Weekly Nature Watch

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

Weekly Nature Watch 18th September 2020

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At the moment, the word on lots of lips is extinction. Quite rightly, there is universal concern at the number of insects, birds and animals we are losing.

Extinction is a real threat and it is a phenomenon that exists on every continent across the world. Perhaps the most worrying factor in this drama is the volume of rain forest we are losing in Africa, Asia and in the Americas where the massive Amazon forest is sadly becoming less and less by the day. Anyone who watched Sir David Attenborough’s TV programme on the topic this week could not help but be both concerned and alarmed at the litany of failures at the hand of man to ensure that the world as we know it remains unchanged.

And the fact is that we in Scotland are not immune to this catastrophe. I’m sure that there even now people  reading this article who, for instance, will identify with the loss of the Scottish wildcat which may even now be on the brink of extinction. The problem has been caused by the existence of feral cats, perhaps former farmyard animals that have forsaken the comfort of farmyard meals and simply gone wild. Unfortunately wildcats have bred with these feral cats producing a hybrid strain and consequently diluting the purity of the true indigenous cat.

The news that captive wildcats housed at the Highland Wildlife Park have recently produced four kittens is indeed welcome, for these four youngsters may well at some time in their lives be returned to the wild and themselves breed and save the wildcat from total extinction. In some parts of the Highlands there has also been a project launched to neuter feral cats and thus restrict their ability to breed. Let’s hope that this scheme is successful and that as a consequence, the cross- breeding of wild animals with feral ones will come to an end.

Habitat loss is another problem and the destruction of the rain forests for beef farming or to make way for growing soya for use in animal feeds, further degrades the habitat of thousands of creatures. In other parts of the world, rain forests are also making way for vast palm plantations for the production of oil which rob further legions of animals, insects and birds of their natural habitat. Pictures of pathetic orangutans held in miserable captive conditions rightly appalls us all and in Africa, resorting to the production of what is called ‘bush meat’ results in the slaughter of our nearest animal relative, the gorilla, amongst other animals.  

However, I must also voice my personal concern that the Movement now holding protests such as the recent blockade of printing presses as a result threatens the freedom of speech that we currently enjoy. My fear is that other people with very different causes at heart are threatening to take over from the true believers. The Extinction Movement should be extremely watchful of the fanatics who are simply using the movement as a cover for other less worthy causes. I cannot believe that painting graffiti on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has anything to do with the extinction movement.

And, whilst these protests are being made, in England it has just been announced that seven new areas have been identified for the further control of badgers by culling. Bovine TB is a dreadful disease but surely the badger, which is after all protected under an Act of Parliament, deserves better.  Culling continues to defy the best scientific knowledge that the alternative – vaccination – would solve the problem without this brutal intervention.  Opponents of the cull have previously criticized the practice as “ineffective and inhumane”.  

I’m sure that some voice the opinion that losing such animals as rhinos, gorillas, orangutans and badgers doesn’t really matter and there are those who believe that whatever we do, the planet will somehow recover.  However, I suspect that in the long term, our existence as inhabitants of this planet may also eventually lead to the extinction of the human race. We are very much at the end of that line and we ignore at our peril, the nefarious activities of those who attempt to scrape some sort of a living by slaughtering gorillas, without recognizing that the poverty that exists across the world is the driver of such happenings.

And we also ignore climate change at our peril. The world is heating up and if it continues at the current rate, the threat of total extinction is very real. Recent scientific research has revealed that 55 million years ago, huge volcanic eruptions may have caused deep-sea mass extinction by warming up sea temperatures. It is thought that the eruptions took place in an area around what is now Iceland and sent huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which was then absorbed by the oceans over thousands of years consequently increasing the temperatures. As a result, many marine species were killed or impaired but those same scientists are warning that the current effects of human-generated pollution are far worse than during that event all those millions of years ago. Yet the Presidents of the United States and Brazil simply don’t believe these facts so the first thing we must do is to persuade politicians that the course we are currently steering can only end in disaster for generations as yet unborn. It is a global problem that requires our politicians to act now, not tomorrow or the day after. They must start thinking outside the box of ‘profit at any cost’ and instead think of those future generations and the long term prospects for us and our planet.

