Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Wail Of Two Cities

As a conservationist there are times when I simply despair and wonder what is the point (and how much is a small croft away from it all on Muckle Flugga).  The Times today carried an article by Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP and now journalist and self-styled political pundit.  He claims that not only do we 'need' HS2 but HS3 to Scotland as well.  Barmy enough but fairly safe ramblings as the case for HS2 is being universally questioned, never mind its extension.  Then comes the really scary bit, or rather bits.

Firstly he proposes that our already populous isle should have two new cities squeezed into it, and he knows just where they should go.  Cambridge is one, and it does not matter that it is already a city, for Mr Parris thinks it should be expanded to a metropolis of two million people (from its present population of just 125,000!).  The vast amount of land that this would swallow up is also not a problem for Mr Parris as he has noted that the land around Cambridge is "...treeless, featureless, brutally drained fenland."  He would rather see it covered with "...houses, offices, and workshops."  He includes an aerial photograph of Cambridge for us to see and presumably therefore agree with him (reproduced below). 

Let us just point out a couple of things to you Mr Parris before we go any further.  Those numerous big green blobs in your picture are things called trees.  Where trees are it is usually not referred to as 'treeless'.  That big wet winding feature is the River Cam, whose meanderings are quite an important feature of the area, as are those water-meadows you can see alongside it in your picture.  Some of these, like Sheep's Green for instance, are famous as some of the finest examples in the country.  Again where such features are is not normally descibed as 'featureless'.  The 'Visit Cambridge' website seems to think the countryside surrounding Cambridge is rather full of features, describing "...a land of lazy waterways, rolling countryside...quaint villages...rides through the fens...picturesque pubs...and a taste of bygone days."  So 'Why should Cambridge not expand to become a city of two million people?',  er, well rather why should it Mr Parris!

As if Parris' myopic misconceptions about Cambridge were not ridiculous enough, he goes supersonic with his next target - the land between Derby and Nottingham.  This he declares is "...undistinguished flat countryside..." and as HS2 will go straight through the middle of it (will it?) we may as well build out from it in both directions to join Derby and Nottingham into a super-city.  A thing called a map may be of use here Mr Parris.  A good one will show that the area between these two cities has a name, its called Derwentdale.  A particularly attractive dale with the River Derwent winding its way from east to west through its floodplain (which tend to be 'flat' as I recall from high school geography).  There are several country parks here as the area is rich in natural history, and some very rich farmland, making it easily 'distinguished' from, say, a giant conurbation.

The worrying thing is that Mr Parris is not alone.  This is how the authorities seem to think, always short-term, never looking ahead.  In an apparent sop to conservationists Mr Parris advocates planting even more saplings in the so-called National Forest to balance these two new cities.  This he exhorts could "...change up a gear, millions more trees need to be planted and new land acquired."  It seems beyond his capability to comprehend that the land underneath where his two cities and giant forest would go is farmland, where we grow our food.  Perhaps Mr Parris does not eat food, maybe he is a breatharian, living on his own hot air, but the rest of us do.  Already Britain has to  import about 40% of the food we eat.  A few schemes like Mr Parris' and we will be having to import vastly more than we can produce, because there is nowhere left to grow it.  We will pay through the nose too, as clearly we would have no choice. 

This is the obvious endgame of Mr Parris' and his ilk's plans.  He describes them as "ambitious, bold, and brave".  I prefer 'short-sighted, stupid, and ignorant'.  When he has concreted over all of Britain and feels a little peckish he may care to visit Muckle Flugga, I'll sell him a sack of potatoes.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Let's Not Let Them Have It

