Sunday, 18 March 2018

March Nature News

Hello and welcome to this month's Nature News where I round up wildlife and environment stories from the local area and across the UK.

Local Wildlife Crime

Until 1998 there was mink farm here in Ringwood, just up the road from where I live. Animal rights activists attacked the farm and allowed thousands of american mink to be released into the countryside. I am totally against fur farming but the activists made a huge mistake. Many of the mink were killed to protect pets and livestock and I dread to think of the effect some 6,000 mink had on the local wildlife population. The farm is not far from the New Forest where there are many ground-nesting birds whose numbers are in decline- for mink the eggs make easy prey.

The story re-entered the new this week as it has emerged that the activist group had been infiltrated by the Metropolitan Police(1) . They knew about the raid and actually allowed it to happen as they saw it as preventing more serious crime in the longer term. No charges have ever been made for the raid and Hampshire Constabulary didn't even know about the undercover officer until 2014! The actions of the activists is bad enough in itself but the police knowing it was going to happen and allowing it is inexcusable.

More recently, local property developer and millionaire Christopher Wilson was convicted of damaging the breeding sites of two species of bats while building a block of luxury flats in Ferndown(2). The licensing procedure was ignored meaning money was saved and the property could be developed more quickly. I total he had to pay just under £5,000 which doesn't seem very much for a millionaire- the amount he saved is not specified but it could conceivably still be less than the total fine. Either way it's not a great incentive for property developers to follow licensing procedures if the penalty is so slight.

Government Environment Policy

The government has been positive on environment policy recently with many promises in the twenty-five year plan. Environment secretary Michael Gove even suggested recently that plastic straws could be banned(3).

Since then however, things have taken a turn for the worse. The mooted "latte levy", a 25p surcharge on disposable coffee cups has been questioned by the government(4). I've read the news story over and over trying to understand their reasoning and all I pick out is this:

"it is better for shops to offer voluntary discounts to customers bringing their own cups."

How is that better? Why rely on shops to be proactive rather than make it law and really make a difference?

Then there's the badger cull, a policy the government is insistent on as a way to curb bovine TB despite limited evidence it is effective and the damage it's doing to the badger population. Nine new areas have come forward to be considered for culling licences, including Hampshire(5)- there is little reason to think they won't be granted. In 2017 around 20,000 badgers were culled in England. The estimated badger population for England and Wales is 485,000(6). If these licenses are granted and a similar amount are killed in these nine new areas as well as the current eight areas that would be around 40,000 badgers culled a year. The culls are supposed to happen for five years. It's insane that this is being allowed to happen.

Finally, for now at least, the government have responded to a petition to license driven grouse shooting(7). It's a statement full of waffle which you can read in full in the link but basically they say they are not going to even consider this approach and are going to carry on as normal. Normal means that birds of prey are illegally killed on the uplands to protect the grouse shooting industry with few prosecutions. These birds of prey include hen harriers who are on the verge of extinction in the UK.

I'm disturbed by the fact that the government's actions are not reflecting the promises they have made. They say they are committed to support the environment yet their actions point the opposite direction.

New Species of Fungi
I've learnt a lot about fungi over the last few years but identifying them can still be really tricky. There is very little visual evidence to distinguish some species from each other. Botanists at Kew Gardens have been studying the big blue pinkgill (Entoloma bloxamii) and through morphological and DNA studies have concluded it's actually at least four species (Entoloma atromadidum, E. bloxamii, E. madidum and E. ochreoprunuloides)(8). DNA sequencing is revolutionizing studies of the natural world and it seems there are many more species than we previously thought.

I've been discussing microplastics a lot recently and new studies are showing just how widespread they are. Microplastics are microscopic pieces of plastic that are toxic and gradually build up along the food chain.

I think we are all aware of the problem of microplastics in the oceans but it turns out they are building up in our rivers too. Scientists from the University of Manchester analysed 40 sites throughout Greater Manchester and found microplastics at all sites(9). Urban waterways were the worst affected. This may have been a fairly small study but there's nothing to suggest it wouldn't be the case throughout the rest of the country- virtually every river runs through an urban area at some point.

There was also a sizeable study on microplastics in bottled water which is alarming(10). Analysis of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across eleven different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold. Only 17 bottles were plastic free. It's a relatively small amount but that's just an average with some being considerably higher and over years this could build up in your body. The World Health Organisation have launched a review on the risks of this but it seems likely it will be causing harm.

An Easter Idea
With Easter on the horizon I thought I'd end with a product you might consider for your loved one this Easter. A chocolatier called Mirrie Dancers are selling chocolate curlew eggs which not only look amazing but around £1.50 of the sale price goes to the RSPB's curlew recovery program!

That's all for this month but there will be more nature news in April and I'll be back with a new post next weekend.

