Friday, 29 March 2013

Migration News from Holme

 Another desperate day for bird migration, the easterly winds continue and show no signs of abating. No visible migration from Hunstanton Cliffs since 5th March!

 Today at Holme a few grounded meadow pipits (15) most with the Konick and Dartmoor  ponies, not even a pied wagtail! On the marshes at least five different marsh harriers, little egret, peregrine, ten avocets on the pools and a tree sparrow west (NOA). A sad find today was another dead barn owl on Holme Marsh, the third to have been found dead in as many weeks, the relentless cold easterlies have really effected the barn owls hunting success, two were ringed and may well turn out to be local birds.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Help stop this lunacy

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

You would think that the basics of a good education for young children would centre on teaching how to care for yourself, how to care for others and how to care for your environment. 

Photo by Emma Bradshaw
Unfortunately Michael Gove thinks differently and is in the process of removing all references from the new English curriculum for children to be taught ‘to care for the environment’ or ‘ways in which living things and the environment need protection.’

What madness! At a time when it’s becoming more and more apparent how disconnected children are from the natural world and how this lack of connection is damaging both to children and to nature this change to the curriculum is insane. More than ever in human history we need the next generation to grow up connected to and caring for the natural environment both globally and locally. We need these children to grow up knowing more, caring more and living in a more sustainable way if nature and biodiversity are to have a future. If we don’t have a curriculum that inspires these attitudes then what hope that our future politicians and policy makers will make any less of a mess of putting our environment first than the present lot?

Without education of children today that encourages both contact with and caring for the natural environment then conservation has no long-term future. We need more of this not less. More opportunities for children now at school to get outside and learn about why wild places and wildlife matters. More opportunities to learn how we depend on natural ecosystems for our life support system? More opportunities to spend time in nature and gain the well-being and health benefits that time spent in wild places can bring. Despite these now well-recognised benefits to our children research shows that children today spend less time playing outdoors, have less knowledge and first-hand experience of nature than any generation in human history.

It's time to wake Michael Gove up to the crucial importance of more not less education that will help our children care about nature and the environment. If you, like me, feel strongly about this there is still time to reverse these proposals. Please make yourfeelings known by completing the Education Department’s consultation.

Or write to your MP or to Michael Gove MP at the House of Commons.

P.S. Below are some comments from well known naturalist and wildlife film-maker Simon King:

President of The Wildlife Trusts, Simon King OBE, today presses The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP, to:

  • Reinstate teaching about protecting the natural environment into the curriculum
  • Introduce more education about the natural environment in schools
Simon King I can hardly believe that anyone would want to make changes to the curriculum that could lead to large-scale human suffering and damage the rest of life on earth. Yet Michael Gove proposes to stop teaching children to care for the environment. 

“A younger generation equipped to understand and tackle the massive environmental problems we have left them is our only hope for the future. We urge Mr Gove to drop these ill-considered and dangerous proposals, to introduce more education about the natural environment in schools and do some intensive training in ecology with his local Wildlife Trust.”

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Osprey nest created in the Broads

Paul Waterhouse, Assistant Field Officer Breckland
Thanks to funding supplied by the BIFFA FLAGSHIP project and the help of the Rutland Osprey Project an artificial osprey nest has now been built in a secluded spot in the Norfolk Broads. 
Rutland Water Senior Reserve Officer and osprey expert, Tim Mackrill agreed that the Norfolk Broads was a fantastic habitat for ospreys and it was well worth attempts to encourage them back into the area. 
Tim and the team arrived on a very cold and dull morning, however this did not dampen their enthusiasm for the task ahead. Their vehicle was laden with tools and equipment which NWT warden, Mark Amiss helped us to load into the boat and ferry across. The osprey team had not yet seen the site, which we had chosen last winter. Although, I was fairly confident we had chosen a good spot, if I am honest I was a little nervous as to whether they would think the same. However as we approached the site I was relieved to hear Tim say “I would have picked the exact same spot”.    
Preparing the nest
After hauling all the equipment through the reeds, Tim and Lloyd Park (Rutland Water Assistant Reserves Officer and experienced tree surgeon) quickly decided which tree was most suitable. Both Tim and Lloyd climbed the tree and began to make space for the base of the nest high in the tree top. 
After this a large piece of mesh weld was secured to make the main platform on which they would build the nest. The mesh weld is ideal for this as it allows water to drain through the nest and it is also strong enough to hold the weight of a nest measuring more than a metre across. We then started to gather stick for building the nest from around the site which were hoisted up to the top of the tree. 
These are then arranged to make the nest and secured using wire and cable ties, which can be seen in the picture. The last ingredient is mud and moss which lines the nest and makes it look like the real thing. 
The new osprey nest in the Broads
 I may have made this sound much easier than it actually is, but it takes a great deal of knowledge and skill to make these nests so realistic and convincing. The Osprey Project have now made many of these nests not just in Rutland but in a number of different counties. They regard them as an effective and important method of helping to re-establish this once common species back to its former distribution.

Dartmoor ponies at Holme

Gary Hibberd, Warden Holme Dunes

On 16 February ten Dartmoor ponies arrived at Holme Dunes to help us manage our dune slack habitats. Their job: to eat the larger stands of dry grass left from last year's bumper growing season, and create shorter turfs for the growing season ahead. We have in the past used our "Flying Flock" to try and acheive this but found the sheep a little too fussy grazing mostly the shorter vegetation and ignoring the taller stands.

After watching our Konik ponies on the grazing marshes deal with rank vegetation, and creating wet flashes, it was agreed the Dartmoors might be the answer in the dune slacks.

We first met with Holme parish council to discuss the proposal as it was important we had their support, as the area we wanted to graze was part of the Holme common. We all agreed that the common needed to maintain its open features and not become enveloped in ranks grasses and scrub.

The longest job before their arrival was putting up the electric fence to surround eleven acres, and with begged and borrowed equipment and lots of long days from volunteers and staff we got it up the day before their arrival! At this stage we also took lots of photographs they were going to graze, so we could compare the ponies work before and after they left, we also put in a number of quadrats to carefully monitor the plant life throughout the summer.

The animals arrived after a long overnight journey from Dartmoor and were very happy to walk off the lorry and stretch their legs. They soon settled in, and have done some great work by not only munching their way through lots of dry grass but also by creating some bare ground through digging! Bare ground is an important feature of these habitats so it's great to see it being created in a natural way. The ponies are due to leave us on the 2nd April to pastures new at Cawston Heath, so if you do fancy having a look at their work pop along soon.

If we are happy with what they have done for the site they will be returning next winter.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

February at Upton Broad and Marshes

Nigel Robson, Volunteer Bird Recorder at Upton Broad for NWT
Common Teal, photo by Steve Bond

Cold easterly winds and overcast skies that followed the snow in January continued throughout February. Bird activity in the reserve stayed constant, with waterfowl concentrated in two areas, the river lagoons and Great Broad.

At the lagoons, teal was easily the most abundant duck at some 200. The pair of pintails seen in January continued to appear, and a second drake joined the first at the end of the month. Two pairs of shelducks and a group of eight redshanks arrived early in the first week, and they may be expected to stay to breed in the area. However, no pairs of oystercatchers had come by the end of the month. Four dunlin passed through on the 27th. On the grazing marshes, other than regular visits by cranes, barn owls, marsh harriers and the wintering green sandpiper, there was little activity with no sizeable flocks of lapwings or golden plover noted. In some recent years, Bewick’s swans and a lesser number of mute swans have moved across from St Benet’s Level in February, but this did not happen this year (the Bewick’s at St Benet’s numbered 194 on 10 February).

Great Broad supported a close-knit group of some 50 pochards, mostly drakes, throughout the month. Numbers of tufted duck were consistently around 60. Teal were more mobile, sometimes over 200 and at other times absent altogether. A pair of shelducks settled in and may remain to breed nearby. A few shovelers, mallards and gadwalls were present during the month.

The apparent absence from the reserve of species that might be expected is always worthy of note. Usually one or two stonechats winter on the grazing marshes, favouring isolated patches of vegetation such as bramble, but this winter I have seen only a single bird once. Of less significance, I have not recorded water pipit this winter despite one having occupied the river lagoon area during the last two. Rarely in evidence during February were winter thrushes at the grazing marshes hedgerows, although some redwings were to be found in the wet woodland.

The means to manipulate water levels on the grazing marshes, vital to its conservation management, continues to be improved with alterations and adjustments to the dyke reticulation. In February, levels are normally raised to prepare for the forthcoming breeding season for waders. The objective is to retain areas of standing water (in foot drains and shallow pools) until the end of May, which should allow an adequate supply of invertebrate food to be available when chicks are raised. The unusually high winter rainfall has enabled the levels this February merely to be retained. The extreme wetness of the marshes, particularly when compared with the dryness at the same time last year, leads one to speculate that ground conditions this spring may be the most favourable in years. But with climatic influences so powerful and unpredictable, there can be no certainty of this.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The pen is mightier than the brush cutter

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Well not everyone would agree I’m sure, but to me conservation is just as much about policies as it’s about managing habitats. What is nature conservation really about? Surely it’s about the way we treat our environment and the relationship we have with the other species that we share this planet with.

Hickling Broad, by Richard Osbourne
Conservation viewed this way is far too important to sideline into the way we manage nature reserves. The relationship we have with the natural world, our living environment, will in the long run determine much of our quality of life, the success of our economy, our health and that of future generations, our future climate, and also of course the fate of the other living species that live alongside us. Heady stuff perhaps, but this view of conservation makes it perhaps the central question that society must grapple with. Conservation viewed this way is central to all of us, whether we live in cities, towns or the countryside.  

The frightening thing is how little we hear conservation discussed in this way. How often do our business leaders or politicians really put maintaining and enhancing the ecosystem services which are the basis for our economies and societies on their management or cabinet agendas? The answer must surely be, not often enough.

So if we care about conservation, we are going to need our pens as well as our brush cutters, to start ensuring that policies get implemented that work and respect nature rather than exploit nature and take it for granted. This is where your pens come in. If you care about protecting nature then get writing; to parish councils, district councils, your MPs and MEPs. There are so many issues to campaign about. Issues that need our pens: from securing Marine Conservation Zones, preventing pesticides killing our bees, saving sites and saving species, both locally and globally.  

On 13 March, MEPs will vote on proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2014-2020 including over 300 detailed amendments. All of these will be important for the future of our farmed landscape. Send a message NOW directly to your MEP on voting for a nature-friendly CAP.

Get writing and change the world.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

February at NWT Thorpe Marshes

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

The ribbon of blue water running through this picture of NWT Thorpe Marshes looks like a small river or a wide ditch. Actually, it's the path, as it was for a while in February. It was deep enough for there to be a group of teals swimming across the path. A few weeks on, the floods have gone for now - though a few days of rain and they might come back. Nonetheless, the marshes are still pretty bleak. The main draw on the reserve, as through much of winter, is the gravel pit - St Andrews Broad. The ducks come and go, not least from Whitlingham Country Park across the river, but there are nearly always 200 or so, nearly all pochards, tufted ducks and gadwalls.

In March, instinctly one looks for signs of spring. Great crested grebes are in full breeding pluage and black-headed gulls are gaining their dark heads. Last March, there was an avocet swimming with the gulls. Soon the first chiffchaffs will sing and the pussy willow has fluffy buds, ready to burst into flower. So plenty to look for, and I'm hoping that some of these, and maybe the odd surprise, will show on my next wildlife walk round round the reserve, at 10am on Friday 15 March.

Details of the walks and recent sightings on the reserve are my website

Thursday, 7 March 2013

100 Species, Number 7: Coccoliths

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

I don’t suppose many readers will have heard of coccoliths or coccolithophores to give them their full name, let alone the species Emiliana huxleyi. Yet this species, and its coccolithophore friends and relatives, might even deserve first place amongst the species that have made Norfolk. 

I have never seen a living E. hux. Though both you and I have probably swum amongst them and have certainly walked miles over their dead remains. So how can this be? One of the commonest species in the world, very beautiful (try googling E hux images), yet almost unknown. Well E hux suffers two problems for any species wanting a high profile, its marine and its tiny – so doesn’t rank highly in the cute and cuddly stakes. 

Thomas Huxley, friend of Charles Darwin, gave a lecture to working men in Norwich in 1868 titled ‘On a piece of chalk’. The lecture starts, ‘If a well were sunk at our feet in the midst of the city of Norwich, the diggers would very soon find themselves at work in that white substance almost too soft to be called rock, with which we are all familiar as ‘chalk’. Huxley goes on to describe how a friend of his Captain Dayman, had been ordered by the Admiralty to take samples of the sea-bed bottom between England and America as part of the work to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1853. Thomas Huxley was sent these samples and examining them with a microscope realised that the structures he saw, were clearly the remains of living creatures, and identical to those beautiful spherical structures, coccoliths, that he had also seen in chalk rock. His Norwich lecture, still available on the internet, is a highly readable work of genius which explains how chalk is actually the remains of once living marine creatures which still roam our seas today. As Huxley said, ‘A great chapter of the history of the world is written in chalk’.

The chalk, probably more than one thousand feet thick, which lies under the North Norfolk house where I am writing this, is composed of uncountable billions of small white globules which have been described as like snowballs made from brittle paper plates. A description which of course fails to capture the beautiful, geometrical complexity of these structures.

So E hux and other coccolithophores are actually forms of single celled marine algae which build their tiny skeletons from plates of calcite. These calcite plates, coccoliths, sink to the bottom of the sea, not just when the organisms die, but are also shed as they multiply asexually or simply grow. This process, which has formed the chalk beneath our feet in Norfolk, continues today and it’s estimated that more than 1.5 million tons of calcite a year fall to the ocean bottoms from their activity each year.

Thomas Huxley didn’t know the age of the chalk in Norfolk, or how long it took to produce it, though he pioneered the research and thinking on how these geological processes work and are connected to living systems. We now know that the chalk that is the bedrock of Norfolk was laid down between 100 million years ago and 60 million years ago when as Huxley rightly deduced in his Norwich working men’s lecture the county and much of what is now England was a shallow tropical sea. We call this period the Cretaceous ( Creta means chalk and also give its name to the island of Crete) and it was a time of runaway greenhouse gases, no ice at either pole, and seas as warm as hot baths. This runaway greenhouse world, with massive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, was eventually brought back into balance by the billions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon locked away by coccolithophores. Their skeletal plates form Norfolk, England’s and the world’s chalk deposits. Coccolithophores make their coccoliths (skeletal plates) out of one part carbon, one part calcium and three parts oxygen (CaCO3). So each time a molecule of coccolith is made, one less carbon atom is allowed to roam freely in the world to form greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming.

We don’t perhaps appreciate the influence of this chalk in Norfolk. We only really notice it in the cliffs at Hunstanton where white chalk overlies the iron rich red chalk. I don’t know how tall those cliffs are but I do know each cm took about 1,000 years of deposition of the calcite skeletons of the coccolithospheres to create. Without the chalk there would be no flint nodules ( the remains of silica rich marine species and subject of a future post) and without the flint no hand axes from Grimes Graves and perhaps no homo sapiens. For surely we as a species would be very different if we hadn’t had millennia of flint tool usage to hone our hunting skills during our Stone Age evolution.

No coccolithosphores, no chalk deposits, no Norfolk and perhaps no modern human beings.

Simple really! So perhaps Emilania huxleyi, and its marine relatives, deserve to be appreciated and celebrated. They continue of course, unthanked, unrecognised and largely unknown to this day to regulate our climate by mopping up humanities carbon dioxide pollution from the air, continuing to lock it away in ‘carbon sinks’ on the world’s sea floors in deposits of grey ooze that Thomas Huxley first investigated. They are one of the planets keystone species, the base of ocean foodchains with zooplankton and small fish feeding directly on them. They produce dimethyl sulphide which released into the atmosphere from the ocean surface is thought to have a global impact on rainfall through ‘cloud seeding’. Their tiny bodies are rich in long chain poly-unsaturated lipids and are now being investigated as a possible future source of bio-fuels.

It took a great mind like Thomas Huxley’s to begin to see what an important part this species has played in the history of the world. The name Emaliania huxleyi of course recognises his discoveries. I hope if you have got this far that you too will recognise they deserve their place in the 100 species that made Norfolk.