The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 13 Sept 19

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In just over a week’s time, it will officially be autumn, the equinox occurring between the 21st and 23rd of September, despite the Met Office decreeing that autumn, meteorologically at least, has already made its appearance – on the first day of the month!

A good number of our summer visitors – the feathered variety – have already pre-empted the falling mercury and the rapidly shortening days by leaving and in the case of many of them, heading for the warmth of Africa. Most of them being insect eaters, their departure is the wisest option no matter how hazardous their voyages may be. However, migration is not an option for our animals, except that recent disclosures reveal that some of our bats are indeed long distance travellers, venturing to some surprising overseas destinations at times. However, the fact is that bats – also of course, consumers of insects – will, as the days shorten further and the supply of insects seriously diminishes with the temperature, opt for the big sleep.

Along with our reptiles and hedgehogs, hibernation is their way of getting through the winter but there is no set date that may trigger the urge to enter their slumbers. Apparently, the most influential factor is the lessening hours of daylight, rather than the diminishing food supply or indeed receding temperatures. And just as migrating birds find it absolutely vital to add the ounces in the shape of body fat, so too must those creatures preparing for hibernation, apply the same rules. They have to take full advantage of the bounty provided by autumn’s harvest and also literally stuff themselves with food in order to establish adequate reserves of fat.

Our falling population of hedgehogs will already be putting on the beef beneath the skin and around the internal organs. However, it has been discovered that there are two different kinds of fat, white and brown Brown fat is primarily laid down in the region of the neck, shoulders and chest. This brown fat, which has a high calorific value, is drawn upon slowly throughout the winter and indeed it is only when this resource begins to seriously diminish that ‘reveille’ is triggered and the animal wakes up in spring. The white fat, which is apparently of lower calorific value, is generally the initial food store and is particularly absorbed in the early days of hibernation. It has long been discovered that the notion that hedgehogs go to sleep in the autumn and sleep soundly throughout the winter has long since discovered is not the case. However the animal’s metabolic rate is slowed down during its sleeping periods, the heart rate falling and the breathing rate barely perceptible. Should unseasonably warm conditions prevail during the winter months, the animal may wake and as a consequence, the metabolic rate increases necessitating a search for food to top up those fat reserves which have been naturally burnt off quicker when awakening occurs.

I’ve had a few hedgehogs about during this summer – more than usual – one of which was rolling in fat and is clearly well prepared for bedtime! However, there has been a serious decline in hedgehog numbers across the country. One of the hedgehog’s main problems of course is that its defence is to roll up into a prickly, impenetrable ball. My dogs know all about that and left the fat hedgehog alone apart from a cursory sniff. But that awesome predator, ‘auto motoris’ simply ignores that defensive ball and sadly for all of us to see, the result is hedgehog carcasses littering our roads. This tactic in such circumstances is very evidently futile. However, some have pointed an accusing finger at badgers, saying that the decline in hedgehog numbers is due to the badgers’ ability to unwrap that defensive ball with their very powerful claws. This accusation apparently ignores the fact that badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed in our landscape ever since the Great Ice Age, many millennia ago! Poor old Brock gets the blame for more than he bargained for and I see that the war conducted against badgers by the Westminster Government is set during these next few weeks, to be stepped up.

Notwithstanding the advice of the scientists and indeed the veterinary profession, a further 10 areas of England have been scheduled for badger culls to be undertaken this autumn, making it 42 areas in total. It means that the Government expects that up to 50,000 badgers could be killed between September and November. Yet so far the evidence is that despite Government claims to the contrary, culling is exacerbating the bovine TB problem not solving it. For example, the incidence of bovine TB in the Gloucestershire pilot culling-zone rose by 130% during 2018! I am well aware that this pernicious disease poses a huge threat to the cattle industry however culling does not seem to be providing the solution to this intractable problem.

