Stanwick Lakes delivers unique experiences


My local patch of Stanwick Lakes is nothing special in birdwatching terms – except it is my local patch.

My Birdtrack records tell me that since September 2004 I have visited this site, and kept a species list of birds for the visit, on 368 occasions, recording in the process 152 species of bird.  Some of those visits have been 1-hour quick visits but most of them have been the 2-hour ‘complete’ walk around which usually takes two and a half hours (less if there is nothing to look at!).

I won’t give you the full list of species I have recorded here as I just have a feeling I may use it for future teasing quizzes. However, only two species, Mute Swan and Mallard, have been recorded on every single visit, but a few others have been recorded on more than 360 of the visits (I may save that as a quiz for another day).

I spent quite a lot of Saturday analysing these data to look at one thing and I will now reveal my discovery.

My discovery is that I have never seen the same list of species on any two of those 368 visits. Every single day was different.  Every single day! Every one!!

It’s not very surprising really – I know.  Well, it isn’t very surprising when you think about it.

If there were c360 visits spread evenly through the year then that would be c30 visits for each calendar month.  Clearly, the birds of January (with Fieldfares, Redwings, occasionally an interesting goose or swan or finch) are different from those of May (with warblers, Cuckoos, Swift and perhaps a passage wader or two).  And with only about 30 visits made in the same month then the chances are that I will miss a Pied Wagtail on one visit and see it on the next, and there are a lot of species which fall into that category.

So, now I am wondering what are the chances that, if I treble the number of visits, I will ever see the same list of species on two visits?  That would be quite a computational task, and one that is probably beyond me unless I give it an awful lot of thought, but I don’t want to analyse away the great joy of the fact that every day at Stanwick Lakes is a unique ornithological experience, even at the rather mundane level of species number.

This is what gets me out to go birdwatching – I don’t know what I will see but it won’t be quite the same as any other time. And I will see different numbers of birds, in different places, and doing different things. Nature, even the simple things like birds, is infinitely diverse.

And now, when I return home after a day that doesn’t stand out in any particular way – they can happen – I will reassure myself that it was still probably unique.



May 1


Visit to Aberdeen

Photo: Bill Harrison via wikimedia commons

Photo: Bill Harrison via wikimedia commons

It was great fun talking to a packed lecture theatre in the Zoology Department in Aberdeen about Passenger Pigeons and Hen Harriers on Tuesday evening.  We also all had the opportunity to look at a stuffed Passenger Pigeon in the adjacent museum – which I always find is a rather poignant experience.

I was talking to the Aberdeen RSPB Local Group but there were quite a few familiar faces in the audience.  One, in particular, I was very pleased to see, Professor Bill Mordue, who was head of department when I did my PhD at Aberdeen (under the tutelage of Prof Paul Racey) and who came and said hello.

I made some new friends too.  I had dinner before my talk with several members of the group and was taken out birding on the Wednesday.  Everybody was very welcoming and I can see that they are all building up for their 40th birthday celebration with Chris Packham on 10 March.

The Zoology building itself is as  ugly as ever from the outside (it looks like one of the less attractive buildings in central Minsk, Belarus, see above) but the lecture theatre has been spruced up quite a bit since I last spoke there (about sandeel fisheries in c1987) or I first spoke there (I guess, as a PhD student in about 1982).  But despite its unprepossessing external appearance, I have a soft spot for the place in my affections.

There was a lot of support for the idea of banning driven grouse shooting, and a lot of amazement at the numbers of Passenger Pigeons that graced the American forests and skies 150 years ago.

Looking at the specimen in the Museum I felt, as I always feel, very sad that there aren’t Passenger Pigeons still flying around in their millions – the loss is always brought home to me when I see a single bird.

Girdle Ness failed, rather remarkably, to produce a Purple Sandpiper (or maybe the fault was mine and my companion’s) but the Ythan Estuary had plenty of frisky Eiders and a selection of waders. At Loch of Strathbeg we saw lots of Pinkfeet and some Barnacle Geese too, and my first Tree Sparrows of the year (!).

So it was a good trip. It always feels good when one’s talk seems to have gone down well, and this time it certainly did, and I saw some birds, but it will probably be the kindness, hospitality and warmth of fellow birders, especially Mark and Eric, which will stay with me the longest.

Thank you grey, granite, Aberdeen for being so warm to me.

photo: Anne Burgess via wikimedia commons

photo: Anne Burgess via wikimedia commons


Guest blog – Crunch time for Britain’s bees by Joan Walley MP

Joan Walley

Joan Walley from her website



As MPs return to parliament from party conference season, leading MP Joan Walley, says the Government’s plans for bees ‘fail to offer’ the solution bees need.





The decline in bee and other pollinators’ populations is a very real threat not just to the pollinators themselves but also to the world food system upon which we heavily rely.

Without the services pollinators provide food prices will rise, crops will fail and entire eco systems may face collapse.

As Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee (EAC) I have been at the forefront of efforts to press the Government to act.

In April 2013 we published a report into Pollinators and Pesticides which called on the Government to apply the precautionary principle and introduce a moratorium on pesticides linked to bee decline.

Following our report the Government published a draft National Pollinator Strategy (NPS), outlining the Government’s proposals to arrest the decline in bees and other pollinators.

While elements of the draft were promising, particularly in terms of mobilising and informing the public, it attracted criticism from many groups, including Friends of the Earth, which feels that its terms need to be much stronger.

In July 2014 the Environmental Audit Committee decided to hold a follow up inquiry examining the draft NPS which resulted in us too calling for a more robust strategy.

Our report set out areas of the draft NPS that need to be reinforced and restructured, including: the use of EU funding, guidance on pesticide use and pest management, and further research into the impact of pesticides on pollinators.

The EAC also called on the Government to firmly commit to the EU-wide ban on pesticides known to be harmful to pollinators, and to show clearly that they will not seek to overturn it.

Given the extent of the problem we face, globally and domestically, I believe that the Government’s plans fail to offer the long-term solution needed.

A clearly-defined, proactive and cross-cutting framework is required. One which will set a course to be followed by producers, the public and politicians to ensure that the necessary action is taken at all levels.

We cannot hope to overcome this huge challenge by working in silos. Everyone recognises the problem, if to varying degrees, and so all sectors, departments, campaigners and growers need to work together to solve it.

This means ensuring that environmental, food, health and planning policies are linked to the NPS, learning from the inter-departmental approach shown by the USA’s Pollinator Health Task Force, established by President Obama in June 2014.

It means campaign groups continuing their vital work in pushing politicians to recognise the severity of the issue and by shining a light on the industries involved.

It means working with farmers to support and incentivise them to adopt pollinator-friendly practices, mitigating the cost of this and concentrating on the long-term cost of short-term savings.

We cannot afford long-standing concerns about the potential economic cost of cutting pesticide use to override. The cost of protecting bees and pollinators will be far outweighed, environmentally and economically, by the cost of failing to protect them.

Professor Simon Potts of Reading University has calculated that the value of direct pollination to UK agriculture is currently £603 million a year. This would rise to £1.8 billion if the cost of artificial pollination, which would be required if pollinator populations continue to decline, is factored in.

Ultimately, the draft National Pollinator Strategy as presented in March is nowhere near enough. It needs to be stronger in its intent and in its proposed implementation if we are to preserve pollinators in the UK.  It needs to be in tune with a wider commitment to value and protect our biodiversity.

As MPs return to Parliament from the party conference season, it is vital to maintain pressure on the Coalition government and individual MPs to step up to the challenge to protect our bees by agreeing a national strategy that is fit for purpose.


Joan Walley MP

Stoke on Trent

Chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee


Photo: Vera Buhl via wikimedia commons


More on vultures

Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons

Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons

I’m grateful to the Vulture Conservation Foundation for an update on situation with diclofenac (a medical drug that is a bit like aspirin for you but more like cyanide for vultures feeding on animal carcasses which contain it).

A review of the evidence for the impact of diclofenac on European vultures has been produced by the European Medicines Agency (see here). It concludes that if diclofenac is used as a veterinary medicine in Spain it would be every bit as damaging to vulture populations as it has been in India, Nepal and Pakistan. No surprises there, but good to see the evidence assessed again.

The impact of veterinary use of diclofenac in Spain would probably be equivalent to that in Asia – a 99% decline in vulture populations inside a decade or so. Surely ‘we’ cannot be about to make the same mistake again – but this time with our eyes wide open and the evidence clearly laid out before us?

Also, and very worryingly, a paper has recently been published which shows that a vulture in Spain has been killed by eating flunixin – another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. This is the first confirmed death of a vulture from NSAID-poisoning outside Asia.

It’s crazy, crazy, crazy!


Simon Barnes

The removal of Simon Barnes from The Times disappointed many readers of this blog.

I am still getting emails about it from people in response to these two blogs – here and here.

I had lunch with Simon a few weeks ago and I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Ten Million Aliens, which has recently been published.

And also, I know that Simon will be writing regularly for one periodical on nature matters which will please his many fans (in which number I count myself) – more on that later.

For now, keep an eye on Simon’s Twitter account (@simonbarneswild) and his blog on his website.



Letter to my MP

To Andy Sawford MP


Dear Andy


I hope this finds you well.

I am writing to enlist your support in getting some information out of Defra – in fact, I wonder whether you could check whether anyone is at home in that department.

I have made several FOI requests to Defra via my blog and Twitter which have not received a reply nor even been acknowledged, so I wonder whether you could ask Defra for the following information, please?


Please supply me with copies of any communications (emails or letters dated 1 April – 14 October 2014) between Defra and the participants in the Defra Hen Harrier Sub-Group of the Uplands Stakeholder Forum concerning Hen Harriers and/or grouse shooting and/or the progress on the drafting of a joint report.

Did a Minister see and approve the Defra response to John Armitage’s e-petition on the licensing of grouse moors? If so, which Minister?

Did a Minister see and approve the Defra response to my e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting? If so, which Minister?

What interests, financial or otherwise, do current or past Defra Ministers have personally (including through close family) in grouse shooting in the UK? Please cover the period 2012 to the present.


I’d be very grateful for your help at getting to the bottom of what Defra’s doing on the subject of protecting the Hen Harrier in England through answers to these questions.  There should be over 300 pairs of this bird nesting in northern England but this year there were just four. The difference, over 300 pairs of a fully protected bird, is due to illegal persecution by grouse shooting interests.  This might well be a subject for the Labour Party manifesto – how about a ban on driven grouse shooting?  Over 18,000 people have signed my e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting mentioned above. You’ll find that it is the 19th most-signed of all e-petitions currently available for signature on the No 10 website.



Vote for Bob (again)

avatar2Some people are being a bit sniffy about Bob the squirrel – being so open-minded I can see why, and I can see why they are wrong (in my humble opinion – as people say when they are anything but humble).

The RSPB is using Bob to stand for nature and will simply use the fact that lots of people vote for Bob to try to impress politicians with the public desire for nature to feature in the election manifestos before the next UK general election. This is a good idea and an important one too.

Don’t, for heaven’s sake, hesitate in signing up because you think that Bob ought to have been a bird, or female, or less cute. Save your picky questions for Nigel Farage – Bob is a symbol not a candidate for being the next Prime Minister.

Therefore Bob stands for Roberta the squirrel too, and for Phil and Liz the Hen Harriers, Dave and Sam the Basking Sharks, Ed and Justine the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Nick and Miriam the Wood Crane’s-bill  and even Nigel and Kirsten the Red Mason Bees.

I think the RSPB has made two mistakes with Bob. The first is in underestimating the wildlife-loving public’s ability to quibble about the fact that Bob is a cute Red Squirrel and not a ‘fill in the blank here’. But there will be those in The Lodge who are saying, right now, that this is part of the RSPB’s brand-shift strategy and therefore it’s worth the pain.

But second, Bob is so ‘motherhood and apple pie’ (which reminds me – I haven’t had apple pie for ages!), that the opportunity should have been taken to make ‘Vote for Bob’ a wider campaign involving lots of wildlife NGOs.  Too much, does a vote for Bob look like a vote for the RSPB rather than a vote for nature as a whole – and that is a missed opportunity.

However, ‘Vote for Bob’ is a good idea, and I say again, an important idea. Looking around the websites of other wildlife conservation organisations I cannot see anything else as important, or relevant, or imaginative to attract our attention at the moment.  Bob is the only decent game in town.

And therefore I ask you again to Vote for Bob and to sign up to his thunderclap too (if you are on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr).



In flight

Photo: Bob Embleton via wikimedia commons

Photo: Bob Embleton via wikimedia commons

I’m getting on a plane today for the first time since June 2013. I’m heading up to Aberdeen to give a talk about Passenger Pigeons (and a little bit about Hen Harriers) to the Aberdeen RSPB Group on their 40th anniversary.

I’m looking forward to seeing Aberdeen again. It must be almost exactly 34 years since I got off the sleeper in Aberdeen and walked to the Zoology Department to start my PhD on ‘The winter activity of pipistrelle bats’.  I remember the granite city looking very grey and not particularly welcoming.  The cold wind swirled around Union Street as I walked through the city to the Zoology Department.  But first impressions can be misleading (more often so, of places than people, I feel) and I found the welcome at Aberdeen was very warm.

I would rather have travelled by train on this trip too but the economics mitigate strongly against it.  I really don’t quite understand how it is so much cheaper to fly from Birmingham to Aberdeen than to get the train.  I put a reasonable amount of effort into trying to persuade myself that the price of train travel (and the associated parking and travel to the station) was just as cheap as the flight package but it isn’t.  Even parking at Peterborough station for the requisite amount of time is more expensive than its equivalent at Birmingham airport.

Given that planes look quite expensive to build (but I have no idea how much it costs to build a train), and pilots look more expensive than train drivers, and airports occupy a lot of ground, I am surprised by the relative costs. And, of course, the main reason I’d rather travel by train is that the carbon footprint is rather lower, and since carbon footprint is related to energy use then, again, I am surprised that flights work out so much cheaper. But they do.

Can anyone explain this to me?



Plenty of life in e-petition 65627

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.inddI just happened to make a note a couple of weeks ago of the number of signatures attached to our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the e-petition for the non-joint non-plan. Ours stood at 17,608 signatures whereas the GWCT effort was at 10,414.

Now, we were off the mark a while before the GWCT, in fact, it looked very much as though their e-petition was a badly-judged response to ours, so we shouldn’t make too much of the manifest large gap in public support to date.  And we shouldn’t make too much of the fact that the GWCT e-petition has been ‘supported’ by the Countryside Alliance, BASC and the Moorland Association too – with their large memberships – whereas no large conservation organisation has yet supported the e-petition for a ban on driven grouse shooting. But I wouldn’t bet against at least one of them seeing the light eventually.

However, in the last two weeks the non-joint, non-plan, e-petition has remained in the shallows, becalmed, picking up a mere 64 more signatures – fewer than five a day.  Whereas our e-petition has the wind in its sails and is skimming along having picked up 707 extra signatures – more than 50 a day. So, a tenfold difference in signing rate at the moment.

There’s a long way to go, but our e-petition still has plenty of momentum and there are plenty of plays to come before it closes on 30 March.

Anybody like to hazard a guess at the number of signatures by Bonfire Night? Christmas? New Year’s Day? Valentine’s Day? The Cheltenham Festival? 30 March 2015?  When will it get to 20,000? Will it get to 30,000?

Oooh! There’s another signature just now. How lovely!


Lead and other poisons

Photo: Guy Shorrock

Photo: Guy Shorrock

In a couple of weeks time there will be a meeting in Quito of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Sounds terribly dull doesn’t it? Well maybe it will be – but maybe it won’t.

One of the areas to be discussed is poisoning.

I wonder what position our government will take on such issues that have been threaded through this blog over the years and will be discussed in Quito – issues such as neonicotinoid pesticides (see here, here, here), diclofenac as a veterinary drug (see here, here), poisoning of wildlife (see here, here and here) and the use of lead ammunition and its impacts on human health and wildlife populations (see here, here, here)?

By Lord Mountbatten (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Lord Mountbatten (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Will a British Minister be attending? What will the UK line be on the following:

  • Insecticides used on crops: 3.2. Substitute (remove from the market and replace with environmentally safe with alternatives) substances of high risk to birds and incentivise alternatives; introduce mandatory evaluation mechanisms for existing and new products,
  • Veterinary diclofenac: 3.1 Prohibit the use of veterinary diclofenac for the treatment of livestock and substitute with readily available safe alternatives, such as meloxicam ; Introduce mandatory safety-testing of NSAIDs; VICH/OECD to evaluate and provide guidance on wider risks,
  • Poison baits: Step 4: Create enforcement legislation with effective deterrent mechanisms and penalties,
  • Lead ammunition: 2.2.1. Phase-out the use of lead ammunition across all habitats (wetland and terrestrial) with non-toxic alternatives within the next three years?

I really do wonder what line the UK will take on these issues at this international meeting since it has failed almost completely to get a grip of them, or even be seen to be on the right side of the arguments, here at home.

When Dave Cameron goes off to Europe for a summit we hear lots of macho speak about how he is going to give those Europeans a piece of his mind but on, admittedly less important, matters like these we hear nothing. Why not? What is the position of ‘our’ government on these matters? Will Defra report back to the electorate in any way at all?  Will it admit to being one of the blocks to progress if, indeed, it takes its domestic position abroad? Will it give us all the chance to say ‘Well done!’ if it is one of the good guys?

I fear that Defra’s position might well be to follow the instructions of the NFU, BASC and Countryside Alliance.  How will we know? Would Ms Truss like to tell us, please?