Sunday, 30 August 2015

Balsam and a Cat

This week I evaluate a little experiment I undertook last year. On the patch of land I look after there is present that invasive species - Himalayan Balsam.

The pretty pink plant found along much of our water ways was introduced to Britain from India in 1839 along with Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed, both of which exist on other stretches down the river,

Balsam is incredibly prolific and spread via impressive exploding seed cases. There is much debate about what to do about this species and many believe it should be hand pulled and burned. My take on it is slightly different and specifically tailored to my patch.

On my patch the balsam is a mosaic species one of many including nettles, meadowsweet, Epilobium and Purple Loosestrife. It has not come to dominant the area and exists on patches, often out competed by natives on much of the patch. It is not acting invasively here... yet. Whilst the plant itself is not favoured by many of our insects the characteristic sweet smelling pink helmet shaped flowers are adored by Bees.

With Bees suffering I find it hard to rationalise the removal of a potential food source so last year I attempted a little control method. Along the bridge path I have responsibility for the right hand side and so went in August and cut the flower heads just before they set seed. This year as you can see comparing the two sides of the path that there is much less balsam on my side than the other.

Left Side - Note the number of Balsam flowers close to the railings (Control)

Right side - note the lack of balsam close to the rails (Experiment)
Now this is not the greatest experiment I haven't quantified this in any way but it does prove to me at least that where I want to control balsam it is most effectively done by dead heading in early-mid August.

On a very separate note my trail cam has detected a new visitor to my patch - a Ginger Cat. I have had a black and white cat pass through in the past but this ginger cat with white socks spent much of Monday pottering up and down the hedge-line between 7.43 am and Mid-day. Most interestingly he seemed to enjoy a spot of Muntjac baiting.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Mouse and the Snake

A change of pace this week. Today I present a short moral story that coalesced in my mind after seeing a grass snake in the meadow last weekend.

The Mouse and the Snake

As a snake slithered her way across a field she came across a mouse sat on a log deep in thought,

“Oh you scared me” the mouse said leaping to his feet looking for somewhere to hide,

“You need not fear me today mouse” snake said softly, “I ate yesterday and do not need to feed again until tomorrow.”

Mouse paused unsure whether to believe the snake or not but noticed the bulging stomach and settled back down on to the log.

Snake slithered around the base to sit beside him.

“What is the matter little mouse. Were I hungry I would have gobbled you up before you had a chance to leap away?”

Mouse sighed deeply and stroked his whisker,

“I have a problem and I don’t know what to do.”

“Perhaps I can help. A problem shared is a problem halved”

Mouse looked at Snake suspiciously and then shrugged his little shoulders.

“I have a secret stash of nuts and seeds that I keep for the winter. I met Vole yesterday and she and her family are starving. Should I tell them about my secret or keep quiet?

“I see” Snake hissed “A difficult problem. I suppose if they were Mice it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Of course not. We look after our own, but Vole has babies. She needs that food.”

“Then give her the food.”

“But I need those seeds for the winter, if it is bad I’ll need them for myself.”

“Then keep the food”

Mouse shook his head violently “But then the Voles will die.”

Snake sighed deeply,

“I see your problem, quite a quandary. My choice would be to keep the food but of course I am cold hearted and therefore cold blooded.”

“Well obviously I am nothing like you Snake, I have a heart and worry about others.”

Snake smiled,

“My heart is just as good as yours. My advice to you though, is that you already know the answer and the quicker you realise that the better.”

“Fine lot of help you are” Mouse said turning his back on the Snake "What nonsense, if I had the answer I wouldn't be here"

“Very well, I shall leave you to your deliberations” Snake uncoiled herself and slithered off into the meadow.

Mouse returned his attentions back to his problem and settled into a long night. He sat there thinking hard as the sun dipped down behind the horizon and the watched as the stars came and went. Slowly he began to realise what he could do just as the sun came up again.

“Aha I’ve got it” he exclaimed in delight,

“Got what?” asked Snake as she slithered back into view,

“Oh it’s you” Mouse smiled “Good morning. I have the answer. I will give half my seeds to Vole and keep half for myself. That way we both get to survive.”

Snake nodded,

“There is just one problem"

"A problem?" Mouse asked his brow already furrowing in concentration

"Yes you won’t have chance to help Vole.”

“Whatever do you mean Snake. Don't be so silly you’ve already eaten. I m perfectly safe”

“Oh no” Snake hissed, “that was yesterday, today I m hungry” and with that Snake ate the mouse in one gulp and went on her way.

Monday, 17 August 2015


For the past few weeks that intangible change between seasons seems to have begun. It is still most definitely summer. There are still blue skies and sun scorched days. The crickets and grasshoppers are in full melody and the Brown Hawker dragonflies are on the wing but nevertheless there are indications of the seasons close.

Early mornings seem to have a crisp stillness  to them. Bob Robins song has changed, usually the first sign for me, In fact many bird songs alter at this time, the blackbird becomes more chippy and the starlings soo and coo in ever growing numbers.

On my patch it is the absence of birds that is most striking. The swifts have departed and the usually ubiquitous Whitethroats are now furtive and skulking. These warblers are this years young, their parents already left for Africa. The chiffchaffs and blackcaps are still around but no longer announce their presence in bold song and a single swallow remains to finish stocking up for the journey.

On the river a handful of male Banded Demoiselles remain, wistfully searching for the long departed females and the first Common Darters emerge, sitting proudly on prominent perches drying their new wings in the sunlight.

The goosegrass has died back pulling down the nettles that lends the meadow a kind of dead air. The open spaces seem barren but offer the best chances of seeing a Grass Snake, in the past two weeks a disappearing tail has been seen heading into the undergrowth as my approach disturbed its basking.

Although the trees are still in full leaf they swell with fruit and nut. The berries on the rowan outside my bedroom have ripened from soft green to vibrant orange/red. Give it another month and the leaves will turn themselves to red, browns and oranges. For many this is the real autumn, the bit theu wait for and glory in but I prefer this transition period when one season slides slowly into the next.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


"Lion Ngorongoro Crater". Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
It is unlikely that anyone has missed the passing of Cecil the Zimbabwean male lion. This magnificent beast who has become a celebrity in his native land was killed this week by a trophy hunter. Trophy hunting is a legal pursuit having  been previously banned between 2005 and 2008 [1]. Before I start to dissect this thorny situation I want to start by making this primary salient point. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Cecil. Any creature being hunted down is sad and the way in which Cecil died is not nice. Although radio collared he was lured out of a game reserve where he was stalked by an American dentist who shot him with a bow. Apparently bows give more thrill than a rifle, nevertheless the bow did not kill Cecil and they had to follow up and despatch him with a rifle before beheading and skinning him.

Rightly the dentist and his guides have received much criticism for their actions and may even be subject to criminal charges but in this post I want to sensibly approach a number of factors, number 1 being the Cecil is not unique.

Cecil was a well established 13 year old male lion, he was part of a study programme run by the world renowned Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They have studied the Hwange lions since 1999. The team had tagged 62 lions as part of the study 34 of whom died. Death is a part of all species studies but in this case 24 of the 34 were shot by hunters. Cecil was well known locally and a visitor favourite and his radio collar made certain that his death was noted, and this is my first point. Cecil is not the first lion to be killed in this manner. He is just another in a long line, in 2013 49 lions were killed for trophies [1] and it is estimated that 560 lions each year across Africa are killed with most carcasses being exported to the US [2] few of these animals got the column inches that Cecil got, most in fact have gone unremarked in the wider press. Due to our anthropomorphic nature Cecil however has become the poster boy for lion conservation and activism. This can only be a good thing. News stories such as this allow people like me and other writers to explain the problems and let everyone know what is happening. It is sad though that so many unnamed and less well regarded lions have died in the past until Cecil’s death has galvanised the world.

The second point I want to address is this idea of trophy hunting and how some claim that its use is somehow a viable conservation tool. Lion numbers across Africa stand at 32,00 across 67 specific areas. To put this in perspective between 1993 and 2014 lion numbers fell by 42% [3]. Since 1996 it has been listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and a lot of effort has been made to stabilise and increase populations. Much of the research supporting this effort has come from institutions like the Oxford Research Unit. Despite the doom and gloom there are sparks of light. Lion declines are not global across the board in fact in Botswana, India, Namibia and South Africa numbers are actually increasing by 11% [3].

As already alluded to Trophy hunting is not a new pursuit and has been legal since 2008. In fact the IUCN even has a suggested sustainable limit of 1 male per 2000km2 as a guideline for species management and financial gain [3]. Conservation is expensive and in poor countries there is often conflict between local business and the need to conserve. A study by IFAW questioned the financial worth of trophy hunting lions challenging claims that it raised $200 million per annum for the local economy [4]. Even if the income raised isn’t as high as this it is easy to see that this is a lucrative market, a basic hunt can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $70,000 for 21 days. Analysis of Tanzania hunting however indicates where that money goes, 3% goes in government royalties, 11% wages, a further 3% is invested in local development and 22% goes to the wildlife division (The rest on other sources). 22% is a reasonable slice going to the wildlife agencies. Wildlife authorities are often poorly financed by central governments and so such monies present a tempting lure and so here comes the ethical question.

Can lions be sustainably hunted? Licensing and permit systems exist and if managed by adherence to population trends and local densities then one is tempted to say yes. Does the loss of a lion balance out the number of species or area of land that can be protected for all species? Would the lion selflessly lay down its life for others? Would it acknowledge the good its death brings to its fellow wildlife? The answer is undoubtedly no. Lions have one goal, pass their own genes into the next generation, they care little for the plight of the Leopard, and in fact they would probably welcome their removal as a competitor.

This tragedy, the death of an undoubtedly magnificent animal allows us to question as wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists as to where we draw the line. We trap and kill mink in this country to protect Water Vole and we cull deer to protect trees, these are conservation measures necessary for species survival the key difference here is the human one. The reason we abhor the killing of Cecil is more about the human nature it displayed. That desire of one human being to despatch a wild animal, to stoke an ego or slake a dark lust for blood. Were Cecil culled by a park authority due to population size would the story be as big as it is. As usual it is the human aspect that has attracted the press and not the wildlife conservation message.

Regardless of the cause it is up to us conservationists to use this death to explain the complexities faced by field conservationists and how species can be conserved. The general public need to be aware of the issues and understand that they are not just idle bystanders, in the UK the best way to support the lion is not to lambast the dentist nor to sign a petition for extradition this does little more for the lion but to urge the African governments to end licensed trophy killing in any form and to donate money to conservation and aid agencies to ensure the local people are not driven to such efforts through poverty. There will always be people willing to pay to kill so let’s make the effort to take away their source. Take pride in making a stand.