Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (7) by Ian Carter.

Continued from last Saturday

My potential destination for a spell of immersion in nature was, inevitably, chosen from the comfort of an armchair, aided by implausible online images of sun-drenched, white-sand beaches, and idyllic descriptions. The obvious next step, before launching headlong into the unknown, was a dose of realism. I needed to go there in order to get a feel for the place first-hand. An autumn ‘recce’ was suggested and (with the help of the sun-drenched beaches) Hazel gladly agreed. We organised two-weeks in the remotest of the cottages rented out by the island’s main estate and headed north on a not-so-sun-drenched late September day.

It’s often said that a leisurely overland journey leads to a better appreciation of the final destination than when dropping out of the sky after a much shorter trip, but one involving a complete disconnection from the landscape below. I think there’s something in that. Despite the rigors of an all-day drive ahead, my mood lifted perceptibly as we left Devon behind and progressed through increasingly unfamiliar territory. Once past the busy sections of the M6 in the urban north-west of England, the landscape opened out and the traffic died away. The distant sharp peaks of the Lake District slid by on one side and the low, heather-clad hills of the Yorkshire Dales offered a contrast on the other. There was one final battle to come but once Glasgow had been safely negotiated, the traffic thinned again, this time for good. The narrow main road winding its way north along the shores of Loch Lomond was littered with sodden leaves and debris from Storm Ali that had blown through earlier in the day. My daughter was delighted to hear that a storm had been named after her and appropriately contrite when told it had slowed our progress a little as we headed north.

Then came the ‘Cal-mac’ ferry from Oban, the main urban centre and port on the west coast of the Highlands. Without fail, I spend my time on a boat up on deck looking out over the seascape. Perhaps it’s partly down to a susceptibility to sea-sickness when confined inside a moving ship, but mainly it’s a hangover from the two years I spent working for the old Nature Conservancy Council’s ‘Seabirds at Sea’ team. It was my first proper job in conservation after university. I’d spend days, sometimes weeks, at a time on ferries, fisheries research boats, and even the Royal Navy’s Fisheries Patrol Vessels, surveying offshore seabirds.

On one occasion the navy ship I was working from was diverted from its normal task of checking to see if fishing boats were operating legally, to something rather more out of the ordinary. A team of heavily-armed uniforms emerged from a helicopter that landed on deck, before I was obliged to take their place and head back to dry land – it would not have been appropriate for a civilian to witness whatever may have been coming next. To help derive estimates of seabird numbers we learned to visualise a transect, two hundred metres wide, on one side of the ship. By recording all birds using that transect the figures could be multiplied up to work out the overall numbers of birds using each sea area. All these years later, my brain is still drawn towards the same approach, projecting an imaginary line across the ocean and trying not to miss anything on my side of it.

The seabirds on this journey were all routine fare for the time of year but welcome none-the-less. Despite my days recording seabirds I’ve spent most of my life well inland in the southern half of England. Whole years can slip by without seeing common seabirds like Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes. There were small groups of all three as we headed west away from the mainland. The auks sitting on the sea closest to the boat performed their usual trick as we approached them, wings becoming flippers as they threw themselves underwater and disappeared – desperately trying to evade detection in my imaginary transect.

I was delighted to see a few juvenile Kittiwakes with their distinctive black zig-zag lines on the upper wings. This, to my mind, is our most subtly graceful and elegant seabird, the adults with their delicate grey and white wings and contrasting ‘dipped in ink’ tips. It’s a bird that has struggled badly in recent years due to declining stocks of sandeels, its staple food in the breeding season, most likely due to a combination of overfishing and warming seas. At least a few pairs this year had managed to find enough food to rear their young. A brief, if unexpected, reminder of Devon came in the form of some distant dull-brown dots on the remote southern shores of Mull a few miles to the north as we passed by. They could only have been Red Deer and they helped to highlight the vast scale of the landscape around them – our largest land mammal reduced to tiny specks, dwarfed by the rocks and moorland all around them. On the other side of the ship were the islands of Jura and Scarba and the menacing waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan between them. The tidal races and whirlpools here are notorious and almost accounted for George Orwell in 1947 during a family boating trip, potentially depriving the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four which had still to be finished.

