Normal For Norfolk

There are some creatures that really don’t care. They’re not fussed what they eat and they’ll call pretty much anywhere home.

Crow Crows: not bothered

Rats are similar. They just get on with it and they’re massively successful. Here, there and everywhere.

Around continental Europe there are a couple of intriguing species that do fairly well because they’re not very particular about their habitat. Green-eyed hawker dragonflies and Swallowtail butterflies are both quite numerous and widespread. “What’s that?” you say, “a Swallowtail? Aren’t they really rare?” Well, yes, in Britain they’re only found in Norfolk and then only in tiny pockets, thanks to their pernickity insistence on Milk parsley. Happily, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, my favourite local reserve, has just the ingredients to satisfy fusspot Swallowtails and today I finally saw one for the first time in the wild. They are very beautiful.

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This one had literally just emerged and was sitting in the sunshine drying its wings, so the markings were super fresh. Once on the wing, they flap about resembling small birds and are rather tricky to photograph, so big thanks to that one for holding still.

The Green-eyed hawker, rather like the Swallowtail, is so much of a diva with its demands in Britain that it too is only found in a few select locations. We don’t even call it the Green-eyed hawker – in Britain it’s known as the Norfolk hawker. It has an obsession with the Water soldier plant (again, highly localised). It does have tremendously green eyes though.

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It has a special pattern of flight in which it hovers perfectly still for about 1/1000th of a second less than the amount of time it takes to focus a camera, before shooting out of frame and reappearing somewhere either slightly closer or slightly further away. Getting a picture requires patience, forward planning and lots of luck. Just occasionally, it stops and perches on vegetation, which makes things easier. They are wonderful things to just watch though. Those eyes are so big they seem to encompass everything and the body is a lovely warm shade of gingery-brown. There were three or four flitting about above a dyke at Strumpshaw and I could have watched them all day had there not been other things demanding my attention.

So, two special creatures that we can pretty much call our own in Norfolk, even though really they’re just silly versions of boringly commonplace continental species. No, not silly. Just “Normal for Norfolk”.

Death Stalks The Marsh

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The hushwing, the silent ghostly killer, the barn owl. One of my very favourite creatures and a candidate for National Bird (results out tomorrow! see: http://www.votenationalbird.com/)

Numerous enough to be widespread yet rare enough to always be a pleasant surprise, the barn owl manages to conceal a serious arsenal of lethal tools beneath one of the cutest exteriors in the natural world. From a strictly selfish point of view, I wish my local beauty wasn’t quite so determinedly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) – it’s hard to get a properly sharp shot in the gloom of the evening.

No such problem when this handsome kestrel dropped by for a snack. He clearly wasn’t bothered by the 11,000 volts whizzing past his head:

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He was, however, a bit shy about being watched while he ate, so off he went:

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And it was only when I looked back at the photos later that I realised what he was eating. Not the expected small mammal, a shrew, a mouse or a vole for example, but a frog. Not regular kestrel food but, I suppose, a local marsh speciality. Undoubtedly hard cheese for the frog but always a delight to see a kestrel and happily now becoming a much more regular occurrence as their numbers begin to return to the levels of my childhood, when no journey on a dual carriageway was complete without the sight of a windhover over the verge.

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While the presence of these stealthy predators may make life a trifle nerve-wracking for some of the inhabitants of the marsh, they are at least to be expected as part of the natural way of things. Also, they’re supremely quiet and unobtrusive.

The same couldn’t really be said about the other predator in evidence recently. Invisible, in the wood the other side of the marsh, but certainly not inaudible, was someone with a gun. I know he (if it was a he) had a gun because I heard it twice every few minutes, almost constantly between about 7.30 in the morning and 10.00 at night for at least a couple of weeks. It seems to have died down in the last few days – maybe he’s run out of cartridges or maybe he’s finished whatever he was trying to do. I can’t imagine what on earth he was trying to do. A friend who knows about these things suggested it was probably someone shooting pigeons. Seems likely. The timing and the relentlessness, although not the early starts, suggested a teenager home early from uni and already bored. And I suppose pigeons have the advantage of being numerous and legal. I did wonder what else it might be though. Those woods are pheasant territory. Surely no supposed “pests” could be so numerous as to require that level of extermination. Either way, I trust whoever it was has cleared up all the spent cartridges and as much of the stray shot as can be located. I wouldn’t want my patch and its very special wildlife getting poisoned. I did also wonder whether such extensive shooting in the vicinity of a (probably nesting) barn owl would count as “reckless disturbance”; maybe someone with an opinion could write in.

In other news, great to see that two of the three peregrine chicks have left their nest on Norwich Cathedral spire this morning. The third is currently “thinking about it”… Watch the drama unfold at http://upp.hawkandowl.org/norwich-peregrines/norwich-cathedral-peregrine-live-web-cam-2015/

Busy, busy, busy

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[Update: If you’ve landed here from the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Norwich Peregrine website, thank you very much for visiting. My thoughts on the peregrines are at the bottom of this article. Feel free to have a read of some of the other pieces too and share and comment to your heart’s content.]

