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The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Butterflies:
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term  is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

A once in a lifetime opportunity

This post is a diversion from my regular posts about the biological side of nature and this time I’m delving into the more fundamental aspects of physical nature.

Peter Higgs is a colossus of modern theoretical physics who was awarded the Nobel proze for physics in 2013 for his prediction of the presence of the ‘Higgs boson‘ – the so called ‘God particle‘ which is accredited with conferring mass on other sub-atomic particles. In my professional life I’m a  mass spectrometrist so experiments to determine the nature of mass itself are of immense interest. In order to prove Higgs’ theory, one of the biggest and most expensive scientific experiments ever devised was built at the ‘Conseil européen pour la Recherche nucléaire‘ or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s called the ‘Large Hadron Collider‘ or LHC. The idea of a collider is that sub atomic particles (hadrons) can be crashed together at incomprehensibly huge energies to smash them into their constituent parts which can then be analysed. At the moment the theory of these elementary particles, which are the building blocks of all the matter in the known Universe, is described by the ‘Standard Model, but there are holes in the Model such as ‘what is dark matter?’ or ‘why is there more matter than antimatter in the Universe?’. So it’s hoped that high energy colliders such as the LHC will enable us to probe deeper into the fundamental building blocks of everything and fill the holes in the Standard Model.

In August last year I attended a conference in Geneva and one of the social events was a trip to the LHC at CERN, and that’s one of those opportunities that can’t be ignored. So, even though this isn’t ‘nature‘ as such, I hope I can justify sharing it here!

A status pannel for the LHC indicating what it’s actually doing

Everything about the LHC is mind boggling. It’s a circular tunnel 27km in circumference under Geneva and the Jura mountains on the Swiss/French border. It’s designed to accelerate small beams of protons in opposite directions to as close to the speed of light as possible, before colliding them inside one of four detectors around the ring. The protons are generated by stripping the electron away from hydrogen atoms leaving the free hydrogen nucleus (consisting of a single proton) to be fed into the accelerator. The collided protons eliminate each other and in the process give off collosal amounts of energy in the form of X-rays and gamma rays and sub atomic particles.

Access to the ring is only possible when the beam is turned off because of the intense radiation generated by the colliding particles. Until now the ring has only been operating at 50% power (but even at half power definitive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson was found) and it was shutdown for an upgrade to enable it to operate at full power. After the upgrade, which was scheduled for completion at the end of 2014, there will be no access for several years whilst further experiments are underway, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have got in to have a look. Even at half power the protons approached close to the speed of light but higher speed will give higher energy collisions and more information about the fundamental structure of matter.

The end of one of the sections of the ring on the test rig prior to installation in the LHC

To accelerate the protons to near light speed takes a lot of circuits around the ring and I think we were told that that takes around 40 minutes. The ring itself is made up of sections approximately 30m long containing superconducting electromagnets which carry the beam line and a tube for liquid helium which cools the ring down to approximately 1-2oC above absolute zero (-273oC). At this unbelievably cold temperature (colder than outer space according to CERN) the magnets become superconducting and can accelerate and guide the contra-rotating proton beams up to collision speed. To collide the two beams, which are only a few μm in diameter, has been likened to firing two needles at each other from 10km apart with sufficient accuracy that they meet in the middle – quite a technological challenge!

The other consequence of cooling the ring down to such a low temperature is thermal contraction, and at the operating temperature of -271.3oC the 27km ring decreases in circumference by approximately 0.003% – which may not sound like much but is in reality around 80m!

There are four main detectors on the LHC called CMS, Atlas, ALICE and LHCb and the one that I was privileged enough to visit was the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid – I can’t help but wonder if this is the compact version what a full size one would look like):

The CMS detector of the LHC. The spike in the middle carries the proton beam line

Here, the two ends of the CMS detector – which has been likened by some to the Rose Window in the Notre Dame cathedral – had been moved apart during the upgrade so all this wouldn’t normally be visible. This vast machine is approximately 21m long, 15m in diameter and weighs 12,500 tonnes. Truly gigantic – the tinyest natural phenomena are being probed by the most enormous machines!

Some more brain-frying facts and figures aabout the LHC!

It can be seen from the diagram that each proton beam contains:

110,000,000,000 protons. At 99.9998% of the speed of light the energy of one proton is:

450,000,000,000eV. And at 99.9999991% the speed of light the energy is:

7,000,000,000,000eV.

