Saturday, 19 July 2014

A cause of tension

There has been quite a bit in the media recently about grouse shooting and its impacts on bird of prey populations in the north of England. Studies suggest that the grouse moors of northern England should be able to support a reasonable hen harrier population, but the absence of harriers from these moors points a finger at the levels of ongoing and illegal persecution.

There will always be tensions where native predators compete with us for food or for other resources. Whether it is goshawks and young pheasants, grey seals and sea fish or otters and prize carp, we see this competition as something to be challenged. We talk of how the act of predation may threaten livelihoods, viewing it as a challenge to our rights to cultivate and harvest nature’s larder for our own ends. To me, this seems a very one-sided and rather arrogant attitude to adopt. Why should we have greater right to exploit natural resources than any other creature? Surely, if we are going to stock game or fish at unnaturally high levels then we shouldn’t be surprised when some other creature takes advantage of the bounty on offer.

We seem intentionally blind to the impacts of some of our activities, particularly so in the case of game-rearing. We have strict rules and regulations that limit the release of non-native animals and plants into the British countryside, yet each year we continue to release many hundreds of thousands of introduced pheasants for sport. We get upset when some of these pheasants are taken by native predators, yet many hundreds more are killed on our roads. There are, undoubtedly, benefits that come from some of the practices associated with game-rearing – notably those related to woodland management and the provision of game cover – but why are we so willing to turn a blind eye to the levels of persecution directed towards our native predators?

Norfolk may be many miles from the grouse moors of northern England, but birds of prey are still being illegally persecuted on some of our shooting estates. Change will have to come from the landowners themselves, to deliver a growing tolerance that will see our birds of prey return to our countryside. 

Friday, 18 July 2014


Despite a marked expansion in its breeding range over the past four decades, you still have to travel a fair distance west if you want to see a raven. This, the largest of our crows, is an impressive bird with a long history within literature and oral tradition. Seen by many as a bird of ill omen, a scavenger of ancient battlefields and a predator of lambs, the raven has been persecuted over many generations. Now that such persecution has (by and large) ceased, the species has been able to recolonise former haunts and push back into the lowlands of southern Britain from which it has long been absent. Raven sightings are reported from Norfolk from time to time, more so in the winter when wandering birds may stray from their core breeding range, but it has not bred in the county since 1859.

The weekend before last found me in Wales and watching a family group of ravens at close quarters. The birds had reared their young on a sea cliff and were now exploring the rest of their island home. It was only when three of these magnificent birds were in the air together, flying alongside a pair of carrion crows, that the raven’s formidable size was really brought home. With a wingspan in the region of 120 cm, the raven is similar in size to a common buzzard, dwarfing the smaller and more familiar carrion crow.

While I have seen the return of breeding ravens to my childhood haunts of the Hampshire/West Sussex borderlands, I fear that it will still be many years before I see them breeding again in Norfolk. Norfolk will, I suspect, be the last English county to see breeding ravens and they are unlikely to occur here at anything like the densities seen in western Britain. When they do return, they may follow the example of the returning peregrines and take to nesting on some of our taller spires and other man-made structures. Perhaps they may even breed on some of the towers and spires they last used two hundred years or more ago. I for one would welcome their return and I look forward to hearing their croaking calls and seeing them stand sentinel over Norwich.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Flowers of the coast

While the Norfolk coast may lack the dramatic scenery of western Britain, it still hosts a broad range of coastal habitat types. The saltmarshes of northwest Norfolk, which are nationally important, give way to calcareous dunes, brackish marshes and shingle banks as you move east away from the Wash. From Weybourne east to Mundesley, sea cliffs, less robust than those of western Britain, dominate the coast and to the south of these are the acidic dune systems of Winterton and the like. Finally, around Breydon Water, we see saltmarsh again.

These different coastal habitats, together with their underlying geology, influence the plant communities that they support. Anyone who has visited the shingle ridge at Cley or Salthouse, will have encountered some of the plant species able to tolerate the difficult conditions associated with shingle. Horned poppy, sea kale and sea campion all eek out a living on these mobile shingles. The equally mobile dune systems further west along the coast support a dune flora that includes autumn gentian and several species of orchid, all favouring these alkaline sands, derived from the shells of sea creatures. In contrast, the dune flora of Winterton differs because the sands here are more acidic, hence the presence of heather and cross-leaved heath to form extensive areas of dune heath.

It is Norfolk’s 2,800 hectares of saltmarsh that many readers will know best. In reality, the saltmarsh is not a single entity but a series of plant communities whose composition differs according to the underlying geology, degree of tidal inundation and history of grazing management. The north Norfolk saltmarshes, for example, which sit on sandier substrates than those of the Wash, show a progression of plant communities as you move inshore from their lowest point.

While these coastal communities may lack the range of colour seen in a traditional wildflower meadow, they do hold a more subtle charm. In late summer, for example, the purple tinge of common sea lavender can be seen on many of our coastal marshes, lifting the green tones and emphasising that there is botanical richness even here on the margins of Norfolk. If you want to find out more about Norfolk’s coastal plants then I’d recommend Simon Harrap’s ‘Flowers of the Norfolk Coast’.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Amid the din

To be within a gull colony is to experience a true cacophony of noise. In this instance it is my presence within this colony of nesting lesser black-backed gulls, some 3,400 pairs strong, that is the reason for the noise. Perceived as a predator I am the target of screeching adults, who additionally splatter me with excrement and dive at my head. The hat and overalls that I am wearing are a necessity and both will be consigned to the boil cycle of a washing machine. Working as part of a small team, I am here to catch and ring a sample of the chicks.

It is an early season this year and many of the chicks are almost capable of flight. The few pairs on eggs or young chicks are probably replacements for earlier failures. The vegetation within the colony has also benefited from the warm spring, being much thicker than usual. This has made it more difficult to find and catch the chicks, which have been using a network of runways through the stalks of nettle, wild turnip and thistle to slip out of reach.

Each of the 150 or so chicks to be ringed is handled with care, both for the bird’s welfare and our own. The chicks will strike at face and flesh, and will invariably throw up the contents of their most recent meal in attempt to drive you away. While some throw up fish, others return marine worms, scavenged waste (including, in one case, burger and chips) and young rats. Since there are no rats on the island, these will have been taken on the mainland. All in all, ringing these birds in order to derive a measure of annual survival is an unpleasant, though necessary, task.

In addition to the metal ring fitted to the bird, each is also given a numbered plastic ring, known as a darvic, allowing the bird to be identified without the need to recapture it again. Records of individuals from this colony have been received from Portugal and even North Africa, underlining that many of our lesser black-backed gulls make significant movements. It doesn’t take long to complete our task and as we leave so the cacophony begins to die down.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

All that glitters

With its sandy soil and patches of bare ground, the small area of scruffy meadow near to my office attracts a good number of butterflies at this time of the year. The common blues, meadow browns and various skippers are sometimes joined by the occasional small copper. The small coppers on the wing now are likely to be part of a second emergence, the first having been on the wing in May. If the coming weeks prove to be warm then there is the possibility of a third brood, which will take to the wing in September or October. It even appears that there might be four broods on the wing in exceptional years, though more records are needed to confirm this.

Small coppers are not the easiest of butterflies to photograph; always fidgeting, they seem reluctant to remain in one position, even moving around on a flowerhead when nectaring rather then sitting still. A good view of one will, however, reveal an orange and brown butterfly, the female slightly larger in size than the male and both sexes showing similar patterning to their upperwings. The species is colonial in its habits and colonies can be found across most of the UK. The males establish small territories, favouring warm and exposed perches from which to check out passing insects. If the insect a male has gone to investigate turns out to be a female small copper then he will pursue her with zeal.

One of the features of the small copper is the occurrence of unusual colour forms within parts of its UK breeding range. In the north of Scotland, for example, up to half of the adults present within a colony may show a series of blue spots on the hindwing, an aberration that is much less common further south. An even rarer aberration is the ‘albino’ form, in which the normal copper colour is replaced by white. Although I have seen images of this form, I have yet to see it in the wild.

This delightful little butterfly will be familiar enough to most readers, but if you have never taken the time to look at one closely then now is a good time to seek one out for yourself.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Island Life

There is something romantic about island life and about being cut-off from the mainland and its ways. It is a feeling that is hard to describe, not least in terms of its origins, but I wonder if the feeling stems from having to look inward rather than outward. By focussing on the routine of island living you are freed from the unnecessary adornments of a globalised society, able to concentrate on the local and the present.

I find the feeling strongest on small, barely habited, islands, particularly those scattered along our western seaboard: from the Hebrides in the north to Flat Holm in the south. Even Flat Holm, a ten-minute sprint by rib from Cardiff Bay, shares the sense of comfortable isolation. Situated in the middle of the Bristol Channel and barely 500m wide at its longest point, the island and its scatter of buildings has a long history of use. In this time of economic belt-tightening, Flat Holm’s future has become uncertain; the council landowners allegedly keen to jettison their responsibilities for the island and its heritage. The ruins of a cholera hospital, of a naval garrison and of a Victorian rainwater collection system are testament to changing uses down through the years. Like many of our marginal islands, Flat Holm has been both protector and nurse to previous generations.

It is also a seabird island. Too far up the Bristol Channel to attract nesting auks or shags, the island is instead home to a colony of some 4,000 lesser black-backed gulls, fewer herring gulls, a pair of ravens and a pair of cliff nesting peregrines. A few pairs of woodpigeons breed in some low elder woodland, but these get hammered by the peregrines, while blackbird, dunnock, wren and two species of pipit just about make up the avian community.

Other islands may differ in their communities – Steep Holm, the neighbouring island to Flat Holm, has cormorants and, bizarrely, muntjac deer (an introduction) – but they share the same sense of ease. Of course, the realities of living year-round on a small island will be very different from the few days I get to spend on my trips. Even so, I suspect it would prove to be a rewarding way in which to live.