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.

Country View 8.8.17

on .

As I remember, September always used to be regarded as the harvest month. After all that is when the harvest moon shines down upon us and when traditionally, harvest home happened. These days however, a combination of faster ripening crops and global warming has perhaps been at the root of earlier and earlier harvests. Science, combined with engineering has changed farming almost beyond recognition in my lifetime.

Harvest time during my youth, was a time when country folk came together to bring in the year's crops. Of course, then the harvest was extremely labour intensive with all hands required to complete this vital task! Now instead, it is machine intensive! In these next few weeks, dinosaur-like combines will be unleashed to invade the golden fields and chomp their way through newly ripened crops, disgorging the bi-product of straw behind them. It will all seem very Jurassic!

In this highly mechanised age, when drones and even GPS satellites can help pinpoint exactly where fertilisers or pesticides are needed in a field, whilst farming is perhaps physically less taxing, it is still very dependent upon elements that we can't control, like the weather. Thus, a summer, which at one time had seemed full of promise, has rather fizzled out. So as harvest time becomes more imminent, the reluctance of the jet stream to move critically further north in order to allow high pressure to establish itself, has resulted in a succession of rain-inducing fronts careering in from the Atlantic.

Most of our migratory birds were happily able, as it were, to make hay whilst the sun shone and get on with the main purpose of their epic journeys from Africa to produce and nurture new generations. Soon, both parents and offspring will answer to impelling instinct and inevitably turn their heads to the south and begin their epic journeys to the Dark Continent. For the parent birds, this will be this year's return leg whilst the youngsters take on this massive challenge for the first time in their short lives. Now, vitally therefore all these long distance travellers must reap their own harvests, mostly of insects. Crucially, during these next few weeks, as soon as they have completed the acquisition of a new set of clothes, they must eat and eat and eat!

Whilst our cereal harvest is coming in earlier, so, too, it seems, is the natural harvest. I have been watching the rowan berries here during the past few weeks. They have progressed rapidly from green to orange and now, in early August, they are red. And, I am not alone in observing this natural harvest ripen. As I write, increasing numbers of starlings, blackbirds and song thrushes are arriving among the clusters of ripening berries. This is their harvest and increasingly they will feast on the berries as they seek to give themselves a racing start for shortening days, which even now are causing our evenings to 'draw in'.

In neighbouring hedgerows, other harvests are also ripening. This looks likely to be a bumper year for brambles although the berries as yet remain stubbornly green, it will be a few weeks before eager bramble pickers will be seen patrolling hedges in search of these highly desirable, rich, bulbous fruits. And they will not be alone either. Foxes, with an undeserved reputation for killing and eating lambs, poultry and game birds by the thousand, are also eager consumers of brambles. So, too, are the new generations of pine marten.

The spread of pine marten across this area and indeed across Scotland as a whole, not to mention their advance in England and Wales over the past number of years which has been a remarkable story. Hereabouts, their re-establishment has seen an amazing transition in squirrel populations. Where once grey squirrels abounded, now there are none. Instead, the void has been filled by native red squirrels. The alien greys, introduced to Scotland from America in the early years of the twentieth century, had found conditions here very much to their liking. Consequently, during the last century, they had very successfully colonised many parts of lowland Scotland, very much to the exclusion of those native reds.

It is not thought that grey squirrels attacked and killed the smaller reds. Rather that they were more avaricious competitors for food sources. Furthermore, they carry a disease known as 'squirrel pox' to which they are resistant but which red squirrels are not. But, grey squirrels are on average, almost twice the weight of reds. Thus, they are nowhere near as agile, nor, because of their greater weight, are they able to evade predators such as martens by retreating to outer branches, which cannot bear the marten's weight. Red squirrels, although from time to time inevitably falling victim to martens, are nevertheless able to escape their clutches through their lighter weight and their greater agility.

When, in previous times, for example in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, martens were present in this airt, there would of course, have been no grey squirrels present. So, imagine the delight of the new generation of pine marten, when they found their way back into this landscape after a long absence, to discover grey squirrels in such abundance. Lots of food that was, compared with red squirrels, much easier to catch and which when hunted down, also provided much better eating!