"They won't get it you know Wilson".  So spoke Captain Mainwaring as the Walmington-on-Sea platoon stood on the clifftops near Godfrey's idyllic cottage.  He was speaking of course about England's 'green and pleasant land', and how it would never fall to the Nazis.  How ironic then that when one of Dad's Army's greatest characters, ARP Hodges, passed away recently his passing shared the front pages with news of an even greater threat to the English countryside, our own Government...
 The invidious Nick Boles, the so-called 'Planning Minister'  had made a statement that building new houses would create more happiness than preserving green fields.  Of his own Grantham constituency, which is to build 7000 houses on Green Belt land, (more than a third the current size of Grantham), Mr Boles said "If we want to hang on to the services we have, like our hospitals, and attract a Marks and Spencers and a John Lewis we must build more and more houses".  It is difficult to imagine how exactly Mr Boles' brain works, if indeed it does.  The kind of population decline that might cause a hospital to be no longer needed, and therefore close down due to lack of patients, would be on a scale not seen since the Black Death.  I would imagine too that the current 18,000 households in Grantham would be happier if their local beauty spots remained so, and were not squashed flat by a John Lewis and an M & S dropping out of the blue.  When human happiness becomes measured by whether or not there we can get to a John Lewis shop it'll be time for us all to head for the hills.
If such banal reasons for burying acres of Green Belt irretrievably under concrete and tarmac were not enough, he was at it again this week.  Now he is actually on record as stating that developers should be allowed to build on fields that are 'boring'!  Well I find you boring Mr Boles, can I build something on you? 

I find offensive your notion that 'a field of wheat is boring and environmentally uninteresting', and therefore in your twisted logic would be better built on.  Whether wheat is boring or not is largely irrelevant, people eat it, its what bread is made out of or didn't you know that.  Wheat stubble after harvest also sustains many of our songbirds through the winter, especially linnets and skylarks.  Added to this is the havens that field margins provide.  I have just finished a breeding birds survey in Lincolnshire which contains vast vistas of 'boring' fields, but over three months I have delighted in thousands of recordings of yellowhammers, whitethroats, skylarks, sedge warblers, and more; plus insects and wild flowers galore in some superb hedge and marginal habitats.  It is a pity our 'planning minister' (I have decided not to even grant him capitals) is such an ignoramus he cannot perceive of any of this.
In one particular corner I came across one of those many poignant monuments that dot the Lincolnshire countryside, one to an RAF crew lost in action.  Their Halifax came down in this field, one not boring but beautiful.  As I read the epitaph invisible skylarks filled the air while a whitethroat rattled away in the hedgerow.  The bees went about their business from flower to flower and the badgers in the sett I had seen were sleeping off the night's adventures.  This is what they were fighting for, all those brave boys of the few.  To protect this precious land.  It was ARP Hodges who extolled 'Put that light out'.  I wish someone would put Mr Boles' lights out, before he extinguishes the flame of the British countryside forever.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cloud Cuckooland

After an eventful day bird surveying on the Lincolnshire coast I was heading back to the van when I came across this fabulous creation.  Whatever could it be?  Modern art?  Alien landing station?  Well the noticeboard revealed that it was a 'Cloud Bar', and that it was "the only purpose-built cloud bar in Britain" (you don't say!).  The board displayed pictures of clouds and their names, and invited anyone devoid of anything more meaningful to do to spot and identify clouds!
Alien artwork?
 The mirrors on sticks were to 'bring the clouds down to earth', but there were no instructions and despite much twiddling and rotating I failed to achieve this momentous outcome.  I looked around the sky and spied a cloud, the board seemed to suggest it was a 'cirro-stratus' so that was one in the bag.  The board also said that 'sometimes there are more than one type of cloud in the sky at once', but I was wary of having too much fun in one day and wondered whether to push my luck and look for another.  Throwing caution to the wind I looked heavenwards again but found only some aeroplane contrails, though these were undeniably more interesting than the cloud.
The one barely there cloud, a thrilling sight.
 That just left the giant concrete pastry-cutters, what the hell were they for?  They turned out to be proper cloud-spotter's seats apparently, information that just demanded a trial.  Once on I decided that I had never sat on anything more uncomfortable and awkward in my life, it was a struggle to just stay on never mind admire clouds!
Jeez, I hope something interesting happens soon, I can't hold on much longer!
 I wondered how much the council had paid for this creation.  The 'mirrors' were pitted and opaque from being sand-blasted by the elements, the 'seats' were unsittable on, and there was never likely to be a queue forming to have a go.  Still I expect the locals were delighted to have the only one in Britain, despite the beach road being in dire need of resurfacing. 
I could not imagine that cloud-spotting was going to overtake birdwatching as a popular hobby anytime soon, not after seeing more cuckoos that morning than I could shake a meadow pipit at.  I had seen three in total, with the last one giving some great close up views.  At first it had flown in to land in marram grass on the beach ahead of me.  It flushed when I was almost upon it, about eight feet away.  It hurtled into some sea buckthorn, and then into the hawthorn in the photo where it called for ages, while harassed by small birds.  Which one would be parasitised?  The commonest passerine here is whitethroat, not the most regular cuckoo foster parent.  Others include sedge warbler, dunnocks, and a few meadow pipits among the contenders.  Incidentally I have no idea what it was doing in the marram, I could see nothing where it had been when I looked.  I'll ruminate on the possibilities next time I'm lying around looking at the clouds.
A cuckoo, more clout than a cloud!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ragwatch: March of the Expertatoes

