Birdwatching Update – for Me!

During this month of May, I have twice visited the RSPB’s reserve at Dungeness to bird watch – something I haven’t done per se for many years – my former work and time always requiring me to look at the ‘bigger scene.’ Presumably due to our changing climate, these two outings were something of an update for me personally. Firstly, I saw a pair of Great Egret fly across a marsh, these, I have never seen in this country.

Great Egret

Secondly, while sitting in the sunshine having a sandwich there this week, I twice counted 7 Hobbys in view at the same time, they sweeping the skies capturing insects on a brisk easterly wind.

Hobby with prey

Just before I was about to get out of bed this morning, another new birding experience – that of laying in bed and watching swifts hawking high above the big oak immediately at the end of the garden – lazy twitching!





Rewilding Making Strides Across Europe

Balkan chamois

Take a look at the following link concerning the Rewilding Europe organisation which was set up in 2011 to encourage rewilding in suitable areas across Europe, with much of the funding coming from the EU’s LIFE project.  Items in the attached link include: Rewilding of peatlands in Finland, making community forests in Portugal more wildlife friendly, the RSPB’s Wallasea Island project in Essex, the bio-diverse Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria (I have been there – fantastic!) and habitat restoration in the Oder Estuary in Germany.


A Good Source of Latest Conservation News; 05/07/2018

There are lots of really good, relevant news stories and up to date research to be found on the RSPB’s Martin Harper’s Blog.  Here are some of the latest articles from this source which is to be found at:

Recent fires on the Pennines.

Severn estuary tidal barrage review.

Nature-friendly farming.

Controlling predators of wild birds.

Licencing the shooting of ravens?

Swifts – house building, reporting nesting sites, wintering grounds.

Thoughts on Farming and Rivers

June 17.  A dear friend of mine went for a walk out from Alfriston today, in the heart of the South Downs and through the Cuckmere Valley.  He was commenting on the “crops gently swaying in the breeze. How lucky we are to have such diligent farmers growing our fine food.”  I don’t know about diligent, they and the agro-chemical industry have certainly messed-up the once wonderful balance that used to exist between farming and wildlife.

There is a middle way of doing things, note The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project is based at Loddington in Leicestershire – ( )  Or the RSPB’s Hope Farm, a 181-hectare (450-acre) arable farm in Cambridgeshire ( )  The government and public opinion just need to encourage and finance farming post Brexit along that route.

Yellowhammer RSPB

He wrote on: “The Cuckmere river is in a state, either side of white bridge it can’t be more than 6′ [feet] wide, strangled with weed & silt!”  Man interferes with rivers at his peril – note all the Environment Agency schemes across the country reinstating river’s natural features and their courses, back to how they naturally once were in various places across the country. So maybe as it’s not built over, its time to consider breaching the Cuckmere’s banks and let the river re-connect with its floodplain?

News from ‘British Wildlife,’ April 2017

BATS.  Two interesting facts on long distance migration of bats have been made known.  In December 2013, a specie of Pipistrelle was found in northern Netherlands, having been ringed in Somerset some three years earlier.  The second involved one being trapped during October 2015 in East Sussex, it having been ringed as a sub-adult two months earlier in Latvia.  In its first year of life, this bat had made a journey of 1,460km over a period of some seven weeks.

COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP.  England’s agri-environment scheme is said to be a shambles.  With an inflexible start date of 1st January, some farmers are being left financially high and dry because their previous HLS Scheme ends after 1st January, they then being out of pocket for 11 months.  Complexity of CS and insufficient Natural England staff to administer the scheme are making matters worse.

PESTICIDES and GAMEBIRDS.  Work carried out in Sussex by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust have shown that foliar insecticides and insecticidal seed dressings are having a significant effect on the species of insect that are important food sources for young game birds.  No wonder many of our farmland bird species are struggling!

