Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Pink-footed Geese at Cley

Tuesday 29th December 2015

   After a day off along the coast it was nice to drop in at Cley and see good numbers of pink-footed geese on the site. Though familiar with good numbers at Holme, seeing large numbers at Cley feeding and roosting was heart warming. These birds are clearly adding a relatively new sound to the Cley area, long may it continue. The purchase of Pope's Marsh has I'm sure helped to make this a now regular winter feature.

The pink-feet (at least 1400) lift off over Cley.
Great to see Bernard and his assistants!

Lead Shot: time to solve the problem

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Lead is a poison. There is nothing particularly contentious in saying that. After all that is why lead was removed as an additive to petrol and paints, and why we no longer use lead water pipes. This fact, of course, has been known for centuries: it may even have been the decreases in fertility and increased cases of psychosis brought about by contamination of drinking water from lead pipes that was a factor in the decline of the Roman empire! The scientific consensus is that lead is a poison, with no known safe limit, that is capable of killing, and causing many serious health problems, in both people and wildlife.

However despite these bans, which now even include the use of lead in small fishing weights, there is one source of lead into the UK environment that studies suggest is annually killing at least 73,000 ducks, geese and swans. Today it might surprise you that the largest source of lead being dispersed into the UK environment comes not from industry but from the use of lead shot in game and clay pigeon shooting. An estimated 5,000 tonnes a year enters the environment this way and, as lead shot can remain in the soil for up to a century this is a poison that accumulates year on year.

Gadwall, photo by Derek Moore

As Lord Krebs, emeritus professor of zoology at Oxford University and former chair of the UK Food Standards Agency said in a recent BBC interview there is, ‘an overwhelming body of evidence’ that lead used in hunting was ‘a risk both to humans and to wildlife.’ And, ‘on that basis the advice would be that lead shot should be phased out’.

Water birds are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. When they are feeding they seek out small stones from the soil or water’s edge to take into their gizzards to help grind up their food. Unfortunately, if there is spent shot on the ground, they don’t distinguish between poisonous lead and safe natural grit. When a cartridge is fired then the lead shot it contains, (typically more than 200 in each cartridge) spread out, and most, even if the hunter is successful in hitting their target, fall to the ground, irretrievably spread over quite a large area. We have known for more than a century that spent lead shot can kill birds and the ingestion of just one or two can be lethal to birds. A recent study on marshland, now an NWT nature reserve, that had formerly been shot over for decades revealed up to a million spent lead shot per hectare. Shocking, but perhaps not surprising, as in 1992 it was estimated that 1.6 billion lead shot were deposited in UK wetlands alone in the 1990s.

It’s almost 30 years ago that the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that, ‘urgent efforts should be made to develop alternatives to lead shot and lead fishing weights’ and that ‘As soon as these alternatives are available, the Government should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot and fishing weights in circumstances where they are irretrievably dispersed in the environment’. This is not just a UK issue. It is estimated that millions of water birds are dying globally from lead poisoning from ingested spent lead shot. In Europe alone it has been estimated that around a million wildfowl, from 17 species, die every winter from lead poisoning from ingested lead shot... Globally endangered species, including the white –headed duck, are threatened by this and of course many waterfowl that die from lead poisoning may be eaten by predators. The poison then accumulates up the food chain. Lead poisoning was a major reason that the California Condor came perilously close to extinction in North America and in Europe vultures, red kites and other birds of prey have been shown to be at risk.

The use of lead shot has since 1999 been restricted over English wetlands and for shooting of waterfowl but sadly there is strong evidence that this ban is widely ignored. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust recently carried out tests on over 100 wild ducks being sold for food in England and found that three-quarters had been shot with lead despite the ban having been in force for more than a decade. Recent work has also shown that any wild game shot with lead, even if all the shot are removed from the carcass, will still be contaminated by small fragments of lead. There is increasing concern over the threat this may pose to human health.

So what can be done? Some European countries have already banned the use of lead shot including Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. Several states in the USA have total bans on its use. Unfortunately calls for a ban are sometimes seen by the shooting community as an attack on shooting but this is not the case. In Denmark for example, where the use and possession of lead shot has been banned since 1996, many hunters now regard the ban as beneficial for hunting. As Niels Kanstrup, a Danish hunter, has commented recently, ‘I’m a conservationist and I’m a hunter, too. I think shooting is a fair and sustainable way to use natural resources, but we can’t have it connected with spreading poisonous heavy metals in nature.’ Safe alternatives to lead, such as steel shot, now exist and at comparable prices and the countries which have introduced bans on lead have not seen any reduction in the numbers of people shooting. Shooters have simply switched to using safe alternatives.

As Stephen Trotter, Wildlife Trusts England Director has said:

"The scientific evidence is clear from a large body of published research papers. There would seem to be no reasonable or logical justifications for the continued use of lead ammunition when safer but equally functional non-toxic alternatives are available. I realise that an adjustment like this will require time and would not be welcomed by everyone but the risks are serious. If anglers can do the right thing for the environment, surely shooters can too?"

The Wildlife Trusts support calls by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, RSPB and the Sustainable Food Trust for lead ammunition to be phased out and replaced with non-toxic alternatives You may wish to consider supporting moves towards a ban by signing the e-petition calling on the Government to ban lead-based ammunition If you would like more scientific information and evidence on this topic then the proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium published last month provide more detailed evidence on the effects of lead ammunition on human health, wildlife and the environment.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Natterjacks active again.....

Sunday 27 December 2015

 After another balmy winter's day at NWT Holme Dunes I made another search for a "late" natterjack toad just after 9pm. Temperature was around nine degrees so really wasn't expecting to find anything, but just after reaching the ridge to the beach in the pines I came across this natterjack, running around actively, although a similar size to the animal I saw a few days ago it felt to me to be much fatter and healthier looking.

   I then carried along the footpath and back around the west end of the pines and over the established grey dune, really not expecting to find another one, but doing just that! Sat on a small mound of sand as if waiting for the next meal to crawl to him (or her).

Apologies for poor quality of photos but using torch and camera combined as I have no flash in camera.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Natterjack toad at Holme Dunes in December!

    The unseasonably mild weather this last few weeks had raised hopes we might find a very late natterjack toad, most of our searches have been fruitless until this evening. While coming home from work (around 9.30pm) our resident volunteer warden Tom Parkes found a common toad in Holme village, so hopes of finding a late natterjack were possible. Tom walked up to the beach and within a few minutes had found one! After reporting his finding to me I wasn't able to get out until after 10pm, my first search found the animal but while looking at it I realised a photo would be useful.

   Returning with the camera the animal, which had been quite active couldn't be found! Another careful search of the area eventually located it and photographs were taken with the aid of my torch (my flash doesn't work on the camera) in heavy rain. 


   Although about 4-5cm long the animal was quite thin, may be it's reason for re-emerging from hibernation. Our latest sighting was the 18th November 2013, so this is an exceptional increase and another sign of how global warming can effect our wildlife.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Nail Fungus at Roydon Common

  A brief visit to Roydon Common on the 9th December 2015 provided me with two nice sightings, first four woodlarks flying over, then moments later while searching the ground  a pile of pony droppings covered in what looked like white discs!

 I suddenly realised I was looking at the nail fungus Poronia punctata, it had been found in recent years by our then warden Jonathon Preston. Although familiar with its rarer cousin at Holme I was very pleased to bump into it. It was fruiting well and so now is clearly a good time to look for it. 

 Poronia punctata
 Poronia erici

   As can be seen P. erici is considerably smaller and trust me much harder to find, it prefers rabbit droppings! This species was only known from Scolt Head in Norfolk, being last recorded in the late 1930's. It was found at Holme in October 2010 by a very observant photographer who, at the time was photographing a species of Boletus. It has proved to be erratic in appearance and only from one small area on the site, however it is probably over-looked. Autumn and early winter is the best time to search for it, the public footpath east of the pines the area to explore. Good luck you'll need it!

Monday, 14 December 2015

A woodcock moon

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

The last week of November caught me moon-gazing, captivated by a beautiful and very golden full moon rising on the eastern horizon before it vanished into a blanket of cloud. The November full moon is sometimes known as a woodcock moon as traditionally it was always thought that woodcock would wait for moonlight nights before crossing the North Sea to arrive, sometimes in large numbers known as a fall, along the coast in eastern counties such as Norfolk.

Well whatever the truth of this I was pleased to spot three woodcock in woods close to my house the following morning. Woodcock may be the commonest wader in Britain during the winter months as in some years it estimated that as many as 800,000 cross the North Sea to winter in the UK arriving from Scandinavia or even Russia. Despite these numbers seeing a woodcock is by no means easy! The first one I saw was a fairly typical view: a warm chestnut brown bird, rather rotund with short, broad, rounded wings flying rapidly away from me through trees. This bird ‘exploded’ from a carpet of leaves on the woodland floor and with a characteristic rustling of wings vanished in seconds. The other two I spotted flying high over a ploughed field, distinctive in silhouette the only species you might mistake them for would be snipe but the wings are broader and less pointed and the bill though pointed only half the length of a snipe’s. Most likely these birds had been disturbed by beaters from a shoot as not too far away I could hear the sound of gunfire. Many game shoots do discourage the shooting of woodcock though they remain a legal quarry species during the shooting season.

Woodcock are mysterious birds but we are slowly learning more about them. In recent years the game conservancy has satellite tagged a number of woodcock during the winter in England and this has revealed their long east – west migration routes. Our wintering birds were found to travel to breeding grounds in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Belarus and Russia with some birds travelling over 7,000km.

In the past they were netted in big numbers in Norfolk woods during the winter as their flesh was considered a delicacy. The NWT reserve, Cockshoot Broad, in the Bure valley takes its name from this activity. A ‘cockshoot’ was a clearing made in woodland where wool nets were strung to catch woodcock leaving the wood on their dusk flights when they move to open marshland and pasture seeking their favourite food, worms.

They do breed in some Norfolk woods and in spring and early summer the polygamous males perform circular ‘roding’ flights making curious grunting sounds presumably to impress watching and waiting females below. Its suggested that woodcock at least on occasion carry their unfledged, flightless young with them in flight. Several reputable observers have described the adults carrying a chick clasped between the adult’s upper legs with the tail folded under giving additional support.

Another story about woodcock is the November woodcock moon. It was noted as long ago as Victorian times that falls of woodcock on the coast often coincided with the morning after the full moon. On these cold November mornings large numbers of goldcrests also appeared so it was thought they had ridden across the North Sea on the backs of woodcock and sometimes were referred to as ‘woodcock pilots’. This of course is a myth but it does seem that woodcock do favour clear moonlit nights for their migrations so the tales of woodcock moons may have some truth to them. Whatever the case now is a good time to keep an eye out for a woodcock. You will need to be very fortunate to spot this superbly camouflaged, strange woodland wader on the ground but if you hear a rustle of wings and spot a rufous brown feathered ball hurtling away from you through the trees on broad rounded wings then you too have seen a woodcock – the owl-like wader of our woodlands, a rare sight but possibly our commonest wader, a bird of mystery, tall stories and fascinating contradictions. I hope you spot one!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Grazing at Holme Dunes

Gary Hibberd, Warden at Holme Dunes

Meet the new "management tools" at Holme

The recent grazing by our konik ponies and English white cattle in the dune slacks and paddocks respectively has highlighted what an amazing job these animals can do on our  sites. I gave an illustrated talk to our local group the other evening and used some recent pictures to show how important they are as management tools. I thought I'd share some of these images here:

The koniks over looking the slacks from the bank that was originally bulldozed up during World War Two.
Note the rank bush grass Calamagrostis epigejos, the bright green vegetation....
the koniks love it!
Another view of the main slack before grazing...
and after, note the "Toads in Holes" scrape in full view!
Now the work rate from the English whites!
The day they arrived at Holme on 29 October
and what they have achieved by 11 December!
A view of the paddocks main area of grassland...
and now. Well done ladies.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Winter access to Thorpe Marshes

Chris Durdin, NWT Volunteer at Thorpe Marshes

I’d be the first to admit that a walk at NWT Thorpe Marshes on a grey morning is often more about fresh air and exercise than wildlife watching.

That said, if you don’t get out you won’t encounter wildlife, and it’s always pleasure to hear squealing water rails, singing Cetti’s warblers or the ‘tsip’ of a wintering meadow pipit. As autumn turns to winter, more ducks appear: a male goosander flew past last time I walked round, and there’s usually a goldeneye or two with tufted ducks and teals on the gravel pit, St Andrews Broad.

Hogweed, photo by Chris Durdin
None of these species are that unusual for a reserve in the Yare Valley, but they still hold an element of surprise in what could reasonably be described as a suburban setting on the edge of Norwich.

I also enjoy the flowers that persist late in the year. White dead-nettle just seems to go on and on. A particular favourite is hogweed, especially if you can find one tinged with pink. It’s also a valuable late nectar source.

Railway bridge into NWT Thorpe Marshes, to be shut for restoration work
The main reason for writing now is to alert blog readers to a change in access coming soon. The usual pedestrian entrance into the reserve is over the railway bridge in Whitlingham Lane. This is scheduled to be shut for major repairs from 5 December to the end of March. You can still walk around the reserve but for this period the way in on foot will be from Bungalow Lane, farther east along Yarmouth Road, and that’s also the plan for guided walks.

It’s worth adding that the Trust’s management gives the landscape a ‘work-in-progress’ feel, with newly dug ponds, ditching work and paths being restored. All good things for the longer term, of course.

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks on http://www.honeyguide.co.uk/thorpemarshes.htm 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The elephant in the room – climate change

David North, Head of People & Wildlife

Few would dispute that the two biggest threats to our wildlife are habitat loss and climate change. In nature conservation we have been addressing the former for many decades through nature reserve acquisitions, and legal protection of habitats through the various designations, SSSI, SAC, SPA, etc that, at least for those working in conservation, have become familiar terms. Conservation as they say should be ‘habitat forming’ and more recently we have seen recognition of the importance of habitat creation and restoration.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust has been actively protecting special habitats in Norfolk ever since its formation in 1926. We purchased Cley Marshes and today manage big areas of rare habitats from Broadland fens to Breckland heaths, ancient woods to magical meadows. We also today are busy restoring habitats, from tracts heathland damaged and nearly lost through conifer planting at Grimston Warren to arable land in the Bure Valley restored to wet grazing marsh and increasingly through our Living Landscapes approach we are attempting this on a landscape scale. So when wildlife is threatened by habitat loss we know what to do – we have tools ranging from planning controls, site designations or as a last resort land purchase that can save threatened habitats. We even increasingly know how to restore or even create new habitats of wildlife value and conservation all over the country is busy doing this.

Hickling Broad Cadbury's Hide, by Maurice Funnell
But. And it’s a big but. The elephant in the room is climate change. Climate change can undo all our conservation efforts, make our reserves and designated sites, if not irrelevant, then at least impotent to protect many species. With even a 2 degree warming then species may need to shift their global ranges by hundreds of kilometres to stay within the ‘climate window’ that they have evolved to survive and thrive in.

So what can an organisation like NWT do about a global problem like climate change? If we are serious about ‘saving Norfolk’s wildlife for the future’ then surely this should be a key question. And of course it is; though it is one that we like other conservation organisations are struggling with. For starters our vision for Living Landscapes is both long term and predicated on the realisation that if wildlife needs to move, if populations need to shift their ranges as climate changes, then bigger better joined up habitat areas are going to be crucial. So, along with other Norfolk conservation organisations, we are mapping ecological corridors and considering how best to link our reserves together or expand them to make better ecological corridors and bigger, more resilient areas of habitat that will give wildlife the best chance to adapt to a changing climate.

We are also looking at how in the ways we manage our nature reserves we can build in resilience to future climate change: making plans to ensure our wetlands stay wet, and on our coastal reserves that our management plans fully consider the impacts of rising sea levels and the likelihood of more frequent flooding. We don’t of course have all the answers, but then again I’m not sure any of those world leaders in Paris do either! But for both our future and the future of our wildlife we need to be taking action now to ensure that whatever climate change may bring there are areas of linked habitats that give our wildlife the very best chance of survival and that the vision of our Living Landscapes becomes a future reality.

But what can we do as individuals? Well I guess most of us who care about the environment will be hoping that the world leaders who have come together in Paris this week will achieve agreements that really do move us towards the a carbon neutral future. The only sustainable long-term solution for both us and the wildlife we share the planet with is to give up our global addiction to fossil fuels and move to energy sources which don’t bring about global warming. And as we know there is progress: green sources of energy wind, solar, tidal, biomass and others are becoming more widely used and more competitively priced. There is hope, and I for one will be both hoping and, when necessary, demanding that our politicians turn the fine words we are hearing in Paris into actions that actually bring about real change. As Sir David Attenborough has indicated climate change is difficult issue today but if we don’t tackle it now it will become much harder to tackle tomorrow and then if no action is taken will become a problem that no longer can be tackled.

However I’m still left with that nagging question – perhaps my conscience speaking – the question of what actions I can take myself? Am I playing my part in any solution? Climate change is not just for the politicians and world leaders to tackle, it’s also an issue with which organisations like NWT need to grapple. It’s one for all business leaders and local decision makers here in Norfolk and beyond to be taking seriously and its one for you and me too! As both David Cameron and the Pope have said yesterday, along with many other politicians and world leaders, the decisions we make today will have huge consequences not just for present generations but also for generations as yet unborn and will determine the sort of world they inherit.

Short eared owl at Upton, photo by Tabs Taberham