The Welsh Government is following a policy of vaccination and there are other areas where this approach is being taken. When you consider that some 28,000 badgers were killed last year and some 33,000 cattle destroyed because they, the latter, failed TB tests, surely the time has come for a different approach, one with which scientists and vets can agree upon! It’s surely time to end the pointless killing! This after all, is an animal that enjoys the protection of the law! Thank goodness Scotland remains free of bovine TB. Meanwhile badgers are also fattening themselves up on autumn’s bounty, not as some might believe in preparation for hibernation but as a means of getting through the worst of the winter’s weather when it comes.

Badgers, like hedgehogs build up excessive reserves of fat and when bad weather sets in may elect to sleep safely tucked up in their underground setts for a few days, relying on that fat to sustain them. I have however, seen extremely active badgers in snow covered landscapes on many occasions. As I’ve said, badgers don’t hibernate! Many of the more sedentary birds are following similar tactics by taking advantage of autumn’s bounty. The rowans have produced a fine harvest this year and red they most certainly are. Already there is a steady procession of blackbirds and thrushes devouring the fruits of our laden rowan branches albeit that the starlings, which have been a constant presence here throughout the summer months, are gobbling the berries at a phenomenal rate. I’m afraid that here, at least, there will be little or nothing left in this cupboard for any redwings or fieldfares when they arrive next month.

There is also rather more in the way of music with the sparrows back to their quarrelsome noisiest, the delightful whispering conversations of goldfinches and as is to be expected, plenty of redbreast song. The robins are blurting out their little burst of song as a means of establishing winter feeding territories which incidentally, they will defend with just as much vigour as they defended their summer breeding territories. Any day now, we can expect the noise of birds to be ramped up as the first of our winter visitors arrive, the vanguard of the great flocks of pink-footed geese which will pattern our skies throughout the autumn and winter months. There can be no doubt that the atmosphere of autumn is with us whether or not we abide by what the Met men tell us or indeed whether we count the autumn equinox as being the true signal! It will be Jack Frost next!

Weekly Nature Watch 30 Aug 2019

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The signs of the passage of the seasons are undeniable. A horse chestnut in punk rocker-mode, its crown distinctively reddening tells us that summer is slowly on the retreat and that autumn is already peeping over the horizon. Town rooftops have fallen silent too with the sudden departure of the ‘devil birds’ – the swifts, which poet Ted Hughes described as, “… Jockeying across each other on their switchback wheel of death they swat past, hard fetched.” Swifts do not hide their lights beneath bushels, they scream and hurtle, and always, it appears, at ninety miles an hour. But now they are gone on their epic new race, all the way to Africa.

Swifts, therefore, do not stay with us for long. They announce their arrival vociferously and, as always, by hurtling among the town chimney pots in mid-May. They produce a single brood and by mid August are already re-tracing their aerial steps back towards the Dark Continent.

Yet cuckoos are even shorter-term visitors. They usually arrive in these northern parts of Britain in May. But by July, the parent birds are also already beginning their return to that same Dark Continent. Of course, they don’t rear even a single brood of their own but leave the job to unknowing foster parents. Furthermore, they depart without a care for the progeny to which those foster parents will be utterly dedicated. The hard working, long suffering foster parents are completely ignorant of the fact that the youngster they are energetically raising will have murdered their own natural young!

Meanwhile, other migratory birds are already preparing themselves for the hazardous journeys they must make during the next few weeks, also mainly to Africa. Preparation is largely about eating! Most will have acquired a new set of feathers so that they are prime condition to take on their mammoth journeys. But now they must stock up with body fat – the fuel they will rely upon to sustain them over their journeys of thousands of miles. The fuel comprises of subcutaneous fat just below the skin, a vital ingredient whether their travels are done in stages or not. For example, some warblers usually weighing in at 12 grams or 2/3 of an ounce, during late summer will add up to four grams as a means of sustaining them over long sea crossings such as the Bay of Biscay. And once they have completed that leg of their journey and made landfall in northern Spain, they will pause to add further fuel, sometimes as much as another ten grams, before tackling the daunting crossing of the Mediterranean and then the even more daunting, soulless Sahara Desert.

