Saturday, 8 October 2016

Pale Tussock Moth larva.

What an interesting-looking caterpillar I found today in Deep Hayes Country Park, actually I found two. It turns out to be the larva of a Pale Tussock Moth, Calliteara pudibunda which feed on the leaves of many common trees and shrubs so of course they are not often seen until they come down to ground-level to pupate (though they also pupate up in the tree canopy too). Entomologists think the hairs may be: a defence mechanism against predators; for example they may deter birds from eating them (though Cuckoos specialise on eating hairy moth caterpillars), or prevent parasitic wasps from laying their eggs into their bodies (because the hairs are longer that the wasp's ovipositor). Other ideas are that may even be intended to make to caterpillar look bigger - hence too big to eat, or maybe even look too scary to eat! Some caterpillars have hairs that irritate or sting like nettles Whatever is the case - I think they are beautiful!

Monday, 19 September 2016

Winter wetland birds back in Endon

Rushy pastures with temporary pools between Endon and Longsdon. 

Notable birds seen today on a walk from home to Hazelhurst Junction. approx. number NOTES
Wheatear (female) 1 Stopping over on migration back to Africa
Robins c3 some singing
Bullfinches 1 pair
House Martin 1 on migration south for winter
Lapwings 2 among temporary pools under pylons
Wigeon c6 in scrape
Snipe c30 flushed when a Heron landed in scrape
Teal c30 in scrape with Wigeon and Mallards
Mallards c10 in scrape
Long-tailed Tits c10 family parties feeding in trees alongside railway line
Chiffchaff 1 singing and calling
Blackheaded Gulls c5 on temp. pools under pylon
Linnet (probable) c5 flew over
Kingfisher 1 near Park Lane

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Ban Driven Grouse Shooting letter to my MP.

Moor Burning from the Derwent Valley - Peak District National Park.