Hence, pine marten have prospered and now turn up in some quite unexpected places. And as a bonus, where those grey squirrels once held sway, instead red squirrels have made a real come back. I find it mildly amusing that many wildlife books tell us that pine marten are extremely shy creatures and so very difficult to see. Perhaps that appeared to be the case when they were so scarce but it should be remembered that when man's hand was firmly set against predators of any kind, pine marten were enthusiastically pursued, prodded from the shelter of trees with long poles and fallen upon by dogs. Therefore, pine marten had every reason to avoid the presence of human kind.

However, the new generations seem to have developed a different relationship with us for I know of many instances where martens have set up home in the roof space of houses. One such 'squat' happened in the house of a friend. Over the period of that summer, we learned that a pine marten harvest also includes strawberry jam sandwiches, peanut butter and the odd domestic egg or three as well as small mammals, the young of nesting birds and when the time comes, the fruits of our hedgerows!

Furthermore, they will be on the lookout for those red squirrels, which during the next few weeks will be so focussed on bringing in their own harvests of nuts, beech-mast and seeds, that their guards may just be down. Harvest time is coming for all sorts of creatures great and small!

Country View 2.8.17

on .

Immigration is these days, a sensitive subject. For instance, it may have been a major factor during the referendum and indeed possibly one of the reasons for the resulting Brexit vote. Yet increasingly we are being reminded of how vital immigrant labour is to fruit and vegetable farmers up and down the land. Furthermore, our vital National Health Service would grind to a halt were it not for the large numbers of immigrants currently employed by it. Many of our industries, including what is for Scotland one of our most important sectors, tourism, is also heavily reliant upon migrant labour.

However, there is another aspect of immigration that may be marginally less controversial and which does not in fact relate to human beings. Nevertheless, it is an immigration of choice which has seen the re-introductions in recent years of red kites and the white tailed or sea eagles. Apart from a rump of red kites, which managed somehow to hang on in mid-Wales, both of these birds, previously endemic to these shores had disappeared a hundred years or more ago. Both I'm afraid, were shot and poisoned unmercifully and with the exception of that core of kites in Wales, otherwise became extinct as British breeding birds.

The last British sea eagle is reputed to have disappeared in 1916. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, their numbers although falling, nevertheless persisted despite wide-scale persecution. But the introduction of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin and the use by industry of PCBs, both of which began to enter the food chain during the second half of the twentieth century, quickly led to a further depletion in numbers, especially in the Baltic region.

Only in northern Norway, where levels of industry and the resultant pollution had remained low, had breeding populations of these magnificent raptors bucked the trend and shown increases rather than decreases. Attempts had been made to re-introduce sea eagles to Scotland between 1959 and 1968, without success. The Isle of Rum was, in the nineteen eighties, chosen as the most suitable place to try again. Rum had become a National Nature Reserve under the auspices of the then Nature Conservancy Council, subsequently coming under the control of the newly created Scottish Natural Heritage.

The first of the new immigrant eaglets arrived in 1975. By 1985, a total of 82 youngsters, taken from nests in northern Norway, had been released. Sea Eagles frequently rear twin chicks and so where that had been the case among selected nests in Norway, one of those two chicks had been removed to contribute to their restitution in Scotland. Sea eagles take a few years to mature and it was 1985, nearly eighty years after the last recorded breeding success that Scotland's first new generation sea eagle chick emerged on the Island of Mull.

Red kites had been absent for rather longer. Condemned to extinction in England since 1871, a similar fate had befallen the kite in Scotland by 1879. Their disappearance was again, largely due to persecution. Yet for centuries, kites had been virtually the 'skaffies' of many a town and city up and down Britain long before the concept of Environmental Health Departments had materialised! Until their inception, most conurbations were pretty smelly places, for rubbish and more potently sewage, were literally dumped in the streets. And kites did a pretty good job in cleaning up those streets by picking away at what scraps of half eaten and rotten food could be found in that rubbish!

