Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Badger debate

The debate about badgers and tuberculosis in cattle continues to polarise opinion, not least because of the perception that the politicians have largely ignored the body politic. Arguments rage about whether the cull will work, whether the economics make sense or a vaccination programme offer a workable alternative. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of these arguments, or indeed of the views held on culling badgers, the whole debate comes down to a single question. Morally, do we have the right to dominion over the other creatures with which we share the countryside?

You might assume that the answer to such a question is, by default, ‘yes’. After all, our activities have shaped the landscape and its wildlife to meet our needs over many generations and we rarely give any thought to the consequences of everyday decisions about the food on our plates, the objects in our homes or the nature of our commute to work. We manage and exploit the land for our needs, so why should it be any different when it comes to badgers and cattle? I suspect that we view badgers differently because they are large, handsome animals, whose character we appreciate and identify with. Badgers appear in wildlife documentaries, provide literary characters and remain one of the most widely recognised of Britain’s animals. Because of this they have our affections and, as a consequence, our sympathy. Were the debate to involve something rather smaller, less attractive and, most likely, invertebrate in nature, then I suspect that we would give it very little thought.

All of us make decisions every day that mean life or death for some other creature but we probably do not stop long enough to consider this. The debate over badgers and cattle brings the question of our interactions with other creatures into focus; it should make us question how we behave more widely. How many of the people taking a stand against the cull take a rolled-up newspaper to a wasp, spray their garden plants with insecticides or trap the mice that enter their shed or garage? We should look at our dealings with the natural world, particularly those where we perceive it to intrude into our activities, and ask ourselves whether we should instead accept that we cannot have things all our own way.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Wildlife closer to home

Gardening provides an opportunity to get closer to the natural world even though you might consider the two unlikely bedfellows. Gardening, like agriculture, involves both working with nature and battling against it. You need to work with the soil and the seasons, and to select plants that work best in the conditions that your garden presents you with.

For me it is a pleasurable experience to sit and work a border, picking out unwanted seedlings, like nettles, bramble or wavy bitter-cress, that have arrived from outside sources. Weeding by hand allows me to be selective and also provides an opportunity to interact with many of the smaller creatures with which I share the garden. Various beetles march across the soil’s surface, disturbed by my activities, while centipedes, small snails and woodlice are revealed as I move bits of wood or leaf mulch. Such creatures are easily overlooked but a bit of time and a small amount of effort can provide you with a long list of fellow garden users.

Gardens contain a wealth of life, making them one of the main contributors to biodiversity within our increasingly urbanised landscapes. The recent Garden Bioblitz event helped to raise the profile of the many small things that can be found in our gardens. Admittedly not all of this life is native, our passion for new and unusual plants often leading to the introduction of species from elsewhere across the globe. Most remain within the confines of our gardens but some ‘escape’ and become a problem in the wider countryside.

The presence of these other creatures, some of which are now increasingly rare in other habitats, underlines that our gardens do not truly belong to us; in effect, we only have a tenancy over them. While we may exert a very strong influence on ‘our’ gardens and their wildlife through our activities, other creatures will have their own hold on the garden, perhaps even shaping how we use it. Some gardeners simply will not tolerate this interference, blasting unwanted plants and invertebrates with chemicals, but many more are learning to garden with nature rather than against. Such an approach still involves ‘gardening’ but it provides a more pleasurable and rewarding experience. Perhaps this is why, as a naturalist, I enjoy my garden its wildlife. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Woven wonders

For me, much of the early summer is spent looking at nests. Regardless of how many nests I see I am still amazed by the technical ability that goes into their construction. Admittedly there are some nests that are rather basic affairs, with little more than a few twigs placed together in a manner that, more often than not, leaves the nest contents in real danger of falling to the ground beneath. Most nests, however, are more solid in their construction and these provide a secure environment for the eggs and resulting young.

Many nests are made of several distinct layers of material, typically with bulkier material in the base and around the outside, finer material within this and a lining of feathers or other soft material. Some species reinforce their nests with mud, something which song thrushes take to an extreme with their lining of mud, rotten wood and saliva, which dries to a form of ‘woodchip’, rigid in structure and thought to reduce the attractiveness of the nest to nest parasites.

Some of the most delicate nests are those made by our warblers. Blackcaps and garden warblers, for example, construct their nests from fine grasses, the nest itself placed in thick bramble or nettle cover, while reed warblers use grasses, material from reed flowers and plant down in their nests, which are tied into to the vertical reed stems that support them. On occasion the amount of white plant down in a reed warbler nest can make it appear as if the nest is constructed entirely from wool.

Nests may incorporate all sorts of other materials. Red kites, for example, are known to add clothing taken from washing lines to their bulky nests, while many birds add feathers or animal fur, scavenged from the local area. Dog and cat fur, left out in the garden after a pet has been groomed, is often well used by nesting tits. Longer hairs can sometimes be a problem, however, the bird or its chicks getting caught in the material if it forms a loop. The same can be said for discarded wire or fishing line. Birds are certainly resourceful when it comes to sourcing nest material, so it is important for us to be aware of the consequences of leaving unsuitable material in our gardens or the countryside.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Let it shine for butterflies

The run of poor weather through the early part of the month is likely to have had some effect on our butterflies, potentially limiting their development and reducing opportunities for active flight in search of a mate. On the few occasions when the sun has shone it has been reassuring to see familiar butterfly species on the wing. One particularly pleasing sight has been the presence of several small heath butterflies over the short turf of my local nature reserve.

