Why I Do

Well, it’s been a while. Over a year in fact. A lot has happened in that time, both good and bad. I’m not going to bore you by going through it all, suffice it to say that each thing would be able to interrupt my blogging, but none of it for this long, so I’ve got no excuse. One thing that has happened is that I’ve moved. I’m no longer in Barry, but now live in Aberdare, something that meant I had to leave the Porthkerry Wildlife Group that I’d set up, but they’re still going strong, so it’s all ok!

So what’s in Aberdare? Well, for a start there’s Dare Valley Country Park. It’s a big place, and has many habitats and wildlife, which (like Porthkerry) the Rangers are finding hard to keep on top of, so – yes, you 096guessed it – I set up Dare Valley Wildlife Group! We’re not as successful as the Porthkerry guys- in fact, it was only a couple of months ago that our regular members swelled to five! I’m not going to talk about the park today. No, instead, in the spirit of hopefully encouraging non-enthusiasts to take up a new interest (Wow! that sounds big-headed!) and also to show new readers where I’m coming from. I’m going to tell you about some of my encounters with wildlife. All of them are from the UK, and they are just some of the reasons why I love our country’s wildlife as much as I do.

Most people have never seen a live mole. I’ve been lucky enough to see two. The first was in the late 80s, during my early teens. I was on a concrete taxi-way during an airshow at RAF Fairford. I felt something on my foot, looked down and there was a mole climbing off my boot! I followed it until it disappeared into the long grass. The second was a couple of years ago at Wenvoe. It was standing in front of me when I got off the bus,and again disappeared into the grass. One thing I’ll say about moles is that their fur doesn’t look black, more silvery. With the possible exception of the bat that tried to land in my bandana tails and ended up swinging round and landing on my shoulder before dropping down and flying off, the mole-on-my-foot story was probably the mildest of my physical encounters with wildlife! Twice in my life I’veReeves's Muntjac been run over by a Muntjac. Twice! Not in the same place- not even in the same county! I was cycling down Cemetery Hill in Bedford one night around half eight, and it was dusk. All of a sudden a Muntjac came out of a hole under a wall, and knocked me off my bike. It then proceeded to headbutt me for another minute or two before running off- I can only assume it was an amorous male! That was the second time, and at least the first was an accident. I was walking my then girlfriend’s Dalmatian, when a Muntjac leapt out of the ditch by the side of the road, knocking me into the dog. The three of us rolled over each other, and when me and the dog got to our feet, we could see the Muntjac bouncing off in the distance! It wouldn’t have been so bad, but that day I’d already been knocked over by a brace of pheasants! Walking the dog through a knee-high field, I must have been walking in a perfect straight line towards them because they came up out of the grass about six feet in front of me, and as they went to go either side of me, the hit each shoulder – not wing-clipped, bounced into me –  at nearly the same time, causing me to fall backwards!

Birds aren’t always accidental when crashing into me. When our dog Poppy was only a few months old, I was walking her in Finsbury Park, when we came upon a fledgling Carrion Crow sitting on the grass next to a fence. Poppy’s reaction was to play with it. Not play with it like it was a toy, but play with it like it _DSC8295was me or another dog- she wanted it to chase her! Mum and Dad Crow however, had very different ideas. They attacked, trying to peck her eyes. I grabbed her and we ran. When they realised they couldn’t get to her, they switched to bombing us with pooh. We ended up going round half the park before we were let off, but the interesting thing is that it wasn’t the same pair the whole time. They chased us a little way before another pair took over, and then again with a third pair. It was very interesting- it definitely proved to me that crows communicate! It was also quite scary, scarier than when the Buzzard mobbed me- she was just defending her nest as I’d accidentally got too close. I still had to go quite a distance and even then back up to a tree before she would finally go!

My encounters aren’t always so physical. The first time I saw a Jay was in Hatfield Forest. We were just wandering around enjoying the woods, when we saw a Jay on the ground. It looked a little odd, so we slowed down, shut up, crouched down and crept forward- only to discover that it was anting! I’ve never seen one do it since, and we only saw it for a few seconds after realising what was happening, but it was long enough! I’ve seen Sparrowhawks catch pigeons, Kestrels hovering and catching rodents, a Peregrine dive and grab a Starling mid-air and various birds of prey being mobbed by other birds (including a Peregrine mobbed by a mixed flock of swifts, swallows, and house martins, and a Buzzard mobbed by a Raven mobbed by a Carrion Crow!) Accidental sightings like this is what the world is made of- it’s far more fulfilling than something you’ve sat in a hide waiting five hours to see (and that can be pretty damn fulfilling!) One year we were just leaving The Lodge (RSPB HQ at Sandy) when a Ranger came out of the building and excitedly told us a Hoopoe had been spotted on site- obviously we went and saw it! While on the subject of the RSPB, I worked in a call centre, calling for various charities, and was briefed to call for them. The script was about songbird decline,and the success of Red Kite conservation. The first morning of the campaign, on the very same Muntjac sparring-ground that is Cemetery Hill, I saw my first ever Red Kite! My first ever Kingfisher  was when I was on a school trip to Stowmarket, and I watched as it caught a fish. I’ve only ever seen one Osprey, but that caught a fish and manoeuvred it with its feet. My first ever Otter I thought was a dog!

The beauty of these things is that they happen throughout your life as long as you think to keep an eye out- you can’t be too young or too old. Last year I saw my first Wheatear on Barry beach, just strolling along with friends (me, not the Wheatear!). The year before, me and two friends had gone to a place near Pontypridd to see Nightjars. We had no expectations- we genuinely thought we’d just hear some churring, and we’d have been more than happy with that. We were wrong. We heard both the call and the churr. While we were waiting for the sun to go down we saw a Crossbill, and we knew that was going to be the highlight. Then we heard some churring and located it as coming from a field. We decided not to go into the field as they’re a ground-nesting species, and it was that time of year. Then we saw one on a log. I can’t describe the excitement! It’s one British bird that I’ve always written off as something I’d Nightjarnever see. And I managed to get a photo! Admittedly its not a good photo- 500mm lens at full zoom just after dusk, no flash, not tripod, BUT I TOOK A PHOTO OF A NIGHTJAR! And then IT happened. Ten feet away on the ground, while two flew around our heads (I cannot tell you just how falcon-like they are in flight!) was a Nightjar feigning a broken wing to lure us away- there was a nest in the field! The responsible decision to stay out was the right one. that experience kept me on a high for days!

I hope I don’t come across like I’m showing off. I love our wildlife. I want everyone else to as well. There are loads of species I haven’t seen- Badgers, Red Squirrels, Waxwings, Nightingales to name just four. But I like that- I like the fact that I’m not a box-ticker. I can still sit and watch an ordinary Great Tit go about it’s business and come away smiling. I’m heading towards my 41st birthday, my memory isn’t too good either, yet I remember my firsts, I remember the encounters. I could name others- a ghostly Barn Owl at night lit by busy London street lights. Great Crested Grebes courting in Bedford, accidentally walking into a Red Deer rut in Richmond Park and standing nervously still up against a tree. I will never understand why not everyone does this. Why don’t people marvel at Bullfinches- hell, why don’t they even notice them? How can people dismiss Water Voles as rats- or any other vole for that matter? I often wax lyrical about our ordinary wildlife- Magpies, Foxes and the like. But there’s more to it than that.

In the last ten years I’ve shown a woman in her late-twenties her first ever hedgehog, and a couple of years ago her first Slow Worm. Both times, the look on her face was priceless. At the moment, as a movement, we are (rightly) concentrating on getting children into wildlife, educating them so that when they get older they will want to take care of the environment, but I believe we should also be re-connecting adults. We live our lives seeing species and having experiences for the first time, but to do that we have to be looking at the world around us. THAT is why I set up Porthkerry Wildlife Group. THAT is why I set up Dare Valley Wildlife Group. THAT is why I will set up similar groups in every town I ever live in. It’s not up to the charities to do this- they can’t. As far as most people are concerned, because they’re the experts, the charities are the “people I give my money to and they spend it on things that I don’t really understand, but I don’t need to.” No, it isn’t up to them. It is up to me. It is up to the members of the wildlife groups in Porthkerry and Dare Valley. It is up to you. We aren’t the experts sitting behind a desk working it all out. We are the people in the street, the ordinary people with ordinary jobs. We are the real role-models. Experts are inspiration, but role-models are next door neighbours, cousins, colleagues, drinking partners. We are the ones that prove you can be normal and understand how biodiversity means we can’t install a bypass. We don’t lecture or preach, we say “look at that, isn’t it amazing”. We don’t bore people with speeches, we show them things by pointing them out. We don’t make them feel inadequate or bored- and most importantly, we have normal lives.



Get Out Of The Armchair

We’re always being told that wildlife thrives anywhere- towns and cities, the countryside, gardens, nature reserves etc. And while it’s true, we only ever go to our local Country Park or Reserve to see it- either that or we watch it in our garden. So what about everywhere else? The village pond (yes, they do still exist!), the verges alongside the bypass, or the copse of trees you used to play in as a kid. You know, the forgotten about places. We’re concentrating so hard on the areas that are being managed (whether that’s a charity or the local Council, or even ourselves in the garden) that we forget about the rest of it. Sure, we now all cater for wildlife at home, and that’s great, but it takes more than just our back gardens and public parks to provide green corridors and/or habitat. We seem to have this mentality where everything belongs in it’s place, and nature simply doesn’t work that way. If you need an example, Imagejust look at the plants growing in the gaps between paving slabs. The beautiful thing about wildlife is that it’s, well, wild. It doesn’t pay any attention to the rules we lay down. It doesn’t know that we want it to go to the park so we can see it in it’s natural environment. As far as it’s concerned, a tree in a park is just as good as a tree by the road, so it uses them. When surveys are done, they tend to be done in the same places- managed places that I’ve mentioned. Why? because it’s safe. The tendency is to think “I’m recording birds, I’d better go where the birds are most likely to be.” What we need to do, is to monitor and record what’s going on in these unsung places. It could be a patch of wasteland, a cemetary, or even an abandoned building- it doesn’t matter. What we need are people – either as individuals or as groups – dedicated to noting what’s in these places. We need a website to record these findings on, and we need a willingness to continue doing it. The beauty of this is that anyone can do it, regardless of experience or knowledge level. And with next to no expense too- all you need to start off is pen and paper. You can use the library to ID anything or everything, whether that’s borrowing fieldguides to take with you, or taking pics on your phone and IDing later. If you take pics, you don’t even need to use the library- there are many useful guides online, and Ispot is perfect for those things you can’t quite get.

Almost a year ago I decided to do this in our local Country Park. Normally Country Parks already have monitoring in place, but I knew that at Porthkerry, the Rangers had so much on their plates that they simply didn’t have the time, so I set up the Porthkerry Wildlife Group. I made a few posters and arranged a date for our first meeting. I was so nervous, but both Rangers were very supportive, even helping with the meeting itself, as well as imparting their knowledge. That first meeting had thirteen other people turn up (and I only knew one of them beforehand!) including one of the County Ecologists and our Councillor for the Environment. Now, a year down the line, we still have a core of 10 people (including the Councillor). We spent the first meeting discussing what we Imageas individuals wanted from the group, and got to know each other and what our areas and levels of expertise were. The next two meets were spent getting to know the park, with important, relevant and unusual things being pointed out by the Rangers. After that, we basically made it up as we went along, literally walking as a group or splitting into smaller groups and writing down what we saw. Sometimes we were recording everything, whilst other times we were more specific- for example wildflowers. I think part of the success of the group was down to the fact that members were encouraged to feel comfortable pointing things out, or ask questions without being made to feel silly, and we all learned from each other- no one member was any more or less important than any other (and still aren’t). We had a lot of fun too- I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t enjoy the pond-dips, or they putting out of rodent boxes, or looking for badger tracks and marks. I should point out that we decided to make our group adults only!

Although I am proud of what we’ve achieved, I haven’t told you this in order to show off, but instead I hope it shows you that it is possible to do something useful without having training or a qualification. Apart from the Ranger that remains, none of us are experts (the Ecologist doesn’t attend, but is available to us for help), but we are all determined to help make a difference. I’m not going to get political, but I will say House Sparrowthat a right wing government makes it harder for our wildlife to get by, attacking it on many fronts, and so the need to encourage people to get more active is greater than ever. Last year’s State Of Nature report highlights that. You don’t have to set up a big group or anything anywhere near as official as we did, but do record even the most ordinary of sightings. Provide a time  and date, weather, site, species (if possible binomial/scientific/Latin name) and quantity seen. If you don’t know where to send your sightings, don’t worry- send them to me and I’ll sort it out for you.

I’d love to see a network of enthusiastic amateurs making a difference. Imagine if we could get it to the point where the big charities are able to dedicate more of their manpower and funds to actual practical conservation because there were enough of us to provide the information for them! Realistically, I’d be happy if we could get enough of us to warrant a central database. This is a rallying cry. If you know the difference between a Blue Tit and a Great Tit; if you watch Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch and still think that there’s justification for a Summerwatch too; if you can look at an Adder without wondering why they still let poisonous things roam free; if you wonder why you see less of a species now than when you were little; if you can see the word Turdus without giggling (OK, maybe that’s pushing it!), then I call on you to do something useful. It’s not enough to donate X pounds a month. Do something real. Give yourself a sense of achievement. I dare you. If you’re not sure how to go abnout it, send me a message- I’ll help.

