Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #6

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow". Anonymous proverb

I write this post about Spring while sitting in Stirling waiting for the arrival of a massive dump of snow described the Met Office forecast as “extraordinary”. So, Spring on hold for a couple of days, just as the frogs finally got busy in my garden pond and laid some big clumps of spawn. But, however delayed the Spring is in the real world outside, the world of Ladybird book Spring rolls on and, if I want to keep to the contemporaneous schedule of comparing today’s seasons with the world of 1959-1961, I need to crack on! So...

Picture 7 in the Spring book is an active little river scene which illustrates several interesting issues. A couple of grey wagtails, the pretty, yellow-breasted, grey-backed birds with the long tail, are an obvious feature. But there is also flowering butterbur among the pebbles, with some early flying bees. In the river, we see a fish, the Miller’s Thumb, and a freshwater crayfish.

The grey wagtail (Latin name: Motacilla cinerea) is an insect-eating bird, which is most common alongside fast-flowing upland streams, is found in much of the UK all year round, and in northern Scotland as a summer breeding visitor. Although not a threatened species in Europe, the grey wagtail population underwent a substantial decline in Britain, of 41%, recorded between 1975 and 1999, as shown by the following graph from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

As a result, the species was moved from the UK's green to the amber list in 2002, and is still in that category despite substantial population recovery. The BTO gives no indication of what may have led to this decline of the subsequent recovery. One small indication of a climate change effect for this species is that, since 1968, the average date of egg-laying by grey wagtails has moved to be a week earlier. Although the trend is upwards now and grey wagtails seem to be recovering, it would be good to understand the initial cause of their decline.

The picture shows a flowering plant which the text describes as both the winter heliotrope and the butterbur. I’m not sure whether, when the book was written, both of these names referred to the same plant species, but today, these would be different species. Checking my wild flower field guide (Francis Rose: The Wild Flower Key. British Isles – N.W. Europe), the picture is definitely of the flowers of butterbur (Latin name: Petasites hybridus). This is a native species that can flower as early as November in some parts of Britain and, according to the text, “is one of the few sweet-smelling flowers we can gather at Christmas.”

A key source of information on the status of butterbur is the “New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora”, written in 2002 by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Conveniently for my purposes, the Atlas says that the distribution of butterbur: “is little changed since the 1962 Atlas”. It seems that most of the butterbur plants in Scotland are in male-only colonies and may even have resulted from deliberate plantings as a source of pollen and nectar for hive bees. More on bees later in the Spring as there is already a lot to cover in this picture. Incidentally, had the picture truly shown winter heliotrope (Latin name: Petasites fragrans) rather than butterbur, this would have been the first non-native, introduced species shown in the book, being first introduced to Britain in 1806 and thought still to be spreading in Britain.

While the butterbur seems to be coping with the modern world, from a conservation perspective, the remaining species paint a more mixed picture of change. The freshwater crayfish peeking from under a stone would, in 1959-1961, almost certainly be a specimen of the then-common and widespread native white-clawed crayfish (Latin name: Austropotamobius pallipes). The story of this species isn’t that relevant to Scotland as it is not native here (although a couple of populations were introduced to two limestone lochs in the far north of Scotland in the mid-late 20th Century). The Joint Nature Conservation Committee describes the story of the white clawed crayfish thus:

“The white-clawed crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes lives in a diverse variety of clean aquatic habitats but especially favours hard-water streams and rivers. A major threat to the native white-clawed crayfish is posed by the introduction of non-native species of crayfish, which have been farmed in Britain since the late 1970s.” More on this below...

As the UK is required, as a result of the European Habitats Directive, to identify and designate sites for the protection of the white-clawed crayfish, it is also required to report back to the European Commission every six years on how well this protection is progressing. Unfortunately, the JNCC has to report that not only are populations continuing to decline, but that the rate of this change is accelerating. This can be illustrated by comparing a 2002 report figure of 260 occupied 10 km squares with a 2005 report figure of 241 occupied 10 km squares; a decline of approxiately 7%, equivalent to more than a 25% decline over 25 years.

The main cause of this decline? As well as pollution and habitat loss, non-native crayfish species were introduced into Britain for aquaculture in the late 1970s. Shortly afterwards, crayfish plague (a virulent disease caused by a fungus species, Aphanomyces astaci) broke out and spread rapidly. Native crayfish in rivers across declined rapidly thereafter across England. It is only in areas free of disease that the native white-clawed crayfish is likely to survive in the future. North American Signal crayfish, which are larger and more aggressive than the white-clawed crayfish, can also outcompete them for food and habitat. In Britain, signal crayfish are now well-established in the wild. In Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage has a specific project under its Species Action Framework to seek to tackle the problems arising from this non-native crayfish

The final issue raised by this picture is the fish, the Miller’s Thumb, also known as the bullhead (Latin name: Cottus gobio). This is a small fish well-adapted to its life on the bottom of stream, rivers and stony lakes. Its distribution in Britain is described by the JNCC as:  “Good populations are widely distributed in freshwaters across almost the whole of England and much of Wales, but in Scotland the bullhead Cottus gobio is restricted to the Clyde and Forth catchments, where it is thought to result from an introduction.”

