Pheasants

Remember there was a bit of fuss about pheasants and buzzards back in May?  Around that time I was writing an article for BBC Wildlife magazine about pheasants!  Now the article is out in the September (!) BBC Wildlife.

Pheasants are amazing birds.  They are tasty, beautiful and interesting.  They are also amazingly abundant in the countryside considering that they are a non-native species.

Tens of millions of pheasants are released into the countryside every autumn – around 35 million of them, perhaps 40 million, maybe even a few million more.  That makes them the commonest bird in Britain at that time.

Rather than worry about what impact a few buzzards make on these millions of non-native game birds I think we should worry about what impact the pheasants have on our native fauna and flora.  There are some examples in the BBC Wildlife article but I think that this would be a highly appropriate subject for research.  Indeed, I think such research is really necessary.

Pheasants are a bit like cats.  They are – you say? If someone suggested letting lose millions of a non-native ground predator in our gardens then we might just say Whoa there! Are you sure that’s a good idea?  And that is true of pheasant in the countryside as well as cats in our gardens.  For pheasants are predators too – they eat things including lots of seeds that might go into chinless linnets or yellowhammers or tree sparrows but they also seem to gobble up a few other bits of wildlife too.   And there are millions of them.

Of course, millions of pheasants are shot each year out of the millions that are released but millions remain (and since we are not knee-deep in pheasants they must be dying of something other than being shot).  Since only (only?) about 15 million pheasants are shot then about 20 million pheasants are feeding foxes, crows, etc.  that could be quite a big ecological impact, couldn’t it?

If you want a day’s pheasant shooting then it might cost you anything between £200 and several thousand pounds depending on the number of birds on offer, the snob-value of the address and the quality of the shooting experience.

There is a long history of the royal family being keen on this pastime.  King George V was a gun at a shoot in Buckinghamshire in 1913 when 3,937 pheasants were shot.  The 2nd Marquess of Ripon (1852 – 1923) killed 28 pheasants in one minute at Sandringham and there were seven dead pheasants in the air at once during those 60 seconds.  And, of course, Prince Philip was itching to get back to Sandringham for a spot of pheasant shooting last Christmas when he was ill (apparently this year he watched rather than shot) and the Queen herself has a deftness in despatching an injured pheasant.

Have a look at the article in BBC Wildlife and see what you think – the images are stunning anyway.

Have you ever plucked a pheasant? Are you a pheasant plucker?  Here is some advice;

Take your time.  Don’t rush. Have a bottle of sloe gin handy – it doesn’t actually help but it tastes very nice. Pull a small number of feather sharply in the direction that they grow so as not to tear the skin.  Hold the bird so that you can pluck away from your body.  Work systematically, eg neck, breast, wings (cut the outer wings off with strong scissors), back and tail. Each pheasant may take c15 minutes. There are lots of feathers, so plucking outside is a good idea if you don’t want to spend just as long tidying up afterwards. If you pluck the whole bird without tearing the skin at all you’ve done very well.  And once you’ve plucked – cook!

There is plenty else to read and look at in this edition.  Read Richard Mabey’s column and look at the swallows lined up on the wires on pages 5 and 6 for a start.

 

 

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A chat with Charlie

Last week I had a chat with Charlie Moores about grouse shooting, hen harrier shooting, farmland birds, climate change, the honours system, the RSPB, whether I am happy, whether Charlie is any good at spotting birds, bluethroats, politicians, politics etc

You can listen to our chat on Charlie’s podcast Talking Naturally (where you will also find some other really good material) by clicking here.

Some of these things are covered in Fighting for Birds which is officially published today.

Martin Harper wrote a very kind review of Fighting for Birds on his blog on Monday.

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What has stayed the same?

In the June issue of British Birds – which has a lovely, vicious sparrowhawk on its cover, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two papers.  One was about lesser-spotted woodpeckers and the other about Dartford warblers in the Thames Basin heathlands of Surrey.

By Zaltys (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Each was an interesting and valuable record of what we know, and don’t know, about the species but the thing that struck me was that in my youth, living in north Somerset in the 1970s, I would often see lesser-spotted woodpeckers on my local walks and in the places where I regularly watched birds.  They weren’t common, but they certainly weren’t unusual.  A couple of years ago I made a special effort to see a LSW locally in east Northants, and managed it, but it isn’t easy these days.

Whereas, the Dartford warbler was rare. I had to persuade my parents to holiday in the New Forest so that I could be up on Hampton Ridge looking and listening for Dartford warblers – and it took me several visits to track them down (that may have been incompetence of course).  Nowadays, I can see Dartford warblers in many counties that I visit and although I still thrill when I hear their harsh call it isn’t such an unusual sound.

I guess some of  the biggest bird success stories in my birding lifetime have been avocet, red kite, greylag goose (not sure I am so thrilled by that one), Dartford warbler, marsh harrier, gadwall, buzzard, little egret, gannet, fulmar etc.  There are quite a lot of them and this is only a short list.  The main losers include species such as lesser-spotted woodpecker, wood warbler, corn bunting, skylark, song thrush, and, gosh! there are lots of them.

But thinking about it, it’s quite difficult to think of bird species whose numbers haven’t changed appreciably in the last 30 years (and I can remember further back than that but I don’t want to exclude younger readers).  Which would be the species that you would suggest as having had the most stable UK population over the period 1982-2012.  That’ll be the species whose numbers are similar at either end of that period and whose population has varied the least?  I haven’t thought very hard about it, but it seems an interesting puzzle – what do you think is the answer?

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Back to skylarks and Hope

I wrote a little about skylarks here recently – and how numbers had quadrupled at the RSPB’s Hope Farm over the last 12 years, increasing from 10 pairs in 2000 to the low 40s in recent years).

The story of how skylarks increased is quite well known – it’s done by leaving small bare patches of land in winter wheat fields – skylark patches.

The efficacy of this method was tested in a large research project many years ago and the science persuaded government to allow skylark patches to be an option in the Entry Level Stewardship scheme open to  all farmers in England.  As I travel the country I keep an eye open for skylark patches, and I do occasionally see them from a train or in a Cotswold field as I travel to the races at Cheltenham, but they seem about as rare as breeding lapwings in southern England.

This is disappointing as skylark patches work and farmers can get paid for them!  It’s not as though they are a secret – the Hope Farm report has a photo of Chris Bailey (a former farm manager of Hope Farm), myself and NFU President Peter Kendall standing in a skylark patch at Hope Farm with Peter’s arms crossed across his chest looking as though he wasn’t really listening. I wonder whether Peter has yet got round to putting a few skylark patches in his own hectares of wheat?  He certainly hasn’t been seen or heard actively promoting them to his fellow arable farmers very much.

I was interested in some of the details on skylark  patches in the Hope Farm report.  An analysis by Smiths Gore and the RSPB of the economics of skylark patches is informative.  The gross margin (income minus variable costs) of 100 skylark patches is £441 if they are produced by simply not drilling the small areas with wheat – obviously that’s about £4 per patch.  If you choose to produce the same number of patches by spraying them out (with herbicide) later in the year it’s more work and your gross margin falls to £283 but clearly you are still in profit.  How does this compare with not doing any of that and just sowing a little more wheat? The gross margin for not bothering is £167.  In other words, you make more money by saving skylarks on a tiny part of your cropped area than you do by growing food.  Why don’t more farmers do this?

There are probably many reasons why few farmers have adopted skylark plots or patches but you’d have to say that between them the RSPB and Defra have removed most of the good reasons for not bothering.   They are proved to work and they are proved to be profitable – what’s not to like?

I think that one psychological problem is that they look as though they occupy more of the field than they actually do! When I saw in the Hope Farm report that 100 skylark patches occupy just 0.16ha I looked at that figure and wondered whether it was right.  So each patch is 0.0016ha?  That seems tiny – and it is, but it is right.

Each skylark patch is about four metres, squared. And a hectare, for those who may still be trapped in imperial units, is 1oom, squared.  So a skylark patch is 1/25th times 1/25th of a hectare which is about 1/600th which is indeed 0.0016ha.  A tiny area, for which you get paid more than wheat and you deliver more skylarks to the world too.

 

Let’s have some more please.

 

And don’t you just love the design of this Hope Farm mug by Mary Barnaville from The Howard of Effingham School in Surrey?  Mary won a Wildlife Explorers competition to design the new Hope Farm mug.

 

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Having a website

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably never give much thought to what it takes to keep a website like this one up and running.  This blog tells you a bit about the details of running a website.

Hosting:  you need a web address (this one is www.markavery.info) and that’s something you have to pay for.

Design: web pages need to be written and that’s something that I didn’t have a clue how to do so I needed to find someone to design and write these web pages.  I had to provide an outline of content, provide the photos, provide links to other pages, provide an outline of the content and layout, and write the actual content in most cases.  I think this website looks pretty good and I can put you in touch with the guys who did the work for me if you are interested.

I’m now fairly competent at making adjustments to the pages on this website: Home, About, Fighting for Birds, Contact and Speaking.

Writing the blog: this blog is a WordPress blog and it’s as easy to write as writing a document in Word once you get the hang of it.

I have written a blog almost every day on this site since the beginning of May 2011 – over 475 in all.

I’m sometimes asked how do I come up with the ideas for what to write about.  The answer is that when you get into the mindset that you have to write a blog every day then you are always looking for the next subject and it becomes second nature.  And, as you know if you are a regular reader, I am opinionated.

How long does it take to write each blog? It depends, but 40 minutes might be about the average, at a guess.  Actually it is correcting (most of ) the typing errors (and some spelling mistakes although there aren’t, touch wood, too many of those) that takes the time.  Also, putting in the links, like this one, is a somewhat time-consuming process – so I hope you do follow the links sometimes and find them helpful.

