Friday, 31 January 2014

Working the land

Winter evenings spent reading works by E M Forster, D H Lawrence and others soon underlines just how much our rural landscape has changed. In many cases it is not so much the changed landscape that hits you, although this is striking enough, but the very great change in our rural populations. Our rural landscapes are no longer peopled and worked in the way that they were a century ago and things are, clearly, very different now.

Such differences reflect the great surge of agricultural intensification that brought with it increasing mechanisation, new chemicals and expanding global markets. These new technologies and opportunities reduced the manpower needed to produce crops and to manage the great country estates that were once the cornerstone of the English landscape. The rural communities that housed the farmhands, woodsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths and others have, to a greater extent, been replaced by communities that look elsewhere, to the cities and market towns that hold the new kinds of jobs that make up our shifted economy.

These losses are felt more widely than perhaps we realise. A reduction in the numbers of people working on the land has left us divorced from it. We are also divorced from the food and other products that are harvested and cropped; our relationship with vegetables has shifted from the fields to the sterile aisles of supermarkets and the polythene packaged specimens that are uniformly sized and scrubbed of the soil that would form the last link back to the earth that nurtured them.

The removal of this connection with the land may be one reason why we, as a wider society, seem so disinterested in what has been happening to our countryside. If we do not have a role in the production of food then how can we value it properly? All we see is the price on the packet and we know little or nothing about the process by which that vegetable or piece of meat has ended up on the supermarket shelf. If we do not live in the countryside, how can we value its component parts? A tremendous part of our heritage has been lost and old skills have died out with the passing of their practitioners. Maybe it is time to put some of them back.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Winter coats for roe

Four roe deer stand exposed in the middle of this fallow field. They are wary but the distance between us, coupled with the half-light of dawn, offers reassurance; my presence is noted but prompts no further reaction. The roe look thick set in their winter coats, olive-grey in colour and longer than the reddish-brown hair of summer. This coat will last them through into April, possibly later; so far this winter it has been little tested by the conditions.

The roe is an animal that I grew up with. It was the deer that I saw most often and the only one to ever venture into the gardens of my childhood. At that young age I viewed red deer as creatures that lived in the Highlands of Scotland, while fallow were ornamental animals kept in nearby deer parks. The roe, on the other hand, was wild but accessible, haunting the margins of the local woodlands at dusk and dawn.

Things have changed a great deal and, having moved away from the Wealden landscapes of my youth, the deer have changed with them. The roe is still familiar enough but less common than the now established muntjac. Both red and fallow can be encountered on my local patch and I do not have to venture too far to see Chinese water deer. The roe still resonates with me though and I delight in each encounter. They have a graceful presence and a certain degree of curiosity, which will often see one stop to watch you once it has retreated to a discreet distance. Seeing four together is not unusual in the winter, which is the season when small groups may form. Larger groups are sometimes reported – sixty animals were once noted in Scotland – but these tend to be unstable, short-term affairs.

These particular individuals are probably coming to the end of a feeding bout (of which there are a number throughout the 24-hour cycle) and I suspect that they will soon move into cover to rest. No doubt I will encounter them again over the coming weeks but at some point they will switch to a solitary lifestyle, ahead of the arrival of this year’s young.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Oystercatchers delight

It would be hard to miss these oystercatchers. Not only are they conspicuous because of their striking black and white plumage but their piping calls also serve to draw attention. At this time of the year I am well used to seeing them on the Norfolk coast but later in the year I will also be able to see and hear them well inland. In fact, there is a good chance that I will have them breeding within a mile or so of my house and I will occasionally hear them as they overfly the garden, shouting their familiar call.

The species was once something of a rare breeder within the county of Norfolk, its population checked by the collection of its eggs for food and the persecution of its adults to protect shell fisheries. Writing in the late 1800s, Stevenson commented that breeding oystercatchers only remained on the ‘wildest and most retired of their former haunts’. The establishment of nature reserves, coupled with a change in attitudes, saw numbers increase and then, quite suddenly, there was rapid colonisation of inland sites, including areas of lowland wet grassland, gravel pits and reservoir sites. It is an old gravel workings that supports my nearest pair.

Despite the name, oystercatchers do not feed on oysters, but instead take cockles, mussels and limpets at coastal sites, switching to earthworms and other invertebrates when occupying more inland areas. Oystercatchers are now so familiar that it is easy to overlook the significance of the UK population, which is of international importance. Perhaps a third of the East Atlantic Flyway population winters in Britain.

The shrill piping call of a pair of oystercatchers would, you think, draw attention to their nest but so beautifully camouflaged are the eggs that the merest scrape of nest is easily overlooked, even if you have a fair idea of where it is going to be. The resulting chicks are equally well camouflaged and the parents soon lead them away from the nest to find food. As with most wader chicks, the young are up and about very quickly and well able to respond to the alarm call of a parent bird by squatting down and freezing. Perhaps these birds are not as showy after all.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

He calls thrice over

Each morning I wake to the repeated notes of a song thrush, a bird that has made a perch of the old apple tree, ivy covered but still producing fruit, that sits next door. It is, it seems, his favourite song post. It is here that he starts and ends his morning chorus, shifting only rarely to other perches close by. By listening hard you can just about make out the songs of his rivals, distant and several streets away, elsewhere within town.

