May, 2010

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!
  • What would John Clare have thought?

    I'll do anything to miss the Eurovision Song Contest but the alternative on Saturday evening was an easy choice - a visit to the RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve with local friend and artist Carry Akroyd.

    We almost cried off as the skies were dark and there was rain in the air but as we neared the Washes the rain passed and we stayed dry. 

    Parking at the Eldernell car park, and walking back towards Peterborough, a corncrake started singing almost immediately from a field with cows (the time was about 2015).  That was easy!

    We walked some more and heard young herons growling from their tree-top nests, snipe drumming overhead, redshank yelping over the wet fields and yellow wagtails squeaking in the grass fields.

    Carry has written and illustrated books about the Northamptonshire poet  John Clare who is one of England's greatest poets - and one of the greatest wildlife poets.  Clare knew the corncrake - I attach his poem on the land rail at the end of this blog.  At the time he wrote, in the early 19th century, corncrakes were found in every county in the UK.  Now they are absent from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and only found in the islands to the west and north of the Scottish mainland.  Except for the Nene Washes where there is a reintroduction project in place.

    This project involves captive-breeding of corncrakes at Whipsnade and then releasing birds at the Nene Washes. It's going quite well - as the singing bird we heard shows - but it's still rather in the balance as to whether it will be a success or not overall! 

    But it is amazing to think that the sound that John Clare regarded as commonplace ('tis heard in every vale' and 'tis like a fancy everywhere') is now such an unusual and rare sound.  It would probably be a bit like future generations finding that kestrels had disappeared from the countryside and were now rare - corncrakes must have been that familiar to many country folk.

    As an almost irrelevant side-note - I notice that the Green Party candidate for nearby Huntingdon in the recent General Election, who did pretty well, was one John Clare - and that other Green Party candidates with wildlife-friendly names included Juniper, Goldfinch and Moss. Do their names draw them to the cause?

    Corncrake numbers are increasing generally in Scotland thanks to the contributions of RSPB nature reserves on Islay, Coll, and Balranald and the work of large numbers of farmers, crofters and land managers who are giving this secretive bird a lifeline for survival.

    Rather surprisingly another species which the RSPB has done a lot to help, a bittern, flew past on our evening walk.  I wonder how many people saw corncrake and bittern in the UK yesterday.  Was it just us?  There is very little overlap in their ranges!

    I see there is an evening walk - booking essential - next Thursday evening at the Nene Washes - if you are local why not give it a go?!

    As we left, the corncrake sang again.  A rare sound in a wonderful place. John Clare might have thought it bizarre and sad that we made a special trip to try to hear what he would have thought such a normal sound.

     John Clare's poem - the Landrail

    How sweet and pleasant grows the way
    Through summer time again
    While Landrails call from day to day
    Amid the grass and grain

    We hear it in the weeding time
    When knee deep waves the corn
    We hear it in the summers prime
    Through meadows night and morn

    And now I hear it in the grass
    That grows as sweet again
    And let a minutes notice pass
    And now tis in the grain

    Tis like a fancy everywhere
    A sort of living doubt
    We know tis something but it neer
    Will blab the secret out

    If heard in close or meadow plots
    It flies if we pursue
    But follows if we notice not
    The close and meadow through

    Boys know the note of many a bird
    In their birdnesting bounds
    But when the landrails noise is heard
    They wonder at the sounds

    They look in every tuft of grass
    Thats in their rambles met
    They peep in every bush they pass
    And none the wiser get

    And still they hear the craiking sound
    And still they wonder why
    It surely cant be under ground
    Nor is it in the sky

    And yet tis heard in every vale
    An undiscovered song
    And makes a pleasant wonder tale
    For all the summer long

    The shepherd whistles through his hands
    And starts with many a whoop
    His busy dog across the lands
    In hopes to fright it up

    Tis still a minutes length or more
    Till dogs are off and gone
    Then sings and louder than before
    But keeps the secret on

    Yet accident will often meet
    The nest within its way
    And weeders when they weed the wheat
    Discover where they lay

    And mowers on the meadow lea
    Chance on their noisy guest
    And wonder what the bird can be
    That lays without a nest

    In simple holes that birds will rake
    When dusting on the ground
    They drop their eggs of curious make
    Deep blotched and nearly round

    A mystery still to men and boys
    Who know not where they lay
    And guess it but a summer noise
    Among the meadow hay

  • May - nearly out

    Cast any clouts yet?  The old English phrase of 'Ne'er cast a clout 'til May be out' might refer to the month of May or maybe the may flower or hawthorn.  Clouts are clothes.  So it means don't discard your warm clothes until either the month of May or the hawthorn blossom is over.


    On my regular walk at Stanwick Lakes today the two meanings came together.  It was a breezy day towards the end of the month of May and the hawthorns were shedding their petals which carpetted the paths.  I haven't seen the paths so white since the snows of January.  Once or twice I was walking through a blizzard of white petals.


    I saw an oystercatcher with two chicks, heard a grasshopper warbler (in addition to the 'full eight' of two whitethroats, garden warbler and blackcap, willow warbler and chiffchaff, sedge and reed warblers), heard cuckoo and saw a hobby.


    Although the weather was a bit cool - I am glad I had on both a fleece and a jacket -  it does feel like the wheel of seasons is spinning on.  This is the end of spring and we teeter on the edge of summer as far as the birds' breeding season is concerned here in east Northants.


  • Geltsdale - a day in the hills

    One day last week I was able to have a look at our Geltsdale nature reserve whilst chatting over policy matters with some visitors. 

    Meeting people out in the countryside often makes for a better discussion than being cooped up in an office, it gives us a chance to show people what we are doing on the ground and I, personally, always learn things from seeing things actually happening and talking about them on site.

    We talked about hen harriers and the problems they create for grouse moor owners (there is no doubt that hen harriers eat grouse chicks alongside their more common food of skylarks, meadow pipits and voles) and of the problems that some grouse moor managers create for hen harriers (there is, similarly, no doubt that a lot of illegal killing of hen harriers is practised on grouse moors).  This subject is a tricky one, and resolution of it is not looking at all imminent.

    But as we talked, we saw plenty of curlews, redshank and lapwings which appeared to have young.  A snipe drummed above our heads.  A stonechat was singing nearby.  A brood of fledged ring ousels flew around the path as we walked up hill.

    But there was one bird which we did not see - and I had hoped we would.  And that is the black grouse.

    Our management at Geltsdale has gradually increased black grouse numbers over the years.  We have maintained the level of predator control which existed when we took over land management there - some crows and foxes are killed.  But I think that the large-scale land management which we have instigated is also showing signs of working.  We have decreased the grazing pressure on the land and switched to an organic grazing system, we are using more cattle and fewer sheep, and we have planted tens of thousands of trees to re-clothe the sides of streams and gullies with native trees.  All of these measures should help black grouse - but many of them may take many years to work - things happen slowly in the uplands.

    In our discussions, before getting out on the hill, we had discussed the fact that over most of the north of England black grouse numbers appear to have crashed since last year.  This is despite the fact that last year appeared to be quite a good breeding season - usually a good sign for the next year.  The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (with us the joint 'Lead Partners' for action on this threatened species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan) issued a press release on this subject entitled 'Severe winter halves black grouse numbers'.

    And so, although I was disappointed that we saw no black grouse on our brief visit, I was delighted to hear that on our land, black grouse numbers have doubled since last year despite the bad news from lots of other sites.  At Geltsdale, the counts of males at their spring gathering sites have gone up from 18 last year to 39 this year - that is an impressive increase.  Now the black grouse is a tricky species - its numbers can go up and down a lot between years in ways that are only sometimes explicable - so the value of your black grouse population can go down as well as up.  But it's obviously heartening that 'our' black grouse have done so well.

    The GWCT release suggests that proximity to native woodland might be important in allowing black grouse to survive hard winters - that might explain why we seem to have bucked the trend - all that tree-planting and habitat work may be paying off.  It's certainly too early to be sure, but let's hope that we are doing the right things!