Pictures:  uploading images to the blog takes quite a while too.  I use a few of my own photos (which are nothing special I agree) and download images from the Wikimedia website.  Do you like them?

Comments:  all the comments which appear on this site are checked (moderated) by me before they appear.  This means that there is a delay, sometimes longer than others depending on what I am doing, between you posting something and it appearing.  I very rarely refuse to post a comment (I can’t remember doing this for a very long time) but I sometimes edit comments slightly – usually if there is any danger that they might be offensive or libellous.  I make a point of making it clear if I have edited any comment.  I rarely correct the spelling, grammar or typing of comments because I don’t have the time, and the authenticity of the comments is part of their value (but some of you have benefitted from the occasional correction of spelling and once or twice an obvious mistyping either created a rude word or hid the sense of the comment).

Do, please, comment on the blog – it is quite easy. And the variety of comments, some long and some short, and the variety of views, some mad and some sane, make the blog much more interesting for me and for other readers – of that I am sure.

 Numbers of comments: there have been well over 5000 comments made on the 475+ blog posts on this site.  That 5000 figure does include my own comments (1350+ of them) and I do try to welcome every new person who comments on the site, and I do comment on comments, as regular readers will know.

The most prolific commenters on this site, and the only ones in treble figures, are: Dennis Ames (310), John Miles (142), Roderick Leslie (141) and Filbert Cobb (105).  I’d like to thank them for their dedication (and for the quality of their comments over time) but I ‘d also like to thank the much larger number of people who have provided occasional comments now and then, sometimes just a single comment.

Spam comments: one aspect of having a website and a blog that you don’t see is the number of spam comments that arrive here.  I use Akismet as a a filter to catch such comments.  Given that this site has had 470+ posts, on which c5000 genuine comments have been posted – how many spam comments do you think have been filtered out?  The answer – over 28,000!  You didn’t know that did you?

The spam filter occasionally let’s spam through (but only 0-4 cases a month, so it is pretty good) and just occasionally , but rather inexplicably to me, puts a genuine comment into the spam box.  I weed out any spam that gets through the filter but I do occasionally miss a genuine comment that has been regarded as spam by the filter – for which I apologise.  I’ll let through any (non-offensive) spam that is posted as a comment on this post just so that you can see the type of thing involved.

Insurance: as a freelance writer I need insurance in case someone sues me.  Because I have a blog that insurance is higher.  Because I allow comments on the blog, the insurance is higher still, and because I invite guest blogs, the insurance is higher still.  I have never tried to disentangle the insurance costs for this blog alone but I guess they might be as much as £1/day.

Who reads this blog?:  I don’t know for sure!  I do know that the readership is wide and varied.  Most weeks I come across someone new who tells me that they read this blog – and that’s really nice.  This blog is widely read by conservation professional across NGOs, the statutory sector and the civil service.  Politicians read the blog – but not as much, I think, as my RSPB blog (well, that’s fair enough, I don’t have a potential readership of a million members any more!).  Farmers, birdwatchers, normal people, fieldsports enthusiasts, friends, enemies and people who can’t sleep at night seem to make up much of the rest of the readership.

Where do the readers live?:  over 99% of visits to this blog are from computers located in the UK.  The next countries in decreasing order of appearance are the USA, France, Ireland, India and Spain.  In the first six months of 2012 this site was visited from readers from 110 countries on Earth.  That’s rather surprising to me.

Within the UK the split between the four nations is pretty much according to size of population.  I realise that this blog has an English emphasis – that’s because I live in England, and in southern England at that, and my understanding of, and exposure to, English conservation issues is greater than that of/to those in the celtic fringes. If ever I move home, that would change!

How many readers are you?: this blog has grown over the months and now attracts over 5500 unique visitors each calendar month.  Thank you all!

Advertising: unlike some (see here, here, here), this site has no advertisements.  I’ve thought about it as a way to defray costs, but I don’t think I would make much money and I would be very picky about who I would allow to advertise here!  The main consideration is that I’d rather not.  Actually, that isn’t quite true.  If I thought that allowing advertising here would make me over £2000/year then I would consider it.  That would be my ‘price’ – so I don’t think it will happen.  I’m sure that if I asked you, the readers, if you would like advertising here you would say ‘no’ – but I’m also fairly sure that if there were advertising here it wouldn’t drive many people away.

Where am I?: all I need to run this website is a few hundred pounds a year and access to the internet.  I can write this blog from the computer in my office at home, from a friend’s house, a hotel room or a motel room somewhere in Montana.  My iPhone gets emails when any of you posts a comment and I can moderate comments from a train, the opera or a football match (and I have done all three in the past).

Editorial control: Nothing gets onto this site without me approving it. And no-one else has editorial control over it.

And finally…:  I didn’t expect to write as much as that, and I didn’t have to, but I did.  I’d be interested in feedback here about what you like/dislike about this site and this blog  – although I can only say that I will consider any suggestions, not that I will necessarily take any action on them.

And given that you get this blog for free – buy my book please!

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