Latest News

Late autumn in West Cork: the calm after the storms

Nowhere are you more at the mercy of the elements than at the extremities of our islands. Two days before our visit, Storm Brian swept through, and just a week prior to that ex-Hurricane Ophelia left her ferocious mark on the landscape, still very apparent during our stay.

But after the storms came the calm. A pool of still, saturated anticyclonic air lay over county Cork for the whole of our visit. Gloom, mist and fog, sometimes coalescing into rain: the air, the land and the sea merged imperceptibly but firmly, the common element being water. Still, what would Ireland be without water?

   

This weather didn’t make for easy wildlife watching. Landscapes were best described as ‘atmospheric’; the few remaining flowers were storm-battered and wind-burnt, and always studded with reflective droplets of water.

  

Of course, transatlantic hurricanes often carry involuntary waifs from distant shores, and this was no exception. A Gray-cheeked Thrush from America had pitched down close to our hotel in Rosscarbery, and was duly ticked, with the help of the thankfully small group of twitchers. But for us at least, the waterbirds on the estuary – Black-tailed Godwits and Curlews, Redshanks and Greenshanks, Grey Herons and Little Egrets among many others – were a more satisfying spectacle, along with several Mediterranean Gulls in the gull flocks, and Choughs overhead, just to confirm we were no longer in Essex. But best of all, just off the harbour wall, five Great Northern Divers, only just starting to lose their summer plumage, were simply stunning, as they made inroads into the local crab population.      

Elsewhere, a boat trip to Garnish Island in Bantry Bay, produced ‘Black’ Guillemots in their white winter garb and a couple of White-tailed Eagles, huge but bedraggled (yes, it was raining!) from the local reintroduction scheme. And many Grey Seals, mostly hauled out on rocky islets, were of course in their element, oblivious to the weather. The gardens on the island must be magnificent at more favourable times of the year, but a Treecreeper hunting for insects and spiders on the moss-covered walls, Wallcreeper-fashion, was about all we could muster.

When all else fails, however, the ‘world within’, the bugs and beasties that make the world go round, always come up with the goods, especially when I have Jude and her amazing close-up vision (aka myopia) at my side! Even through rain-smeared optics, I learned that woodlice moult in two halves, a few days apart, and then came face to face for the first time with our largest centipede Stigmatogaster subterraneus. In the semi-arid south-east of England, such sights need searching for, under bark or stones; here they were in full show on the stone walls and tree trunks.

  

Add to that a proliferation of fungi and lichens, and our short time there was put to good use, helped along by our ‘three stout challenge’. Our unanimous verdict was that Murphys is better than Beamish, and both come above Guinness in the taste-test…although that may need further research and confirmation the next time we venture down the Wild Atlantic Way!

 

The Devil has all the best tunes…

 

The Devil has all the best tunes…

A couple of weeks ago, I had an unfamiliar experience. I was kept awake all night by my phone buzzing, indicating one of my tweets was being shared and commented upon around the world. The subject? A wonderful, smelly, alien-looking fungus – the Devil’s Fingers.

The tweet in question:

https://twitter.com/chrismothman1/status/901084309494300672

Alerted to its occurrence near Colchester by a Twitter contact @MushroomTable, Devil’s Fingers now ranks high as one of my most exciting wildlife sightings ever. Not native to the UK, this Antipodean monster arrived in Britain around a century ago, its spores having reached our shores it is believed either via the horticultural trade or perhaps on the tyres of military vehicles. It has been established since then in climatically-favoured parts of the south-west, but is now evidently spreading, perhaps yet another indicator of climate change.

Why it attracted so much interest is not difficult to see – it is a very striking species – but what interested me was the extent to which it captured the attention of the Twittersphere. By now, it has gathered nearly 21,000 page impressions, of which more than 2,000 viewers engaged with it. 274 likes, 84 retweets, 21 replies – by a very long way the most popular tweet I have ever posted. Perhaps more significantly, it encouraged 75 viewers to look into my profile, and (at least temporarily) I gained around 30 new followers. Of course, whether those followers will stick with me is a different matter: when they realise that much of my Twitter activity is around sharing my concerns about the horrors of Brexit, should it happen, and highlighting human abuses to animals and the natural world generally, some have and will no doubt continue to drop away. But for that I make no apologies: those issues are important to me and part of my very being. And on that point, I have noticed a lot more interest in my more political tweets subsequently.

Responses to the tweet came from all corners of the globe, from Costa Rica to Japan. Most were broadly positive: Wow’, ‘Awesome’, ‘Sometimes life just gives you a special day’; others, perhaps not surprisingly, were more appreciative in a horror movie sort of way: Gruesome’, ‘Creepy’, ‘That’s why fungi freak me out’. Whatever the response, any reaction is a reaction, hopefully helping to raise awareness of the fragile wonders of our world…

 

An Olympic Exploration

People have noticed that my blogs seem to have dried up recently. Some have even complained! Put simply, ‘retirement’ has proved to be busier than ever. But I do hope to resume posting, now that the busy wildlife tour season is over. I have several planned, but first I must say a few words about a place that surprised and excited us last week.

“Two day-returns to Stratford, please”. I said it quietly, hoping nobody in the queue would hear, and assume that we were heading out for a day’s shopping in Westfield, that cathedral of retail therapy. No, we were set to explore the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Five years on from the Big Event, we were interested to see whether the much-talked-about green legacy had borne fruit. And we were not disappointed!

It all started well, with a cracking male Black Redstart feeding around the entrance to the park, and continued to provide wildlife excitement throughout the day, despite the breezy, often cloudy conditions. Yes, it was busy, hundreds of people enjoying themselves in formal and informal recreational activities, but the ‘green infrastructure’, within which the formal recreation facilities are embedded, more than met our expectations. Semi-naturalistic plantings of both native and non-native plants, rich in nectar and pollen sources, were so buzzing with invertebrate life especially, that we managed only to explore about half of the park in detail during the day. Most pleasing to note was the fact that the Park has not fallen into the grips of the ‘overtidying’ garden mafia, an important lesson that could usefully be learned by local authorities and gardeners across the country.

The photos below are a small example of the things we saw which excited us, and which will ensure that we return time and again. Might even be persuaded to do some shopping some time!

As usual, our attention was focussed upon the invertebrates, and while maybe we didn’t see anything too unexpected for this part of the world, the sheer volume of life, happily going about its business was a delight. Starting with the Big and Showy, a Jersey Tiger moth was especially dramatic (especially to us from north-east Essex, which has not yet seen the fruits of the Tiger’s recent range expansion), while other Lepidoptera included the chrysalis of a Small Tortoiseshell.

A fresh adult Blue-tailed Damselfly, and a nymph Field Grasshopper:

Our largest aphid, the Giant Willow Aphid Tuberolachnus salignus, and a Green Shield-bug final instar nymph:

Bee-wolves Philanthus triangulum, both male and female making good use of the umbelliferous nectar sources:

Beetles of all descriptions:  a Cryptocephalus pot-beetle, possibly C. pusillus, feeding on a rose-hip;  Brown Willow Beetle Galerucella lineola; the hairy darkling beetle Lagria hirta; and the larva of an Orange Ladybird.

Hoverflies galore: Eristalis arbustorum; Batman Hoverfly Myathropea florea; Volucella inanis; and the giant of them all, a couple of views of the Hornet Hoverfly Volucella zonaria.

And finally, reflecting Jude’s almost microscopic close-up vision, she kept finding these tiny eggs on filaments attached to all sorts of vegetation:

Green lacewings, we assumed, and to vindicate our assumption, here is a hugely gravid female, with the evidence right next to her…

Wonderful Wildlife Art at the Mall Galleries: ‘a glimpse of the wild in the heart of London’

allen-richard-summer-stonechat

Summer Stonechat by Richard Allen ASWLA

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, we were lucky enough to be able to attend the Private View of this year’s Society of Wildlife Artists’ exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London (another benefit of the welcome flexibility that comes with ‘retirement’!). It was a great opportunity, second only to the Rutland Birdfair, to meet up with old friends and former colleagues, and to be immersed in a dazzling array of wildlife-themed artworks.

It is several years since my last visit to this annual exhibition, and it seems that the trend has been towards the kind of wildlife art I enjoy. In the past, I felt it was overly dominated by highly representational, almost photo-realistic pieces. All demonstrating incredible talent, but in this era of a multitude of actual photographic images of increasingly good quality, artworks depicting the same view of the world left me rather unmoved.

Not so this year however: a great range of more abstract works, or with strong graphic design elements, now seem to be in the majority. Pictures which capture the feel of the subject and its surroundings, which suggest rather than spoon-feed – that for me is what makes art such a powerful form of communication. Images that simplify reality to its essential elements, maybe introduce new colours or textures that challenge the way I see the natural world, and in the process help me appreciate and understand all the more the wonders of nature, and bolster my resolve to continue to fight for its protection.