I can promise you this- if nobody had turned up on that Sunday morning last February, I’d have still gone ahead with it- I just would have done it alone.Cliff

Thank You- Good News For Buzzards

I’d like to say thank you to everyone that signed those petitions and shared the news regarding DEFRA’s approach to Buzzards. Richard Benyon, the Wildlife Minister released the following statement-

“In the light of the public concerns expressed in recent days, I have decided to look at developing new research proposals on buzzards.

“The success of conservation measures has seen large increases in the numbers of buzzards and other birds of prey over the last two decades.  As Minister for Wildlife I celebrate that and since 2010 we have championed many new measures to benefit wildlife across England – set out in our England Biodiversity Strategy. 

“At the same time it is right that we make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and we do need to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock. I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals.”

So no poking and shooting nests, and no rehoming into captivity. At least for now. I’ll always maintain a certain level of scepticism, but we can call this a victory- for now at least. Everyone that signed petitions, wrote letters and emails, shared on Facebook and Twitter, wrote Blogs and generally did what they could to help, big or small, THANK YOU (it’s the biggest thanks I can give!)

To all you who didn’t sign because you didn’t think your signature would matter, surely this proves it would. Next time, if you agree with a cause, sign, write, help. It isn’t causing a scene, it isn’t being a pest. It’s standing up for something you know to be right. And that’s something we should all be able to do.


Another Buzzard Petition

If you haven’t already, please read the previous 2 posts firsts.

There’s a third petition on the Buzzard situation. As I said before, please sign all of them. And if you don’t want to, pease tell others as they might want to. You can find the 3rd one here

If you want to do more to help, how about adding the links and an explanation to your Blog, FaceBook or Twitter? OR any other networking you do. If you use Twitter, remember the hashtags #SaveOurBuzzards

You could always write an email or letter to your local MP or to DEFRA asking them to stop. If you do, remember to be polite, don’t make any threats, punctuate and spell properly and stick to the point. Also remember it may take time for them to reply, and it’s a fine line between re-asking and harrassment!

Updates on Buzzards

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the situation, then you’ll have seen this already as it’s a C & P of the updates I was posting on the last Blog as comments. However if not, please read. And please do share on Twitter, Facebook etc. The more people we can get signing the petitions the better the chance we have of making sure a beautiful bird of prey doesn’t decline again.

If you haven’t read the Blog DEFRA- Definitely Enhancing the Finances of Rich Aristos, do so first here

This was a few hours after the original post-

You can download the information here
at the time of writing it’s the 5th one down. The only thing I didn’t know was that it lasts 3 years, and starts next week on June 1st.

And then the next day (yesterday) After some more digging around, i posted these-

Apparently, DEFRA seems to think everyone thinks they’re setting up cull trials. We don’t. We have read what the trials entail, and have decided that they are wrong, and deaths will occur as a result of some of the measures. DEFRA needs to stop addressing an issue that doesn’t exist, and actually address the issues being presented. It’s excellent smokescreening as when anyone not hugely interested hears it, it’ll sound like we are all getting the wrong idea, so none of the facts need come to light for the general public as we, the concerned suddenly become whinging hippies again. Their statement is here
Also, in case you’re wondering what we’re all getting angry about, here are some facts and figures that will show how unnecessary this is

There is also now a petition, so please sign it here

Nick Self has just found another petition here

Please sign as many as you find- don’t just pick the one that looks like the better option. Also, if you find any, let me know. I’d rather the same one was on here a couple of times than not at all.

Lastly, use the hashtag #SaveOurBuzzards on Twitter- it has trended, and the more it does, the more awareness we are raising.

I will continue to post new Blogs as updates as and when things come to light.

DEFRA- Definitely Enhancing the Finances of Rich Aristos

Let me introduce you to the Buzzard. Most people in Europe have seen one. Roughly 1/2 a metre long. It’s a brown bird of prey that looks like a cross between an eagle and a falcon. It’s a hawk and has been accused of being an eagle many times. I myself have had at least 6 or 7 arguments about this- and that’s just counting the times I was there for the sighting. You usually see them in woods, or over open ground such as fields or roadside verges. In fact, they can be a common sight perched on fenceposts by the side of major roads such as motorways. You can also see them over towns and cities- I’ve seen them in Bedford, Cambridge, Brighton and Harringey, North London, as well as in the country and various woods. It’s a handsome bird that feeds mainly on small mammals, preferably rabbits, but they will occasionally eat birds carrion, or even worms. It’s preference for rabbits is enough that during the myxomatosis crisis, the numbers of Buzzards dropped to the point where it’s extinction in Britain was feared. Then, as numbers of rabbits increased, so did the Buzzards. It’s willingness to eat carrion has led to it being accused of killing prey it can not or did not. Very occasionally, it will attack a newborn lamb, but when it does eat them it usually eats the ones that are already dead. The same goes for young pheasants. This hasn’t stopped it gaining a reputation amongst gamekeepers. In fact, it spent decades with it’s numbers declining due to persecution by gamekeepers and their ilk. Today it’s numbers are rising, mainly because it is legally protected, though this doesn’t stop some gamekeepers taking the law into their own hands.

You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this, so now I’m going to tell you. DEFRA, the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has decided, in it’s infinite wisdom, to spend £375,000 on a trial to control the number of buzzards around Pheasant shoots. Or as the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog  beautifully and eloquently puts it: “DEFRA is interested in finding measures of controlling a native species (at the request of gamekeepers), that not only is recovering from past persecution (by gamekeepers), but still is undergoing illegal persecution (by gamekeepers) in the interests of protecting a non-native species that is reared and released (by gamekeepers) for people to kill for sport. Amazing.”

If you think back to something I mentioned at the end of the first paragraph, the Buzzard is a protected species. That means these trials are illegal. Even worse are two of the methods to be trialled. The first is destruction of nests. Need I say more? This is also illegal. You cannot tamper with bird’s nests. You can’t even move them unless they pose a threat to health and safety. This is NOT that. This is a (wrongly perceived) threat to making money. The second method is moving all the Buzzards in the area to a new home. This doesn’t sound too bad until you find out that what they mean by “new home” is “captivity” in a place such as a falconry centre. Are there that many falconry centres? I don’t know, maybe somebody has plans to make a fast buck setting up Buzzard rehabilitation centres or something. Any way, that’s irrelevant. How are these birds going to cope with being taken from a life where they soar and drift for miles and miles, and being put into a cage, flown on a rope until they learn not to stray?

None of this is fair, right, or legal. It’s a despicable act borne out of either cowardice,  greed or both. The RSPB and others have reacted exactly how you’d hope, and I’d like to use a couple of excerpts from their statement: “We are shocked by DEFRA’s plans to destroy Buzzard nests and to take Buzzards into captivity to protect a non-native gamebird released in it’s millions. Buzzards play a minor role in pheasant losses, compared with other factors like collisions with vehicles.” He then goes on to say that removing the Buzzards is unlikely to work as another one will move in to take it’s place, and that the measures are illegal and that the RSPB thinks the public will find the trials unacceptable.

Before I give the second quote, I should briefly mention something I found out about a week ago regarding another bird suffering from illegal killing in areas used for shooting (this time grouse), the Hen Harrier. This year there are no breeding pairs of Hen Harrier in England.  There are between 500-600 pairs in the rest of the UK, but studies show that England has habitat suitable to support another 300. I mention this as background so the second RSPB quote makes more sense: “At a time when funding for vital conservation work is so tight, and with another bird of prey, the Hen Harrier facing extinction as a breeding bird in England, I can think of better ways of spending £400,000 of public funds. This money could work harder for wildlife, and I hope the Government will therefore put a stop to this project”

As you can imagine, practically everyone in the worlds of birds and/or conservation have something to say about it, so I’d like to quote the Northern England Raptor Forum: “Given that Buzzards are still recovering from past persecution and there is no evidence they are a significant cause of loss, this is a scandalous waste of public money.”

I will keep you updated on any developments as I find out about them, by commenting on this post, and I ask you to please do the same. In the meantime, contact DEFRA and tell them how you feel, but please stay polite, don’t use swear words and don’t threaten. Then they have no excuse to ignore you. You can contact them in the following ways-

Telephone: 0845 6014523 (local rate)

Email: wildlife@naturalengland.org.uk

Letter: Customer Services
Wildlife Licensing
Natural England
First Floor, Temple Quay House
2 The Square

You can find the full RSPB response here

The Raptor Persecution Scotland Blog is here

I’m off to my local park, Porthkerry, where we have a nesting pair.

Please don’t be like DEFRA- you don’t have to be scared just because the other side has a gun.