Dear Ms Bradley
I am a constituent of yours and I signed the e-petition on the parliament website entitled Ban Driven Grouse Shooting That e-petition has passed 100,000 signatures and therefore is expected to receive a debate in Westminster Hall some time later than 9 October.  In our constituency of Staffordshire Moorlands 200 people have supported this petition (as of 18.08.16).
I have written to you about this subject before, but at that time the chance of a debate in Parliament was not on the cards, now it is so I write to you again.
I hope that when the debate occurs you might feel able to represent my views in that debate. I want to see driven grouse shooting banned and changes in the way our hills are managed. My reasons are as follows:
    1. The RSPB estimate that there England holds sufficient habitat for at least 300 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in England.
    2. In the 19th C, and then the twentieth century legislation was implemented to protect wild birds from persecution.
    3. In spite of this there are still only a handful of Hen Harriers that establish nests and attempt to breed in England (they have more success on the Isle of Man where there are usually 25 – 30 pairs, and on parts of Scotland and Ireland).
    4. The nests in England almost always fail to rear any young. How do we know this? It is because, when they are found, the nests are watched by dedicated birdwatchers who monitor their progress; and these people often find that either that (a) females desert nest because the males disappear, or (b) the eggs are removed, or damaged so that they will not hatch. In the event of any nestlings surviving to fledgling stage many are equipped with satellite tags that send signals to organisations such as the RSPB or Natural England so they can see their whereabouts. Many of these birds have disappeared in such as way as to strongly suggest that they have been killed on grouse moors; some are found, satellite intact, again on grouse moors, sometimes in ways that prove they have been illegally killed.
    5. There is overwhelming evidence that these birds are killed as part of the driven grouse shooting industry because:
    (a) There is a tradition of gamekeepers killing raptors such as Hen Harriers, that has developed alongside the tradition of driven grouse shooting. This is no secret as, up until the legislation prevented it, gamekeepers were able to talk openly about what they did. The Hen Harriers, and other wildlife (e.g. stoats, weasels, buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, foxes etc.) are perceived by gamekeepers to take young Red Grouse, thus making the shoot economically unviable. There is no secret about that either. I has been acknowledged by the grouse shooters many times, plus an ongoing scientific study, The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, consistently demonstrates that breeding Hen Harriers on a shooting estate means there are insufficient grouse to justify holding a shoot.
    (b) When the tagged birds are found they are always found near driven grouse shooting estates.
    (c) In areas where there is no tradition of driven grouse shooting there the breeding population of Hen Harriers matches the amount of available suitable habitat (e.g. NW Europe, Isle of Man). Over their natural range Hen Harriers are not rare birds, only are they rare where driven grouse shooting occurs, and that is only in the British Isles.
    (d) As I'm sure you appreciate, as part of your constituency contains habitat suitable for breeding Hen Harriers (e.g. the Roaches Estate) finding evidence of raptor persecution in remote upland areas is not easy, however occasionally gamekeepers do get prosecuted for their crimes, provided there is sufficient evidence. No other professionals ever get prosecuted for this crime. In addition to this, birders who watch Hen Harrier nests sometimes see gamekeepers involved in suspicious behaviour; indeed only a few weeks ago a man was filmed in the Peak District (High Peak Estate) trying to lure a male Hen Harrier to a plastic lure of a female so that the male could be shot. Though a video of the incident was recorded it was not of sufficient quality to be used by the police as evidence. The National Trust were obviously convinced that something was very wrong as they have now decided not to renew the tenancy for that grouse shooting business. Incidently, while driven grouse shooting exists in the Peak District we don't have much chance of Hen Harriers nesting on nearby grouse moors because breeding females that may settle would be unlikely to keep a mate because they get lured away and killed. 
6. As I have mentioned above, Driven Grouse Shooting also depends on killing lots of other wildlife that are predators upon young grouse. Plus, some years, many Mountain Hares are slaughtered because they are blamed for harbouring the ticks which carry a disease called Louping Ill which in turn harms the grouse. Many wild animals have to die so that a few people can indulge in a pretty exclusive hobby (it costs £100s per day), that involves killing 1000s of another species of bird a day, and that for only a few weeks of the year!
    7. Managing heather moors and blanket bogs by burning, draining and track-making for driven grouse shoots has other effects which are harmful to the environment. I have written about this to you before. These practices: damage the peat, thus releasing stored carbon (a greenhouse gas); the subsequent excess erosion causes silting of moorland streams which harms biodiversity; reduced vegetation leads to increases in runoff rate of precipitation potentially leading to economically damaging flooding of nearby settlements; loss of peat means less capacity for peat to hold rain and snow water which is a potential source of water for moorland reservoirs (e.g. Derwent Reservoirs in Peak District). All in all it seems to be a very outdated means of habitat management.
Note; this is not about an outright ban on legal shooting of wildlife or banning shooting of Red Grouse by other means (i.e. “walked up” grouse shooting) which don't involve intensive management of grouse moors.
I hope that when the date of the debate is determined you will be able to attend the debate – would it be your intention to do so?
Do you think you would be able to speak on that subject?
I would be grateful for your response and the opportunity to brief you on the subject if you are planning to attend the debate.

Yours sincerely
Wendy Birks

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Third Peak District Hen Harrier Day

Here is a photo I took of Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales speaking at the third Hen Harrier Day in the Peak District last Sunday (7th August). She was one of six inspirational speakers at the event which was intended to highlight the cruel and illegal persecution of the Hen Harrier – a bird of prey that should be thriving and breeding in upland habitats such as those that occur on our nearest National Park. Gamekeepers do not like Hen Harriers because they take some young grouse to feed to their chicks and because of this these birds are killed or deterred from breeding on the moors – both actions are completely illegal. There is no doubt that these birds are being killed by gamekeepers on moors managed for driven grouse shooting, because they are fairly common on similar habitats in other areas of Europe, for instance certain Scottish Islands and the Isle of Man; the difference is that grouse shooting is not practised on those places and so the birds are free to live and breed undisturbed. In addition to killing of birds of prey, Red Grouse shooting is associated with a number of other environmental problems because maintaining grouse moors by burning heather can damage blanket bogs and lead to erosion, flooding, and pollution of nearby streams. Hen Harriers are not the only animals to be slaughtered just so shooters can kill big bags of Red Grouse; stoats, weasels, Peregrine Falcons and even Mountain Hares are victims of this rich man's hobby, which lasts for only three months of any one year at most. And so our gatherings are designed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season, the so-called “glorious twelfth”, and it will be an annual event until the Hen Harriers and other wildlife is left in peace. Some of us think this will only happen when driven grouse shooting is banned all together and hence we are petitioning parliament about this subject. If you agree with me that you would like to be able to see Hen Harriers populating the Peak District once again perhaps you will sign the petition? It can be found at