Curiously enough tales of kites swooping to snatch the likes of fancy handkerchiefs from the breast pockets of passing gentlemen were rife. Today's new generation of red kites retain a curious fascination for scraps of material, for they frequently decorate their nests with bits of old clothing they have purloined! However, the efficiency of red kites as they scoured the streets for scraps and therefore kept them cleaner than would have otherwise been the case, even earned them the protection of royal decrees! Kites therefore, presumably became less fearful of mankind, which perhaps contributed to their demise for they were probably very easy targets for the guns!

The level of persecution, not just here but across Europe too, was at its most intense in the second half of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century. In Britain, these were the 'killing years' as gamekeepers employed by sporting estates literally waged war on all raptors. Only in the remoteness of central Wales did kites persist. In recent times there have been successive re-introductions of red kites to many parts of Britain, mostly brought in from Eastern Europe where they are plentiful.

Now most of us can enjoy the languid, floating light of these highly attractive birds as they proscribe wide circles in the sky. A day or so ago I had the pleasure of watching one such bird pirouetting right above me, showing off to perfection its magnificent aerobatic skills, its widespread wings - with a wingspan as much as six feet - and its hallmark, that characteristic forked tail. Essentially, kites are scavengers. Although they may sometimes feed on small mammals such as voles and may also prey on rabbits where they still exist, like buzzards they are great opportunists, always eager to exploit carrion.

These re-introductions have not of course, been void of controversy. Sea eagles, now breeding successfully in many, mostly coastal parts of Scotland, are accused of taking lambs. It can be argued that in crofting country, lamb mortality is naturally high and dead lambs represent easy pickings for all kinds of predators. However, any loss seems doubly significant on crofts, which inevitably find the going financially tough. Still, I can't help feeling that the scale of losses claimed, is often wildly exaggerated.

Similarly, although kites are sometimes accused of taking young game birds, any such activity may soon pale into insignificance if the hopes of the Lynx UK Trust are realised. Application has just been made to Natural England by the Trust for permission to introduce six lynx to the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. That extensive forest may be in England but it is of course, very close to the Scottish Borders. Not surprisingly the sheep farming community, for which the Borderlands are rightly famous, do not want lynx on their doorsteps.

Whilst the Lynx Trust maintains that these 'Labrador-sized cats' seldom take sheep, farmers and shepherds remain sceptical. The Trust quotes lynx predation on sheep in Europe at a notional figure of 0.4 adult sheep per lynx per year. But as I've said before, the landscapes of England and Scotland have changed immeasurably since the last lynx roamed these parts some thirteen hundred years or so ago.

The Scottish uplands, especially the Borders, have become renowned for their extensive sheep farming over the past four hundred years, where previously they were dominated by woodland and scrub. Whilst the Lynx Trust assures critics that these new immigrants will bring a much needed element of control over the large number of roe deer present in Kielder, farmers remain dubious, fearful of attacks on their breeding ewes.

The Trust claims that the presence of lynx will hugely increase the level of tourism in that area. However, lynx are exceptionally covert creatures, mostly active at night and thus almost impossible to spot. Thus, the assertion by the Trust that these new immigrants will simply 'blow sea eagles out of the water' in terms of their value as a tourist attraction seems somewhat wide of the mark. Go to Mull and you are pretty certain of seeing sea eagles. I doubt if lynx would ever be anything like as visible as those flying barn doors and may thus not be quite the tourist attractions predicted!

Country View 26.7.17

on .

As the Good Book says, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." I must confess there was a time in my life - admittedly a long time ago - when I thought that prophecy had come true! Back in the early fifties, our countryside literally swarmed with rabbits, seen by many as 'the meek' among our wild creatures and a much favoured prey of many of the hunting classes among our native fauna. Yet they did indeed seem to be about to inherit our landscape!

And of course, there were those folk who dedicated themselves to the 'sport' of catching rabbits, using ferrets. With rabbits abounding, inevitably the skies were well filled with mewing buzzards. Wherever I went there were stoats ... dashing perilously across country roads with almost monotonous regularity, or sinuously exploring the warrens that pockmarked many a field in those far off days. Those were profitable days indeed for a whole range of predators, not to mention the owners of ferrets!