It isn’t that here in Scotland, we have not experienced the extinction of various birds and animals. The osprey disappeared after a so-called naturalist shot the last breeding pair on Speyside. The sea eagle and the red kite went the same way. Both were exterminated during a period in our history when war was waged on all raptors. The polecat was also destroyed in Scotland and long before that of course, the wolf, the lynx and the Brown bear. There are those who want to restore some of these creatures to the Scottish landscape. However, the landscape has changed vastly since the days of the wolf, bear and lynx. And extensive livestock farming, particularly with regard to sheep, covers large areas of the Highlands. Indeed, the economy of Highland Scotland is still dependent upon these factors, albeit that the re-introduction of beavers – less contentious perhaps – has restored these one-time residents to the Scottish landscape.

The recent proposal that lynx should be released in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park has unsurprisingly caused much concern in the farming community who strongly resist the proposal. Surely, the fact is that we need to look after what we have got rather than introduce more animals and doubtless light another fire of disquiet and conflict.

By using large amounts of pesticide and herbicide we are also doing further damage by killing insects, the pollinators that drive the entire eco-system. The reduction in farmland birds in this country is perhaps explained by our manic obsession to get rid of anything that is not productive such as insects and weeds, the very things that many farmland birds depend upon.

Man’s capacity for destruction seems to know no bounds. It’s about time we started to think much more constructively about our future and about the future generations.

Weekly Nature Watch 11th September 2020

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A crucial time is approaching for our red deer. Stags, currently divesting themselves of the velvet that has covered their newly grown antlers, are increasingly aware that their hormones are telling them that once again it is that time of the year.

Something inside them is beginning to stir, making them feel that bit more tetchy. As September advances towards October, that tetchiness will give way to downright temper and passion as the sap rises and they are seized by the season of the rut. Mind you, even when that day dawns, not all of them will gain fulfilment. The privilege of siring the next generation of red deer is restricted to the master stags – those which have established a place at the head of the herd, albeit that as the rut approaches there are battles to be fought to finally determine pecking orders. 

The forthcoming battles will finally determine the future of those that have real ambition. There will be many challenges laid down and battled over before that is finally achieved as older stags find that they are past their best and younger animals seek to replace them. Life for the ‘has beens’ in red deer society can sometimes seem cruel. There is no peaceful pensioner-class among red deer stags and those whose duty it is to control numbers of red deer will know just which of the animals in their care have passed their zenith and are likely to suffer the consequences. Life for ‘the monarchs of the glen’ as they once were, can indeed be cruel.

The day of reckoning for old stags may come any time before October 20th.  The increase in the number of deer in the Scottish countryside means that competition for food sources is keen.  Indeed, it may be said that the biggest enemy of each deer is another deer and in recent times it has been noted that many culled deer have been quite badly emaciated.

However, it is the red deer hinds and female roe deer which have become the target of those who are determined to reduce the numbers of deer at large in Scotland which it is estimated now heads towards a million animals.  The problems of having so many deer in our landscapes relates especially to the planting of new forests. The Scottish Government is dedicated to growing more and more timber and the presence of so many deer is seen as a threat to that ambition. Deer can make a big impact on newly planted forests, damaging young trees to such an extent as to make the difference between profit and loss.

It has just been revealed that authorization has been given for staff and contractors of Forest and Land Scotland, formerly the Forestry Commission, to shoot the female animals during the closed season while they have youngsters running at foot which are still reliant upon their mothers for sustenance in the form of milk. However, the suggestion that hinds or does with calves or kids running at foot, should now be shot out of season thus leaving their off-spring to go hungry and  in all probability starve to death has horrified keepers and stalkers universally.  The Scottish Game Keepers Association (SGA) believes that the policy is ethically wrong and contravenes animal welfare.