Wow, what a day! After the weather briefly lost its mind and turned into autumn or February or goodness knows what, it seems to have remembered that it’s supposed to be early summer. The sun is hot on the skin and, more importantly, the wind is warm and dry. Nature, which has been grinning and bearing it for a while, is making up for lost time. (As am I – you might have thought I’d migrated or been persecuted to extinction but happily no, I’ve just been busy, busy, busy. Almost as busy in fact as this little Bombus humilis bumblebee:

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Everything is making the most of it today – the flowers are all straining towards the sun as if their lives depended on it, which they do. A greenbottle, no doubt taking time out from its work on a rabbit carcass the other side of our fence, is looking surprisingly attractive as it sunbathes:

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Even the sycamore tree, probably exhausted from producing thousands of offspring, has finally decided that if it doesn’t put out leaves soon it’s going to have rather a thin year:

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One creature who wasn’t prepared to wait for the wind to die down was the peregrine Mum at Norwich Cathedral. Why would she? Peregrines are among the most skillful of all flyers and a bit of breeze is nothing to them. Mind you, I expect she was issuing strict instructions to her three youngsters to stay firmly in the nest for the time being. That level of aeronautical expertise takes a few goes to get right and in previous years there have been some unfortunate episodes involving unsuccessful test flights. Keep an eye on this year’s candidates for the Top Gun Academy on the webcam: http://upp.hawkandowl.org/norwich-peregrines/norwich-cathedral-peregrine-live-web-cam-2015/

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Tooth & Claw

 
“Nature red in tooth and claw”, a phrase sealed into the consciousness of the English language in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic search for meaning In Memoriam – A.H.H., has come to symbolise our unease when confronted by the violence of nature. It is in some ways emblematic of the Victorian tendency, which persists today, to take the less palatable, less decorous elements of life and put them out of sight, out of mind.

A debate last night, hosted by Writers’ Centre Norwich, took “Tooth & Claw” as its title and sought to examine our attitude to one particular example of nature’s violence – birds of prey. Putting the case for raptors was Mark Avery, a key voice in the campaign to improve the fortunes of the Hen harrier. Opposite him in almost every respect was Robin Page, whose Daily Mail article last Monday broadcast his strident anti-predator views to a wide audience. Sitting, buzzard-like, on the fence post was Jake Fiennes, whose work on habitat creation at Raveningham Estate is held up as an example of conservation-minded game management. Renowned naturalist and writer Mark Cocker was in the chair, envied by no one.

I suspect most of the sizeable audience left with the same opinions they’d brought. Mark Avery’s opening gambit, “I don’t know why we’re here – birds of prey eat things; get over it” neatly ruled out one area of fruitless discussion. Robin Page clearly wasn’t about to be swayed – common sense, he said, demanded that we control raptor numbers, creating biodiversity through artificial balance given the lack of space in this country. Jake Fiennes agreed that raptors such as Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are more abundant now than at any point in his previous 20 years in Norfolk. He attributed this to recovery from the effects of now-banned pesticides such as DDT and said it was unrelated to a reduction in gamekeeper numbers of over 80%. However, he felt the burgeoning raptor population was having no impact on numbers of smaller birds.

It did feel as though Robin Page was swimming against the tide with his contention that raptors are devastating populations of small birds. But the main underlying theme, which could easily have occupied us for another hour or three, was our sense of the human role in nature. Robin Page called for “artificial balance”. A contributor from the floor declared, slightly hyperbolically, that there was no real nature left anywhere on the planet and we had to manage everything as man-made habitat. Jake Fiennes, under pressure, admitted that comprehensive “legal predator control” was a key element of his approach to conservation. Even Mark Avery was ready to support fox culling in a situation where “it worked” (on an RSPB reserve), although he generally seemed to favour a non-culling position.

To my mind, the era of “predator control” and “management” deserves to be pensioned off. It is the approach of the last thousand years (and before that, although less intensively). It has delivered a country shockingly poor ecologically, with an anaemic wildlife often reduced to clinging on in scattered outposts. Recent successes like the Red kite re-establishment, show how our countryside (AND our towns and cities) can be made vastly more interesting and diverse by giving nature a quick leg-up and then letting it get on.

The future needs to be with those who will let nature be nature. Yes, it will be red in tooth and claw. No, we shouldn’t fear that. The era of a “managed” “theme park” (to turn one of Robin Page’s phrases back on him) countryside has had its chance and it has been found wanting.

Feel free to chip in, disagree, comment etc.

 

I’m A Middle-Class Sellout

Today I mowed my front lawn. Now it looks similar to all the others on our road. Flat, green, tidy, uniform, dull, lifeless.

I felt bad. I was doing it for the best of reasons – my Mum likes a tidy front garden. She can’t help feeling a bit embarrassed when the lawn that everyone else can see becomes colonised by daisies and dandelions. Out back it’s a different story. She’s read the pleas from the RSPB, she’s put up with me banging on about it. She knows that leaving the grass longer is good for nature.
  