So numerous were rabbits at that time, that it was thought they were costing the farming industry millions of pounds in lost revenue annually. Rabbits were simply decimating crops. They weren't very popular with gardeners either, for they also destroyed many a vegetable patch too. During the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rabbit population literally exploded. Yet rabbits had been present in Britain by then for several hundred years, their presence almost unnoticed. As most people know, rabbits are not true natives of these shores, nor indeed are brown hares. The only truly British member of this clan is the 'blue' or mountain hare. In truth, Rabbits are only truly native to southern Europe, although they have been introduced to many different parts of the world.

The Romans are believe to have introduced the brown hare to these shores perhaps the best part of two thousand years ago, principally as a source of food. The rabbit's arrival came many hundreds of years later, sometime it is thought, in the twelfth century. The introduction of this innocent looking creature is often laid at the door of the Norman conquerors. But William and his merry men and their successors had probably been resident here for at least a hundred years before the first rabbits were brought, it is thought, from the Isles of Scilly. Nevertheless, they probably arrived in those islands courtesy of those same Normans.

The apparent innocence of rabbits has been well and truly exploited by numerous writers, not least by one Beatrix Potter. Her Peter Rabbit became bedtime reading for literally generations of tiny tots. Every Easter-time brings forth portraits of fluffy little chickens and of course, large eyed 'bunny' rabbits. Apart from the Easter theme of new life - the resurrection - I guess that young rabbits do look cuddly and because of those large round eyes and chubby cheeks, portray a 'baby-like' image.

Thus, they are the very epitome of 'meek and mild' creatures which may have been why there was wide-scale outrage when, in the mid-fifties, myxomatosis, was deliberately introduced as a means of containing out-of-control rabbit numbers. Now a horror struck public was confronted with the sight of dying rabbits in their thousands. Blind, pathetic and emaciated creatures were to be seen crawling about helplessly, just waiting for death to come.

The dreaded 'mixi' certainly put people off eating rabbit which, during the war years, had been a much sought after source of protein when butcher's meat was severely rationed. Some enterprising folk had gone into intensive rabbit farming to meet the demand and probably found things becoming increasingly difficult when the disease struck as more and more people removed rabbit from their menus. But Peter Rabbit's reputation remained unaffected and he continued to be bedtime reading for millions of children! As I recall, Mr McGregor, did not subscribe to the view that rabbits were the meek and mild creatures of his garden! They were the enemy!

However, rabbits had existed in the British countryside for hundreds of years without apparently causing any problems. Of course, during those centuries the British landscape had been a much wilder place than anyone today would imagine. Dominated by woodland and heath and farmed on a much smaller scale compared with the modern day, the progress initiated by the Agricultural Revolution began to transform it. Woodlands were felled, heathlands 'tamed' and vast acreages of land improved and turned over to the growing of crops. The object of course, was to feed the fast growing human population.

Suddenly there was a huge spin-off for Britain's then quite meagre population of rabbits, or as they were widely known, coneys! Rabbits suddenly found themselves plunged into a world of plenty, with a glut of succulent food. And boy, did they exploit it. Now extremely well fed, they went forth with a vengeance and multiplied ... at a remarkable rate, fast becoming a costly problem for the new, more prosperous age of farmers. However their fecundity became a veritable bonanza for an array of predators. I well remember observing an eagle, which had come down from the mountains of Arran, feating upon the rabbits dispersing from a lowland field during hay-making. But it was buzzards that were among the main beneficiaries although stoats too profited from this abundance of food as did several other hunters.

When 'myxi' struck, there was a further bonanza to be exploited but thereafter there ensued a rapid decline in prey and a responsive downturn in predator numbers. In this airt, rabbit numbers seem hardly to have recovered at all but elsewhere, there does seem to be evidence of resistance to 'myxi' building up in some rabbit populations. Rabbits are gregarious animals and they are not as meek and mild as you may think. As with most animals, there is inevitably a struggle for dominance among male rabbits - bucks - as the breeding season approaches. Rabbits famously, have a well-deserved reputation for ambitious breeding with the first stirrings affecting them as early as January.

