Thursday, 12 August 2010

Water Buffalos

Cream tea at the Swan Hotel in the Cotswold village of Bibury is a truly English affair. The village is an extremely popular tourist destination, particularly in the summer and most visitors head for the outdoor tables. Inside the hotel there’s a quintessential picture postcard atmosphere. Tea is served in the small cosy writing room with a specially lit, but totally unnecessary log fire. Lashings of strawberry jam and clotted cream piled onto old-fashioned scones and accompanied with the tea of your choice would bring tears of nostalgia to any fly-on-the wall ex-pat.

The crystal clear stream running the length of the main street is filled with magnificent trout from the fish farm across the road from the hotel. The small wet meadow running along the stream forms part of a partnership between the National Trust and Natural England to use old native cattle breeds as a means of improving important rich Cotswold grasslands. A few grazing Belted Galway and Welsh Blacks are doing this a few feet away and look pretty content. The resulting grassland look in good shape too, with a rich and diverse sward humming with butterflies and dragonflies.

I’m reminded of home and the herd of non-native water buffalos doing the same job on two of our large Wildlife Trust reserves, but this time keeping reed beds in good shape.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Source of the River

Like many rivers, the Tawe begins its life as a mere trickle before eventually reaching the Bristol Channel in Swansea Bay. I head to the moors a dozen or so miles north of the coast in search of its source. The actual spot marked on the OS map is a very steep climb from the road; I’m content to sit by a tiny stream about half a mile away and imagine the exact location. The view from up here is quite magnificent, wild, open and devoid of trees and rugged, but yet with gentle features. High sandstone peaks, part of the Brecon Beacons dominate and below, rolling sheep-grazed pastures slope gently to the path of the young river. Old stonewalls, many in disrepair, mark out field boundaries, which are probably no longer meaningful and a relic of older ownerships. Apart from the cool breeze and the bleating of a few sheep, the silence is wonderful.

Three red kites play in the updrafts on a far ridge and ravens call out of sight. The old walls provide perches for wheatears and meadow pipits, the latter beginning to form loose flocks and stonechats sit boldly on top of sparse gorse bushes that border some of the tiny streams bubbling down to the river.

At the top of the rise the view east along the Beacons is spectacular and wild; north towards the English border are miles of mellow brown and green patchwork-quilted fields. Vast conifers plantations planted in the uplands after the last war created blots on the landscape, but are gradually being removed; in one of these recently felled patches I encounter a birding hotspot and the highlight of the day.

I first catch sight of the white wing-flash of a juvenile pied flycatcher, then another and another; wheatears, stonechats, a whinchat, all fly catching on the insect bounty provided by the debris left from the felling. Further down the hill young birches, willows and rowans, heavy with berries border the patch; willow and wood warblers, chaffinches, a single redpoll and a smart male grey wagtail add to the tally, but best of all a spotted flycatcher which, apart from my guaranteed one on Skomer Island in the summer, will probably be the only one for the year. Maybe there’s something in these alien conifers after all, but only when they’ve been felled.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Fire & Ice

It's now the turn of Russia to feel the wrath of the weather. The worst heatwave since records began 130 years ago have caused hundreds of wildfires to rage across the country and Moscow is covered with a thick blanket of chocking smoke. The temperature in the city is predicted to reach 40 degrees Celcius today, planes are diverted, offices closed and with air pollution 5 times above safe levels citizens fight to buy face masks; its Russia's worst heatwave for over a century and there's still no mention of climate change in the media. The effects are being felt beyond Russia; the hot weather has seriously affected the nation's wheat crop and exports are now restricted resulting in huge price rises on the world's markets. Maybe only when climate change begins to bite where it hurts most will nations serious address the problem, but then it will be far too late.

As if this is not enough, we learn today that a massive ice sheet two thirds the size of The Isle of White has broken off an glacier in Northeast Greenland; another sign that we are steadily approaching the long predicated tipping points beyond which there will be no way back.

Friday, 6 August 2010


The floods in Pakistan are terrible. Understandably the media is full of the plight of the people and the torrential monsoon rains that continue to fall. There have been detailed explanations of the weather conditions that have caused the disaster, but I have heard nothing about the underlying cause, which is probably climate change. That the climate is changing is not in doubt; only this week The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US published its 2009 report on the status of the world's climate; all its 10 indicators demonstrated a warming world. A consequence of this changing climate is an increase in the frequency and violence of local weather events and we are witnessing in Pakistan is another example of this.

In the face of these inevitable floods we need to ensure that there are natural defences in place. In the UK we must re-wet the uplands and also restore and create more inland marshes. The Wildlife Trusts are doing just this through their Living Landscape agenda. The Big Fen project in central England and the Plumlumon project in Wales are prime examples. These schemes are more than just talk, they are well under way. When completed, the Plumlumon initiative could go a long way to preventing a recurrence of the recent floods in Gloucestershire. Why the big insurance companies are not funding this kind of project is beyond me.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


One of the most wonderful things about the natural world is that it doesn’t answer back; it’s an escape from the everyday problems of life and a refuge where I can forget my problems and also the day-to-day trivia, which becomes less important as I get older. Communicating with nature is a one-way process; it speaks to us in pictures, sound and emotion; we can enjoy it, not the other way round. Most of the world seems not to appreciate its wonders and what it offers. In the rich developed world everyday life proceeds at a ridiculously complicated pace and there are so many distractions, mostly fuelled by technology; none of these compares with the simple pleasure of looking at a flower or bird.

The great mistake man has made is to believe that we are different, somehow better, detached from nature and in control of it. We are not; we’re as much a part of nature as it is a part of us, but unfortunately we’ve developed such power over the rest of it that we are in danger of destroying what’s left very quickly. We’ve abused the land and the creatures that live on it and view the planet as a commodity to be used. Only now, at the eleventh hour is mankind gradually waking up to the fact that the natural world, including the land is a community to which we all belong; only when this realisation is finally embedded into our psyche and we begin to treat the planet with due care and respect will we turn the corner in the battle to save it. I dread to think what the world will be like a century from now; it will depend on what this generation can achieve in the next two decades. I don’t really hold out much hope for my grandchildren to be able to communicate the way I can.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Hidden Conservation

It’s not only the more conspicuous birds such as waders that are on the move; smaller ones are busy moving south as well, but they’re much more difficult to see and the best way is to get out the mist nets and go ringing in a reed bed.

Early this morning I joined a local group of ringers and did just that. The weather was right, clear overhead last evening, with cloud moving in before dawn. Many small migrants such as warblers navigate by the stars and when blotted out by clouds, tend to ‘fall’ into the nearest reed bed. The results can be dramatic and in the past I’ve experienced huge falls of sedge warblers in particular.

Today’s catch was reasonable; with only 6 nets we caught in excess of 80 birds. Apart from the usual residents they were mostly sedge warblers, with a variety of other migrants such as reed warblers, whitethroats, blackcaps, willow warblers and a single lesser whitethroat.

The autumn migration strategy of sedge warbler is particularly interesting. In order to get across the Sahara they store up energy for the journey in a remarkable way. Plum-reed aphids provide the fuel and they find these on the underside of phragmites leaves in reed beds on the south coast of England and in northern France. Here they gorge on these insects and can sometimes double their weight in a matter of days. Once ready and when the weather is right, they set off and can do the trip in one hop, a remarkable feat for a small bird normally weighing only about 10 grams.

Reed Warblers have a different strategy. They too use plum reed aphids as fuel, but fatten up less, hopping from reed bed to reed bed through Europe before the final leg across the Sahara.
None of our sedge or reed warblers today weighed anything like this, but some showed signs of subcutaneous fat deposits under their wings, a sure sign that they were on the move.