Recently by Peter Shirley
Our self-proclaimed 'greenest Government ever' continues with its Gilbert and Sullivan approach to living up to that claim. The latest manifestation of its skewed attitudes to the natural world is the attempt to block the European Union (EU) imposing controls on the use of insecticides thought by many to harm bees. The substances are neonicitinoides and one of them is said to be the most widely used insecticide in the world. The manufacturers deny that their products are causing any harm. (There are echoes in this debate of that surrounding DDT in the 1950s or, in a different context, that about the link between smoking and lung cancer.)
As for bees and other essential pollinators, as reported previously here, their numbers are declining. This is a major cause of concern - a significant proportion of our food relies upon insect pollinators. No one is suggesting that the insecticides are solely responsible for this; other factors include habitat loss, parasitic mites, and fungal and viral infections. Even so the decline of bees has apparently mirrored the rise in use of the neonicitinoides, and effects caused by a variety of factors in combination are both rarely tested for and notoriously difficult to demonstrate.
With millions of people supporting a ban, many scientific studies providing plausible, if not always compelling, evidence of links between the use of the insecticides and problems with bees, and the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons calling for action, the EU proposal for a two year ban seems to be no more than common sense. Not according to the Government. When the measure was voted on in Brussels on April 29 we voted against.
This despite supporters of the ban presenting a petition to the Government signed by 300,000 people, and MP Joan Whalley, Chair of the Environment Audit Committee saying, after a six month investigation, that Defra's approach to protecting bees is 'extraordinarily complacent' and that 'the weight of scientific evidence now warrants a ban'.
As with the debate about badgers, cattle and bovine TB, government scientists seem determined to reflect just one side of the argument. Their pronouncements are in line with, and supportive of, government policy and the views of companies with a commercial interest in the continuing use of the chemicals. The Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport, writing in the Financial Times on 26 April, made many valid points, including the fact that neonicitinoides were introduced as safer alternatives to DDT, and that bumble bees seem to be more susceptible to them than honey bees. Even so he came out firmly against the (temporary) ban.
Two oft quoted principles of policy-making are the precautionary principle, and that policy should be evidence-based. In this case the first seems to have been ignored, whilst the second has been reversed: in Whitehall we have here what looks like policy-based evidence!
We have a curious attitude to wildlife, being very selective about which species we like and which we don't. Often there seems to be no logic regarding which species are considered cute and which vermin. Rabbits and grey squirrels seem to have a foot or two in each camp, whilst some animals move from one to the other. For example toads and bats, which used to be disliked and even feared, are now thought endearing and worthy of conservation.
Deer may be moving the opposite way in the public's affections. Once only occasionally glimpsed disappearing into the depths of a forest they are now often encountered. And not only in the open countryside or places like Cannock Chase; as I have previously reported red deer turn up from time to time in the heart of the Black Country, in and around the Sandwell Valley and areas of Walsall.
People and deer meet more often now because deer numbers are increasing at the same time as there are more visits than ever before to places like Cannock Chase and other open spaces. Walking, cycling, jogging and horse-riding have never been more popular. This means that deer are spreading to new areas, becoming used to people and therefore less wary of them, and they are more frequently disturbed in their day time resting places.
Recently the annual count of deer on the Chase took place. Organised by the Forestry Commission and Staffordshire County Council, it revealed that the 26 square miles of the Chase is now home to record numbers of deer, probably, despite the cold winter a thousand or more. In the main part of the Chase they are mainly fallow deer, whilst the larger red deer are concentrated in the south east and are often seen around Burntwood and Brownhills. More widely, following their 2011 census, the British Deer Society reports that there may be nearly two million deer in Britain and says that in 'urban environments ... there is a serious problem developing with growing deer populations in areas where practical management is very difficult.' (Full details at http://www.bds.org.uk .)
'Practical management' includes culling. Generally between 20 and 30 per cent of the population may be culled each year, but recently there have been calls for this to be increased to 50 per cent. Other problems include illegal poaching, damage to crops, woodlands and gardens, and traffic accidents. Last year about 160 incidents involving deer and traffic were reported in Staffordshire. In a collision between a deer and a car both the deer and the car's occupants can come off very badly.
Deer may still have the 'aah....' factor, but for how much longer?