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The EU referendum.

A letter I sent to the Leek Post and Times this week:

If, like me, you are passionate about the fantastic wildlife and landscape in our local area you should take this into account when you decide how to vote in the upcoming EU referendum. The “out” campaigners you have you believe that the EU is simply a financial burden on the people of the UK, and that we get nothing in return. However, of the £13 billion or so that membership of the EU costs the UK, we do get some of it back; and of that amount some of it comes back to enhance the quality of the nature in and near the Staffordshire Moorlands. For instance, last October The Moors for the Future Partnership, which works to protect priority international habitats in the Peak District and South Pennines, was granted £12 million to deliver the MoorLIFE 2020 project. The largest share of the pot, £9 million, coming from the EU’s LIFE fund - which is dedicated to support environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout Europe; while the balance is from private companies, such as Severn Trent Water, who own land in the area. MoorLIFE 2020 itself is following on work that has been carried out over the past four years and which also received public money, that time £5.7 million came from the European Union. In addition to that vitally important project, closer to home the Churnet Valley Living Landscape Partnershp is currently preparing a LIFE+ bid for £1.5 million; if sucessful this which will also be used to improve the ecology and appearance of the surrounding countryside. And it isn't just the aesthetic qualities and biodiversity that will be improved by these projects, they also aim to ensure the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon (in blanket bog), produce plenty of fresh, clean, drinking water; and help to prevent flood damage in adjacent urban and rural areas. And, of course all that practical work has positive economic effects as it povides custom for local businesses, work for local people, and helps attract visitors to the area. So, for that original investment of those millions of Euros we get an almost incalcuable return. If you want to see some of the fantastic habitat restoration that has been done in the Peak District take a walk up Bleaklow or the paths above the Goyt Valley and admire the view!

Admiring the view from Bleaklow, one of the moors in the Peak District National Park.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Looking for Snipe.

Two days ago on 10.02.16 65+ Snipe were seen and heard flying up from the marshy area adjacent to the upper River Trent near Baddeley Green; they rose up out of the vegetation, making their raspy flight call as they flew, travelling in a notherly direction. Where do they spend the night I wonder? During the day presumably they spend their time feeding by probing in the soft ground for invertebrates. Then, as darkness approaches they fly up and off somewhere, maybe somewhere safer than their daytime feeding grounds. These are, perhaps, not resident birds, but some of the 1,000s that have bred in nothern continental europe, Iceland and the Faeroes and come to overwinter in the milder climate of the British Isles. Some of them are regular winter visitors to this area just on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent - I have seen them in this area in the past three winters. I was looking forwards to seeing 65+ Snipe fly over my viewing position on the Caldon Canal towpath. However only about 15 were spotted that time!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Why I think George Monbiot is wrong about heathland burning.

Last week the environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot published this article. I think he is wrong and here are my reasons why.

