The RSPB was founded over 120 years ago. In those distant times birds of prey were routinely persecuted. Recently I was at a historic collection of farming equipment. The hall was packed with traction engines, threshing machines, carts, and a strangely intriguing display of hooks for cutting vegetation (don't ask me why I found it interesting, perhaps it was just that every part of every county seemed to have its own design).
Anyway, tucked away in a corner was a sobering collection of Victorian traps. The centre piece was a gruesome man trap, and around this a collection of smaller spring traps, each capable of doing unthinkable damage to creatures that chanced across them. They were used to kill for “for the pot”, or in the case of traps mounted on top of poles, to kill birds that were perceived to threaten the livelihood of “sporting” estates, namely, birds of prey. And this, I thought to myself is where such items belong - in a museum. However these Victorian practices and attitudes, this persistent view of birds of prey as a threat, sadly seem to linger on.
One of the most shocking figures I've come across is that in Scotland, where red kites have been re-introduced, of the 395 birds that bred between 1999 and 2003 as many as 185 were probably illegally poisoned, snared or shot.
But that's not all. In 2007, just 14 pairs of hen harriers bred successfully in England – but it is estimated that there is sufficient suitable upland habitat to support a population of 2-300 pairs. Scientific studies by the Government’s own nature conservation advisers, Natural England, have found that illegal killing and destruction of nests is the only possible explanation for this discrepancy. And in Scotland, where most of the UK's population is found, it has been estimated that the number of hen harriers would increase by 13% each year if illegal killing was eliminated.
Golden eagles face a similar problem. A number of scientific papers have shown that illegal persecution is the biggest factor limiting their current range. It has also been shown that pockets of illegal activity have a detrimental effect over a much wider area. Dispersing young golden eagles are attracted into areas of apparently suitable habitat, only to then disappear due to persecution.
Distant? Not an issue in the West Country? Well, sadly, it is. Last year our site manger in the Forest of Dean was presented with a dead peregrine. The bird was ringed, so we know it was a seven year old female originally from Shropshire. Initially we didn't know how she had died. The X-ray soon cleared this up though, the poor creature had been shot, and from the number of pellets in her body, from fairly close range.
I like peregrines, always have done. One of my first jobs with the RSPB was at Symonds Yat where I spent two seasons in the company of these magnificent birds. How anyone can kill them is, frankly, beyond me.
However, people do kill them. And of course, they have their reasons. BUT simple fact is – killing birds of prey has been illegal in this country for over 50 years. And the people that carry out these crimes, for whatever reason, are breaking the law and therefore, criminals – end of story. And if caught, these criminals can face imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5000.
Despite this though, the killing goes on. Today sees the publication of the 2009 birdcrime report by the RSPB, the twentieth since it was first published in 1990. It's a sobering read. And what's particulalry sad for us down here in the far west is that the Devon and Cornwall police area is the fourth worst in England with 57 confirmed crimes against birds of prey since 1990.
But its a small minority that's doing it. We know there are many more people out there that like these birds than want to do them harm. At Symonds Yat alone, in its 25 plus years, over a million people have delighted in watching the peregrines. We know that people like having them around. We know that people, once they know the facts, are appalled that a criminal minority are intent on doing them harm. But we want to prove this. We want to prove the popularity of birds of prey. To prove they have popular support.
So, we want people to stand up and say, we like these birds and we want this criminal activity to end. Full stop.
The photograph above shows an x-ray of the peregrine shot in Gloucestershire in 2009. The white dots are pellets from a shotgun.
Arne was scheduled to feature in the first week of this year’s BBC Springwatch, and as the broadcast date approached the activity became frenetic. I don’t envy natural history programmes. I know from long experience that wildlife doesn’t perform to order. That fantastic things always happen yesterday, are often described as “oh you should have been here and hour ago”. Sometimes the wildlife simply doesn’t appear at all. Although knowledge and field skills are paramount, to get the film needed is to a certain degree down to luck.
Take the hobbies for instance. If you watched the series you’ll have seen the amazing footage of hobbies hunting low over a large pool. Filming hobbies had been on the producers wish list since our first meeting. But to be honest, I wouldn’t have put the Dorset heaths top of my list of south west sites where you are guaranteed to film them in action. Ham Wall and Shapwick in Somerset would be much easier as the birds buzz around those sites in staggering numbers.
So I was a little concerned that this was the species we were not actually going to be able to produce. But I was wrong. Paul, one of our information wardens at the Arne, on his day off had gone birding locally. Walking over a heath adjacent large pool (to the north of Arne) he chanced on hobbies hunting. As this was early in the season they were hunting dragonflies. And better than this, the conditions were such that the birds were swooping very low over the water to catch their prey.
In Pauls own words “What I saw when I got there, I can honestly say is the “best birding experience of my life”. I sat there for 3 hours solid watching 4 Hobbies catching dragonflies, sometimes 3 feet from my face”
The natural urge to share such wonders resulted into a call back to the reserve. As luck would have it a BBC camera team were there when the call came in and, in the drop of a hobby’s feather, they were on site with their slo-mo cameras to capture what for me what were some of the best sequences in the whole series. All down to a lucky sighting by one of our wardens.
While this was one of the better sequences in my opinion it was actually slightly outdone by the piece on a large eight legged creature that makes Arne its home. Raft spiders are real monsters. They are quite enormous spiders that stalk the edges of the many pools that dot the heath. This was one of the species that Dante and myself recommended to the BBC, knowing that it would make for excellent television. And the wee beastie didn’t let us down.
Leaning over the edge of one of the reserves’ pools Simon King was filmed ‘fishing’ for raft spiders with tiny flies. These were eagerly taken by the voracious arachnids. But what was totally unexpected, and you could see the surprise on the faces of those filming, was the moment a raft spider emerged from below the waters surface to take on another raft spider. Forget lions on the Serengheti, this was nature in the raw, and another lucky occurrence.
