Book review: Common and Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland

Common and Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland

A book for bird enthusiasts, especially those specialising in waders. 160 pages of facts and figures covering probably every aspect of the lives of these two specialist shorebirds. Phil Holland depicts their similarities and differences, in particular the contrasting methods of their breeding behaviour. He explores their migration before and after breeding, their preferences for nesting territories and the various factors which affect their nesting success.

The book is brim-full of photographs, sketches and graphs illustrating the points being made by the author, which make it a much more informative read. He even looks at why some birds have evolved to be polyandrous and the advantages to the spotted sandpiper of this unusual method of reproduction. I found the reasons fascinating as to how the female spotted sandpiper decides on the best male or males to whom she can entrust a clutch of eggs.

The author has crammed 40 years’ experience of studying the lives of these birds into a book which will undoubtedly give pleasure and knowledge to most birders. I’ve never yet seen a spotted sandpiper but will watch common sandpipers now with much more interest and increased awareness.

Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £18.99

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Goshawks galore!


I had a lovely couple of walks during this past week on an estate not too far from Perth. On both occasions the days were sunny and with light wind. I try to avoid walking on windy days as wildlife seems to have the sense to stay under cover.

On the first of the two days I was on the edge of a narrow strip of woodland with a lovely mix of native trees interspersed with one or two conifers. A yearling roe doe, in resplendent summer coat of foxy red stepped daintily out of some bushes and surveyed its surroundings. I doubted that it would see me as I was motionless and to a degree blended in with the gate I was leaning against. What little wind there was unfortunately blew from the south from me towards the deer. It lifted its head, facing in my direction, clearly got my scent and retreated, albeit without panic, back into the bushes.

Suddenly three young pheasants about 100 yards from me jumped in the air and began to cuck, cuck, cuck in alarm. I thought they’d been spooked by a fox but seconds later a female sparrowhawk landed in a small rowan tree just in front of me. She had lovely slate grey and white bars on her breast and leg feathers and was close enough that I could see her yellow, piercing, eye. She had most likely flown low over the pheasants, as hunting sparrowhawks do, and was unseen by me until she landed. I slowly reached into my pocket for the camera but the sparrowhawk, much persecuted for centuries and in fact the last of the raptors to be protected by law, was not for posing and flew off to the other side of the wood.  The pheasants, still alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stealthy predator, continued to cuck cuck cuck for some time after it had gone. Even the much smaller male sparrowhawk has the same effect on my domestic ducks at home: they often dive into the pond if a sparrowhawk flies over, and they quack in alarm, often for a good 15 minutes afterwards.

Amazingly the next birds I saw were much bigger versions of the sparrowhawk: goshawks. I had walked further westwards along the woodland and was sitting on a stile having a sandwich when three birds appeared in the air about a quarter of a mile further west. I thought of the oft-quoted tale about buses: you wait for ages for one and then three come along at the same time. So it was with the goshawks, with the last one I’d seen being around seven years earlier. They are normally pretty secretive birds, mostly keeping to woodlands where they hunt small mammals and birds up to the size of an adult pheasant. In the springtime they display with an undulating skydance above their woodland nest site but what I was being treated to today was, I am sure, a form of training.

Of the three one was much larger and was clearly a female. The other two were male. I suspected they may have been this year’s youngsters though could equally have been the female’s partner plus one youngster. Unfortunately they were just out of the range needed to make this differentiation. The three were diving at each other in mock aggression, with the main player being the female. They were probably about 150 metres high and at one point the female closed her wings and plummeted towards the ground in a stoop that would have done credit to a peregrine. She rose again and this mock sky battle continued for at least five minutes until unfortunately they were lost to my view behind trees. It was interesting to note their underwing colour, which was much lighter and much more even that those of buzzards, birds of a similar size, and which very often have dark and light patches under their wings. The goshawks’ wings were broad and short, which facilitates their fantastic manoeuvrability through the narrowest gaps in trees in their more usual environment, woodlands.

This was a fantastic display by top avian predators. I thought of the prey species in the woodland underneath the trio of raptors and wondered how they were reacting. All was quiet and I suspect the pheasants had hidden out of sight. Rabbits would have been perfect prey for the goshawk family but they seem to have been killed off in the area by viral haemorrhagic disease, a disease that is even more deadly than myxomatosis.

On my second walk I was still on the same estate though a couple of miles northwest. I was in an ancient woodland that has a loch in the centre. I was interested in three birds on the loch that were sometimes bobbing on the surface and other times disappeared underwater and which I thought would be some variety of grebe, but my attention was attracted by an osprey which had come from the far side of the loch and was now flying over my head. Unbelievably, following on the same parallel course but a bit higher was a goshawk. The colour of the underside showed that it was an adult and, since I had the osprey to give a size comparison, I suspect the goshawk was a male. It was remarkable that I’d never seen a goshawk for years and here was one for the second time in a week.

And the three birds on the loch? Two  had disappeared and one was hiding in reeds at the side of the loch, but they were little grebes.

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Guest blog – Wildlife of the Lake District

For a change I have a guest blog, requested by Sacha Francis, social media executive from Bristol. Sacha is keen that extol the virtues of the wildlife of the Lake District. There are some lovely photos on her link…….

From the largest land mammal in the UK to the fastest animal on earth the Lake District is home to a myriad of wildlife all with their own unique traits and characteristics. From the species-rich hay meadows and mossy woodlands in the valley bottoms, up to the windswept fells and crags which give the Lake District its unmistakable skyline wildlife is in abundance.

The Red Squirrel

With the ever-present threat from the non-native grey squirrel there is a huge amount of voluntary conservation done to help protect the red squirrel. Recently the elusive pine marten has been introduced into the region to try and help these tufted-eared creatures hang on in Cumbria.

The Red Deer

With stags weighing up to 190kg, red deer are crowned the UK’s largest land mammal and have been here in the Lake District for centuries. Easily seen at dusk or dawn on the South-east shore of Ullswater, Martindale is home to one of the oldest herds of red deer in England.

The Peregrine Falcon

With a famous dive that can reach speeds of up to 300km/h peregrine falcons are the fastest creatures on the planet. Females are larger than their male counterparts with wingspans of up to 120cm. They have made a near miraculous recovery from virtual extinction due to poisoning in the early part of the 20th century and thankfully their numbers remain steadily increasing. Doing particularly well in cities now they can often be found using the edges of cathedrals, art galleys and tower blocks as alternatives to cliffs and crags for nesting. In the Lake District you can spot them in and around the well named Falcon Crag.

Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts

Last but not least the pied flycatchers call the mossy, fern filled, oak woodlands around the edge of Ullswater home. The beautiful birds seek out holes in the trees to nest and rear their young. Unfortunately, they are now on the red list of conservation concern having seen a steady reduction of the type of mature woodland they like to dwell in. If you look in the right places however you are very likely to see them, try Hallinhag Wood on the South-East shore of Ullswater between May and July…

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Book review: The Biology and Management of Animal Welfare by Frauke Ohl and Rory Putman

The Biology and Management of Animal Welfare

This relatively short book (130 pages) has tested my thoughts for a review. It primarily covers animal welfare including public perceptions, ethics and animal experimentation. With the technical veterinary and scientific terms, abbreviations, acronyms and reference to earlier scientific papers I could almost have been reading legal jargon, with scientific papers replacing references to case law. The difference is I am familiar with the latter.  For the layman the book content is just too technical. I re-read many parts of the book and was still struggling to understand what was being said. That is in no way meaning to detract from the authors, who are clearly masters in their particular field in the universities of Utrecht and Glasgow.

There were many times, after I had read a part of the book, that I was pleading for the authors to give a practical example and to relate their opinions or conclusions to, say, a pig or a cow or a deer. On the few occasions there were explanations in layman’s terms in a box feature it made a world of difference.

Having said all this I perfectly understand that the book was not written for the likes of me but for those wishing to progress to be, or to further their studies, in veterinary practice, wildlife biology or a similar science. They will already have the basic grounding to make this book an excellent advanced teaching facility.

The Biology and Management of Animal Welfare, Frauke Ohl, Rory Putman and members of DWM, Utrecht.  Whittles Publishing Ltd., Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £22.50

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By-catch of tunnel traps – comment

Red squirrel caught on bridge trap on an estate in Angus

An ideal entrance to a tunnel trap

An article today on the blog Raptor Persecution UK shows several very clear photographs of a dead ring ouzel caught in a rail or bridge trap (see ) This is the type of trap set in huge numbers in the UK, particularly on driven grouse moors. Some are set legally and some are not. In this particular case the person who set the trap, most likely one of the estate gamekeepers, had complied with the law in that the entrance was restricted within the terms of the various Spring Traps (Approval) Orders of the constituent countries of the UK. Nevertheless, a non-target species has been caught and killed and it is just one of many that will be the by-catch of these traps.

I have seen dippers, ring ouzels, grouse, hedgehogs, rabbits, leverets, red squirrels, pine martens and cats caught as by-catch in these traps, many of which, like this trap, were legally set. I have no doubt that in many cases the trap user regretted that these animals had been caught but it is still a situation that is unacceptable.

The police have a difficult enough task in establishing (a) that a crime has been committed, due to the woolly and unsatisfactory wording of the legislation, and (b) who set the trap. I have advocated for years that the law in relation to the use of tunnel traps needs to be revisited and tightened up, but note the paragraph from my book Killing by Proxy:

These failings need to be addressed and a chance to do this is coming. Both DEFRA and the Scottish Government are working on changes to trap legislation. Under the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS) Fenn traps and some others are no longer considered humane for some fur-bearing mammals. In the UK this applies to stoats, even though they are not caught here for their fur. A new design of trap is required and tests are being carried out. This is an ideal chance to incorporate changes that will prevent, or at least minimise, by-catch.

Along with whatever changes may eventually take place the following should be considered as a priority:

  • An entrance to the tunnel of maximum prescribed dimensions
  • The tunnel covered over to exclude light, and thus minimise the risk of birds entering
  • A number supplied by the police and identifying the trap user, displayed on a tag on the trap as in the manner of snares in Scotland.
  • A presumption in law that the person who set the trap is the person whose number appears on the tag
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Hen harrier nesting success in England. Cheer, but maybe not too loudly.

Hen harrier chicks in a Perthshire nest (photo taken under licence)

Reading the various articles and listening to the accounts of breeding success of hen harrier in the north of England this year the lay-person would be of the view that there is a considerable improvement in the fortunes of these most persecuted of raptors. There is no doubt that nine successful nests with 24 chicks fledged is good news but I suspect congratulations must be held slightly in check.

I listened to the BBC Farming Today programme, where comments on the successful nesting were given by Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association and Cathleen Thomas of the RSPB hen harrier Life project.  Amanda claims that 60% of the successful nests were on moors managed for red grouse.

A Natural England press release claims, ‘There were 14 nesting attempts of which nine were successful in producing chicks. Unfortunately three nests failed due to predation and two due to a polygamous male struggling to provide two nests at once. Half of the attempts, four of which were successful, were on National Nature Reserves. While all other attempts and successful nests were on land managed for grouse shooting; one of these nests was just off the moorland on a hill farm in-bye land’.

This sounds great news but the blog Raptor Persecution UK claims that of the four successful nests said to be on grouse moors, three were on United Utilities-owned land and one on National Trust-owned land. The blog article claims that there was ‘not a single successful hen harrier nest on a privately-owned grouse moor anywhere in northern England’.

In her interview on BBC Farming Today, Kathleen Thomas said that, of the nine successful nests, seven were protected by the RSPB. It stands to reason that if a nest is known to be protected then the chance of human interference diminishes considerably.

Amanda Anderson also brings in the DEFRA Action Plan to the equation, detailing the (daft) brood management plans for relocation of eggs. I don’t see the relevance of this at this stage and in any case this sop to grouse shooting estates rather than have them simply obey the law like the rest of us will hopefully be killed off before it has a chance to get underway.

So let’s not trash the improvement, modest though it is. There are many factors at play, not least the amount of voles available to the harriers. It needs now to continue year on year. It also has to involve privately-owned driven grouse moors before we can throw our hats in the air. Successfully fledged harriers on these moors will be the real test.

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Four new hens

Three of my original four black rock hens

The new quartet of Rhode rock hens having just been shut out of the henhouse on their first morning

The new hens on their second day – much more relaxed and enjoying a snooze

I had been thinking for a while I would need to increase my stock of hens. Over the past couple of years the flock, for one reason or another, has dwindled from seven to three. The three that remain are black rock hens, which is a lovely hardy, docile breed. As an experiment I thought I would try a slight variation on black rocks and this time went for Rhode rocks. Rhode rocks are a cross between a Rhode Island red cockerel (a very old breed which used to be crossed with light Sussex to produce hens which were reasonable layers but were also quite good table birds) and barred Plymouth Rock hybrid hens.

My contact for Rhode rocks was Donald MacDonald from Struan on Skye. I have bought khaki Campbell ducks from Donald for the past 20 years though this is the first time I have tried his hens. My wife and I travelled to Oban on Tuesday to the central point at the auction mart where Donald distributes his hens and ducks to a host of customers, most of whom are regulars. My henhouse is not large and seven or eight hens would be its maximum capacity. I therefore increased my flock by four.

Integrating two lots of hens can be problematic and to try to minimise any bullying on the new quartet by the original trio I put the new hens right into the henhouse with food and water. This gives them a chance to eat and drink in peace, which I m sure they appreciate after their long trek from the west of Skye via the auction mart at Fort William, the auction mart at Oban then on to Perthshire. About 9.45 pm, once they were roosting, I opened the boleyhole and allowed access to the original three hens. It was semi dark, giving them less chance to bully the newcomers, and pretty soon all seven were on the perches sitting quietly.

Next morning, I opened the boleyhole about 6.00 am. The three black rocks came out but the Rhode rocks stayed put.  I gave them a couple of hours but they still remained inside. This was not really surprising as I don’t think the hens, at 17 weeks old, had ever been outside in their lives. I eventually had to push them out and shut the flap behind them.

The four wee souls stood outside the henhouse on their ‘veranda’ looking absolutely lost. Compared to the two-year-old black rocks they were extremely pale (peely-wally was the expression I used) and looked as if whatever brain they possessed had been removed. In due course they jumped down on to the ground and stood in a huddle. I had put more layers’ meal and water near to them as I wanted to build their strength up. They began to feed, drink and eventually became slightly more lively.

The three black rocks had been doing a fair bit of cackling, not sure yet what to make of the intruders. There was a very occasional skirmish between the two groups during the day but with no serious consequences and really just to establish a pecking order. I’d a roll of netting in place to divide the hen run into two but that was not necessary.

By Thursday the Rhode rocks were becoming far more adventurous and exploring the length of the 50 metre-long run. The three black rocks mostly ignored them and though the two groups kept separate when their paths did cross there was no hostility. This is the easiest integration of two lots of hens I have had and I hope this early success continues.


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