Importing diseases

The government is about to spend a pittance on a very serious problem – but it should be celebrated as a start.

Our trees are under threat from imported diseases – perhaps from some diseases that stand a better chance of becoming established under new climate scenarios. So Defra and the (unreconstructed) Forestry Commission have published an Action Plan.

The action plan reads as though it has been written by someone fixated with trees as the issues it discusses and the remedies needed are general issues rather than tree-specific issues.  Now if we had a Forest and Wildlife Service….

But the analysis is right – we risk importing diseases because we bring lots of foreign plants into the country.  Globalisation is bad news for wildlife when it means that a new disease can arrive from anywhere in the world.

Bird flu led to the welcome banning of the trade in wild birds.  Do you miss it? Are you straining at the leash to import a parrot which ought to be flying around the forests of west Africa? I bet you aren’t.  Are our economic woes due to the loss of economic activity caused by such draconian measures?

But plants don’t cough and so we continue to import non-native plants into the UK and then spread them around the country in places called garden centres.  There is a case to be made that gardening is one of the least green activities we carry out with its reliance on imported plant material, peat, water, chemical fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides – but let’s leave that subject for another time, perhaps.

But it is clear that there is a wide range of non-native plants that cause considerable economic and/or wildlife damage. Economic damage up to 2 billion pounds a year.

One of the problem species is a nice plant called Crassula whose English name is either New Zealand Pigmyweed or Australian Swamp-stonecrop – an interesting antipodean choice. Back on the side of the world where they play rugby very well Crassula is fine – it’s actually quite pretty.  But over here it runs amok like the All Blacks will against France and completely dominates water bodies.  Do tell me – what is the Big Society solution to this problem?

The CLA President William Worsley, who is, in his own special way, a bit of a tree-hugger, welcomed Defra’s announcement and spoke gushingly of Forest Research.

I’m a bit unclear about the research aspect of this problem. I hope it isn’t shutting the stable door after it has already got mildew.


A tale of three warblers

I find that I carry British Birds around with me for ages before I get around to reading it and so this blog is about the September issue which contains the report of the Rare Breeding Bird Panel.

The contrasting fortunes of three warblers struck me as I read through the text; Cetti’s, Savi’s and marsh.

I have heard a few Savi’s warblers in the UK, but not that many.  This is a species which went extinct in the UK and then recolonised as a breeding species in 1960.  But it doesn’t seem very keen on living here as the number of pairs hovers around the four pairs mark and the breeding record in the report for 2009 was the first since 2000.

In contrast, I hear Cetti’s warblers on most of my visits to my local gravel pits at Stanwick Lakes.  Sometimes it seems to me that the number of singing males on my normal 2-hour walk gets into double figures.  And that’s hardly surprising as there are now well over 2000 pairs of Cetti’s warblers in the UK – spread through England and Wales.  And yet the Cetti’s is a parvenu – the first breeding record was only in the year 1970.  So Savi’s warbler got a decade start on Cetti’s warbler and yet is three orders of magnitude rarer as a breeding species despite its head start.  Who would have thought it?

And the third warbler in this list, the marsh warbler, is just clinging on to its UK breeding status with fewer than 10 pairs on average in the UK.  This has always been an uncommon species, and yet, at the time when Savi and Cetti were sending their warblers over here the marsh warbler numbered around 200 pairs or so.

All three of these warblers are doing fine in Europe as a whole but their very different UK fortunes interest me, if only because they are all southern species which occupy fairly similar habitats.  We still have a lot to learn about birds – but they are fantastic!


How social is your charity?

A fairly recent ranking of how UK charities use social media makes interesting reading.

There is a league table – we all love league tables – which puts the Royal Airforces Association as the 100th charity and Cancer Research as number one.

On this list the National Trust is #7, the RSPB is #13, WWF #31, FoE #49, Woodland Trust #55 and WWT #91.

But I’m not really sure what that means as I can’t find in the article nor in the report that I have downloaded quite how this index has been compiled.  So how you get further up the table I don’t know.