PESTICIDE BAN.  Meanwhile, perhaps France is showing the way forward, for there will be a total ban on pesticide use in public gardens, parks and forests.  As from 2019, this ban will be extended to prohibit use in private gardens (apart from use by professionals).  This seems a good idea when seeing the amount shelf space devoted to pesticides in our garden centres (not to mention the stench coming from them).  Many people reach for their killer of choice without a clue of the environmental damage some of these concoctions can have!

NITROGEN.  The Plant Link UK network has issued a new report, ‘We Need To Talk About Nitrogen…’ and it has the backing of the National Trust, Woodland Trust and the RSPB.  It highlights the serious damage that nitrogen deposition is having upon the UK’s semi-natural habitats and wildlife.  I’ve been banging on about this problem for years, one which partially instigated my setting-up in the 1990’s of conservation grazing by ponies in Sussex.

Prof Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been appointed Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative.  Prof Sutton said that ‘in the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around 14 billion Euros per year, equivalent to losing 25% of the European Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10% of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain.’

DEFRA DEFICIENT.  There’s a widespread feeling in Westminster that DEFRA will not be up to the job of sorting out the huge amount of environmental law and new agricultural regulation following Brexit.  Since 2006 the department has lost 2,285 members from its core staff. It has also suffered from crippling and on-going cuts to its budget.  Put in context, currently the Civil Service is leaner than it has been since the Second World War and simply does not have the capacity to deal with the gargantuan task of leaving the EU.

10 Years of Saving the Albatross

I have been financially supporting this project since its inception.  Just hope that one day I get to sea albatross in their real environment!

Sea legs and clear heads: the emergence of Marine champions.

Albatross Task Force Programme Manager Oli Yates and Senior Policy Officer Rory Crawford reflect on the first 10 years of the Albatross Task Force.

Wandering Albatross.

Wandering Albatross.

Seabirds are threatened by a variety of pressures. Directly, through being caught on hooks in fisheries, invasive species at nest sites, ingestion of plastic waste, and oil or chemical pollution; plus indirectly via habitat degradation, competition with forage fisheries and climate change. Our understanding of these individual impacts is improving, but their effects are largely unknown. What is known is that the world’s seabird populations are in bad shape. We need to tackle these threats head-on.

The good news is that seabird bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries is preventable. Simple solutions already exist and the Albatross Task Force (ATF) has been successful in developing mitigation measures to reduce the number of seabirds being caught, or bycatch. These measures have been scaled up to achieve fleet-wide reductions in seabird bycatch in South Africa, where the government has supported the adoption of regulations. Several more ATF priority fleets are close to achieving this milestone. Only by reaching and sustaining fleet-wide reduction targets can we hope to turn around the fortunes of threatened albatrosses.

Clear heads are required to ensure sustainable bycatch reductions

Therefore, the role of ATF instructors now combines working on board fishing vessels at sea, and advocating for regulations in governmental meetings. When the same individuals who perform the technical experiments at sea are able to present findings in the political arena, the message is powerful. It’s exactly this mix of sea legs and clear heads that is required to maintain sustainable bycatch reductions in the future.

It’s a rare cocktail of traits that make an effective ATF instructor!

Not everyone is able to do both. In fact it’s a rare cocktail of personal traits that make an effective ATF instructor! Spending time at sea every year is exhausting, both mentally and physically, but our hope from the beginning was that some instructors would stay the course. We’ve been lucky, as whilst we’ve had to say farewell to some great and talented characters, several key members of staff have grown with the project.

On World Oceans Day last month, we celebrated the anniversary of the Albatross Task Force, a decade after the first team in South Africa was launched in 2006. Back then, there were no baseline bycatch estimates for any of our target fisheries, no best practice mitigation measure designs, no fishery regulations requiring these measures to be implemented and, in turn, zero uptake by skippers.

We have come a long way: we now have baseline estimates in all fisheries, best practice mitigation measures are well defined and regulations are in place in seven out of ten of our original target fisheries.

The ATF model will help bring prospective industry partners on board.  That doesn’t mean the job is done. We still have to ensure all vessels in all fleets adopt mitigation measures and support national observer agencies to develop effective seabird bycatch monitoring. In recent years, we’ve also identified an additional six fleets that are affecting seabirds, particularly albatrosses.

Through the BirdLife International Marine Programme, we’re starting on the long road to develop effective measures for gill-net fisheries, which kill 400,000 seabirds per year, and purse seine fisheries, where we’re only just starting to understand bycatch levels. However, through the Task Force we are building on the foundations of successful collaborative work with industry and government to improve the fortunes of seabirds. Having the ATF model in place gives us a compelling story to tell to prospective industry partners in new fisheries, encouraging future collaborations.

Further, this experience has created opportunities to work toward tackling many of the other threats in the marine environment. Our ATF instructors are emerging Marine Champions in their countries, and provide a source of great hope for a more sustainable future for some astounding birds and the healthy habitats they rely on.

Research to Improve Breeding Success of Corn Buntings

Fat birds of the barley at RSPB’s Hope Farm.  June 2016.

Hope Farm manager Ian Dillon reports on the work we’re doing to give a home to corn buntings on the farm.


Since the RSPB bought Hope Farm in 2000, we’ve had considerable success in increasing the numbers of some otherwise declining species of farmland birds.

But of all the resident farmland birds in the UK, we’ve struggled with corn buntings. Corn buntings have suffered enormous declines in recent decades, and they’re now absent from large swathes of the country.

The reasons for this seem to be different in different areas. In some places it may be a lack of food over winter. In other places it may be because nests are being destroyed through farming activities.

Elsewhere, it may be that nesting success is low due to a lack of insect food or high predation rates.

RSPB conservation scientists have been studying the reasons behind their declines in East Anglia for many years. They’ve been looking at how to improve nesting success when the corn buntings nest in the cereal crops. They’ve found that corn buntings like to nest in denser parts of the crop where there is some ground vegetation.

Often these areas occur close to field edges, where nests are at risk from predators. So we will trial deliberately planting strips of barley at double the normal density within the normal crop. These dense strips will be well away from the field edges. We’re hoping this means more nests will be successful.

Hopefully some of the corn buntings that spent the winter at Hope Farm will have stayed and will be using these experimental strips and we will have another success to report to you.

Week Ending Saturday, May 14th

Thursday.  We gathered in the 15 ponies which have for the past three months, been grazing chalk grassland on the National Trust’s Gayles Farm property, perched midway along the Seven Sisters.  Just two of us managed the whole operation in readiness for our haulier Bob’s arrival at midday, to transport them up to the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren Reserve near Tunbridge Wells for the summer.

Saturday.  At Pippingford Park, on the Ashdown Forest SSSI, the commencement of growth of the dominant native purple moor-grass is always later than the other heathland sites we graze in Sussex.  In bloom at the moment are heath milkwort, lousewort and petty whin.

Petty whin.

Petty whin.

Below, ‘Jimmy’ showing off his 4 x 4 skills in order to graze the new growth on one of the many acid, wet flushes on Pippingford.  Six years of constant grazing are transforming this large area, it having a particularly good effect on increasing the specialised flora that live in these very wet areas.


Adverse Hold of Power of NFU Over UK Governments

Part of an article concerning the continuing adverse hold of power of the National Farmers Union over UK governments and the environment.

George Monbiot, Wednesday 23 March 2016.

“It’s simple,” a civil servant at the government’s environment department, Defra, once told me. “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU [National Farmers’ Union].”

There are not many organisations in Britain – though this country is infested with lobbyists of every persuasion – with a grip on policy as tight as the National Farmers’ Union. Vast conservation bodies (the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of some 6 million) are locked out, while the NFU seems to get everything it wants.

It looks to me like a champion of bad practice. On one issue after another it has demanded that the protections for people, places and wildlife are diluted. And in almost every case it has succeeded.

