Monday, June 25, 2012

Rio +20..........disgraceful or inevitable?

As yet I haven't read one report that has had good comments to make on the Rio Conference last week. I'm not going to repeat the succession of clich├ęs that have been used to describe the disappointing outcome. In summary it was a lost opportunity, a disappointment and, in many senses, a disgrace!  It might seem the only sectors which benefited from this 50,000 strong international gathering of politicians, advisers, lobby groups and journalists were the hotel industry and the airlines. In my opinion there should be a greater sense of responsibility and accountability for those centrally involved with the process and a greater intention to arrive at meaningful conclusions than they've demonstrated they've been capable of on this occasion.  But have we now reached a stage where gaining agreement from so many participants is an impossibility?  If we can raise such fears, is it not likely the participants have arrived at the same conclusion? In which case, should there not have been some appraisal of what might be the best way forward?. Without it I fear future gatherings will suffer from precisely the same weaknesses.

It seems the focus of the process has now begun to concentrate on sustained development, as opposed to sustainability. The appeal of the almighty dollar has proved too great to resist! Who would have guessed ? The process holds such promise as a concept, but now stands in danger of  being drastically diluted with each meeting. Rather than being an opportunity to uphold the diversity and role of our global natural heritage, the occasion might now be seen as one where its resources are viewed in terms of their exploitable benefit. The trite remarks made that some communities will benefit from such initiatives show where the real sentiments lie and point to a woeful absence of commitment to our global environment in its own right. I suspect some of those communities are worrying about the potential outcomes, as opposed to the benefits, and I just wonder who might  the national agencies be who undertake the work eventually. I'm afraid I feel that the occasion proved to be little more than an auction of opportunity in many senses.

I don't believe anyone has gained benefit from these proceedings. Neither do I believe those despatched, the politicians, are the best selected or qualified to take the final decisions in a process so acutely tied to our joint futures. As an example I'd simply cite the fact that , as far as I can establish, our Prime Minister ( had he been there even) has never made a speech on the environment. He's posed with Huskies and ridden a bicycle down a London street, critical stuff on the stage of international decision making on environmental matters one might say. As for George Osborne,our Chancellor, presumably he's a convert to the whole process?  Damage environmental protection as far as you can by doing nothing other than repeat unfulfilled commitments made years ago and hold open the door to extended resource usage. With so little attention provided to our UK environment by the current Coalition , representing the Greenest Government ever remember (!),  it's hardly surprising that one feels sceptical. It'll be interesting to hear Nick Clegg's report to the House on his attendance ( surely there'll be one? ) and the proposals which it is felt are beneficial for us to pursue here in the UK, robustly supported by the Chancellor one imagines.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Little good news in evidence!

Yesterday ( Friday ) was a dreadful day! From early in the morning mist enveloped the island and visibility from the house, even at its best, was only 200m., at its worst a mere 100m..  It also rained quite heavily on occasions and  flights were disrupted. With so many young fledglings around it does pose the question of how many perish when such bad weather descends and, for birds like Swallows, how difficult it must be to maintain a steady food supply for hungry youngsters.

It also seems that the Rio +20 Conference has been a not dis-similar "damp squib" occasion if early feedback can be relied upon. Doubtless further analysis and reportage will follow, but it seems that , all too often, these large world  political events result in  precious little.

Following in the footsteps of the ill fated Buzzard control proposals, the shooting and fishing lobby are now attempting to persuade DEFRA that measures are also needed in England for Cormorants and Goosanders, which are accused of depleting fishing stocks. It's a subject that's come up before, but the timing of it on this occasion appears a little strange, if not ill conceived, given the drubbing that DEFRA received recently. Time will tell.

For some reason the "Hen Harrier story line" seems to have been temporarily abandoned by both RSPB and  Natural England with no reportage on success or otherwise of the birds allegedly present in NW England this season. Such would be excellent news! Here on Islay, whilst birds are being seen and reported on,  I'm convinced the numbers overall are lower than in previous seasons. It would be a disgrace if the actions which have brought the English breeding population to its knees have similarly begun to reduce the numbers of birds    from farther north which move southwards in autumn. Thankfully it's still possible to see this magnificent raptor on Islay and Jura with relative ease!!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Further revelations expected from our Cuckoos!

Returning to Islay on Wednesday I travelled northwards up Loch Lomondside in tremendous weather. The sunlight reflected off the trees alongside the loch, the waters had a wonderful dappled effect and the far hills carried a slight haze in the developing heat. As I turned on to the A83 at Tarbert little did I know that, off to my right around Loch Katrine,  there were two Cuckoos carrying satellite tags that, soon, would be making their own long journeys to their wintering "homes"  in Africa.