The song thrush has a reputation for repetition in his song, often repeating the same note ‘thrice over’. His song is more complex than this, however; the series of notes shifts and morphs as he dips into his repertoire to deliver tasty morsels of sound. The notes have a shrill edge, more cutting than those of the blackbird, whose own notes carry a richness – ripe and plump like the berries of autumn on which he feeds. The resident blackbirds start up their own chorus on the milder mornings but they lack the persistence of this song thrush, who sings no matter how crisp the day’s beginning.

There are plenty of opportunities for this particular individual, should he attract a mate. Thick ivy covers many of the old flint walls and clambers over the shrubs on the scruffy bits of waste ground cut off by road, path and housing. The male’s song both proclaims his ownership and advertises his suitability as a mate. The diversity and range of notes delivered reveals much about the singer; in some species a diverse repertoire is a sign of a high quality individual and one, therefore, worth mating with.

The first song thrush eggs are usually laid in March but earlier nests are sometimes found and the mild start to 2014, if unchecked, will almost certainly deliver a scatter of early nests this year. The nest itself will be placed in thick cover and lined with chewed up wood – which has the appearance of chipboard – and it is onto this lining that the beautiful blue eggs will be laid. For the next few weeks I can expect the song thrush to continue his chorus, his notes repeated ‘thrice over’.

Monday, 27 January 2014

In search of gold

It is not yet dawn and the near silence of the forest echoes with the calls of a solitary crow, a sentinel for the slowly approaching day. We’ve arrived early, knowing that we have but a small window of opportunity to catch up with one of the golden pheasants that held territory on these blocks of forest last year. It is still early in the season but, given the mild conditions and our need to pin down where the birds are this year, these weekend visits have become something of a ritual.

Despite its stunning plumage, the male golden pheasant is a rather challenging bird to catch up with. The species is not native to Britain but its small, self-sustaining population may be gaining importance in a global sense. The stronghold here is the dark stands of conifers that dominate the Norfolk/Suffolk borderlands of the Brecks. There is another, smaller, population in north-west Norfolk and other isolated records from elsewhere in Britain, typically of local escapees or recent introductions. These are rather secretive birds, spending most of their time within the cover provided by the stands of conifers and venturing out onto the rides for just a short period around dawn, hence our early visits.

Smaller than the common pheasant, whose vast numbers dominate much of the East Anglian landscape, the golden pheasant male has a stunning yellow head and crown, a red and blue body and a long and intricately patterned tail. One his most striking features is the orange, black and blue feathering that adorns his neck. These feathers fall away from the body in the manner of a judge’s wig, a wig in which the colour has been lifted from the finest casket of an Egyptian ruler, shrouded and laid to rest in a royal burial chamber. This is a truly stunning bird and one whose colours are set-off all the more by the deep neutral tones of the forest in which he lives.

This particular morning, like the last, we draw a blank on our search. The pheasants are here, of that we are confident, and one weekend soon we will be treated to an audience with his imperial majesty, the golden pheasant.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Custodians of the land

Debates around the payments made to farmers are quick to generate unflattering headlines and to prompt grumblings from some quarters about how taxpayers’ money is used. The use of the word ‘subsidy’ may be one reason for the difficulties that some sectors of society have with these payments, which, as a consequence, take on the appearance of handouts. Increasingly, we have seen such payments linked to land management and farming practices that deliver wildlife benefit, which frames the ‘contracts’ that we have with landowners in a more positive light. What must be remembered, however, is that the policies by which these vast sums of money are passed from taxpayers to landowners are economic rather than environmental ones. As we have seen in the past, the policies can change overnight, sweeping away a raft of environmentally-aware measures because of a sudden shift in our economic needs.

One of the central points in all of this is that the nature of Britain – its landscapes, communities and wildlife – is driven primarily by land management and, specifically, by farming practices. So many of the English landscapes that we love, that have been celebrated in art and literature, are the result of the way in which we have farmed and managed the land. Farming is the English landscape.

The farming methods that farmers employ on society’s behalf have, over the last 75 or so years, fundamentally changed the fortunes of many different species. We have seen widespread declines in birds, butterflies, moths and other groups, many of which are the result of changing farming practices. If we want to see species recover; if we want a countryside that is richer in its wildlife, then we have to take collaborative responsibility.