The Spring silly season would appear to be upon us.  That time of year when full vent is given to all manner of mistaken beliefs in the letters pages of the rags; from tweeded twerps ("If every corvid was shot there'd be peace on earth."), and couch expertatoes ("I heard me first cuckoo yesterday."  Really, in the middle of March?  Commendable).   Leading the way has been The misTimes with some right pearlers. 
First up was a Mr Forrester, a farmer from Mull who opined that they now have no larks or lapwings, and only a few curlews.  He argued that his land management 'has not changed for 50 years'.  (Really?  Not one little chemical spray in the toolshed?  Are you totally organic and harvest by scythe and shire horse?).  The reason he unilaterally declares is...(you guessed it)... raptors!  Yes they have white-tailed eagles (those well-known predators of skylarks!), buzzards and ravens, and so it is 'The RSPB's that is to blame, not the farmers.  Raptors should be killed as in the past' he declares.  Well Mr Forrester I note on Mullbirds Safaris' website that amongst the things they see are 'skylarks, golden plovers, lapwings, hen harriers, curlews, merlins, among many other species'.  So everything seems to be getting on fine in other parts of Mull, are you sure its not just you?  Maybe its time to check in that toolshed!
He was followed the next day by another couch expertato, a Mr Stewart-Smith of Essex.  He whined that they used to have geese, ducks, chickens, and carp in large numbers - free range (the mind boggles at the image of free-range carp!).  These are now ALL gone says Mr Stewart-Smith, and it is down to (wait for it)... "...overpopulous sparrowhawks, buzzards, kestrels, and otters.  Surely time for some more enlightened fact-based policies?" he asks.  Oh indeed it is Mr Stewart-Smith, but more of that later. 
Not to be outdone The Daily Telelaugh had two couch expertatoes whining about bat inspections in lofts.  A Mr Hobhouse of Worcestershire moaned about an inspection of his 1950 3-bedroom semi-detached house costing £500.  (If I were him I would keep quiet because thats cheap, did the ecologist live next door?)  Then apparently another ecologist, there to observe as the tiles were removed, announced "No bats will be living in that roof", as she 'got out of her car'!  "As we knew all along" added Mr Hobhouse.  Wow, an ecologist who can see through every angle of a roof from one spot (what does she have for breakfast, Kryptonite?  And would she like to come and work for us?).  Wow again, superhero homeowners with senses so highly tuned they know whether a 1 ounce pipistrelle alights on the roof and slips under a tile from downstairs with the telly on, amazing.
Bat-bashing was clearly the order of the day though as a Mr White of London also bemoaned the 'needs of bats taking priority over those of humans and historic buildings'.  He urged the Government to 'reign in the activities of the bat-fanciers'.  Rather than wail to the Telelaugh he might have considered why such laws about bats exist.  It is because they have suffered such dramatic declines (pipistrelles by 70% in the 1980s), exacerbated by new design techniques and renovations of old buildings.  In other words because the 'needs' of developers took priority over those of bats.  Without protective legislation the extinction of the only mammals ever to evolve powered flight is a distinct possibility. 
Thankfully in The misTimes there was also a letter from five scientific societies, arguing that 'Science Investment Is The Key'.   I heartily agree and hereby propose a compulsory course in ecology, and that Messrs Forrester, Stewart-Smith, Hobhouse, and White be enrolled in the first cohort.  Perhaps they may then indeed develop some 'more enlightened fact-based policies'!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ragwatch Roundup

The Rags have been quiet on environmental issues for a while, but have had a little flurry of late.  Some of this has been commendably positive.  The Daily Telelaugh has had pieces on Buglife threatening to sue the Government for not implementing a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides which are decimating our bees; and one on Pond Conservation’s project to create 30,000 new ponds in the next seven years to address a century of decline.

In a more familiar negative mode The Garbageian had clearly become irked by the persistent interest in Richard III’s body being found and exhumed after 500 years.  They dredged up an anti-royalist history professor to comment: “So what, the bones of a monarch change nothing we know about history.  If the bones of a couple of peasants were found that tests made us rethink our entire concept of medieval serf’s nutrition that would be revelatory, but I don’t suppose it would have been all over the papers”. 

No, and the reason might just be that there are tens of thousands of members of the Richard III Society worldwide, all entranced by the romance of a King riding to his doom in battle and the subsequent mystery and intrigue surrounding his life and death.  I do not know of an “Unknown Random Peasants With Interesting Dietary Habits Society” but suspect if there is one its members would not fill a phone box.  Obviously the good professor thinks the Soviet Union is alive and well, and won the Cold War in style. 

First Prize this month though has to go to a Mr Michael Tod, writer of the following letter to the Daily Telelaugh this week:  Sir, as a boy I caught a great-crested newt in a bomb crater.  Cheshire Council is spending £200,000 to relocate 18 such newts, holding up a £30 million bypass.  Surely someone must be able to catch those newts and move them to a pond?  A worm on a length of knitting wool is effective.”

Well I would have thought that with bombs whistling down there would have been more to concern the writer than catching newts.  Then there is the question of ID.  Did he really know it was a great-crested newt, or was it just a smooth newt?  It is tremendous dedication to stand studiously consulting your field guide while the Luftwaffe rain 500-pounders down around you!

The closing remarks require addressing the most though.  A five minute Google search shows the £200,000 is of course for the entire environmental process, not just the newts.  Without such a process the entire country would soon disappear under concrete and Tarmac like the bypass.  Indeed I suspect Mr Tod might object to it himself if the bypass was anywhere near his home, but I note he lives in Abergavenny!

Perhaps he could use his newt-catching skills to nab a few and deposit in its path.  Anyhow I will pass on the tip about a worm and some wool to our amphibians department, I am sure they will be delighted.
A more familiar form of newt-catching, a bottle on a stick!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Good, The Book, and The Chingy!

In the same week that Richard Briers passed away recently it was announced that the Reader’s Digest was going into administration.  For me it was as if the 1970s had had two more kicks into touch, receding a little further into history.  The Good Life was a back to nature revelation to my formative young mind that has stayed with me ever since, while the Reader’s Digest produced the most iconic coffee table book ever (imho!), the Book Of British Birds.  In the 70s every household seemed to have a copy of this, even if it was the only natural history book they possessed.  On family visits to any relatives I could get the great tome down and discover yet more exciting facts about birds. With only three channels on the TV and computers yet to be invented there was then plenty of time to go out and see these things for myself!
The book had been envisaged as having thorough information on the birds of Britain, but with the style and drama to appeal to those who had never picked up a field guide in their lives.  The publishers had given up hope of ever finding an artist to fit the bill when Raymond Harris-Ching fell out of the blue, fresh off a boat from New Zealand.  The kiwi’s unique style of detailed drybrush watercolours on mesonite panels was a sensation.  With six years in mind the Reader’s Digest were stunned by Ching’s promise to have all 230 plates completed within a year.  He did but ended up exhausted, quite ill, and (with no advance agreed) penniless!  Today though his pictures fetch six-figure sums so I guess he feels better now!
Naturally, along with just about every other bird book ever published, I have a copy on my shelves and got it down, blew the dust off it and opened it for the first time in years.  There is no doubting the uniqueness of the works, though perhaps their best purpose is in inspiring further study.  On their own some are more work of art than plain field reference.  Take the divers on pages 206 and 207.  The black-throated looks like its slipped through a mangle, while the red-throated appears to be floating in space.  It’s a space-diver this, traversing inter-galactic highways in search of space-sprats!  Ching’s plates demand attention though, you find yourself admiring them for far longer than a ‘normal’ illustration. 
The artwork is surely a major reason why the book is the best-selling bird book of all time, but it was all the other chapters of the book that seared it in my affections too.  Here was information on migration, avian physiology, ecology, and relationships with humans.  All of which made me first realise there is more to this birdwatching lark than meets the eye-Ching.  On which terrible pun I think I will stop!  
Black-throated mangle-diver

Inter-stellar space-diver

Monday, February 4, 2013

Doings On Dartmoor

Dartmoor in January, not quite the height of peak season but here I am for a month on a botanical survey, part of crack team of botaneers from Guildford HQ.  We’re doing a condition assessment on the north and south SSSIs of the moor, and hopefully in between identifying moss and stumbling over Molinia I might add a few birds on to my year list. 
Like most birders as it is only the end of January my year list is up to date.  Some will maintain it like that all year (perhaps inspired by that marvellous article by that Neil Glenn bloke in January’s Bird Watching!) while others, maybe after a really quiet July, let it wither on the vine.  Mine, I decided, was going to get sprinkled with new sightings from Dartmoor, but it was me that got sprinkled, with rain from every direction!  Downwards, upwards, in your face, and my outdoor gear was not up to the job.  It was clear after two bone-soaking days that Mr Regatta has never been to Dartmoor, and is thus labouring under an erroneous notion of the term ‘waterproof’.  A visit to Cotswold Outdoors in Exeter, the purchase of a £240 North Face Triclimate coat (for a sale bargain of £160!), and we were ready to take on Dartmoor again. 
If its not raining at this time of year it seems to be blowing a gale instead, and of course most of the birdlife has done an altitudinal migration down the valleys.  Left behind are a few crows, some starlings, and two snipe flushed from underfoot.  In one of our search areas was a stone circle, Scorhill, and some dry stone stockades of a few thousand years vintage.  The joints of these reminded me of the Inca buildings I saw in Peru, did the Incas come from Devon?  One for Time Team to take on.
The botanical surveys yielded no surprises other than that we were able to identify quite so much at this time of year.  Bristle bent, Calluna heather, Erica tetralix, Bilberry, gorse, all in that mix of English and Latin in your field notes that results from whatever you remember it as on the spot. 
Come the weekend and the overwintering lesser yellowlegs was still showing at Plymouth, and was right where it was supposed to be - by the footbridge at Ernesettle.  So used to walkers and people now it ignores disturbance and carries on feeding.  Armed only with a pocket compact I could not take advantage of this showy bird.  I had even less chance with the flighty little cirl buntings at Labrador Bay the following day, but that’s two great ticks on the year list.  They will probably be a great couple of buffers on a lot of people for a while too*.
Sadly from Labrador Bay the slick of vegetable oil that has been in the news, with hundreds of guillemots washed up and filling the RSPCA’s hospitals was all too evident.  A ghostly hue soured the sea, demarked by a line of scum, a costly clean up for the council.  Bizarrely its origin supposedly remains a mystery, as if a few thousand tonnes of vegetable oil could have slipped out of anybody’s lunchbox.
My favourite bird sighting of the trip so far though is of one of the commonest species, pied wagtail.  Walking up Newton Abbot high street about quarter to five in the evening I was regaled by the sound of scores of wagtail roosting calls.  Looking up there were two trees into which pied wagtails fell from the sky like snow.  I stopped and leant against the wall, out of the way of oblivious shoppers barging along with their bags of tat.  The wagtails were reciting a haunting, touching melody of roosting calls, and as I listened the shoppers in front of me faded into blobs in a Lowry painting, indistinct and unimportant.  My reverie was only marred somewhat by the busker slumped in a doorway across the street, slaughtering House of the Rising Sun.  (He will never know how close he came to needing his guitar retrieving by a proctologist.)  I counted 200+ birds in each tree, a total of 400-500, a memorable sight and sound for a birder, as was the impressive guano artwork they had created below.  One bench was only for sitting on if armed with a black bin liner, and there was one of those poncey street cafes in the firing line too.  Its patrons at risk of a wagtail having a crap while they were having a crepe!  I so wanted to see that and hung around until the cafĂ© closed but had no such joy, still there’s several weeks to go yet!

"This is as far as the Landie goes, your survey area is over that brow." 
"I'm not stepping over there, it looks like the edge of the world!"
The new all-weather burkha was a must!
Scorhill stone circle.  At the far edge can be seen the ghosts of three ancient Britons,
debating whether this is H4 or H8 grassland
Unlikely to win bird photo of the year, the lesser yellowlegs at Plymouth  :D

The mystery veg oil slick
Wagtails falling like snow
Nice sit down anyone?
A crap on a crepe?

*Buffer:  “Similar to a ‘blocker’ on somebody’s life list, being simply a good bird on their year list that will take some equalling”.  (Copyright – M. Maddox and R. Dawkins!)