Well-known and respected expert on red deer and head stalker for the SGA Deer Group, Lea MacNally, has condemned it as a national disgrace and says that he finds it hard to understand how the Scottish Government, backed by the Green Party in Parliament, can on the one hand ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares, yet allow a situation that will undoubtedly lead to many young deer dying of starvation.  “It shows little or no respect of our deer,” he said.

His reference to the culling of mountain hares relates to the management of grouse moors. Mountain hares are blamed for spreading ticks among grouse, hence the culling programmes regularly carried out in parts of Highland Scotland. Now, as a result, populations of mountain hares are believed to be under threat once more putting those who manage grouse moors at odds with conservationists. However, there is some good news in relation to grouse moors which is extremely heartening. It has been announced that hen harriers, now our rarest birds of prey have had a bumper season by producing no fewer than sixty fledglings across Britain this year.

The continuing persecution of hen harriers down the years has seen their populations fluctuate alarmingly with those who run grouse moors all too often blamed for their demise across considerable swathes of the country. Grouse, especially young birds, are certainly on the menu of these magnificent birds of prey but the persecution is not by any means confined to harriers. There are repeated incidents involving the killing of eagles, peregrines, buzzards and kites which always seem to occur close to or on grouse moors. As a result, there are those who suggest that grouse moors should be in some way licensed depending upon the management of wildlife, simply because of the continuing slaughter that has been happening in these upland areas for many years in the past.

Hen harriers are very much moorland birds. The male bird is grey in colour with prominent black wing tips. By contrast, the females known as ringtails, are brown, their ringed tails the reason for the nomenclature. Both male and female birds also boast a prominent white flash above the tail. Harriers generally fly low over the moorland in their search for small birds and voles but often, given the chance, will take young red grouse as well. The reason for their success this year is said to be down to the fact that this has been a particularly good vole year. By contrast, harriers when courting soar to considerable heights and make dramatic food passes from male to female.

Voles are the staple diet of so many animals and birds but the population of voles varies from one year to the next. Good vole years benefit many creatures including for example, the short-eared owl, a diurnal hunter which inhabits those same open moorlands as the harrier. In fact, so many creatures depend for their living upon voles that the fluctuations of vole numbers influence many aspects of wildlife.

The slaughter of wildlife in many of our upland areas is all too often associated with grouse moors which of course, compete with one another by means of the annual bags of grouse killed. It strikes me that in an age when the conservation of wildlife species is such a popular aim, the grouse moor managers have to clean up their act. I’m not using the blame game to get at the managers of such resources. I just think we have to guard our precious wildlife resources when so many species, including the likes of hen harriers are under threat. We need to care more for the planet rather than destroy it.  As for the culling of red deer hinds and roe deer does when they are still suckling, I suggest the Scottish Government should think again.

 

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 4th Sept 2020

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Territory is a material necessity for most creatures albeit that the evidence for establishing, declaring territorial integrity and if necessary, defending it, is more apparent during the spring than at any other time of the year.

For example, to define territorial integrity is why the birds sing in springtime. They have staked out a claim and they are telling the world, especially the avian world, that through their singing they are staking a claim for the lordship of a particular piece of territory. At the same time, they are announcing to the females of their kind that they are available and therefore through their song are advertising for a mate.

However, once autumn and winter descend, most such claims become history which is why bird-song is largely absent until January when the claimants pipe up again. Generally, the first such signals emanate from great tits, their ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ strident calls echoing across an otherwise silent landscape but there is an exception to this rule as we may become aware of in forthcoming months. This exception is, of course, cock robin for which the establishment of winter territory seems almost as important as its establishment in spring and summer.

That is why we easily recognize the sweet tones of the robin’s song throughout autumn and winter. These bursts of music – and they emerge very much as bursts almost as if sung involuntarily – lighten the short winter days and issue promises for next spring. And of course, they stand out because there is little or no competition except from the wintering geese and the cawing of rooks. However, the song of robins may be sweet but that sweetness certainly doesn’t reflect the nature of the bird. When competing for territory, be it in spring or autumn, robins do not spare themselves and are so committed to the cause that they will fight as fiercely as any bird for their rights. Robins will, and sometimes do, fight literally to the death when their quest is to establish that territorial integrity.

Even among the packed cliffs, where colonies of seabirds seem to dwell literally cheek by jowl, there is territory at stake and even in such close company, scuffles and fights frequently break out between birds which seem barely a few inches apart. No matter how miniscule they may be, such territories are still fought over and woe betides any neighbour that steps over into another’s territory!

Having said that, competition for territory may seem to die once spring and summer have passed however here, there is still competition between two families of great spotted woodpeckers. Throughout the summer, we have been entertaining two distinct families of these birds and now of course, it is the year’s progeny we are mainly seeing - the redcap youngsters - as each family clearly produced a brood. Even they, however, are not fully prepared to tolerate the presence of the redcaps from the other family, albeit that they do not approach the ‘enemy’ with as much vitriol as the adult birds which actually chase each other off.

Frequently, we see one redcap ensconced on the peanuts and another will arrive, initially clamping itself to the central pole of the bird-table and shinning up it towards the baskets. Indeed, in the case of adults that would mean an immediate exit but when redcaps are involved the animosity is not as obvious.  In that situation, the newly arrived youngster often reaches out from that central pole to pilfer a few fragments of nuts rather than the usual ‘cling on’ method in which they hang upside down on the feeder while pecking vigorously away at the contents. If occasionally feeding together, the redcaps appear to be slightly more tolerant of the other family of redcaps, not yet having learnt the antagonism that is otherwise on display by their parents, the adults certainly won’t even tolerate a rival adult’s presence and immediately the chase is on!

And then at last, we had another scaler of that bird-table central pole in the form of a nuthatch. As reported earlier in the year, I have been aware of the presence of them in the vicinity but apart from one fleeting visit, I have never had the pleasure of entertaining these newcomers from the south. Now, suddenly I am seeing them on a regular basis so I may now claim to be hosting this highly attractive bird at my bird-table. The gradual spread of nuthatches into Scotland has been occurring for some years now and may be yet another manifestation of global warming. Slowly, birds once restricted to more southern climes are spreading gradually farther and farther north and the nuthatch is now becoming quite common in areas once bereft of them. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that my now regular visitor will establish a territory near here, remain as one of the regular visitors and may indeed find a mate.

It is interesting to see the nuthatch traverse that central pole of the bird-table for unlike the woodpeckers, not only are they able to climb it skillfully, they are able to travel up and down it by turning and descending head first, being the only birds in the world able to do this.  On the other hand, the woodpeckers, when descending, do so upright, always with the head up top!  Like woodpeckers, nuthatches often nest in deciduous trees where they may find a hollow or hole. But, the nuthatches are very defensively minded and use mud to reduce the size of the entrance hole by building up a layer of mud that sets very hard. This is their way of ensuring that larger birds such as starlings cannot gain entry and usurp the nest. Smaller birds such as tits they can more easily get rid of.

Funnily enough, the nuthatches, currently sharing the peanuts with the woodpeckers, can be severely threatened by woodpecker neighbours and so the re-enforcements to the entrance hole of their nest has to also withstand investigation and assault from the woodpeckers which, given the chance, are likely to feast upon both nuthatch eggs and chicks. That mud therefore, has to really set hard to deter their unwelcome attention.

Like other birds, nuthatches are territorial yet sometimes if confronted by a wandering flock of other nuthatches may somehow seem to be impelled to join the flock as if drawn by some invisible magnet. However, as soon as this flock moves out of their territory, the pair returns to their own patch. The other peculiarity of a nuthatch nest, by the way, is that the birds line it with conifer bark, again the only birds that use this kind of lining. Thus, the ideal territory is one that offers both deciduous and coniferous trees.