So an increase in velocity of 0.0001991% gives a vast increase in energy of nearly 16 fold. But 7TeV is only half power and the plan is ultimately to run the LHC at 15TeV… and the plan after that is to build another collider 100km in circumference!

It can be argued that spending the colossal amounts of money required to conduct this type of science could be better spent on for example developing solutions to climate change. But being a scientist I’m a firm believer in conducting fundamental blue sky research and CERN was concieved by one of the greatest theoretical physicists of them all, Louis de Broglie, after WW2 as a means of fostering international cooperation in fundamental physics. So as well as immense scientific and technological developments which includes the world wide web (invented by Tim Berners Lee whilst he was a scientist at CERN) I think CERN has played a key role in enabling many countries to engage with each other in an ostensibly apolitical fashion, and that could ultimately help to foster the spirit of international cooperation required to solve the other big problems.

If this interests you and you want to read more have a look at the CERN website. As you might expect it’s brim full of fascinating stuff!

Seabirds and serendipity

Every now and then an event occurs which reaffirms ones faith in human nature. Just such an event befell me last week whilst away on a trip to the coast near Lancaster and Morecambe.

On Friday morning I was wrapped up against the driving rain and howling wind taking photographs of seabirds on Morecambe beach which is situated on the Irish Sea coast just south of the Lake District. Morecambe Bay is vast, when the tide goes out it leaves square miles of mudflats which provide vital winter sustenance  for thousands of seabirds. It is also a source of great danger to humans because there is a lot of quicksand there, and when the tide comes in it does so extremely quickly and can cut the unwary beachcomber off with no escape route. Consequently I didn’t wander onto the mud, I waterproofed myself and sat on the end of the Promenade where the birdlife was plentiful and, with a little patience, came reasonably close.

A majestic shelduck making ttracks in the mud whilst looking for breakfast

The shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) is a large duck with a wingspan of over a metre and is both native to the UK and a winter migrant. It’s mainly found on the coast and in estuaries but can also be seen on lakes (although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one inland). They feed on molluscs and crustaceans of which the Morecambe Bay mudflats are bursting at the seams. So a good place for a hungry shelduck to be.

I like photographing waders because I generally only get to do it at the coast, and one of my favourites, because I think it’s an elegant little bird, is the redshank:

Redshank – Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben, demonstrating how it got its name

The redshank also sifts molluscs and crustaceans from the estuarine silt and is a skittish little chap known as the ‘sentinel of the marsh’ due to it’s habit of being the first species to take to the air when flushed.

Several flocks of oystercatchers were also scouring the manmade rocky outcrops strategically placed to guard against storm tides, and were also patrolling the mudflats. They were anything but skittish, unlike the redshank, and ventured close to where I sat and seemed highly adept at finding shellfish and extracting the delicacies within.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) feasting on the contents of a mollusc shell

So my morning was splendidly wiled away in cold and sodden comtemplation of the ornithological treasures of Morecambe Bay. It was also my daughters birthday that day, so the afternoon was spent taking afternoon tea in the magnificence of the tearoom of the art deco Midland Hotel. The tea (and the champagne) was delicious and the views across the bay to the mountains of the Lake District were splendid

And that brings me neatly back to the event that reaffirmed my faith in human nature. On leaving the Midland I dropped my wallet as I was getting in the car. Serendipity was on my side because it was found by two lovely people from Manchester, Dave and Angela Williams, who had stopped off in Morecambe on their way home from the Lakes. As we were on the move I wasn’t easy to get hold of, but Dave and Angela persevered until we made contact and then waited until I could get back to Morecambe and gave me back my wallet complete with cash, credit cards, driving license etc etc. Which in my book is a very generous thing to do and for which I’m very grateful indeed. So this post is dedicated to them as a token of gratitude, and all other decent and honest people too!

Sustainability Pt2

As you know the EU voted last week to reform the Common Fisheries Policy with a large majority. Here is an email update on the position going forward to the next series of negotiations sent by the Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies. The email subject was ‘Fish Fight Victory!‘, enough said:

Dear Fish Fighter

You will know, I am sure, that on Wednesday the European Parliament gave its backing to major reforms of the EU Common Fisheries Policy. But perhaps you don’t know of the amazing scale of that victory.

After some 180 votes on different amendments or attempts to delete particular reforms, MEPs voted by 502-137 to support the entire package.

We got just about everything we could want. Key amendments calling for all fish caught to be landed (no discards), and for annual quotas to be set so that fish stocks are increased, were approved by large majorities with more than 400 MEPs voting in favour. We insisted that scientific advice must be followed, called for fish stock recovery areas to be created, backed requirements that a long term management plan be established for every fishery, and demanded that governments that fail to meet their obligations should face financial sanctions.

This was the first time that the European Parliament was able to vote on CFP reform as a co-legislator, with equal powers to the Council (EU governments) to amend or reject the European Commission’s proposals. Now the bargaining begins to agree a joint position. Compromises will have to be made, but our decision gives the rapporteur, German MEP Ulrike Rodust, the strong negotiating mandate she will need to overcome opposition in the Council. The Irish Presidency currently in charge of the negotiations has said that it would like to reach agreement by June.

The main opposition to the changes came from Spanish and French EPP (right-of-centre) members, but they weren’t able to keep their group united. At least 70 of their colleagues, led by Scandinavians and German MEPs, refused to back their attempts to weaken the reforms.

I haven’t checked the records but I think you will find that all British MEPs from the main parties backed the reforms. My understanding is that UKIP members abstained on the final vote (Nigel Farage was not present).

How was such a large majority achieved? Credit can go to many individuals and to all the MEPs who voted with us, but there is no doubt that the campaign in several countries led by environment NGOs, including Hugh’s Fish Fight, has raised public awareness and ensured that many people made their views known to their MEPs. Our campaign within the Parliament was run on a cross-party basis. More and more of my colleagues came to accept that we can’t go on as we are, and recognised that fishermen will have a more secure future if we adopt the measures necessary to rebuild fish stocks.

I know the Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki, would like to say that the first positive steps are already being taken. We now have 27 sustainable fisheries in Europe, compared to just five a few years ago.

The reform campaign is not over yet. The next big series of votes will take place in the Fisheries Committee in April, when we consider the 3,000 amendments tabled to Commission proposals for changing the way the fisheries budget is used over the next seven years. Do we carry on subsidising a handful of shipowners, mainly in Spain and France to build ever more powerful fishing boats, or do we use the money instead to help coastal communities and find ways of assisting fishermen adjust to the demands of sustainable fishing?

I’ll let you know more about this when I know more myself.

Thank you for all your support in this campaign.

With regards

Chris Davies MEP

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman

Secretary, cross-party ‘Fish for the Future’ group

I’m writing this post overlooking Bridlington harbour on the North Sea coast in East Yorkshire and the harbour is full of small fishing boats of the kind I hope will have their future guaranteed by the reforms. And I can’t think of a better location to be in to write this post!

I received emails from several of the Conservative MEP’s who all voted for the reforms, so hats off to them for voting the right way and for taking the trouble to communicate with me about it. Amusing to note though that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) members abstained and that Nigel Farage (the leader of UKIP) didn’t consider saving the fisheries and the jobs and livelihoods of all our fishing communities sufficiently important to even turn up. Despite that it looks as though we’re now in a great position to make real headway to protect our fish and our oceans.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend, the 26th and 27th January 2013, is the weekend of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This is a form of citizen science by which the RSPB can harness the collective spotting power of the nation to assist in compiling data on the nations bird populations.

The idea is to spend one hour noting which bird species visit a chosen area and the maximum number of each seen at any one time. This point is important because an individual can make several visits over the course of an hour, so counting total numbers will overestimate the numbers of a particular species.


A long tailed tit paying a visit to my garden this morning

If you want to make a pot of tea and sit by the window for a relaxing hour sipping and counting the details of how to take part are here on the RSPB’s website. Even if you don’t get many interesting birds in your garden, or even many birds at all, this is important and useful data too for compiling population sizes and distributions, so every participant is crucial in creating an accurate picture of the health of the nations birdlife. Which is in turn a useful indicator of the health of the natural environment in the UK as a whole.

I’m going to do my recording tomorrow morning and I’ll post my results here too.

Looking after the forests and the fishes Pt3

Continuing the story of todays vote by the EU Fisheries Committee on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy to end discard and prevent overfishing I’ve just received email notification that the vote was  in favour of reform by 13 votes to 10 with 2 abstentions!

Wey hey!! It just goes to show that common sense can ultimately prevail. This is what the press release from the EU had to say:

Stop overfishing: Fisheries Committee approves major reform for “Blue Europe”

PECH Fisheries − 18-12-2012 – 17:28

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) needs radical reform to cut fishing to sustainable stock levels, end discards, and use better long-term planning based on reliable scientific data, said Fisheries Committee MEPs on Tuesday. Overfishing is widely seen as the worst failure of the current CFP, dating from 2002. The new one is to take effect in 2014.

European Commission figures suggest 80% of Mediterranean stocks and 47% of Atlantic stocks are overfished. The proposal voted in the Fisheries Committee contains clear and strong measures to tackle this problem.

“I am very relieved that we have now cleared this difficult hurdle. I expect that the plenary will confirm our vote in February. After that we will have a strong backing to start negotiations with the Council in order to get the reform signed and sealed” said Ulrike Rodust (S&D, DE), Parliament’s rapporteur on the fisheries reform..

Stop overfishing by ending discards…

Discards – fish thrown back, usually because they are of unwanted species or size – account for almost a quarter of total EU catches. Most of the discarded species die. To end this wasteful practice, MEPs voted to oblige fishing vessels to land all catches in accordance with a timeframe setting specific dates for different fisheries, starting from 2014.

Landed catches of fish that are undersized, for example, would be restricted to uses other than human consumption. Member States must make sure fishing vessels comply with the discard ban.

…and respect maximum sustainable yield

The maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is defined as the largest catch that can be safely taken year after year and which maintains the fish population size at maximum productivity. In today’s vote, MEPs sought to ensure that fish stocks will recover, by 2020 at the latest, to above levels that are capable of producing the MSY, and thereafter to  maintain all recovered stocks at these levels. Ultimately this means more fish, better catches and, as a consequence, more jobs in the fishing industry.

Long-term planning instead of yearly quota-haggling

To achieve sustainability in fisheries, multi-annual fish stock management plans are now established as a priority. A longer term approach should bring greater predictability, and the fishing industry will be able to invest better and plan ahead. Multi-annual plans will be based on more reliable and accurate scientific data, which EU member states will be obliged to collect and make available.

Next steps

The draft resolution on the Common Fisheries Policy was approved with 13 votes in favour, 10 against and 2 abstentions, and should be put to a plenary vote in February.

And other piece of good news for the fishes was reported on the BBC website:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20709853

This is an awesome acheivement and one I hope guarantees the survival of all the shark species which live in that area.

Looking after the forests and the fishes Pt2

Following on from the previous post about the vote for reform to the EU Common Fisheries Policy tomorrow, I emailed the seven MEP’s that were listed on Chris Davies (Lib Dem MEP) website as swinging voters:

Struan Stevenson (Con, sits in ECR European Parliament Group, UK)
Marek Grobarczyk (Law and Justice, sits in ECR, Poland)
Nigel Farage (UKIP, sits in EFD, UK)
Dolores Garcia-Hierro Caraballo (Socialist, sits in S&D, Spain)
Diane Dodds (DUP, non-attached, UK)
Werner Kuhn (Christian Democrats, sits in EPP, Germany)
Jaroslaw Walesa (Civic Platform, sits in EPP, Poland)

And the other three UK MEP’s who sit on the Fisheries Committee:

Ian Hudghton (SNP)
Julie Girling (Con)
George Lyon (Lib Dem)

So far the only one who has replied is Struan Stevenson and his assistant assured me that he will be voting for the reforms and that the vote can be followed tomorrow here on the European Parliaments website.

Fingers crossed that the common good prevails over commercial interests!

The indomitable coot – addendum: yesterday I posted about how aggresive coots can and this fantastic picture from Ian Butler demonstrates the point quite splendidly… I imagine the heron got a bit of a shellacking when it touched down!

Ian Butler Photography

I flushed this heron whilst walking around the reserve and unfortunately for the heron it flew straight towards a coot nest.  The adult coots then proceeded to launch a full scale attack on the heron for being too close to the nest.  The heron then had to change direction quickly, which ultimately lead to the heron slowing down and landing about a foot away from the coots nest, which lead the coots to become even more aggresive because of this.  In the end the heron flew past me instead of the coots which in my opinion was the safest option in the first place! Whether the heron thought that the coots would be more concerned about me and tried to take one of the coot chicks or whether it was just an honest mistake I dont know.  It happened extremely quickly and this is the one of the images of the pair of…

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Blog plug

I just found these two blogs which I think are really good and well worth a look:

http://cerisnaturalworld.blogspot.com

This one caught my attention because of the adders, a creature I’ve never seen in the wild yet but I’m on a mission to find them.

And this one has lots of high quality photographs of British moths:

http://weedworld.blogspot.com