After two and a half hours the ferry slowed and performed a series of unlikely, juddering contortions; easing alongside a pier that, to the untrained eye, seemed inadequate for its job. Most people stayed in their seats, awaiting the onward journey to Islay, but we made our way down to the vehicle deck and joined a handful of other people heading onto one of the smaller and more sparsely-populated islands of the Inner Hebrides. To be continued on Saturday at 12:45…

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Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill

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You reckon?

RaptorPersecutionUK wrote about this letter in the Shooting Gazette recently (see here).

Mr Davis’s main point, that shooting organisations need to get together and make a plan of attack (an interesting choice of words), just isn’t going to happen any more than it does at the moment. I’d say that the shooting organisations do quite well in organising themselves, probably better than wildlife conservation organisations, but they won’t do much better and that is partly because the organisatons (BASC, GWCT, NGO, SGA, Moorland Association and, I guess, the Countryside Alliance and Scottish Land and Estates) have different remits, different memberships, different purposes and that’s probably a good thing. And in any case, their problems lie in their very nature – killing wildlife for fun is never going to be a universally popular hobby and the way things are going it will become less and less acceptable to many people. And then there is so much crime against wildlife associated with shooting that the behaviour of shooters (no, not all shooters, but shooters not non-shooters) is so bad that they turn what would otherwise be the grudging indifference of people like myself into a passion for radical reform. And then there is the lack of honesty of a few individual shooters and of some of their representatives in those organisations of which Mr Davis writes, which just removes any lingering respect that many of us might have for shooting. An industry or a hobby which cannot recognise or admit its failings, and cannot act to reform itself, really isn’t going to win many friends outside of a narrow band of participants.

Although I am sure that Mr Davis really believes that only a handful of gamekeepers have let everyone down I don’t think that those organisations of which he writes really believe that – and nor do I. And nor does Prof Ian Newton FRS who in an interview in Behind the Binoculars said;

… many gamekeepers will be killing birds of prey habitually.

Mr Davis thinks that ‘a fraction of 1%’ of gamekeepers are at it whereas Prof Newton thinks that ‘many’ are ‘habitual’ wildlife criminals. That’s quite a gap.

If there are 5000 gamekeepers in the UK then 1% of them is 50 individuals. But Mr Davis tells us that a fraction of that number are letting the side down. I wonder how many that is? 30? 20? 10? Let’s imagine that it is 20. Gosh! Those 20 people are pretty busy since they are the main reason why England had 13 pairs of Hen Harrier in 2018 whereas the science suggests that the habitat exists for c330. So those 20 folk are really working hard to keep English Hen Harrier numbers down aren’t they? And they must go to Scotland too to make sure that there are hundreds of ‘missing’ Hen Harriers there too. And all those disappearing satellite-tagged Hen Harriers, scattered over wide areas of the country (including a few in Wales) – are we to believe that the 20 bad apples are touring the uplands of Britain with their guns, traps and poisons?

And they are doing a job on Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Red Kites and Goshawks too, remember. A fraction of 1%? I somehow doubt it, but if there really were that few, then there must be many people in the shooting community who know who they are. They must be seen popping up in strange places all the time and I’m sure people will know who are these well-travelled individuals.

I think a moment of careful thought would put the number of wildlife criminals a lot closer to Prof Newton’s estimate than Mr Davis’s.

A tree covered in apples – how many are rotten? Photo: Maseltov, via Wikimedia Commons

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Guest blog – Progress in the Peak by Bob Berzins

Bob writes: I have a life long passion for the outdoors through rock climbing and fell running. A cancer scare in my thirties made me appreciate many things I simply hadn’t noticed before, from the smallest plants to the gap in the sky from a missing raptor. It’s all worth fighting for and that’s what I try to do.

In 2017 I wrote a couple of blogs about habitat damage, mainly in the Peak District (see here and here). Two years on has there been any improvement?

The plastic track crossing Mickleden Beck on Midhope Estate has received a great deal of publicity and in 2018 the Peak Park planning committee approved an enforcement order to remove the track. Some comments were made in committee about the length of time it’s taken to process this case but I think there is overwhelming gratitude that at least one public body is doing its best to protect our uplands from track building.

Following this decision the landowner has engaged a planning consultant and lodged an appeal, insisting this is heard in a public inquiry. There is on average a 58 week wait until such inquiries take place, so whatever happens the track will remain in place for another year. The logs shown in the photo have now been laid over the boggy sections and we all know this is a temporary measure because in time the wood will sink into the blanket bog alongside the shredded plastic.

