Apparently it took me ages to say my first word, but when I did eventually decide to make myself heard I pronounced 'horse' with such clarity that it took my mum aback. I think the fact that I could look out on to a stable yard from my cot must have had something to do with it. Strange too that my first word really stuck with me - I am completely in love with anything equestrian to this day!
So I'm really pleased that amongst my little boy's first words has been a whole host of 'natural' nouns. Leaf, bug, bird and flower are some of his favourites. He also prefers nothing better than digging in the garden, going to visit the fish in the pond down the lane or lying below a big oak tree in the sun and laughing at the rustling of the leaves. I am equally pleased that the local nursery that my son goes too a couple of days a week are really in to getting the children in their care out and about and enjoying the outdoors as much as they can. But I fear that this kind of attitude, with outdoor learning awarded only a meagre government budget , is one that is dwindling. That is why it is so important that organisations like the RSPB can keep providing outdoor education opportunities and activities like they do.
One of the first things that I did when I first arrived as a new staff member at the RSPB in Norwich, was to head down to Whitlingham Country Park where the RSPB run a field teaching scheme in association with the Broads Authority. A big coach full of children from an urban primary school arrived and we spent the day with them searching for minibeasts in the woods, running through the meadow in search of ladybirds and dipping for water boatmen in the Broad. It was fantastic to see a class full of children devouring their sandwiches at lunch time, hungry after a morning spent with the sun on their backs and the freedom to play and run.
So let us keep pressing for every child to get time outdoors! The fact that the term Nature Deficit Disorder has even been termed is proof that this is something we need to act on. Long live grass stained knees, splashing in puddles and having the space to run free.
For more information about the RSPB's outdoor education opportunities visit www.rspb.org,uk/ourwork/teaching
Grass snake image copyright Kevin Simmonds, www.wildlifeimagery.co.uk
Snakes are up there with spiders and sharks in the ‘horror movie’ wildlife list. An unexpected encounter with a snake is guaranteed to make your heart beat raise a notch or two. Our primeval instincts kick in and for many of us our first thought is ‘danger!’
Snakes well and truly get bad press; if they’re not portrayed as scary then they are believed to be somehow sinister or conniving. But last weekend I had an experience that led me to rethink my views on snakes.
At the bottom of my little garden is a pile of rotting logs and some long grass that I pretend doesn’t exist. I was hunting for ladybirds (under the strict instruction of my bossy two year old) when something caught my eye. Curled up on a log, basking in the sun was a snake, perfectly still. It was dark green, with a yellow collar on its neck – a grass snake. It was so oblivious to me peering at it that any initial sense of worry just melted away and I reminded myself that there really is no need for hasty exits with our native grass snakes.
Grass snakes may be the UK’s largest reptile, the largest even growing to the length of an adult human, but they are non-venomous and very shy. In fact, the worst thing they are likely to do is smell horrible. When under threat, they produce a foul, garlicky fluid from their anal glands to put off a potential predator. Their other trick to avoid trouble is to play dead, literally going limp and floppy with their mouth gaping open until they feel safe again.
You’re most likely to spot a grass snake in areas close to water with a good supply of their favourite food, frogs and toads. The grass snake is actually a brilliant swimmer and will take to the water to find prey. Even if you’re not lucky enough to see one, you may well find their skin near to a pond edge. They moult at least once a year, sloughing off the old skin in one whole piece.
As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes need the heat of the sun to warm up them up. This means you are only likely to see them between April and October because, sensibly, they hibernate during the colder months when our British winter means there simply isn’t enough sunshine to get them out of bed. They’ll be underground, having found a cosy hole to hide away in, safe from ground frosts.
In 2007, the grass snake was included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a species requiring greater protection and they are also protected by law. You can help grass snakes as well as lots of other species by leaving a corner of your garden untouched and putting in a pond. I can’t wait for my next snake encounter.
Every summer, when I was young, my parents would take me and my brother off camping for a fortnight’s holiday. These camping trips were always carefree and despite the inevitable rainy days stuck in the tent, the middle-of-the-night trip to the loos in my wellies and having to boil our water the ‘old-fashioned way’, I wouldn’t have changed them for anything. Camping does however, expose a whole new world; a world that emerges when everyone else is tucked up in their houses, to flutter and gossip around the nearest light source. I hate to admit it, but I used to be terrified of moths, they would dart and woosh past my hair and were pretty scary creatures.
With experiences like this all too familiar for a lot of us, it’s easy to see why moths can be given bad press. However, a recent trip to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen to try and overcome my fear of these mysterious creatures did not disappoint. Huddled round the large moth trap, we found some beautiful and wonderfully different moths tucked away in every corner. I never realised just how distinguished moths could be and I was even more taken aback with the eclectic and charming names given to some of the species. In our trap that morning we had sandy carpet, lime speck pug, sallow kitten, canary shouldered thorn, blood vein and my favourite of the morning, mother of pearl. Many of these names are attributed to the individual who first discovered it. Some however, are slightly more whimsical in nature.
Now, I said my favourite of the morning was mother of pearl simply because it was so beautiful. Subtle and shimmering, it sat so patiently while we all ooo’d and ahhh’d. This small and delicate moth stood in stark contrast to the bigger stars of the show though. The magnificent garden tiger moth along with some of our other larger moths such as the poplar hawkmoth or the hummingbird hawkmoth (pictured) will really leave you mesmerised.
The hummingbird hawkmoth is by far the most spectacular that i’ve seen this summer and it certainly lives up to its name. They beat their wings at such a speed that you can actually hear them before you see them. However, once you do catch a glimpse you will hopefully be as taken with them as I am. Hummingbird hawkmoths are attracted to flowers with a plentiful supply of nectar, such as honeysuckle and buddleia, so if this sounds like your back garden, be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for this wonderful creature.
If you need anymore convincing about moths, then pop along to an event yourself at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen or any of our other reserves around the region. Check out the website for more information by clicking here
Sometimes we are reminded just how vulnerable the natural world is and how at mercy of human actions it is at all times.
No one could have watched the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster without fearing for marine and bird life.
Just yesterday, we had one of those ‘oh no’ moments in our region too, with the news that about 500 litres of oil had leaked from a ship in the Thames Estuary. The oil soon spread and reached to Canvey Island and washed up on beaches. Still reeling with recent footage from America, my mind couldn’t help but fill with shocking images of oil coated birds, struggling to survive.
In the Thames in particular, many thousands of ducks, geese and wading birds use the Estuary as an important stop-over and refuelling point on their migration south from their Arctic breeding grounds. If they land in polluted areas and get oil on their feathers it can damage the waterproofing and insulation and at worst prevent them from flying. In the longer term, if oil gets into the estuary mud, it could poison much of the food the birds depend on to survive the winter.
Thankfully, the impacts of this spill appear to be minimal. As with any spill, we’ll be monitoring the wildlife closely and if you are concerned about any individual birds, then do contact a local welfare organisation such as the RSPCA.
It’s a fragile, fragile world.
Image Mike Richards, RSPB Images: An oiled guillemot - thankfully an archived image not from the recent Essex oil spill
Often, in spring, I’m thrilled to hear an unusual wailing call sailing its way with the wind across RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. It sounds like a high-pitched referee’s whistle. This means one thing – the stone curlews are back.
These birds are extremely rare and I always feel privileged to be able to go and see them at Minsmere (not something that everyone gets to do because they are so sensitive to disturbance). Only 347 pairs breed in the UK.
Stone curlews have an extremely unusual courtship display – they spread their tails and wings and run around chasing each other. They are actually classified as wading birds but breed on dry, very bare habitats. In fact, one of the tasks I undertook as a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere this winter was surveying the stone curlew habitat. This took me several days of assessing the numbers of stones, vegetation height and quantity of rabbit poo in squares around the fields at Minsmere. It wasn’t the most exciting job ever, but certainly important given how unusual this species is.
As a species stone curlews suffered one of the fastest ever declines – they lost 85% of their UK population between the 1940s-1980s and fell to around 150 breeding pairs. Their recovery is largely thanks to the work of the RSPB and a lot of it has taken place in the east of England. On the Suffolk coast, Minsmere has become the epicentre of stone curlew breeding.
So how has Minsmere managed this? Well, we have created new stone curlew habitat by converting old arable land back into grassland and heathland. This is called arable reversion. We also provide things like electric fences to protect nest sites from predators.
A lot of this work requires external funding, and some of this funding comes from something called Higher Level Stewardship.
Higher Level Stewardship is a government scheme which provides money for conservation. Personally I hate acronyms and technical jargon, so let me explain. Higher Level Stewardship rewards landowners for measures they take to improve conditions for wildlife.
In part thanks to this funding, Minsmere now has five breeding pairs of stone curlews which this year successfully fledged nine chicks.
Now for the bad news (to fit in with the dramatic picture of a tractor ready to demolish a stone curlew nest at the top of this blog). Higher Level Stewardship is just one scheme which funds wildlife and conservation which is under threat from government spending cuts.
In the east of England, during the 10-year life of all our reserves’ various HLS schemes the RSPB will have received £400,000 for capital works (i.e. one-off costs such as infrastructure – gates or fences for example). HLS provides money which, as you can see, brings direct wildlife benefits on reserves and farms all across the east of England.
So what can we do? Well, we need to halt biodiversity loss, and the coalition government has committed to do this. And we need to send the government and MPs a clear message – Don’t cut our countryside. Today, you can join those who have already sent this message to their politicians. And this week also marks a special milestone. We have now received over 300, 000 signatures for our Letter to the Future campaign asking the government to take spending decisions which benefit nature, wildlife and the environment. You can sign this too.
Matt Williams, Assistant Warden, RSPB Snape