As Simon King said, the thing with heaths is there’s abundant excitement to be had if you just get down to the level on which the heath is abundant, and this means the space within a few centimetres of the ground and water’s surface. This abundance was similarly revealed in the lovely footage of the huge wood ants nest with its thousands of feisty citizens.
The other sequence that caught my attention featured those now common-ish creatures of Heathland, nightjars. I do like a bit of tech – gadgets and the like – even though I try to deny it. I realise that it doesn’t replace the primacy of direct experience itself, but sometimes it adds to it. This is what happened with the heat sensitive camera pointed at a churring nightjar. It was only a short sequence, but the heat coloured outline of the bird churring on its branch I found oddly fascinating, and likewise the small blurr of colours as a bird flew across the heath. It made me wonder about other applications of such devices.
Although it wasn’t shown, I’m told the camera team also, out of curiosity also pointed the device at a wood ants nest. As cold bloodied creatures the ants obviously didn’t register, but I believe warm air emanating from vents on the nest did – which again would have been fascinating to see.
Nightjars also made an appearance while we were filming live one evening as well. Dante and myself had been invited to take part in the Springwatch ‘pub quiz’. This took place after the main live broadcast “on the red button”. This, a new phrase to me, simply meant that viewers could see the quiz at home if they pressed the red button on their TV remote control.
The location for the quiz was the heath above Morden Bog and following something of dash Dante and myself, Simon King and a couple of BBC staff took our seats on some hay bales to answer a series of multiple choice questions. These questions could also be answered at the same time by viewers “on the red button”.
I’ve always reckoned you can tell a “real” naturalist in the field because, whatever the situation, whatever the conversation, “real” naturalists only ever pay you about 50% of their attention. They will always be half looking and half listening elsewhere. If they are birders they’ll be half looking up, if they are entomologists they will be half looking down. If you have something serious to discuss with a naturalist, never do it outside.
And worse still are the naturalists who also regularly lead walks and events. They are burdened not only with the curse of not really paying attention to conversations, but also the curse of having to tell you, often at inappropriate moments, the names of the all creatures they encounter..
“Brian, I’ve got something serious to discuss, its us”
“What’s that love?”
“Its us, it’s just not working”
“What’s not working love?”
“Brian, I want a divorce”
“Did you see that? I think it was a Dartford warbler. Its calling, listen”
So it was when, despite being on live TV, and despite supposedly concentrating on the quiz, when two nightjars appeared and drifted behind the cameras I noticed that both Dante and Simon King just had to point them out and name them on air. They probably don’t even remember they did it. Real naturalists both.
For us, the presence of BBC Springwatch on site was a real boon. It encouraged people to renew their acquaintance with the site, and to look in more detail at what the place had to offer. And its if you want also want to deepen your experience and knowledge of our wildlife.
On our initial walk ‘round with the Springwatch producer and researcher we suggested a number of ideas for things that would work well on Autumnwatch. I’m pleased to say that, following their experiences in June, the show will most likely be back in October with a new set of heathland tales – but I’ll leave it at that as I really don’t want to give away any surprises.
I’ve long been fond of the Gilbert White approach to natural history. White, rector of Selborne in Hampshire in the late 18th century, was an acute observer of his local surroundings. He had an intense curiosity for the animals that surrounded him and his world was largely defined by the boundaries of his parish. Everything he needed to live a rewarding life was there within a mile or so of his house.
I am of course second guessing his opinions, maybe he really wanted to travel the world but circumstance conspired against him. But I don’t think so, his writing exudes a passion for the local. And that’s what I like. For me there’s nothing better than getting to know the wildlife on your own doorstep, to have what birders describe as a local patch. Travelling the world is fine up to a point, but I worry that leads to a superficial experience of the natural world.
To see a lion chasing a zebra across the African plains is no doubt exciting, but does experiencing this just once really deepen our relationship with the natural world? Personally I doubt it. I’d much rather listen to people tell me about the comings and goings of their garden birds or local hedgehogs and foxes, because this is where I hear understanding, relationship and passion for the animals we share our lives with.
Which is why I like the BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch programmes. They are a wonderful celebration of everything local. And programmes that listen as well as broadcast, that allow viewers to share their own love of wildlife, whether it be photographs of blackbirds, shaky home video footage of stoats or online discussions on all manner of wildlife topics. If Gilbert White were alive today, I’m sure he’d be there on the programme’s Flickr group with photo’s of his swallows.
And so, a back in February I was delighted to get a call from Nick, one of the Springwatch assistant producers, asking if they might come over to our Arne reserve in Dorset to see if it was suitable for hosting Simon King for a couple of days in June.
I reckon, because I’m clearly biased, that you could spend a lifetime at Arne and never tire of the amazing diversity of wildlife there. Its one of those places where there’s always something to see, something new to discover. For our appointed meeting we were joined on site be Dante Munns, our local area manager and custodian of all things wild on the heath
This was good, it's Dante’s local patch and so he could describe with a passion why the BBC should spend time there. We looked at ponds where raft spiders could be filmed. Heather clad slopes where nightjars were a certainty. Gorse bushes from which Dartford warblers would perform. We heard woodlark. We even caught a glimpse of a wintering merlin dash low across the harbours edge. By the end of our three hours on site we reckoned we had enough for three weeks of live filming, never mind the couple of days up for discussion.
As it turned out, we had done more than enough to extol the sites virtues as a few weeks later the BBC’s attendance on site was confirmed followed by a flurry of detailed questions from the producers and researchers of what could be seen where and when. More on this tomorrow.