You may remember that in 2011 the British Trust for Ornithology caught five Cuckoos in East Anglia and fitted them with satellite tags. Sadly, only two of these birds have returned to the UK this year but, in between, they have all provided unique information on their migratory routes, stopover areas and their wintering locations deep in the Congo Rainforest. One bird travelled through Europe via Spain , another via Italy, aspects that would have been laced with pure conjecture had the ability to follow the birds not been available.

This year has seen a further ambitious twist applied to the research. In addition to two more birds being "tagged" in East Anglia, four have also been caught in Wales and five in Scotland. These eleven birds are now hopefully poised to provide even more exciting new information and data in the ensuing months. Over recent years the English Cuckoo population has reduced by 51%, that of the Welsh population by 27% , but, thankfully, here in Scotland the numbers appear not to have suffered as drastically with only a 9% reduction being noted. Following the initial success in 2011 a series of inevitable questions about whether any differences applied between these populations as far as routes, wintering areas , timing of their migration were raised and a decision taken to catch birds in each of the countries concerned. Fascinating stuff, but I guess the reality of catching a sufficient sample is perhaps not the easiest job in the world!  The fact that eleven new birds are now wearing sat tags is a fitting tribute to the perseverance and skill of those involved!!

                                               Acknowledgement to Phil Atkinson  (BTO).

Two of the Scottish birds were still around as, unsuspectingly, I sped off along the road to my own "wintering quarters". A further two had already moved, one was in North Yorkshire and another was on Terschelling Island in the Netherlands. Since learning of such a relative close encounter my thoughts have turned several times to what might be happening to them all in these early stages. Now comes an even more exciting element in that you can actually follow the fortunes of these birds by logging in to the BTO website ( ) and seeing where they are. But my thoughts have not stopped there!  Given adult Cuckoos move off southwards several weeks before their young, a whole new canvas emerges in terms of the circumstances facing these "Home Alone" youngsters. Whilst, currently, they're sitting comfortably, being fed repeatedly by, say, a hapless pair of Meadow Pipits, and resembling some avian advert for the downside of a fast food diet, they too will soon be faced with their own traumatic journey to Africa. "Wired in" they may be in order that they successfully complete the arduous
journey, but do they have any different elements present within that strategy?  A host of questions begin to emerge and the more you become entranced by the possibilities, the more committed you become to  following the species'  fortunes. Perhaps future years will see this aspect being addressed and our knowledge of a bird, which has already figured large within our folklore, increasing even more dramatically.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crossbill cacophony! 12.6.2012.

The day started off poorly with low cloud, mist and intermittent heavy rain showers, although these cleared by mid-morning. Up in the north east of the island a party of 18/20 Crossbills were heard long before they were seen overhead.  They finally passed close by, still calling excitedly and continued on south over the open moor, their calls carrying over the still air for some considerable distance. Certainly evidence of post breeding dispersal and even the precursor to what might be a further occurrence of more birds from the north later. A single Red-throated Diver flew high over open hill land to the sea beyond, presumably on a feeding foray from its breeding lochan high within the surrounding hills.

My routine watching of an eagle pair was ruined in the early stages by the presence of MIDGES!!  Gradually    
they dispersed as a slight breeze arose, but they are a nuisance to say the least!  At one point I had both eagles clearly foraging around for something in the middle of a large slope covered by acid grassland and with several "slumps" and gullies across it. They were about 40m away from one another and slowly moved around either along the "lip" of the gullies  and even along the line of a couple of the widest ones.At other times they seemed to move at random across quite open areas. On occasion they lumbered forward, with wings outspread for balance, and bent to examine something , suggesting whatever they were interested in was moving!  Sadly the distance prevented seeing what they were examining, be it Adders, lizards or ,possibly, emerging Northern Eggar moths. Exchanging opinions with Roy Dennis later it was thought it was too early for them to be hunting frogs, so the reality might forever remain a mystery! Certainly seeing the two great birds moving ponderously around, their golden heads and necks gleaming in the sun, was an unforgettable experience. Eventually the female flew off and perched up to keep a vigil overlooking the valley. He continued wandering sedately around and was lost to view , although still applied to the quest well after a full hour had gone by, testament to the fact that the effort must have been worthwhile!!    


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Routine.....but not by choice!

 Sorry, folks, but have been a bit preoccupied by an absence of a hot water supply.  The solution looks likely to be technical , as opposed to being based on supply, which is always a consideration when the actual water involved comes off the hills overlooking the property. Wednesday should see the problem "sorted".