If you see grass from a worm’s eye view, it’s clear it isn’t just a carpet, even a tufty, bristly one. A field can resemble a forest if you get the right perspective. And just as a forest can have diverse life throughout its varied layers, so can a patch of grass. Like in a healthy forest, food and shelter are everywhere and teeming pollinators keep the system going. Until muggins here lays waste to the whole thing with the lawnmower. Where ten minutes previously was a nicely varied collection of vegetation of differing heights and characteristics is now only green conformity. What have I done? What have I become?

Of course you might need to see out of your windows and get the door open so some cutting is going to be needed occasionally. Start in the middle (so that any creatures that need to can nip away while you’re mowing), don’t go stupid short, and leave a few bits if you can. Clumps, tussocks, bits that are a little longer – all will help your garden be a better place for the hordes of interesting things that would love to move in with you.

Have fun!
  

Wildlife Loses The Election

Without going into a whole lot of politics, it does feel like this election was a bit of a watershed for the natural world. Nature, wildlife, the environment all merited scarcely a mention in the media coverage of the campaign. And yet the Conservatives had suggested a number of measures that they would implement if elected that are hugely controversial.

They were open, enthusiastic even, about their support for fracking. Despite evidence that we shouldn’t even be burning the fossil fuels already stockpiled, the Tories are keen to prop up fuel companies’ share prices by allowing fresh exploration in the UK using discredited and environmentally devastating methods.

Secondly, the almost comically malleable Liz Truss has indicated that a Tory government would carry on and expand the NFU’s insane, baseless and likely counter-productive badger cull.

Thirdly, and even more inexplicable, they have promised a free vote to repeal the Hunting Act. Whether there are enough pro-hunting MPs in the new Parliament to get a verdict may soon become clear. The fact that Cameron and his set want to ride roughshod over the wishes of 80% of the population in order to preserve their perverse, archaic and bloodthirsty rituals really says a lot about him and his attitude to the rest of us.

The new government does have a slender majority. It will struggle to pass legislation that can’t carry the support of all Tory MPs. This may curtail its worst excesses. But if we care about our natural world, we will have to be vigilant and alert, ready to hold our politicians accountable and question their decisions. If we don’t, we may find that in five years’ time there’s not much left worth fighting for.

OK, a bit political. Sorry, I can’t stop myself.

Oilseed Rape – Love It Or Hate It?

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In just the last few weeks, vast tracts of Norfolk (and no doubt lots of other places) have been transformed from bare soil into seas of yellow as the flower heads of the oilseed rape sway in the breeze and catch, reflect and enhance every sparkle of sunshine. Hayfever sufferers will take a different view but early pollinators are tucking in, scarcely able to believe their luck. Be quick little folks – it won’t last long.

IMG_5648The shortness of the season, its boom and bust character, is just one of the downsides of oilseed. Its range of uses, from the more traditional (cooking oil) to the new fangled (biofuel) make it a highly efficient cash crop. It grows rapidly and tends to be sown across large expanses at a high density. Great for yields but a bit of an open goal for creatures whose appetites can potentially decimate the crop. The industrial solution, neonicotinoid pesticides, are proving to be far from a simple fix. The suggestion that these chemicals may be behind catastrophic declines in the bee population has sharply polarised the debate, with chemical companies and industrial farmers arguing the threat to bees is unproven and yields must be protected by the latest technology.

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More orthodox farmers are suggesting the problem lies in the intensive monocultural approach to cropping favoured by agri-business. Smaller fields, with more diverse cropping and companion planting to encourage natural patterns of population balance among insects will, they say, reap greater rewards in the long run. If, as seems likely, bees are suffering the harmful effects of agri-chemicals, a change will need to occur. Bees are a vital component in the global ecosystem and we’d lose a lot more than just honey without them.

Although such dispiriting thoughts do clang around in the back of my mind whenever I see oilseed (particularly in ludicrously large fields), it is a cheering sight. I’ve always loved the colour yellow and it complements the natural green tendency of the wider environment to a degree that must go beyond my simple football affilliations. This evening, with the sky full of drama and late sun after a day of sudden showers, the oilseed flowers were luminous, the fields breathtaking as a spectacle. They demanded to be photographed so, camera-less, I did the best I could with my phone. Call me shallow but ultimately I’ve got slightly more time for a contentious crop if it manages to look as gorgeous as this.

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UPDATE:

I must admit I had kind of missed it – the EU has now banned neonicotinoids so the oilseed now in flower is the first crop to be grown without them in recent times. Industrial sources are suggesting that the incidence of flea beetle is consequently four times what it was last year and this is making the plant more vulnerable to fungal disease. The solution, apparently, is to double dose with fungicides which can be purchased from, er, the very same companies that are bemoaning their lost neonicotinoid revenue. Lets hear it for Bayer, Syngenta and BASF – winners whichever way the dice fall.