As said, they live in pretty close communities, which are very much dominated by the most aggressive bucks. The social structure is established, known as a dominance hierarchy, in which other bucks are consequently extremely subservient to the 'master' buck. Indeed, when young, up and coming bucks aggressively displace older animals and those ousted are sent packing to live comparatively lonely 'bachelor' lives on their own. So, in terms of lifestyle, they are not quite so meek and mild as they might seem. Although there is usually a dominant doe too, her role seems to be that of a tolerant matriarch.

The slow recovery of rabbits and perhaps the degree of resistance to myxomatosis, is definitely patchy. Locally, where I used to watch rabbits on a regular basis, now there are none. Hence, I seldom catch a glimpse of a stoat whereas a good thirty years ago, I recall typically seeing several in the course of a day. However, during a recent stay on the west coast, members of my family reported an abundance of rabbits. I also know that some of the islands off that coast to which perhaps rabbits were long ago introduced as an alternative to the monotony of a fishy diet, are still 'hoaching' with them!

And then a day of rwo ago, the sighting of that famous skut, so much a recognisable feature of this animal, was to be seen disappearing into a nearby wood. I'm sure the eyes of the local buzzards and kites will accordingly light up. The farmers hereabouts however, with memories of those teeming hordes, will perhaps be hoping that they may not again see coneys 'inheriting their bit of the earth'!

Country View 19.7.17

on .

Nature never stands still. As the year ticks along, changes are always in the air. Sometimes the changes are subtle and thus hardly noticeable. At other times, when seasons change for instance, they are more radical and thus easier to see and appreciate. Right now there is change which is more obvious to the ear than the eye. Furthermore, this is a subtle change, for we have now entered the season of silence!

Now, it is indeed the sound of silence that suddenly descends on our landscape, as most birds cease to exercise their vocal chords. You may well ask, "Where are all the birds?" After what has seemed to me to be an especially tuneful year, with in my estimation at least, many more migratory birds present than usual, there is now a deafening silence. A week or ten days or so ago, I heard a couple of quite muted whispers of willow warbler music. It was as if these two individuals at least, were having a rather half-hearted vocal fling, before submitting to the truth that they have entered the moult and that for the time being, it is not a good idea to advertise one's presence!

For most birds, the breeding season is now over, so the next phase in their lives is to begin their annual moult, a process which for most, occurs during July and August. And in the case of those that are migratory birds, one factor is key. It is vital that by the time they are impelled to answer the call of instinct and begin to prepare for their forthcoming epic journeys, their new sets of feathers are in first-class condition. Hence, the process of moulting and replacing feathers is completed in double quick time, in some cases in no more than three weeks, for those birds destined in September and October, to head off for a winter in the Dark Continent.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If there has been generally a very noticeable muffling of song, the bubbling twittering of two male swallows in recent days, sounding especially loud against that background of silence, indicates that they at least are not yet done with their breeding season. For them and indeed for the house martins seen and very much heard on a visit to a friend's house, there is still work to be done. With a third brood of youngsters recently hatched, the martins' summer is far from over. Thus the otherwise still air was filled with their celebratory and delicious mellow twittering.

There has also been in recent days a rather less melodious sound here, emanating from this year's crop of young magpies. Theirs is a difficult sound to describe. A cackling screeching probably comes nearest! Meanwhile, there are other birds with work to do such as the local ospreys, now feeding youngsters, which will probably not leave the eyries that have been their nurseries, for a few weeks yet. Soon however, they will be climbing out of the depths to perch on the edge where they will begin to exercise their wings in preparation for their very first experience of flight at seven or eight weeks old.

From then on those chicks will be in the race of their lives, with time their greatest enemy. One day towards the end of next month, the parents that have so carefully nurtured them, will up sticks and go, abruptly starting their journey to Africa without so much as a 'by your leave' or even a 'good-bye'! It is therefore imperative that those youngsters will have to become self sufficient enough to catch their own food before they too must answer the call of navigational instinct and depart on an epic journey of three thousand miles or so. When they also finally leave, theirs will truly be a flight into the unknown! If they have not learned well the techniques of catching fish, their migratory journeys are bound to end in disaster.