So why do I bother to tell you about it you might ask.  The answer is that it’s intereting to see the wildlife NGOs put alongside the education, human health and development NGOs and other charities on any measure.

Looking at the list, the National Trust is ranked #5 in terms of financial strength and would have got further up the overall ranking if only it had a ‘community’ on its website where its members could chat to each other.  The RSPB is relatively high-ranking because it does have a community and it, like all the highest ranking organisations, has staff who respond to comments on blogs, Twitter etc.

To my mind, in these times of austerity, what the table demonstrates is that there are large differences between charities in how much they are using social media including Facebook, LinkedIn and You Tube.  Doing a bit more might be a very good and relatively cheap way for smaller charities to make their mark in the social charity world.

This is the way that the world is going – how quickly will wildlife charities lead or follow the trends?

And you can ‘like’ me as Mark Avery on Facebook, follow me as @markavery on Twitter, and potentially link up with me if we have done business together on LinkedIn.  As far as You Tube is concerned I have to admit that you can still find me dancing away there too.


Chaos theory – what happens when a butterfly doesn’t flap its wing?

The government and opposition argue about how to manage the economy.  They agree that cuts are needed (although the size of the cuts is at issue) but the route to growth is in dispute.  If you cut and cut will the economy stagnate?

Many small businesses, including small NGOs, are worrying about how public spending cuts will affect their ability to continue their core work.

Wildlife NGOs generally receive financial support from four main sources: government, industry, grant-giving bodies and direct public support from individuals.  All such sources of funding are likely to be squeezed and so the likelihood is that NGO work will be too.

Some of the cuts made in Defra’s budget this time last year are now finding their way through to cuts in grant and contract income of wildlife NGOs.  One example has recently come to my attention (rather indirectly) but I am sure that there are plenty of others.  Butterfly Conservation – of which I am a keen member – recently received cuts to their grant income from Natural England of around 85% (from c£300k to c£40k).

Other wildlife NGOs are facing similar financial challenges to their core work of saving threatened species.

Makes you wonder doesn’t it? It makes me wonder:

  • what is the Big Society solution to losing expert posts in nature conservation?
  • will private sector money flood in to replace the funds lost through public spending cuts?
  • when the economy picks up again will we have lost wildlife that cannot recover?

And while you are wondering, then please show your support for the excellent work done by Butterfly Conservation by supporting their work.


That explains it

Back in the spring, while I was driving across the USA, when I got to the eastern side of South Dakota, to Sioux Falls, I found that I was about half way across the continent. And over the next few days it became obvious that there were some new birds turning up. The eastern meadowlarks were behind me and western meadowlarks were ahead.  Eastern bluebirds were back there and western ones were ahead.  The swifts switched from chimney swifts to white-throated swiftsLark buntings and Brewer’s blackbirds were beside the road,  and the mix of birds really did change.

It’s quite a striking thing, and I’d been told that I would notice it by the National Audubon Conservation Director, Greg Butcher. Of course it’s particularly noticeable if you are travelling day by day in the same direction as I was.

I was talking to Ian Newton at the Bird Fair about this and he pointed me towards his excellent book The Speciation and Biogeography of Birds for the answers.  What appears to have happened is that when the glacial ice sheet spread south across North America some species were probably wiped out but others found refuges on both the eastern and western sides of the current USA.  When the ice retreated the species spread from their glacial refuges.  Sometimes the passage of time had allowed enough differences to evolve that the birds rushing from their glacial refuges no longer interbred and they met somewhere near the middle of the continent and banged up against each other in the area where the East/West divide is still noticeable.  Others probably ‘met in the middle’ and simply interbred and merged.  In some cases this sort of thing happened with races which initially had been part of the same species and in other cases probably with different but similar species.

It’s reassuring to know that there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon, and I probably ought to have been able to work it out for myself, but I didn’t.  What it shows is that your day’s birding in America is influenced by the last ice age of about 18,000 years ago.  18,000 years is just a blink in the age of the Earth (4.6 billion years) and the time since life evolved here (3, 600, 000, 000 years).