Saturday 30 November 2013

Hungry Hedgehogs

Mike Griffiths photographed this hedgehog in his garden in Willaston on 21st November, and found another the next day. Probably these are young ones who have not put on enough fat to be able to hibernate.

The advice from the hedgehog charities to anyone finding a hedgehog wandering around in winter, when they should be in hibernation, is to feed it puppy food and water, and get in touch with the charities. Contact numbers are:

Claire Williams in Wallasey on 0151 201 5172 or 07923 830733

Chester Animal Rescue in Wrexham on 01978 810 994

RSPCA in Nantwich on 08704 427 102

Caroline Howe in Neston on 0151 353 8043 or 07843 434 071

Mrs Walkden in Little Sutton on 0151 339 2922

Mike says, "I took the smaller hedgehog to Caroline Howe in Neston. When I asked how many she was caring for, she wasn't sure but it could be between 150-160. WOW! She does it all with no recompense and would be grateful for any cat/puppy food, wet wipes or anti-septic creams anyone might be able to spare. She has three sheds and her spare room is full of hedgehogs. So impressive."

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Inspiring Young People

The Prince's Trust participants and supervisors at New Ferry Butterfly Park

Around one in five young people in the UK are not in work, education or training. The Prince’s Trust runs a 12 week Team Programme where 16-25 year olds get involved in several personal development activities to help them achieve one of these goals. For the 'contribution to the local community' part of the programme, New Ferry Butterfly Park was fortunate to be selected. There were eight eager participants and two supervisors who came for seven workdays despite the heavy rain every time they came.

They cleared areas of bramble patches which slowly take over rough grassland and these cleared patches will allow cocksfoot grass to flourish and help our most faithful butterfly the speckled wood. They trimmed a willow at the entrance to make it easier to get in and removed the reed mace from the brick pit so you can now see the pond.  

Thank you very much to The Prince’s Trust Team 124 and their supervisors, Jodie and Susie, for inspiring the team. At the end of all this hard work the participants demonstrated team work by hosting a celebratory event at the park with the principal of Wirral Metropolitan College, Sue Higginson, attending. Primroses were ceremoniously planted, and certificates presented. One inspirational moment was the ownership these students had evidently taken of their projects as they gave a tour to family and friends to view what they had achieved.

The aim of the programme is to uncover hidden talents, encourage responsibility for tasks, gain awareness of their local community and how they can contribute to it and develop team-working and communication skills. All of these aspects were covered at the project at the park.

We hope some of them catch the conservation bug so they can join in again to be involved in further workdays, or come back to enjoy the park in the summer with the inspiring grasslands full of flowers bees and butterflies.

Monday 18 November 2013

Local Member Receives Award

Mathilde Baker-Schommer was presented with the Eric Thurston Award in recognition of her contribution to the work of Cheshire Wildlife Trust.

Mathilde has been part of Wirral Wildlife recording team for about 12 years, since she retired from teaching biology. She does bird and plant surveys on several sites each year, and for several years has helped with the formal monitoring on Thurstaston Common for National Trust each September.

She organises the Red Rocks wardening group, as well as visiting herself and reporting on any problems. She is one of our New Ferry Butterfly Park school visit leaders, and occasionally helps with other events there. Mathilde is also vice-chairman of Mersey Estuary Conservation Group.

We are grateful for her continuing dedication to wildlife on Wirral.

Friday 8 November 2013

Managing Hay Meadows

Heswall Fields. Photo: Tim Kelly

In Britain, 98% of our species-rich traditional grasslands have been lost since 1945, largely because they do not fit with modern farming practices. Consequently managing the remainder sustainably is difficult. Meadows need to be cut annually; a recent newspaper dispute relating to Heswall Fields has been over the date of that cut. Before the 1980s it would have been cut in July, the date varying with the weather and other farm activities. I have found 2  botanical surveys of the Fields, dating from 1984 and 2004. Both are done differently to the survey I was part of in 2011, but there is no evidence for a decline in plant species richness in the Fields.

The arguments about cutting date centre around the effects on bee and other insects of loss of nectar source. These animals are mobile, moving around the landscape to find food, using woods in spring, meadows in early summer, marshes and heathlands later on, and gardens all season. The clifftop field at Heswall Fields has much black knapweed, a late-flowering perennial not normally found in hay meadows. It is the cause of the perceived problem, as it is still flowering at hay-cut time, although most other plant species present have seeded by then. There is considerable visual impact to it being cut in flower, but the loss of nectar to the insects is relatively small, at a time when other habitats are providing forage.

There are two ways of sustaining the habitat by keeping the Fields mown as a hay crop. One is the existing farm tenancy, which gets the field cut and baled, but must be done while there is still food value in the hay crop, otherwise it is unusable and unsaleable. This means cutting sometime in July, depending on weather. Alternatively pay a contractor to do it, which is equally dependant on weather and machinery availability, and if done after the end July, as has been demanded by some people would also entail paying to dispose of the arisings to commercial composting, as they would be worthless as hay. This could cost at least £1000 per annum. I consider the latter would be unsustainable in financial terms, does not produce significant benefit to insects, and is not justified in environmental terms, as it would lead to waste and a greater carbon footprint. 

So it is my opinion that a small loss of nectar/pollen forage in August, when there are plenty of other sources locally, is an acceptable price for sustainable management of this grassland habitat. We have to think long-term and in landscape terms if we are to sustain even our existing wildlife in the coming difficulties wrought by global climate change. See about Landscape-scale nature conservation.

For some scientific background to support the information above, the following may be of interest.

Heswall Fields and Other Hay Meadows:
Management Considerations

For a scholarly but accessible account of meadows in general, see George Peterken. (2013). Meadows. British Wildlife Publishing.

For management details, see the Natural England Lowland Grassland Management Handbook, and their publications containing  information on  Environmental Stewardship.

1. Hay meadows and other traditional species-rich grasslands are the habitat to have suffered most loss since 1945: at least 97%, rather more in Cheshire. The losses are mostly due to changes in farming practice: modern farmers make silage rather than hay, apply fertilisers to increase yield, and herbicides to control unwanted species. Remaining species-rich grasslands therefore have to be managed as exceptions to usual farming practice, or outside farming practice by mowing and removing the arisings. In traditional farming systems the aftermath would be grazed in autumn and sometimes early spring.

2. The date of the hay-cut has always varied depending on weather and the season. "When the yellow-rattle rattles, the hay is ready to cut" - referring to a once-common hay meadow plant. The balance is between the crop being mature enough to dry swiftly, and it still having good nutritional value. In Cheshire, the hay-cut was usually in mid to late July. However, weather was and is a problem: hay needs at least 5 days fine weather to cut, make and bale. We do not get 5 fine days together very often in this part of the world! So a farmer has always had to take advantage of whatever window of weather appeared. Farm tenancies have long specified a minimum date for hay-cut, and this is done for remaining hay meadows to prevent silage cutting: in Cheshire the usual date is July 1st, to allow a practical window for cuttings depending on weather and season. For some time in the 2000s, the then farm environmental support scheme (Countryside Stewardship) gave a payment towards hay-making which allowed a later date of 15th July to be set, with the payment making up for losses if the hay was not got in while still good as feed. The current stewardship rules (Environmental Stewardship) are different and do not allow single fields to be funded this way.

3. There are habitat surveys of Heswall Fields available for 1984 and 2004, both done for National Trust, the first in house, the second by contractors. A botanical species list was done by Wirral Wildlife surveyors in 2011. RECORD have supplied other data they hold, including a number of invertebrates. The various surveys are not directly comparable, but there is no evidence for a decline in species richness of the clifftop field over the last 30 years.

Neither of the two earlier surveys mentions the abundance of common or black knapweed (Centaurea nigra), which is now a feature of the clifftop field. Knapweed is not normally prominent in hay meadows, because it flowers in July-August and would set relatively little seed before the hay cut. There could be several reasons for its abundance at Heswall Fields. 

If a recent phenomenon, then it could be due to acidification of the soil by rainfall and/or falling soil fertility, as knapweed is tolerant of both. The rain on Heswall Fields must be fairly clean, so not markedly acid, but also carrying little nitrogen or phosphate, unlike rain further inland. Traditional hay meadows were fertilised annually with farmyard manure (FYM), and the local ponds suggest the Heswall ones, like many in Wirral, were also periodically marled to lessen acidity. Artificial fertilisers at normal farm rates rapidly reduce species-richness by increasing the growth of a small number of highly competitive grasses and other species, including knapweed. However, on the clifftop field the hay  crop is now very light, so much so that it must be barely worth the farmer's while to harvest it. It may be that he has not been applying FYM or lime because of the public access, and this over the years has led to dropping soil fertility. 

If the knapweed abundance is long-standing, then it could indicate that the clifftop field was either managed as foggage (late summer grazing) or cut as bedding in late summer. Foggage is impractical on a public field with an open cliff edge, and bedding in an era of good road transport is much more easily and cheaply bought in as straw.

A difference in cutting date between July and August will not have significant effect on the plant composition of the field: at worst a mid-July cut might reduce the knapweed somewhat, but not completely as it will continue on the uncut margins and, as a long-lived perennial, from occasional years when the weather forces a late cut or occasionally none at all.

4. Invertebrate usage. The Fields are used by a range of flying invertebrates: systematic survey is lacking, but data from RECORD show that a range of wild bees, butterflies, hoverflies etc occur there. Species-rich clifftop grasslands in general are important for the solitary bees that nest in eroding cliff-faces. The cliffs along Heswall Fields are part of the Dee Cliffs SSSI, but invertebrate study has not been carried out in detail on this SSSI. Solitary bees mostly fly fairly early in the season.

All these flying invertebrates move round the landscape to find forage. Wood and hedges are good sources in spring; remaining species-rich grasslands in early summer; marshes and heathlands in late summer; and gardens all season. Early summer (June) has become the thinnest time in many landscapes, with the loss of traditional grasslands.

By the time the knapweed flowers on the clifftop grassland, most other species present have set seed -  the one significant exception is wild carrot, which favours the clifftop edge, where it is not cut anyway for obvious reasons. There is also a wide margin left along some of the hedges where carrot and knapweed continue flowering. So some nectar sources are left when the hay is cut - but more importantly, by that time of year other nectar sources in the area, e.g. the headland at Heswall Dales and the saltmarsh on the Dee Estuary, are in full flower and providing alternative sources. So the loss of nectar/pollen when the field is cut is relatively minor and the flying insects will simply move elsewhere.

Since the aftermath is not grazed, there is in many years a degree of fresh flowering of various species in August-September, which provides some useful late nectar for species feeding up before hibernation e.g. Comma and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies. If the cut was later, this fresh flowering would be less.

5. To keep the Heswall Fields as species-rich grassland habitat they must be cut or grazed, otherwise they would turn into woodland. Grazing is impractical on a public site of this nature. The cut can be done by:

a) keeping the existing farm tenancy, which gets the field cut and baled, but must be done while there is still food value in the hay crop, otherwise it is unusable and unsaleable. This means cutting sometime in July, depending on weather. The cutting at this date entails a considerable visual effect by removing knapweed, and a small loss to foraging insects, but makes use of the hay for local feed and has minimal carbon footprint, being done by the local farmer.

b) pay a contractor to do it, which is only slightly less dependent on weather and machinery availability and, especially if done in late August to let the knapweed flower longer, would also entail paying to dispose of the arisings to commercial composting, as they would be worthless as hay: cost at least £1000 per annum. Also probably loss of the hay as feed, and a bigger carbon footprint as machinery has to travel to this isolated site.

I consider this second route would be unsustainable in financial terms, and is not justified in environmental terms, as a small loss of nectar/pollen at a non-critical time would lead to a waste of animal food and greater carbon footprint. So it is my opinion that a small loss of nectar/pollen forage in August, when there are plenty of other sources locally, is an acceptable price for sustainable management of this grassland habitat. 

6. There may be some confusion with wildflower grasslands created in urban areas, for amenity and biodiversity benefits in the urban landscape. I have been involved with such habitat creation schemes for 35 years, and our biggest problem throughout that time is continuity of management. Urban sites cannot be grazed, nor usually mown for hay because of fire risks to the drying hay and contamination with dog faeces and litter. Getting the wildlife grassland cut in late summer is not always a problem, but there is great difficulty in getting the arisings taken off to prevent smothering and nutrient build-up, the latter gradually leading to competitive species taking over the sward. In practice, the cuttings are either left on, leading to decline in flowers (see Central Park, Wallasey), or the grassland is not cut at all, with rapid failure (Maher Park, Bebington), or the cuttings are taken off for a few years, but when money gets short the management fails (Bidston Moss landfill, managed by Forestry Commission). Similarly ask Ness Gardens or Woodland Trust (Upton Meadow) or Wirral BC (Arrowe Park) about the problems getting their hay meadows/wildflower grasslands cut. So a sustainable farming tenancy has a lot to recommend it in the long term.

7. We have to think long-term and in landscape terms if we are to sustain even our existing wildlife in the coming difficulties wrought by global climate change. The flying invertebrates need a whole landscape; large-scale farming support schemes and changes to urban land management are needed to put back wildflowers back into the landscape. Also much reduced and careful use of pesticides and fertilisers. Sustainable ways of doing this have to be continued or found, bearing in mind that money is likely to be in short supply for  along time, perhaps indefinitely, as rising fuel prices continue. "Climate weirding" is already with us as climate change happens, making our weather even less predicable and activities that depend on it, like hay-making, harder to carry out. A sustainable farm tenancy has much to recommend it, and my main concern is that the public use of the field is inhibiting that management, and could be a long-term problem, especially as so few people understand the practicalities of grassland management.

Hilary Ash

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Rare Flower Makes a Welcome Comeback

Marsh Gentian. Photo: Bernd Haynold, Wikipedia

Marsh gentian, a rare flower of damp heathlands, had not been seen in Wirral for around 10 years. We are delighted that it flowered again this year in its old haunt on Wirral Ladies Golf course. Maybe last year's appallingly wet weather had one benefit after all! Marsh gentian also used to grow on Thurstaston Common, but no-one has seen it there since about 1989, when an experimental re-introduction failed. There are no recent records for marsh gentian anywhere else in Cheshire. Damp heathland is a habitat that has suffered much destruction over the last century, by drainage, agriculture and development. However, the marsh gentian is obviously able to come back from seed in the soil, so keep your eyes open on wet bits of Thurstaston Common next summer.

Hilary Ash

Climate Change

You may have heard publicity about the recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and unfortunate comments by some politicians which showed they had not understood the science. To those of us who have followed this for debate for 30 years, there was little new, just even greater certainty. Below is a brief summary, for more details go to the IPCC's website, or look at a somewhat more digestible version e.g. from Stop Climate Chaos, The Carbon Brief,  Friends Of The Earth or the BBC video "The IPCC in 90 seconds".

Global climate change is certainly happening: anyone over 40 who has spent much time outside will know that our weather has changed, and climate is just weather summed up over 30+ years and large areas. Land surface temperatures have risen 0.85oC since 1880, and the first decade of the 21st century is the warmest since modern records began in 1850. This is not a steady trend - nothing to do with the natural world ever is - and warming has been slower between 1998 and 2012 than in surrounding decades, but this has much to do with choosing end-dates - 1998 was a very hot year globally because of an El Nino event and is also affected by short-term fluctuations in solar radiation and volcanic ash levels in the atmosphere. There is 95% confidence among climate scientists that human activity is contributing more than half of the observed rise. No natural scientist ever admits to above 95% confidence in anything - that is just the way science works!

Other signs of climate change are proceeding apace. The oceans are absorbing human-produced carbon dioxide, which is making them more acidic, with bad consequences for shelled animals (limpets, barnacles etc) as calcium carbonate dissolves more readily in acidic water. The oceans are also expanding as the water warms, and the volume of ice is decreasing markedly in Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic and most glaciers. So sea level is rising: over the decades 1993-2012 by 3 mm a year globally (and about the same in Liverpool Bay). This does not sound much until you think of it in decades, and realise that sea level rise is likely to speed up markedly, with predictions anywhere between 26 cm and 82 cm by 2100. Think of the effect of that on low-lying coasts and you see why Wirral Borough Council is planning to spend significant money on sea defences in the next 20 years.

A warmer climate means more energy in the atmospheric system, so more extreme weather events - increased frequency and intensity of droughts, storms, floods, and the occasional cold winter. This is already showing a pattern in tropical and sub-tropical countries. We in Britain are at present having it easy - but if changes in sea temperatures lead to the North Atlantic Drift sea current slowing or stopping (as it at some point probably will), then we will get significantly colder! Global warming does not mean we all warm up.

So what do we do? Individually, continue to reduce energy use, insulate your house, reduce travel, eat local food, reduce waste, reduce water use (it takes a lot of energy to process), and put some of the money saved into supporting appropriate renewable and low-carbon energy schemes e.g. solar panels on your roof. But a lot has to be done by governments, so we need to lobby our politicians at every opportunity. We cannot now avoid a 1oC rise in temperatures above pre-industrial levels. We can avoid a rise that would be catastrophic for people and wildlife, but only if we seriously cut our carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxide emissions, leaving at least two-thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The IPCC gives for the first time a "carbon budget"  - the figures are difficult to comprehend but, simply put, people can only afford to emit in total 800 billion tonne of Carbon, and we have already emitted 500 million. It is a challenge, but possible - see the Centre For Alternative Technology for their "Zero-carbon Britain" analysis.

So do what you can yourself, encourage any organisation you are involved in, like churches, to do their bit - and nag our politicians to get their heads out of the sand and act.

Hilary Ash

Sunday 3 November 2013

Hilbre Bird Observatory and the Birds Of Wirral

Female Blackbird

I was very pleased to be invited to Heswall Hall in September to give a talk about the Hilbre Bird Observatory. This article outlines what I said and gives some more recent news on sea bird migration at Hilbre that happened soon after.

I focused on migration, not just what happens at Hilbre but also how the people of Wirral can influence migration through feeding birds in their gardens. For instance, the migration strategy of Blackbirds in the North West of England has been altered by people feeding them in the winter and so they no longer migrate to Ireland.

Willow Warbler trapped at the Hilbre Bird Observatory

The Willow Warbler was trapped on Hilbre and the Blackbird shown is a female breeding in a Wirral garden.

The picture of the White-tailed Eagle being chased by a Buzzard was a lucky and unusual find these days. However Anglo-Saxon place names in Wirral, such as the Arno in Birkenhead, refer to eagles. Consequently the people of Birkenhead, a thousand years ago, were probably a lot more familiar with them than we are today. This echoes my theme in the talk, things are rooted in the past, have direct connections with it, but are continually changing.

In my talk I pointed out the influence of the weather, in particular the wind, on everything that takes place on Hilbre from the size of the trees, through breeding success, to which birds turn up. There is a fifty year old Sycamore Tree that is only 3 metres tall and Swallows often fail in breeding attempts because the wind removes flying insects. The wind direction is key to migrants getting to the island at all, there needs to be easterly winds for passerines to turn up.

There is an exception to that rule though and suitable conditions arrived four days after my talk. The wind went to the north west and reached gale force. In Autumn we know that sea birds migrate south through the Irish Sea but we need westerly gales to get them close enough in shore to be able to see them.

Hilbre is probably the best place in England to see Leach’s Petrel and this Autumn confirmed this. The gale produced shearwaters, skuas, a Slavonian Grebe and the first Brent Geese of the winter. A lot of the skuas are first year birds and it is very unusual to see an adult Long-tailed Skua at Hilbre.

However this year’s gales produced an adult and one of our technophiles was able to get a picture of it though his telescope on his i-phone. Technology has made it possible to share pictures and news as it happens and Hilbre aims to do this through its blog,

Do keep a check on what is happening.

John Elliott