The small heath is a somewhat inconspicuous species and easily overlooked. Even when located it remains a somewhat fidgety butterfly, quickly on the move and reluctant to reveal its upperwings. Often, all you will see are the grey and brown hind underwings and, if you are lucky, a glimpse of the eye-spot that appears on the underside of the forewing.  As the name suggests, this is a small species and one that is associated with grassland habitats on well-drained soils, where the sward is short and rather sparse. Some might refer to this species as being rather drab but I prefer to think of it as understated.

Small heaths are colonial in their habits and the males gather together within a breeding area to form what is known as a lek. Here they compete with each other for the best positions and the resulting access to visiting females. The best areas seem to be those with some form of landmark, perhaps a bush or small tree and it appears that the females visit these specifically to mate, as opposed to feed. Once mated, the female will leave the lek to lay her eggs on the leaves of fine grasses.

Although easily overlooked and, as a result, unfamiliar to many casual butterfly watchers, the small heath is very widely distributed across Britain. It also shows a greater tolerance of altitude than most of our other species, occurring in upland areas across parts of northern Britain. For me though it is a species of lowland heath and rough grassland, a butterfly that I can recall from my childhood and one for which I have a good deal of affection. It is wonderful to have what appears to be a thriving colony here on the Nunnery Lakes Reserve in Thetford.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Water Vole return

Over the weekend we found numerous little platforms of reed and sedge, the leaves and stems cut into short sections and left with ragged edges. In some respects these platforms looked like the beginnings of those used by moorhen and coot for nesting but the presence of small, blunt-ended droppings revealed that they were, instead, evidence of feeding water voles. In one particular corner of our study site the density of these platforms within the fringing reedbeds implied the presence of a healthy population of water voles, which is wonderful news given the decline in fortunes of this fantastic riparian mammal more widely.

As if to reinforce just how well the water vole might be doing on this series of old gravel pits, later that morning we chanced across an unexpected interaction between a water vole and a pair of the reed warblers that we are monitoring for a project on the species. This particular pair had built their nest in a reedbed located within one of the shallow pools at the south end of the site; this being the area where the water vole activity appeared to be most marked. As we approached the pool we could hear alarm calls and it was apparent that the reed warblers were very agitated about something in the water below the nest. The birds flicked about between the reeds, diving down at some intruder hidden from our line of sight. The intruder was not enjoying this unwelcome attention and the reed stems twitched violently as whatever it was attempted to dodge the blows that the warblers were directing towards it.

Dave was able to edge closer to the bed, seeking to get a better view, because the warblers and whatever else was in the reeds with them were so focussed on each other. It was not until Dave was within a few metres of the nest that he was spotted, a loud ‘plop’ revealing a water vole that disappeared into the water and away. Closer inspection suggested that the water vole had been busy feeding near the base of the nest. Had the vole decided to feed on the stems supporting the nest cup itself, the nest would have been lost. It was no wonder that the reed warblers were concerned for their clutch of eggs. 

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Watchers

The Devil’s Punch Bowl is one of my old haunts and it is always a great delight to return here in the company of Tony Davies, who used to warden this patch in his younger days. This morning we are watching the activity of a pair of stonechats, the birds feeding over an area of heather and short turf. The male is alert, perching prominently and remaining close to his mate, who is making short flights down to the ground to collect insects for a brood of chicks that we have yet to locate. 

It seems that we are not the only watchers with an interest in the stonechats this morning. Off to our left the bright sunshine catches the back of a fox, his coat intense and vibrant in the flattering light. The fox is hunting, working the heather patches methodically and dipping in and out of sight. Soon he has worked his way closer towards the stonechats, the birds still unaware of his presence. It is not until the female stonechat makes a longer flight with a beak full of food – the flight which should see her return to the nest – that they become aware of his presence. The female breaks off abruptly and flies up to the top of a bush, the male joining her and the two alarming at the intruder.

Unphased, or perhaps even encouraged by the response he is getting, the fox continues to search the heather. Stonechats are thin on the ground this year, no doubt a consequence of the harsh winter weather, and Tony is keen not to see a brood of young lost to a predator. Tony stands and walks towards the fox in the hope that it will move away. After a brief stand-off, the fox slinks away and can be seen disappearing down the valley.

Twenty minutes later and the stonechats have settled back into their routine, the female feeding and the male perching sentinel. We watch as the female breaks these foraging flights with the longer flight back to the nest, the location of which is in the centre of a broad patch of heather. The nest will be well hidden and, we hope, far enough into the heather to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the fox, should he return.

Stonechat nest, Mike Toms
You'll have to take my word for it - this is the Stonechat nest, beautifully hidden.