As it has been widely used by anglers as live bait for catching, e.g. pike, it is quite possible that this is how it was introduced into the Scottish rivers although, in their book, "Freshwater fishes of the British Isles", the fish biologists Peter Maitland and Niall Campbell highlight that it was once valued for its “sweet tasty” flesh (by the famous angler Isaac Walton and other historic authorities), it might also have been introduced to locations for gastronomic reasons. In Scotland, according to Peter Maitland in his book: “Scotland’s freshwater fish. Ecology, Conservation and Folklore”, its range in Scotland is probably slowly expanding in Scotland. For example, being recorded in the Union Canal, it is presumably capable of spreading across Central Scotland. The JNCC looked at the status of the bullhead using data on its distribution before 1972, from 1972-1992, and then after 1992 and, essentially, no evidence was found of a decline in range in Britain. So it is probably doing fine compared to its status in 1959-1961.

A European-funded conservation project I was involved with a few years ago produced guidance on the ecology of this species, which summarised its interest quite nicely as:

The bullhead has several fascinating behavioural traits that make it a unique and distinctive little fish. These include nest production and parental care by the male, defence of territory, visual threat displays and the production of sounds. It is a relatively adaptable species with a wide distribution throughout Europe, but its distinct habitat requirements mean that it is vulnerable where river channels have been modified or where there is a changed flow regime or increased siltation.”

[By the way, the snow never arrived here last night after all, other than a fine dusting that was gone by morning, even although perhaps only 5 miles away to the north and east, there was a big dump of snow. This is a disappointingly normal outcome for snowfall in Stirling.]

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #5

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“Spring is nature's way of saying, "Let's party!"” (Robin Williams)

As the “What to look for in Spring” book crams a lot of activity into supposedly a short period of Spring, I’m producing these posts as thick and fast as I can – just like the real world outside where, now that the frosts and snow and below zero temperatures have been replaced by 10 degree heat and mild rain, everything is bursting out all over (remember the “unexploded season” of a couple of days ago?). So it seems very appropriate that picture 6 in this Spring series is all about sex. Yes, that’s right - sex. Everything in this picture is making a mad dash for the reproductive start-line. Every last part of the picture. Two male coots are engaged in a chase after a potential female mate (off the picture). A pair of beautiful great crested grebes are engaged in their elaborate mating display. The little male reed bunting in the top of the picture is setting out his stall for the ladies, and marking out his pitch for other male birds, singing from the top of a pussy-willow tree. Even the pussy-willow, which appeared with unopened buds in the first picture in the series, is in full flower, the male flowers yellow with pollen and the smaller female flowers a paler greenish-white and awaiting fertilisation by wind-blown pollen grains.

I wrote, in the first post, both about the advance of Spring dates, such as flowering of willow, since these books were published between 1959 and 1961. I also wrote about the great-crested grebe (Latin name: Podiceps cristatus) and its close link to the early story of nature conservation in Britain, the formation of the RSPB and its subsequent recovery from near-extinction in Britain. So, I won’t say more about this species here, except to encourage you to take a look at a Youtube film, showing stills from their amazing mating display (from about 1 minute 30 into the film).

The coot (Latin name: Fulica atra) is a largish member of the rail family, distinguished by its large white featherless forehead patch (the proverbial “bald as a...” being one reason I feel a filial attachment to this species...). In the picture, you can see the partially-webbed feet that are features of the two aquatic rail species found in Scotland, the coot and the waterhen (or moorhen – it will make an appearance in the Summer book).

Coots are one of the success stories of the British bird world. Since these books were published, or at least since the late 1960s, the coot population of the UK appears to have doubled in size, up to estimated population of 22,600–28,800 pairs in 2000. The increase was most marked in the 1960s on birds living on smaller water bodies, but has continued since then. Perhaps an increase in fresh standing waters through the creation of gravel pits and new reservoirs has resulted in increased availability of breeding sites? Here is a plot from the British Trust for Ornithology, combining data from its Wetland Bird and Wetland Breeding Bird Surveys, which shows the estimated increase in coot numbers over the last 35 or so years:

Finally, to the reed bunting, the smallest bird in the picture. The reed bunting (Latin name: Emberiza schoeniclus), can be seen in Britain all year round, although it is only a summer visitor in the most northerly part of Scotland. As its name suggests, it inhabits reedbeds, as well as scrub habitats in river corridors and, according to RSPB information, is predominantly a farmland and wetland bird. It is typically found in wet vegetation but has recently spread into farmland and, in winter, into gardens. When singing, the male usually perches on top of a bush, or reed, so Charles Tunnicliffe got it right in this picture! Its population history since the 1960s is varied and interesting and suggests the possibility of it having adapted to changing habitat circumstances. The British Trust for Ornithology provides a graph, based on its Common Bird Census and Breeding Bird Survey, showing firstly a rapid decline of reed buntings in Britain during the 1970s, with the population then stabilizing and, in recent years, showing a significant increase.

As an interesting aside on reed buntings, I said earlier that this picture is all about sex - over half of Reed Bunting chicks are not fathered by the male bird in the pair, but are the result of an adulterous liaison, the highest recorded rate of any bird.

The decline is thought to be due to the intensification of agricultural practices at the time, while recent increases may be due to the high value of oilseed rape as a food source for this species, and the increase in the planting of this crop. The BTO reports that densities are four times higher in oilseed rape than in cereals or on set-aside land and that “this crop is crucial in reducing the dependency of the species on wetlands” [which have declined in area as a result of agricultural intensification over this period]. Its present status in Britain could probably be characterised as improving: “The initial decline placed Reed Bunting on the red list but in 2009, with evidence from waterways and from BBS of some recovery in numbers, the species was moved from red to amber.”

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Gratuitous post of gorgeous dog picture...

One happy little dog...

Signs of the times: Spring #4

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” (Anon.)

A little Spring-time aside: Sometimes it is gratifying to have confirmation from strangers (however unknowingly on their part), that you are right on the money, that you have your finger on the pulse, that you’re in touch with the zeitgeist! Friday’s Guardian newspaper had an article (which I only found out about today, unfortunately) entitled: “Spring about to 'explode' in Britain, conservationists say”, which covers some of the territory that this blog has been trampling with the “What to look for in...” series of posts.

First of all, I love the idea of an unexploded season (“Danger! UXS! Pent-up nature in unstable state – may go off at any time!”). But the article also covers much of the general material I’ve covered in the first three posts in this series, particularly as it relates to the effect of changing climate on the timing of Spring. Apparently, the extra cold and extended Winter means that we may be having a “slow, late, old fashioned spring”, according to Matthew Oakes, conservation adviser to the National Trust. The article also notes that many Spring-time phenomena are much later this year than we have become used to over the past decade or more of warm, early Springs.

According to Steve Marsh, a conservationist with the Woodland Trust which runs a volunteer recording scheme looking at Spring-time and other seasonal nature indicators: “There have been only ten recordings of [the yellow spring flower] coltsfoot when we would have expected hundreds. And it's the same with celandines. Normally we would see them now right across the UK, but this year there has been sparse coverage in the south and midlands and almost none reported in northern England and Scotland". Gratifyingly, the lesser celandine and coltsfoot have already featured in the second post in this series. I received a comment on the post, asking why I had said nothing in the text about coltsfoot – it was because I couldn’t find any information about the timing of its Spring flowering, comparing the 1960s with today. But Marsh added that even this year's “late” spring is early compared to the 1970s. Finally, with a flourish, I ask you to compare with yesterday’s post about herons, the British Trust for Ornithology’s observation in the Guardian that: “Frozen water and plummeting temperatures may have ... severely reduced populations of birds like the kingfisher and heron, who have had less water open water to feed from”!

Now, back to the comparisons of then and now.

Picture 5 is interesting as the chosen images represent the transition from winter wildlife to the harbingers of Spring and eventual Summer. In this picture, we are saying both goodbye and hello! In March, as the text says: “Many bird flocks are on the move”. We see skeins of migrating geese, heading north , back to their breeding grounds in northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, or Spitzbergen. Their part is over in Spring’s story in Scotland but there will be an opportunity to discuss geese when they return again in Autumn. At the top of the picture, also preparing to migrate back to their breeding grounds in northern Europe, is a flock of fieldfares, a large northern thrush species that forms large flocks in Scotland in winter, often with another smaller northern thrush, the redwing. We see lots of fieldfares in Stirling in winter, in large, noisy flocks. In fact, if we want to have any holly with berries at Christmas time, we need to cut some early and keep it in the greenhouse, as fieldfares and redwings usually strip our garden hollies of berries in under a fortnight when they first arrive. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information about fieldfare population trends between 1959-1961 and today. As ever, any information welcomed in the comments section of this post!

In the picture, the brown hares and wheatear (the small bird with the grey back in the foreground) represent two themes in the natural history of Spring – the brown hares, the emergence of native, resident wildlife from the struggle for winter survival, and the wheatear, the return to Britain of summer visitors.

The Brown hare (Latin name: Lepus europaeus), in the form of the “Mad March hares” of the picture, is surely one of the key iconic images of a British Spring. I grew up on a largely arable farm in East Lothian in the 1970s and, from our kitchen, we would see hares each Spring in the cereal fields below our house, engaged in these frenetic, madcap “springtime mating games” (as it says in the picture’s text). Brown hares, in British folklore, have long represented a symbol of fertility. For example, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust points out that: “Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility is usually depicted with a hare’s head. Easter originally takes its name from Eostre, and the traditional Easter bunny was originally a hare and linked to pagan fertility rites and the rebirth of spring.” The Mammal Society has a very useful fact sheet about the brown hare here. In respect of “March madness” in hares, it says: “This is part of hare breeding behaviour. The rapid chases are a dominant male driving a rival away from a female he is guarding. "Boxing" is usually a rebuff given by a female to an over-amorous male. It may actually occur at any time in the long breeding season, but is most visible in March (lighter evenings, but vegetation still low).”