3: BBC: Plastic straws could be banned, suggests Michael Gove
4: BBC: Ministers question 'latte levy' on cups
5: BBC: Nine areas of England apply to join badger cull
6: Farmers Weekly: Badger population rises to 485,000 in England and Wales
7: UK Government and Parliament Petitions: License driven grouse shooting
8: Discover Wildlife: Big blue surprise
9: BBC: Microplastics are 'littering' riverbeds
10: The Guardian: WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water

Monday, 12 March 2018

Thankful for the Thaw

Last week's snow disappeared astonishingly quickly and the temperatures shot up. There's a feeling of Spring in the air now with lots of trees suddenly coming into flower.

The "beast from the East" brought lots of birds over from mainland Europe, especially fieldfares and redwings1.

This is one of the many redwings I've seen locally recently though sadly I've yet to spot a fieldfare. It's unlikely that many of these birds will be around for much longer as they migrate back to mainland Europe in the Spring2. Lots of birds that have spent the winter in Spain and Southern Europe will stop off in the East of the country on their way further North. 

Another bird that seems to be around in higher numbers than usual this winter is the goosander

I've tried to find evidence that this is a national trend but struggled to find much. A local Scottish newspaper recently reported that increasing numbers of goosanders were partially responsible for poor fishing on the River Tweed3, though again that seems to be anecdotal evidence rather than scientific. Numbers certainly appear to be on the up though and I like to imagine that one day in the not too distant future we might have breeding goosander locally. 

A few other local spots now. Here's one of our stranger small birds, the nuthatch

Nuthatches look a little like small woodpeckers and behave like treecreepers, walking up and down trees to find items of food in trees3. Whilst most birds migrate or at least move a little in their lifetime, nuthatches rarely move far from where they hatched. They are a bit more flexible when it comes to food than treecreepers and will feed on the ground and come to feeders when they need supplement their diet. 

I also saw a green woodpecker up a tree recently. 

You might imagine that this is where you would expect to see a woodpecker but this species is more often seen on the ground where they feed for ants4. Green woodpeckers have much weaker bills than other species and therefore peck wood much less often. They don't drum to communicate like other species and rarely feed on trees, only doing so at times of low food5- which I suspect might be the case at the moment. It's also possible that they are beginning to excavate nest holes.

Whilst I am still deeply sad about the new housing estate which is shooting up on former farmland at the moment I am finding it interesting to see how the local wildlife is adapting to it. There are long metal fences along the perimeter of the site and I've previously seen buzzards using it as a perch- this weekend I saw a kestrel doing the same. 

These fences, just over human head height, are really useful for kestrels. Whilst they often hunt using their famous hover technique, they also jump down at prey from low perches. There is, at the moment at least, long grass directly below this fence which is perfect for rodents. I watched as the kestrel leapt down from it's perch though it didn't seem to be successful on that attempt. 

Here's another kestrel from a few weeks ago which was hovering in order to hunt. 

Finally, here's a few more photos from the last of the snow and the last week. 

A Feral Pigeon looking rather confused by the pile of snow atop the bird table.

Water dripping down from the eaves created these icicles on a bush under our living room window

Robin in the snow


The Avon Roe Deer reliably in their usual spot.

This Grey Heron was hunting amongst the high grasses on the flood plain. It looks like it may have damaged a wing but i was too far away to be able to see clearly.
That's all for today but I'll be back at the weekend with the Nature News for March.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Chilly Creatures

It's been a cold few weeks here in Ringwood with temperatures rarely pushing positive figures. For our wildlife it's a huge challenge- low temperatures are always difficult and coming at the end of the winter means food is scarce. 

Last week I spotted lots of clumps of frog spawn in the New Forest, though all of it was frozen.

Frog spawn can survive freezing temperatures to some extent but it will struggle over a long period of low temperatures like we had. I suspect very few tadpoles will develop from the many clumps I spotted. 

At my workplace in Bournemouth this week I saw the car park fox for the first time in a while. 

I saw this vixen on several mornings this week in this spot. I can only imagine how difficult it must be keeping warm when you have to spend your entire time outside. This vixen was curled up in a pile of leaves in the sunshine which was probably about the warmest place she could be at 8:30AM. 

On Thursday the snow arrived. It was only a few centimetres but enough for the school I work at to be closed and some lovely views locally. 

The Avon deer didn't seem too bothered about the snow and were grazing in their usual field. 

There were lots of birds on the Avon itself- the water flows fairly fast there and that means it's relatively warm. I wouldn't like to paddle in it but it must have been better than sitting in the snow. The river was also the only source of food that was still available so it made sense for the birds to congregate there. 

Little Egret 

Goosander stretching its wings

This teal was an exciting sighting as I've never seen one on my patch before. I assume it found its way to this stretch as a fairly warm and safe haven from the poor weather. 

The small birds mostly seemed to hunker down in trees. By doing this they were keep away from the worst of the wind and can take advantage of the natural heat of the trees. 

 Some, like the starlings below, stuck together in groups where their combined heat helps them all to keep warm, a bit like penguins do.

On Thursday the snow became even thicker to the point we'd had more than I'd ever seen in my twenty odd years of living in Ringwood. Freezing rain then left a hard frozen surface to the snow overnight.

There were no sign of the deer today and I suspect they took shelter in one of the nearby wooded areas. The little egret meanwhile stubbornly carried on fishing as normal. 

I was also surprised to see a number of lapwings around this patch of the river, another species I've never seen on my patch before. They were all curled up trying to shelter from the elements. 

We should have seen the last of the snow, for now at least, but it will still be difficult for all these animals to survive the next few weeks. They must do everything they can to stay warm enough to survive as well as try to find food in difficult circumstances. It's likely that many won't be able to do this and populations of many species will be the lowest they've been for a number of years. 

I'll be back soon and do safe and warm in this cold weather!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

February Nature News

It's time for my monthly round-up of nature and environment news, from the local to national stories and beyond.

Boost for Bats

The Bat Conservation Trust has released its latest "State of UK's Bats" report and generally it's good news(1). Of the UK's 18 resident species most are growing in number or are at least stable. Both the greater and lesser horseshoe bats are doing particularly well.

It's important to remember though that these figures have to be considered in context- there were major declines in bat populations during the 20th century due to human activity. Roost and habitat loss, disruption of insect food supplies, increased urbanisation and the spread of artificial lighting all had an impact and though conservation projects are really helping, bat numbers have not yet reached historic numbers.

Horrible for Hedgehogs

Similarly, the "State of Britain's Hedgehogs 2018" report was recently published but this was far less positive(2). It shows that since 2000, hedgehogs have fallen by about 50%.

The main reason for this, in rural areas at least, is the rise of intensive farming practices. Many farmers have removed hedges and copses to create larger fields, meaning there are fewer safe places and nesting sites for hedgehogs. Large-scale pesticide use is also reducing the amount of invertebrates which hedgehogs eat. Clearly this is not a good combination.

It looks like things are a little better in urban areas with numbers having levelled off. If you have hedgehogs in your area you can leave out wet dog or cat food to support their nutritional needs and ensure there are holes in your fences so that they can move from garden to garden.

Salmon's Secret

We recently saw how genetic testing of grass snakes showed how different our population is. Now it's genetic testing of salmon that has revealed surprises.

Photo by Sam Billington of the Environment Agency, via BBC News
Scientists have discovered that salmon in chalk streams in Hampshire and Dorset (including the Piddle, Frome, Test, Itchen and Avon) appear to be genetically distinct from others and may be a sub-species of Atlantic Salmon(3). The latter two rivers are one I have spend a lot of time looking at so this is a really important local story.

Chalk streams flow through chalk hills and generally have clear, slow-flowing water and are more alkaline than other rivers.

River Itchen
The scientists are saying that the fish might need greater protection and is they are a separate subspecies they can't simply be replaced with salmon from elsewhere in Europe.

Sorry Starlings

Hampshire County Council have come under fire recently for cutting down some trees near Winchester Fire Station where thousands of starlings were roosting(4). There has been a large murmuration of starlings in the city this year and many people have come to see them.

Starling Murmuration in Winchester by Roy Venkatesh via Hampshire Chronicle
So why would the council do this? Well bird poo appears to be the answer- they were removed "due to the impact they were having on operation vehicles and the health and safety of staff".

This is a really awful story because the council made a quick fix which destroyed a roost site for the starling and an important habitat for countless other species. They didn't consult the public and appear to have made no effort to have come up with a less drastic solution. Some people are saying it doesn't matter and that the starlings have moved elsewhere. But if every little conflict with nature was dealt with in such a dramatic way habitat loss would be even more severe than it is already.

Plastic Purge Continues

Last month I talked about how many companies were pledging to reduce the use of plastic packaging and this has contin

Lots of plastic ends up in the oceans having broken down into microscopic pieces known as 'microplastics'. It's thought that these have a huge impact all the way along the food chain from tiny plankton to larger animals like rays, sharks and whales. Scientists are calling for more studies to find out what impact microplastic have on these animals(7) though they suspect that effects might include reduced nutritional uptake and damage to the digestive system. There's also the possibility that toxin exposure from plastic ingestion could affect growth and reproduction.

Of course, that's far from the only threat to our oceans. A study has shown that in 2017 the oceans were by far the hottest ever recorded (records began in the 1950s) (8). Warmer oceans cause bleaching of coral reefs and the melting of ice shelves. The oceans are so delicate and we desperately need to do more to look after them.


Last summer eight osprey chicks were translocated to Poole Harbour in the hope of creating a population there. All eight have migrated south for the winter but as they are ringed one has been spotted(9).

LS7 was seen on a long sandy island called, appropriately, Ile des Oiseaux in Saloum Delta National Park in Senegal. It's a popular spot for ospreys with 20 to 30 individuals regularly spotted there. They can fish in the rich, shallow delta and rest up happily on the island.

Ospreys on Ile des Oiseaux by Jon Wright
LS7 is the only Poole Harbour chick to have been sighted so far- no-one knows how many of the other seven even survived migration. They expect to only see one or two birds returning to Poole Harbour this year but LS7 may well be one of them as it is found a perfect site to overwinter.

That's all for now but there will be more Nature News towards the end of March.

1: BBC: Most bat species 'recovering or stable'
2: BBC: Hedgehog numbers 'down by half', warn wildlife groups
3: BBC: Genetic secret of English salmon
4: Hampshire Chronicle: Fury as Winchester Fire Station trees- used by city's much-loved starlings- cut down due to bird poo
5: The Guardian: Asda joins wave of supermarkets pledging to cut plastic waste
6: BBC: Queen backs plan to cut plastic use on royal estates
7: BBC: Plastic pollution: Scientists plea on threat to ocean giants
8: The Guardian: In 2017, oceans were by far the hottest ever recorded
9: Roy Dennis: LS7 seen in Senegal

Monday, 12 February 2018

Brilliant Bramblings

The weather has continued to be poor lately, especially on Saturdays which are my main wildlife days. It's certainly been a wet winter!

I've seen the Avon roe deer a few times over the last few weeks, including the doe and fawns I first saw in July.

Roe Deer July 2017
Roe Deer February 2018
It's interesting to be able to see how they've developed in this time. Obviously they have grown a fair bit but you can see that they are still quite a bit smaller than their mother. It's also interesting to note how their coats have changed too. The fauns have lost their spots and all three have changed from their sandy summer colours to their darker winter colour. 

I've also saw one of the bucks at the weekend, potentially these fauns father and certainly a relation. 

Today I visited Blashford Lakes where I spent most of my visit in the Woodland Hide. It was really busy, both with visitors in the hide and birds on the feeders. There were plenty of the usual suspects such as chaffinches, goldfinches and blue tits

It was also a good day for siskins as there were a fair few visiting the feeders. 

At this time of year siskins start to appear more regularly in gardens and on feeders(1). They tend to resort to feeders when the natural seed stock has reduced and visit feeders more when the natural Sitka Spruce seed crop is low(2).

Every now and then most of the birds would suddenly fly back into the safety of the bushes, likely because there was a potential predator somewhere nearby. I did see one of these potential predators, a great spotted woodpecker

Like most woodpeckers this species mostly feeds on insects but over the winter has to supplement this with tree seeds(3). They would be unlikely to predate any of the birds present but in the spring they do feed on eggs and fledglings so they are wise to be wary of woodpeckers.It might be that they simply sense that this is a bigger bird and therefore a potential threat.

The highlight though were a few stunning bramblings

Bramblings are not resident in the UK and instead migrate from the forests of Northern Europe(4). As you can tell from their beaks, they are finches and like other finches mostly feed on seeds. Numbers vary depending on how much food is available but it appears to be a good year for them, as it is for bullfinches and hawfinches. 

I also got this very clear photo of a robin whilst walking round the reserve. 

Robins seem to be particularly abundant this winter. UK robins are generally non-migrantry but robins do spend the winter in the UK from Northern Europe so it's possible there is a larger influx this winter(5). At this time of year though robins are starting to secure their territories ahead of the breeding season so this could also explain why they are more visible at the moment. 

Whilst I didn't spend much time near the lakes themselves today I did spot a few interesting birds:

Green Sandpiper

Distant Kingfisher
I was also pleased to spot some fungi amongst the undergrowth, the stunning scarlet elf cap

Scarlet elf cap is a "saprotrophic" species. In simple terms, this means it digests decaying matter, usually wood in this case, and breaks the composite parts down- proteins into amino acids, lipids into fatty acids and glycerol and starch into simple disaccharides(6). These nutrients are passed through the mycelium, the fungi equivalent of roots, and help the fungus to grow. 

That's all for today but I'll be back on Saturday for my look at February's nature news.

2: Mckenzie, A.J., Petty, S.J., Toms, M.P. & Furness, R.W. (2007) 'Importance of Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis seed and garden bird-feeders for Siskins Carduelis spinus and Coal Tits Periparus ater' Bird Study 53: pp. 236-247

4: BirdLife International (2012) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature

6: Clegg, C.J and Mackean, D.G (2006) Advanced Biology: Principles and Applications (2nd ed). Hodder Publishing fig 14.16, pp.296