UPDATED – The latest government-led threats to UK nature


In May last year, a report concluded that the UK was one of the worst countries in the EU when it came to protecting wildlife sites. I missed this at the time, but it came up again recently in light of new stories about our relationship with wildlife.

As usual, this isn’t a political point. The decline in care for the UK’s natural sites started decades ago, and has been overseen by governments of more than one colour. There were even one or two signs that things were improving in the last parliament.

The story arose at a point when the EU, pressed in large part by the UK, was looking to weaken the Birds and Habitats directives. I talked about this last year, and that there was good news. The public consultation came down squarely against weakening the regulations, and in fact thought there was an argument for strengthening them. Most EU countries respected this, but the UK was holding out in defiance of any democratic value. We’ll see the end result of this later in the year.

But two other stories mean we have to worry whether the EU decisions will matter at all.

Firstly, as part of the UK’s ‘renegotiation’ on EU membership, there is the proposed Red Card System. This would allow a small majority of like-minded countries within the EU to veto legislation they didn’t like. So, for example, a network of countries that put extraction of resources ahead of nature could veto legislation around environmental protection.

Secondly, the news that a leaked letter shows UK Ministers see it as a ‘top priority’ to ensure the law doesn’t stand in the way of fracking and other infrastructure projects. Publically they talk of protections, privately they talk of ensuring no protections stop the extraction of shale gas. They are even intending to defy their own stated election commitment to planning decisions being locally-led, purely because it’s become clear local will is against these developments.

Taken together, all these stories paint a worrying picture for the wildlife of the UK. Such defiance of the democratic will of the electorate would normally be suicidal, but right now the government clearly feels unstoppable. Strong opposition is needed, which means Labour putting their own egotistical internal battles aside. I’m not hopeful though, not when there is a significant chunk of that party that takes a similar view to the Prime Minister and Chancellor.

*Updated* The results are in…

So the vote took place on Tuesday, and the good news is that the EU parliament voted massively in favour of the report that said the directives should be upheld. 592 to 52.

Sadly, 18 of the 52 votes against were from UK MEPs. But, fortunately, they were pretty much all UKIP. The major parties all backed the directives, alleviating a little of my fear.

UKIP vote against everything, regardless of its merits, so it is impossible to really judge what this means for their actual policies (but THIS is worth a read). It does however illustrate the futility and stupidity of anybody voting for a party that will never actually represent you or engage in a democratic process. Just take your money and vote no every time. Even when the vote would otherwise match their stated policies!


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Big Garden Birdwatch – 2016 results – A bumper bird bonanza!

Before we start with the results, a couple of important confessions.

Firstly, most of the photos you will see here were not taken during the actual birdwatch. As you may know, I had planned on using a remote camera trained on a feeder. The technology worked perfectly, as you can see here:

An in-focus birdfeeder

An in-focus birdfeeder

Perfectly in-focus and clear. Unfortunately, for the hour I had it setup, nothing landed there! The closest I got was this Robin:

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So, technology didn’t fail me, the birds did. Which leads onto the second confession…

The count here was initially taken between about 9:25am and 10:25am. But in the ten minutes after 10:25 we had a flurry of birds. So, full disclosure, the count was shifted a little to take those birds in. Not really cheating, still just an hour, and more representative anyway.

The winner - Will they make it four years in 2017?

The winner – Will they make it four years in 2017?

As a majority of you predicted in Friday’s poll, the Starlings carried on their dominance of the count, topping the list for the third year in a row. Numbers increased again too, up to 12 this time.

Siskins and Goldfinches

Siskins and Goldfinches

Siskins made a welcome return to the garden last week, and ended up as a shock second place with five individuals (two males, three females) counted. My friendly and confiding female from last weekend was the first bird down after I’d topped the feeders up.

Waiting to be fed

Waiting to be fed

Goldfinches and Greenfinches all made an appearance, though not at peak numbers.

The local Bullfinch pair even made an appearance, always welcome.



Male waiting his turn

Male waiting his turn

Overall it was a very good weekend, with 12 species in the count itself. Within the hour after the count there were also Coal, Long-tailed and Great Tits, along with three Collared Doves.



There was also one really unusual drop-in after the completed count:

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Black-headed gulls are numerous around the area, but they do not like to land in confined gardens. They’ll circle from time-to-time when they see food, but they’ve never landed. But as we see here, one young bird from last year had a bit more courage and was amply rewarded.

So, the final count was

Robin 2

Woodpigeon 4

Starling 12

Siskin 5

Blackbird 2

Goldfinch 4

Wren 1

Dunnock 1

Magpie 1

Crow 1

Blue Tit 2

Greenfinch 3

All of which adds another series of points to the graph. Will the Starlings continue this upsurge? We’ll see in 366 days time.


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Always read the instructions first… preparing for the Big Garden Birdwatch

Will starlings top my garden birdwatch for the third year in a row?

Will starlings top my garden birdwatch for the third year in a row?

So this weekend is the Big Garden Birdwatch, and as always I’m waiting to see whether the weather produces a bonanza or a damp squib.

I decided to try something different this year, which is to photograph the birds that come to one of the feeders over the hour. I could do this from the house of course, but instead decided to be a little more ambitious and setup a wireless remote trigger on my camera. That way I can place the camera closer to the feeder, and still take shots on autofocus from the house.

The trigger arrived a week or so back, and I eagerly set about connecting it up. Now, there is a little confessional note here. Since I was a boy I’ve never been a fan of instruction manuals. Lego sets, Transformer toys, my tendency was always to unpack and have a go. That glossy piece of paper held no interest to me. It would be nice to think that, as an adult, I’d be a little more sensible about this. But no. The toys get bigger and more expensive, but the boy remains the same.

So it was with the trigger. Unpacked, batteries in, connected up without a glance at the pointless sheet of words and pictures. Then…nothing. I pressed the button, nothing. I tweaked the settings, nothing. I changed the frequency, nothing. The signal was being sent, but not received.

I spent a good 45 minutes trying to sort this out, before eventually concluding that it was broken, or at the very least incompatible with my camera. A search on the internet suggested my camera wasn’t actually compatible with wireless remotes, which directly contradicted the blurb on the trigger-sellers website. Angry emails were mentally composed.

The next day I got ready to box it back up to be returned with a demand for my money back. Then, while putting things away, I noticed something on the receiver I hadn’t noticed before. There, on the side of the unit, was an on/off switch, firmly set to off.

I don’t think there is any mystery or tension in this story, so there is no need to build up the fact that, of course, turning the switch to “on” solved the problem. And yes, the instruction sheet marked this very clearly. Maybe on my next gadget I’ll be older, wiser, and read the instructions first!

So, we’ll see Sunday how both the birdwatch and the remote photography works. I’ll tweet my results on Sunday morning, and follow up with the pictures in the evening. I’ll even break out the updated graph:

I wonder what will top the charts this year? Starlings have held sway so far, but Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Wood Pigeons have all been in good numbers this year.

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The badger cull – a genuine national disgrace

Yes, I’m afraid with weary heart we return to the subject of the ongoing badger cull. Having pulled punches in most cases up to now, it’s time to start calling this for what it is: a National disgrace.

I generally try to avoid politics on this blog, because I want it to be here for anyone interested in nature. So if this at all seems to contain any such bias, please remember there are sensible Conservatives who don’t not agree with the policy, and there are people on the Labour side who support it. I’m not taking the side of a party, I’m taking the side of conservation, cattle, badgers, farmers. That’s my side.

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is a hideous disease, and it causes great hardship to many cattle farmers. It does get transmitted between cattle and badgers (in both directions) and causes suffering in both. But the current approach cannot, will not, address this.

Much of this we’ve covered before (for example HERE and HERE), but we can summarise:

  • The cull is not methodologically robust enough to reduce bTB incidence, and in fact could raise the number of outbreaks
  • The cull is more expensive than vaccination or dealing with outbreaks as they occur
  • Badgers are a minority cause of bTB outbreaks
  • No baseline data was established to judge numbers of badgers, or prevalence of bTB
  • No independent monitoring is being carried out, after initial monitoring showed the cull failed on effectiveness and humaneness
  • No testing of dead badgers is done to see if they were bTB carriers

But it gets worse.

Hard-fought freedom of information requests by determined campaigners have increasingly shown that the cull is neither targeted at the issue it claims, nor designed to address that issue even if it were. The vast majority of the farms in the cull zones have no issue or history with bTB, and a significant proportion have no cattle anyway. In fact the number of cattle farms with any issue from bTB is probably around 10%.

At the same time as saying this is such a priority, the government is weakening cattle movement controls (probably the single best way of reducing bTB incidence), and reducing funding for vaccination programmes (the single best way to eradicate the disease long-term). So this “priority” sees massively out-of-proportion spending on a relatively minor and ineffective approach, and reduced spend on measures that were actually having a positive effect. Hands up if you follow that logic?

In case this all seems baffling, let me try an analogy.