As you might imagine, they are required to prepare themselves as thoroughly as a Marathon runner, not only adding that vital fuel but getting their flight muscles in tip-top order. The miraculous fact of autumnal migration is, of course, that among the millions of birds that undertake it are young birds hatched during this summer. What a challenge that must represent to this new generation! There is preparation afoot also, not just for forthcoming winter but for next spring. The thistles, which just a few short weeks ago, were covered by bees and butterflies, collecting vital nectar, have gone to seed. Their heads are now a mass of white gossamer-like seeds, which are designed to take the progenitors of new life to fresh sites wherever the vagaries of the winds will take them.

Together, with dandelions and rosebay willow herb, a percentage of these floating masses of seeds, will find soil where they can begin a new cycle of life. Nature has many ways of promoting the creation and dispersal of life. She constantly seeks to colonise new ground albeit that this method of distribution is of course utterly random. Meanwhile, instead of butterflies and bees, those same thistles were the other day covered with goldfinches, both colourful adults and this summer’s crop of youngsters, yet to become red faced. But displaying as much agility as their parents, they extract the said seeds dextrously, like little trapeze artists, sometimes finding themselves upside down as they carefully prise out the nutritious seeds!

Goldfinches are always a delight whether feasting on thistle seeds or flitting in undulating flight from one patch of thistles to another, their whispering little contact calls a constant reminder of their presence. During the summer their vocal range becomes more ambitious. It is easy to understand why goldfinches were among the most prized birds when the keeping of birds in cages was fashionable. They are, of course, very colourful and attractive but they were also valued as fine songsters. Indeed, it was common during the second half of the nineteenth century, for regular competitions to be held with prizes on offer for the best singers as well as for the real good lookers. Really good-looking birds which could also sing sweetly were not only highly prized, they also changed hands for surprisingly large sums of money!

Such was the popularity of this cruel hobby that in 1860 it was reported that as many as 132,000 goldfinches were trapped in the south coast resort of Worthing alone. Indeed, so severely did goldfinch populations fall as a result of catching so many of them that the Government of the day brought forward legislation to protect them. The Protection of Birds Act of 1880, at least brought the force of law as a means of focussing attention on the plight of goldfinches in the hope of restricting this cruel trade. Although initially the law was largely ignored, eventually the notion that this was a cruel way to treat wild birds began to dawn.

Fast forward to the modern day and at a time when many birds are struggling to maintain their numbers, goldfinches happily seem to be prospering. Most of the migrant birds currently fuelling up for the journeys they will instinctively make in the coming weeks are, of course, insect eaters. They come here to feast on our insects and rear the next generations. But as autumn and then winter descend on these northerly locations, insect life rapidly diminishes so hence the mass migration back to insect ridden Africa.

However, there is one migrant, which in recent years has been bucking the trend. More and more blackcaps are choosing to winter in Britain. There have even been blackcaps spotted in gardens in Inverness in mid-winter. The secret of this strangely successful change in habit is that they have learned to feed on berries and on birdseed. In our eagerness to attract birds to our gardens during the winter months, we seem to have changed the blackcap’s diet as well as its migratory habits. This wee warbler, instead of undertaking that hazardous journey to Africa, may turn up on a bird-table near you! Perhaps it will join the charms of goldfinches - I like birds that defy the odds!

Weekly Nature Watch 23 Aug 2019

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It is perhaps part of human nature that we should always categorise things. For instance, there is a tendency to categorise wild animals and birds as either good or bad. An example may be the way in which we regard the birds we enjoy watching at our bird-tables, such as bluetits, great tits, goldfinches, chaffinches and the like, as birds to be held in good odour. On the other hand there is often a universal dislike expressed at the likes of magpies and crows, the latter particularly shunned perhaps because they are black and therefore bad!

