Guest blog – The worst of times or the best of times? by Ian Parsons

These can be depressing times for wildlife lovers. Many of our wild bird and mammal populations are declining at an alarming rate, our Raptors are being systematically disappeared from parts of the countryside, our politicians don’t seem to care, the statutory bodies (overseen by those politicians) that are supposed to be protecting and enhancing our wildlife, are being taken to court because they are, in the opinion of many, failing to do just that. And behind it all, looming in the background, is the impending British wildlife disaster that is Brexit.

To escape from the gloom I decided to head out into the Devon countryside this morning, to get some much needed wildlife therapy. It didn’t start well. Despite the assurances of the weather forecasters last night, the day did not start dry; it was drizzling and all around was grey. I walked past the jagged, ripped sticks that some call hedgerows, recently flailed again into useless vestiges of what they were supposed to be. Hedgerows on farmland used to be there to keep livestock in their fields, but nowadays, thanks to the careful management of the guardians of the countryside, they all need to have metal stock fences erected alongside of them to do so. I trudged onwards, cursing the stupidity of what we are doing to William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’.

But, as the weather lifted, so too did my mood, helped by the wonderful chuckling calls of a flock of Fieldfare passing overhead. I love these migrant Thrushes, I love the fact that their nomadic behaviour takes them to all sorts of places, these birds, the birds in front of me, scouring our land for berries, would have been doing the same thing last winter, they could have been here or they could just have likely been in southern Europe or even Turkey. Fieldfares, and the other 9,999 or so other species of bird, don’t give a stuff about our own selfish concept of belonging to countries and continents.

 I entered a tumbledown piece of woodland that clings belligerently to a steep valley side overlooking the tidy managed fields that many call countryside. It took just a squeeze through a fence to enter it, but it was like entering another world. After the boring green close cropped monoculture that is farmland in mid Devon, the brambles that ripped at my waterproof trousers were a welcome relief. This isn’t ancient woodland, it doesn’t contain any majestic old veteran trees, it is just a bit of neglected land that took over its own management when humans gave up trying. Now, it is a jumble of stems, some upright, some collapsed, all tangled in Ivy and Bramble. There are no lottery funded manicured paths to guide you through this woodland, you have to stop and judge for yourself how to fight your way through the tearing tangle of Bramble.

To many people this sort of woodland is a despairing place,to me it is truly magical. It doesn’t need to be tidied up like so much of our countryside already has been, this is as wild as it gets and I love it. As soon as I am in the wood, clambering over one trunk, ducking under another, I feel at home. A Nuthatch loudly whistles me aboard as I start to clamber up the slope, a Wren almost bursts in its explosion of song and all the time a Robin is singing its melancholy tune. This is the first bird song I have heard since I set out and left the gardens of the village behind me. Yes, it is December and yes, there isn’t much bird song at this time of year, but other than the brilliant chuckling of Fieldfares I have heard nothing through miles and miles of ‘countryside’. It is only now in this inverse of managed land that I hear it.

I smell a fox, a magpie rattles at my presence and a Blue Tit scolds me as I climb, slip and climb again up through the tangle of wood. I come to its edge all too soon, islands of wildness are too small in the sea of tameness that is our countryside. But, today, it is this edge that I want, I push myself carefully into the hollow dome created by a Blackthorn, look greedily at the globular sloes that are still bending the branches, decide that I have enough Sloe Gin on the go and settle down to look out over more fields and a piece of steep conifer woodland.

It is ironic that in my quest for some wildlife therapy I end up looking out over more managed countryside, looking at the serried ranks of Douglas Fir, a magnificent tree, but here, in this context, a very managed and alien one.  The field immediately below and in front of me is covered in a rash of black Rooks, probing the ground with their distinctive bare bills whilst the smaller Jackdaws strut in between them, alert to any chance of snaffling some disturbed morsel.

I sit still, other than the Rooks and Jackdaws there is not much happening, it is a few weeks early really and the weather is not conducive to what I wish to witness, but if you don’t look you can’t see, so I stay there cocooned in the Blackthorn. After a while I notice a Roe doe on the edge of the field, even though I am motionless she has seen me, an unfamiliar blob in her familiar landscape. She stands stock still for several minutes eyeing me suspiciously, waiting for me to betray myself with a movement.

If she was a Fallow Deer I could fool her into coming towards me, but a Roe doe is not so easily fooled so I don’t even try, I just watch her, watching me. She blinks first, unnerved at the strange object that is me, she melts away from my sight. I decide that I will wait a few more minutes, giving the deer a bit of time to get further away before I move. It looks like I will be going home disappointed, but do you know what, I feel a hell of a lot better now than I did when I set out.

And then it happens, the black rash probing the field suddenly takes to the air in splenetic corvid fury, all of them desperately trying to get height. I don’t see her at first, you never do, but then she gives a brief couple of calls, the gull like sound rings in my ears and I see her. For two seconds she was out in the open, powering her way through the air before being swallowed up by the Douglas. I relive the scene several times whilst scanning about me, hopeful of another view, but she has gone, the Rooks and Jackdaws are still complaining, but they are high up now and safe.

I said at the beginning of this that our Raptors are being systematically disappeared from parts of our countryside, but the Goshawk I have seen today should give us all hope. They were completely systematically disappeared from our countryside, but they are back now and they are back in good numbers. They still get persecuted, I know that, I know it all too well. Only a few years ago and not far from where I have just seen this magnificent predator, I stood watching as the police and RSPB investigations team tagged the corpses of Goshawks that had been the population of a wood that I was the Ranger for.

I remember the anger I felt, the frustration that some pathetic individual could do this and pretty much get away with it, but I also remember the following spring, when the birds were back and breeding successfully again, and now today, proof that the population of Goshawks in Devon is still growing and expanding. Despite that moronic cowardly act there are more Goshawks breeding here than there were when those beautiful birds were poisoned. I know the person who committed that crime won’t be reading this, after all it has big words in it, but I want to tell them that they failed. Because they did.

When you hear about yet another Hen Harrier disappearing it is easy to feel dispirited, but believe me, those that are committing these crimes will also fail. Persecution on our grouse moors is a different ball game to what happened in Devon, but after seeing that beautiful beast of a bird earlier today I feel more confident that we will win that battle too. It was only a few years ago that we would never have heard of a Hen Harrier vanishing, but now, thanks to organisations like Raptor Persecution UK and the many people that write on this website, including of course Mark, everybody knows about it. MSPs in Scotland voice their anger at it, and whilst our MPs continue to try and deny it, they at least have been forced to begrudgingly debate it in the House of Commons. This would not have happened a few years ago. Times are a changing.

As for feeling depressed at the fact that our statutory conservation bodies are being taken to court, I do feel sad, because I remember a time when they were a force for the good, the brilliant Red Kite reintroduction project in England being the obvious example of how a properly funded and properly staffed organisation can really make a difference.  Yes, they are not performing as many would want them to now, but actually, the fact that people are prepared to challenge them in court, the fact that people are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and help fund the legal costs, isn’t at all depressing, it is bloody brilliant. A few years ago, us conservationists would have shrugged and muttered at it, now we are doing something about it, directly. We can no longer be ignored, these eco zealots are much more than that.

And as for Brexit, well who knows what is going to happen. As I write this, the government is in more of a jumbled tangle than the brambles I fought my way through earlier today. If it happens, I am confident that we won’t stand by and allow our wildlife legislation to be diluted, there are enough people fighting for our wildlife now, using the system, be it the courts of law or FOI requests, to expose the underhand tactics the powers that be try to use. Who knows, we migh teven get an agricultural policy that rewards decent hedgerows…

So, I sit here now in the warm and dry looking back on my day, reflecting on the gloom of the morning and how some thrushes started to lift it, before it was removed by a combination of brambles and nuthatches and then completely dispersed by a Goshawk. Wildlife is great therapy you know.

Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees. Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com

This is Ian’s fourteenth Guest Blog here and you can access all of them through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

 

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22 Replies to “Guest blog – The worst of times or the best of times? by Ian Parsons”

  1. A joy to read on this dull, rainy with gale force winds day. Having moved to mid Wales almost a year ago now if find I suffer from a similar view of much of our local "countryside." manicured reseeded fields often mucked and full of either sheep, that do the manicuring or pheasants reminding one of how alien it all is. Yet when I take the dog out everyday and we walk along the river ( Severn) the river itself is more wild than tame rising and falling with the rain, has Dippers, Goosander, wagtails and Cormorant with occasional Woodcock, Snipe and Jack Snipe at its edges. There are bits of neglected woodland, larger pieces and forestry are home to Buzzards, Kites and Ravens, I can see more Ravens on a good day than I did in a decade in North Yorkshires grouse moors. The thing that brings it all alive is the occasional but regular sightings of our local Goshawks, the views are usually brief, sometimes quite distant but they exude a wildness and power that is so uplifting. Yes there is some persecution here because of the damned "long tailed chickens" but as Ian says we will win in the end because put simply we must!

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  2. Thanks Ian. A fantastic blog and a welcome antidote to the morale-sapping drip-drip of bad news we seem to face.

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  3. "This isn’t ancient woodland, it doesn’t contain any majestic old veteran trees, it is just a bit of neglected land that took over its own management when humans gave up trying." Well said.

    Great piece, Ian.
    With you all the way while you ‘tree-passed’ that neglected hanger. The countryside needs as many abandoned, ‘self-willed’, corners as possible. It’s interesting that you heard a variety of early bird song in this little wood – was that the Nuthatch’s ‘spring whistle’ – you did say that it whistled you aboard?
    Does scruffiness stimulate song? (Just a mad un-manicured thought.)

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    1. Yes, thanks Ian for a lovely piece of writing. I have been trying to highlight the value of such scruffy places in an effort to save them and the intricate array of wildlife they harbour. I photographed a lovely tall, if square, hedge recently, full of berries and tangled bramble tumbling into a wild reedy ditch. A week later a tractor and flail had been in and it was cut to bits, not a berry left and the ditch and bank vegetation cut to nothing right down to the waters edge. They can be lost so quickly. I have sent the before and after photos to the tenant farmer and highlighted the loss, and had some assurance that it won't happen like this again. They hadn't realised the value, but this is happening all over the countryside.

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  4. " It doesn’t need to be tidied up like so much of our countryside already has been,"

    The British obsession with tidiness will be the death of us all, I've said it before and will no doubt say it again. Too many people associate neatness with functionality, and prize the former over the latter.

    Then there are the assholes of the CA who kill not just because they are deluded and romanticising a lost way of life, but because they see it as actively spiting the greens and lefties, one in the eye to the hippes. The legacy of the Battle of the Beanfield is still being felt, in the right's hostility to the environment.

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  5. Anybody, fortunate enough to live surrounded by beautiful countryside, should count their blessings.
    Which I do every morning.
    There is always something to lift whatever gloom is descending, to those with an eye for nature, sadly
    many seem to have theirs permanently closed.
    Round our Derbyshire village, we still have many rougher, neglected areas ( in among the silage fields),
    however these do not always hold the bird life that they once did.
    Raptors are well represented, reflecting favourably on the local Pheasant shoot, last week I saw an
    immature Gos, among Rooks and Jackdaws rather as you describe, except there was no calling from
    the hawk, ( I rarely get the "hee- yah" outside the breeding / juvenile seasons).
    At the top of our high street is a small wood, once the nursery for the forestry dept:, popular with dog walkers, and containing the local scout hut, nevertheless raptor kills are frequently to be found.
    On 1st January 2017, I spotted a breast feather from an adult gos on a path side bramble, it was still
    there on Good Friday, 14th April ! , disappearing shortly afterwards.
    I wonder how many dog walkers ( or scouts) saw it , and if so, consider what it could be from ?.
    Likewise, did anyone but me think anything of the two juvenile Hobbies, screaming up and down the
    aforementioned high street last summer?.
    In a different time, a trap would have been set in the wood, and the keeper ( living in the end house),
    would have waited at the top of the street for the strange hawks to pass by again, now they go about
    their lives unremarked on, save by the few, and that is the problem with all nature.
    In spite of the cases of persecution regularly aired ( such as the family of gos you describe) , the situation , at least in the lowlands, is immeasurably better than in former times.
    However the insidious threats to our countryside, and its wildlife, are greater than at any time since
    the pesticide era, and the sad fact is, that most of the population will not give a fig, even if they notice,
    when it has all gone.

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  6. Ian,what a pity such a clever man either does not understand farm hedges or else deliberately exaggerates for your own purpose.

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    1. Hi Dennis,
      Sorry you think that. Hedges were always managed to act as barriers, hence the practice of hedge laying, the result of which is an impenetrable barrier through which stock cannot pass. I am well aware that they have other uses, but the primary one is as a barrier. Unfortunately, mechanically flailing hedges destroys their potential as barriers which is why steel fences then have to be erected on either side of them to form the barrier. I would have thought that that was pretty easy to understand.

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    2. Dennis you've a point here.
      If were not for tractor driven flails doing a quick job of hedge cutting over the last half century, we'd have seen a many, many more hedges grubbed out.
      I think Ian would agree: there's good and bad ways of mechanical trimming.

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      1. Ian, fact is any hedge layer will tell you it needs a fence as a guard or cattle will pull it to pieces.
        Labour costs today mean practices that were practical in previous centuries are no longer practical.
        Also stocking densities needed for profitable farming mean animals are keener to see if grass is greener the other side.
        You have probably very limited experience of farm work and I can tell you it is a fallacy about hedges previous centuries being stockproof, previously workers spent lots of time retrieving their animals.
        All you really need to think that the proof of this is every village had a animal pound where straying stock were kept until owner paid to get them back.
        Lastly quite often years ago someone or children would act as minders to make sure stock did not stray.
        You are surely better than to get into things you do not understand.

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        1. That is interesting and valid but I also think that many farmers are far too bent on tidiness. Many hedges seem to be cut every year. Why not cut them every few years. Allow berry crops which feed the birds. leave more cover for nesting birds and offer the plants some respite from the barbaric thrashing that rips and tears and frays branches. fence on the inside to stop stock grazing the grass at the base of the hedges.

          I think if you offered willife groups the opportunity to lay hedges for you, promising in return to treat the hedges more kindly you'd get happy volunteers and bags more wildlife.

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  7. really enjoyed your blog, It brightened up a dull tuesday morning workbreak for me. I visit a small wooded river valley near were I live were hardly anyone else ever goes, Kingfisher and Dipper nest in the river banks and Sparrowhawks ghost their way through the woods, I long for the day their bigger cousins, the phantom of the forests show up.

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    1. I know old smokey Nodnol has sucked in a disproportionate amount of people (and wealth, materials, jobs, transport links, etc) but I think 90% is a bit of a high side estimate. Proud to be part of the 10% though.

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    2. Why not get out a bit more. It’s greener than you might think around Peckham - Peckham Rye Park, Dulwich Park, Burgess Park, Nunhead Cemetery, Sydenham Woods. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find - little owl, buzzard, wheatear - there was even a long-tailed duck in the rather small pond on Peckham Rye a few years ago.

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    3. We need to speak up for Green spaces wherever they are and to question whenever they are destroyed. This is behind the idea of London becoming a National Park city after all. Remember too that wildness can find its place in our gardens when we make little ponds, even in Peckham!. If you haven't got a garden but at least have a balcony you can fill that with greenery and flowers to attract birds and insects. Then try to identify what you see and build your collection of nature photographs.

      where you don't have your own greenspace you can contact local authorities and ask for swift bricks to be put in new buildings and uncut grass and shrubbery be allowed in parts of our parks,. They did that in Manchester as part of the Community Forest and it rellay made opne publiuc spaces wilder and more exciting!

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    4. Well Peckham does have green plavces and London is full of them, which is why the mayor and others are supporting the designation of London as the World's first National park city.

      You can help too if you have a garden by digging a pond. Even something as small as 2 metres by 1 will attract an amazing variety of wildlife. Or sow some wildflower seed. Or lay off the sprays. If you don't have a garden and are lucky enough to have a balcony you can help bees and hover flies and all manner of insects by planting lavender or nectar rich flowers, but any plants will be welcomed by leaf-cutter bees!

      If you don't have the slightest scrap of land you can ask your local councils to get swift bricks fitted to new buildings, let park grass grow longer, or plant native shrubs like hawthorn or blackthorn. In Manchester they did things like this as part of the Red Rose Forest inititiative and it really made parks and strips of land close to rivers and railway lines wilder and much moe exciting!

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  8. ‘’This isn’t ancient woodland, it doesn’t contain any majestic old veteran trees, it is just a bit of neglected land that took over its own management when humans gave up trying. Now, it is a jumble of stems, some upright, some collapsed, all tangled in Ivy and Bramble. There are no lottery funded manicured paths to guide you through this woodland ...’’

    Well said, Ian. The countryside needs as many of these abandoned, ‘self-willed’, corners as possible. And of course it needs all the ancient stuff too.
    It’s interesting that you heard a variety of early bird song in this little wood – was that the Nuthatch’s ‘spring whistle’ – you did say that it whistled you aboard?
    Does scruffiness stimulate song? (Just a mad un-manicured thought.)

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    1. Hi Murray,
      Thanks for your comments. The Nuthatches here in Devon have been whistling for the last few weeks in the gardens around the village. I have been lucky enough to have them breed in one of my boxes and although the actual breeding is fairly late in the year they are busy setting up territory now (down here at least). Last year, don't know the exact date, but it was early January, I had a pair start 'adjusting' the hole of one of the nestboxes and putting time into chasing off the other species that were beginning to show an interest in them - Sparrows, Blue Tits etc. Not sure if scruffiness stimulates song, but the thought of it is great! Perhaps the diversity of structure and feeding opportunities in the scruffy areas attracts a higher density of species which in turn stimulates the song?

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      1. Thanks for that, Ian.
        Your singing Devon Nuthatches seem amazingly earlier than this lot here in West Sussex. But of course spring is always more advanced the further you go SW.
        Yes, I agree with your thoughts on scruffy areas re the possibility of more song being heard. Maybe an increase in edge effect is another factor.

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