PS Don't forget to enjoy International Dawn Chorus Day on Sunday 5 May, devised by the local Wildlife Trust here in Birmingham. Details at http://www.idcd.info/
One of the nation's favourite animals, the hedgehog, seems to be in a lot of trouble. According to the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) their numbers have declined this century by nearly 40% in towns and cities, and by nearly as much in the countryside. The figures come from a long-term monitoring programme, and mean that relatively speaking hedgehogs are disappearing as fast as tigers. A bird declining so fast would attract a 'red alert'.
There are doubtless a number of factors which have led to this parlous situation. The increase in badger numbers may be one (badgers prey upon hedgehogs) loss of habitat, pesticides reducing their prey, declining earthworm numbers and weather may also be factors. With respect to habitat, on the face of it suburbia may not seem to have changed very much in ten years. Look more closely however and you soon realise that many large gardens have been lost to infill developments, and garden fashion has led to the construction of more decks and patios. Whilst these may provide resting and nesting places for hedgehogs they take up valuable foraging space, and that is likely to be more of a limiting factor.
As for the weather, the poor old hedgehogs are suffering in every respect. They naturally favour drier habitats and avoid very wet places. For the last few summers this has become increasingly difficult, with frequent floods and downpours occurring in many places. There may or may not be some compensation in the increased populations of slugs, one of their favourite foods. This spring will certainly not favour hedgehogs. They will extend their hibernation period through the very cold weather, but this means that they will be in a poorer condition than normal when they emerge. Any that are active will find it difficult to find worms in frozen ground. Smaller second generation hedgehogs, born in late summer each year, suffer more mortality during hibernation than their older siblings in a normal winter, this year that mortality will be increased.
Five years ago in this column I wrote about emerging evidence that hedgehog numbers were declining, but concluded that they were probably not in serious trouble. I have had to revise my opinion in the light of the latest evidence. As PTES Surveys Officer David Wembridge say 'Over the last twenty years or so, the world's tiger population is thought to have halved. Although they are very different animals and there are many fewer tigers left in the wild, the fact that we are losing hedgehogs in Britain as quickly, should ring alarm bells as loudly.'
If you want to know more, go to http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk where you will also find details of Hedgehog Awareness Week in May.
I have previously touched upon the subject of environmental and ecological literacy. The latest consultation on changes to the National Curriculum once again highlights the issues. Words and numbers are emphasised, as they should be, but teaching about protection of the natural world and the impacts of climate change, is inexplicably downgraded. How will our children be able to understand and deal with the catastrophic damage we are inflicting upon the natural world, if the understanding they need is not treated with equal importance to literacy and numeracy?
The proposals are a betrayal of years of 'Big Society' environmental education work done by many people, not least in the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country built the first purpose-designed inner-city environmental education centre (the Centre of the Earth) in Winson Green 25 years ago. In the last year, all over the country, nearly 300,000 children have benefited from Trusts' activities such as Forest Schools. This helps to develop appreciation and understanding of the importance of the natural environment.
Now the underpinning of these activities is being weakened at a time when it should be strengthened. In the consultation it is proposed for instance that children aged 5 to 14 should no longer be taught, or debate, climate change as part of the geography curriculum. There is just a single mention of the subject in the chemistry guidelines. Climate change education is proposed for the 14 plus age group, by which time only a minority of pupils will be taking geography GCSEs. Professor Sir David King, once the Government's Science Advisor, describes this as 'major political interference with the geography syllabus'.
As for nature protection, the current guidelines say that children aged five to seven 'should be taught to care for the environment' and those aged eight to eleven should be taught 'ways in which living things and the environment need protection'. In the new proposals these requirements have gone. They are replaced by a watered-down one for 10 year olds to 'recognise that environments are constantly changing and that this can sometimes pose dangers to specific habitats'.
It appears that the Government is trying to distance the next generation from the causes of so many of the problems they will face. Being able to read about these problems, and interpret the data related to them, will not count for much if a culture of concern, and a basic grasp of the principles which may lead to solutions is not inculcated at an early age. Wildlife Trusts' President Simon King says 'A younger generation equipped to understand and tackle the massive environmental problems we have left them is our only hope for the future.'
You can respond to the consultation until 16 April by going to the link on: https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/
In the wake of the so-called horsemeat scandal along comes an initiative extolling the virtues of eating insects! Is nothing about our diet sacred anymore? Insects as food is the theme of an event in London in April called, somewhat curiously, Pestival 2013. The subject will also be covered in a forthcoming BBC Television programme. As with horsemeat it turns out that a lot of people in the world eat insects from choice, and we are all, even if unwittingly, consuming them and their products anyway.
In this country the most likely sources of insects in our food are the red colouring cochineal, made from the ground up bodies of close relatives of aphids called scale insects, and honey, a viscous liquid regurgitated by bees. Cochineal was first used as a dye for clothing many centuries ago, it is now used in a range of products including sausages, jams, fruit juices and sweets, as well as in lipsticks.
We also consume with relish a lot of prawns and shrimps, which, whilst not insects, are very closely related to them and have similar bodies. It is also possible to buy preparations of other insects such as ants, crickets and grasshoppers, although these are still novelty foods rather than everyday items in our supermarket trollies. I can remember as a child being told that chocolate-covered ants are popular in some parts of the world.
In a world short of food, and doused in chemicals to produce enough to keep pace with demand, insects are an environmentally sound choice. They are very rich in protein, produce very little methane (unlike larger livestock) and are abundant - someone has calculated that for every one of us there are 40 tonnes of insects. Having said that, it would take a lot of ants to make a burger; the solution in some places is to farm larger insects, such as mealworms, which are beetle grubs, and locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.
My natural history interest is plant galls; many of these contain insects, and produce sweet, honeydew like, exudations. Galls complete with their insect inhabitants have long been offered for sale alongside local fruits in street markets in Mexico and the Middle East, and a common gall found in this country on ground ivy is eaten in France and Sweden. Thanks to reality television programmes we are familiar with the term 'bushtucker'. In Australia this may include a gall, called a bush coconut, containing scale insects and found on a eucalyptus called the bloodwood tree.
If you are not convinced by taste, tradition and eco-friendliness, perhaps you should consider eating insects as payback. It is estimated that up to a quarter of all the food crops in the world are destroyed by insects, about 10% whilst growing and about 15% in storage and transport.
I have been noticing more reports of nuthatches in gardens recently, which is not too surprising as, unlike many other species, their numbers are increasing. This delightful little bird is about the size of a great tit but looks more 'triangular'. This is because it has a short tail, a relatively flat head and a pointed bill, made to look longer by the black stripe running from its base through the bird's eye to the nape of its neck. It has a blue-grey back and chestnut and white under parts.
Nuthatches are woodland birds, but they are often attracted to our leafy suburbs. They feed on nuts, seeds and, particularly when raising young, insects. When I worked in Edgbaston (a typical leafy suburb) very close to Five Ways, nuthatches used to visit the peanut feeder hanging by my office window. With my back to the window I could tell whether a nuthatch or a blue tit was feeding just from the sound: the blue tits with their tiny bills made gentle clicking noises as they pecked the nuts, the nuthatches with their more powerful bill made a much louder noise.
Nuthatches have very short but strong legs, they can hang upside down beneath branches, and are the only birds that can walk, indeed run, headfirst down tree trunks. Their behaviour of wedging large nuts and seeds in cracks in bark and hammering away at them with their bill led to them being called 'nut-hacks'; hence the name 'nuthatch'. A foreign species of nuthatch is one of the few birds known to use a tool: it will carry a piece of bark from tree to tree and use it to lever up loose bark to get at the insects beneath.
The nest is made from such things as grasses, mosses and feathers at the bottom of a hole, usually in a tree, but sometimes in cavities in walls and buildings. Although nuthatches are hole nesters they are not hole makers: they take possession of natural holes or those vacated by other birds such as woodpeckers. They make the entrance hole smaller with mud to prevent larger birds like starlings taking over. Nuthatches pair for life. They lay five to eight eggs which take between two and three weeks to hatch and between three and four weeks to fledge.
Nuthatches are mainly found in southern Britain, only occasionally being seen in Scotland and absent from Ireland. The increase in their numbers is unlikely to be a result of all the tree planting that has taken place because nuthatches prefer large, old trees (they are the ones most likely to have holes in them).
We recently had National Nestbox Week (details at www.bto.org/nnbw/index.htm) so if you want to attract nuthatches to your garden you could do worse than put up a nestbox or two - they are known to use them.
We have the chestnut leaf miner, ash die-back fungus, and now the unlikeliest invader of all, the demon shrimp! Its name may sound like a contradiction in terms, but this tiny crustacean, first found in Britain last October in the River Severn in Worcestershire, is a voracious predator of other small creatures. There are worries about the effects it will have on fish eggs and fry, and on aquatic plants upon which it also feeds. Once established (and it is spreading) it is likely to have profound and unwelcome impacts on other wildlife.
Demon shrimps (their real name is the more prosaic Dikerogammarus haemophaphes, but that's never going to grab any headlines) are related to crayfish but are much smaller. They are about 18mm long, various shades of brown, are curved and flattened from side to side. They breed prolifically, females laying up to 300 eggs per year.
So how did this tiny shrimp get to, amongst other places, the River Severn and the Grand Union Canal from its native waters around the Caspian Sea? Two factors are implicated. The first is a canal opened in 1992 connecting two of Europe's great rivers, the Main (a tributary of the Rhine) and the Danube. This enabled the shrimp to spread into Western Europe apparently faster and more successfully than its natural enemies. It is a prime example of unintended consequences arising from a major transport infrastructure project.
The second is the practice of discharging ballast water in ships' tanks from one part of the world in another, thus providing free and easy transport for potentially harmful plants and animals. The Angling Trust is calling for the Government to immediately ratify an existing international convention designed to prevent this happening. I have referred several times in this column to David Cameron's desire to head the 'greenest Government ever' - well this is an easy thing to do that will contribute to that. No doubt vested interests in the shipping industry will persuade him otherwise, businesses do not like environmental regulations affecting trade.
In the meantime it is up to boaters and anglers to fight a rear-guard action to limit the shrimp's spread by cleaning and drying their equipment and clothing after visiting rivers and canals. Environment Agency Central Region Fisheries and Biodiversity Head Dr Ian Hirst, quoted in Total Coarse Fishing News, said: "It (the shrimp) can cling to wet nets and waders and, in cool damp conditions, still be alive a week later. We are asking everyone to follow our Check-Clean-Dry code: checking their equipment for strange organisms, wherever they've fished, cleaning them off, and DRYING the kit thoroughly. (See www.nonnativespecies.org/checkcleandry for more information.)
Demon shrimps are tiny, and may or may not be demonic, but they demonstrate why proper environmental impact studies are needed for major civil engineering work like the canal mentioned above. They are not red tape, they are a necessary precaution.
According to the National Trust, England's wettest-ever year is likely to have been 'an apocalypse for some wildlife'. Nest-building, breeding and feeding have often been difficult, with normal behaviour patterns interrupted. Birds, bats and insects have all been affected, and most at risk are species with small and isolated populations.
The often forgotten factor in these stories is that plants and animals have evolved over millions of years to cope with good times and bad. Their presence demonstrates their success. In the very long term many species will successfully evolve before declining and becoming extinct. During this natural process the weather from year to year, or even decade to decade, should not be an issue. The real problem is the ways and the speed at which the human species has changed the world and continues to do so. An example of this year's difficulties is that many puffin burrows have been washed out, preventing young being raised. This is less threatening to puffins than the shortage of the small fish they eat, like sand eels, which appear to have been almost fished to extinction themselves for use in fish meal products.
Closer to home the rise of intensive farming in the 20th Century, air and water pollution, and habitat loss and damage have affected wildlife populations far more profoundly than any extreme weather will ever do. Populations of, if not individual, animals and plants are programmed to survive heat, cold, drought and flood; they cannot survive the loss of their food sources or the places needed to complete their life-cycles. Where populations have become smaller and more isolated, recovery from bad years is much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
What the natural world is really in danger from therefore is the lack of political will to care for it and to take it into account when making major decisions. The Coalition Government wanted to be the greenest Government ever, an aspiration no one thinks it has come anywhere near to achieving. In any case the proponents of this were thinking more about energy, transport and resource consumption than about nature conservation. In this country and others almost every reform proposed to improve the environment or help nature is fiercely opposed by the business and growth lobbies.
No wonder then that we shelter behind a bit of bad weather instead of tackling the real issues. Rain is the problem now; back in May the Guardian was saying that the end of the drought was really good for wildlife, with a headline on 4 May 'Wet Weather helps ailing wildlife in England and Wales'. No doubt whatever weather 2013 brings we will continue to use it to mask the very real long-term damage inflicted on the natural world by our modern lifestyles.
For many people the days immediately after Christmas Day are traditionally a time for brisk walks to blow away the festive cobwebs. In the West Midlands we are lucky to have a myriad of green spaces, parks and nature reserves in many neighbourhoods. In recent years, with help from local councils, voluntary organisations, the National Lottery and others, many footpaths, information boards and entrances have been improved or installed. This means that there is no need to travel miles away for your walk, in most places there is somewhere easily accessible on the doorstep.
In Birmingham and the Black Country the five local authorities, with the help of many partners, not least the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country and the Groundwork organisation, have been developing their networks of green spaces for many years. From the National Nature Reserve of Sutton Park to Barr Beacon, Moseley Bog to Fens Pools, and Saltwells Wood to Tipton Cemetery (why Tipton Cemetery? - see below) there are hidden landscapes, wintering wildlife and bracing walks through woodlands and heathlands, and alongside rivers and lakes, waiting to be enjoyed.
In this context a special mention and congratulations must go to Sandwell Council for its success in a nationwide poll for the most popular green spaces. The poll is organised every year by Keep Britain Tidy's Green Flag Awards Partnership. This year more than 1400 places were entered for the awards and three of the top ten sites are in Sandwell: Warley Woods which came second (for the second time), Tipton Cemetery which came seventh, and Sandwell Valley Country Park which came ninth.
Warley Woods is managed by the Warley Woods Community Trust, and they said 'Thank you to everyone who voted for Warley Woods in the national vote for Britain's favourite park'. Sandwell Valley Country Park is one of the biggest visitor attractions in the West Midlands region, only beaten by Alton Towers and Warwick Castle. Despite all the visitor pressure it retains important wildlife areas and provides a home for many species of birds and animals, from cormorants and herons to deer and water voles, as well as the remains of an 19th Century deer park and a mediaeval priory.
Green Flag Awards were introduced in 1996 and a number of other local sites have earned the accolade. Amongst the criteria are how welcoming a place is, how safe and clean, how well managed and how involved local people are with the site.
So, as this is a time for good news and goodwill, how about raising a glass especially to Sandwell Council and the Warley Woods Community Trust, but also to the small army of people, paid and voluntary whose work provides this wonderful resource for all of us?
People all over Britain are enjoying an avian treat just now. Thousands of waxwings have arrived here from Russia and Scandinavia. At the end of November these multi-coloured birds had been seen from Scotland to Cornwall, with many sightings in the West Midlands. Such an influx (which scientists call an irruption) happens every few years, otherwise, according to both the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB, only a hundred or so individuals find their way here each winter.
The birds, often described as dumpy, are about the size of starlings, and have a distinctive crest. They are buffish-brown with a black bib, black and yellow tail feathers and yellow, black, white and red wing feathers. As well as the crest another distinctive feature is the mascara-like extension of the black bib around their eyes. The name 'waxwing' comes from the red tips to the wing feathers which resembles old-fashioned sealing wax. Another name is 'silktail', presumably because of the bright colours on their tails.
Waxwings travel around in flocks varying from about a dozen to a hundred or more birds. They are voracious berry eaters, being particularly fond of red berries such as rowan, hawthorn and cotoneaster. This means that they are often seen in parks and gardens, and around landscaped areas like supermarket car parks and the grounds of large buildings. A few years ago a flock of about 40 settled in a hawthorn tree outside a fish and chip shop and a busy road junction in deepest West Bromwich. Like robins they do not seem to mind people at all (in North America they are sometimes called Canada robins) and they have been known to feed from the hand, apple apparently being good 'bait'.
No one is quite sure what triggers these intermittent southern migrations. German folklore has it that they occur every seven years, but they are not as regular as that. They may be caused by the failure of the berry crop in their breeding grounds in the northern forests, or it may be because of very cold weather moving in, or a combination of the two. The movements may also be linked to breeding success - a very good year immediately followed by a poor berry crop may force the birds to move south.
Scott Petrek, of the Staffordshire WildlifeTrust, describing the birds as 'Viking invaders' says that: 'Bird lovers can help attract waxwings to their garden by not only keeping feeders topped up, but by leaving out old apples instead of adding them into the compost heap. Make sure birdbaths are ice-free in winter too'.
It's certainly worth keeping an eye out for these colourful, friendly, birds which may come to a park or garden near to you soon.