Weekly Nature Watch

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

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.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 14th August 2020

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During these past few days, there have been hints of red in the shape of rowan berries spilt from the trees and immediately seized upon by some of the neighbourhood’s blackbirds. In fact, as yet they are not fully ripe and are therefore more orange than red.

Nevertheless, they are an indication that the summer is now dwindling towards what, across the Pond, they call the ‘fall’. As the berries ripen, I am sure that more of the local merles and mavis’s will be eager to feast upon them. However, as usual, there will be nothing in the way of rowan berries left here when in October, the redwings and fieldfares descend upon us from Scandinavia.

There was red too in a breaking of August’s silence with a little outbreak of redpoll song buzzing away to tell us that some birds are already emerging from the moult, pristine in new clothes and pronouncing their new ‘décor’ in song, as if this really was for them the feel-good factor. The same may be said of the goldfinches which later, joined in the music making. This surely must be another expression of that feel-good factor because they are certainly not preparing themselves for another breeding season. Between now and that next event, comes winter when a good set of feathers is of the essence for protection against the elements.

The most impressive appearance of red however was the sighting of a red fox in all its splendour, a dog fox I think, in full, magnificent flow and in very good condition, right to the white tip on the end of his tail. He was a splendid example of his species. Foxes, of course, have a reputation which has caused man to fairly universally regard the them as the enemy personified, although perhaps until the mid-eighteenth century, it was the wolf that fired mankind’s ire.

Indeed, the Scottish royal court seemed obsessed with the aim of exterminating the wolf and large hunts with that object in mind, were a frequent occurrence. Of course, with plenty of wild country north of the Border, the wolf had hung on in Scotland long after it had disappeared from the rest of Britain. The final denouement is said to have happened sometime in the 1740s when a man by the name of McQueen was said to have been the slayer of the last wolf in Scotland. The late David Stephen, an expert on the subject of wolves however, reckoned that it could have been the 1780s before the wolf finally passed into extinction.

            However, in the English shires especially, the fox now became the focus of the chase. For a very short period of my life I was resident in Leicestershire, the very epicentre of hunting country. Indeed, it wasn’t long before I begun to understand that fox hunting wasn’t quite the pursuit it was made out to be, For instance, I soon learnt that one of the employees of the hunt was busy rearing fox cubs which would be released for the hunt to pursue at a later date, an act of kindness which soon turned out to be an act of cruelty and a negation of the stated ambition and objective of the hunt to control foxes!

I also quickly learned that Leicestershire’s farming community didn’t like foxes and were prepared to take pot shots at them at every opportunity. In fact, I also quickly learned that if foxes have to be controlled, hunting on horseback is probably the least effective way of achieving that goal. A good few years later, I got to know foxes a lot better and indeed, enjoyed many intimate moments with fox cubs. I also came to      realise that foxes are not quite the villains they are made out to be. Indeed, on occasions rather than villains they can be aides and even heroes!

I well remember a gentleman from a London suburb telling me the story that he had bought a new house but when he and his family took up residence, they were horrified to discover that the surrounding area was riddled with populations of rats. Subsequently, he also discovered that a vixen had dug an earth beneath his garden shed where she eventually gave birth to a litter of cubs. Very quickly thereafter, he realised that the rat population was rapidly reducing because the vixen and probably her mate had discovered the rats as a valuable source of food for their family. Before long, there were no rats!

And of course, the urban fox has become a well photographed animal which has perhaps transformed the attitude of people towards foxes. Whilst country folk can still be intolerant of foxes, townsfolk have taken urban foxes to their hearts albeit that from time to time, there are reports of conflict with foxes occasionally biting folk and even attacking children in their homes. From what I know of foxes, I am sure that these incidents occur when foxes find themselves trapped or cornered in unfamiliar circumstances and panic, lashing out, as it were, in a blind rage.

 

 

In the main, foxes are naturally very cautious about their relationships with humankind, even in the circumstances where they are living cheek by jowl with humans and very much benefitting from this relationship. Urban foxes are rapidly become the scaffies of this world, devouring the remains of take-away meals with enthusiasm and raiding bins for the waste we unwittingly provide that is becoming a major factor in their survival in the urban setting.

Having said that, I was made aware of the confidence some urban foxes can show in their relationship with people. My sister-in-law in London, used to feed foxes in her garden on a regular basis and eventually the family of foxes she shared that garden with became so confident that the vixen, especially, was known to paw the French window of the kitchen if she was feeling hungry, as if to say, ‘it’s time you fed me!’ On occasions when I stayed with them, I was constantly amazed by the rapport that seemed to exist between fox and mankind.

My own encounters of a furred kind, when it came to foxes, began with a ‘phone call I received from a local keeper. He had a fox cub and wondered if I could take it off his hands. It transpired that the previous day he had sent his terriers down a fox earth to deal with a new litter of cubs. Job done he thought! However, on passing the earth the next day he discovered a single cub wandering about at the entrance to the earth. Its eyes were not even open and it clearly would need a good deal of help in order to survive. Not having the heart to dispatch it, he took the mite home. However, Mrs. gamekeeper was not prepared to mother a fox cub and there followed that frantic ‘phone call!

We called her Sithean, pronounced shee-han, gaelic for ‘the fairy’, as her earth had been close to a hill renowned for associations with the fairies. Accordingly, we became foster parents to this blind little chocolate coloured waif and as she grew, her attachment to us became ever stronger. After all, we were the first creatures she had seen when her eyes opened. She was gentle and she was surprisingly loving and as she grew, she became a star of my live slide shows and a frequent visitor to schools, all of which she took in her stride. She lived with us for nearly thirteen years and was delightfully unforgettable.

Foxes of course, get the blame for killing lambs and of course poultry and especially pheasants, although my own little flock of hens perished as the result of an incursion of not foxes but pine marten. As I am not interested in shooting, I am always sceptical about the time and effort devoted to the killing of predators of pheasants which of course are destined to be shot anyway. But that’s another story!

Nature Watch Update 7th Aug 2020

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Early August, and a blizzard raged across my garden! Only it wasn’t a blizzard of snow, it was a blizzard of thistledown urged on by an energetic westerly breeze. Thousands of thistle seeds were seeking to colonise places wherever the wind was to take them and nature’s various systems for dispersal were clearly working well.

There are many ways in which plants increase their range. Some such as burrs stick to animal coats and are therefore transported unknowingly by passing animals. Thistles rely on the wind to carry them to new ground. Somewhere to the east of here they will come to rest and create new beds of thistles, providing of course, that someone doesn’t immediately get out the herbicide and snuff them out!

I’m sure that we use too many herbicides and pesticides because the insects of this world are in pretty desperate decline.  Across this country, across Europe and apparently across the world, insect populations are in a serious situation, a fact that should worry all of us, for of course these are the pollinators and as such are therefore a vital cog in the wheel of life. Their disappearance threatens all other life and indeed, that is not our only worry. Recent reports suggest a downward trend in animal life too and we are already aware of the serious decline in farmland birds. The vibes are not good.

The most threatened British wild mammal is the wildcat, better known in some quarters as the Scottish wildcat on account of the fact that the few remaining pure wildcats are here in Scotland. Once, the wildcat was present throughout the whole of Britain but it seems that the problem is hybridisation with feral cats which has brought a dramatic downturn in true wildcat numbers. Apparently wildcats willingly breed with feral cats and so true wildcat blood is naturally depleted.  In trying to address this problem, experts have selected the Ardnamurchan peninsular as a testing ground, with any feral cats there having either been destroyed or neutered.

It is known that this is a part of Scotland where true wildcats still live so that is why this highly important trial is being held there. At present, there is a variety of figures bandied about regarding the number of pure wildcats still in existence in various parts of Scotland. I’ve seen estimates as low as double figures when it comes to assessing the number of pure wildcats at large in the Scottish landscape but I’ve also seen figures in the hundreds. The bald fact is that whichever figure you accept, there aren’t very many!  The situation of the wildcat is therefore perilous and frankly we will be very lucky to see them survive. Perhaps now is the time to be grateful for the existence of wildlife parks, for many of them are prepared to engage in captive breeding programmes for later release into the wild.

However, there is also concern about other mammals and in recent times much publicity has been given to the downward slide in hedgehog numbers. I have seen it suggested that badgers are responsible for their decline, however, as badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed for thousands of years, I completely disregard this as utterly implausible. Judging by the evidence I have seen the main killer of hedgehogs is surely auto motoris! We all know that hedgehogs have a superb defence system - when threatened they simply roll up and present a very prickly obstacle. It is also known that badgers, with their enormously strong clawed feet, are capable of unrolling a hedgehog although I have personally never seen evidence of this. However, when confronted with a car, the rolling up tactic palpably doesn’t work as all too often we see very clearly. There may be other reasons for hedgehog decline which could, in some respects, bring us back to the over-use of pesticides and herbicides. I’m afraid that these poisonous substances readily pass down the food chain and again I express the opinion that we use too many such products.

Those same poisons may also be affecting our bats which of course rely on insects for food. The greater mouse-eared bat is thought to be as critically endangered as the wildcat and therefore as a creature so   categorized may also be almost on the verge of extinction. The Barbastelle and the Serotine bats are considered to be ‘vulnerable’ whilst the Nathusius pipistrelle and the Leister’s bat are regarded as ‘near threatened’.

One of the more familiar animals, the mountain hare, is also said to be under severe threat and of course these animals are the subject of annual culls in parts of the Scottish Highlands.  Mountain hares carry a tick which is known to infest red grouse and that is apparently the reason for pretty widespread culling. Grouse moors have a lot to answer for!  Equally at risk are harvest mice, the smallest of our native mice although I know that serious efforts are currently being made to conserve them. Surprisingly, the Orkney vole is another animal for which there is concern along with the hazel dormouse, a resident of the south of England.

Oddly enough, the red squirrel is also listed as endangered, a category which surprises me, for they are relatively common in Scotland. In this airt at least, I have witnessed a total transformation, for forty years ago this area was hoaching with alien grey squirrels which readers will remember were introduced from North America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The greys, being more aggressive and larger, have kicked the reds out of very many parts of the UK. However, the arrival of pine marten in this area, once themselves uncomfortably close to extinction, has seen a marked decline in the grey squirrel numbers and a re-assertion of the dominance of red squirrels. Now, as far as I can tell, there are no grey squirrels in this vicinity.

The simple fact is that grey squirrels, being substantially heavier and fractionally less agile, are easier for the pine martens to catch and indeed it seems that when the martens first arrived locally, they immediately targeted the slower greys. However, red squirrels are as rare as hen’s teeth in many parts of England where still the grey dominates. It will be interesting to see what happens following the recent introduction of pine marten to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.  Perhaps there, the grey squirrel’s days are also numbered!

Similarly, I find it curious that the beaver is also regarded as endangered, for despite the fact that they were extinct for several centuries, they have been officially re-introduced to both England and Scotland in recent years, albeit that here in Scotland in Perthshire, beavers had been unofficially released some years ago. The re-introductions promise that the number of beavers will gradually increase further as the years pass.

I am encouraged that at least we recognize that all these creatures and others are at various stages on these lists. There are perhaps too many of us demanding more than the environment we occupy can cope with. It seems that we always want more and more space, more development and perhaps at times too much profit … all at the expense of those creatures with which we share this planet. It really is all about balance and I fear that at the moment, we are not achieving that. We have been warned!

 

Weekly Nature Watch 31st July 2020

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The sight of a house martin to-ing and fro-ing from a field to its nest high in the eaves of a house, took me back more years than I care to remember for it was house martins that converted me into an avid bird watcher.

 

At the time, Neville Chamberlain had just announced that this country was at war with Germany. My parents, having lived through the first World War – indeed my father had been a hero of that great conflagration – took immediate action and I was dispatched from my suburban home to a country cottage which,      quite rightly, they imagined would be safe from Hitler’s bombers.

Along with a friend and his young cousin, we were whipped away from what was perceived to be a likely target for the bombers. At the age of seven, my outlook on life was about to be transformed for immediately outside my new bedroom window, almost within touching distance, was a plethora of house martin nests – a veritable terrace of them. I had already developed an interest in wild birds, albeit that the dominant ones in our suburban garden were sparrows and starlings. An aunt, who had been a ‘Nature Study’ teacher – there were such posts in those days – ensured that I was always aware of the natural world. As for the new discovery of house martins, well, by comparison, these were exotic birds and I was to spend hours during the ensuing weeks with my eyes riveted on those nests and their occupants.