The Mammal Society factsheet also points out that the brown hare has suffered a substantial population decline since the start of the 20th Century, although it is still common in many parts of the country. Changing (and more intensive) agricultural practices, and a decline in the control of foxes due to the reduction in the number of gamekeepers are suggested as two of the likely main causes of the decline. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee, in 1995, reported population estimates for hares as: “A mid-winter population, at the start of the breeding season but before the onset of the main hare-culling season, of about 817,500; 572,250 in England, 187,250 in Scotland and 58,000 in Wales. Organised shoots at the end of the winter may lead to a 40% decline.” The Game Conservancy Trust also provides an interesting leaflet here on the conservation of the brown hare. This has the following graph illustrating the decline of the hare, based on a survey of hares shot as game (a decline which seems very marked since the 1960s to today).

Wheatears (Latin name: Oenanthe oenanthe) are small thrushes that arrive to breed in Scotland from their over-wintering grounds in Africa in Spring (and from as early as the end of February down south – but not this year, following our long, cold winter). The Guardian newspaper on Friday reported that, this year, wheatears have just arrived in large numbers in southern England. The British Trust for Ornithology reports for wheatear that, although it is a common breeding species in many upland areas, the species was not monitored at the UK level until the Breeding Bird Survey began in 1994. By that stage, its range was already known to have shrunk in lowland Britain since 1968–72, “perhaps due to losses of suitable grassland and declines in rabbit abundance” (wheatears will make use of old rabbit burrows for nesting). There is, as yet no clear trend in abundance since 1994 in Scotland. The wheatear is, however, one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe, “having decreased at an annual rate of 4% during 1980–2006… Following widespread declines across Europe during the 1990s, the European status of this species is no longer considered 'secure' ... Accordingly, the species has recently been moved from the green to the amber list in the UK.” A very pretty, distinctive and active bird that I have seen all over Scotland’s uplands and coasts but one, it seems, that is in a bit of trouble.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #3

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Spring Picture 4, below, shows rooks in their rookery in elm trees with, in the background, a flight of rooks mobbing or chasing off a solitary heron.
As a child, this picture resonated strongly with me as there were lots of rooks and rookeries around the East Lothian farm and woodlands where I lived. The rook (latin name: Corvus frugilegus) belongs to what I think of as the “cheeky chappy” bird family, the crows (or corvids), containing some of the most intelligent of all birds. Rooks are birds of farmlands and grasslands and I always find it slightly pleasing that, even though their linguistic roots are unrelated, the words “raucous” and “rook” sound similar, as the overwhelming experience of a rookery in Spring is one of sound. Yes, rooks are incredibly noisy when they are all together – not for nothing is the collective noun for rooks, “a parliament of rooks.” As shown in this picture, in Spring, pairs of rooks rebuild the nests they used the previous season. Britain’s rook population is in a healthy state, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, with an estimated summer population of 1 to 1.3 million pairs. The counting of nests in rookeries suggests a shallow upward trend in numbers plus, for rookeries, a 40% increase in abundance between 1975 and 1996 (also according to the BTO). it is suggested that this probably reflects the species' "considerable adaptability in the face of agricultural change". Counting of individuals in the Breeding Brid Survey, rather than nests in rookeries does suggest, since 2000, a The BTO does conclude: "There has been little change in breeding productivity since the 1960s but a minor decrease in brood size is now becoming evident."

These rooks are shown nesting in elm trees. I described the cataclysmic effect of Dutch Elm Disease on Britain’s elm trees (since these books were published) in the previous post in this series.

The wonderful wading bird, the heron (or grey heron) only features in this one picture in the “What to Look for in Spring” book (although it does also feature later in the year). I love the heron, one of Britain’s largest birds, with its dagger beak, what I think of as a graceful, slow flapping flight, sentinel-like approach to fishing, and its loud, harsh cries. In his song, Now westlin winds, Robert Burns described the heron as; "The soaring hern", and my old Observer's Book of Birds describes the heron's flight thus: "When it takes to its great grey wings with dark tips, the unusually slow and languid wing-beats are distinctive."

We used to see herons over our house nearly every day when I was a child, flying between the Peffer Burn Estuary on Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve and a major heron colony (or “heronry”) located high up in the branches of a conifer plantation a mile or two inland. I recall the courtship of herons in that heronry, and the demands of their chicks for food, being just as noisy and raucous as that of rooks! The heron in Britain is the subject of the longest-running breeding-season bird monitoring scheme in the world, through the BTO Heronries Census which began in 1928. The best idea here is simply to show the results of this survey, as presented by the British Trust for ornithology on its website:

Herons are very susceptible to high mortality during harsh winters and this is clear from the graph above. I think the extremely extended and harsh winter we have just emerged from may also create another low point on this graph. Many bodies of freshwater in the UK have been frozen over for up to two months this winter and, while estuarine and coastal waters have been ice-free, inland heron populations are bound to have suffered. You will see, however, that there has been a general upward trend in heron numbers over the course of the 20th Century, levelling off a little  after the turn of the 21st Century. This upward trend is described as "moderate" for the whole Uk and "shallow" for herons in Scotland. It is thought (as reported by the BTO) that the general upward trend may reflect: "reduced persecution, improvements in water quality, the provision of new habitat as new lakes and gravel pits mature, and increased feeding opportunities at freshwater fisheries". Numbers of herons has apparently also increased across Europe since 1980.

It is also stated that: "High rates of nest failure at the chick stage were noted in the late 1960s, but not subsequently", a fact I believe is almost certainly linked to the decline in the concentration of organochlorine pesticide residues measured in herons since that time. This has been studied since then through an annual monitoring contract issued by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC, and its predecessor bodies) to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH, and ITS predecessors!). The programme was started in the early 1960s, when there were serious concerns over the effects of organochlorine pesticides and organomercury fungicides on a range of bird and mammal species in the UK. High concentrations of these toxic compounds are now well-known to lead to a range of causes of reproductive failure in birds. This early work demonstrated the effects of the organochlorines and eventually contributed to the ban on their use in the UK and abroad. The assessment of a range of organochlorines and also the toxic metal mercury in the livers of herons has revealed significant long-term declines in liver residues of organochlorine pesticides and mercury during the monitoring period. These declines appear now to have largely levelled off.  I have copied the relevant trends in these from the JNCC's website below. You can read the original report here.

A final issue for the heron in Britain that is worth identifying here as it is directly relevant to Spring-time is that, since 1968, presumably in response to the general warming of the climate and the advance of Spring, the average egg-laying date for herons in Britain is now some 29 days earlier than it was back then, as shown by the BTO here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Favourite film clips

A special challenge from a blog I follow ... Crivens, Jings, And Help Ma Boab ... to post up a favourite film clip. This is one of my favourites:

I studied Latin to O Grade (at my Scottish comprehensive school in East Lothian) and John Cleese as the Roman officer couldn't be less like my old (and fantastic) Latin teacher Mr Dunn, but this brings it all back - Ecce Romani! All those posh (and not so posh) Python boys, Terry Gilliam excepted, had either grammar shool or public/prep school educations, ending up at Oxford or Cambridge and surely appreciated the value of a good classics education in the 1950s and 1960s. But you can just sense, in this scene, the memories of a sadistic Latin teacher punitively drumming home the Latin grammar and the correct conjugation of verbs for endless hours... And I love the ironic end to the scene - ain't that just the way! I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #2

More comparisons between the the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books. Spring pictures 2 and 3.

"There is a flower, the lesser Celandine
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, at the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun itself, 'tis out again!"
(The Small Celandine, William Wordsworth)

The way these Ladybird seasonal “What to Look for...” books work is to start with examples in the early part of the season and work through the season towards the next one. So, obviously, the second and third pictures from the Spring book show scenes from early Spring. The second picture in the Spring book (below) is a simple little tableau showing two displaying hedge sparrows in among early Spring flowers and a molehill.

The comments about the earlier Spring season nowadays compared with 1959-1961 in the previous post also apply here. The average dates on which these early Spring flowers appear have moved earlier in the year. The lesser celandine (latin name: Ranunculus ficaria, hence, a buttercup species), the smaller of the yellow flowers in the picture and an early source of nectar and pollen for insects, generally flowers about 2 weeks later in Scotland, on average, than in England. The average flowering date in the UK has, however, moved about 2 weeks earlier between 2001 and 2009. I couldn't find any earlier records for the flowering dates of this species, but there is clearly a change in timing taking place.

The text for the picture reports on the pair of Hedge Sparrows or Dunnocks (latin name: Prunella modularis) in the following very innocent and sweet way: "With flirting and jerking of wings, two hedge-sparrows are displaying to each other in a kind of springtime dance. It is a form of love-making." Bless!

The population story for the dunnock or hedge-sparrow (although it is not a species of sparrow) is, however, not so pleasant. Although present all year round in Britain, including most of Scotland, and breeding here, the abundance of dunnocks in Britain fell substantially between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, after a period of population stability. Some recovery has occurred throughout the UK since the late 1990s, but the species is still "amber listed", meaning that it is thought to have had a population decline of between 25 and 50%. The figure showing its decline is quite dramatic:

It is suggested by the British Trust for Ornithology that the decline may be due to wide mis-management and deer-overgrazing of the woodland habitats for this species. One other thing about this relatively undistinguished looking bird - it has a very complex sex life!  I quote: "This unobtrusive little brown bird doesn't form pairs (like most birds), but breeds in groups of up to three males and three females, with two males and a female being the most common." It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?

Finally, the picture has a molehill (or “mole-heave”) in the foreground. Moles (Talpa europaea) belong to the same mammal family as hedgehogs and shrews, the insectivores (“insect eaters”, although moles mostly eat earthworms). You might have noticed lots of small molehills appearing in parks and grass fields in early Spring. As I understand it, this is the result of male moles heading out in search of females, digging new tunnels presumably in the hope of an encounter with a tunnel containing a potential mate. If anyone has a better understanding of this, I’d be pleased to learn what they know. Moles can be found everywhere in Britain where the soil is deep enough for their tunnelling. In a review of British mammals published by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), an amazing population estimate is provided for moles in Britain: total pre-breeding population of about 31,000,000; 19,750,000 in England, 8,000,000 in Scotland and 3,250,000 in Wales!

The trend in mole numbers is unknown; although persecution (trapping, posioning) of moles may have reduced (I no longer see fence lines with loads of dead moles hanging from them, which I used to see when I was young), according to the JNCC report, some current agricultural practices, particularly deep plouging, are detrimental to moles and the removal of hedgerows and areas of rough land eliminates the sanctuary areas from which moles could recolonise an area following cultivation. So the loss of set-aside land due to the removal of farming subsidies may affect mole populations adversely in arable areas (but who knows by how much?).

"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing." (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 1).

Time to turn the page again:

The third Spring picture shows an altogether more complicated scene. An agricultural landscape with seed drilling, (by modern standards) profligate levels of rural employment, birds galore and elm trees (guess what we’ll be looking at shortly!). As an indication of how much agricultural expectations have changed since 1960, I quote the first line of text: “The elaborate tilling machine, which can till twelve drills of wheat at a time, is a far-reaching advance on the earlier hand-scattering of seeds.” This suggestion of a memory of hand-sowing really does make a link back to pre-intensification agriculture. Also, the picture harks back to a time when many more people were employed in farming - difficult to think today of three people working to plough and seed a single wheat field. This would all be achieved by one guy in a big modern tractor - no need for a man to stand on the back of the seed drill to ensure that the seeds feed evenly!

In the foreground, a group of black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) is seen following the tractor. The text suggests that they are picking up grain seeds, as well as worms and soil grubs. It seems unlikely that they would be taking grain, their diet usually being "worms, insects, fish and carrion". Although there is a large breeding popualtion of over 138,000 pairs of black-headed gulls in Britain, most breeding in colonies in bogs and marshes on hills and moors a long way from the sea, in winter, the population swells to nearly 1.7 million birds, on reservoirs, in estuaries, and on the coast (as well as in coastal towns), with birds migrating here from eastern and northern Europe.

In terms of the breeding population of black-headed gulls, the good old JNCC is able to advise as follows: "There has been a marked spread in northern Europe since the early 20th century and the recent colonisation of Italy (1960), Spain (1960), Greenland (1969) and Newfoundland (1977) would suggest this expansion is continuing. British and Irish populations have also reflected the increases that started during the 1900s ... More recent population changes have only been adequately documented for coastal sites, and these showed a slight increase of about 7% between 1969–1970 and 1985–1987 for Britain and Ireland as a whole ... English coastal colonies showed an overall increase of more than 30%, whereas over the same period, a 55% decrease was recorded on Scottish coasts (particularly south-east Scotland)." The apparent loss of colonies in Scotland is reported to be probably a consequence of agricultural drainage.

The displaying lapwings in the picture – also known as peewits in Scotland – offer a salutory tale under the banner of farmland bird decline but, as lapwings feature in a later Spring picture, I am going to save that for another day. Similarly for the rooks in the background, as they will feature in the next post.

The one remaining issue in this picture, and one of the most significant in rural landscape terms over the past 50 years is the elm trees (It says: "The expanding flower-buds on the elm trees are tinged pink against their dark twigs").

Dutch elm disease is one of the most serious tree diseases in the world. It is caused by two related species of fungi (Ophiostoma), spread by various elm bark beetles. Native British elm species are susceptible to the disease. In lowland central and southern Britain, with predominantly English elm, an epidemic of Dutch Elm Disease took rapid hold during the early to mid-1970s, leading to the death of most mature English elm by the early 1980s.

According to Forest Research (the research arm of the Forestry Commission), Dutch Elm disease's epidemic progress has been much slower on the large predominantly wych elm (Ulma glabra) populations of Scotland and north-west England. The result is that the first wave of the 1970s epidemic is still active and continuing in these areas today. It has moved into U. glabra populations that were not affected by the first epidemic, such as those in the Glasgow area. It is continuing to push northwards, particularly on the east coast north of Aberdeen. The disease is now well-established in an area around Nairn to the east of Inverness, with several hundred trees known to be affected.

Elm trees were never as significant a feature of Scottish rural landscapes as in England, where the loss of entire elm populations in many areas completely changed rural landscapes and their skylines.Nevertheless, elms are still regarded as an important tree in some parts of Scotland, such as North-East Scotland, and local authorities and others remain active in trying to prevent the spread of the disease. Here is Highland Council's information on this.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Signs I Like #8

Not so much signs as plaques, but they do illustrate just how far ahead of his time Robert Owen was. These are in the roof-top garden at the New Lanark World Heritage Site Visitor Centre, in one of Owen's former mill buildings. Read more about Robert Owen here. A truly remarkable Welshman bringing about massively progressive social reform in a time full of remarkable Scots.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #1

The "What To Look For In..." series of books by Ladybird paint us a picture, season by season of the changing face of the British countryside through a year. But, published, as they were, between 1959 and 1961, the countryside we see around us today, some 50 years later, has been subject to considerable change, both in agriculture and land management practices, and, related to this, in the richness, distribution and overall health of the wildlife (and not all the changes have been negative). We also have lots of bits of evidence that the climate has changed measurably over the last 40 years, with effects on the seasonal timing of natural events (more later). So, here is the first of the posts I will make over the next year, based on the words and pictures of these "What To Look For" Ladybird books. I will be trying to compare the idealised countryside presented to my young self in the early 1970's (itself based on images from some 10 or more years before then) with the countryside around us today and seeing if it is possible to draw any conclusions, in due course, about "the state we are in".

The first picture in the Spring book (click on it to see a larger version) shows a scene supposed to be from the first week of March (so I just missed the chance to coincide with that), with some mallards flying above a lake (or maybe a loch?), alder catkins, pussy willow buds and more waterbirds on the loch - a pair of mallards and a great crested grebe. In the background, a farmer is ploughing up his winter stubble from last year's grain crop.

So, I guess the first thing that's worth saying is that the timing of Spring has changed a bit since 1961. Why do I say that? Well, with all the fuss about the climate change we can expect in the future, we may be conveniently overlooking the fact that it has been happening for a few decades already. The study of phenology, or the seasonal timing of natural events, reveals the annual and seasonal cyclical changes in emergence of flowers and leaves, the hatching of bird chicks, the timing of leaf fall in Autumn, and so on. In 2006, a handbook of climate trends for Scotland was published, covering the years 1961 - 2004. Over the last 50 years, in response to warmer average temperatures and a consequent longer growing season, the average growing season now starts a full three weeks earlier in Scotland than in 1961:

You can find out a lot more about the effects of these changes on wildlife in Scotland in a report published in 2006 by Scottish Natural Heritage.

So, in the first picture in this series, it is likely that the timing of the opening of buds of the pussy-willow will now be taking place earlier than in 1961. That said, I spotted the first opening pussy-willow buds of the year that I've seen here in Stirling yesterday, but this has been the coldest January and February in Scotland for 50 years - and that illustrates the need to differentiate between weather (what's happening today) and climate (the long-term average conditions) when thinking about the effects of climate change!

Other wildlife issues worthy of comment in this picture are, firstly, the mallards. There are both paired-off mallards (in the water) and courting mallards (in flight). Mallards are Britain's and Scotland's commonest wild ducks, well-known from and easily observed in city park ponds, local rivers and lochs, estuaries, harbours and canals. There has, however, been a long-term decline in mallard numbers in the UK in winter. Here is the trend in winter mallard abundance between 1961 and 2008, as collated and analysed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) as part of its annual Wetland Bird Survey:

From BTO (2009)

The BTO suggests that this decline in winter mallard numbers may be a result of milder winters on continental Europe leading to fewer mallards arriving in Britain to escape the colder continental conditions and find open unfrozen water in Britain. If the breeding population of mallards is examined, by contrast:

you can see that there has been a big increase in numbers. You can read more about this at the BTO's website. It seems this increase may have been partly brought about by the release into the wild of mallards bred for duck shooting purposes.

The other bird species in the picture is the great crested grebe, a beautiful, elegant waterbird with ornate head plumes which led to its being hunted for its feathers in Victorian times, for use largely as plumes for ladies' hats, almost leading to its extermination from the UK. In fact, it was concern over this species, amongst others, that led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Birds, later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The BTO's account for this species, in the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), says that the "species was believed to be on the verge of extinction in Britain around 1860, when only 32–72 pairs were known in England". A "subsequent increase followed reductions in persecution, aided by statutory protection, and the creation of habitat in the form of gravel pits". An increase in numbers was tracked by special surveys to around 7,000 adult birds in Britain by 1975. The BBS provides the first annual, national monitoring of this species and indicates a shallow increase in numbers since 1994.

The final issue worth commenting on in this picture is the tractor in the background, ploughing, as it says: "wide strips in last year' stubble". First off, a recurrent theme of the agricultural issues in comparing the world of today with the "What to look for" books is the extent to which farm machinery has changed since 1961. The farmer here is driving a small Massey Ferguson-type tractor of the kind I remember from small childhood, with no cab or even a roll-bar to protect the driver (must have been freezing! They bred them tough in those days!) and so totally unlike the massive, soil compacting monsters that are in use on farms these days. I have no idea whether last year's stubble is for wheat or barley, but one of the significant changes in agriculture since the book was published has been a major switch away from the Spring planting of cereal crops, particularly barley, to planting in Autumn. I found one quote: "From the late 1980s, the area of winter-sown barley has exceeded that of spring-sown, whereas as recently as 1970, spring-sown barley acreage was more than ten times that of winter-sown." This change, and with it the ploughing up and subsequent loss of winter stubble and its supply of fallen seed, as well as differences in the usefulness of spring and autumn and winter sown crops as habitats for some nesting birds, has had massive negative consequences for British wildlife, a theme I will certainly revisit in subsequent posts, but it is interesting to see it reflected in the very first of the pictures I have examined in this exercise. So, climate changes, agricultural changes, declines and increases in different bird species. Lots of interesting issues in one simple (but lovely) picture!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Signs I like #7

From a Stirling pub - just how dumb do you need to be to require this level of instruction?

The times, they are a-changing - or are they? (Signs of the times)

I am embarking here on a year-long series of blog posts in the core territory of what this blog is really meant to be about - Scotland's nature. When I was a very small boy, I began to accumulate a collection of Ladybird books, mostly on wildlife topics. I now know from browsing collectors' websites that I was collecting books in the Ladybird series 536, on Nature, illustrated by wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe and written by biologist E.L. Grant Watson, but as a small child, all I knew was that Ladybird books were a treasure trove of knowledge about wildlife and I was encouraged by my parents to read them. My favourite books from the beginning were definitely the set of four shown above, the "What To Look For In ..." series covering the four seasons. Together, these paint a fascinating documentary in words and pictures of the great annual cycle of life in Britain's countryside through a year. My Dad worked as Scotland's first Countryside Ranger, a new profession in Scotland in 1970, and I grew up from the earliest age very conscious of the flow of the seasons and the predictable patterns of seasonal change as bird species came and went, flowers appeared, fruit grew, etc. And then, opening these wonderful books, there were all these patterns, and more, in word and picture. As well as wildlife, they also portray the seasonal changes in farming and land management practices, perhaps more than a little romanticised!

But these books, which had a huge influence on my young self, were first written and published between 1959 and 1961, some 50 years ago and I was reading them maybe 10 years later. It occurred to me that there is a great opportunity to use these books, and their marvellous illustrations as the basis for a comparison between then and now, looking at the changes that have taken place in these characteristic illustrations of the British countryside over the last 50 years, a period that more than encompasses my whole lifespan.

Hopefully, therefore, over the next 12 months, I will manage to track the progression through the seasons using these books and, through their pictures and words, try to undertake a comparison with the current state of rural Scotland and its wildlife (and the farming practices it portrays too! At first glance, farming may be the area of greatest change compared to the books!). So, please stick with me for the duration, the posts following this, several per season, will hopefully be more interesting than this one!

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Giro d'Italia on the Passo Pordoi - it's enough to give you the bends...

The great Fausto Coppi in full climbing flow

My wife and I spent last week with friends on a skiing holiday in the Ialian Dolomites, a possible subject of blog posts to come. As a cyclist, however, one of the highlights for me was travelling up the Passo Pordoi on a coach trip to another ski area - cycling wasn't feasible (ski holiday, no bike!)and the climb looked like it would have done me in anyway! The reason for my interest? The Passo Pordoi is often included as one of the major climbs in the Giro d'Italia, Italian cycling's equivalent of the Tour de France.

Where Le Tour's Alpe d'Huez , one of Le Tour's major climbs every year, has 21 hairpin bends in the climb, the Passo Pordoi has 27 hairpins in a seemingly endless succession up the mountainside:

View of the top hairpins and summit of the Passo Pordoi, seen from the Sass Pordoi cable car station.

A photo of the marker for the 27th and final hairpin on the Passo Pordoi climb, taken through the coach window. The coach driver's crucifix for luck (top left) seems somehow appropriate!

The Pordoi Pass entered cycling history in the Giro d'Italia as a result of the racing rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi and has been the highest crossing of the Giro d'Italia 13 times since 1965, when the "Cima Coppi" was founded. The highest point of each Giro d’Italia is called the ‘Cima Coppi’ – symbolically named for Fausto Coppi, arguably the greatest bike racer Italy has ever produced (the bartaliani, fans of his great rival Gino Bartali, would doubtless disagree!). The first rider over the top wins the prize for that year, but to the Italian fans, the Cima Coppi is a prize of much greater significance. Pez Cycling news produced an interesting article on the background to the Cima Coppi here.

The last crossing of the Giro over Passo Pordoi took place in 2002, led by Mexican rider Perez Cuapio.

The Pordoi Pass has been stage finish of the Giro d'Italia several times:
- 06-06-1990 stage 16, won by the French Charly Mottet
- 12-06-1991 stage 17, won by Franco Chioccioli
- 07-06-1996 stage 20, won by Enrico Zaina
- 01-06-2001 stage 13, won by Julia Perez Cuapio.

The local Pordoi hotels also have a webpage here with some great scrolling photos of the history of Pordoi in the Giro. I also found this great photo by Graham Watson on the web, showing the Giro climbing up the Passo Pordoi in 2002.

Finally, although I wasn't able to visit it (although we were up and walking aorund the Pass summit later in the week on the way up to the Sass Pordoi cable car), the local community erected a statue in memory of Fausto Coppi somewhere up on the Pass summit. Here's a photo from wikipedia:

Fausto Coppi: 'Il Campionissimo', 'Champion of Champions'