsing, particularly Muntjac deer, on woodland bird species. This seems to an increasingly important factor in places although I’m not aware of that being a problem in this particular area.

From the first visit, my general feeling was that I would be unlikely to find any nightingales. That was based on my own basic knowledge and experiences of them. Still, I really enjoyed the surveys; a dawn ramble across the gentle chalk ridges and fields of the North Downs is hardly a wasted moment. Whatever the outcome of this survey, we’ll be in a stronger position for knowing – and in time, perhaps we’ll be able to address the changes and allow this iconic bird and its wonderful song to once more become a feature of springtime walks on the North Downs.

Read more about the survey here

Above sound clip recorded on my phone at RSPB Northward Hill, Hoo, Kent, 27th April 2012 

Thank you to Andre Farrar for his comment via Twitter

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Photoblog: a glimpse of Spring

Remembering the good ol' days...

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) East Lambrook, Somerset, 22/4/12
A worms eye view of a Green-veined White (Pieris napi), Shorne Marshes, Kent,  17/4/12
Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) Capel Fleet car park, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, 9/5/12
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe Oenanthe) at Shellness, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, 9/5/12. I think this individual  is a  candidate for  Greenlandic or ssp. leucorhoa. It had a distinct pink-buff breast and the bird in this position appears noteable in size - although the camera can't confirm either.
Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) roadside verge, Southfleet, Kent,  1/5/12
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) RSPB Ham Wall, Somerset, 23/4/12

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Postcards from Japan

Nakano, Tokyo, April 2012. Any ideas what these are? I recognise a few...

Konichwa readers - I thought I'd put up these bird photos that my friend Ben took in Japan recently. I think they're really great.

The photos came with a little note; this one said something like "odd looking ducks - you can't quite see in this photo but they kinda had these weird ponytails sticking out the backs of their heads". I was like, wow, sounds amazing...not realising that they are of course Tufted ducks and something I see every day here. I guess I've never been to Japan and some part of me probably (naively) imagined the birds there to be all wonderfully exotic. But hey, they got Tufties just like us. There's a lesson there. That comment about the 'ponytails' also struck me. It's totally true (!), though I'd never thought of them like that - it's great to get a non-birder slant on things!

Crows are big in Japan apparently... is blossom. I love this pic. Somewhere at the top of that tree is a bird; I have no idea what it is, but I bet it's pretty cool  (I'm fairly certain it's not a Tufted Duck).

So there you go: Tokyo - it might look a bit like Peckham, but from what I've heard, it's sure worth a trip. Thanks Ben!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Now playing...

An LA punk classic for the bank holiday weekend - official anthem for Spring 2012?

'Sound of the Rain' by The Dils, 1979

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Green, Red, but not Blue (please)

"Damn those f**king birds..."
I’d like to say I was shocked to hear this week that Boris Johnson’s poll lead in the run up to London Mayoral elections had jumped to 12 points over Ken Livingstone, but I wasn’t really. Ken crying all over the telly seems to about sum up a pretty lacklustre contest so far. There have been the usual revelations of hypocritical tax dealings and dubious funding issues but generally Boris just seems to have gone about doing what he does: swearing, offending people and spouting lots of rubbish. And the media have lapped it up because everyone loves a chancer eh?! Oh Boris! That quote about how “every time he swears, he gains 3 points”, while a joke, is a pretty damning indictment and puts the joke firmly on the voters. OK, the bike scheme works and cable cars are totally cool but what else is it about this guy that sounds even vaguely convincing?

To be honest, I had a pretty low opinion of Boris Johnson four years ago when I lived in London; but having moved to Kent last year that opinion sunk lower than an ocean trench when he waded in with his vision for an estuary airport. How can it be justified for the Mayor of LONDON to advocate a catastrophic development of this scale at a proposed site in KENT? Where’s our say in this? We vote for our own council leaders (and they’re against it too) but since when did they answer to the mayor? The thoughtless, cynical plan is aggravated by that care-less attitude. He knows what’s at stake here for the people of Kent; he knows what the environmental consequences would be for the Thames estuary...if he doesn’t, he should ask his Dad. And with Boris’s work done, that airport proposal is now officially being reviewed by the government. Never mind that it won’t happen, Boris needs bringing down to earth. I don't think getting rid of him will put an end to the estuary airport plans but it will at least shake up number 10 and strike a HUGE blow for its appeal.

Ultimately this is a guy with zero commitment to the environment in London and the South East. It’s such a shame that a decent, intelligent and passionate candidate like Jenny Jones of the Green Party flounders behind the likes of him. I guess a Boris win looks inevitable but it's not over yet. Still undecided? Check out her manifesto for a Green London here. She gets the BirdPoem ballot > X!

I won’t be able to vote tomorrow so it’s over to you London. Do us all a favour eh?

Pretty interesting article here from the BBC website yesterday on the matter of the London/counties divide
Image above via Google images/Getty

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

What the world sounds like: dawn chorus, RSPB Northward Hill, 27/4/12

The dawn chorus is something that takes place all year round but is at its peak in spring. It's something I look forward to all year: the early morning stillness, the sounds of nature stirring...always a humbling and memorable experience. So after a week of non-stop rain; last Friday, with a good day finally forecast, I set my alarm for 4am. Having recently been thrust wearily into the modern age with a fancy new phone, I thought it'd be fun to tweet some of the highlights 'live'. For those still remaining admirably twitter-less (but hopefully still kind enough to read this blog!) here's a transcript. So get comfy, make a cup of tea and enjoy the dawn chorus from RSPB Northward Hill, 27/04/12:
 05:01am A mild and damp morning on the marshes, a slight breeze but at least it's not raining! And the birds are awake...a Barn Owl calling at 0430

05:05am #dawnchorus In the yard now with those classic early risers: several Blackbirds, a Wren and numerous Robins...

05:07am and already a distant but unmistakeable #Cuckoo! Amazing :) #dawnchorus #heardacuckoo

05:15am Moving into the scrub: Jackdaws over, a manic Song Thrush, squeaky wheeling great tits and a Nightingale!

05:22am Nightingale now in full song from a dense patch of brambles- does anything beat it?! #dawnchorus

05:26am First Blackcap of the morning, a gorgeous flutey song. A Cetti's Warbler now- so noisy! #dawnchorus

05:31am On a track running by the marsh: pheasant, 2 laughing mallards over, a cockerel somewhere

05:34am Can't see it but can hear the distinct purring of a Turtle Dove- gorgeous song with a sad tale to tell

05:45am Virtually light now and the #dawnchorus is in full swing. Thick and fast: scratchy whitethroats, Reed Warbler...

05:49am A croaking grey heron in off the marsh, dozens of noisy crows, a Curlew over calling and geese stirring

05:57am A bright orange sun rising clear over the's turning into a beautiful morning #dawnchorus

06:00am Into the woodland now: a belated Chiffchaff, Woodpigeon flushing with a clap of wings, a cheery flock of blue tits...

06:09am The drowsy pulse of a Stock Dove resting in an oak tree high above my head, more blackcaps 'clacking' with concern

06.22am Ankle deep in a stunning field of bluebells, nightingales continue to yell on either side, a yaffling Green Woodpecker across the hill

06:40am #dawnchorus walking beneath the rookery now, it roars like an angry hive. Literally cannot hear myself tweet!

06:49am The cries of the rooks interspersed with the strange, gutteral displays of little egrets, building nests nearby...

06:58am Out into the open again and it's quieter now. A 200 strong, mixed gull flock drifts over the marshes towards the river

07:10am Back through the yard now, destination: breakfast. #dawnchorus a murmur save for a gang of cheeky linnets

07:24am #dawnchorus I hope you enjoyed that taste of a spring morning on the #northkentmarshes

Looking east over the marshes from RSPB Northward Hill, Kent, 27/4/12.
Now imagine how the dawn chorus would sound if they built an airport here...