It insisted that the agricultural wages board, which protected farm labourers against exploitation, should be abolished. The last government gave it what it wanted.

It lobbied for an exemption from the ban on treating flowering crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, that are ripping through our populations of bees and many other animals. Not only did the NFU succeed, last summer, but the government also gagged its own expert advisers, perhaps to prevent us from seeing that they had counselled against the exemption. The government also refused to reveal the basis on which the NFU had lobbied it, claiming, preposterously, that this was “commercially confidential”.

The NFU demanded a badger cull, though a £49m government pilot programme demonstrated that it was not only useless, but counterproductive. It won, and badgers are being killed at the cost of £7,000 an animal.

It insisted that there should be no cap on the amount of money a landowner could receive in farm subsidies – and won.

It campaigned, with the help of successive British governments, against the European Union’s proposed soil framework directive, which sought to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Once more, it won, and for the first time in the European Union’s history, a legislative proposal was abandoned.

In January, just after the Christmas floods had abated, the environment secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would allow farmers to dredge watercourses crossing their land, without regulation or coordination. This is a perfect formula for catastrophe downstream, as it speeds up the flow of water to the nearest urban pinch-point.

It was as if she had got together with her officials to devise the most perverse possible response to the flooding. In reality, however, it seems that she was simply responding to the NFU’s lobbying. As its president, since 2014, Meurig Raymond, explained, “The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years.”

But this is not the only influence the National Farmers’ Union has sought to exert over the state of our rivers: a state that is frankly shocking. Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that just 0.08% of rivers in England are of high ecological quality, while only 17% are judged “good”. One of the principal reasons is diffuse agricultural pollution: the constant seepage of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides from fields and farm buildings.

It’s hardly surprising, as the Environment Agency has more or less stopped enforcing. When I came across a severe case of pollution in a Devon river last year, and reported it to the agency’s pollution hotline, the only action they took was to produce a list of crap excuses for looking the other way. After I wrote about this scandal, I was contacted by one of the agency’s staff, who told me that, as a result of pressure from the government and the massive cuts imposed by Truss, the staff there have been instructed to ignore all reports of grade three and grade four pollution, which accounts for the great majority of water poisoning in this country.

This puts the government in a difficult position, as all rivers in this country – not just 17% – were supposed to have been in good ecological condition by the end of 2015, under the European water framework directive. The government is now in danger of a massive fine, which ultimately will come out of the pockets of taxpayers.

It has now published a consultation on diffuse water pollution. The NFU has made its position clear, objecting to the government’s proposal to “maximise reductions in diffuse pollution and benefits to the wider environment”. Instead, it says, protecting our rivers should be left to “voluntary measures”.

Week Ending Saturday, October 3rd.

What a busy week and what fantastic weather to be working in!

Monday.  Continued with the erection of the 1900 metres of electric fencing at Shooters Bottom.  This site has caught me out a little, as there is come autumn, far more grass than I anticipated.  Later in the day, we re-jigged the fencing at the NT’s Blackcap, west of Lewes, in order to facilitate gathering-in of the ponies later this week.

Tuesday.  Moved the 11 remaining ponies at the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren reserve near Eridge down to Belle Tout.  With much appreciated help from the RSPB volunteers, some deft legwork and a helping of smoke and mirrors, we had them corralled.  Our ‘new’ livestock trailer is proving to be a real asset to our work, well designed and providing flexibility to our operations.

Wednesday.  Spent much of the day finishing off the fence at Shooters Bottom.  A lot of interest from members of the public in what we were doing and with the ponies encamped at Belle Tout.

Thursday.  Another long day with carrying out the move of the 10 ponies at Blackcap over to Shooters Bottom.  Eight came down off the Downs easily, Anna and Rj later valiantly managed to coax the remaining two off.  A late finish, what with running into the gridlocked traffic by Lewes on the last return trip.