You decide to take a trip on a bus to the seaside. But the cost of a bus timetable is £1. You decide that is too expensive just to find a bus you need. So, instead, you spend £20 on a dartboard and three darts. Whatever number dart one hits, that’s the bus you’ll get. Dart two gives you the number of the bus-stop. Dart three gives you the hour the bus will depart at. What are the chances you end up at the right stop, at the right time, for the right bus?

I have huge sympathy for cattle farmers because, as many of them know all too well, their government and their union are letting them down massively. They are pursuing a policy that makes it look like they are tackling a problem, without any of the hardship that would come with actually tackling the problem.

  • It’s bad for farmers.
  • It’s bad for cattle.
  • It’s bad for badgers.
  • It’s bad economically.

It’s just plain and simply bad, by any sane measure. So again let me state plainly, this is a national disgrace. Our money is being wasted, we are being had. It’s time for a few brave voices in the national press and in Westminster to take this up vocally.

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Gender stereotyping of interests – inspired by @BirdgirlUK and @LucyMcRobert1

Very little angers me as much as the attitude that “Interest X is not for Gender Y”. It may be “girls aren’t interested in birds”, or “boys aren’t interested in flowers”, or any of one million other variants. But it’s all the same basic thing, it’s telling us we belong in neat boxes. It’s rubbish.

This all came back to  mind over the weekend when I read an excellent open letter by Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig following a piece by Lucy McRobert. Please do read the letter, and look at her own blog too.

By the measure of any reasonable human being, Mya-Rose Craig is pretty inspirational. I hadn’t done anything like the things she has done at 13, probably still haven’t if I’m honest. Yet from the age of 7 she has been the victim of abuse, of stereotyping, and this then knocks on to make her feel nervous about what she can and cannot do. Which, sadly, is exactly the point of the bullying in the first place.

Bullies (because that’s what these people are) act the way they do because they are afraid. In this case, their very narrowly defined world is challenged, so they act aggressively to try restore balance. It’s actually incredibly sad, because it says so much about their own lives and how empty they are.

But at root, it’s not about the individuals that carry out the bullying. It’s about cultural attitudes that pervade society. Shops divide toys and clothing into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Companies spend billions ensuring we all buy into this. Parents tell their sons that certain activities are for girls, and that to take part in it means you are ‘gay’. They tell their daughters that boys don’t like smart girls. Kids inherit and repeat their parents prejudices, and the cycle repeats (your parents are wrong about lots of stuff, intentionally or otherwise, even if only because knowledge advances so damn quickly).

I’d be fascinated to know how many of those parents where themselves bullied into this conformity. I bet it’s more than would be willing to admit it. You can go two ways from that. You can be determined that your children will get opportunities you didn’t have (and I put my parents in that bracket), or you can retrench and say “Well, I didn’t get these opportunities, why should he/she?”. It’s that same psychology of the bully again, their own shame and fear causes them to act out in exactly the way their own aggressors once did.

So, for what it’s worth, let me say this to Mya-Rose and all the other girls and boys being bullied for what they like, or what they are like; it will get better. There are always other people like you out there, and you will get stronger, and you will find them, and you will be happier. You should be interested in stuff, and engaged in the world around you. The people that don’t are the ones that are wrong. You are right.

It’s not just about the individuals on the receiving end though. If you are aware of this stuff, if you do not stand up and be counted, you carry a share of the guilt of both sides. People like Mya-Rose shouldn’t feel they cannot speak in certain circumstances, and we all must ensure that it’s the bullies that are silenced, that conferences are safe spaces.

In some ways, I think young people today are a bit luckier than my generation in this regard. The internet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it opens you up to more abuse. But it also makes it easier to find networks of like-minded peers. That’s no small thing.

If someone suggests you shouldn’t hold an interest, they are wrong. Unless what you are interested in happens to be robbing a bank or murdering someone.

If they tell you you should be quiet, they are wrong (most of the time). I was fortunate enough to have a very tough and smart grandmother who, even when I was 9 or 10, would encourage me to question things academics said in lectures. It’s a trait that has largely served me well.

If someone tells you boys don’t like smart girls, question it. Because no boy worth your attention will actually think like that. Any that do are petty, and small-minded, and will have unremarkable lives ahead. Smart boys like smart girls. If someone tells you that liking flowers makes you gay, two responses. Firstly, NO IT DOES NOT. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with being gay anyway.

Society’s attitudes to sexuality and gender are changing for the better. It’s painfully, glacially, slow. But it is getting better. This will continue. I wish I could believe we will one day live in free and open tolerance of all, but that’s an unrealistic goal. But, increasingly, archaic attitudes will fade into the minority. So whoever you are, whatever the intolerance you face, just hang on. It can get better, it must get better, and it will get better.

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A finch-tastic prelude to the Big Garden Birdwatch

Next weekend is the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, and I will be taking part as always (my results from 2013, 2014 and 2015 are all on the blog).

Those of you who have read this blog a while know that I always feel the BGBW is mildly cursed, with the interesting stuff disappearing for the day, or showing up five minutes after you finish. 2016 has threatened to be worse than normal as the warmest winter on record means far fewer birds needing the feeders.

But this weekend was a surprise as we had a record goldfinch count of 39 (that’s spread between the feeders and the two nearby trees they queue in), plus Greenfinches and the first Bullfinches of the year.

_DSC2840 (2) _DSC2854 (2)

Annoyingly the bullfinches (two males and one female) only once dropped into clear view, and having taken half-a-dozen shots of the male, I then realised I’d been playing about with the settings on the camera, leading to six unusable pictures. He, of course, departed as soon as I had corrected my mistake! Fortunately the female, an under-rated ‘little brown job’ hung around a little longer.

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The sole shot of a male was distant and obscured by a buddleia.

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To crown this all, we had the first siskins we have seen in the garden for two years. They seemed to have joined with the large flock of Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

Multi-species feeding

Multi-species feeding

There were just the two compared to the large flock we had two years ago, and no Redpolls so far, but fingers crossed this is the start of an influx.

Last time round they were a tame little group, but the male today was skittish. The female however allowed me to approach reasonably close and get a decent shot in the gloom.

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It’s not just the feeders that are busy, and a scattering of suet and mealworms draws Magpies, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves, and plenty of Starlings.

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Starling prancing

We’ve also still got Robins, House Sparrows, Dunnocks and Blackbirds, plus Wrens, Blue, Coal, Great and Long-tailed Tits. So despite my suggestion it’s been quiet, there are still numerous species around.

I’ll end on a few more pictures from Sunday afternoon.

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A goldfinch on guard

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Male Blackbird

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Male Siskin

Female siskin

Female siskin



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Wild birds and tame birds (with Treecreeper video)

When I was younger I had my own rules for classifying wildlife, in addition to all the official ways detailed in my books. I’ll give you an example.

The birds I saw in common human-dominated places like gardens, parks, picnic areas, were all ‘tame’. Everything else was ‘wild’. Wild birds were not tame, and didn’t come near people.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve of course realised this isn’t true. There are plenty of individuals amongst my old ‘tame’ birds that are skittish and avoid human contact, even the supposedly friendly ones like robins. Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of normally flighty birds like waders and woodpeckers that can be entirely relaxed. Enough regular human contact can make anything at ease, even the most nervy of birds, such as bullfinches.

The first bird that taught me this was a Treecreeper. Walking home from school one day when I was 11 or 12, a Treecreeper appeared beside me, on a tree between a busy pavement and an even busier road. I assumed I’ve I stopped and looked, it would take flight. But no, it carried on with its business looking for food. You can read a little more on this impressive bird HERE.

This all came to mind this lunchtime when I passed a tree by the lake with a treecreeper moving up it. Again I stopped, again the bird was blasé. I moved to within a couple of feet, and all it did was fly to the base and start up the trunk again, unconcerned by the fact I could have reached out and grabbed it.

Obviously I didn’t do that, but I did grab my phone and take a little bit of video footage. Apologies for that horrible phone aspect ratio and the shaking brought on by an icy wind. It was, incidentally, the most vocal treecreeper I’ve encountered, but you won’t be able to tell as there is a lot of very noisy construction underway at the university right now.

It’s only about 40 seconds, so it won’t take much of your time, certainly far less than the bird itself, covering Everest heights of climbing every week!

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Amidst life and death

I was once in an exhibition in a plain white room.

The room was home to an art installation in which projectors ran a deceptively simple programme in which words were projected in tiny type across every surface, thousands upon thousands of tiny words moving randomly and independently of one and other. Dancing across walls, floor and ceiling. Dancing across the bodies of visitors.

Look closer and there are just five actual words though: male; female; child; food; death.

Where male and female met, a child appeared.

If a male or female went too long without touching food, or if they met with death, they stopped then faded. It was an extraordinary experience. At first random, yet patterns would emerge and then fade. You would get clusters of children, or food, or death. Chaos Theory in action.

While simplified, it still represents the experience of standing in any natural environment, be it forest or field, land or water. You are surrounded by life old and new, by food, and by death. What is food and what is life and what is death are all dependent on the perspective of the observer.

Last year I spent a lot of time focusing on sound. Sound too can be seen as all about life and death. I need a mate. I have a mate. I’m looking for food. I’ve found food. I’m keeping food. Please don’t let me become food!

This is “nature, red in tooth and claw”. That doesn’t mean there is nothing but brutal struggle in life, just the fundamentals can be so boiled down.

This year when out and about we will all be surrounded by this balance between life and death. What patterns will emerge?

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What’s in a name? Barnacle Geese and Goose Barnacles

A tweet by Maya Plass has reminded me that for ages I’ve been meaning to do a blogpost about one of my favourite nature myths. So here goes, and apologies to those who know it already.

What is in a name?


Barnacle Goose Heslington Lake, York, Sept 2015

Barnacle Geese. Why ‘Barnacle’? They don’t look like barnacles. They don’t eat barnacles. So where does the name come from?

We might hope to find an answer by looking at the meaning of the word (this is called ‘etymology’). But this too can be frustrating.

You trace the word barnacle and you basically get variants of, well, barnacle. You have the Old English bernake. The French bernaque. The Latin bernacca. But a little further back, into deep Celtic roots, we get to baranikos. A word for a hill or rocky or barren place. So maybe now we are getting somewhere. After all, barnacles live in rocky places, so that must be where we start, right?

Yet even now we have a problem. The earliest known uses of Barnacle are in conjunction with the goose, not the crustacean. So in historical usage we first have the goose, and later the barnacle.

So if linguistics won’t help us, what will? Here comes mythology to save us all!

By the 13th Century, medieval scholars such as Vincent of Beauvais were recording a very clear connection. The geese came from the crustaceans. It’s obvious, just look at them:

Goose Barnacles With kind permission of Maya Plass

Goose Barnacles
With kind permission of Maya Plass

Okay, maybe not that obvious. So what was their thinking?

Well, they would only see Barnacle Geese in winter, and never as an egg or a chick. They didn’t know, as we do now, that the geese bred in the arctic and migrated South for winter (we are a good 100 years from really starting to get the idea of migration). They saw a barnacle in summer, and a goose in winter. After all, doesn’t a Goose Barnacle look a bit like the head and neck of a Barnacle Goose? And if it is washed up on a beach, clinging to driftwood? Well then logically these geese grow on trees…

The likes of Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) writing in the 13th Century, even claimed to have seen the geese emerge, as did several others. In the 16th Century John Gerard and Sebastian Munster both illustrated accounts with woodcuts showing a ‘barnacle goose tree’ and emerging geese.


But did they really believe this? They clearly didn’t see it happening, so why claim otherwise? Here, Giraldus is interesting. He states that many clerics would happily eat Barnacle Geese when fasting. The rules on fasting were that you couldn’t eat anything of, or born of, ‘flesh’. So no birds or mammals. But fish and seafood was fine (their notion of flesh being different to ours, even though many modern vegetarians will eat seafood). So if the Barnacle Goose wasn’t born like a normal bird or mammal, it was suddenly a very convenient exception to the rule.

Giraldus doesn’t agree with this jiggery-pokery. But could the myth have emerged just to allow some hungry monks to cheat the rules on fasting? The question appeared in more than one culture though, including amongst 12th Century French Jews. So maybe that similarity really did strike, and a form of logic tied the two.

In the 18th Carl Linnaeus recorded this myth for posterity in the scientific name of the Goose Barnacle, Lepas ansifera (ansifera translates as ‘goose-bearing’), even though by this point the true nature of the Barnacle Goose, and the Goose Barnacle, was understood.

It’s easy to throw scorn at early ideas on nature, and in reading this you may well be pointing and laughing at all these meat-starved monks. But they were scientists in many ways. They made observations, drew inferences, and reached a hypothesis. The hypothesis was rejected as more evidence was found. That’s how science is supposed to work. So whatever their true motives, let’s give a thankful nod to Gerald and John and Sebastian for such a lovely idea, and an illustration of a crucial principle.

Barnacle Goose Heslington West, York, January 2014

Barnacle Goose
Heslington West, York, January 2014

Posted in Biology, Birds, Invertebrates, Scientific Terminology, Wildlife stories, Zoology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Caption competition – And the winner is…

Sadly there were not sufficient entries to merit a prize, despite extending the deadline and really pushing it. But the entries we did have were high quality, and you can remind yourselves of them with a trip to the original page.

So, thanks to Lynn, Lynn, Elaine, and Notso for the attempts. All were excellent.

In the end I’ve opted for…


“It can take months to train a Robin to recognise a blue badge, but it really helps us cut down on illegal parking” – Notso


Congratulations to Notso for the winning entry, and I’m very sorry the good people of the world couldn’t get their act together to get enough entries in to prompt a prize. You’ll have to settle for the honour.




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