Saturday, 26 April 2014

A bloody slaughter

There are times when the return of our summer migrants seems all the more remarkable. Not only have these birds completed journeys that have taken them over thousands of kilometres, but many have run the gauntlet of the sporting guns that await their passage as they cross North Africa and enter southern Europe. Each spring and autumn, thousands of birds are slaughtered despite the protection and legislation put in place to protect them.

It is not hard to find figures that put some sense of scale to the slaughter that is taking place. On Malta, where BirdLife Malta and teams of volunteers from the UK have been documenting the slaughter, it has been estimated that there may be in excess of 10,000 hunters active during the spring migration period. Malta, like other Mediterranean islands is well-used by migrant birds making the sea crossing. Last year, birds of at least 24 protected species were shot illegally. Among these were swallows and cuckoos, two species that we regard as heralds of our summer.

This hunting is not the taking of birds for the pot – although quail and turtle doves can be taken legally for this purpose – but instead the birds are stuffed and then exhibited as trophies, testament to the brutality rather than skill of the hunters. The hunting continues despite the Maltese Government being found guilt by the European Court of Justice of violating the EU Birds Directive. It seems it might be an issue that the European Commission has lost the will to prosecute and one that we and our fellow European citizens seem slow to grasp. If we really care about our summer migrants then we should speak out against this bloody slaughter.

Just last week the naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, together with friends, spent time in Malta documenting the illegal hunting of spring migrants. The resulting films, work done independent of the BBC, were posted on YouTube. There is a growing sense that it is birdwatchers from elsewhere across Europe who might make the difference, increasing the pressure on the Maltese government and on the European ministers responsible for enforcing the legislation. A cultural shift is needed within Malta if Europe’s migrant birds are to be freed from the threat of slaughter.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Small wonder

A glint of shining black catches my eye. Like a bead of liquid jet it seems to flow down the trunk of this sycamore with a slow but steady pace. Closer inspection reveals that the bead is a tiny beetle, just a few millimetres in length and with subtle patches of red on the shining dome of black. This is a pine ladybird, a widespread but easily overlooked species, whose range includes much of England, parts of Wales and a scatter of sites across Scotland.

Although the name of this delightful little ladybird would suggest a close association with pine, the species can be found a wide range of plants, including Pyracantha (firethorns), nettles, thistles and many deciduous trees. The pine ladybird is so named because it happens to be the most common species of ladybird on pine, even if it is equally happy on so many other plant species. Late March and early April is the period during which the pine ladybird is most often reported, the individuals that overwintered among the leaf litter or crevices within bark now active in their search for aphid and scale-insect prey. This earlier start to the year makes them one of the first ladybird species to emerge come spring.

Ladybirds are well known for their diversity of colour forms and many species show variation in both colour and in the size, number and placement of their spots. The pine ladybird is a species that shows little variation – the number of spots may vary from two to four but that is all – and its identity can be confirmed by the additional presence of a distinct rim around the edge of the wing cases. There appears to be just a single generation each year within the UK but elsewhere they may manage two.

This particular individual seems so tiny when viewed against the large trunk of the sycamore and it is tempting to imagine how it must see the world so very differently from our eyes. Observing such a creature close-up also underlines how little we really see of the world around us. Taking that time to ‘stand and stare’ to focus on the small things that make up the world can provide perspective to everything else.

Thursday, 24 April 2014


I can remember how, as a child, we used to catch brown trout from the local streams, using light tackle with a bubble float and a piece of sweet corn as bait. Most were too small for the pot but every now and then we’d catch one big enough to take home for supper. On other days, particularly those of the long summer holidays, we could be found fishing still waterbodies, taking roach, perch, tench and, just occasionally, carp. It’s a hobby that I have not practiced for a great many years and one to which I cannot see myself returning.

Of all the fish we caught it is the perch that I remember the most, perhaps because of its striking shape and patterning. Everything about the fish revealed it to be a hunter, a predator of other fish and of aquatic invertebrates. The outline suggests a fish that is top-heavy, the deep, laterally-flattened, body shape accentuated by the large dorsal fine. This fin carries a dozen or more ‘defensive’ spines, sharp enough to inflict a deep puncture wound if handled without care. Body scales, edged with fine spines of their own, give the perch a rough feel and suggest a robust fish. Shoals of similarly sized perch feed together, roving the waters in search of prey.

It is the larger adult perch that show the deepest body shape but many populations are made up of smaller adults, less deep in profile and just 15 cm or so in length. It may be because the larger fish were less often landed that they are held so vividly by my memory. Close my eyes and I can picture the lake and its fringe of trees where I caught the finest of them.

Unlike the larger trout I caught, the perch were always returned to the water, although their flesh – white, flaky and free from bones – is said to be well flavoured and not dissimilar to that of salmon or trout. During the Second World War, a small perch fishery was established on Windermere, the fish trapped and then canned to be marketed as ‘Perchines’. That fishery is now something of the past, much like my memories of childhood fishing trips undertaken with friends from school.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The road less travelled

Our landscape is criss-crossed by track-ways and paths, not all of them the product of human activity. Enter a wood or a meadow and you will find the tracks created and maintained by other creatures, from the temporary meanderings of a fox made through wet grass to the more regular routes of commuting badgers.

Our own tracks and paths tend to have more permanence, especially those built, through the use of tarmac and stone, to resist colonisation by nature and to provide a flat surface for feet and tyres. Such creations bully nature into submission, our technology able to deliver roads and paths that are not constrained by the landscape but instead thrust their way across it – the shortest journey between intended destinations. The journey (and the road or path itself) no longer matters when using such conduits; our focus shifts towards our intended destination. We no longer have the time to meander or to take in the landscape; we simply need to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’.

One strange feature of the road is the way in which we describe it as ‘going’ somewhere – ‘that road goes to Norwich’. Of course, the road doesn’t go anywhere – it is immobile and rooted in the landscape and it is we who are the travellers. I have little time for the modern road and favour older routes that are more sensitive to the landscape and whose journeyings follow the contours of the hills and the crossing places of the rivers. Such routes slow your journey and present you with views of landscape that would otherwise have been constrained by cuttings, embankments and roadside plantings of amenity trees and shrubs.

Better still are the ancient track-ways, whose former routes can still be found as echoes within the landscape. These have been colonised by nature and only remain open, in parts, through use, providing a sense that they are in keeping with the land rather than a challenge to it. These old routes require you to walk rather than drive, removing you from the air-conditioned cocoon and rewarding you with exercise and stimulation. Such journeys made on foot also provide a link back to our nomadic past, a past when we were more in touch with the world around us.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The changing of the season

There is a sense of anticipation on these early spring mornings, a feeling that each new day holds the prospect of seeing and hearing returning summer migrants. It is a sense shared by more than just birdwatchers, for many of us look forward to the sight of our first swallow or the call of our first cuckoo. The absence of these species for so much of the year seems to make us treasure them all the more, transforming them into totems for the changing of the seasons and heralds of renewal.

Already the first of our cuckoos is back and the growing dawn chorus reverberates with the calls of sedge warbler, whitethroat, chiffchaff and blackcap. On the nearby fallow, a pair of stone-curlew has been in residence for several weeks; these birds are less obvious than the many pairs of breeding lapwing, whose shrill calls and unruly aggression are being directed at passing pheasants, partridges and brown hares, all of whom have strayed too close to active nests.

Many shrubs and trees are coming into leaf and the whole landscape is greening up. Walks taken along regular paths reveal the speed with which the ground cover is emerging, as the fresh greens of nettle and bramble replace the more earthy tones of winter. The gorse, always early into bloom, casts a scent on the warm breeze and the air begins to hum with flies, bees and other winged insects.

It is the kind of weather to tempt me out at dawn and to keep me out after work. With so much to take in it feels as if the lengthening days are still too short and that there is insufficient time to truly appreciate the surge in new life that is taking place around me. These are the days to be outside, to be in touch with the natural world and to revel in its diversity. To feel the strengthening warmth of the sun’s rays and to breathe in scents that mix on the gentle breeze stimulates senses that have been subdued by the weight of winter. It is this time of the year that brings me closest to the landscape, delivering the feeling that I am part of it.

Monday, 21 April 2014

A bird in the bush

It has been a surprising spring, with many birds and animals active much earlier in the season than has been the case in recent years. Perhaps everything seems so much earlier because of the very slow start to last year, when low temperatures and rain delayed the emergence of butterflies and hedgehogs, and stalled the northward migration of our summer visitors.

One particular feature of this year has been the numbers of woodpigeons breeding early; it seems as if everywhere I look there are birds sat on nests containing eggs or young chicks. A woodpigeon nest is a rather pathetic structure, a few dozen sticks placed together to form a platform. Some are so badly constructed that you can see the eggs through the sticks when viewing the nest from underneath, making you wonder why more nests don’t fail because the eggs have slipped through and fallen to the ground.

Woodpigeons nest in a wide range of places but, this early in the season, most seem to favour the thick cover provided by climbing ivy, particularly where it is growing up a tall tree or shrub. Other individuals place their nests in more exposed locations and there are a number dotted around town which have been placed in trees still devoid of any leafy cover. Such nests often fail because they are easily spotted by predators like crows.

Once you get your eye in you soon discover how many nesting platforms there are in the scrubby cover provided by those scruffy bits of land characteristic of the urban landscape. Occupied nests will almost invariably contain a pair of glossy white eggs; while some nests contain just a single egg, a clutch of more than two eggs is exceptional. The resulting chicks are rather ugly, with narrow heads, grey skin and rather thin, yellow down. Known as squabs, they will be fed initially on crop milk – a substance produced by just a small number of bird species and not dissimilar from mammalian milk – before spending a month in the nest before fledging. Despite the time invested in each nesting attempt, the woodpigeon breeding season will continue on throughout much of the year, giving you a good chance of catching up with some yourself.