Henry at Stonehenge!

Weds 8th April - copy

Henry – you seem to be having a great time.





IMG_2406Dear Rules Restaurant

I wrote to you, as a customer, a while ago asking about the provenance of your game meat and what you think about the lead levels in it.

Rather surprisingly you referred me to the GWCT for answers. I have contacted them and, perhaps not surprisingly, they say that they do not speak on your behalf on these matters. So I am coming back to you. Do you have anything to say on these matters or do you wish not to comment on the levels of a poison in the food that you sell and will not comment on the provenance of your meat?

I offered to meet you, with experts on lead levels in game meat, if you would like to have a full briefing on the subject. That offer is still open.

This letter will be posted on my blog as will any reply or lack of reply from you.

best wishes

PS You now have a low score on tripadvisor from me, entitled ‘Uncommunicative and pricey’ because of your lack of response to my questions. I’ll be happy to upgrade my customer satisfaction rating if you reply in the way that would be expected of any restaurant when asked about the quality of its food. I see that my tripadvisor comment has already had one ‘helpful’ vote.


Coiled spring

Bank Holiday Monday proved to be a taster of spring – it feels as though spring is coiled and waiting to be released.

I started with a walk at the local former airdrome on the Northants/Beds border. Eight of the nine wind turbines were spinning round even though there was little wind at ground level. Several fields were now filled with solar panels but there were still masses of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits singing in a spring-like way. A small flock of Fieldfares were hanging on to winter.  A Chiffchaff sang from the wood where the car was parked.

Later in the morning I was at the local Wildlife Trust reserve at Twywell. It seemed as though it were mostly a dog-walking reserve. A smart male Yellowhammer sang and the occasional Brimstone butterfly flew past in a buttery way.  Chiffchaffs sang.

At Fermyn Woods the playground was full of kids.  The once visitor centre is now the Skylark cafe and it is now difficult to find out whether there have been any interesting nature sightings. Women with large shiny handbags and shiny boots rather than welly boots were stalking around. But 100m up the path, where few ventured, 80 toads were having sex in a pond, and calling, and wandering, coupled, over the path. A bee-fly flew by. Some Chiffchaffs sang.

At Old Sulehay the sun went behind the clouds. I saw the usual Marsh Tit for this site – now an unusual sight locally. The Wood Anemones, Celandines and Primroses were gorgeous. There were a few early Bluebells and Dog’s Mercury beginning to flower and we ate Ransoms leaves. Several Chiffchaffs sang.

I must have heard about 40 singing Chiffchaffs in the day, but not a single Willow Warbler, despite being in places where Willow Warblers occur. Local birders and Birdtrack confirm it’s not just me. these years, I’ve normally heard my first Willow Warbler by now.  Maybe Henry and i will have heard one as we have travelled the country today?

Spring is coiled – waiting to be released by warmer weather and more sunshine. The Willow Warblers are massing on our borders – that first cascading song cannot be far away.


Henry dodging bullets?

Tues 7th April - copy

Henry was on Salisbury Plain last week – without me! I missed him but it looks like he was having a good time risking life and limb on the firing ranges. Still, he’s used to dodging bullets.

Henry and I are out and about today. Keep an eye open and you might see us. I wonder where…






Squirrels and martens

By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Squirrel  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Squirrel Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When I walk through St James’s Park, as I sometimes do, I am always (and it is always) struck by the number of people smiling at Grey Squirrels, photographing Grey Squirrels and feeding Grey Squirrels.  These people, many of whom are ‘foreign’, from their accents at least, would be shocked to hear this lovely, friendly, cute mammal called a ‘tree rat’ (although they probably would say that there is not that much wrong with rats either).

But there is little or no doubt that the spread of the Grey Squirrel has pushed our native Red Squirrel back into the celtic fringe of the UK through a combination of disease transmission and competition. And so, cute as they are, I look somewhat askance at Grey Squirrels as I pass by them, although you can’t help but smile at them, can you?

By Ray eye (Photograph by Ray eye) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ray eye (Photograph by Ray eye) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was, of course, the land owning class which introduced this cute but controversial mammal into our shores, and it is now the descendants 0f those landowners, and some foresters, who moan most about their continued existence in this country.  There are various slightly crack-brained schemes around which are supposed to help Red Squirrels, and some that probably will, but there is now an approach that seems to offer more hope than  the ‘get your gun out’ approach does.

Grey Squirrels were introduced into the UK from North America in the nineteenth century long after the main predator of squirrels had been extirpated from much of the UK. That species, was, and is, the Pine Marten. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Grey Squirrel has done so well because it has arrived in a predator-free zone?

There is now some evidence for  this idea, quite good evidence which has been around for a while, although I missed it a couple of years ago (I suspect because I was working hard for WWF at the time).  In the couple of days I spent with Forest Enterprise staff a couple of weeks ago, I sat through a presentation by Emma Sheehy. Her study in Ireland, where Grey Squirrels arrived only relatively recently but then romped westwards across the country reprising their impact on the Red Squirrel in Ireland as they had in Britain, showed that the increase in numbers and range of the Pine Marten seemed to be pushing Grey Squirrels back towards the Irish Sea and allowing Red Squirrels to regain their range too.

sylvia duckworth [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

sylvia duckworth [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pine Martens eat squirrels, red ones and grey ones, although of course, Red Squirrels evolved in a world full of Pine Martens whereas Grey Squirrels did not. In fact, interestingly (very interestingly), Grey Squirrels do not overlap in range with the marten species that might eat them in North America.

Grey Squirrels are bigger than Reds and therefore cannot escape Pine Marten attacks by seeking out the smallest branches of trees, and Greys spend more time on the ground than Reds and so are more vulnerable, perhaps, to Marten attacks.

The working hypothesis would be that if our landowners had not got rid of the Pine Marten then perhaps when they released the Grey Squirrel, it would not have been able to take such a hold on our woodlands (at the expense of our native Red Squirrel).  And therefore, the interesting proposition is that if you have a box full of Pine Martens and let them go in your local wood they might well get rid of the Greys by eating a few of them and creating a ‘landscape of fear’ which rather cramps the style of the rest of them. Very interesting.

Now I am not suggesting that you should get a box full of Pine Martens and start letting them go, but I can see why Forest Enterprise should be interested in this idea.  Of course, if we had a Forest and Wildlife Service then it would be a done deal!  All those publicly-owned forests and a remit that requires the body to enhance biodiversity, and it would be a no-brainer (after careful consideration and trials etc etc etc).

Pine Marten range. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, species assessors and the authors of the spatial data. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pine Marten range. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, species assessors and the authors of the spatial data. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I suspect that the main objections to there being more Pine Martens will come from shooting estates worried about their (non-native, introduced) Pheasants. Can you imagine the conflicting feelings of the members of the Country Land and Business Association over whether they could have an easy cost-effective solution to the problems that Grey Squirrels cause forestry but only at the expense of a native predator being re-established in our artificial countryside? I think we should give it a go. It all sounds great fun and rather promising, and an interesting case study for the role of native predators in preventing non-native species becoming established.

I’d be a bit surprised if I ever see Red Squirrels being admired by tourists in St James’s Park as it is more difficult to imagine Pine Martens getting to grips with Greys in the middle of our largest cities, but, you never know!

And I suspect those Lynx will sort out a few of the Muntjac too.


Emma Sheehy is now studying these issues at the University of Aberdeen. She is appearing on Radio 4’s Costing the Earth this afternoon at 330pm. Other press coverage here, here and an article by Emma here. And a bit of her science here.

Photo: Thomas Avery

Photo: Thomas Avery



Henry #HaveYouSeenHenry

Monday 6th April-copy

Henry with Michael Groves (volunteer for the owl & raptor nest box project on Salisbury Plain) and Nick Adams (Wiltshire Raptor Group).



Not really a twitch

It wasn’t really a twitch because the birds weren’t that rare, the site was very close and I was going there anyway, but when I saw that there were a couple of Avocets at Stanwick Lakes yesterday afternoon then I got down there a bit quicker than I might otherwise have done. And there they were, sitting amongst the gulls and Cormorants at the end of the spit of the island in the A45 layby lake. Very nice too. My first for my local patch.

It was a lovely evening and perfect for bird song – warm and calm – in fact, the best part of the day. There were birds singing, including lots of Chiffchaffs but there was no chattering of an early Sedge Warbler from the reeds and nor was there the tumbling cadences of a Willow Warbler from the scrub which often provides my first of the year.

But there might have been, for it is that time of year when each visit to Stanwick is likely to add a ‘first of the year’ species. When I caught up with Bob and Steve they had seen Swallow and pointed out to me my ‘first of the year’ Little Ringed Plover to add to my ‘first for the site’ Avocets.

We think it was Mike Alibone who saw a couple of Avocets here yesterday morning but then a pair was seen further west up the valley and then later again a flock of nine was further west again. Were these two so enamoured of Stanwick Lakes that they headed back after checking out sites along the valley? Or are there just quite a few Avocets milling around Northants this weekend? We’ll see as spring unfolds. For it is spring, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.


Forest Holidays – in case you missed it

Dormouse picDo you remember the case of Fineshade Wood (see here, here and here for example)? Back on 17 March Rupert de Mauley was answering questions in the House of Lords on the subject. Note the fact that Forest Holidays ‘is unlikely to be able to progress a site if it does not have the full support of the Forestry Commission‘.

Note also Lord Greaves’s view that the more he looked into it ‘the murkier the whole business seems‘.



Forest Holidays: Forestry Commission Stake


Asked by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the Forestry Commission’s stake in Forest Holidays and to ensure that in the event of a sale by the majority shareholder they would not lose all management control of any future development.

s216_LordDeMauley-1a The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord De Mauley) (Con): My Lords, the control the Forestry Commission has over developments by Forest Holidays is exercised through the arrangements in the legal framework agreement between Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission, rather than through its shareholding in the business. Any change in ownership would not change the level of control exercised under the framework agreement and as landlord.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab): My Lords, concern about the future of our public forest estate continues, and the Answer of the Minister does nothing to assuage the fears that there are at the moment or the anxiety over the nature of the relationship between the Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays. What is the process for approving new and existing sites? Further to that, why does there not appear to have been any competitive tender process when Forest Holidays was restructured through a joint venture in 2012?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, the Forestry Commission has to approve of any new sites for this activity, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld, which is a reasonably common requirement. In practice, Forest Holidays is unlikely to be able to progress a site if it does not have the full support of the Forestry Commission. Forest Holidays also has its own site selection criteria, which exclude any site where there are significant environmental constraints.

I spoke to the chairman of the Forestry Commission today, and he confirmed that only a limited number of sites are available within the public forest estate.

Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab): I declare an interest as the chair of the Forestry Commission from 2001 to 2009. As the House may know, there have been two joint ventures with the Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays, one on my watch in 2006 and a later one in 2012. Will the Minister confirm that, on the first occasion, it followed full parliamentary procedure, had the approval of the Treasury and went out to full competitive tendering?

As regards the second venture, will the Minister assure the House that if the private sector investor decided to sell its share, the Forestry Commission would not be forced to sell the commensurate share at the same time?

Lord De Mauley: I can confirm most of what the noble Lord said. The terms under which the current joint venture operates are very much the same as for the original joint venture. If the controlling interest is sold, the Forestry Commission may be required to sell its interest in the company by the buyer, including the Forestry Commission’s stake in the business. The sale would not change the controls set out in the framework agreement and the site leases.

Lord Hylton (CB): My Lords, I declare my entry in the register of interests. Public access and amenity are obviously most important, but they are not the only consideration. When it comes to marketing, will the Government ensure that the Forestry Commission does not intentionally undercut private owners and producers?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, although that is slightly wide of the Question, I think I can none the less confirm what the noble Lord says.

Lord Greaves (LD): My Lords, when this Question was first put down, I had no idea what Forest Holidays was, but I have been looking into it, and the more I do so, the murkier the whole business seems. It appears that, since the framework agreement in 2012 and the new joint venture companies having been set up, pieces of the forestry estate have effectively been handed to venture capitalists to pursue log cabin developments. The questions that need to be asked are: first, are the public getting value for money for that through the forestry commissioners? There are arguments that they are not. Secondly, is it true that the forestry commissioners are not exercising their powers effectively over such developments? Thirdly, how far will this go? Is it the intention that Forest Holidays will expand substantially, using cheap Forestry Commission land and taking over some of the national forestry estate for its purposes?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, as I said, I discussed this matter this morning with the chairman of the Forestry Commission. As he said, the reality is that only a limited number of sites are available within the public forest estate, principally because much of the land is either ancient woodland or SSSI or protected in some other way.

Baroness Masham of Ilton (CB): My Lords, what can be done about the wild boar in the Forest of Dean eating lambs? Might this not be dangerous to people on holiday?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, that is an interesting question. It is important that we retain visibility of the trees as well as the forest. Primary responsibility for management of feral boar lies with local communities and individual landowners. This means that local land managers are free to control wild boar as they see fit, as long as that control is carried in a humane and legal manner.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, the Forestry Commission in England is to be congratulated on the significant rise in the number of people visiting our public forest estates, not least as it is against the background of a recent report which suggests that the number of people visiting rural areas has slightly declined. It shows the huge value that our population puts on both the social and economic benefits of the forest, as well as on the environmental benefits because of carbon capture. Have Her Majesty’s Government made any assessment of the possibility of increasing the total amount of public forest estate to enhance those benefits even further?

Lord De Mauley: We have not given particular consideration to that, although the House will be aware of the background and the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry. It is important that we continue to increase the amount of woodland cover generally in the country. That is under way, principally funded through the rural development programme.

Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab): My Lords, will the Minister answer the second part of the question asked by my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere? If the private sector sells its share, does the Forestry Commission have to do likewise?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I did actually answer that. There are circumstances in which the Forestry Commission’s share is sold with that of the majority shareholder.


Oscar Dewhurst – Red-capped Cardinal

Oscar writes: One of the commoner birds around the oxbow lakes in Peru was the Red-capped Cardinal. They would perch in the vegetation on the lake margins allowing for a fairly close approach in the boat. If I got too close the group would all take off and noisily fly across the lake.
Nikon D300s, Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens

A few points to points-to-points


The car park at Dingley begins to fill up.


I went to the Woodland Pytchley point-to-point yesterday. I used to go to points-to-points regularly but this is the first I’ve attended for well over a decade.

Points-to-points are rather low key, low quality steeplechases organised by local hunts. All the horses and jockeys have to have ‘gone’ fox-hunting to be qualified – but this might just mean turning up and getting their card stamped and then going home.

We had a good time and I picked the winners of the first four races – the fourth race was a walk-over (only one horse entered) so you could have got that one too!

My single bet was on the second race – a horse called Sandpiper’s but it wasn’t the bird-related name that attracted me. There were seven bookmakers present and taking generally small bets of £2-£5 on the races. The market isn’t very strong. Sandpipers was the favourite of the four runners – the others being around 5/2, 4/1 and 4/1. One bookmaker had the favourite at 1/2 (you give him £1 and if you win you get £1.50 back, ie winnings of 50p) and was short on the favourite throughout, which I found interesting. He can hardly have taken a single bet on that horse (which suggested he was fairly sure that the other three couldn’t win). The other six bookies’ odds on the favourite changed between 8/11 and 4/7. I was prepared to have £60 at 4/6 but was waiting to see whether 8/11 would appear. When it did, a quicker investor bet £100 and the bookie wiped off the 8/11 and chalked up 8/13. When 8/11 appeared down the row then I was a bit quicker and invested £55 and therefore won £40 a few minutes later when the favourite won after the leader rather inexplicably lost its momentum before the last fence. It wasn’t the only race won by a horse who ran better than it jumped yesterday.

So one bet paid for the day out. Yippee!

There was a Red Kite over the course when we arrived too.

So was this a very political outing? Not for me. Although there is a connection with fox-hunting, it amounted to a picnic in a field, and a look at the betting and the racing for me. Given that you aren’t allowed to kill foxes with hounds these days then I don’t consider myself to be making a political statement by attending a point-to-point – so anyone using attendance at these events as support for a renewal of fox hunting – please remove ‘one’ from the numbers.

I should think that most of the attendees at this event probably are quite keen on fox-hunting but I’m only going by their Range Rovers, accents and general appearance so I may be completely wrong. For many it was clearly an opportunity to meet up with friends and their labradors, to have a drink (red or white? (although I was shocked by the numbers of foreign bottled beers being drunk)) and have a picnic and an ice-cream.

But for some it was quite political. There were announcements over the public address system entreating us to visit the Vote OK tent where we could learn which of our candidates on 7 May would be in favour of removing the ban on fox-hunting. When I looked toward the said tent it was empty apart from some disconsolate folk looking neglected and ignored. Apparently Peter Bone (the former Conservative MP, now candidate, for Wellingborough), and Philip Hollobone (the former  Conservative MP, now candidate, for Kettering) and   Tom Pursglove (Conservative candidate, who can rely on not getting my vote in Corby as I will be voting for Andy Sawford) had made brief appearances there.

There were bigger queues for ice-cream and beer than for political intelligence.

I know that some people who support my position on banning grouse shooting will be unhappy that I attend horse races, and I know that some who attend horse races will  be unhappy that I seek to ban driven grouse shooting. Well, both groups can fight it out between themselves on that but I will think for myself and go my own way, thanks very much. There is no organisation which I support, not the RSPB, the Labour Party, the BBC, the Wildlife Trusts, the Guardian or the World Land Trust, with which I agree completely (although, come to think of it, I can’t think there is anything with which I disagree with Butterfly Conservation – maybe I could find something if I looked very hard). Any political party or conservation organisation with which I agreed completely would have a membership of one – me!