Mainly in past days I've been seawatching, given one of the premier observation spots in Scotland ( Frenchman's Rocks or nearby ) is only a couple of miles away. My reason for choosing this place to live in many respects!.  At this time of year things are getting a bit late for mainstream passage, but you never know! Whilst weather can play a major part at times of routine passage northwards in Spring, or the reverse in Autumn, I suspect real "goodies " are more a product of hard persistence. Occasions when you're faced with a calm sea and more likely to get a sun tan than a good bird!! Sadly, I've also to say that I've very often provided the coverage but never connected with the real speciality ( not yet anyway! ).

I always feel a bit awkward when reeling out what might be seen in a very routine morning outside of a main passage period (  G.B.B.G., Herring Gull, Common Gull, Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Fulmar, Black Guillemeot, Razorbill, Gannet, Shag, Eider )  besides the possibility of an odd straggler or so. For some people, the effort of four hours or so, might represent what they strive hard to see in a whole year!!

Locally the first young Wheatear are around, with a couple of Stonechat broods having been around for the past ten days or so. The remaining Curlew and Lapwing pairs on the nearby hill, two and one respectively, are still fiercely protective of what will now be wandering youngsters, a sda outcome given the numbers of attempts were notably higher than that!  The last couple of days has seen an abrupt absence of Cuckoo with no birds seen or heard. Even at this early stage , as the ground breaking sat tag work by the BTO showed last year, the first birds will be commencing to return to their winter quarters and may even  have left.
There you have it , the first mention of winter in June!!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What do we expect from our conservation organizations?

In recent weeks, if not months, I've been saddened and intrigued by a varying series of statements and emotions expressed within various responses submitted to Blogs, Forums, newspaper articles and such like about how our conservation agencies fail us. Ranging from cynicism to complacency, hostility to delusion, the use of utterly skewed information, or its interpretation, and the usual contributions from the  "it's all a waste of time " or "they're all useless"  merchants result in it being a test of patience to read their offerings, again!  Even so, I always hope that, with all such comments, there's been some effort made to consider the real facts and to come to a considered view. Clearly some fail this particular mission or have, perhaps, missed out the essential step altogether!

Knee jerk reactions, hidden agendas based on festering resentments attached to some past situation or emotional pap are not usually contributions that add anything to the actual debate, even if one can understand the often near illiterate contributions, and determine why they have made a comment.

So why am I so angry as to obviously annoy a certain sector of people due to the above comments.

Essentially it's because they are wasting their time and potentially souring views of people who might otherwise have had a more open mind. Their following will never be great, their supporters (if they exist ) are like minded and, above all else, they will never really occupy a position of influence due to pursuing a personalised agenda that never changes. The sad fact is that they often direct opposition, if not aggression  towards , say, government policies that conservation organizations are also trying hard to defeat or amend. There is obviously a real void existing between their unrecognised agreement with such organizations and their utter lack of confidence in them. Conservation organizations are constantly battering their heads against the plethora of unrelenting proposals that unceasingly come forward from Government that are unsupportable of conservation as we understand it, mainly due to self interest or commercial potential.

It seems to me that we are at a turning point in the UK, particularly England, at present wherein we could return to a series of dictatorial policies associated with farming, upland management, and general countryside management because , essentially, the way ahead is being determined through self interest of a minority, as opposed to the expressed  wishes of the majority.  So, instead of  sounding off against the presumed inadequacies of conservation organizations, join their efforts to try and minimise, if not neutralise, the effects of such ill thought through policies as far as the national interest is concerned. Being on the by-lines and sniping at all and sundry because of frustration is NOT going to secure anything I'm afraid. The "uprising" against the recent Buzzard control proposals proves public opinion can work successfully if we all work together. Let's continue that work together and indicate what we truly believe should comprise the wildlife heritage of the UK, not some convenient interpreted version that generates a nice living for some!

When it comes to birds, the RSPB is all we've really got in terms of a charitable organization repeatedly pursuing the interests of our avian community!  OK, you may not be a member ( you should be! ) but at least lend weight to the various efforts it makes on behalf of birds. I don't always agree with it, and will openly criticise its efforts, but I hope properly. In that sense they need your views, not barely disguised criticisms from afar!  At the end of this month, or in early July as I understand the situation, the results of the review requested by Government undertaken by the Law Commission on wildlife legislation will become public. Whilst I may have the actual timing wrong,  the results of the exercise are certainly imminent, it doesn't really matter in some sense. This is a situation where we need the most cynical to also play a part.  Numbers matter. Don't criticise the fact that the opposition might fail, lend weight!  No grumbles or accusations from the rear, stand up and contribute to the future, otherwise remain part of the constituency of those who have neither the "cohones" or the common sense to do otherwise. Birds and conservation need everyone in the current "atmosphere", not to be a part of everything is to have opted out and represent failure and weakness.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Well done, George Monbiot!

May I offer my congratulations to George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper for the excellent entry on his Blog relating to raptor persecution, upland shooting estates, the aristocracy, Richard Benyon (DEFRA ) and much, much more. All the issues that many of us have been banging on about over the past few weeks, ( in fact "repeatedly ranting" on about in my case I have to confess) have now been placed central stage and will reach a much wider audience as a result.
Please read this feature  (George Monbiot's Blog. ).

This may yet be the starting point following which we begin to see change, The volume of criticism against a variety of policies the current Coalition is either imposing on us, or abandoning, as far as the environment is concerned,  is beginning  to gather momentum. Comments are also beginning to arise from within Government ranks suggesting that even informed opinion is questioning the logic behind given positions being taken up. If the Coalition  has any collective political acumen at all, it must surely be obvious that current impatience will inevitably translate into direct action at the next Election.  One of the problems is that it's very difficult to know what the Government does actually stand for in some respects. In what I found to be a very thoughtful piece, Mark Avery explores this aspect in his Blog today ( Bonfires and Beacons ) and the fact that, with Natural England (the Government advisory agency on wildlife matters ) being nowhere to be seen nowadays, DEFRA itself, as its parent Ministry, is being singularly silent on key aspects about which concern is raised. By contrast, however, it's recent inept proposals relating to Buzzard controls, now withdrawn, indicate a preference for measures beneficial to the very fraternity George Monbiot so eloquently condemns and to which the Minister so evidently belongs and defers!!   Errm!   Interesting, digging deeper holes springs to mind!!

Whilst I could have laid out the birds I've been seeing around recently, it seems to me that these issues, and the necessary pressure required to bring about change, is by far the most important matter to address. As it is, there's nothing especial around, although we've always a great selection of species on Islay. It's all too easy to treat them with too much familiarity if you live here. Rest assured that's not the case! Set against routine sea watching,  visits along the Lochs Gruinart and Indaal and other areas , one of the sights that has given me real pleasure over past days is that I've got a Grasshopper Warbler that I can see from the lounge window, admittedly with a telescope. Leisurely viewing both early morning and evening has been a treat!

And finally, after watching, and enjoying, the Diamond Jubilee Concert last evening I spent  time outside the house, simply taking in the delights of a calm end to the day (without midges too ). After living somewhere named Beacon Hill when in South Yorkshire I mused a little on what might be happening there. To my surprise I suddenly noticed a more local contribution to the celebrations! Click on the photograph!

Accompanied by the nearby reeling of Grasshopper Warbler and distant tremulous calls of Curlew, it signified, even in this far flung UK location, an association with some countries and cultures at very, very great distances from here. Indeed, looking westwards beyond the coast about a kilometre away, it was quite easy to  feel a close presence with Canada as a relative "close" neighbour, despite the Atlantic being between us! 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is it time we got Hen Harriers back on the agenda?

With the withdrawal of the Buzzard control proposals came an affirmation that civilised protest within our democracy can make a difference. A satisfying and correct outcome in my view, but not something we should celebrate in any partisan fashion, as might happen with other activities. The preferences of the majority were exercised and a decision taken to not to proceed. That process is the real cause to celebrate but, note, such was a withdrawal of the proposals, not an abandonment of the idea! The final outcome will need to be addressed on a different day!!

All this activity has served to deflect attention away from an issue that had demanded equal attention immediately previous to Buzzards hitting the news, namely Hen Harriers, and the fact that their English breeding population was virtually extinct.  If my sources are correct then the single nesting pair, upon which high hopes rested, have failed. The rumour may be incorrect.  Hopefully it is.  But does it matter? Are we not pinning hope on some forlorn sense of tokenism that is unlikely, in the present climate of persecution, to provide any form of solution?. We should be interpreting the fact of our being down to a single pair as being the consequence of unabated, deliberate persecution based on a culture within the shooting fraternity of intolerance toward the species. All of which , in one form or another, has been referred to in reports issued by the RSPB and by Natural England, an agency under DEFRA's aegis  which Richard Benyon is responsible for!   This situation, in my book and in this day and age, is one we should all be soundly ashamed of.  So, what to do, given all such accusations, challenges and evidence has been paraded out before?

Whilst some emphasis has been focussed on the apparent "sympathy" DEFRA exhibits towards the shooting fraternity, doubtless because of the interests of its own Environment Minister, that pressure must now be maintained in the light of the actions arising this week.  The consequences of the persecution of raptors already practised by that fraternity must be called into question within an all time, direct initiative that, unequivocally , demands action. Submitting polite demands for increased funding of a recovery project and pointing to increased persecution statistics will not solve this problem. We've been down that route before! Now is the time for strength on the part of the conservation agencies, the RSPB in particular, given the example shown by the actions of people ( including many RSPB members I'm sure! ) who, this week, registered their opposition to something so clearly wrong. The same opposition can be harnessed again if there is a set of clearly expressed objectives people can get behind. Whilst I have every respect for the RSPB and its staff, both past and present, this is a time when formality must be set aside and a no holds barred, extremely strong position taken up against something equally as wrong as "Benyon's Buzzard proposals". In his latest Blog Martin Harper ( Director, Conservation, RSPB ) deals with extinction and the need, for those gathering at Rio shortly, to be aware of current issues and past lapses. An impassioned plea that I think all of us would agree with to the letter. But we should also be applying the same approach on the Home Front and using the opportunity of utilising currently inflamed passions, coupled with the spirit of Rio+20, to address an imminent extinction episode on our own doorstep and to call for major changes in the operation of upland shooting estates. Everything should come under scrutiny and a system invoked whereby, in the absence of a disciplined approach, even by a minority, their operation should be subject to licencing. Draconian, maybe, but an approach brought on by their own wilful pursuit of self interest and an utter disregard of the wishes and interests of other sectors of society. Given there will be inevitable arguments associated with Richard Benyon's revised Buzzard proposals, let's seize the opportunity to have the whole gamut of abuse, misrepresentation and commercial self interest put under the spotlight and a once and for all solution arrived at and imposed.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Buzzards may be doing us a favour perhaps?

On the 18th May, I put an entry on this site entitled  "We need a rethink, and rapidly". Some of the reactions emerging relating to the withdrawal of the Buzzard control proposals are jaundiced at best and endorse the view, at least in my opinion, that the problem is greater than simply Buzzards predating the odd Pheasant poult. There's a real attitude problem out there reflecting extensive self interest and a worrying element in terns of where such people actually see themselves within our democracy. Some of the views are equally as vitriolic against "preservationists" , so I suppose I'd better watch out!

I notice James Marchington, columnist on shooting matters , has put out a request on his Facebook account asking for reports of Buzzard predation on Pheasants, as he intends writing an article on the matter. As usual anecdotal reports of Buzzards taking Mallard, Woodpigeon, and concerns about chickens are emerging amongst more focussed feedback on the subject out of which I am sure JM will eventually produce something positive. But is this not a part of the problem, and a problem that is much wider than appreciated by those responding to the above request. All the clamour for change is based on impassioned claims from those with commercial interests in the subject. No mention, or even recognition, of biodiversity or similar.   Errmm , a bit self serving one suggests!  A very telling  comment appears on the Raptor Politics web site today under the entry about "Bird brained Benyon".  Issued by a lady called Kitt Jones, who obviously manages a nature reserve, she makes mention of the pressure experienced from Pheasants coming into the reserve from an adjacent shoot and the depletion of the area's biodiversity. OK, subjective observations again , but a pointer to a parallel problem that is receiving insufficient emphasis in this debate. The tippling out of millions of Pheasants year after year is hardly likely to be a bonus as far as the wider countryside is concerned , a countryside habitat that has to support these birds. Whilst an appreciable proportion of Pheasants may be shot each season, a sufficient number remain that may not be as welcome a sight to many people as to those within the shooting fraternity. It's not good enough to view lots of "Pheasant presence" as the potential for a good autumn's recreation, there are accompanying downsides that it would be nice to see recognised rather than conveniently ignored.

A key element within recent debate appears to be the claimed pressure on commercial stocks of Pheasants, but  equally, a similar pressure on our wider wildlife heritage is also apparent. One hopes that this aspect will be considered equally as seriously within whatever revised proposals DEFRA eventually comes up with.  But may I put in a plea?  I believe  "My" wildlife heritage, to which surely I'm entitled to make a claim, is being placed under assault. What will be done in that respect?  Ideas so far appear to suggest research will look at  pressure on Pheasants in and around shoots. Can we have an improved approach please that  better frames the preferences of the wider electorate ?  It perhaps suggests Buzzards might have been doing a good job after all!!