For much of her time here, the female osprey is quite sedentary. She undertakes most of the incubation duties, a process that lasts some thirty-five days or so. She undertakes most of the incubation duties, a process that lasts some thirty-five days or so. She too takes on much of the responsibility for brooding her youngsters and so during that long spell of enforced idleness she sensibly undergoes the moult. Her mate however, with a summer-long responsibility for obtaining food for both his mate and his progeny, waits until he is back in Africa before he goes through the process.

In general, however, there is a distinct difference between the rate of feather shedding and renewal for sedentary birds as compared with those that spend their winters overseas. As said, migratory birds need to complete the process quickly in order to be in the best possible condition for their long journeys. In contrast, bullfinches, which remain here throughout the year, take their time, beginning to shed feathers during these July days but not acquiring an entirely new set until late October. Ravens however, take even longer, beginning their moult early in the year during the breeding season and not completing it until around 150 days later! Female sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons also go through the moult during the breeding season.

For migratory birds, as the process clearly has to be completed in time for them to set out on their journeys, means that the rapid loss of feathers badly affects their capability to fly. Thus, they tend to skulk and stay well hidden. It follows, that for much the same reason they also choose to stop vocalising. So they are accordingly harder to see while obviously it is also impossible to identify them from their songs, as they fall silent! Their main aim is to remain well concealed at a time when they are particularly vulnerable to attack by predators, especially at this time of the year. Now of course, there are even more raptors to contend with, in the shape of newly fledging generations of hawks and falcons!

However, several of the more sedentary birds also take their time to complete the process. Many of our waterfowl are so debilitated that they cannot fly at all during parts of their moult. They mostly take refuge in places such as marshes but others undertake short migratory journeys. For instance, many shelduck resident in Scotland gather in their thousands off the Aberdeenshire coast. Large numbers of Canada geese, now so much of a presence across the UK, travel to the Beauly Firth to moult.

One of the birds, which during this summer, as I've often said, has been heard in just about every airt, seems however, to buck the trend by undergoing two moults each year. Willow warblers, whose voices seemed to provide me with a prelude to the 'season of silence', like many of their warbler cousins and many other migratory birds, undergo a moult here once their breeding season has been completed. But they also go through another moult during the winter months once they have reached their winter quarters. Furthermore that moult seems to last a long time, continuing almost until they are ready to begin their return back to the lands of their birth.

It is presumed that they undergo these two moults because they tend to dwell in thick undergrowth and therefore need to renew 'tatty' plumage more urgently than most. Yet there are plenty of other birds, which spend their lives in similar conditions. And they moult just once a year. So it might just be the case that willow warblers have taken the process to a different level?

And then, just as I was beginning to think that silence was, after all, golden, up piped the most vociferous of them all ... jenny wren. The vow of silence taken by most of the avian classes was soon broken again, this time by a tuneful goldfinch. A snatched moment of pure gold to break the silence!

Country View 13.7.17

on .

It was an Englishman by the name of John Ray who coined the phrase, "The early bird catcheth the worm," in his collection of English proverbs, published way back in the 1670's. Well it isn't just the early birds; all kinds of creatures great and small spend a surprising proportion of their lives seeking out, catching and consuming worms. A few days ago, after a short, sharp shower, dozens of blackbirds and thrushes descended upon my lawn in the hope of satisfying their craving for worms, which had clearly been encouraged to the surface by the rain.

As far as I can see song thrushes have enjoyed a prosperous year. There was ample evidence in the early spring of their pretty universal presence. Indeed both locally and during my brief sojourn on the west-coast, that repetitive song so beloved of poets and composers of music, was to be heard from almost every airt and on occasions, well into the evening. Further confirmation of their success comes with the presence of so many young throstles plundering the worms here. I find their approach to 'worming' mildly amusing. You will often see a thrush cocking its head on one side as it listens for the sound of a worm emerging from its unseen underground world. Then it is all action as the bird rushes forward, seizes its victim and vigorously tugs it from the ground.

Blackbirds approach the task a little less feverishly but just as effectively and many other garden birds are as eager as the thrushes and blackbirds to supplement their diet with fat, juicy worms. The ever-confident robin will happily join anyone digging in their garden, eager to exploit the worms duly exposed by spade or fork. Indeed, redbreast is bold enough to use such implements as a perch from which to peruse the surrounding ground in anticipation of snaffling a beak-watering prize!

