You will find out about all the exciting stuff going on with the RSPB in the east of the UK. We cover our sites in the following counties: Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, and some of our great Lincolnshire ones. So if you are if you have never heard of the Strumpshaws and Snettishams or Stour Estuary or Sutton Fens here is you chance.
Jay image copyright Liz Cutting, www.lizcuttingphotos.com
How many conkers have you collected this autumn? If you’ve got children or grandchildren then I’d guess at least thirty and if you haven’t, there is still something so pleasing about their glossy chestnut gleam that I bet there is one in your pocket from your last stroll.
Spare a thought for the busy jay, who takes collecting rather more seriously than us, focusing on tasty acorns rather than inedible conkers. Each jay will collect around 5000 acorns a year, stashing them carefully in holes and crevices until later in the winter when their incredible memory guides them back to this vital energy source.
The jay plays a major part in the spread of oak forests as they usually bury their acorns in a place that is ideal for germination and many are never found. Without jays, the mighty oak may not be such a recognisable and beloved feature of our British landscape.
The jay is actually quite a contradiction of a bird. Its flash of electric blue feathers, screeching call and jaunty swagger makes me think of a medallion wearing geezer, with a line of fake Rolex watches in his overcoat that he hopes to make a nifty profit on. In fact, the American term ‘jaywalking’ implying reckless or impertinent behaviour is linked to the bird and its perceived attitude. But in fact, despite the bling appearance and cocky demeanour, the jay is a very shy bird. Most of the year, they hide away in woodland and are very hard to see. It is only around now, when the oak trees are laden, that they emerge into more open countryside, to find the valuable bounty so vital for their survival.
And it is at this time of year that the RSPB has an increase in the number of calls received saying ‘I’ve seen an exotic bird in my garden, what could it be?’. The jay is responsible for the vast majority of these queries as they truly do look like they’ve escaped from a zoo or aviary.
A century ago, jay numbers were in decline. Their beautiful plumage resulted in them being trapped and killed and their feathers then adorned hats or were used in fly fishing. They were none too popular with gamekeepers either, due to their tendency to take the eggs or young of game birds in springtime. Today though, these custodians of the oak are doing well, continuing to puzzle amateur wildlife watchers and working hard to collect enough acorns to see them through the winter.
I’ve often wondered why being near the sea is so captivating. In all the years i’ve lived in Norfolk and holidayed sporadically along the coastline of the UK, the sea has always drawn me in. When the winds blow in from the North Sea and you’re stood on the Norfolk Coast, wrapped up in your jacket and hat, fingers freezing and cheeks biting, you sometimes feel like the only person in the world. Not in a lonely way though, I always take a lot of comfort from being by the sea. Something about it’s rhythm and ability to turn from roaring waves into seductive laps of water in a moment .
But more and more, i’m noticing just how vulnerable our sea is becoming. It’s strength and magnificence is giving in to a creeping doubt. Doubt about the future of our sea and the life which relies upon it.
There is a lot about the sea we don’t know. Programmes like BBC’s Blue Planet will offer us a small snapshot of the marine life, but it’s not the whole blockbuster. There are some unique creatures living by the sea, from quirky molluscs to elegant sea birds. You only need to explore the shore lines of East Anglia to witness the beautiful gannets plummeting towards the water for their dinner catch, the majestic terns looking after their young or the red-throated divers, discovered recently along our coast-line in such numbers they’ve been highlighted as internationally important.
But there are some significant threats facing our sea life. The sad reality is that we have very little accessible data about where sea birds forage for food, whether they breed successfully and where their food supplies are. This short-fall of accurate information would offer a vital missing piece in the jigsaw of proposed development off our shores. Off-shore wind farms, if planned properly and given the correct environmental guidelines can be effective. However, unless the government offers our birds at sea the correct level of protection, development at sea, along with other factors could put their future in serious jeopardy.
The RSPB is urging the government to consider our marine life with the importance that it deserves. Our wild birds are given legal protection on land, but out at sea is a vast, unchartered territory where our sea birds are vulnerable. If conservation measures are cut in the short term for financial reasons, it will have catastrophic impacts on our UK wildlife. Our seas put on a tough facade masking a truly delicate place that needs as much protection and respect as we can offer.
It comes as no surprise to me that the recent results of the RSPB’s Make You Nature Count survey showed that badgers were the least spotted mammal in gardens across the east. They are a secretive lot it seems, their general demeanour never described more eloquently than by Kenneth Grahame in his masterful novel, The Wind in the Willows; ‘The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place.’ My first badger encounter came when, living as I did in a house backed by an ancient wood, my friends and I would play amongst the trees, making dens and living wild. The woodland was mainly a mixture of oak, ash and lime but if you ventured further to the periphery you would find yourself amongst the lofty statues of the pines.
There is a silence to pine trees like no other. Perhaps it was the muffling effect of the pine-needle carpet under foot or the vastness of the trees’ height, but either way these woods seemed like an other-worldly place. This being so, it seems only natural, looking back, that this would be where I would first stumble across the mysterious world of the badger.
I was on my own that afternoon, ambling and passing the time, the pine trees providing a refuge from a brisk autumnal wind. I remember sitting with my back against a sandy bank, wondering what animal might have dug the fantastic network of runs and burrows, hollowed from the sandy ridge running away from my vantage point. That’s when he appeared, from the gloom of the woods at dusk, the thick-set form of a badger trotting nimbly back towards his sett. This creature knew his business, but didn’t very much mind about anybody else’s. He seemed self-contained and composed and I felt incredibly lucky to have been privileged with even the most fleeting encounter; almost the moment I saw him, the badger had disappeared back to his underground world.
Recently the issue of badgers and their connection to Bovine Tuberculosis has been back in the news. Bovine TB is a significant and serious disease for the cattle industry already causing considerable distress for farmers who have lost their herds. For this reason and many others, the RSPB is calling on Government to base its policy on combating this disease on sound science. Detailed scientific trials suggest that the culling of badgers is not a practical or cost effective approach to reducing Bovine TB in cattle. However trialling biosecurity measures and vaccination could provide information on how this disease can be combated in the future. For the sake of both our farmers and our badger’s fingers crossed for swift action and swift answers.