So I would strongly recommend anyone who values the natural world and appreciates attempts to capture its essence on canvas or through sculpture to try and make time for an hour or two at the Mall Galleries: the exhibition runs until 6th November. Or at least look at the selected online gallery of images http://www.mallgalleries.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/natural-eye-2016#block-views-exhibition-content-block-2

The only downside was the unseasonal, almost tropical temperature with everyone crowded in. But even that bore fruit: in a desperate quest for cool, fresh air (insofar as London’s air can be described as fresh), we ventured outside for a few minutes, and came upon a beastie we have been searching for without success for a couple of years: the red-and-black lygaeid bug Arocatus longiceps, climbing up the exterior wall of the gallery, just a few metres from the nearest specimen of its host food plant, London Plane…

arocatus-longiceps

Apologies for the poor quality of the photo: taken on my mobile, as I made the classic mistake of leaving my camera at home. One day I will learn!

Thanks to Richard Allen for inviting us to the Private View, and to Andy Clements for extending that invitation to the BTO evening reception.

A Magical Menorcan Autumn – ‘step by step’ to a greener future

 

 

View from Cap Cavalleria

View from Cap Cavalleria

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Menorca, a jewel of the Balearics, always delights. Justifiably proud of its status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, anyone visiting the island at any time of year can find natural, archaeological, cultural and historical treasures. Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of leading a group from Honeyguide Wildlife Tours around those treasures.

Torre d'en Gaumes

Torre d’en Gaumes

Wind- and salt-swept scrub, Favaritx

Wind- and salt-swept scrub, Favaritx

 

Sandwiched between intense thunderstorms the day before we arrived and the morning we left, the weather was pretty much idyllic: dry, warm to hot, and often as not with glorious blue skies as an antidote to the prospect of a British winter to come.

As always with my tours, our focus was broad, from the tiniest insect to the wider cultural and geological landscapes.

Albufera Es Grau

Albufera Es Grau

The wetlands were filling up with birds, northern visitors like Pochard and Black-necked Grebes mingling with those of more southerly origins, Ferruginous Duck and Greater Flamingo; the bushes and night skies teemed with Robins and Song Thrushes, nearing the end of their migrations, while a few sub-Saharan winterers like Blue-headed Wagtail, Common Redstart and Balearic Spotted Flycatcher still hung on. And as always Audouin’s Gulls,

Audouin's Gull

Audouin’s Gull

Hoopoes, Stone Curlews and the common big bird triumvirate of Red Kite, Booted Eagle and Egyptian Vulture spoke volumes about the favourability of conditions on Menorca year round, for birds just as much as for people.

 

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew

Great Egret

Great Egret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a long, hot, dry summer, an autumn trip to Menorca can seem devoid of interest to the botanist. But rains over the previous month had arrived, sometimes heavily so, and the ‘Second Spring’ was underway almost as we watched, newly sprouting grass emerging from the previously parched and heavily grazed pastures.

Autumn Daffodil

Autumn Daffodil

Autumn Daffodils sprung up and bloomed widely along road verges, with the stately spikes of Sea Squill, their flowers white stars with striking bright green anthers, on the more exposed coastal sites. Arum pictum was just emerging at Cavalleria, and the rivers of pink Merendera filifolia marking well-worn pathways, especially above Cales Coves, left me simply lost for words.

Merendera filifolia

Merendera filifolia

 

 

 

 

 

And as for the rest, well the insects at this season are as large and numerous as at any time of year:

Egyptian Locust

Egyptian Locust

Egyptian Locusts, Praying Mantises and Rhinoceros Beetles providing the size;

Crimson Speckled moth

Crimson Speckled moth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crimson Speckled moths the beauty; and Cistus Hedgehog Beetles the bizarre, in miniature.

Large Wasp Spider

Large Wasp Spider

Arachnids put on a great show, with Large Wasp Spiders in their huge orb-webs, and the fascinating 3D structures of Cage-web Spiders festooning many a bush. Italian Wall Lizards and Moorish Geckoes basked in the weakening sunlight, and the array of Hermann’s Tortoises included new hatchlings to old adults. The shady gorge of Rafalet produced a fungal highlight, the Pepperpot Earth-star,

 

Pepperpot Earth-star

Pepperpot Earth-star

 

and the rocks at Es Grau kept us entranced with their diverse, artistic friezes of lichens.

Lichen art

Lichen art

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were very lucky during the week to receive a visit from Montse Bau, from GOB Menorca – Grupo Balear de Ornitología y Defensa de la Naturaleza, the Birdlife Partner and main environmental voluntary body in the Balearics, with dedicated groups on each of the major islands. Honeyguide is still, sadly (to my knowledge), the only wildlife tour company which places a surcharge on each and every customer it takes on holiday and then invests those resources in conservation projects in the places we visit. On Menorca, GOB is the organization we support, and Montse described eloquently the breadth of what they do in response to the plethora of problems being faced by its wildlife and environment. GOB is a campaigning NGO, not just for birds but for all aspects of the environment. It advises the local and regional governments on matters relating to the environment. It rescues and rehabilitates injured birds, tortoises and other animals. It educates and informs locals and visitors alike. It gets stuck in on key, hitherto seemingly intractable problems, such as the pollution of the island’s aquifer, and the rapidly falling level of that aquifer as a result of unsustainable exploitation. It promotes wildlife- and water-friendly gardening. And the new project which so excited Honeyguide – ‘Agronatural Farms’ – and led us to double our donation to €800 using money from the Honeyguide Wildlife Charitable Trust. Agronatural Farms is a pilot project to develop and restore environmentally sustainable farming practices, and to seek to ensure that produce from those farms attracts a favourable price. Very laudable and thus far attracting a lot of interest, including from other parts of Spain.

So, in a nutshell, GOB Menorca does at least parts of what in Britain is addressed by RSPB, RSPCA, the Soil Association, Marine Conservation Society, Royal Horticultural Society, and even the roles of some statutory agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. A remarkable achievement, particularly in that it is organized by a team of about eight staff, just four Full Time Equivalent posts…and Honeyguide is more than proud to support those efforts.

Of course, with so much to do, so many battlefronts to fight on, and so few resources, there would always be the risk that nothing would ever get done properly. But here Montse’s mantra comes in to play…’step by step’, making a small but significant difference at each step, such that the sum of those steps is very significant progress towards protecting and enhancing this jewel of the Mediterranean. Perhaps that is a lesson in humility many of us could learn and take inspiration from. It certainly seems to be working for Montse and GOB Menorca: her presentation was the most upbeat of any I have heard over the years. And it makes me want to join in and help making more of those small steps forward…

For more information about GOB Menorca and its work, please visit english.gobmenorca.com

If you enjoyed reading this and would like to know more detail about the trip, a fully illustrated report will be on the Honeyguide website honeyguide.co.uk in due course.

Cap Favaritx

Cap Favaritx

Eroded cliffs near Addaia Lagoons

Eroded cliffs near Addaia Lagoons

Mediterranean Heath

Mediterranean Heath

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Italian Wall Lizard

Italian Wall Lizard

Sea Squill

Sea Squill

Rafalet Cove

Rafalet Cove

Sunset over Mallorca

Sunset over Mallorca

The Curate’s Egg: my reflections on leaving Natural England, part 2

img_7037b

In the first part of this blog, I touched on an issue for Natural England which has become apparent as I have left their employment, that of a feeling amongst staff of disenfranchisement. Now that I have found my voice, this second (and probably final) part nails my colours to the mast and explains my personal views on some of the key issues of our time.

I realise that my views could be dismissed as the rants of a disillusioned staff member who has been ‘let go’ early, being surplus to requirements. But that’s not the case. I am still proud of the work of NE and its predecessors, and my departure was a positive choice on my part. However, it is certainly not the case that I agree with everything it has done.

Take for example the licensing of Badger culling in an attempt to control Bovine TB. I disagree with that. Although I am not an expert on the matter,  I trust and respect those often eminent scientific experts,  contrary the ‘anti-expertise’ dogma which is sweeping the world, who maintain that the efficacy of such an approach is highly questionable, and indeed may even be counter-productive. I recognise that NE is in a difficult place, caught between its much vaunted evidence-based decision making and having to deliver Defra policy. But with all due respect, I think there is a considerable difference between the evidence coming from the scientific community and the ‘evidence’ coming from politicians (whose expertise, such as it is, is only around how to manage the diverse expectations of their constituents and lobby groups). Or indeed the ‘evidence’ coming from dairy farmers, caught at the sharp end of BTB, and understandably wanting something to blame, to see some action.

Worryingly, the licensing of badger culling for BTB control may be opening a can of worms, by creating an assumed precedent. Badgers in sea walls in Lincolnshire? Public calls to cull them! Not, as would have been the case in the past, to translocate them. While it is not likely that such calls to cull would ever be licensed, the conceptual genie is out of the bottle, and it may not be possible to contain it.

And then there’s the question of licensing the lethal control of Buzzards, to support Pheasant-rearing businesses. Again I disagree, maybe more from a moral perspective – to kill a protected raptor because of its predation upon an alien bird, arguably a pest, which is reared, released and shot in its millions. But again there are external influences which impact upon NE’s decision – in this case a High Court judgement. But have all alternative solutions been explored? And are there really no grounds to challenge the legal ruling? And if not, why not? Shouldn’t the wildlife licensing system have at its heart protection of the species, one that is awe-inspiring and a considerable success story, rather than ‘de-protecting’ it to facilitate economic returns… If NE really is caught in between the proverbial rock and the legal hard place, should it not be out there seeking changes in the law to reflect the views of the majority, who value and are inspired by the majesty of large raptors flying free, rather than the few who make a living from shooting or get their fulfilment through killing?

As with the Badgers, this decision is turning into a precedent, with several other similar applications under consideration. Where will it end? And more worryingly, how can we accept that the terms of the licence (numbers killed etc) will be adhered to? What happens if someone exercising a legal right to kill a Buzzard ‘accidentally’ misidentifies a passing Hen Harrier? Many unpleasant and illegal acts of persecution have taken place under a cloak of secrecy, out of the public gaze, on shooting estates: how can we be assured that nominally legalized Buzzard control will not go beyond the bounds and be added to the litany of illegal persecutions of protected birds?

While I recognise the need for NE to satisfy its political masters (oh for the days when we were an independent watchdog!) and remain within the bounds of law, I cannot help but feel that this has been at the expense of respect from and credibility with the wider conservation community. And when the time comes that NE itself is deemed to be ‘surplus to requirements’, as surely it will, it will need to turn to that community for its very survival. And to return to my earlier theme in Part 1 – NE should unlock the passion in its workforce, and win friends and supporters for the future.

Of course, NE does many things well, and with which I am proud to have been associated. None more so that the creation (now almost complete) of a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MCZs, SPAs and SACs). And all delivered with relatively little adverse comment and reaction: were we to have embarked on such a programme on the land at the same time and in the same political and economic climate, there would have been uproar, particularly from vested interests set on making money by turning countryside into suburbia.

Out at sea there are few developers. And most of those that there are (especially offshore wind companies) have a long history of working with us to reach genuinely sustainable development solutions. Likewise there are few regulatory authorities, unlike on land where the multitude of quasi-independent authorities provides ample opportunity for perversion of the democratic process (sorry that should read ‘lobbying’), forcing compromise when compromise is inappropriate, and means the loss of an irreplaceable part of our common natural heritage. All in the pursuit of Government priorities ie housing, jobs and economic growth.

Other things NE can be proud of, I believe, include:

  • Being a key player in visionary landscape-scale restoration schemes: Great Fen, Avalon Marshes, and numerous coastal managed realignments
  • Finding sustainable solutions to a wide range of development cases, and (largely) staying on the right side of compromise
  • Simply staying alive in a highly challenging political and economic climate
  • Making the right decision regarding the reintroduction of Beavers. Will Lynx be next? Having been involved with that project, and maintaining the requisite professional neutrality hitherto, I can now say ‘I hope so’. Better that the upland economies are supported by big cat ecotourism, than by unsustainable practices associated with driven grouse shooting and the like.

So to my final perspective: Natural England is that proverbial Curates Egg – good in parts. I can only hope that when viewed through the lens of hindsight, its achievements for the natural environment are seen to outweigh the follies.

—————-******************——————-

Sorry for the length of these postings, and thank you to anyone who read this far: I had a lot to get off my chest! Future postings will be shorter – and more illustrated! Next stop for me – Menorca and its autumn wildlife…

And finally, my metaphorical ‘golden watch’. My parting gifts included this wonderful original painting of Swifts over the church I can see from our flat, the work of my friend and outstanding local artist Richard Allen. Little did they know how much I have coveted this image since it first appeared in British Birds. And how it symbolizes the feelings I have right now – wild spirits flying free above Wivenhoe.

wivswifts