Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 9th October 2020

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It started as a good news week with Stirling Council, while taking into account road safety and visibility, is contemplating a reduction in its roadside verge cutting regime which will in turn vastly improve the situation for pollinators throughout the area.

 In recent times, we seem to have become obsessed with the theme of neatness in our countryside as ‘short back and sides’ appears to have been the watchword of those who manage services such as grass cutting. So now, we seem destined to become much more eco-friendly in this area and our verges and hedgerows are set to benefit. The difference that altering the regularity of cutting those verges was illustrated to me during the summer when our neighbour, who usually cuts the verges of our single lane track, this year left them uncut. The difference was truly amazing with a remarkable variety of flowering plants springing up and providing bees and other pollinators with a rare bounty.

“On the Verge” is a Stirling based, voluntary, community project established back in 2010 that works with community groups to establish and develop areas of native wildflowers both annual and perennial. It helps these organisations to identify suitable areas, and after seeking the permission of landowners, will help organize the preparation of the site, supply the seed free of charge and offer guidance for the sowing process. The organisation will prepare an action plan for the long term management of the site and the community group will then be responsible for the guardianship of the site.

During the ten years since it was established, the Group has held no fewer than 97 different sowing events, worked with 100 organisations and sown 10,000 square metres of land with wildflowers. They have developed a special ‘On the Verge’ mix with Scotia Seeds from whom they purchase all their seed, which has an annual component of four species which will flower in the first year of any scheme and around twenty perennial species which will develop in subsequent years. All of which offer rich sources of nectar for pollinators.

So well done to the voluntary organisation for promoting this policy to Stirling Council and well done to the Council for responding in such a positive way, albeit that they have yet to officially confirm the go-ahead. Our landscape will accordingly become richer as a result and next year our verges should be buzzing with insect life and maybe much more.

During recent years, one of my regrets has been the decline in kestrel numbers. There was a time when kestrels were extremely commonplace, especially around the Carse but in recent years the presence of ‘windhovers’, as they are called by some, has declined quite seriously.  It may be presumed that their decline is due to a lack of suitable prey, especially voles. The manicuring of our countryside doesn’t help, nor does the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. Clearly vole and other small mammal numbers have declined and as a result so too have kestrels.

By the same token, barn owl numbers also seem to have plummeted. I always hold in my memory an incident that occurred several years ago. It was a summer’s evening and I went to visit some friends. On the way, I encountered the floating figure of a barn owl hunting over a roadside verge. There was little traffic so I was able to admire the buoyancy of the bird as it quartered to and fro along the verge. The visit to my friends complete, I later returned by the same route but where I had seen the owl before, its corpse now sadly lay. It had presumably ventured too close to the tarmac and had perhaps been virtually sucked into an impact with a vehicle. I stopped and recovered the body, took it home and could only admire its beauty.

Barn owls are variously described as being buff and white, but now that I was able to study one at close quarters, I discovered that its plumage seemed gold, and silver offset by that pure white front. It was absolutely gorgeous. Subsequently, I enjoyed many encounters with barn owls beside a particularly quiet road and always found myself fascinated by their flight and by the denouement when finally they plunge feet first into the vegetation to seize their prey. Barn owls are very special birds and the lack of voles in many parts of the landscape, means that we are entertained by these magnificent raptors all too seldom.

However, one other item of news rather alarmed me. Wildlife experts are voicing concern for the future of our adders, our one and only venomous snake. It is thought that pheasants regularly kill young adders which they swallow whole. Being protected by their plumage from snake bites, pheasants are believed to be regularly destroying adders at such a rate as to endanger them as a British species. And with an estimated 50 million pheasants released into the British countryside every single year, it is estimated that adders could be extinct in Britain within the next dozen years.

There are those who are concerned that with so many pheasants released into the British countryside, as well as being a constant threat to young adders, there is also bound be competition with native birds for food. This phenomenal release of these alien birds – they are, of course, not native to these shores – also encourages the likes of foxes which respond to the availability of a valuable food source but are then targeted by those responsible for the welfare of game birds, promoting a viscous circle of killing.

Prompted by the protests on the part of “Wild Justice”, an organisation co-founded by ‘Springwatch’ presenter Chris Packham, the UK Government is currently looking at the question of why so many game birds are being released into the British countryside. It is a release which is currently completely uncontrolled and entirely at the whim of land managers.  The whole question will be heard in the High Court in November but it certainly begs the question as to whether the sudden appearance of so many pheasants may be generally upsetting the balance of Nature.

The threat of extinction of any creature is surely always a matter for concern and I worry about the future of our adders. Once a species has gone, it has gone for good and adders surely are a vital part of the bio-diversity of this country whether you like them or not. We live at a time when human presence is a constant threat to the lives of millions of plants, insects and animals across the world. Every time we lose a species the world is inevitably the worse for it and in any case, surely we have a responsibility for all life on this planet which we should always take very seriously indeed.

Above all, a scheme that will help the vital pollinators is to be warmly welcomed. They are such key elements in the web of life and we should welcome the intervention of organisations such as “On the Verge” for it is in the business of trying to make this world a healthier environment.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods