The feeling of spring

Primroses

Primroses

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.

Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.

They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Daffodils

Daffodils

The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.

Cowslips

Cowslips

Ladybird on the edge of a leaf

Ladybird on the Edge

Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.

Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.

Robin Feeding Young

Robin Feeding Young

This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly – shame about the background but lovely butterfly all the same.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

Scrub is Special – Save our Scrub

Scrub habitat in Betty's Wood - home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub habitat in Betty’s Wood – home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub, as a habitat, is nearly always followed by the words “clearance” or “eradication”. How often do we read the words “it’s only scrub,” as if this is some kind of second-rate habitat to which we must do something.

A brief Google search reveals countless pages relating to wildlife groups, country parks and nature reserves, all talking about “scrub clearance”. Not to mention countless contractors offering their services, machinery, manpower and chemicals to clear scrub.

Scrub has a bad name. It has become something to be controlled, eliminated, pushed to the corners of our fields and woodlands. It doesn’t seem to be wanted, valued or loved.

Scrub is usually regenerating woodland, although in certain special situations, it may be the final, or climax, plant community. Woodland may be regenerating on a woodland site that has lost its trees, through felling, coppicing, or natural disaster, or on a previously open habitat which, for some reason or another, has ceased to be managed and is reverting to woodland. In pre-history, areas of woodland were cleared by humans, used for a while, then the people moved on, leaving the woodland to recover and regenerate via a scrub stage. Before humans made their mark, woodlands were cleared and reverted to scrub after grazing by large mammals, such as elephants. Wildwood has areas that become denuded of trees, and which regenerate. Scrub is always present, although not always in the same area, but there are always patches of scrub into which wildlife that prefers this habitat can move.

Regenerating scrub in Betty's Wood

Regenerating scrub in Betty’s Wood

Scrub will also form rapidly on almost any land that is left for any length of time: heathland, fen, coastal dunes, uplands, bogs, agricultural land and even on urban or rural habitation or industrial sites that have become abandoned.

The problem we have now is that people are not itinerant – they lived in fixed communities. Almost all land has an owner, and a defined use. Woodland is not free to regenerate where it will because land is almost always designated for a purpose – be it generation of timber in woodlands, or preservation as high forest as a nature reserve, or be it arable farmland, pasture, heathland, moorland, bog, fen, coastal dunes and other habitats deemed also to be of great value. There is precious little room for scrub to squeeze into, and people don’t want it. Because other habitats have become vanishingly rare, encroachment of scrub onto these habitats becomes something that threatens them. In towns and cities, we don’t want scrubby parkland, with ever-changing areas of wood, clearings and scrub – we want nice tidy places for people to walk, sit and play – manicured habitats, effectively over-sized gardens. Scrub is perceived as providing cover for anti-social behaviour. So it must be cleared. It doesn’t look pretty.

Even in woodland, there is little room for scrub. Coppicing produces a scrub-like regrowth from the cut stems, or stools, albeit with a more uniform height and species structure. Most of our woodland species are not species of the deep forest, they are species of the forest edge, and of scrub and coppice.   Our wildlife is adapted to the cycle of clearance and regrowth. But this is a cycle that we have broken. Coppice management has disappeared from many woodlands, leaving over-stood coppice and high forest – the familiar woodland that many of us visit and many think is the only way a woodland can or should be. We manage timber-producing woodland by clear-felling and re-planting in dense, ordered stands that produce a uniform structure. Scrub has barely a chance to grow before being overtaken by the faster-growing, more useful and more profitable softwood conifers. It is relegated to small strips around the edge and along woodland rides, if it is allowed to grow at all. Coppicing does survive, as does continuous cover forestry with natural regeneration, both of which help. But many woodlands are simply unmanaged.

Scrub in Betty's Wood

Scrub in Betty’s Wood

If this were wildwood, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Areas would naturally fall in high winds, succumb to fire or grazing, or be felled by itinerant humans or large animals. But it isn’t wildwood, and hasn’t been since humans appeared on the planet. Even worse, most areas of woodland are such small remnants of our forest cover that they are simply too small to support a mosaic of habitats, including scrub, as they stand. They are left to become high forest, with no mechanism to support regeneration, no mechanism to support a cycle of regrowth.

In addition, scrub is not allowed to develop anywhere else. Pieces of woodland are simply not allowed to “contaminate” farmland, river edges, heathland, moorland, fenland or urban and suburban parks and gardens. They are cleared up – sometimes with good justification but very often without. Agricultural stewardship schemes usually require the removal of scrub. Woodland schemes also fail to recognize the importance of scrub, or allow for its management.

So does this actually matter? Well, yes it does, because many important, declining species are actually species that prefer scrubland, and enjoy the variety of species, height of vegetation and density of vegetation that scrub can provide. These include plants themselves, lichens, bryophytes, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the adder and common toad, mammals such as dormice, and birds such as blackcap, bullfinch, linnet, reed bunting, song thrust, willow tit, yellowhammer, dunnock, goldcrest, nightingale, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Many of these are disappearing as we over-clear scrub habitats and under-manage woodland.

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

The problem is that scrub does need some kind of management, whether you want to keep it or not. This can include resumption of coppicing within woodlands or at the woodland edge to create scrub, cyclical cutting of scrub to ensure a steady supply for scrub species, selective conservation grazing of low intensity by relatively hardy livestock, or by leaving small areas of scrub to develop around the edges of other habitats. Keeping scrub as scrub, and developing a good mosaic requires management, or it will revert to woodland or coppice – so attention needs to be paid to ensure that a wide variety of species, density and height are achieved. This is not easy to do, and there is a lot of debate about how to do this, or whether to do it.

In our own woods, we have some good areas of regenerating scrub at the edge of Betty’s Wood. And into this scrub we have attracted willow tit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, linnet, song thrush, goldcrest, dunnock, woodcock and others. Coppicing will, in time, produce a rotation of scrubby habitats for species to move into, as well as allowing the next generation of mature trees to emerge, and producing a sustainable crop of wood for crafts and firewood.

Our Coppice - varying ages and densities

Our Coppice – varying ages and densities

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The problem is that management of scrub has been seen as synonymous with clearance or eradication, despite it being quite clear in the Scrub Management Handbook, and the JNCC Report, that this is only ONE option, and even then, where possible a patchwork of scrub areas should usually be allowed to remain. Maybe this is because the focus has been on removal of scrub, so there has been more research into, and thus the handbook provides more information on this aspect of management. Certainly the other options given in these documents – create, enhance, preserve – seem to have been forgotten.

In addition, on woodland nature reserves and other public wooded spaces, the public perception is that these should be left alone, and that high forest is best. There is undoubtedly an argument for leaving some areas wild, and ancient woodland and veteran trees undoubtedly support a very biodiverse ecosystem, but leaving everything alone will result in a closed canopy woodland with lower diversity than a managed woodland that includes ancient and veteran trees.

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring – ancient and diverse high forest habitat

People don’t like to see trees being cut down, so managers of public land don’t cut them down – it is the easiest option. It would be lovely if areas of woodland were extensive enough to allow natural processes of regeneration to take place – but few sites are large enough. The average size of a piece of woodland in England is about 8ha. So the management methods that create scrub are not being carried out, nor is scrub being created naturally. At the same time, people are receptive to the idea of clearing scrub – the combined effect is that scrub is reduced in extent and diversity, and often confined to margins of roads and railways, and to derelict urban sites awaiting development.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

High Forest – the popular perception of what woodland should be like

We hardly ever see the word “scrub” in management plans for nature reserves unless it is followed by the word “clearance”. There are clearly habitats where scrub needs to be cut, or it will overwhelm other valuable and vanishing habitats, but it is really important to ensure that an area of scrub is left, and managed on rotation, so there is always somewhere for scrub species to go. There is a need to question whether complete scrub removal is required. Areas of scrub also need to be left in urban and suburban green spaces. They are amazing places for children to explore, and learn, as well as being repositories of wildlife. They may not look tidy, but neither do uncut road verges – yet many councils are taking up Plantlife’s campaign to leave some area of verge to grow wildflowers, so why not take up the cause of scrub, and leave some areas of urban parks to develop as scrub habitat?

There seems to be a real need to educate people as to the value of scrub, and the related woodland coppice habitat, so that they can understand the need to keep some scrub, and to create coppice. To do this, the mindset that cutting down trees is “bad” and clearing scrub is “good” needs to be changed. In addition, there needs to be support for scrub habitat – not just the specialised communities in rare scrub habitats, but good old-fashioned lowland scrub – within stewardship schemes, woodland grant schemes and within urban and suburban green spaces.

Not all scrub is bad. A lot of species depend on scrub, and on an ever-changing and evolving patchwork of vegetation from open meadow to high forest, and everything in between. The in between bits are important. Scrub is important. Save our Scrub!

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species that depends on scrub habitat

Resources:

JNCC Report 308: Mortimer, S.R., Turner, A.J., Brown, V.K., Fuller, R.J., Good, J.E.G., Bell, S.A. Stevens, P.A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. and Ward, L.K. – (2000) – The Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain – Available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2445

FACT in conjunction with English Nature (2003) The Scrub Management Handbook – ISBN 1 85716 745 7 – Available from http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/72031

Fuller RJ and Warren MS (1995) – Management for Biodiversity in British Woodlands – Striking a Balance – from British Wildlife (1995): 7; 26-37 – Available from http://www.britishwildlife.com/classicarticlesview.asp

Fuller RJ and Warren MS – Coppiced Woodlands: Their Management for Wildlife (1993) – available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2640

Gough SJ and Fuller RJ (1998) – Scrub Management for Conservation in Lowland England: Practices, Problems and Possibilities

BTO Research Report No. 194 ISBN 0 903793 96 2 – available from http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/u196/downloads/rr194.pdf

See Also

A great album of photos of scrub regenerating on Exmoor – by Hen

 

Photographing little birds

Blue tit at feeder

Occasionally a feeder picture is particularly nice – like this blue tit

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species

I love taking photos of the little birds at our woods, and one way of ensuring that I get some reasonable shots is to take the photos near the feeder.

I don’t usually bother with shots at the feeder itself, since these don’t really show the birds in their natural environment.  The best feeder shots involve some kind of action, such as a fight, or a bird about to fly off with a seed in its beak, or occasionally just a very cute, very handsome bird.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch on his way to the feeder

So how do I actually go about getting shots of birds in and around the feeder area?

First of all I feed the birds regardless of whether or not I am taking photos.  This is very important.  To photographers, taking pictures of birds is fun, but for the birds this is deadly serious stuff – food at this time of year is a matter of life and death to them.  If you get the birds used to feeding at your feeders, you must persist in feeding them, or many will struggle to get food from elsewhere.  Yes, you can get pictures by setting up feeders, and the birds will come in quickly, but don’t leave them in the lurch once you have finished your photographic project.  If you are going to withdraw feeding, then do it at a time of year when there is abundant natural food and they can adapt to having no available supplemental food – usually this is late summer or autumn.

Blue tit

Blue tit

Second, and this is aligned to the first point, have more than one feeder.  This gives the birds an alternative if they are too nervous to approach when you are getting close to get your pictures.  If they can’t approach and you are sitting there, then they are missing out on vital food.  I have three feeders operating, so the birds have plenty of choice.  We operate the feeders between November and late August – then take them down so the birds get used to natural forage – and put them back up again when the natural food diminishes and the birds need help for the winter.

Female Reed Bunting

Female Reed Bunting

The first thing I do is to check the light and background – which direction is going to get me the best pictures?  I also look at these in the light of how the birds are approaching the feeder – no point in having fantastic light and background if by using this angle the approach path of the birds is obscured by undergrowth.  Different species have different habits, so you may need different angles if you want to photograph, for example, a dunnock and a nuthatch.

I then get my little camouflage chair hide (which cost £65) and pop it up in the place where I want to sit and leave it for a while so the birds get used to it being there – they usually get comfortable with it fairly quickly.  I then set myself up in the hide with camera, lens, spare battery, tripod, flask and biscuits.  I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with either a Canon 100-400mm lens or the Canon f2.8 300mm lens with a 1.4x convertor.  Even with these, the little birds will not fill much of the frame, but a longer lens will lead to difficulties with minimum focal distance since you can put the hide about 2-3 metres from where the birds are coming in.

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

I then sit and watch for a while with the camouflage netting still in place over the opening and only when I know I’m in the right place do I open it up to start taking photos.  I use a 3-Legged Thing tripod, which is very compact, with a ball and socket head (Air Head 2) kept quite loose, so I have the support, but also can move quickly.  I also have a larger Giottos tripod with a gimbal head which is more stable but less compact.

I usually take a few shots without birds to check the exposure compensation that is needed in different places – a bright bird against a dark background will need underexposure, whereas a dark bird against a bright sky will need overexposure.  I usually use a moderately-wide aperture (somewhere around f5.6 to f7.1) in order to isolate the bird from the background but keep the whole bird in focus.

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Then I get stuck in.  There is an element of luck, but I try and make my own luck by ensuring I am working at a time of day with good light.  In our woods this is always late afternoon – in other places early morning would also be good.  At these times the birds are feeding very enthusiastically.  The feeders are quieter at midday, but on the other hand you might see different birds on the feeders at that time.

Blue tit

Blue tit

I do try and sit pretty still.  I also wear camouflage or khahi clothing, and a dark hat to blend in with the inside of the hide, and sometimes a hood as well – anything that keeps the birds from seeing a human silhouette is good.  I also try, however excited I get, to move the camera slowly and not to make any sudden movements in the hide.  Other things help too – like putting mobile phone onto silent (birds don’t react well to Led Zeppelin blasting out at them), putting the camera onto silent mode and auto-focus onto non-beeping mode.  It is sometimes worth having a look out of the side openings of the hide – you may find the birds have changed their approach route and you can get better shots from the side of the hide.  If the birds really are being put off by your presence, then it is worth backing off a little bit and trying again.

Nuthatch at feeder

Nuthatch at feeder with seed in his beak

You don’t always know what you will get – most of the time you get blue tits and great tits – but it is a wonderful way to spend a little bit of time, enjoying the birds, enjoying being outdoors, and hopefully getting some special shots.

HS2 – Selling the Crown Jewels


HS2 will pass along the horizon as seen from Betty’s Wood
This week the northern route of High Speed Rail 2 to Manchester and Leeds was announced.  HS2 is, apparently, going to bring about an economic miracle, creating jobs, slashing journey times and cascading prosperity out from London to the North.  But in the process, it is going to blight the lives of many individuals and communities for many years to come, destroy many jobs and businesses with knock-on effects to the local community and it is going to cut through priceless, irreplaceable wildlife habitats and countryside.
HS2 to the North is going to go through 17 ancient woodlands, one SSSI and up to 30 biodiversity action plan sites.  It is going to cut through two of the three country parks used by people in North Warwickshire (Pooley and Kingsbury Water Park).  It is going to cut the National Forest in two.  It is going to destroy businesses and severely impact upon farms en route.
HS2 will cut through the trees in this picture
Transport corridors are important habitats for wildlife – we know this and the Natural England White Paper acknowledges it.  Trees and plants alongside road and rail provide refuge for many birds, plants and animals.  So what is the big deal?  Surely a new railway line will actually provide a lot of wildlife habitat?  Well, yes.  The problem is that most of this habitat is relatively low-grade, and supports relatively few species, and is of relatively low quality.  High quality habitats, such as lowland heath in Staffordshire, or ancient woodland, or SSSI, take many years to develop.  These habitats may be small in area but they are high in quality, with many ecological niches that support a wide diversity of plants and animals.  You cannot recreate this – once it is gone, it is gone forever.  And little by little we are destroying ancient woodland, justifying it by the benefit to the economy, and by the fact that it is only a little bit we are destroying.
But the fact is you cannot replace the crown jewels with a skipload of cheap jewellery, which is effectively what we are doing here – destroying beautiful, high quality, rich habitat and replacing it with a lot of low-grade habitat.  In doing so we do two things:  first, we diminish the available ecological niches and reduce diversity and second, we reduce the connectivity between remnants of the ancient habitats and thus reduce its resilience to insult.  And insults come, either from construction of the railway itself, or from natural events such as fire, flood, drought, chemical incidents and so on.
HS2 to the North will pave over an area of countryside the size of the City of Manchester.  It will also open the way to construction on open countryside for housing and businesses associated with the railway.
HS2 will cross the Coventry Canal
The fact is we cannot continue to consume the countryside.  But what about the economy?!  Well, what about it?  The business case for HS2 is built on some quite heroic assumptions – that new jobs will be created (other than in the construction of the railway itself), that increased capacity is required, that the railway is carbon friendly and sustainable.  All of these can and have been challenged.  The Public Accounts Committee has already amber/red-flagged the project from the economic viability viewpoint.  The fact is that in other countries where high speed rail has been built, some communities have been winners and some losers, but the issue of whether jobs have actually been created, as opposed to moved around is very unclear.  The benefits of the railway have been valued to include knock-on jobs such as catering, but the costs have not included knock-on losses of jobs which either move (relocate towards the new stations), or are lost (if, for example, people switch from flying and existing slower trains, with loss of jobs, catering and so on, not to mention businesses destroyed by the line itself).
HS2 will pass behind this mound and through visitor centre
Nowhere in the economic case is the opportunity cost mentioned:  that is, the cost of what is lost if you spend the money on HS2 as opposed to something else e.g. local transport links and hubs, proper freight connectivity from East to West coasts, schools, hospitals and so on.  Alternatives to HS2 have been considered in terms of different types of transport links, but no full opportunity cost appraisal has been carried out.
And worst of all, nature and ancient woodlands are not valued at all, other than at the value of the land.  Yet woodlands and forests can in themselves benefit economy, wildlife and community in a sustainable way, and in a way that rail links cannot.  Land is valued just at market value, not at its potential economic value, be that in farming, business, sustainable forestry or from the ecosystem and services that it provides.  Even if the principle of reducing everything to a monetary cost is uncomfortable, the fact is that nature provides economic benefits of a huge amount already, and has the potential to deliver a lot more.
Alvecote Wood – ancient woodland habitat
The railway will not go through our woods or our house, although it will pass close to the woods – indeed, our woods are one of the closest ancient woodlands to the line apart from those through which it will pass.  But it will affect our wildlife. Our landscape-scale conservation project is under threat as the railway cuts through and potentially cuts off some of our partners, and makes it harder for wildlife to move freely along the Anker Valley corridor.  It will compromise the very thing that we have been urged to do by the Government in the Natural Environment White Paper, underpinned by the Lawton Report.  Shy wildlife is likely to retreat from the construction, perhaps never to return. Already-tenuous connections will be severed.  A local Forest School base is now threatened, and children may lose the ability to learn in a natural woodland environment.  Communities who have invested time, effort and money in the wildlife parks on their doorstep will now lose out.
And homes and communities will be blighted.  Is this NIMBYism?  Suppose you had struggled all your life to pay for a house, or to build up a business in rented property.  And suddenly you find your house cannot be sold to pay for your long-term residential care.  Or your business will be bulldozed, leaving you to move, and lose the goodwill and clientele you have built up.  Farmers can’t move easily, be they tenants or landowners, yet many face their land being cut through, buildings and businesses on the site destroyed, and links between fields and farm buildings severed.  This is not NIMBYism, it is about real suffering caused to real people, many of whom cannot get compensation in the time-frame within which it is required – indeed, some can’t get compensation at all.  It is about fairness – it is about making sure that advantage for some is not gained at the expense of disadvantage to others. It is about fair treatment for communities and people wherever they happen to live.
But mostly it is about the destruction of wildlife and habitats – habitats that are, by the Government’s own admission, valuable.  Habitats that have been supported by public money and community goodwill.  Habitats which have taken thousands of years to develop will be destroyed by drawing a line on a map.  It is about selling the crown jewels for a skipload of plastic.  A few people will undoubtedly gain from HS2, but everybody will lose.  Just how much longer can we go on chipping away at the crown jewels of our countryside?