Just a Water Rail


If I hadn’t been with Lennox, I would have come home saying that I had had a nice toasted cheese sandwich but had seen just a Water Rail at Wicken Fen. As it was, because Len knows his dragonflies and damselflies, I could say that I’d seen about a quarter of the UK species.  Most of them seemed to be damselflies whose males were blue.

wicken2More than a week later, though, I can remember their names and quite a lot about them.  They were the Blue, Varied, Azure, Emerald, Red-eyed, Small Red-eyed, Blue-tailed and (this one not at Wicken but we were keen to add it to the list) the White-legged Damselflies.  There was also the Banded Demoiselle which was the only one I already knew. What a lot of small blue damselflies!  I would have walked past the lot of them with barely a glance had it not been for Len’s expertise – and I know that when he reads this he will be thinking to himself that he is not an expert (but he is – and certainly compared with me).

We also saw some larger beasts; Emperor, Four-spotted Chaser, Ruddy Darter, Black-tailed Skimmer, Migrant Hawker and Brown Hawker – making a total of 15 species out of around 55 altogether. And all we did was go for a stroll along a ‘lode’.  But there were loads of Odonata.

The point is, or at least the point I took away is, that I would have noticed some dragonflies and damselflies had I been on my own but there is no chance at all that I would have realised that there were so many different species along our short walk. Despite being a naturalist of sorts, I would have been almost blind to what was going on around me.  Come to think of it, Len even pointed out the Water Rail to me.

The Water Rail was very nice – quite a good view. But our conversation turned, as so many do, to the lack of Turtle Doves in our lives compared with the ‘old days’ which weren’t really that long ago.  Wicken was a hot-spot for them.  I remember seeing my very first Turtle Doves near here – I didn’t pay any attention to the dragonflies though.

But now I do know a few things. I know that the Common Blue Damselfly is more likely to sit out prominently in the open than the Azure or Varied and that when it is doing that I should check the shape of the black bit near the end of its abdomen and see whether it looks like a golf tee, a wine goblet or a whisky tumbler.

And I know that the Small Red-eyes that we saw would have been much less likely a few years ago before they spread north, presumably assisted by climate change. The first British records were only in 1999.

And I know that if you are to survey dragonflies, which we didn’t, but Len does, then you need 10 minutes worth of weather with ‘sharp shadows’ to get reliable counts.

July is a pretty dull month for birds – which is strange in a way. The way in which it is strange is that there must be more birds around in July than there ever were in May or June – because they have been reproducing like mad – but it often seems like the woods and fields are almost bird-less at this time of year.  There is little song and lots of moulting going on. And also, the living is probably quite easy and so there is no need to rush about. So, we didn’t see many birds.

But we saw lots of Small Skippers too. Around a hundred of them sitting on patches of damp mud and perhaps sucking up water and or salts but certainly some of them were being very friendly to each other.

Thank you Len for opening my mind and my eyes to dragonflies.


PS This is the 1500th blog on this site.






Game Fair 6: this blog, ‘overheards’ and en passant

photo(21)Oh we all read your blog – don’t you worry‘ – a senior staff member of a pro-shooting organisation.

Trimbush – was that you entering Churchills’s tent at around lunchtime on Saturday?

Ian Coghill out-Faraged Nigel Farage‘ – a back-handed compliment, if a compliment at all.

Nigerian Garage‘ – how the GWCT’s Chair was reported to have referred to the leader of one of the UK’s largest political parties (allegedly).

The Songbird Survival stand was less bonkers than it used to be, but that’s the only plug it’s going to get as Keith Cowieson knows that a Guest Blog is on permanent offer for him to set out his organisation’s views.

The biggest poacher in the country‘ – someone, of someone else.

Everything eats something else‘ – a wise member of the public

There’s that evil man Mark Avery‘ – Robin Page when he had an audience (he is so often wrong)

A sensible discussion – Robin Page when he doesn’t have an audience.

Your daughter’s much nicer than you are‘ – Robin Page (he is sometimes right).

I had a nice wave and a smile from the CLA President as he swept by on Sunday.

Many BASC members would be better off joining the Golf Club instead of pretending that they are interested in shooting or the countryside. It’s a social thing, really.’ - not heard on the BASC stand.

A page-turner of a book‘ – the reported view of a senior member of a land-owning and land-managing organisation of A Message from Martha.

Chrissie Harper and I swapped thoughts on the state of the world and what it’s like to have your name on an e-petition – here’s mine by the way.









Game Fair 5 – missing my bison burger for breakfast


sloeOf course, man cannot live by blasting birds out of the air alone.  One has to eat.

And although there are an awful lot of places to buy a bacon buttie at the Game Fair (including the one Indian Food stall that I spotted) other foods are available.

Sloe Motion is run by a former colleague and their sloe truffles are my mum’s favourite chocolates (it makes part of her Christmas present very easy each year).  I notice they have moved from the food area to Gunmakers’ Row this year. I hope they had a good fair.





mellowMy favourite local farmer, Duncan Farrington, was selling his Mellow Yellow rapeseed oil and the perfectly delicious Garlic Mellow Yellow Mayonnaise.

Duncan told me he’d been combining on Friday (and the combine had broken down, of course, as they do).





bisonBut I discovered an alternative to bacon sandwiches – a bison burger (with stilton and onions) for breakfast.

I have seen bison in South Dakota and Wyoming, and indeed in Kansas, and eaten them in Arizona, but these bison are just up the road from me in Leicestershire.

I am rather missing my bison burger for breakfast…


Game Fair 4 – BASC, seriously nice people


car6I spent some time, on both Saturday and Sunday, talking to BASC people on their stand at the Game Fair. I’ve always thought that BASC was the serious and nice end of shooting with lots of wildfowlers and not many grouse shooters, and my conversations strengthened that view.  They also plied me with cold drinks which was nice of them.

One of our subjects of conversation was the compliance with the laws governing the use of lead ammunition to shoot wildfowl (which in England and Wales are ‘you can’t’ and in Scotland are ‘you can’t over a wetland’ – roughly).

After 10 years of a ban on the use of lead shot (for shooting ducks etc), most wildfowl purchased for human consumption in game dealers and supermarkets have been shot with lead. And after last year’s big push at the Game Fair to educate shooters – the figures did not change at all.

This looks pretty bad for shooting – when people with guns break the law, and break it deliberately rather than through ignorance, then it’s a poor show.  But always I am told that wildfowlers are good at policing their hobby and the problem lies elsewhere. I wanted to hear more about this, and to hear it while looking people in the eye (I always find that helps me decide whether to believe them or not) – and so I sought out BASC people at Blenheim.

To cut to the chase, I do believe that wildfowlers are probably the best of the bunch in terms of legal compliance. No-one claimed they were perfect but they convinced me that wildfowling, at least organised by clubs associated with BASC, is a pretty clean act.

It would be interesting to know, and I don’t know whether we do (I don’t), whether the incidence of lead in Pintail, Wigeon and Teal (that are a bit more likely to be shot by wildfowlers on the saltmarsh) is less than that in Mallard (which are more likely to be shot inland and as incidental quarry on, for example, Pheasant shoots). Since you can shoot Pheasants with lead, if you are shooting Pheasants and a duck flies past, you may, illegally, fire off a cartridge already in the chamber and down your duck with lead. That isn’t an excuse, it’s still illegal (in England and Wales) but it is understandable (although not, if we are being completely prissy about it, condonable).

The next time that compliance (or lack of it) is measured, it would be good if more effort went into tracing back the game with lead to its shoot of origin where the illegality has occurred (unless, as some jokingly suggest, it all comes from Scotland).  We need to do more to finger the people who are actually breaking the law.  This blog is my contribution to ‘de-tarring people with the same brush’ if you like.

But I do think that the good people within shooting, in which I tend to put many of BASC’s members, need, themselves, to differentiate themselves from the bad guys.  There’s a lot of nonsense about sticking together and ‘shooting under threat’ which is, quite honestly, rubbish. Shooting needs to clean up its act on lead-compliance, illegal persecution of protected wildlife, over-release of Pheasants and a range of other issues.

At present, the good guys seem scared to talk about the bad guys – which means we, on the outside, tend to be misled into thinking that there are very few good guys out there. It really is time for the good guys to stand up and speak out.

I’m happy to consider Guest Blogs here from any pro-shooting organisation – BASC and GWCT have already had them here and they are welcome to have more to discuss these or other issues (but especially these issues of lead ammunition, raptor persecution and the nett benefits of driven grouse shooting).  That offer is open to the Moorland Association, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, BASC and even the Countryside Alliance.



Hen Harrier Day updates

Hen-Harrier-Day-300pxHen Harrier Day is now supported by RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust, the Hawk and Owl Trust, the Peak District National Park, the League Against Cruel Sports, Birdwatch magazine, Rare Bird Alert, the Welsh Ornithological Society and Quaker Concern for Animals.  Thank you to all who are supporting this day.

Three events are planned in the north of England for 10 August.

News on social media activity will follow nearer the event.

From now on, updates will appear on this static page http://markavery.info/hen-harrier-day-2014/



August Birdwatch coming soon – Stop Killing Our Harriers!

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.indd

Coming through your letterbox or to a newsagent near you very soon.

There is a striking editorial by Dominic Mitchell and a couple of pages on the subject of Hen Harriers by yours truly.

I just hope that many newsagents put this next to The Shooting Times and The Field on the shelves.

Birdwatch is a big supporter of this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting in England. Many thanks to them



Game Fair 3 – in photos


This must be about my 20th Game Fair, so I realised that when it said that it opened at 9am this was just nonsense – soon after 8am I had parked, got a lift on a trailer from the car park to the entrance, paid to enter and then started walking down the hill where this vista opened up in front of me…


You can see it was a bit drizzly on Saturday morning.  Aren’t those trees magnificent?

By the way, the Game Fair is as old as I, 56 years, and this was its fifth at Blenheim. I wonder what the first Game Fair was like – when it was a baby?

I always think that the sight of tents and banners on the hill-top must be somewhat reminiscent of a medieval army encamped and waiting for action.

By the time I had walked down the hill, over the bridge (and glanced at some quite evidently expert fly-casting – although I wouldn’t really know) and then walked up the hill and bought myself a cup of coffee it was raining quite hard.


If it had continued in this vein then it would have been a rather miserable day – but by 11 it was scorching!

Some of what happens at the Game Fair is clearly not aimed (geddit) at me. There are quite a lot of people wanting to help you with your wealth and your land, including, of course, the CLA itself…


…but they aren’t the only ones…


…and once they have managed your land and your wealth for you, you’ll want to spend some of your money. How about a day’s (Red) grouse shooting?  At a mere £34,000 per day you and some mates could have an ‘unlimited brace’ day’s shooting in North Yorkshire at the end of August (if only my daughter weren’t getting married on the 30th I’d consider it (having had a practice shoot)) but maybe next year. Or maybe I’ll go for the more local 300 Pheasant day in Northamptonshire (just £10,800) at a time to suit in December.


As you can see, everybody loves birds at the Game Fair. In fact, you could get the impression that everyone loves birds of prey, even.

We birders are used to seeing Swarovski advertising their excellent binoculars with the image of the sharp-eyed Goshawk but they are also selling sights to this audience with the same bird – quite funny really.


And we know how keen the Countryside Alliance is on birds of prey – they don’t need to prove it by having a falconer on their stand (but they did go that extra mile to prove it) with American Kestrel (not a pest of game in the UK)…


…and a Gyr Falcon which looked like it felt that it ought to be sitting on an iceberg off Greenland rather than a perch in Oxon…


Not to be outdone, the National Gamekeepers Organisation had some birds of prey on their stand too. The Countryside Alliance had captive birds, the NGO had dead stuffed birds (you couldn’t make it up could you?)…


Note the Turtle Dove – that’s only the second I have seen this year, so far.

There are some moments of humour.  The RSPB may have had a committee sitting for weeks to come up with their banner…


…wildlife in your sights (geddit?).  And note that the RSPB has a photo of two live Turtle Doves – that’ll be the UK population soon.

This sign genuinely made me smile, although it didn’t make me buy…


…and this one is priceless (provided the authors really did realise what they were doing)…


…which I am sure they did so here is a link to this excellent organisation.

There are no other weekends that I spend, where it hardly raises an eyebrow to see a bloke sitting, sheltering from the rain with his bow and arrows beside him…


Didn’t I tell you that there was a medieval army on the hill?

They seemed quite well-armed but generally pretty friendly to me, even though I am asking you to sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting (which has now passed 8400 signatures). What price 10,000 by the Inglorious 12th?


Oscar Dewhurst – Bluish-fronted Jacamar

Bluish-fronted Jacamar

Oscar writes: Bluish-fronted Jacamar: Bluish-fronted Jacamars were fairly common in the lowlands and I saw them most days around the station buildings. Luckily this one perched out in the open and gave me a nice clean background. It would sit on this branch before shooting up to snatch flies from the air and returning to the perch to eat them.
Nikon D300s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 VR




Game Fair 2

What sort of people come to the Game Fair – you might (or might not) wonder?

All sorts – although there is more tweed worn at the Game Fair than you will see at most July events with the temperature in the high 20sC.

But judging from the cars parked near mine on my two days at Blenheim…


…it’s a pretty broad range of folk.

And, by the way, I did have a go at clay shooting as I left today – they call it Pay and Clay.

Ten shots and four hits – pretty rubbish really!  Although, to be fair to me, I missed the first five and then got four out of the last five so there were signs of improvement.  I think it probably helped to close one eye and actually to look down the barrel (maybe I should have started doing that earlier).

So, now I have contributed to the economic ‘benefit’ of shooting to the UK economy – to the tune of a tenner.


Sunday book review – Shrewdunnit by Conor Mark Jameson

9781907807763There are two things I like a lot about this book – and four things about which I am less keen. The two are overwhelmingly more important than the four.

Shall I get the four niggles out of the way first? I shall.

I don’t like the title, I’m not drawn in by the cover, the font size is a touch on the small side and the spineside margins of the pages are too small so the text tends to dive into the centre fold in an off-putting way.  All of these things are minor, and perhaps personal to me, but each time I looked at the book they put me off a bit.

However, each time I read the book it pleased me greatly, and that’s the main thing.

Conor writes about the passage of the year in a series of blog-like essays.  I like the range of subjects and I like the style of writing.

Part of my delight is, no doubt, personal too.  Some of the characters are people I know, and some of the settings are places I know too.  But even if you haven’t sat in the RSPB Library and been distracted by Chaffinches pecking at the window (as I have) you should find Conor’s account of it, and exploration of it, truly delightful.

There isn’t a story in this book – there are many. They are linked together by the passage of the year and by the thread of Conor’s writing which makes this reader want to read the next, and the next, and the next instalment each time one finishes one.

So, the two things I like are the subject matter and the style of the writing. And those matter most in any book.

Shrewdunnit: the nature files by Conor Mark Jameson is published by Pelagic Publishing.