So who gets my green vote?

I like to plan ahead. I have been thinking ahead to next year, in particular to the General Election. In a scenario where I could put all other pressing issues aside, and just vote for the political party based on their green policies and credentials, who would I vote for?

And what exactly are “green” issues? Personally, the issues I really care about and which I believe affect me directly are, in no particular order, planning and infrastructure, flood management and water resources, nature conservation, climate change and renewable energy. I was looking out for these issues.

So, I thought a good place to start might be to look on each of the main parties’ websites to see what was on offer in the way of one-line promises. As I live in England, my definition of main parties was Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative, UKIP, and Green party.

Labour: There’s no page dedicated to the Environment on the Labour website, so I searched the website and came up with a speech from August this year at WWF UK by Angela Eagle, the Shadow Environment Secretary. “Labour will take flood protection seriously. We will re-prioritise flooding as a core responsibility of Defra. We will end this Government’s short-term approach to flood investment and prioritise preventative spending that can save money in the long-term. As part of the Armitt Review, we will establish an Independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, which will include flood protection.” And then there’s some stuff about air pollution. No mention whatsoever of nature conservation or climate change, a bit remiss considering the venue! My assumption here is that these issues are “very low” on the Labour agenda.

Conservatives: there is no mention of the environment at all on the party website (or, indeed, any of my other pet issues). The nearest I could come up with was “Investing in better infrastructure, including roads, rail and broadband – so it’s easier to reach customers”. A very poor website all round in my opinion. And clearly environmental issues are not important at all. Apart from a tree symbol painted the colours of a Union Jack.

Lib Dems: At least their website has an environment page, so they score points. Lib Dems claim to have created 200,000 new jobs by investing in green energy (yes folks, that was all the Lib Dems’ doing). They have also planted 1 million trees in a government tree planting scheme, and (looking forwards at last) promise to put a 5p charge on plastic bags.

UKIP: The two vaguely environmental policies are: Scrap HS2, all green taxes and wind turbine subsidies. Develop shale gas to reduce energy bills and free us from dependence on foreign oil and gas – place the tax revenues into a British Sovereign Wealth Fund. Well, I don’t agree with the policies, but at least they have a couple they can put their name to.

Green Party: Not surprisingly, there is a webpage for environment and climate change, which pledges to:

  • Tackle climate change faster and more effectively by moving Europe from a fossil fuelled economy to one powered by renewable energy. We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
  • Prepare for increasing impacts on ourselves and our neighbours by investing in upland water conservation and flood defences, to shield us from extreme weather events.
  • Protect our natural world from short-term corporate interests who invest in its destruction.
  • End factory farming and animal testing, crack down on the illegal trade in wildlife, and introduce strong animal protection standards.
  • Cut demand by encouraging European incentives for home insulation, reducing the amount of energy we need to heat and power Britain’s homes, and providing much-needed jobs.
  • Change the types of energy we use by speeding up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by voting for increased targets in Europe.
  • Reject harmful long-term solutions. We would ban all fracking and stop building nuclear power stations.
  • Bring the railways back into public ownership and build new local lines and trams.
  • Restore local government control over buses to improve provision and give them preferential road space.
  • Work to reduce petrol and diesel use.
  • Scrap the pointless and hugely expensive HS2 – a train line for the 1%, not the 99% of rail users.

Well, the Green party, as I might have expected, do tick a few of my boxes, and have at least considered some of the issues.

Overall though, it is clear that the issues I have identified as being important to me as a voter (and arguably of critical importance to the country as a whole) are not prominent on the mainstream political agenda. Do I therefore have to add my voice to the many who say that our political elite is out of touch with the voters?

For the election, of course we have to wait for the publication of the parties’ manifestoes. I will be very interested to see how the parties compare, and yes, it will affect the way I vote!

 

A Steppe Too Far?

The steppe grey shrike which appeared recently on the North Norfolk Coast at Burnham Norton brought some controversy during its stay. The bird was, at times, confiding, and was very popular with photographers. Photos of the bird are shown on social media with a mealworm in its beak, and even (apparently) with a dead vole, although I haven’t been able to track down the latter. These were food items placed by photographers to entice the bird closer to their lenses.

I went to see the bird myself, and indeed I took a few photos, though from quite a distance through my telescope using my phone. There were several photographers there at the time, the bird posing nicely and coming to the ground to pick up mealworms within a few metres of the camera scrum. Each time the bird approached there was a round of ferocious mechanical clicking, sounding perhaps a bit like tiny machine guns.

I can’t imagine how many thousands of photos were taken of this bird, a proportion of which made it on to the internet, and a few of which show the bird with mealworms. There were certainly more than enough. Anyway, what interested me was the use of bait to draw the bird closer. My initial reaction to this was that it was wrong in some way. And I still feel it is, but why?

Clearly, if the bird were protected in some way, and there was a question of interference with its nesting site, or it required a licence to photograph, the case is black and white, and photography, let alone baiting, would not be allowed. But this bird was a migrant, and there was no legal issue. Furthermore, the bird willingly came down to feed on the bait, and arguably may have benefited from the food source as it was very considerably lost. What, then, was the difference between providing bait for this bird and feeding birds in your garden? I had to admit, on the face of it, not an awful lot. And wasn’t it better to feed the bird to get good views of it rather than flushing it out of a bush, as has happened with some rare birds?

But wait a minute. There’s something else here. One of the attractions of bird migration to me is the feeling that we are able to make a connection with something wild and free, which knows no boundaries and is to some extent free from human influence. This bird normally spends its time migrating between the steppe of central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and yet (miraculously) has turned up in north Norfolk. It seems to me the essence of its wildness seems somehow to have been compromised by the baiting.

Also, the baiting of a bird for the purposes of photography (when hundreds of good photos have already been taken) is essentially a selfish act by the baiter, with little regard for the enjoyment of others coming to see the bird. There was a feeling that the extraordinary had been made simply ordinary, and had become a toy of the photographers.

The Nature Photographer’s Network, a US based network (http://www.naturephotographers.net/codeofconduct.html) displays the following in its code of conduct:

  • Do not entice a wild animal with food (baiting) in order to get the photo. Allow the animal to be wild, and to move about on its own accord. Note – photos of live-baited birds are prohibited in the NPN Avian Gallery. Photos of baited wildlife are prohibited in the NPN Wildlife Gallery.

The British Wildlife Photography Awards entries page stipulates:

  • An image will be rejected if in the opinion of the judges it appears that the image has been taken in such a way that wildlife law or animal welfare requirements may have been breached; protected species or habitats have been compromised; or the image has been otherwise taken in an irresponsible way. If you are licenced to take pictures or visit areas which might otherwise be unlawful you should say so, and we may ask to see the licence if your picture is shortlisted.
  • Photographs using model animals or live bait are not permitted.

There are few other codes of conduct for wildlife photography to refer to (on my brief internet search anyway), and with the rise in digital technology and the sheer number of photographers that are around now, surely it’s time for a more prominent and definitive code of conduct. That is not to say that the baiting of the Burnham Norton shrike was right or wrong – but what do you think?

Steppe Grey Shrike – Not shy.

Steppe Grey Shrike – Not shy.

Making A Wildlife Pond

Last year I made a wildlife pond in my garden, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experiences. I started the mini-project in late March.

My garden is not large, which affected both location and extent of the pond. Also, the garden is well used by children, so I didn’t want the new pond to be in the way of their sporting activities, nor disturbed too frequently by footballs landing in it. The pond needed to be in a sunny position, as I wanted to have abundant aquatic plants. So I chose a spot near the corner of the garden:

Rob's pond (1)

A little bit shady in the morning, but in full sun in the afternoon and evening. The area was reasonable flat, and did not interfere with our football pitch!

A lot of the guidance I used came from the excellent Freshwater Habitats Trust website www.freshwaterhabitats.org.uk. I opted for an organic shape for my pond:

Rob's pond (2)

The first step was lifting the turves and placing to one side. Then I removed some soil to give a bit of depth (though not too much – a wildlife pond needs to be mainly shallow):

Rob's pond (3)

After that, I lined the pond with garden underlay and butyl liner. Even with the underlay I did still carefully check for sharp stones under the liner. After I had placed the liner over the pond, I put gravel in the pond basin:

Rob's pond (4)

My minor mistake here was that the gravel wasn’t washed properly, so when I came to add rainwater from my water butts, the ponds water instantly turned muddy brown:

Rob's pond (5)

Undeterred, I trimmed the liner down to size, used the turves both over and under the liner to make the banks, and placed a paving slab for pond viewing:

Rob's pond (6)

After a few days, the water started to settle and my daughter and I introduced a couple of branches so that birds could bathe and insects could perch close to the water.

Rob's pond (7)

I added some plants, all of which were borrowed from friends’ ponds; these included broad –leaved pondweed, rigid hornwort, brooklime, gipsywort, water soldier, frogbit, water forget-me-not, common spike rush, lesser water parsnip and water plantain. Adding the plants instantly cleaned the water, and also accidentally introduced some invertebrate life including pond snails.

However, I wasn’t quite satisfied, because of the gap on the banks where exposed pond liner was still showing. This seemed to me to inhibit the chances of the banks being colonised by plants and used by animals, so I followed the suggestion of one of my Twitter followers, and pinned inverted grass turves around the edge of the pond:

Rob's pond (8)

These banks colonised fairly quickly (with a bit of help from some planted creeping jenny), so by July the pond looked like this:

Rob's pond (9)

And there was abundant life – frogs and toads, smooth newts, water beetles (3spp), water boatmen, pond skaters, numerous aquatic larvae, at least 3 species of water snail, azure damselfly, ruddy darter and common darter. Flies and wasps visited the pond edges, and duckweeds grew in abundance. The only real maintenance I have done so far is to hoik out some duckweed every now and then, and to reduce the hornwort likewise – just to retain some open water areas. And the kids absolutely love it!

Rob's pond (10)

Dove Step

Robert Yaxley is taking part in a long charity walk in March/ April 2014. The event is known as Dove Step, and involves a small team of dedicated conservationists walking through the heartland of England to raise money for the endangered turtle dove. Visit dovestep.wordpress.com to follow his progress.

Dovestep

News round-up

Wild Frontier Ecology are pleased to see the publication of a new British Standard for Biodiversity (BS42020). This will help to ensure that surveys and reports provided to planning authorities attain a good standard, and provides a clear guide to expectations for clients and consultees. WFE are striving to consistently meet this standard, and intend to provide a clear statement within our reports of whether it has been achieved.

John Harris has successfully obtained a bat class licence level 2. Well done John!

Susannah Dickinson recently became a full member of CIEEM. Well Done Susie!

We have recently put in place new quality control procedures for field data. This should drive up our fieldwork standards to new levels, and provide added assurance that our work is of the highest level.

Thousand species challenge – the results are in!

My thousand species challenge finished on New Year’s Eve, yet it felt more like a beginning than an end. This was an epic undertaking, but with the most amazing educational and obsessive attractants. The target was to find one thousand species, of any taxa, within a single kilometre square. The square that I chose included my garden, which also provided an interesting journey of discovery.

I reached one thousand species on 29th July 2013, and eventually ended up with 1,170. These included the following taxa:

  • Amphibian 3
  • Aphid 5
  • Bird 86
  • Bristletail 1
  • Bryophyte 16
  • Assorted bug 35
  • Centipede 2
  • Charophyte 1
  • Coleoptera 42
  • Crustacean 1
  • Diptera 53
  • Fish 3
  • Fungi 30
  • Hymenoptera 28
  • Lacewing 3
  • Lepidoptera 451
  • Lichen 10
  • Mammal 13
  • Millipede 4
  • Mollusc 22
  • Odonata 12
  • Orthoptera 6
  • Leech 1
  • Spider 27
  • Trichoptera 5
  • Vascular plant 305
  • Woodlouse 3
  • Worm 1

The moth trap was a major source of new species, and gave me valuable new skills, but it was the other taxa that really tested me (apart from birds). I never knew how difficult fungi were to identify, or caddisflies, or bees. Conversely, I found spiders, ground beetles, molluscs and hoverflies more straightforward.

It was also interesting to learn something about the habitats within my 1km square. A green lane was amazingly diverse, and the ponds, ditches and streams were an obvious source of new species. The garden was also terrific. These are important lessons for ecologists I think. Even small and isolated patches of habitats within a less diverse landscape are important for biodiversity, and not just protected species. Perhaps 3 out of the 1170 species I noted were legally protected!

It’s also the start of a great journey for me, as I start to become more knowledgeable about some species groups, and maybe even start finding some really rare and interesting things! It’s known as pan-species listing. Look it up, it may be for you!

Rosy footman moth

Rosy footman moth, one of the 1170!

 

Recent conferences

Check out Rob’s latest blog on recent conferences.

1000 for 1ksq Challenge

I have always been keen on a challenge, and the naturalist’s gene is in my bones. The urge to identify, to name and classify the things around me is strong. And, I’m a competitive type. So, when I noticed that there was a new challenge (being organised by the BTO’s Andy Musgrove) to see if it was possible to record 1000 species of any and all kinds in a single square kilometre in a single year, it appealed.

Of course, if you are going to do these things properly, it needed some careful planning. Which square kilometre? How was I going to reach 1000 species? Well, as I am keen on moths I thought really the square would have to include my garden so I could add the 200 or so likely species of moth to my tally, plus the home advantage of being there a lot would help. And I would get the privilege of identifying all the various bugs that inhabit my house.

Reaching 1000 species was going to be tricky. A quick back-of-the-envelope indicated to me that I would have to get to grips with maybe 400 or so species which I have never tried to identify before. Yikes!! Had I got all the necessary skills, dedication, materials, and above all, time necessary to put towards the challenge? The answers were no, maybe, no, and no, but I thought I would give it a try anyway.

So, I started to explore. Being a handy botanist and ornithologist has served me well so far, and I have tallied around 110 plant species and 45 birds, as well as small numbers from other taxonomic groups. This has taken me to around 195 species, with a few species (for example, some tree lichens) on the “pending identification” list. A bit of extra kit is required, and I have bought a good hand lens, quite a few books, a macro lens for my iphone and a batch of useful pots for putting things in.

Common frog in the garden – only 999 more to go!

Common frog in the garden – only 999 more to go!

The most interesting thing about the 1000 for 1ksq challenge to me is that it gets you to see your immediate environment in a completely different way. You have to consider what features of the landscape are going to support the most biodiversity. A compost heap suddenly becomes a treasure trove, a pond is a soup of life, a stream is thus far an exciting untapped resource. Even that outbuilding becomes suddenly interesting, full of old spider webs and insect remains.

I hope to provide an update every now and then, no doubt a few more species will come when the weather warms up a bit.

 

New year, new ecologist!!?

It’s that time again, time to put the old you away and pull a shiny new you out of the wrapper. So, for ecologists I thought I would put together some new year resolutions to guide us through the brave new world of 2013 – well, January at least.

  1. Make your writing clearer. Those field notes are of no use whatsoever if you can’t read them only two days afterwards. One housing development can be fiendishly like another in these situations.
  2. Get those records off to the Biological Records Centre. Then hassle them to make sure they get put on to the database.
  3. Wipe down your desk to get rid of the hobnob crumbs, beard hairs and other detritus from the past year. Research has shown that ecologists desks are a focus for the MRSA bacteria.
  4. Polish your equipment. Need I say more?
  5. There are no bad guys, just different opinions. Be a good consultant.
  6. Keep your reference library up to date, and don’t ever disregard evidence where it’s available.
  7. Never leave your clipboard on top of the car. And never forget any equipment anywhere ever.
  8. Be more communicative, chat is a friend winner and people influencer.
  9. Improve your ID skills in an area that you know nothing about currently. One day fungus gnats will be flavour of the month.
  10. Make the most of the winter evenings, you know it’s going to be busy in the summer!

Finally, take a breather every now and then to enjoy nature. Remember, this is the reason you came to ecology, isn’t it?

Rob

IEEM Conferences

I have recently been to two excellent and thought-provoking conferences organised by the IEEM.

The first of these was a two day conference in Cardiff entitled Renewable Energy and Biodiversity Impacts. There was a wide range of speakers from diverse professional backgrounds, giving an interesting overview of various aspects of the interactions between renewables and wildlife. Aside from the (by now well known) bat and bird issues associated with onshore wind farms, there was consideration of other forms of renewable energy including solar parks, a potential Severn barrier and, of course, offshore wind.

I attended an IEEM conference on a similar theme in London a few years ago (I think 2006), and it was interesting to reflect on the changes in the zeitgeist between the two conferences. Of course, there has been a whole raft of new guidance for ecologists on surveys and EcIA for renewable energy developments in the intervening time, and this conference reflected that quite well. For example, whereas a few years ago a lot of the angst expressed seemed to be around bird/ turbine impacts, surveys for birds at proposed wind turbine sites are now steered by some generally good guidance, and the impression was given that general bird impacts are at least a better understood issue now, and as a result more quantifiable and ultimately can be better avoided.

However, not a single presentation gave evidence of bird carcass monitoring at operating wind farms, and it seems that there is still a lack of monitoring data and real-world collision rates for many bird species. This is a concern, long known about but still yet to be properly addressed through published materials. It is ironic that bat collisions are being well studied by Defra funded research from Exeter University, even though their potential collision risk has been of concern for less time than that for birds.

The second conference was a very well attended conference for the East of England section of the IEEM in Essex. There was some very interesting discussion around reptile issues, particularly from Dr David Sewell, Jim Foster, Nigel Hand and Paul Edgar. David’s talk gave an insight into the latest research on survey effort required for reptile and amphibian surveys, which led nicely into Jim’s discussion of the issues surrounding the new reptile survey guidance, its withdrawal and forthcoming re-issue. Nigel’s talk was very much more hands-on, describing the tracked movements of adders in the West Midlands. It seems that, in the early season at least, female adders are very sedentary, while males go a bit further afield to forage, but still not all that far. Paul’s talk gave us an interesting update on recent changes at Natural England, and perhaps an indication of future directions for that organisation.

All in all definitely worth the few days out of the office, and great to meet a few interesting fellow professionals as well.

Rob