That alone is enough to cast them in the villain’s role for many people for whom, as a throw-back to more superstitious times, black birds are inevitably seen as representative of evil and are all thus inevitably classed as bad! And yet curiously, for reasons I certainly cannot explain the blackest of them all, the male merle - he of the golden beak, does not fall into the ‘bad’ category. Perhaps he is forgiven for the fine, fluting music that he proffers, his voice sweet enough to persuade even the most anti-black bird person to give him the benefit of the doubt. Crows, whether they are carrion crows, ravens, jackdaws or rooks, all of them viewed as black, not to mention the dreaded hoodie, which is both grey and black, together with black and white magpies are all thus tarred with the same brush. Cormorants also which although perceived as black are, in reality, very dark but iridescent green, can readily be named amongst the most hated. Thus, when I saw a field extremely well covered with rooks and jackdaws the other day, I could not help but think, the farmer might not have enjoyed such a sight on his land and might instead, have reached for his gun.

Yet in truth those rooks and ‘daws would have been doing the said farmer a favour. Indeed, their presence and they were all very busy pecking away and feasting on a whole range of pests such as wireworms and leatherjackets, might have instead, been welcomed. These unseen, subterranean invertebrates do considerable damage to crops, so the presence of this mass of birds devouring them, black or not, was as much evidence of nature’s most efficient pest controllers at work, as of a bunch of alien black birds being pests themselves. However, I do acknowledge that crows and in particular hooded crows and in hill country, ravens, can go beyond the pail and commit some pretty dastardly deeds such as attacking the eyes and tongues of newly born lambs.

Nature works in, what may seem to many of us, to be mysterious ways. Indeed, the whole thread of existence represents a dependence culture in which each tier of the natural world relies upon other tiers, generally below their own station, in order to exist. Thus, eagles hunt and kill mountain hares. They do sometimes also take red grouse whereas kestrels hunt and kill small rodents and sparrowhawks exist upon smaller song-birds in order that they all may survive. Many of the song-birds we admire feed upon insects and so on. This is the food chain. To maintain life, other life must be sacrificed. As I’ve said many times before, nature is indeed, red in tooth and claw! Where this sequence sometimes appears to go wrong, is when the activity of birds or animals is deemed to interfere with either man’s livelihoods or indeed, his pleasures.

Hence, a new classification emerges whereby hen harriers for instance, are persecuted because they also like to feed on red grouse, amongst other things. In other words they are classed by some as bad, a bird against which war is waged! Indeed such has been the level of persecution that this is now the rarest raptor in the British landscape. The hen harrier’s problem, apart from its appetite for grouse, is that it is a ground-nesting bird and as such is consequently very vulnerable. Harriers seek out remote areas such as heather moorland on which to nest, which makes it easy for those who are familiar with these wild landscapes, to willingly wage war on them, to destroy their nests and young surreptitiously and out of sight. The recent discovery of traps set specifically to catch harriers at or near their nests, suggests an intensification of that war!

Of course technology, such as electronic tagging, makes the whereabouts of tagged birds more traceable. Therefore, in recent weeks we have read a succession of stories about raptors, among them harriers and eagles, being deliberately killed, allegedly as a means to certain grouse moors being assured of better bags. Conservationists have naturally been up in arms about such incidents and some now suggest that grouse moors should be licensed so that in the event of such incidents these licenses could be withdrawn.

The recent photographing of a golden eagle, apparently with a trap attached to its leg, emphasises a growing concern that there are those out there who are simply unwilling to tolerate the presence of raptors or indeed to abide by the law. The picture was taken close to a grouse moor! That picture, together with a glut of recent reports concerning the trapping of hen harriers and the unexplainable disappearance of radio tagged eagles, all located on grouse moors, suggests that there is a hard core of people intent on the destruction of these raptors. They are convicted of being ‘bad’ because they sometimes attack the all important grouse and must therefore be summarily despatched! The perpetrators of such acts seem intent on returning to the bad old days of the late nineteenth century when all raptors were regarded as legitimate targets for gun, trap or, on occasions, poisoned baits.

All such actions are, of course, strictly against the law of the land. Indeed, there are now wildlife protection police officers together with a veritable army of dedicated professional and amateur wildlife enthusiasts determined to put an end to this cruel behaviour. Despite the difficulties of remoteness, recent successes in protecting hen harriers and their progeny have been accomplished only with the dedication of folk who have committed weeks and even months of their lives to lonely vigils, protecting the likes of hen harrier nests from harm. More hen harrier youngsters have been reared this year than in previous years thanks to the dedication of these folk.

The polarisation of attitudes is becoming increasingly evident, albeit that in this day and age, those who wish to see these birds properly protected and the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice, far outnumber the perpetrators themselves. The claim that grouse moors employ a lot of people where otherwise there are no jobs, ignores the fact that remuneration for beaters and the like is paltry. At the root of the problem is undoubtedly money, with estates competing for business, relying on the size of the grouse bags as a means of attracting their clientele. The bigger the bags, the more can be charged!

Ironically, the fastest growing sector in our vital tourism industry is wildlife tourism. If the grouse moors are as full of wildlife such as breeding curlew and the like, as is so often claimed, there is another profitable source of income potentially available albeit that it may not yet match up to the £75 per grouse which is apparently the going rate! Whether the much-publicised suggestion that grouse moors should be licensed would, by implication, stop the persecution of birds such as hen harriers and golden eagles, I am not sure. We are often told that these crimes are not committed by estate staff but so far, as they have not been attributed to anyone else, these alarming crimes remain an unsolved mystery. A real whodunit which needs solving! Maybe estates should instead be paid for the number of raptors they sustain.

Weekly Nature Watch 16-08-19

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For weeks they have languished hidden from view in the cavernous recesses of the eyrie built some years ago now, but gently tended to by their dutiful parents. I have watched their father come in with plump fish garnered from the waters of the nearby loch, but then torn into easily swallowed strips by the attentive mother. The care with which she proffered those strips to her off-spring belied her fearsome looks, that cruel, hooked beak, those belligerent yellow eyes and those killer talons.

The dedication of osprey parents is simply awesome. As the chicks grew, they sought to re-position themselves, eager to view the world around them but In order to follow the lives of this new generation of ospreys, the young birds are ringed by licensed specialists before they can fly. Soon they were clambering out of those dark, deep recesses and making their way to the edge of what is now a substantial eyrie that has been meticulously added to each spring with extra branches by the parent birds. It is now a large structure albeit, not the tidiest nest I’ve ever seen, newly added branches sticking out at erratic angles, bulky and almost a misshapen mass of dead vegetation offset by strands of meagre growth. In recent weeks, there has been much flapping in preparation for the day, a week or so ago when, for the first time in their brief lives, these young ospreys finally took to the air. The day of that first flight was momentous, a vital step into the unknown yet in its self, a fulfilment. So at last, they could fly! But now vitally, they had to learn to utilise this newly acquired skill as a means to a very important end … feeding themselves.

To learn that essential skill they had to observe their parents as they demonstrated the inherent ability that are endemic in ospreys. They would watch as those parent birds first rose high above the loch on those long powerful wings, and then quartered the silvery waters below scanning them for the slightest movement that would betray the presence of a fish close enough to the surface to make a suitable target. And they would watch and absorb the sudden check followed by a short hover, before suddenly that parent bird would start its deadly descent. Not every hover yields prey. Fish often spend little time at the surface before returning to hidden depths. In such circumstances, the dive is aborted and patrolling resumes. But ospreys are patient. Another fish will present itself and the headlong dive will eventually continue unchecked until, its feet now lowered, it hits the water with a mighty splash its talons grappling for a firm grip of the slippery prey. The youngsters will have observed that their parent seems to stay in the water for what may seem an interminable time – in truth it is only a matter of seconds - before with a mighty swishing of those voluminous wings, it rises at last in triumph.

 

They will have also observed that as the parent bird rose, it paused at a height of about ten feet to shake surplus water from its plumage and strengthen its grip on its prey. Then, securing its victim with both talons, it rises again to take its prize to a favourite feeding perch, rather than to the now empty eyrie. All this is the most vital part of the young ospreys’ learning process and soon they are attempting to copy their elders, at first with little success. The learning curve is steep but if they are going to survive, the lessons must be learned and they must be learned quickly! If those first flights and the first initial attempts at catching fish are seminal, a greater hurdle lies ahead. After those weeks of devoted nurturing, the young ospreys have a surprisingly short period of learning and practice to absorb the necessary skills upon which depends their ultimate survival. Before the end of August, they will suddenly find themselves seemingly abandoned by their previously dutiful parents. One day, without warning, their parents will lift off and not return. The youngsters will find themselves utterly on their own. Now their practice runs become a stark reality. Furthermore, driven partly by shortening days and approaching autumn and winter but essentially by a driving force from within, they too will find themselves embarking on a journey into the unknown.

They will be impelled by that natural instinct to turn their heads to the south and begin an epic journey of some three thousand miles to their wintering destination on the west coast of Africa. Not only will they be driven to follow whatever their instinct drives them towards but also to keep honing those fishing skills in order to sustain themselves throughout this challenging voyage. The one consolation for them is that they do not necessarily have to keep to any kind of timetable. As they travel ever south through England, there will be places like Rutland Water, where some of their distant cousins have been translocated to, where they can re-fuel before resuming their journey. Not only lochs and lakes but rivers and in-shore waters will provide further re-fuelling places before their first sea crossing, the English Channel. Through France and perhaps Spain, before the next sea crossing, the Mediterranean and then down Africa’s west-coast before finally reaching places such as Senegal and The Gambia, journey’s end at last. In a sense, not only are these youngsters flying blind, but they may also encounter fierce storms, battering rains and winds, rapidly moving weather systems.

The phenomenon of global warming with its resultant increasingly erratic and ever changing patterns of severe weather, adds further hazards to what is by any measure, a remarkably hazardous start to their young lives. Significantly, they will scorn a return to the land of their birth for a year or two, concentrating instead on improving their fishing skills in the fish-rich waters of West Africa. Young ospreys are literally thrown in at the deep end. After being so carefully nurtured, they abruptly find themselves facing the reality of having to learn the art of catching fish and just as they are beginning to get the hang of it, they are cast adrift. They will have absolutely no help or guidance. When they embark upon that marathon migratory trip they have no option but to face, entirely on their own, whatever the weather throws at them on a treacherous journey of three thousand miles. Quite simply, the more we can learn about the lives of our growing population of ospreys, the better can we protect them. Bon voyage

Weekly Nature Watch 09 Aug 2019

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Within a few weeks of taking their very first flights, many young birds are thrust into harsh reality, facing what can often be a very hostile world. Therefore, they must quickly learn to become entirely independent of the parents that have so dutifully nurtured them. Even now, a whole new generation of relatively newly fledged birds is already well on the way to staring the danger filled avian life full in the face. Having to become self-sufficient in a matter of days or at best weeks poses many challenges so as a result they naturally find that they are on a very steep learning curve. Finding their own way in the world and learning the real art of survival will challenge them to their limits. There is no escape from the fact that nature is indeed, red in tooth and claw. The freedom these new generations are now beginning to enjoy clearly comes at a price for there are also new generations of newly fledged raptors, which pose a real threat to the survival of many of those juvenile songbirds.

The lack of experience on the part of many young birds plays very much into the hands of young raptors, which, of course, are also facing serious survival challenges albeit, of a rather different nature. Although they have yet to fully assimilate the hunting skills that will guarantee their long-term survival, they must become dependent initially on the vulnerability of young songbirds as they make their way towards self -sufficiency. They are fortunate that so many young, inexperienced quarries are available, which luckily makes their task ostensibly easier. Thus, all new generations, whether the hunted or indeed the hunters, are on that steep learning curve. For one group to survive, some of the others will inevitably have to fall by the wayside.

Young raptors have to be phenomenally fast learners. Failure is not an option, for those unable to take on board the necessary skills of stalking prey, using their natural speed to run fleeing birds down or in some cases, laying ambushes to ensnare their victims, will literally starve. Mortality among young raptors can be surprisingly high, especially during the first winter of their lives. Even during the mildest of winters, many will fail to make it to the following spring. Sparrowhawks and goshawks rely upon all those skills together with a natural athleticism that enables them to navigate their way through woodland where the ability to turn sharply at speed as they pursue prey is so important. These are the vital skills young sparrowhawks and goshawks are currently in the process of honing.

However, this summer does seem to have been especially productive with a plethora of young birds very evident. This will ensure that young sparrowhawks and goshawks get off to a good start in life. However, for kestrels and especially for owls it is small rodents that form the basis of their diet and all the evidence points towards something of a dearth of this kind of prey. This has certainly been manifested in the reduction in numbers of these once extremely familiar raptors. For example, not so many years ago local skies more often than not yielded sightings of hovering kestrels. Now I so rarely see kestrels and how I miss them!

Kestrels and owls and perhaps to a lesser degree, buzzards and the new generation of red kites, generally rely upon good populations of small mammals such as mice and voles as their main sources of food. Whilst numbers of voles regularly fluctuate resulting in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vole years, there does seem to have been an overall reduction in vole numbers in general over recent years. It may be that a wider use of rodenticides, commonly deployed to control mice and rats, has made an unusually significant impact on all rodents but it would also seems likely that other factors have combined to depress vole numbers in particular. Buzzards and kites of course, supplement their diets by feeding extensively on carrion.

Water voles were once familiar residents of many riverbanks. However, their numbers were decimated many years ago by the arrival of alien mink in the landscape - escapees from mink farms or worse, animals deliberately released by people who protested against the very notion of fur farming. I don’t much like the notion of fur farming either but setting hundreds if not thousands of mink free to decimate local wildlife was frankly an act of crass stupidity. Actions may sometimes speak louder than words but such actions can have a devastating effect on native wildlife. I remember only too well the consequences of one such protest. It was desperately injurious to a wide range of wildlife. Ground nesting birds were slaughtered wholesale and virtually no wildfowl on our local loch produced any young for a year or two. In recent years, much effort has been made to eradicate mink from local rivers and lochs and new populations of water voles have been re-introduced. Let’s hope they prosper!

Field and bank voles, fundamentally prey for the widest possible variety of avian, reptilian and mammal predators, also seem to be in quite serious decline. Hence, a parallel decline over recent years of kestrels. But they are not the only birds to suffer. Owls also rely upon small mammals for their survival. Barn owls have been in serious decline for many years and this is not just a British state of affairs. Right across Europe, Barn owl numbers have reduced alarmingly over many years. The conclusion made by experts suggests that barn owls and modern farming methods do not go well together! Furthermore the more widely distributed tawny owls and those more diurnal moorland predators, the short-eared owls, seem also to be in decline.

There was a time when short-eared owls were a very familiar sight on local moorlands. The spread of more forestry has undoubtedly legislated against them. They used to be a familiar sight, their long wings beating slowly as they coursed low over moorland habitats during daylight hours. New plantations, fenced in order to exclude grazing animals, were soon populated by field voles and so were quickly colonised by short-eared owls. Now I seldom see short-eared owls, even where there are apparently suitable new plantings. Again, this points to an absence of suitable prey, those disappearing voles!

Although nature is generally robust, these declines are worrying. They deplete the amazing diversity we used to enjoy. Instead of robustness, there is suddenly a detectable fragility in the fabric of nature, which seems likely to be connected to the increasingly pervading influence of mankind on the natural world. When you remove some of those vital building blocks, inevitably the whole structure is weakened!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods