March, 2008

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South East

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  • From a bird in a box to the ballot box

    A call I answered in the office brought one of those stories that proves there is a deep-rooted emotional Robin singing its dear old heart outanchor that binds us with the natural world.

    A lady who'd planted some bulbs in her southeast London garden had left the box the bulbs arrived in on a garden seat. When she went to shift it a couple of weeks later she was startled when a robin shot out of the top. Carefully opening the cardboard flaps on top "I looked inside and there were two open beaks and a little egg, beautiful". Those were her words. Personal experiences like this underline our links with wildlife. We cannot help but be impressed, awed and amazed by it.

    Most people have had an experience like that of the lady above. I advised to leave them where they were and that the chicks will fledge after a couple of weeks. It's illegal to mess with live nests! The RSPB's doing all it can to increase the odds so that everyone has an equal opportunity to get closer to wildlife, to be awe-struck, jolted out of the ordinary or made to re-examine the world around us. We run what we call Aren't birds brilliant projects across the UK to do just this.

    Adult peregrine in flightToday the sun's out and the Tate peregrines are incubating! How exciting that we'll have another brood of young peregrines in the heart of London. We think there are now almost seven pairs in the Capital, all on well-monitored sites, but it will be poor Misty and Bert - our Tate peregrines - who will be in the spotlight.

    Misty is a great mother and has successfully raised some twenty peregrines in London. First with her old partner, Houdini, and since last year with a younger model who was named Bert by teenager Katie Silva from Hainault. She took part in our Who's your Daddy competition to name the bird and her entry was drawn from hundreds of contributors. We'll be back at the Tate Modern with our telescopes, volunteers and information trailer from 19 July right through to 14 September.

    Being able to relate to the world is an important part of being human but it is still not as widely recognised as it should be. I attended a conference on well-being in schools the other day where every aspect of childhood development was discussed. We covered emotional literacy, financial awareness, trust, diet and health. But there was hardly any mention of encouraging young people to enjoy the natural world, to play in it, to explore it and themselves through their interactions with it.....

    Sorry, starting to sound like a tree-hugger again, a description often aimed at me from my nine year old daughter. The fact is, that if we can't give primary and secondary school pupils the space, time and encouragement to experience wildlife for themselves, society will be poorer for it. Having access to clean and safe outdoor space should be enshrined in our Human Rights. I'm glad to see it's a topic that is being taken seriously by a number of the candidates running to be Mayor of London. It should be a winning policy, one that will make our Capital an even more amazing place in which to live and work.

  • Love London? Sow some grass.

    The starling is king in London's gardens, long live the king.

    So cute, the upstart of the bird world and king of London 

    Our Big Garden Birdwatch results this year show no change in the top ten species. Starling is number one, followed by the house sparrow and woodpigeon. Fourth is the cheeky blue tit and fifth is the sonorous blackbird. Alarm bells are ringing though because the populations of our top two species are crashing around our ears. In fact, for the first time in our records the king has abandoned the City. Starlings didn't even make it on to the bird list for the City of London.

    Admittedly the City is not the greenest of areas but last year starlings came in eighth place there, and the house sparrow was ranked thirteenth. This year the house sparrow is bottom of the list in twenty-second place and the king has abdicated.

    So, what are we doing about it?

    Three things:

    1. we're harassing the London Mayoral candidates, asking then to adopt five key green RSPB pledges that would help;
    2. we're offering free advice to anyone who has access to an outdoor space on what they can do to support wildlife;
    3. we're spending £90,000 a year trying to establish the cause of the house sparrow's decline.

    We already know that only 15% of starling juveniles survive beyond their first year and this is primarily due to a lack of their favourite food, earthworms and leather jackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs that were so common when I was but a lad). Addressing this means people changing the way they look after their lawns and being prepared to share this space with leather jackets.

    Rainham Marshes visitor centrePrivate gardens make up about a fifth of Greater London's total area. That's about 38,000 hectares. Compare that with the size of our fantastic reserve at Purfleet. Rainham Marshes [pictured right] presently covers some 350 hectares. It's packed full of wildlife, from water voles to lapwings. Imagine turning 38,000 hectares of land into wildlife friendly space and you'll see why private gardens are so important.

    The demand for housing and development in London is HUGE. But, with a bit of thought, we can meet these needs and enjoy wildlife. Londoners can often be blunt so I'm now used to being asked "why?"

    We're only now starting to fully understand what nature does for us. How trees and grassy areas absorb rain preventing flash floods, how trees and reedbeds absorb pollution, how nature balances our environment and keeps it ticking over. Trees can help reduce the air temperature by as much as 4 degrees. In our changing climate, they will become the best and cheapest air conditioners in the city! Birds and other wildlife all have a role in this. Added to this are the findings of new studies on the healing power of exposure to green spaces. Ministers are now seriously considering using NHS money to invest in gardens and parks as a means of therapy for physical and mental illness. This is based on a growing pool of evidence that the long-term benefits of giving people access to outdoor space far outweighs the cost of treatments for many modern ailments. Oh, and there's the good old fashioned response too; I like it and wildlife has as much right to be here as me.

    So, let's put the grass back in London, and that's not a rallying call for free drugs before you add a pithy comment to this blog. Let's turn the city green with rye grass, wildflower meadows, fescues and clover. Go wild and plant a hedge, maybe a fruit tree so you can get fresh apples or pears to enjoy as you lie back in your deckchair to watch the birds flit backwards and forwards in what could well be the greenest, calmest, most beautiful and exciting city in the world.

    Big Garden Birdwatch results for Greater London

    1   Starling - averaging 3.14 per garden in our study but present in more than half the gardens surveyed.
    2.  House sparrow - averaging 2.63 and in 46% of gardens.
    3.  Wood pigeon - 2.38 average but in many gardens (77%).
    4.  Blue tit - 2.09 compared with 2.4 in 2007 but present in 80% of gardens.
    5.  Blackbird - territorial but doing well with an average of 1.72 and found in 85% of gardens.
    6.  Feral pigeon - population holding steady at 1.41 and in a third of London gardens.
    7.  Robin - a friendly bird in more than 80% of gardens but only averaging 1.23 in each garden.
    8.  Magpie - 1.2 average and found in 57% of London gardens.
    9.  Great tit - 1.07 average and in half the gardens surveyed.
    10. Collared dove - found in about a third of gardens and averaging 0.9.

    For more information on what YOU can do for wildlife, visit

  • Gone to seed

    A muffin-top waistline, greying hair and crepe skin. I'm not getting any younger but I was a bit saddened to hear my eldest daughter saying, "Dad's gone to seed." 

    She was of course on the phone to her grandmother and I had misinterpreted what she'd meant. My spin on the statement was in light of the reflection that had greeted me in the bathroom mirror that morning. Subliminally, it was loitering in my mind, just waiting to burst in to the open at the first possible opportunity.

    In reality this old and aching body had just been outside sowing grass seed on the bank I've built on top of the spoil heap left by the previous owners of our home. There is no access to the rear of our house so the rubble had to be either carried through the house or used in the garden. Being a lazy gardener I opted for the latter, covered it in top-soil and now hope to have a soft, grassy raised hillock where I can spend warm summer evening's relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book and a drink. To add to the colour and wildlife value I've sown a wildflower/grass mix to attract and shelter insects.

    I've been desperate to finish this for some time and reckon I've just squeezed it in ahead of Spring. However, the edges of the hillock are already bursting with daffodils and bluebells so my timing is a bit confused; just like the daffs and bluebells.

    Having seeded the area, I'm now constantly jumping up from my chair to scare off the pigeons, squirrels and blackbirds that seem attracted to the newly raked soil! As I think I've already mentioned, the lazy side of me is desperate to find a solution to this issue if only to give my knees a break. I've rummaged through the piles of paper that build-up on my table for some of those CD's that increasingly fall from the weekend supplements. The CD's have been suspended from canes poked into the seeded soil and the wildlife in my garden appears thrilled with this cheap version of a disco mirrorball. I don't think it's scaring the pigeons. They seem happy watching the sun bouncing off the CD's surface while they graze on the grass seed.

    Rabbi WittenbergRegular readers of this blog may have noticed a gap in coverage last week. I apologise for this - I'd cycled up the Lee Valley to meet a man and his dog. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg from the New North London Synagogue was walking 100 miles around the edge of London to raise money for the RSPB and others. He was also building support for efforts to foster peace between Israel and Palestine. We met in the Dragonfly Sanctuary just outside Waltham Abbey and walked along the waterways there. The Rabbi's two year old sheepdog, Mitzpah, gamboled on ahead of us as we walked and talked. There is a growing cross-over between a variety of faiths and conservation, so it was a wide ranging and positive discussion.

    It was easy to find common ground. Less easy is explaining the complexities of bio-fuels or opposition to some windfarms. Getting the idea across that green energy is good - but ONLY where it is sustainable, is proving difficult. It's not a popular stance and you get mud thrown at you fom all sides. I think the best way of putting it is to say we want sustainable energy that doesn't leave the next generation with a difficult choice or a huge clean-up bill. Wind turbines in the right place are excellent and bio-fuels are fine, just so long as they don't degrade the environment or deprive us of land used to grow food. The current plans for biofuels threaten both land for food and land for wildlife.. and this is a price too high to pay.

    If you have any good tips for protecting newly sown grass seed, comments on faith and the environment or would like to find out how to support our work on sustainable energy, then please do comment on this blog. You will need to register first (this is free). Once you are logged in, there is space to type at the end of each post. Please note that comments are moderated so may take some time to appear. We also reserve the right not to publish comments.