The land management that sits behind modern farming is driven by global markets, by our wish to have cheap food, available throughout the year. Unless we shift away from this approach, to change the nature of the economic drivers fundamentally, then our countryside will continue to lose its biological richness. Targeted payments, supporting farmers to deliver environmental and wildlife benefits, need to be seen as the central component of farm subsidies and we need to recognise farmers as the custodians of our countryside and its wildlife.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Nature on hold

There is something deeply satisfying about working with your hands outdoors and in the company of friends. The other morning, for example, was spent removing alder saplings from an area of previously open ground that was starting to develop into scrub. By opening the area up again it was hoped that we would be able to maintain a mix of habitats and species on this particular site, rather than see much of the site develop into a single, uniform, habitat type.

A good deal of nature conservation involves the active management of land, usually to maintain a particular landscape feature or a particular type of habitat. Early successional habitats – those that represent the first stages of the pathway from bare ground, through grassland and scrub to mature woodland – are often rich in the species that they support; many of these species are nationally scarce and of conservation importance. While early successional habitats may be created through natural processes, they tend to be rather fragmented and uncommon within a landscape under pressure from housing, timber production and agricultural needs. Many of the sites where such habitats do occur have been designated as nature reserves. Because these sites are fixed in one place and because they will develop over time into woodland, they have to be managed to halt the process of natural succession.

Some would argue that we should cease our management of these sites, that we should allow nature to develop on its own pathway. In many ways I agree with this approach and would support such a course of ‘inaction’. However, there simply isn’t enough land within our crowded island to adopt this approach widely. There are places, typically in the north and west of Britain, where such an approach would be possible, where nature could be left to its own devices. This style of ‘non-management’ would only work in the lowlands of England if we were to completely change our approaches to planning, farming, population growth and economic expansion. We have previous little land set aside to nature and it is critical that we make the best use of it, working hard to maximise the diversity and range of creatures that it can support. Hands-on management is one tool for doing this.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

New beginnings

New Year’s Day is all about fresh beginnings, the old year gone and the new full of opportunity. It is a day to be out in the countryside and to find the space and landscapes that afford quiet reflection. The weather is sometimes bright and crisp, at other times wet and windy, but almost always cold and invariably of a kind to clear away the end of year cobwebs and any signs of drowsiness that may come from the previous night’s celebrations.

In some years I work my local patch but more commonly I head further afield, either west to the fenland margins or east to the valleys of the Waveney or the Yare. These landscapes bring with them big skies and distant horizons, providing a sense of scale that adds to the mood of reflection. Being out and active is invigorating; my new field notebook – I start a new notebook each year – collects the first nature notes and bird sightings.

In the past I have been known to participate in the occasional New Year’s Day bird race, travelling around the county with friends to see just how many different bird species can be notched up in a day. Such events tend to be rather hectic affairs and, while delivering a rush of adrenalin and the company of friends, they lack the opportunity to spend time taking in individual birds and the landscape within which they are placed. Increasingly, I find that my greatest pleasure from birdwatching comes from spending time watching the birds in their habitat, studying their behaviours and following their interactions.

Today, I think I will head east once the sun is up, skirting the southern fringe of Norwich to access the marshes that border the river beyond Cantley. There is a good chance of some grey geese, good numbers of duck and, just possibly, bearded tit and peregrine. There is also the chance of spotting a Chinese water deer, a species best seen in this part of the county and northwards towards the Broads. I can already feel a rising sense of anticipation, of the joy of being out and about in the countryside on the first day of a new year.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Naming of the shrew

The other day I was forwarded a photograph of a shrew that had been found dead near to a pond, prompting the sender to question whether or not they had found a water shrew. It turned out that the shrew in question was an unfortunate common shrew. The question of the shrew’s identity reminded me that the names that we give to species are not necessarily helpful when it comes to their identification. Take the common redpoll for instance. This is a species that is actually rather uncommon in Britain; the redpoll that we see ‘commonly’ is the lesser redpoll and the whole situation is further complicated by the fact that we usually just refer to this delightful little finch by the name ‘redpoll’.

In the case of the water shrew there is, at least, an association with waterside habitats and this small mammal shows a number of adaptations to its aquatic habits. The tail of the water shrew has a keel of stiff hairs running along its underside and the feet also carry these as a fringe on their margins, both of which help the shrew to move through the water. Water shrew populations appear to be largest in those habitats associated with water, including rivers, ditches and wet meadows, with watercress beds proving a particular stronghold for the species in the south of the country. However, this large shrew can also be found in other habitats and often at some distance from any waterbody. I have, for example, trapped them in the middle of a young sweet chestnut plantation and a gamekeeper friend occasionally encountered them in arable hedgerows close to the downs.

Our other mainland shrews – the common shrew and the pygmy shrew – often occur in damp habitats (both species have been caught in traps set at watercress beds), with the latter species fairly regularly associated with particularly wet habitats. This underlines that you should never jump to an identification purely based on where you found the bird or animal. Habitat can be important, particularly for certain plants and fungi, but you should always use it alongside other characteristics and avoiding jumping to an incorrect conclusion about an identification.