June, 2012

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  • Clackety clack, lets have some chat

    There's a rail-line at the bottom of my garden. I welcome the comforting rumble of trains carrying people to and from Liverpool Street. I also welcome the wildlife roaming the embankment; and the blankets of spring bluebells; the birds turning their heads as trains approach; and the cloaking canopies of the oaks and the glorious London plane tree. They support crows, jays, squirrels and so much more wildlife that losing it would diminish the quality of my life.

    So it is with deep regret that I hear of clearances by Network Rail where entire embankments are scraped back to bare earth and stunted trunks, under the guise of "essential health and safety" work. What makes it all even more irksome is the timing Embankment erosion allowed us to improve habitat during repairs to get value for money.of such vandalism... er. I mean work .. carried out in the middle of the breeding season when so many birds are on eggs or frantically feeding helpless chicks stranded in their nests.

    If there is an urgent need for work, Network Rail can apply for a licence and no one will argue against action addressing public safety.

    I've been working with, and supporting the efforts of, Transport for London for some time now to make the most of their trackside land, which accounts for an awfully large percentage of London. Working within tight financial constraints they've come up with some pretty good ways of supporting wildlife without compromising the integrity of their public service. In fact, the habitat work enhances their public service by supporting wildlife that keeps our world ticking over in so many ways.

    Railways are the silver ribbons weaving their way through our urban lives, anchoring a wanderlust for the bucolic landscape of our imaginations to the steely reality of our lives. They are our escape routes and our deliverance. They are valued, loved and very much ours, even if we never stray onto their bramble pocked banks. It's not wasteland. It's our land. As another big UK company once put it, it's good to talk and I for one am a passenger waiting to go places with Network Rail. If only they'd mind the gap and hop onboard.

  • Mewling about the nature of nature and bleeding knees

    RSPB Vice President Chris Packham has been exciting newspaper columnists and the twittersphere by suggesting we need to do something about cats. It's one of those topics like pensions, free access to museums or marmite that sharply divide people.

    A slightly hairy and all orange bryony ladybird at Rainham (c) Howard Vaughan. Here courtesy of climate change?Chris is 100% correct in saying domestic cats (an estimated 7 to 9 million of them in the UK) are responsible for killing some 100 million critters a year or a half-year*. The prey are mostly small mammals but a large chunk are birds, particularly garden birds. There is voiciferous anecdotal evidence supported by speculation that cats are responsible for decimating songbirds. There's a severe lack of scientific evidence to support those speculative assertions.

    Of course any predator will reduce numbers of its favourite nibble. You should see the houmous shelves in my local shop after Friday snack-hunts. However, more houmous is produced than I can consume, and the same is true of garden birds. Predation will have an effect, but the shrinking populations of songbirds cannot be entirely blamed on cats, sparrowhawks, jays, rats and squirrels.

    If you have a cat and have been inspired by Chris to step-up your efforts to reduce its playtime with nature, then there's lots you can do.

    Studies have found that sonic collars emitting high-frequency sounds inaudible to us and cats work better than bells to warn mammals and birds of the cat's presence. There are other sonic devices that deter cats from gardens. Keeping cats indoors at dawn and dusk or ensuring you control their play-time during the breeding season - or mid-winter can all help.

    There are design tricks you can employ in gardens or outdoors spaces. Keeping feeding stations away from vantage or leaping points helps reduce the number of feeding birds from becoming food. Having dense, preferable prickly, shrubs within a short fast flight of the feeder is good too.

    Nature is amazing. It's beautiful and inventive. Conservation is all about caring for what we've got and working with nature to draw out the best it can offer. Nature can be brutal, chaotic and unforgiving too.

    If you fancy exploring more of that beautiful, chaotic, seedy, brutality. Take part in our Cockney Sparrow Count and share your images or thoughts. It's also National Insect Week. There are more than a dozen different species of ladybird to find at our Rainham Marsh reserve, including a new arrival in the UK, the all orange and ever so slightly hairy Bryony ladybird. 

    Be warned when handling ladybirds. You may well become aware of a bitter smell. It's their defence mechanism, where they wee a type of toxic blood from their knees. How crazy, inventive and mad is a leaky poisonous knee?


    * Figures quoted here come with a caveat - or should that be Cat-e-ate - in that there are only best guesses and estimates available and that the data that is available varies from organisation to organisation.

  • CSI London

    Dateline: 8 am, Monday 18 June 2012.

    A cold, grey morning with a feeling of drizzle in the air, the sort that seeps under your collar and would make even the undead shiver.. It's just another London day.

    Oh no it's not. It's the day the Cockney Sparrow Count gets underway. A day that's been ten years in the making and here it is at last! Light the fireworks, break out the bunting. Or did we do that already?

    From the 18th of June to the 12th of July, we're asking people to spare an hour recording house sparrows, whether you're at work or home. If they're in Greater London, we want to know.. please.

    Working with Greenspace Information for Greater London, London Wildlife Trust and the many other members of the London Biodiversity Partnership, we're trying to update research conducted a decade ago. I can hear the sceptics at the back muttering why does it matter when the economy's gone to hell, youth unemployment's high, prospects of strikes are looming and the Olympic's are racing round the corner.

    Never look the other way when something's going wrong. Invariably it leads to bigger problems. So please, do tell us about the sparrows you see, maybe Twitter your thoughts at #sparrowcount, but please do tell your friends and neighbours too.

    CSI London - Our Cockney Sparrow Investigation is underway. Show us yours and we'll show you ours!