Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill




Beavers are back.



A few things:


Have a look at this one

Hen-Harrier-Day-300pxI’m having a very busy week – finishing off a book.


But I did have time to read Martin Harper’s blog on Hen Harrier issues - I recommend it to you.



I enjoyed the Big Garden Birdwatch and saw quite a few birds.

But although a Song Thrush was singing early on the morning on Sunday, probably in the garden but it was still dark, I didn’t see one in my hour of recording.

Today, I watched a Song Thrush spend ages in the garden – but it doesn’t count!  It was interesting though. It kept flying up to the Ivy and plucking berries.  Each time it returned to the same perch near the ground and ate the berry. Each time, it selected a black berry rather than many of the less ripe-looking ones available. It was like a Spotted Flycatcher flying out from the same perch to catch flies, except it was a Song thrush flying out to pluck black Ivy berries. A Song Berryplucker. I enjoyed watching it – and I was glad that it liked ‘my’ Ivy.

Also, almost throughout the day, certainly for several hours, a male Blackcap was on or near the bird feeders. It visited all of them – the sunflowers, the peanuts, the fat balls.  It wasn’t around on Sunday, of course, but it spent much time with me yesterday.


North America beaver cull starts on advice from Tangling Rust

July 2014: Angling Trust welcomes decision to remove beavers from river

March 2012: Angling Trust urge Minister Benyon to halt spread of beaver

October 2009: Angling Trust policy against beavers


President Obama and Prime Minister Harper issue joint declaration to rid North America of beavers after briefing from Tangling Rust.

‘We hadn’t realised they were so awful’ said the premiers today ‘We thought there were lots of fish in our rivers and that beavers were native to them too. But clearly the thing that our rivers need is for certain elements of their natural fauna to be removed completely.  Evolution isn’t so great if it came up with idea of beavers in rivers and God must have been sleeping on the job if he put them there.’

The EU is poised to consider the status of the European Beaver ahead of any decisions on the future of Greece, the Euro or quantitative easing. Jean-Claude Juncker is believed to be asking Malta to take the lead on the beaver ‘Conservation by elimination’ project.  ‘This is a top priority’ he said, ‘we’re all beavering away like mad’.

David Cameron says he will not debate anything with anyone unless beavers are top of the list, ‘We’re the wettest government ever’ he claimed, ‘We are so beaver-friendly you just can’t believe it’.

A Tangling Rust spokesperson said ‘Don’t worry, we have a longer list of things that will have to go too – anything with a hooked beak, Kingfishers, herons (even those nice little white ones), Ospreys, Otters, Cormorants – shall I go on?  We want our rivers to be completely natural that’s why we want all the native species removed. It works with grouse shooting so it can work with fishing. Give us a river full of Rainbow Trout, Signal Crayfish and New Zealand Pigmyweed any time.’.

Meanwhile in Devon, the Devon Wildlife Trust chortled as the money came in.


Beavering away – or, actually, here to stay.

Beavers on River Otter. Photo: David Land

Beavers on River Otter. Photo: David Land

Harry Barton, Chief Executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said:

‘We are delighted by Natural England’s decision to grant us a licence to give these beavers a long term future on the River Otter. It’s the result of a great deal of effort by our charity, supported by partner organisations across the UK and, most importantly, by the local community.

This is an historic moment. The beavers of the River Otter are the first breeding population in the English countryside for hundreds of years. We believe they can play a positive role in the landscapes of the 21st century through their ability to restore our rivers to their former glories. We know from our own research and research done in Europe that beavers are excellent aquatic-engineers improving the flood and drought resilience of our countryside and increasing the water quality of our rivers. They are incredibly industrious animals and their hard work has benefits for people and wildlife.’.

Devon Wildlife Trust has expressed its delight that Natural England has granted it permission to monitor the beavers. Devon Wildlife Trust’s beaver trial in another part of the county is ongoing – scientific results will be published in 2016.

Public meetings have been held to discuss the presence of the wild beavers on the River Otter – there has been a high level of local support for Devon Wildlife Trust’s proposal to set up a five year project to monitor the population and its impact. It is appealing to the public to help it fund the scheme. Public enthusiasm for the beavers is high – with Devon Wildlife Trust raising £45,000 in just eight weeks.

The Wildlife Trusts say that they are at the forefront of bringing beavers, and the lost landscapes that were once their home, back to the UK.  Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK by the 16th century because their fur was highly valued. Now Wildlife Trusts in England, Scotland and Wales are making the case for their reintroduction by hosting both wild and enclosed beaver trials and feasibility studies.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts says:

This is wonderful news. I hope that the decision to allow this fascinating and once commonplace native species to remain on the River Otter symbolises a change in our relationship with the natural world, and a wider appreciation that nature makes our lives richer.

However, Friends of the Earth also deserve considerable credit for a national campaign to keep the Devon beavers in the wild.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Alasdair Cameron, said:

This is great news for Devon’s beavers.  If, as seems likely, they can now remain in the wild, it will be a major victory for common sense and everyone who has campaigned on their behalf.

Beavers add to Britain’s rich natural heritage and can bring huge benefits to the local environment, such as boosting wildlife and reducing flooding risks.

Thanks to the hard work of thousands of individuals and organisations, our number of native species just increased by one. The next stage is to get the beavers tested and then returned to the River Otter where they can now swim in peace.”

Hopefully we’ll now see renewed efforts to reintroduce beavers to other suitable locations right across the country.’.

Andrew Sells, Natural England’s Chairman commented:

‘Reintroduction of a species is a complicated and emotive subject and we have considered this application very carefully. Responses to our written consultation and public meetings have been generally positive and we are now satisfied with Devon Wildlife Trust’s plans for managing and monitoring the project, which will allow important evidence to be gathered during the trial on any impacts which the beavers may have.

Future decisions by Natural England on the release of beavers will in large part be informed by the results of this trial. The unauthorised release of beavers remains illegal and Natural England does not expect to grant any other licences for beaver release during this trial period.

Trapping and testing of the animals for Echinococcus multilocularis will be carried out by the Animal and Plant Health Agency under a separate licence that was granted towards the end of 2014.’.

We await a response by the NFU and CLA but in Wales and Scotland, farmers representatives are less keen on beavers.



Guest blog – SWAFH by Rodney Hale

253785_1916824994375_5874972_nI was brought up in a family of farmers and bloodsports enthusiasts – that is with the exception of my mother who nearly left my father when he returned home from a shooting trip with his car covered in blood. Had she done so I might not have been sitting here now.

I have vivid boyhood memories of an incident when a combine harvester was circling a wheat field with my great-uncles stationed around – shot guns at the ready. Within a few yards of the centre a total of fourteen foxes sprang out and every one was shot. There must have been at least two fox families in that field. At that time I thought this slaughter was all jolly good fun and always reminded my uncles of it when I met them. But on another occasion when I attended a rough shoot as a beater an injured hare cried like a human baby, which I’m sure sowed the seeds of my conversion to the “anti” cause in later years, especially regarding hares.

So although I was groomed to follow in the footsteps of my family, it thankfully didn’t work out that way. On attending Exeter University in 1968 to study zoology I came to realise that studying animals offers far more pleasure than killing them. But it wasn’t until attending a presentation by the League Against Cruel Sports on hare coursing in the late 90s that I was galvanised into action for the cause of hare conservation and welfare. The scenes portrayed in that presentation were horrific and I had never seen so many grown men and women in an audience reduced to tears.

I founded the British Brown Hare Preservation Society in 2002 and this eventually became the Hare Preservation Trust. But in 2013 the committee voted against supporting the anti-badger cull campaign, so I resigned to found a new group – South-West Action for Hares (SWAFH). Although focused on hares the group has a guiding principle that it supports other wildlife organisations when the occasion arises, so my first “action” was to sign SWAFH up to Team Badger.

SWAFH has three principal projects at present. It is known that many leverets are killed by farm machinery as they wait in fields of long grass for their mothers to return at dusk to give them their single daily feed, so we are exploring the possibility of detecting them using thermal imaging cameras mounted on drones. This technique has already been successfully used in Denmark to detect roe deer fawns, but leverets would be more difficult to detect owing to their smaller size and lower heat output. There is also the problem of what to do with the leverets if detected. It has been suggested that the mother would find them if they are caged in a field corner and the cage removed just before dusk.

The second project is a campaign to persuade the Scottish Government to confer Protected Species status upon the mountain hare which is relentlessly persecuted by the grouse shooting industry as described in Mark’s blog. There is also the infamous case where a party of Italians brought a refridgerated lorry over here, planning to shoot 1,000 mountain hares to return to Italy to sell to pay for their shooting holiday.

Thirdly, we are exploring the possibility of re-introducing mountain hares to Dartmoor where they died out around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago when the Moor became covered with a deciduous forest which was not good habitat for hares. That situation has now largely reversed and the Moor includes 11,500 hectares of heather moorland. Research in Banffshire has shown that heather accounts for 90% of the winter and half the summer diet of mountain hares. But much more work needs to be done to assess the suitability of Dartmoor for mountain hares and indeed whether they might interact negatively with plant and animal communities already present. They would also need adequate protection. Although they are already protected under the EC Habitats Directive this needs to be enforced far more rigorously. We welcome all views on our projects and can be contacted here:


The mystery of the dying hedge – solved!

Regular readers of this blog will remember the mystery of the dying hedge near where I live in Northamptonshire (see here, here and all the comments on the blogs).

Local artist , and designer of the jacket for A Message from Martha, Carry Akroyd, once painted this hedge because it was so beautiful (see below).

nice bit of hedge

But the actual hedge, last summer, looked more like this… (the left hand side)



and this…


I recently received this account from the owner of the hedge which clears up the mystery. By agreement, no names are mentioned.


The following is the true explanation of the sad demise of our once beautiful hedge on the Clopton to Thurning road. This also serves to put all the so-called knowledgeable people right. After a lifetime (50 + years, third generation) of responsible farming, and never having killed a hedge by cutting one ‘at the wrong time’, or spraying one with chemicals, it was with great shock and sadness to see the hedge in question start to die. It was at first a complete mystery to us. Eventually it came to light that the neighbouring farmer, when returning to his farm after spraying a field next to us in the Autumn of 2013, failed to fold the nearside boom of his sprayer up properly, nor turn his pump off, allowing chemical (Roundup) to be continually sprayed along a short bit of his hedge, but about 1 mile of ours on his left. When he eventually realised his error he pulled into our gateway at the end of the hedge, and sorted it all out, but of course it was too late, the damage was done. Of course this did not come to light until signs of the hedge dying became obvious the following year (2014). We are having to wait until this spring (2015) to see what happens, as there is a potential insurance claim.

To say we were upset at the possibility of losing such a lovely, mature hedge is an understatement. If it has to be replanted, it is a sad fact that, as it will take many, many years to grow into something substantial, we will not still be alive to see it mature, but at least future generations will.

Anyone who knows us knows that we are very conscientious about nature and wildlife and are very careful about such things, this is born out by the fact that there is a wonderful variety of birds, mammals etc on the farm, which I enjoy photographing day after day.


So, there we go. An accident; a sad accident by a local farmer.  Mystery solved. I’ve agreed to go and look at the hedge again next spring and I’ll update you on the state of play. Fingers crossed for green shoots of recovery.


Guest blog – Where green objectives clash by Peter Marren

marrenPeter Marren is the first person to have their third Guest Blog on this site (see here and here for his previous Guest Blogs).

Peter used to work for an excellent organisation called the Nature Conservancy Council (who remembers them? – and yes we didn’t always think they were excellent at the time but how we might wish them back…).  He now writes books and excellent articles (especially for British Wildlife magazine).




Where green objectives clash: nature versus renewables at Rampisham Down

Which is the most important: nature conservation or renewable energy? We are about to find out. The place where the issue will be decided is Rampisham Down, near Maiden Newton in Dorset. The place is best known for its nest of communication masts which have disfigured the skyline there since 1939. But underneath the masts is a surprise. This is an unusually large area of dry semi-natural acidic grassland of the kind technically known as U4. It is an unusual kind with a mixture of acidic and chalk plants. Quite by chance the masts have saved this grassland from the fate of nearly other example in the county: fertiliser and the plough. There is less than 5,000 ha of this kind of grassland left in Britain. 76ha of an unusually species –rich kind lies under the masts at Rampisham Down.

Natural England scheduled this site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013. It did so partly in response to a threat. The site had been bought for British Solar Renewables with the intention of turning 40 ha of it into a solar farm – one of England’s largest with more than 100,000 (some say up to 160,000) panels. When the application went to West Dorset District Council in November last year it was opposed by Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust. The District’s Planning Officer recommended refusal. The Councillors thought otherwise and approved the application. Unanimously. Now Dorset Wildlife Trust is asking the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, to call in the case for a Public Inquiry. With the general election on the way there is no time to lose.

That’s the case in outline. Just beneath the surface lie a number of issues. First acid grassland is not the easiest habitat to ‘sell’. To anyone except a botanist, Rampisham Down is a rather bleak spread of rough grass on a rounded hilltop broken by the odd gorse bush or shelter belt of pines. There is no public access. The whole place is behind barbed wire with multiple warning signs – including guard dogs. Local feeling is mainly one of relief that the masts are coming down at last.

The second problem is that West Dorset’s planners class this as a brownfield site. For brownfield sites there is, in general, a presumption in favour of redevelopment. At the meeting to consider the application, which, of course, was public, the Planning Officer repeatedly reminded Councillors that this does not apply to protected sites like Rampisham Down. Nevertheless some Councillors felt able to question its nature conservation value. One pointed out that herbicides and fertiliser had been used there (so they have, but only on small areas, such as around the masts). There was also a fear that the area might ‘go to scrub’. Many people seem terrified of that outcome but there are ways of preventing scrub encroachment, one of which is called sheep.

Unfortunately the Councillors seemed more impressed by the developer’s evidence than Natural England’s. They were able to produce Sir Ghillean Prance, a distinguished botanist and former director of Kew Gardens. In Sir Ghillean’s view, the site was “degraded, highly impacted habitat”. Moreover, in his opinion the site’s interest would survive the installation of 100,000 solar panels since these now have windows that let a little light through to the grass underneath. The developers had performed some experiments which suggested that, after six months, there was no discernible difference to the vegetation. Natural England responded that six months is nowhere near long enough, but Sir Ghillean seemed impressed with the results and so, apparently, were the Councillors. There was even a suggestion that development could somehow improve the value of the SSSI though no evidence for that was forthcoming.

Like most conservation bodies, the Dorset Wildlife Trust is an enthusiast for renewable energy. The land purchased by the developers includes a smaller area on the opposite side of the road which is improved grassland, formerly part of a dairy farm, of minimal value for wildlife. The Trust supports this alternative and it is also investigating suitable sites for solar farms elsewhere in the county.

A final reason why the application was approved is the local councillors’ fear of windfarms. Like everywhere else, Dorset has been set targets for renewable energy. Windfarms are deeply unpopular in West Dorset. Like the communication masts on Rampisham Down you can see them for miles in this countryside of rounded hills and deep valleys. Better solar panels, you might think, than three-hundred-foot wind turbines.

These are some of the questions Eric Pickles’ officials should consider: was the District right to ignore its Planning Officers’ recommendation? How compatible are solar panels and grassland wildlife? Should natural grassland be demoted to ‘brownfield’ simply because it has man-made structures on it? Should the evidence of a star witness outweigh that of the Government’s own advisors on wildlife and the county experts? Is it right that ‘Cinderella’ habitats like acid grassland should weigh less than more glamorous sites, especially when they don’t have any Nightingales? And finally, if the application is confirmed, where does that leave the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework?

It is all down to Mr Pickles now. Quite a lot may hang on his decision.

Follow the Rampisham Down affair in detail on Miles King’s blog.


Oscar Dewhurst – Coots fighting



Oscar writes: On the day I took this, most of the water on my local nature reserve was frozen, forcing the majority of the ducks to congregate on the small areas of open water remaining. The coots, one of the most territorial of the birds there, kept getting into scraps with each other but they never lasted very long. These two were fighting for quite a while, and I managed to get this image of them with both their legs up in the air! Occasionally their fights lead to injury, or even death, but fortunately for these two they backed down after a couple of minutes.
Nikon D800, Nikon 600mm f/4 AF-S II lens | Nikon 1.4x TC