It was September and the martins were exceedingly busy attending to the needs of the final brood of youngsters of the year – perhaps a third brood of that season. Therefore, there was any amount of coming and going and I was thrilled when at last those youngsters began to emerge and line up on the adjacent overhead wires to be fed. Then came the shock as one morning, there were suddenly no martins. The birds had flown, setting out on their perilous journey to Africa and I was inconsolable! The concept of bird migration was unknown to me and it was only after a protracted lecture from our host that I began to have a glimmer of understanding that, come next spring, they would return.

There were swallows too. They had nested in an outbuilding and although they were equally fascinating, at least when it came to the martins, I had a grandstand view of all the action. I was utterly hooked. Even now, the sight of both swallows and martins gladdens my heart like no other birds do. I have always admired the sheer verve and athleticism of both birds as they zip through the air picking off the insects upon which they and their young rely for food. Indeed, as I watched my lone martin the other day, I noted that it was joined by a lone swallow, both hunting over the same field and gathering flying insects for their respective young.

I have to admit that the swallow generally outflew the martin with its greater vitality but the white rump of the martin bobbing athletically along somehow demonstrated that it too is no slouch as it pursues those insects. I mused on recent reports of a decline in insects across Europe that, as a whole, has probably hit both species especially hard and I am aware that house martin numbers are also in quite serious decline. Indeed, as I watched this lone bird repeatedly return to its nest to offload its consignment of insects for its growing young, I noted that alongside its single nest were the unoccupied ruins of several others.

I wondered if house sparrows had been a problem here, for they are apt to take over martin nests before the martins return on their spring migration. The irony is, that whilst house martins have declined sufficiently to cause them to be declared as amber-risked in the lists of declining birds, so also have house sparrows now appeared on that list. Only, the decline in sparrow numbers has been so serious, that they are regarded as red endangered so their plight is allegedly worse.  However, the fact is that, as I’ve said before, hereabouts sparrows are so numerous as to dominate my bird-table. Perhaps the biggest decline has been in towns and cities? Perhaps they’ve all moved to the country?

Curiously, these days both birds, sharing the prefix ‘house’, are inevitably very closely associated with humans and human-made structures. House martins, it is thought, originally nested on cliffs building their nests below overhanging cliff tops but since the nineteenth century in particular, have instead chosen largely to nest on buildings. This has taken many of them to urban areas where of course there are plenty of buildings to choose from. House sparrows have always shared their lives with humans and world-wide, wherever there are people, there are inevitably sparrows. Not surprisingly, house sparrows also nest largely on buildings. Indeed, one of the reasons advanced for their decline is because of changes in building styles that has provided them with fewer nesting opportunities.

Another factor in the reduction in the number of house martins is that they need moisture in order to collect the mud they use to build their nests and spells of dry weather when they are building can spell disaster.  Ironically, one of the other reasons given for the decline in house martins is the increasing number of former farm buildings which have now been converted into dwellings. Apparently, the popular barn conversion has also played its part in the martin’s decline. However, climate change may also be a major factor. The migratory flight of house martins – house sparrows of course, don’t go anywhere – is hazardous in the extreme. They have to cross mountain ranges, oceans and deserts on their way to and from central Africa. And because the weather, as the result of global warming, is becoming increasingly erratic and stormy, it is suspected that more martins are being caught out. The old beliefs that swallows hibernated either at the bottom of lakes or under the sea was apparently vindicated when fishermen brought great rafts of dead swallows to the surface in their nets.

Clearly these were swallows which had been overcome by hostile weather conditions and had been forced to ditch in the sea and therefore inevitably perish. These days, long distance migratory birds like swallows and house martins are presumably even more at risk of falling foul of hostile weather conditions and consequently are thus more likely to perish en-route.

The frequent pleas to farmers and landowners to plant more and more wild flowers in order to encourage declining populations of pollinators, should be pursued with growing enthusiasm. We need to increase not decrease the population of these vital elements in Nature’s scheme of things. Such an approach would also help the likes of swallows and martins by increasing insect populations.  Perhaps also we should all curtail the use of pesticides whether we are farmers or gardeners. Our insects are the staple diet of many of our birds as well as the vital pollinators upon which the whole of Nature is so dependent. We need to look after our environment with greater care. The war we constantly wage against those elements in natural life that we don’t like, such as insects and weeds, is harming our environment irreparably. And if you think about it, it is us who are at the end of the line!

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods