Before I say anything else, I am Under Strict Instruction from one Mr Ted Westie to pass on his delight at the response to his request for new Pigeon Watchers Club members. He tells me that membership now stands at a Whooping 14, including several new International Members. He is Thrilled and has been Pigeon Watching here over the weekend with renewed vigour and dedication ever since (although Poppy got distracted by a fly and was in imminent danger of having her membership revoked as a result. It took some sorting out, believe me.....) :o)
Right, on with the post.
I signed up at the tail end of last year to do some Breeding Bird Surveys for the BTO and was assigned a square up on The Chalk. It is the most beautiful transect to walk, running through bluebell woods, crossing an ancient Roman road and following a section of the Clarendon Way across acres of rolling farmland, before coming out in a idyllic medieval village stuffed full with chocolate-box-type thatched cottages. It takes in some really stunning countryside, which more or less makes up for the fact that Breeding Bird Surveys are Summer Affairs that start as close to Dawn as you can persuade your aging body to get up and go outside for. As a result of this I fell asleep on the sofa at 2pm with the dogs crashed out beside me, and only woke when Waitrose turned up at 4 to deliver our weekly food shop, sending Teddy off into full on Guard Dog Patrol Bark Mode.
You may understand this better when I tell you I was awake at 4.30am yesterday, was up at 5 and had started the survey by 5.50.
They are run along Very Precise Rules. You complete two surveys, the first early April to mid May and the second mid May to late June, with each at least four weeks apart. They need to be done so they avoid the frenetic activity of dawn and the quieter time from mid morning on. We don't do them in heavy rain or strong wind either and you record weather conditions as well as start and finish times. The birds you see and hear are all noted down in one of three sections on the form: within 25m of the transect line, between 25-100m of the line and more than 100m of the line. Each species has a specific code attached to it and you use an arrow under the code to represent birds you see in flight. Juveniles aren't recorded and you also don't make a distinction between males and females. In addition to this, you note down details of the habitat type for each of the 200m sections along the two transect lines.
Sounds quite complicated and I have to admit quailing when I first saw the forms, but actually they are reasonably self-explanatory and as soon as you start you realise it really isn't rocket science....
You do have to be reasonably proficient at recognising bird song to do these surveys because, believe it or not, you don't actually see many birds while surveying. Last summer I would not have been good enough - my ability to confidently id birds from song alone was restricted to our regular garden visitors, but I have worked and worked at bird song ids and am now not too bad. The list recorded yesterday stands at:
Wood Pigeon (more of these than anything else!)
Red Legged Partridge
I was surprised not to hear Blue Tits, Green Finches or Goldcrests, but perhaps we'll get those on the second trip. The other thing that's worth noting is that it is Hard Work concentrating for over an hour on each and every bird call at a time of day when they are all shouting loudly at the same time. My head was spinning by the end and, much as I enjoyed it, it was something of a relief just to enjoy the birdsong and not work out who was who when we finished!
All the recordings are sent to the BTO who then use them to monitor species trends and advise Government and European conservation legislation as well as habitat management, so the surveys are vitally important.
We only had the little camera and my mobile with us, so the pics are not really up to my usual high exacting standards (!), but I want to show you the magical thing that happened while we were surveying....
A beautiful Brown Hare came hopping up the track towards us. We both froze, I thought he hadn't seen us and would hop over our feet. He came ever so close, but eventually he hopped under a gate a few feet away and went into the next door field.
I love hares, they are magical creatures.
In 1800 there were approx. 4 million hares in Britain, but they are thought to have suffered an 80% population decline in the last 100 years, and they are now believed to be entirely absent from some areas of the country.
There are very few, if any, left in the west of the UK- instead the main bulk of the population resides in the east with its large number of arable fields.
Certainly, I used to see a lot more of them 20 years ago. Watching Mad March Hares boxing was a not uncommon site when I lived up on The Chalk, but its now a phenomenon that few people have seen. Habitat loss, changes in farming practice, hedgerow removal and pesticide use are the likely culprits. As well as hunting and persecution. The pesticide one is nasty- it gets on their paws while they are hopping among fields looking for food, so they lick them to try and clean them, ingest the toxins and die a painful death. Illegal trapping and hare coursing are barbaric too.
They are considered a pest species by some farmers because they eat some crops. The Brown Hare's preferred food source is actually grasses and herbs, with grasses forming their summer diet and herbs the winter food source. If you take all the grass and herbs out of an environment by removing hedges and creating mono-cultures of cereals and vegetables then you leave the wildlife little chance to feed naturally, so they will turn to whatever is available to them. It's the same problem otters face with over-stocked fishing lakes and rivers. They're an irresistible draw- an easy meal. Our local keeper allows a budget of £6000 to feed his otters per annum, reasoning that it's his responsibility to look after them. If only everyone was so enlightened when it came to caring for the wildlife on their patch.
The huge loss in hay meadows and the preference for silage making has also impacted heavily on hares, both as food and shelter sources. The farming practice of stripping fields bare of cover over winter also hasn't helped them, although thanks to environmental farming schemes that is decreasing now.
For some reason best known to DEFRA (let's not start on that one or we'll be here all night) hares are the only game species NOT to have a closed season. This means they can be legitimately shot all year round, including when they have young. Leverets (baby hares) are thus orphaned and left to starve. A campaign to get them a closed season was rejected by the Government in 2013. Because of this, the only legislation that gives hares a modicum of protection dates from 1892, which is a tad ancient, even by archaic UK conservation legislation standards.
They do have their own BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) which aimed to double their numbers by 2010. I doubt that has been achieved. But, the good news is that hares appear to be relatively resilient at bouncing back when given a chance- there are records of hares breeding in every month now, presumably a climate-change link is at work there, so if we can look after their habitat better hopefully they can make a come back. As with all things, we also need to demonstrate that hares are not responsible for decimating crops by themselves and can live peacefully side by side with agriculture.
They are remarkable creatures- did you know they can accelerate up to 45mph?
If you want to know more, or feel moved to support them in a more direct way, the Hare Preservation Trust's website can be found here . Membership is £10 per year and I have just joined :o) I've also registered the sighting with them- if you live in the UK and happen to see any Hares when you're out and about I'm sure they'd be very grateful for the record. The form can be found at their website and is very easy to use.
I'll leave you with a few pics from yesterday's breeding bird survey, taken on the mobile so apologies for the quality, but you get the sense of very early morning, hopefully? I'll take the proper camera out with me next time....
Hope you're all well?