Beautiful butterflies were missing

Adonis was the subject of a tug of love between Aphrodite and Persephone because of his great beauty.

The Adonis blue is pretty good-looking too and restricted to chalk grassland sites such as are to be found in Dorset, so Wednesday, after being stood up by white-beaked dolphins, was Adonis blue day.  Butterflies are pretty unpredictable though – climate change has thrown them out all over the place in terms of timing of emergence and they are weather dependent anyway so they might just keep their heads down when you go to look for them.

I sat on the ancient Maiden Castle looking north towards Dorchester and trying to avoid looking at the giant carbuncle on the edge of Dorchester (Hardy‘s Casterbridge) that is Poundbury.  Actually Poundbury looks like a toy town – the type you used to get for train sets where there is nothing behind the facade.  I went to check it out a bit later and found that there were posh bridal outfitters and florists behind the facade, so that’s all right then.

It was really too windy for butterflies, but occasionally a white would be blown past.  Instead, I watched the combine harvester below hoover up the wheat at £160/tonne.  In the old days there would have been a gang of men with terriers and guns waiting for the last cut of wheat to flush out something worth eating or killing. Instead a couple of lesser black-backed gulls seemed to be keeping an eye on things and a buzzard sat patiently on a post.

After a while, a roe deer burst from the crop, invisible to me until it fled, quite some time before the last pass of the harvester.  The deer ran to the fence around the field, stopped and then eased itself over the substantial barrier with no apparent effort.

Another white butterfly was swept past in the wind.

There was a flock of dull-looking brown birds playing dare with the combine – fleeing at the last moment as it captured the wheat in its rotating blades.  There were quite a few of them – adults and young feeding in the fast-harvested crop and flying from the combine each time it approached.  They flew to the fence, lined up as a row of khaki soldiers and sometimes flew down to my side to the ancient grassland that was devoid of Adonis blues.  It took me a while to realise they were corn buntings – but they were.

As I watched the corn buntings I noticed that their tails were very light compared with their backs – I’ve never noticed that before.  Maybe it was the angle I looked down on them.

Corn buntings suffer from being foolish late-nesters – their nests often get scrunched by the combines and I think that happened below me as I watched.  Certainly there were lots of corn buntings around, the young ones should have been thanking their parents for nesting early, but it looked like there was at least one nest in the last band of wheat to be swept up by the combine.

No exciting mammals rushed from the wheat as the combine finished its job and the grain wagon rushed off to the grain store and the baler came in to turn the straw into neat solid rectangles.  But another white butterfly was swept by.

Others saw Adonis blue at Maiden Castle recently, but then they may well have seen white-beaked dolphin in Lyme Bay too.  I just saw a rather ugly Poundbury on the horizon and corn buntings being scrunched in the wheat field.

Around a couple of thousand years ago the Romans scrunched the Durotriges in these parts, but Maiden Castle had already been  a settlement for 4000 years by then.  It’s difficult to imagine how many corn buntings, how many butterflies and how much of Poundbury will be left on this site in 200 years let alone 2000, let alone 6000 years into the future which is how long Maiden Castle has had a past as a human settlement.  Dorset has the habit of reminding you of the length of the past which always makes me wonder about the length of the future.

There were a few small heaths flitting around in the grass near the car park as I left without seeing an Adonis blue – they seem exactly as abundant as white-beaked dolphins round these parts.  Or maybe Adonis is still dividing his time between Aphrodite and Persephone.

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Quotas – has their time come?

Driven grouse shooting is not without its benefits to the economy and ecology of the uplands although we could argue for years (and have done!) over exactly what are those benefits.  The trouble with it is that it is based on the illegal killing of several protected raptor species (most notably, but not exclusively, golden eagle, hen harrier and peregrine falcon) and a fair bit of illegal killing of some mammals too.

But it is clear that these same protected raptors can, if left to their own devices, make the legal practising of driven grouse shooting impossible, because that is what happened at Langholm in the Joint Raptor Study (maybe it wouldn’t happen everywhere but who will promise that it won’t?).

So, grouse shooters say that they want a way out of this bind and they suggest a system of quotas of hen harriers.  This was  pretty well described by ‘Lazywell’ in a comment on Sunday’s blog but here is my version of it.

The quota system allows grouse moor owners to do something to hen harriers to limit their numbers on any given grouse moor once numbers exceed a quota.  Various ideas for the quota float around but let’s just imagine that one could be agreed.  If you get more hen harriers settling on your grouse moor in the spring than your quota then you can bump them off (the most extreme version), prick their eggs  or perhaps bundle up any hatching young and cart them off to somewhere else.  Any of these actions would prevent there being hungry harrier babies being fed on grouse during the summer.

These three options (there are others too) have different medium-term implications for harrier numbers – killing adults limits the population the most, pricking eggs the next and translocation of young harriers the least.  Each is ‘unnatural’ and time-consuming – the usual objections to diversionary feeding.  But each would allow harrier numbers to rise to the ceiling level (whatever it might be) on all those moors where harriers are mysteriously absent at the moment (thus proving that there was a lot of persecution going on).

With translocation, where would the young hen harriers go? Here, too, there are options – they could be released back where they were born, ‘down the road’ on another bit of moorland (maybe a grouse moor, maybe not) or shipped off somewhere far away like Dartmoor where there is no grouse shooting.

This scheme has a great deal of complexity in it – because there are so  many variants and things that would need sorting out.  And it has always struck me that it might not be that easy to sell within the shooting community anyway – seems like a lot of trouble to go to when you can carry on breaking the law and pretend that you aren’t – and that is one reason why I would require a statement from reputable shooting organisations that they ‘admit’ that there is an awful lot of illegal killing of raptors and that they agree that this limits raptor numbers.  Such a statement means that there is no going back.

So such a statement from shooting organisations, not from individual moor managers, is a necessary step, in my opinion, to being able to win over nature conservationists to this scheme.  All grouse moors benefit from the illegal killing of raptors – whether that killing is done by the few or the many – and it needs a collective, public admission of the problem to move things on and to gain the trust of nature conservationists.  Is this grouse moor managers making the first move? yes it is – but that’s where the criminality lies, that’s the industry with the problem and they get something in return a bit further down the line (an agreed quota system).

Some would say that any such quota scheme is simply ‘regularising’ a currently criminal activity – I’ve said that myself plenty of times.  But that could be dealt with by setting the quota at a sufficiently high level for there to be a real benefit to harriers from the intial stages of the scheme but a real benefit to grouse moor owners once the quota is exceeded.

So that is my three-point plan for moving things on:

  1. grouse shooters come together to acknowledge, publicly, through shooting-related organisations the scale of the problem of illegal raptor killing
  2. diversionary feeding to be used (completely voluntarily) to minimise within-year harrier impacts
  3. conservationists agree a quota system to be developed that leads to much higher harrier breeding numbers overall but limits their local densitites

This does mean that everybody has to move – but the criminal elements have to move first.  If harriers became commoner on grouse moors then nature conservationists could relax a bit about the issue – not just forget it and go way, but relax a little.  It is the almost complete eradication of harriers on grouse moors that makes it so difficult for nature conservationists to ignore this issue – why should they?

And my preference would be for chick translocation rather than egg, chick or adult killing but then that should also be the preferred route for the shooting community too if they want a publicly acceptable scheme.

I keep talking about harriers but some thought would have to be given to eagles and peregrines etc in all this too.

It must be time to move this issue on, it has become too bogged down and now is in danger of occupying too much nature conservation time for no real benefit on the ground.  And if there can’t be agreement on something along these lines fairly quickly (which is entirely possible) then nature conservation organisations should seriously consider Plan B – campaigning for an end to grouse shooting outright on the grounds that it is based on widespread illegal activity.

But what do you think?

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Four men in a boat

We set off from West Bay with high hopes – Skipper Ian, Diver Dave, Biologist Tom and Ballast Mark.  Huntress II passed the beach on which Reginald Perrin stripped and headed into the waves but we were going out into Lyme Bay in search of marine life – which was appropriate since I was getting an insider view of the work of MARINElife.

MARINElife has pioneered the collection of sightings of cetaceans and seabirds at sea and collates huge amounts of information that would otherwise never be collected or would be lost.

We were  hoping to see some of the rich marine life of Lyme Bay – marine life which should become even richer with the restrictions on bottom-trawling introduced by Defra in 2008.

Perhaps the south coast of England isn’t everyone’s idea of the best place to see marine life but MARINElife’s work here has shown that it is actually very important for a range of cetaceans such as harbour porpoise and bottle-nosed dolphin but also for seabirds where the star bird is probably the endangered Balearic shearwater.  Our main hope for the day was to see white-beaked dolphins – a cold water species which, surprisingly, has been shown to have a hot-spot of sightings in Lyme Bay.

But the serious part of the day was that Dave the Diver was going to fix a listening device to a wrecked ship, 50m down, which would record dolphin activity for about a month.  Twenty-six miles south of Dorset and 12 miles east of Devon we found the wreck and Dave headed under the waves.  An hour later he was back on board – I hadn’t met Dave before but I admit to feeling a bit nervous for him while he was gone.

When I asked him what it had been like down there he said ‘****ing hideous’ but he described the visibility as being quite good and there being lots of fish (pollock, bass and pout) around the wreck – dolphin-attracting fish.

Dave’s dive down to the wreck took five minutes; he then spent five minutes fixing the listening device to the wreck.  He then had time for nine minutes of exploring the wreck and then the ascent started; stopping at 31m, 24m, 19m, 12m, nine metres, six metres and four metres on the way up – which took 40 minutes.  So it’s 20 minutes going down and being down and 40 minutes coming up slowly to avoid the risk of the bends.

In a month’s time, Dave will be going down again to retrieve the listening device and then Tom and others will find out whether the wreck has been visited by cute dolphins  looking for fish.

Well, I say they are cute, but we saw none of them whilst we were out in Lyme Bay last week so I am taking that on trust.  In fact, I have a slight grudge against white-beaked dolphins for not showing up, but I’ll get over it.  At least the birds showed up – storm petrels, Manx shearwaters, a few guillemots and kittiwakes, fulmars and several great skuas.

I like great skuas – they are thugs but they don’t pretend to be anything else.  Two thirds of the world’s great skuas nest in the UK – but all of them far from Lyme Bay – on Shetland, Orkney and a few other locations in north Scotland.  They steal their food from other seabirds – great skuas are tough enough to take on gannets, large gulls and fulmars.

But no dolphins.

I talked to Skipper Ian and he seemed pretty used to making a few quid from chartering his boat to divers and dolphin-watchers and other boats specialise in sea anglers.  There’s enough biodiversity out there for the local boatmen to be making money out of it – just imagine what would happen if the area recovered and became much richer in seabirds and sea mammals.

Dave said that the sea anglers would see great benefits from the banning of bottom-trawling and that divers might see some increases in marine life too.

Tom was feeling bad about not delivering dolphins for me but it was a great day out and a glimpse into a different world from that of cream teas, fish and chips, Cerne Abbas giant,  chalk grassland butterflies, heathland reptiles and thatched cottages that would occupy the rest of the holiday.  And I’ll forgive the white-beaked dolphins eventually.  I wonder whether Reggie Perrin saw them.

To support MARINElife visit their website and see what good work they do and/or donate through mydonate or theBigGive

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Coping with grouse shooting and coping with hen harriers

Given the scale of illegal killing of raptors associated with driven grouse shooting it would be fair enough, in my opinion, for conservation organisations to campaign for the abolition of grouse shooting – but none of them yet does.

Instead, conservationists are putting their members’ money into trying to find a legal way out for grouse moor managers – and the grouse shooting community is joining in too.

If the problem for the grouse manager is that harriers (to keep it simple) eat too many grouse and can make driven grouse shooting uneconomic then let’s find a way out that reduces grouse depredation by hen harriers but doesn’t involve illegally killing the harriers.  There aren’t many options really are there?

The most promising is supplementary or diversionary feeding of harriers as has been tested at Langholm before, and is being more thoroughly tested again.  This involves providing extra food for harriers so that they don’t need to catch grouse.  It sounds a bit odd, and it isn’t the most appealing solution for any one, but it is, perhaps, a way to let harriers survive in those large areas of the country from which they are currently excluded.

Follow the link and you will see that years ago this was shown to be effective – the number of grouse chicks taken to harrier nests that were artificially fed (day-old chicks and white mice) was reduced hugely.

This method has not been taken up by the grouse shooting community.  I wonder why not.  Well, first, since there are hardly any harriers on grouse moors then the cynical would say that shooting harriers is easier and more attractive to grouse shooters than feeding harriers.  Could that be it?  It might be that the fact that even when harriers were fed at Langholm autumn grouse numbers didn’t go up – but there were unfed harrier nests at Langholm too so they presumably took up the slack – hardly a problem for the average grouse moor for years to come at present harrier levels.  And there is the fact that feeding harriers might result in there being more harriers around in the future and so it is suggested that there ought to be a cap on harrier densities beyond which grouse moor managers could legally reduce harrier densities.

And so we come to the subject of harrier quotas.  Except, not so fast!, let’s stay with feeding harriers for a while first.  If feeding hen harriers is practical, which it appears to be, but let’s wait for Langholm II to report, then should we expect many moors to be more tolerant to hariers?  I detect no such warming to the harrier. So conservationists need to think through their response if Langholm II shows that feeding reduces the pestilential nature of harrier predation on the shootable surplus of grouse.  If the shooting community don’t take up this option what should conservationists do?

The conservation lobby has already been soft, arguably, in not calling for an outright ban on grouse shooting since it demonstrably is a land use that excludes protected species through illegal means.   If diversionary feeding looks like a half-practical short-term solution, an escape from illegality, then why would grouse moor owners not take this route to demonstrate their good faith?  And if they don’t, then how much further backwards will conservationists bend over?

What do you think?

On Tuesday I will move on to the vexed subject of quotas – but let’s have a chat about diversionary feeding first.  And on Monday I’ll start telling you about my holiday in Dorset – as a bit of a break from all this nastiness in the hills – plenty of heather in Dorset though.

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Mark Avery is…

…still thinking red grouse moors and about the comments posted on yesterday’s blog.

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