With evenings now drawing in, the priority is to find as much food as possible. For those about to set out on perilous journeys south with Africa the main destination for most migrants, that food will act as the energy filled fuel that will carry them on their amazing journeys. Those that are destined to stay here must also have an eye open for every feeding opportunity for as winter closes is as surely it will, food will become scarce and with fewer daylight hours in which to source food, finding sufficient on which to survive  is of course the priority.

And of course, as those food sources begin to diminish, it is surely our responsibility to bridge the gap and begin to offer food on our bird-tables. It may yet seem a good way off but winter is inexorably approaching. And who knows, you may already have nuthatches on your bird-table. If not maybe there’s a nuthatch preparing to visit you soon!

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 28th August 2020

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The clock is ticking faster and faster as the last few days of August come and go all too quickly and time is getting shorter for our migrant birds.

Soon, the first of millions of them will be bidding us farewell as they launch themselves on improbable journeys, most of them back to the Dark Continent of Africa. During these next days and weeks, our skies will be emptied of summer visitors and later filled with the first of our winter ones. However, the season of change is already with us for the screaming swifts have long gone, their stay with us remarkably brief, just sufficient to rear one generation of youngsters.

Our local ospreys have also produced just one brood as usual, albeit that they take their time. Indeed, almost the entirety of their summer sojourn has been taken up with the raising of their young family. And how they have nurtured it. Much TLC has been expended upon the two youngsters that have been the apples of their parent’s eyes. From the moment they hatched in the untidy but cavernous eyrie atop a gnarled old tree, the parent birds have lavished their attention on these two chicks. At first the food they required was fetched solely by the male bird, with the hen brooding them assiduously but as they grew and the demand for food increased, she also had to do her duty and catch fish for them.

But any day now all that devotion will suddenly come to an end. After all the care and attention, in the next few days the parent birds will take off and not return. Without warning and individually, they will set sail for their African winter home abruptly breaking the bond between them and their youngsters. Those two chicks will face the awful truth that they are on their own although they too will be lured during the next week or two to follow in the wake of their parents and head for Africa. Whilst the parent birds have the advantage of knowing the route that they must follow having travelled it for a few years now, the young birds have nothing more than in-built instinct to guide them successfully to their distant destination.

The young ospreys nesting for the first time north of here at the Loch of the Lowes are certainly cutting it fine. Having deserted the original eyrie, they have built another where they have produced just one chick. This young osprey has only just fledged and the fear is that the parent birds may follow instinct and leave before their youngster has learned to fish. Such a situation could spell disaster for that chick and we await the outcome with bated breath.

Meanwhile, during these past few weeks since they first took to the air, the two youngsters here will have had to learn the art of fishing, will have learned to fly high above the loch eyes rivetted upon the water for the tell-tale movement of a fish close to the surface. They will have learned to hover and then commence that dramatic dive. They will also have learned the hard way that not every dive will bring them success, that sometimes, especially if the water is turbulent, they may have to try and try again in order to obtain a full belly. This is learning with a real purpose and achieving success is vital for their survival on the journey that now lies ahead of them – one of several thousand miles.

Amazingly, in their brains there will be the equivalent of a map that charts the route they must follow, down through England, across the English Channel and onwards through France and Spain. Another sea crossing of the Mediterranean takes them to Africa. There they will follow the coastline until they eventually reach their destination in Senegal or The Gambia. And of course, en-route they must keep their energy levels well topped up by catching fish, a skill they are currently desperately honing now and the most vital part of that learning process. This is what the last few weeks has been about, first watching their parents fish and learning technique from them and then perfecting that technique. Upon that depends the success or otherwise of their southbound flight.

Also bound for Africa are the legions of swallows and martins that I have been watching in recent days.  They too have a daunting journey ahead of them. Earlier broods are already congregating prior to setting out on their marathon journeys. The swallows have an incredible six-thousand-mile journey to fly to the Cape of Good Hope – South Africa whereas the martins, although perhaps not travelling quite as far, have nevertheless a considerable journey of four or five thousand miles.

Currently, however, most martins seem still to have work to do judging by the frequency of their repeated visits to their nests in the eaves of a friend’s house. It was a muggy August day as I watched them careering low over a field that must have been fairly buzzing with insect life. Both swallows and martins were constantly plundering insects as they flew low over the rank grasses. The young broods of martins yet to leave their

nurseries and taste the excitement of flight, will, like the osprey chicks, have to learn the art of getting enough food by catching flies quickly if they are also to survive that enormous trek but at least they are likely to have guidance from their parents. House martins and swallows do not abandon their youngsters and leave them to find their own way to their wintering grounds but their route may be even more hazardous for they have the enormity of the Sahara Desert to cross, a desert which, by the way, sadly accounts for so many of them. That is why they may produce up to three broods of young during their stay here because the odds are clearly stacked against them and losses of these trans-desert travellers are known to be heavy.

Other migrants, having moulted out their old coats of feathers and renewed themselves with completely new plumage, are now well prepared to take on the massive journeys that lie ahead of them. I watched a willow warbler, resplendent in its new set of clothes, picking away at insects from the fading leaves of one of my damson trees the other day. And of course, this is when, in preparation for their massive adventures south, these birds must feed up and put on the ounces. This is the fuel that will carry tiny birds such as the warbler clan on their journeys.  They will top this up where and when possible during their flight south because of the need to keep up their energy levels if they are to successfully negotiate the thousands of miles they must travel.

All this movement of birds presages the decline of our summer. We perhaps think only of our summer birds when we think of bird migration - those that summer here and winter in Africa.  Yet waiting in the wings in the Arctic and Scandinavia and indeed, in Russia, there are legions of more birds waiting for the strangling grip of their winter to descend before looking in this direction for salvation. If here, there is an immense population of avian travellers foregathering in preparation to journey away from these shores to Africa, that other legion is waiting for the right time to come to these shores for the winter months.

It's all change - the skies across our globe are about to become very busy indeed!

 

 

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 21st August 2020

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They used to act as environmental health officers – long before such posts were even dreamed, of let alone created. They were also unpaid and at times, surprisingly unrecognized for the good work they did. 

Red Kites, known by the old Scots word ‘gled’ or ‘clamhan gobhlach’ - the forked buzzard - here in Scotland, kept the streets of old relatively clean. They were the ‘scaffies’ of the day. Yet despite their good work, they became the targets of those who seemed to think that our world should be made devoid of birds of prey and so they were shot until there were none left in England or Scotland. Only in mid-Wales did a rump of them hang on and maintain a presence.

Of course, in recent times red kites have been re-introduced to many parts of Britain and so now grace our skies with their fantastic and sometimes inspirational flight. Nothing, in my opinion, matches the grace of a red kite when it comes to conquering the air. I recently watched as one such bird soared across the sky here and it is always worth stopping whatever it is you are doing in order to watch that magnificent display. As it flew, it filled the air with that recognisable, double-barrelled, high pitched calling. Simply magnificent! As kites often congregate together, we are sometimes treated to mass displays of superb flying and a visit to the Argaty red kite centre, near Doune, may give readers an opportunity to witness them at their collective best.

Of course, these colonies of the new generation of red kites are now expanding, their numbers healthily swelling. However, there is still a minority of people who support that old adage that birds of prey are the enemy. Because the red kite’s flight is so majestic and buoyant, they are easy targets for those who oppose their presence and why they were so easily persecuted in the first place. Thankfully, nowadays there is a different attitude towards birds of prey. They are not so much vilified as admired by the legions of folk who have taken up bird-watching as a hobby. However, from time to time I repeatedly hear that there are those who still persecute them.  And of course, they are not the only birds to suffer - golden eagles, buzzards, peregrines and hen harriers, the latter now numbered among our rarest birds of prey, all as a result. I’m afraid that the slaughter still occurs despite laws to protect such birds.