The track was constructed in a Natural England scheme at a cost of £20,529. The landowner made no contribution and the full cost of the track was borne by the taxpayer. The total amount of public money wasted is likely to be many times that amount when we take into account legal advice, legal representation and staff time at the Peak Park Authority.     

Grouse moor owners are bankrolled by taxpayers’ money and such is their self serving sense of entitlement that they suck up our cash with no thought of managing their land for the benefit of the wider community. This track should never have been built and there has been no apology from Natural England. How can this body regulate our uplands when in this case at least it’s part of the problem?

The other track I wrote about was a stone construction on Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate at Bradfield Moors. Again the planning authority has issued an enforcement order demanding the track is removed and the estate has appealed. But this time there is no mention of a public inquiry. The estate funded this track themselves and as you can see from the photo the weight of stone and vehicles is forming ruts on the edges and pushing up the centre of the track to reveal the logs that are part of the track base. This is what happens when hundreds of tonnes of stone are laid down on a blanket bog. Apparently only lightweight ATVs are to be used on this track but I suspect on a shooting day there will be a column of Range Rovers making their way to the shooting butts at the top. I won’t be going out to verify this because the last time someone did something similar a van load of police arrived in minutes. And this is from the force that seems very reluctant to investigate wildlife crime.

This gully on Bradfield Moors was formed by estate vehicles constructing a new line of shooting hurdles on the far side of the stream. (A hurdle looks like a fence panel and is a temporary or alternative shooting butt). The composite photo shows how the gully has eroded over recent years even after the estate was told to stop using the route. Natural England did eventually tell the estate to repair the gully, using estate money not public funds. And this is what they have done.

I did suggest the posts were sawn down to make the repair a little less obtrusive. It seems driven grouse shooters are unable to walk any distance and the unused hurdles are greening up nicely and returning to nature.

Moorland restoration work continues across the Peak and South Pennines, often in remote and boggy areas such as the western end of Broomhead estate. In this area most projects are managed by Moors for the Future but estates such as Broomhead can opt to run the schemes themselves. In theory this means Natural England have oversight to ensure hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money is well spent. Contractor skills and care for the environment are not always up to the required level and the Broomhead workforce continues to commute across areas of precious sphagnum.

The project has created large areas of bare, un-seeded peat next to the dams they have constructed. This is difficult work for anyone but when adjoining habitat is damaged consistently, oversight and management is needed to address these problems and over several years this has not happened at Broomhead.  

 In time all bare peat such as the sides of this grough should be re-vegetated.

I’m glad I avoided kicking the boulder in the base of that grough because it turned out to be this:

Broomhead and Midhope in particular were used as firing ranges in World War 2 and shells are still being found. Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team work closely with the Royal Engineers to remove ordnance and in this case they worked out it was a solid shell rather than an explosive one. So the rescue team member just popped it in his rucksack and took it home. Brave man.  

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BTO press release

Tawny Owl. Photo: Howard Stockdale BTO

Twenty minutes once during your week is all it will take to find out just how Britain’s Tawny Owls are faring.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is asking members of the public to listen out for Tawny Owls to help build a picture of what is happening to our most widespread owl.

Evidence suggests that our Tawny Owl population is falling and it might be that we are losing them from our towns and cities. Taking part in the BTO’s Tawny Owl Calling Survey will help make this clearer.

Tawny Owls are very difficult to monitor, as they live their lives during the hours of darkness, so we often hear them rather than see them. We want people to listen for the distinctive ‘hoot’ calls of the males and sharp ‘kee-wick’ of the females. Anyone can take part and the BTO website has a series of Tawny Owl recordings for people to familiarize themselves with the various calls.

Claire Boothby, Tawny Owl Calling Survey Organiser at the BTO, said, ‘Getting involved couldn’t be simpler – Just wrap up warm and give yourself 20 minutes to listen for the haunting calls of Tawny Owls between now and the end of March. You can listen from your garden, local wood or park, or even from the comfort of the sofa with your window open, and tell us whether or not you hear an owl. Don’t worry if you don’t hear one in your 20 minutes; that record is just as valuable and you’ll become one of our Zero Heroes!’.

The BTO would like at least 10,000 people across the UK to take part, nearly 6000 volunteers have already told what us what they have heard, you can help by listening out too.

Please visit www.bto.org/owls for more information.

ENDS

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