Where I don't agree with G Monbiot in the article called “meet the conservationists who say burning is good for wildlife”
  1. He compares the conservation burning of heathland with burning tropical forest to clear it for agriculture or horticulture. They are not comparable in that way because the conservation burning on Dartmoor is aimed at maintaining the heathland habitat not destroying. Burning the tropical forest is intended to eliminate the habitat completely.
  2. He compares burning grouse moors, which are upland habitats with lowland heath. The RSPB and others are against poorly carried out burning moors for grouse shoots because the burning can be deep in to the substrate and cause the vegetation to change, e.g. from heathland plants to monocultures of purple moor grass. Deep burning can also damage peatland, cause pollution of water courses and other harmful effects. Lowland heaths grow on shallow well drained podzolic soils (as a pose to deep wet peat), so may not react to burning in the same way. There is blanket bog in the Dartmoor Nat Park – he shows that on the map, and he also shows it and the heathland are in decline, and says the National Trust say this decline is due to burning and overgrazing. I find this unlikely to be the whole story as heathlands were created by a combination of burning, cutting, grazing since Bronze Age times until about the middle of the twentieth century, the decline could also be to do with drainage, eutrophication, pollution, fragmentation etc. We don't know from the article that the Nat Park own or manage the heaths and bogs that have declined, and if they do ,we also don't know how they were managed up to now. Also, I think, had he asked them , he will find the the RSPB acknowledge that many waders benefit from rotational burning of upland moors for grouse shooting, even if there are also negative effects. Mostly it is poorly carried out burning and installation of grips (for drainage) that they are against, though I expect organisations such as the RSPB would rather that the habitat mosaics were maintained by cutting. And, oh while I'm on that subject, he does not mention that the burning, cutting or gazing would be carried out on a rotational basis, in patches (less than 2ha) thererby not properly explaining to the readers, who may not be aware of it, the rationale behind the burning, cutting and/or grazing regimes. Personally I think that cutting and followed by appropriate grazing would be preferable to periodic rotational burning as I believe that burning can kill invertebrates, reptiles etc. if they cant escape the fire quickly enough, and because it can go wrong and burn too deeply into the soil and/or peat. .
  3. He describes Skylarks as being species that are “resilient” to the forms of management that we “deplore” when we see them used in other countries e.g. cutting, burning and grazing. And that conservationists use them (Skylarks) as an excuse when they want to use these destructive processes. In this way he makes it sound like the birds are present during the vegetation clearance and thereby benefit because they survive the burning, cutting or grazing process, when in fact these techniques are used to create suitable breeding habitat, and in the case of burning, cutting and possibly grazing would not be done whilst the birds are breeding. He makes no mention of the other ground-nesting or scrub nesting bird species, and hence their predators (e.g. birds of prey, cuckoos) that also benefit from creating habitat mosaics by rotational clearance of vegetation.
  4. He makes no mention of all the other classes of organism that benefit from creating open patches within the heathland or blanket bog. e.g. dragonflies, reptiles, sand wasps and bees, lichen, ericaceous plants and their mycorrhizal partners, insectiverous plants to name but a few.
  5. The paragraphs he quotes from the Nat Park Authority are worded in and unfortunate and ambiguous way as they say that the grazing animals will “delight” in the cleared patches. When, of course what they mean is that they can then reinstate the grazing to areas where taller vegetation has been cleared, and this grazing will maintain open areas which will benefit classes of organism mentioned above. He seems to be under the impression that the Nat park people are only interested in producing good grazing land, which they don't, they want to create habitat mosaics! It doesn't suit his case to explain this to the readers
  6. Conservationists, as he calls them, who are in fact ecologists, he says have a “mortal fear” of natural processes leading to growth of gorse and bracken. Whereas in fact they just don't want to see huge areas of bracken monoculture as that would be inimical to much wildlife; as uniformly structured monocultures tend to be - this is why they are trying to reintroduce grazing. As for the gorse, it is likely they want to remove that to prevent it from smothering floristically interesting grasslands which will, apart from their own intrinsic value, will in turn provide nest sites, pollen, nectar, basking sites etc, etc, for a range of warmth-loving heathland species. The gorse itself will become less common if George gets his way and the natural succession is allowed to proceed to its woodland climax. And if that happened we would be left with a mature woodland where none of the birds, insects, reptiles etc. that