It is suggested that one of the main sources of this problem are those who own or manage grouse moors. I mention this just over a week after that day to end all days for many red grouse, the ‘glorious twelfth’, the start of the grouse shooting season. Such is the importance of that date to those who profit from the shooting of red grouse, that the value to the rural economy of such activity is always well to the fore. However, these days, this may be equalled, or even bettered, by the rising value of wildlife tourism which is clearly growing. 

The re-introduction of various species that were once widespread but which have been mercilessly slaughtered, is a contentious issue. Another recent re-introduction, which has sparked controversy in some places, is that of the sea eagle. Sometime during the first world war, this magnificent bird, with a wingspan of up to eight feet, became extinct in Scotland and therefore in Britain. It’s re-introduction to parts of highland Scotland has been the subject of complaint from crofters who claim that these re-introduced eagles are responsible for the deaths of many of their lambs, albeit that some of the figures quoted are clearly inaccurate. The lovely Isle of Mull is a real hotbed for sea eagles, their presence benefitting the island’s economy to the tune of several million pounds every year.

The latest re-introduction of these mammoth raptors has seen them released on the Isle of White. It may seem a strange environment to select but the organizer of this particular release, Roy Dennis, is very much aware of the arguments for and against such policies. He, of course, was for many years at the heart of the restoration of the osprey as a breeding bird first in Scotland and subsequently in England and Wales. It should be noted that the osprey’s return was not a re-introduction as the birds came back here of their own volition, however, Roy played a key role in ensuring their return would be successful.

Ospreys were exterminated around the same time as sea eagles, so to see them both as part of our twenty- first century register of raptors poses the question as to why they were targeted in the first place. Then, country estates were anxious to establish themselves as sporting estates where bags of game, including the likes of pheasants and red grouse were the prize. Estates competed with each other for the best bags and the competition was fierce. It was of course, all about money - attracting as many folk as possible to your shooting estate in order to make as much money as possible. And to increase those bags, anything that stood in their way such as birds of prey or carnivores were regarded as the enemy. Thus, war was openly waged upon raptors and animals such as foxes, pine marten and even hedgehogs, deemed to be pests because occasionally they would take the eggs of ground nesting game birds.

Of course, there were also other persecutions. For example, great crested grebes were prized for their plumage which was used to decorate ladies clothing and hats. These grebes, therefore, came dangerously close to extinction during the latter part of the nineteenth century and were only rescued by legislation to protect them. Thus, just in time it became illegal to kill them for there were estimated to be but a few great crested grebes left alive when the law to protect them was enacted. Thankfully, these days they are widespread

Down the years, not only have we persecuted sections of our wildlife, we have also sought to exploit them for our gain. Hopefully, we have now learned the lesson and are nowadays sufficiently aware to want instead to protect species of animals and birds rather than destroy them. Recently, the beaver has been re-introduced in both Scotland and England after an absence of several hundred years. It, too, was previously shot and trapped into extinction simply because beaver pelts were highly valued.

And yet despite these re-introductions, the return of the red kite, the sea eagle and the beaver, the fact is that our swelling human population constantly legislates against nature. Now I read that the problem of people versus wildlife is truly universal. Kenya is famous for its National Parks and all the wonderful wildlife they support. Yet there too, people want to expand into more and more land and the wildlife in many places is being squeezed out. We, the human population, are the problem. There are too many of us and we want more and more land at the expense of all that wonderful wildlife which is literally the main source of revenue through wildlife tourism. We need to pause in our headlong charge towards a world that one day we may yet destroy. This is our natural environment and we seem constantly to be threatening its very existence.

In recent times I have witnessed a level of degradation of our precious countryside that I thought I would ever witness. I know the Corvid lockdown has been a particularly constraining experience for us all but there is simply no excuse for the level of sheer destruction that has occurred since people were allowed back into our countryside. It shows little or no respect for our landscape and all the creatures, including the rural human population, that live within it.

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods