Book Review – Bird Conservation by Williams et al

Bird_Conservation_front_coverBird Conservation – global evidence for the effects of interventions by David R Williams, Robert G Pople, David A Showler, Lynn V Dicks, Matthew F Child, Erasmus KHJ zu Ermgassen and William J Sutherland.  Published by Pelagic Publishing. Paperback £34.99, Hardback £64.99, e-Book £19.99. 575 pages.

This is a very useful reference book for conservation professionals. It is full of quite dull but very important information on the impacts, or lack of them, of conservation interventions.  What I mean is that it isn’t a book that you settle down to read for the fun of it but it is a book that you may sometimes need to dip into to inform your conservation decisions.

Having said that, I found myself turning the pages for quite a while after I looked up a subject of interest.

It is, though, a very useful compendium of information on subjects from predator control to nest-box provision, and from paying farmers  to conserve birds to using deterrent streamers to reduce seabird bycatch.

The ‘global’ in the title is important as often when reading about subjects of interest to me I came across studies in this book that I knew nothing about and were very relevant. For example, I’m glad I now know that skylark patches work in Switzerland as well as the UK.

In such a compendium of information it’s a bit of a challenge to know where to look to find the information you feel may be there.  This book has good contents pages and a good index although I would have liked authors’ names (of relevant papers) to be indexed too.

I couldn’t help but notice that the last study covered was one about which there was a lot of publicity – a project which used a microlite to lead released bald ibis on migration from Austria to Italy – apparently none of them found their way back.  Beginnings and successes are more often exciting to publicise than inauspicious endings or failures.  This book fills in some of the gaps in an objective way.

This book summarises a huge amount of information in a very accessible way.  It will be of great value to conservation professionals as a reference book.

Published by Pelagic Publishing. Paperback £34.99, Hardback £64.99, e-Book £19.99.



Well done Hawk and Owl Trust!

The Hawk and Owl Trust are throwing their support behind the e-petition on the licensing of grouse moors and gamekeepers.  Well done!

Let’s see what other bird conservation organisations do…

But you can sign up here – it’s going well, so far.


Winter still

By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not exactly spring-like is it?  My chances of seeing/hearing chiffchaff, willow warbler, sand martin, swallow and wheatear in Northants by the end of March are virtually nil (and I haven’t troubled the scorer with any of them yet).

There was, apparently, an arrival of wheatears on the south coast last Saturday, and one popped up in snowy Northants too, but it’s pretty quiet on the migrant front.

I was talking to a farmer in Lincolnshire last week who was telling me that there will be plenty of skylark patches in fields this year – few of them intended.  The cold weather and water-logged soils will have reduced the growth rate of the autumn-sown cereals and standing water in some places may have killed them off completely.

The switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals in the 1970s, aided by more effective herbicides and plant breeding, was one of the most important changes in British farming for wildlife – certainly for birds.  It greatly reduced the amount of overwintering stubble fields in the countryside (and thus reduced food available to seed-eating birds).  The great advantage to the farmer was that autumn-sown crops (provided they are not overrun by weeds which is where the herbicides are important) are in the soil and ready to grow as soon as the spring weather arrives.  This gives them a head start over spring-sown varieties and that head start means higher yields and an earlier harvest date.  A further advantage is that if you wait until spring to sow your crops you will be at the mercy of the weather being kind to you to be able to get onto your land when conditions are right and that is unpredictable.

In years like this one, those farmers (which these days is most of them) may not have gained much advantage at all and may be looking at low yields.  They will be faced with the choice of hoping for the best or investing more money and time in re-sowing some fields in the hope that that will increase yields.

Skylarks find winter wheat a sub-optimal habitat as the rapid growth of the crop (which benefits the farmer) makes the crop too thick for nesting on the skylark’s second and third nesting attempts through the season. Spring crops remain open for longer.  That’s where skylark patches, for the provision of which farmers are paid if they sign up to them in agri-environment schemes, come in.  Leaving tiny un-sown patches of land in your winter wheat fields has been shown to boost skylark numbers dramatically – they increased three-fold in a few years on the RSPB’s Hope Farm for example.

So this year there may be some farmers looking at their fields and thinking that they wished they were being paid for some of those bare patches of land that the skylarks like so much.

We’ll have to see how the spring, when it arrives, and the summer go before we know whether it’s been a good one for farmers or skylarks.

By Alpsdake (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Alpsdake (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


I hope they sink

Pointillist at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Pointillist at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

I was an undergraduate at Cambridge but I hope that the Cambridge boat sinks in Sunday’s University Boat Race.

Why? Because the Cambridge University Boat Club is planning to build a new boathouse (although it is far more than just a boathouse) on one of the best sites for otters in Cambridgeshire, and its impact on local wildlife will be severe.

Ely Wildspace has a good record on wildlife issues having persuaded Natural England to notify the Ely Pits and Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest as recently as June 2008 – and that really was an achievement since site designation has stalled in recent decades. This site is not only important for extinct pleiosaurs but also for living bitterns – what a heady combination!

The University Boat Club have put in for planning permission to overlook the SSSI and Ely residents are, rightly, up in arms about it.  Not only will this be the first development on the south bank of the River Ouse in these parts but it also directly overlooks the SSSI and is itself a County Wildlife Site because of its importance.

You might be tempted to write off the objections of scores and scores of local Ely residents (over 100 of them which is a huge number for a proposal of this sort) as nimbyism but when you see that the Beds, Cambs and Northants Wildlife Trusts has also objected on wildlife grounds (I’m glad that I am a member) then you can see that this is an important case.

The Wildlife Trust objection is detailed and convincing.  It mentions the importance of this site as part of a wider whole of the SSSI and county wildlife site, and it mentions the otters, bitterns and floodplain meadows affected.  If this were an SSSI then no development would be allowed but because it is right next to one then it has little statutory protection and that is why many of us laugh when we hear the government and developers say that the planning system is too restrictive – in fact it is usually too permissive.

Visit the East Cambridgeshire District Council website and you will find the Wildlife Trust detailed submission and lots of others (the website is a bit of a nightmare to navigate though).  Mrs A Hodges, whoever she may be, certainly knows her stuff and makes a very detailed and, on the face of it, convincing case why this damaging proposal must be rejected by the Councillors if they are to remain true to their own planning policy.

A Nigel Wood comments as follows:

I went to look at the site the other day.  It’s a quiet part of the river next to a quiet road and there is nothing there except riverbank and wildlife.  Standing on the flood barrier all I heard was the noise of geese on the river.  As I stood there it did occur to me that of the 15 sites looked at this must be the most environmentally damaging of them all.  Incredible to think that this is proposed by one of our foremost Universities.’

‘The idea that a large building with access roads, parking, accommodation and external lighting will be put in this quiet spot in the lee of the Cathedral needs a lot of publicity and public debate.  The contrast with the current debate on Ely’s Southern Bypass  is stark.  That has been the subject of road shows and publicity for more than 3 years and alternatives have been extensively discussed in public.  That has not been the case for this Boathouse and so far as I can see the publicity has been minimal.

I’ve also been in touch with a fisherman, Darrell Graham and was very moved by what he wrote:

For the last three years I have fished Fore Mill Wash virtually every Friday night, and the odd weekends, fishing the area where they plan to site the new boathouse. September last year was the first time that I have seen otters in the wash area, I have seen the otters there every Friday night/weekends since then.

‘As I normally arrive a few hours before darkness and fish until daylight the following morning, I have been luckily enough to witness the wide variety of wildlife that is present in the area, this includes otters, Bitterns, barn owls, herons, bats, water vole and muntjac deer just to name a few.

‘The site for the boathouse would mean that the established reed bed would be destroyed, the area that I regularly see the otters.

‘I have quickly read Cambridge University’s ecology report for the site, which states that no construction work will be allowed to take place during the hours of darkness, this is to allow a dark corridor for the otters to feed/access other areas, however, once the club is up and running, with dormitories being used, meetings taking place etc… and with the security lighting, the dark corridor for the otters will not exist.’

I found that a very powerful account.

There are two ways that this damaging development can be stopped: the Councillors could stick to their policy and reject the application or enough people could point out to Cambridge University that this is an unacceptable and damaging proposal which reflects badly on the UK’s greatest university and will damage its reputation locally and around the world at a time when it is trying to develop a reputation as a seat of knowledge on the environment and conservation issues.

I’ll come back to this on Saturday, but I’m still hoping that Cambridge sinks on Sunday.


Vote for Abernethy, please

Richard Webb [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Webb [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes opportunities come along when you may make a difference that is far in excess of the effort that you expend.  An example of such an opportunity is the public poll organised by the European Outdoor Conservation Association (of whom I had never heard before this week – so they have gained some good publicity) which will determine where their grant money will go to do most good.

I’m sure that all of the projects are good ones, but when I saw that the UK entry was Abernethy, and the money would be spent on extending the forest to link to other areas, I was keen to cast my vote.

In Fighting for Birds (pp 172-175) I mention some good times I’ve had at Abernethy and also describe two species that were calling me back to Abernethy.  The first species was pine marten and I was lucky enough to see one of these at Abernethy in June – as I told you in this blog.  The second species was swift.

Swift? You’ve seen lots of swifts! And of course I have, but I have, for ages, wanted to see the swifts that nest deep in the ancient forest of Abernethy – tree-nesting swifts.  And, I did.

As you visit Abernethy forest, a forest of Scots pine, birch, alder etc on the lower slopes of the Cairngorms, you will pass stands of Scots pines of different types and different ages.  There are modern plantations of even-aged trees but also lots of older stretches of forest.  In a few spots in the forest are the most ancient Scots pines in the country and I was taken to see them by Desmond Dugan of the RSPB one day last June.

We travelled through the forest in Desmond’s Land Rover and chatted about wildlife, the weather and RSPB folk until we came to a grassy knoll where we parked, looked at the view across a valley and then headed into the forest.  Des picked his way through the forest ground cover with skill and precision as though he were a roe deer who lived in this place and I tried to keep up with him resembling a camel in a woodland, or a bull in a china shop.

It was a choice between looking at your feet, and the way ahead, or looking up for wildlife.  Wildlife won, which is why I ended up on my backside a couple of times.

We stopped a couple of times to look at particular trees and after a while we stopped on a wooded slope, with the smell of pines in our nostrils, and looked down on a group of ancient pines.  These are the oldest pine trees in the country.  Ring-dating has shown that some are over 350 years old.  Some are hanging on for life and are mostly dead limbs.  This old dead wood provides opportunities for great-spotted woodpeckers to make their nest holes and swifts nest in some old woodpecker nests.

This must have been where swifts nested before we built houses (with dead wood originally of course) in ancient days.  The swifts that scream down my road in a small Northamptonshire town all through the summer are nesting under the eaves of a few houses but their ancestors will all have nested in ancient trees and their holes.  As far as I know, I think as far as we know, the ancient Scots pine forest of small parts of northern Scotland provide the only places where swifts still nest in such sites in the UK.  i wonder whether there are some undiscovered, or perhaps just unknown to me, tree-nesting swifts in ancient forests such as the New Forest or the Forest of Dean.  At Abernethy there is a handful, or maybe a few handfuls, of such tree-nesting swifts and I was eager to see them.

After a while a few swifts skimmed the top of the trees, looking to us as though they were interested in the area below them and lying in front of us.  We could see some old great-spot holes that had been used by swifts, but when one bird dived down under the canopy and disappeared behind some trees we couldn’t see whether it went into a more distant hole or was just larking around in the forest.  I like to think that it dived into a hole and perhaps was changing over on the nest with its mate. But who knows? And it doesn’t really matter for now I know where the swifts nest in the forest and have seen the ancient Scots pines that they favour and sat and talked about them.  It was a treat – a privileged look into the ancient life of a familiar bird, in the ancient heart of a wonderful wildlife-rich forest, and in the company of an amusing and knowledgeable naturalist.

It was a treat and Abernethy can deliver many treats from pine martens to capercaillie, from red squirrels to crested tits, from the detail of a blaeberry to the vista of a commanding view, from the lichen on a dead tree trunk to the multitude of scurrying ants around their nest of pine needles. A host of rare invertebrates and a mass of common birds, tree-nesting golden eagles and the chance of an otter swimming across a loch.  It’s a magical place and I’m not surprised that an American friend with whom I dined in London on Wednesday headed to Abernethy this week on his first ever visit to the UK (and saw capercaillie).

The RSPB has been extending the forest at Abernethy over the years but want to do much more.  Grants from government haven’t always been forthcoming and so your vote for their project in this poll might just unlock the funds that will bring more natural wonders to Abernethy. We often talk about nature conservation at a landscape scale and that’s what Abernethy is all about.  Please vote to help the forest thrive.

By Keta (Detail of Apus_apus_flock_flying.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Keta (Detail of Apus_apus_flock_flying.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons