Amidst the political furore and angst about the future of Great Britain, I made a modest discovery that has caused me to think again about the future of our wildlife in Bransford and West Worcestershire.
In the course of recording badgers at a local sett, in the hope of learning to recognise some of the individual badgers (and also to familiarise myself with a new trail camera that records in infra-red during the hours of darkness), I discovered a new species!
Well, not an actual new species for Worcestershire or the UK, but a new record for me at The Fold and Bransford in recent years. To my amazement, a pair of deer that were not muntjac, appeared not once but twice on my photographs. They were roe deer – a buck and a doe. The roebuck had it’s antlers in velvet and both were still moulting heavy winter coats. A day later, I tracked them back to where they had waited out the daylight hours before returning to browse on fresh budding roots and grasses and left their fresh droppings. In a week or two, I will set up the camera again and see whether they are still around. The video is fascinating for me to watch as the pair move gracefully across the field of view stopping to nibble on hawthorn shoots.
Ecologists discovered that species new to Great Britain such as the collared dove are spreading north and west as the climate warms. Evidently some species are not as threatened as others and the recent hot summers are helping species that were thought to be scarce, especially insects, to reproduce and increase their numbers. Other species such as the roe deer with specific needs for woodland with under layers of shrubs, are often being replaced by smaller species with less specific requirements for habitat and feeding.
This is at The Fold, the Reeves muntjac or Chinese water deer. This deer has now become very common and whenever I set my camera trap, I always see one or two on their nightly wandering. Perhaps one reason they fit so well into the landscape, is their small size, hardly larger than a Labrador dog.
Everyone now knows about how the North American grey squirrel was introduced to these islands and how they have become a pest. What we seldom appreciate is that on the continent, red and black squirrels thrive and the introduced grey squirrels are rapidly picked off by predatory birds of prey and pine martens. Pine martens (and apparently Martley is named after martens) can pursue squirrels right to their dreys and to the ends of branches, so they cannot escape and so martens can keep levels of grey squirrels under control. The pine marten has returned to Shropshire and experiments are being done to reintroduce it to other parts of the UK. So maybe pine martens will follow polecats as the next species to colonise the Midlands.
How about ducks? I was astonished to see a duck fly from an old hollow oak tree near Tank lake last week. Getting my binoculars on it, I found it was a drake Mandarin duck – and very handsome it was! These ducks have escaped from wildfowl collections in the UK and have adapted well to our conditions. The species originates from South East Asia (Cambodia and Vietnam etc) which strangely is where the muntjac originates. This is a very showy duck, with bright crest and body plumage. They have been increasingly seen on our local rivers and small flocks gather together in the winter on quiet sections of the Teme. They seem to feed on pastures a bit like geese, so if you see a duck fly into a tree or disturb one from a grassy river pasture and it is too small to be a mallard and makes a much quieter call than our ‘normal’ duck, you have almost certainly seen a Mandarin. The confirming detail is in the bright eye stripe seen throughout the year in both sexes. Last year I spotted a mother with four or five young ducklings paddling on the river and this proves that they are at The Fold to stay.
So, if there is room in our environment for quite large animals and even whole new species, why are we concerned that our wildlife is diminishing so fast? I think we are mostly concerned with what we do not understand. In the past, wildlife calamities such as the wiping out of many birds of prey when DDT and its related pesticides brought the attention of scientists plus new funding from governments, to look at WHY this was happening. The scale of the potential problem especially as a threat to the human population then meant that legislation was VERY rapidly introduced and the problem at least partially solved. Peregrines, otters and other top predators are again breeding successfully and populations have recovered.
However the current problems with wildlife and nature are proving to be more intractable. Whilst wildlife organisations such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts can show widespread reductions in the populations of some species, other species have not shown similar collapses in their populations. You could point to the common garden birds such as the robin or blackbird and say they they definitely are not in trouble. But the house sparrow and starling which also breed around houses have shown massive declines of 40 or 50% in numbers. Research is ongoing but scientists seem to be finding out that there is a combination of a variety of factors involved.
Corn buntings and yellowhammers used to be common and widespread farmland birds but are now reduced to tiny numbers and are even effectively extinct in large areas of the country. This is as a direct consequence of the widespread use of herbicides to control weeds in crops. No weeds equals no weed seeds and so no winter food for the finches. To amplify the problem, seed eating finches feed their nestlings on insects! They need this high protein, easily digestible food to develop but they also need the water content of insects of they will die in hot weather. The combination of widespread herbicides and insecticides has hit many formerly common species of bird.
What about some other species? The skylark requires undisturbed crops in which to nest and raise its young. New ways of cropping mean that crops are cut earlier and this has hit the late nesting larks, one of the iconic species of open farmland, whose young are literally combined to death when the crops are harvested in August or even July. The land is then immediately ploughed and resown, removing another habitat that finches and starlings, amongst others, used to feed on through autumn and winter.
Lapwings and curlews are larger birds that require long, grassy and marshy landscapes to raise their young. Such patches of grassland have been drained and turned into arable land over large areas of the UK so that the cries of the lapwing or peewit and the eerie sound of the curlew have now vanished over the majority of the lowlands of the UK, along with snipe, woodcock and many other species. In Ireland, drainage has gone so far that the curlew is nearly extinct. One can go on: barn owls have vanished as open barns with rafters and rats living in the grain ricks have vanished as well, whilst the rough tussocky pasture where the field vole lives and is hunted by the owls, can be used only by touch breeds of cattle and horses has also been turned into productive pasture now every farm has access to heavy machinery that can put in a ditch or fill in a pond within hours, not weeks as before the war.
However, this litany of destruction of habitat can be reversed. It is ironic but Brexit may save many species through making farming effectively pointless over the uplands and hill country of these islands. Removal of tariffs would bring cheap imports of lamb in from Australia and New Zealand and so many areas of land in Wales and the Pennines that can only support sheep with high subsidies, may turn back to woodland. This can happen extremely rapidly – hill slopes that were ploughed in the 1940’s as part of the war effort are now well grown ash and oak woodland.
I attended a meeting in Tewkesbury this week (April 14) which was informing the public about the ‘return of the shad’ – what on Earth is a shad? I hear you all cry out! Well, the shad is a migratory fish of the herring family that used to spawn in enormous numbers in the Severn until great weirs were built in the 1800’s to trap water to make the river navigable from Tewkesbury up to Shrewsbury. These weirs effectively built a series of walls that stopped the shad migrating up stream to spawn. Almost overnight these shoals of highly edible dish were wiped out.
The project being funded largely by the Heritage Lottery is to remove these weirs or to build fish passes past them to allow the small number of remaining shad to swim up to spawn. Each female shad will lay 10,000 eggs and so it is believed that this species of fish, along with salmon and eels which also migrate, will rapidly return to their former abundance. The message is clear – what humans can do, they can also UNDO. If we want our wildlife back then we need to undo some of the damage we have done.
Good nature watching in the summer to come – don’t forget there is much more to see than even I suspect, so keep those binoculars ready!
Written by Keith Falconer – local wildlife expert and photographer and Fold nature trail volunteer.