benefit from scrubby areas could exist. Indeed the concept of natural woodland (my term here, not his in the article) would be open to question as, without the intervention of conservationists, the National Park would no doubt be colonised by whatever propagules were able to get there, this would include exotic species, species that are not associated with ancient forest such those that are present in the cairngorms etc. and would not therefore become the equivalent to those woodlands. Of course the development of large expanses of dense woodland with a very sparse shrub and field layer would be prevented if large herbivores and their natural predators where available to create a more diverse and open vegetation structure. But as they are not and are extremely unlikely to be for the foreseeable future, the Nat Park Authority are forced to adopt the interventionist, and somewhat artificial management regime that in some ways mimic the actions of wild grazers and their predators.
  7. He makes no mention of the Common Agricultural Policies in the 1990s and early 2000, which paid farmers according to how many livestock they held. These “headage” payments as they were called encouraged farmers to maximise the number of animals they owned, which in turn led to many upland habitats being closely grazed. A practice that is widely accepted to be detrimental to sheep walks and heathlands; it contributes, if not causes heathland vegetation to be dominated by graze-tolerant grass swards.
  8. He says upland woodland harbours more important species than do heathlands, and maybe they do. There is more ecospace in them and hence perhaps more niches available. Also if they are ancient woods, as with the Cairngorms he mentions, they are more ancient habitats hence perhaps containing more anciently established species; thereby possibly more complex and hence richer in species. However the two habitats host a different range of species, and that is important if we want to maintain biodiversity in the UK; if all Britain were to become wooded, which may be the case if George had his way, there would be fewer species as there would be fewer ecological niches available. And, I repeat, without the effects of natural grazing produced by the presence of megafauna that roamed the British Isles between the end of the last Ice Age and the start of the Neolithic period, nor any human management which imitate it in Britain all the nature reserves, apart from perhaps, lakes, water courses, eroding cliffs and estuaries, will become covered by secondary woodland, of who knows what ecological value. In addition to this, he fails to mention that the Caringorms National park, somewhere he does seem to value for its wildlife (as he offers it for comparison with the heaths and bogs) he does like, is also managed by wildlife conservationists form the National Parks Authority, Wildlife Trusts etc. who's techniques he so despises!!
  9. The habitats and wildlife that the Nat. Park (if it is they who determine what management takes place – it could be Natural England for all we know) is trying to maintain by burning etc. are the habitats that are protected under the EU Habitats Directives. He suggests someone could take the Nat Park to court for failing to meet the demands of the directives. This is what it ways of their website:
    The Dartmoor SAC was designated principally because it is home to the southernmost blanket bog in Europe but also because of important areas of wet and dry heaths. The South Dartmoor Woods SAC displays fine examples of old sessile oak woods whilst the portion of the South Hams SAC within Dartmoor National Park contains the largest known maternity roost for Greater Horseshoe Bats in the UK. So the EU nature directives cover three Dartmoor Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which include areas of wet and dry heaths and blanket bog. It is these that the National Park and others are trying to improve by their management (which appears to include swaling) the heaths - if they were not looking after them there would be a case to challenge this in a EU court. In fact the charge of neglect would come about if they allowed the heaths to become woodland. Also, in this article he has mentioned three different organisations Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, and the National Trust. The first two are not primarily nature conservation organisations, their remit being to protect landscapes and public access to National Parks, and the third a landowning charity. None are the bodies charged with giving permission for activities on designated sites or monitoring compliance with EU nature directives or UK nature sites designations, those are Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales. Hence i anyone were to be taken to court it would be Natural England.
  10. By all means, George Monbiot should criticise the practice of burning or swaling and other management techniques used on nature reserves if he feels they are damaging to wildlife or biodiversity. And by all means promote his pet project of rewilding. But do it on fair terms in which he fully and honestly explains to the readers the techniques or habitats he doesn't like. Don't just pick and choose the bits of the whole issue to suit your story – that's like what creationists do when they are trying to convince people that evolution never happened!