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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Update on our garden wildlife

The hedgehog’s route from the wood, through the hens’ enclosure and across the blue bridge to its nightly banquet of mealworms and sunflower hearts, washed down with a bowl of water

‘Our’ red squirrel

There has been a small amount of rain today (12th July) at the end of an exceptionally long dry spell of weather. The weather has been too good for being indoors writing blogs and I have made much progress in the garden. With a garden of 1.5 acres it is quite difficult to keep up with tasks but I’m not too far behind now.

The dry spell has made life very difficult for creatures that depend on worms, slugs and other invertebrates for food. I’ve been feeding mealworms to the two pairs of blackbirds four or five times a day. Between feeds they have been hopping about on the parched grass in search of worms, which are currently far too deep for them to access. The pair with the tame female that has been here for at least five years reared two broods this year. I only ever saw one fledgling from the first brood at the stage when they develop their full-length tails and it unfortunately flew into the conservatory window and was killed. The second brood has been more successful and there are at least three still being fed by mum and dad.

There has been a pair of song thrushes regularly searching the garden for food. They are much shyer birds and more reluctant to come to food that is on offer by humans. I have not seen any fledgling song thrushes and I suspect they will have died of starvation either in the nest or soon after fledging.

Of the other birds that have successfully nested there are plenty of young blue tits, great tits, robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, siskins, house sparrows and wrens. Young coal tits and spotted flycatchers are absent this year (no spotted flycatchers arrived, though house sparrows renovated and adapted their last yea’s nest in wisteria against the west gable of the house), Because the level of the burn running through the garden is so low dippers and grey wagtails, here earlier in the year, have disappeared.

Hedgehogs, like some of the birds, are also having a hard time finding food.  I leave the gates open from the hens’ enclosure at night once the hens are to bed and at least one hedgehog appears round about 10.30 pm toddling through the hens’ run, across the blue bridge over the burn and straight for a pile of sunflower hearts and mealworms I leave out (with a bowl of water) under one of the bird feeding stations. It does not deviate from its regular route and, once on the grass, glides across like it is a wee spiky toy on wheels.

We have red squirrels on and off, sometimes up to three at a time. After a few squirrel-less months there is presently one coming almost daily to two of the peanut feeders. Unlike earlier squirrels this one seems not to have learned to use the squirrel feeder, though sits on top of it regularly.  I have the lid partly open to encourage it but so far the only takers are coal tits, which squeeze in through the gap and fly off with a peanut.

I was surprised the other day to find a full-grown toad hopping through the hen run. The hen run and the wood above it are almost as dry as a desert just now, with a real dearth of foxgloves this year. The toad seemed to know where it was heading and made straight for the burn, passing our black rock hens that were looking on in amazement at this strange intruder in their midst. The toad jumped in to the water with a splash and immediately looked far more at home. Even with the scarcity of water in the burn it is a far better environment than parched woodland.

Postscript: Two hedgehogs at the late-night banquet now. The one that appears from the wood is slightly smaller and darker than the other. No antagonism towards each other and they clearly know each other. Would be nice is one is a female with wee bristly hedgehogs somewhere in the garden.


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Two red kites poisoned in Northern Ireland – comment

Poisoned red kite found on an estate near Aberfeldy in Perthshire.

What a tragedy in County Down in Northern Ireland reported in the media just the other day. A female red kite was found dead on a nest, still covering her eggs, while the male of the pair was found unwell close by and died soon after being discovered.

The incident took place on 24 April, with the bodies being passed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for toxicology examinations.  The results showed that both birds had ingested a pesticide that has been banned EU-wide since 2001: carbofuran.

The RSPB are to be commended for trying to save the three eggs by fostering them on to other red kite nests. Two fostered to one nest failed, while the result in the second nest is uncertain, though the nest did eventually contain one chick.

Emma Meredith, the long-time wildlife liaison officer for PSNI, made a really important point in her press appeal for information, stating, “Carbofuran (is) an incredibly dangerous substance and one which can kill birds of prey but also a child, family pet or any adult coming into contact with it.

Over the years birds of prey and pets have been frequent victims of pesticides set out illegally. We need look no further than a case currently being investigated by Police Scotland in the Aberfeldy area of Perthshire where two buzzards and three working dogs were poisoned. If the use of this (and other) deadly pesticides continues there is a real risk of a human death resulting. A very small amount of these carbamate-based pesticides being ingested could be fatal. Other pesticides such as strychnine and mevinphos are even more deadly and all result in the most painful and horrendous death for the victim.

It seems that we continue to take three steps forward and two back in dealing with raptor persecution. Every time the situation looks as if it is improving we are hit with the report of yet another criminal act. The consolation is that at least in Scotland there is some hope on the horizon of a means of dealing effectively with criminals who commit crimes against raptors in particular (even though the process of reaching a conclusion is painfully slow).

In the remainder of the UK the Government thinks – no, pretends – the present laws and their means of being enforced are perfectly adequate.

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