And of course, worms, in their trillions, are everywhere thank goodness, for they are vital to farmers, growers and gardeners alike consuming vast quantities of organic material - an earthworm is known to consume it own weight daily in such material - and aerating the ground to keep it healthy. Furthermore, they are a vital dietary element for countless varieties of the aforementioned creatures. Indeed it might be easier to count the number of birds, animals and reptiles that don't at some time or another, feast on them, than those that do! It is therefore, a good job that they are so widely available.

Curiously enough whilst some people find worms rather odious, simply because they are slimy, wriggly and perhaps snake-like, others worship at the altar of worms. There is even an organisation, 'The Earthworm Society of Britain' which was launched in 2009 and surveys and diligently records earthworm density and populations - there is a surprising variety of species in the UK alone. The Society has a strong membership, offers training courses, guidance for recorders and produces extensive data. However, I understand only humans are allowed to join!

Among the creatures that show a liking for worms, gulls are high on the list. Indeed, the ability of gulls to exploit all manner of feeding opportunities is well known and they do seem at times to have a remarkable communication system. There may not appear to be a gull to be seen anywhere in the vicinity one minute, but as soon as the steel blades of the plough make the first inroads, suddenly, hundreds of them arrive from every airt. They literally swarm in the wake of the plough to plunder every fragment of invertebrate life they can get their beaks on, and in particular, worms.

Crows and their relatives are equally enthusiastic about worms but seldom follow the plough in the manner of gulls. In similar manner, the likes of curlew, lapwing and oyster-catchers spend much time exploring the ground in search of worms. Each of these familiar birds shops at different levels, as dictated by the length of their bills. Hence the curlew is able to dig deepest to reach the basement, the sea-pie shops in 'mid store' whilst finally the peewit seeks sustenance on or near the surface.

Again, there can be amusing moments when gulls of the black-headed, lesser black-backed and common varieties may descend on a field en masse and proceed to mark time, like parading soldiers. The gulls beat their feet on the ground to simulate falling rain-drops, a ploy which apparently fools the worms into believing it is raining thus inducing them to come to the surface, where of course, they are eagerly consumed! I wonder how the gulls worked that ploy out? But, as I've said before, gulls are extremely clever birds!

During the winter months, invading Scandinavian thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, are eager travellers to our shores where they too are keen to feast upon worms. Because our climate is generally temperate, worms are available throughout most of the winter months. In general then, our feathered friends find worms to be an essential part of their diets. Even raptors may resort to hunting for worms if other prey is scarce.

Kestrels and tawny owls are not averse to them and even kites and buzzards will seek them out too. Indeed the sight of a buzzard hunting for worms can raise a smile. Buzzards are majestic on the wing, drifting in circles on outstretched wings but on the ground when hunting worms, they are positively ungainly, reminiscent of some old-time, long shorted soccer player, shuffling down the wing, before reaching out with a taloned food to snatch a quick snack.

But worms do not just appeal to our feathered friends. Grass snakes and some lizards may include them on the menu as well as toads. Tiny shrews often gorge on them, while moles of course, virtually depend upon as their main food source. Ineed 'the little gentlemen in the velvet suits' even disable worms and hoard them in their underground labyrinths saving them for those days when even worms are scarce.

But plenty of larger mammals also indulge themselves on worms. Badgers eat considerable numbers of them along with other invertebrates, whilst the burgeoning population of pine marten will also take them when other suitable food sources are hard to find. But foxes are probably the most enthusiastic consumers of worms among our mammals. Indeed, fox expert David Macdonald in his detailed examinations of fox diets in a wide variety of locations, found that as much as a third of what foxes eat in Lowland situations could be made up of worms. That figure drops considerably in hill country, where worm density is probably at its lowest.

It certainly strikes me that there can be few creatures that play such an important role in sustaining so many of our birds, such a surprising number of our wild animals and of course, indirectly our farmers and gardeners. Indeed, it seems to me that worms are an utterly integral part of the fabric of life itself. "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures." Charles Darwin, 1881.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods