Monthly Archives: February 2011

Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.

 

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Hook nosed sea pig

Radio silence has been a tad prolonged this time, so apologies for that. I wasn’t able to get out and about last weekend so I’ve delved into the archive to write about the grey seal. The Latin name for this one of our native seal species – the other being the common seal (Phoca vitulaina) – is Halichoerus grypa – or ‘hook nosed sea pig. Which is a wonderfully descriptive piece of taxonomic nomenclature! It is the only seal to be classified in the Halichoerus genus.

Grey seal relaxing in the Menai Strait between
Anglesey and
North Wales

The grey seal is almost twice the size of the common seal and is immediately distinguishable by the long ‘hooked nose’ compared to the stubby rounded snout of the common seal. Males are around 2.1m in length and females 1.8m, weighing approximately 230kg and 150kg respectively, the female is therefore much smaller than the male.

Distribution of the grey seal is across the northern Atlantic Ocean with breeding colonies in northern Europe and North America. They are fish eaters feeding predominantly on cod and sand eels but are opportunists and will take a range of fish caught at depths down to 70m including molluscs and crustaceans and they fast during the breeding season.


Grey seal watching me watching it off the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around two thirds of their time is spent at sea, but they will haul themselves onto rocks, usually on uninhabited islands but also on some isolated mainland sites between tides and also come ashore to breed. This occurs at various times around the UK and while the females are nursing pups the males will also come ashore to mate. At this time the males may get into territorial battles with other males resulting in scarring to their necks. The pups which are white, suckle milk that is 60% fat for approximately 3 weeks during which time they will gain 2kg per day that is mostly sequestered as a subcutaneous layer of blubber providing essential insulation when the young go to sea.

Grey seals were the first mammals to be protected by legislation – the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914 – and since 1960 the UK population has increased to 120,000 individuals, around half the world population. They are affected by ‘seal plague’ – phocine distemper virus – although of individuals known to have succumbed to the disease only 10% were grey seals.

These delightful animals can be seen all around the UK coastline from the south west, Wales, Scotland and the east coast of England and due to the increase in numbers they have attracted the inevitable hatred of fishermen who claim that they are responsible for declining fish stocks, and they have also been implicated in damaging the nets of offshore fish farms and passing on parasites. The link with parasites is a complex one and further studies are required to establish the link between seals and transmission of parasites, or not.

Common sense prevails

The news is very good this morning.

It has been anounced that ministers are to shelve plans to sell off the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest. It appears that the massive volume of public protest has hit home at the higher echelons of government. That’s a great result. I heard last night in PMQ’s Ed Milliband asked David Cameron the direct question, “Can you tell us whether you are happy with your flagship policy on forestry?” Cameron replied, “The short answer to that is ‘no’.”. A very straightforward answer and probably the shortest one I’ve ever heard from any politician. He then chuckled and went on to flesh out his answer by saying the decision would be made at the end of the 12 week consultation period. Eighteen hours later it has been announced the sale is to be called off.

The Public Bodies Bill in which the proposed sale was to be passed into law is now to be amended and that will hopefully mean that this stupid idea can now be buried for a long time to come.

Another positive outcome is that a different panel of experts is to be set up to look into public access and biodiversity. I hope the experts are the right kind and can make sensible recommendations which can work in practice.

The only possible downside is that the government still plans to sell off 15% of the forest amounting to 40,000 hectares, but I hope that is the pine plantations which can be commercially exploited wiithout causing too much damage to the wildlife.

All in all, good news to start a foggy Thursday with!

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

Wildly inaccurate speculation

This is apparently what we are all guilty of if we oppose the sell-off of our forests to private investors, according to our Environment minister, Mrs Spellman. She is claiming that scare stories are being circulated such as the New Forest is to be made into a golf course and that is why we oppose the sell-off.

I don’t agree with her. The track record of this and previous administrations regarding the disposal of our national assets into the hands of people who have no right to own them has been nothing short of despicable, and has made me deeply cynical of any political claims that moves such as this are in the public interest.

It’s difficult to imagine how guarantees of public access or indeed any other guarantees will be, or can be, enforced in 10, 20 or 30 years time, regardless of promises made now. And the notion that millions of wonderful trees like the enormous horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) below, which have taken hundreds of years to evolve into mini ecosystems in their own right, will end up pulped to be made into loo paper, or even worse, The Daily Mail, is one I find profoundly upsetting


I fear we’ll lose many views like this if the forests go. What a magnificent tree!

There was mixed news on the sell-off today. The BBC were reporting that government sources had told the Politics show the plan was to be largely watered down or possibly even dropped, which is very good news if it is true. But on the other hand, the Daily Telegraph were reporting that many environmental charities will be unable to provide the financial guarantees required by the Government within the 28 day timeframe necessary to enable purchase of the forest.

This beatiful creature, a goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), needs the trees…
…and this one too, a waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus), especially after a long and dangerous flight from north Norway

I’ve seen a document from the Forestry Commision in which the financial value of all the woodland in the east of England has been assessed. Whilst it’s depressing that everything has to be reduced to a figure on a balance sheet in order that anyone with any influence will take notice, there are some big  numbers quoted which will hopefully help people to realise the true worth of our forests to the country. Fingers crossed.

Whilst I think there are significant chunks of Forestry Commission land which have been mismanaged I think it is better that they are managing the forests for the general good. And after the current, very public, debate, if the forests are saved I hope it paves the way for more constructive dialogue on how best to maintain the forests for the benefit of all organisms that require them.

Addendum 09/02/2011

On a global level regarding forests, some good news. Golden Agri-Resources, the worlds second largest palm oil producer has teamed up with The Forest Trust, a worldwide forest conservation organisation,  to work together to find ways to prevent rainforest destruction in Indonesia. It sounds like a long uphill struggle but at least global agri-business and environmental organisations appear to be working constructively together. Long may it last.