Six Winter plants to spot of your lockdown walks

Winterfold Hill Surrey Winter View

Mid – January is often a difficult time of year. The mornings are dark, cold and wet. Grey skies rule over the cold crisp, snow filled winters of not so long ago. The days are short and the chances to get out into nature may be few and far between, even more so during the current lockdown throughout the UK.

For the hardy, who have layered up their clothing and waterproof boots, there is a lot of new life in the countryside – even in the middle of January. In this blog we are taking a look at six plants that you should be able to spot, growing wild in your local area that herald the brighter days that lie ahead.

Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Alexander’s are edible flowering plant of the family Apiaceae. They are also known as alisanders, horse parsley, and smyrnium. They are biennial. They are believed to have been introduced to the UK by the Roman Soldiers who bought the plants and seeds with them as part of their travelling food rations.

Alexander’s are tall plants – growing up to 1.5 metres. They have greenish-yellow flowers in umbrella-like clusters with a pungent, myrrh-like scent. The shiny green leaves are toothed, arranged in groups of three at the end of the leaf stalk and smell like celery. The round fruit is ridged and ripen to a blackish colour. They can be confused with cow parsley but they are generally much larger and thicker stemmed.

Alexander’s are commonly found in coastal areas of England and Wales. They are rare in Scotland. Being a Mediterranean native, they have little resistance to frost. It can be found on cliffs, hedge banks, road sides, quarries, and other uncultivated areas. They are often found by the ruins of old castles and Abbey’s.

Alexanders have been used as food since Roman times. They were cultivated for centuries as a table vegetable and were once a common site in ancient gardens. It is now, primarily a wild plant.
Like many of its relatives in the Apiaceae family, Alexanders exude aromatic oils that have a pungent, but sweet smell, that attracts a wide range of pollinating insects. It got its botanical name because of its distinctive myrrh-like fragrance.

Alexanders was once known as ‘black potherb’ because of its black, spicy seeds. The leaves and stalks can be blanched or steamed to add to soups, broths and stews. The plant tastes similar to celery. The flowers can be added as a spice and decoration to salads. Every part of this plant is edible. In the past almost every part of the plant was used from the young flower-buds which were pickled like miniature cauliflowers. It has a unique taste but is similar to Angelica A soup called ‘Lenten potage’ was made of Alexanders, watercress and nettles by Irish matrons in the 18th Century. The fruits are a rich source of protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids. The plant contains flavonoids and other bioactive compounds.

Apothecaries used Alexander’s for cleansing the blood and as a digestive herb for strengthening the stomach. Seafarers used it to treat scurvy and herbalists used it to relieve stomach and urinary problems. It was also a remedy for headaches, toothaches, swellings of the body, cuts and bruises, asthma and tuberculosis.

Did You Know?
In Latin the name means the parsley of Alexandria. In the middle ages, the dried stalks were bundled and used as cattle fodder or fuel for the fire.

Common Hazel Corylus avellana

Common Hazel Corylus avellana

Corylus avellana, The Common Hazel is a small tree or shrub found in woodlands and hedgerows. It is native to Britain and grows throughout Europe. The toothed leaf is heart-shaped and soft to the touch. The leaf has a sharply pointed tip. The underside of the leaf is covered in fine white hairs. The bark is shiny and has horizontal lines of ‘breathing pores’ known as lenticels. 

In old woodlands Hazel is usually multi-stemmed, having been cut repeatedly every eight years on a rotation basis to produce ‘poles’ – this ancient craft is known as Coppicing. Male catkins open from December to April and Hazel nuts ripen by September. Hazel is monoecious, that means that each plant has both male and female flowers but must be pollinated from other hazel trees.

The yellow male catkins appear before the leaves and hang in clusters in late January to mid February The male flowers are on yellow catkins that hang down ready to release their pollen onto the wind. There can be over 200 uni-sexual male flowers on a single catkin. After it has released it’s pollen the male catkin drops off the tree

Female flowers are red and very small. You will find them in a flower bud on the branch above the catkin. Each flower has two crimson stigmas that stick out the top of it. The stigmas are receptive to the pollen, released from the male catkins. Each flower bud, once pollinated will develop into a cluster of one to four hazel nuts.

Today, hazel coppice has become an important management strategy in the conservation of woodland habitats for wildlife. The resulting timber is used in lots of ways and Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of moths, including the large emerald, small white wave, barred umber and nut-tree tussock. In managed woodland where hazel is coppiced, the open, wildflower-rich habitat supports species of butterfly, particularly fritillaries. Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler.

Hazel has long been associated with the dormouse (also known as the hazel dormouse). Not only are hazelnuts eaten by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but in spring the leaves are a good source of caterpillars, which dormice also eat.

Dormouse in Hazel Tree

Hazelnuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays and small mammals. Hazel flowers provide early pollen as a food for bees. However, bees find it difficult to collect and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen of wind-pollinated hazel is not sticky and each grain actually repels against another. Hazel trunks are often covered in mosses, liverworts and lichens, and the fiery milk-cap fungus grows in the soil beneath.

Hazel’s value as food is for the Hazel nut. The nut is a staple for squirrels and Hazel Dormouse who use the nuts protein and fat to build fat reserves up for winter. Of course, many people enjoy Hazelnuts too. They were widely cultivated in the UK until the early 1900’s when demand dropped. Kent is the main area where the cultivated hazel nut – known as ‘cobs’ are still grown today. Despite the resurgence of hazel nuts in vegan dairy free milks and chocolate products, the majority of these are imported.

Did you know?
Hazel has a reputation as a magical tree. A hazel rod is supposed to protect against evil spirits, as well as being used as a wand and for water-divining. In some parts of England, hazelnuts were carried as charms and/or held to ward off rheumatism. In Ireland, hazel was known as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, and in medieval times it was a symbol of fertility.

Green hellebore Helleborus viridis

Green Hellebore in Dorset

Green Hellebore is a native species of hellebore found in the UK and widely across central and western Europe. It is a relative of the garden varieties which might be more familiar as late winter/early spring flowers in an ornamental setting. Hellebores are actually a member of the buttercup family – the arrangement of petals and sepals as well as the shape and structure of the leaves gives this away on more careful scrutiny. Flowering time is early in the year – generally February and into March – making it one of the earliest flowering spring species. Plants grow to around 60cm high and often form stands thanks to their rhizomatous roots.

Found in the southern parts of the UK and common throughout Europe, this plant likes damp places and can be found in wet meadows or beside rivers and streams. The green flower buds appear first, and are then followed by the leaves. Sometimes the stems are tinged with purple. The entire plant can grow up to a metre in height.

Green Hellebore contains a toxin common to all members of the buttercup family, protanemonin, produced when the plant is wounded or crushed, causing side effects from skin irritation and blistering to poisoning, if ingested. Historically, this species was used to treat worms, but such are its toxic properties that inappropriate administration posed a significant risk of harming the patient as much as the parasite! All parts of the plant are poisonous leading to severe vomiting and seizures.

Green Hellebore’s provide a much-needed nectar and pollen source for honey bees that are out foraging on one of those nice warmish winter days.

Did you Know?
The hellebore name is derived from the Greek helleboros, meaning “to injure” Most species are poisonous.

One very interesting folk story is about an English herbalist, Mrs. Maude Grieve, who claimed that powdered hellebore scattered in the air or spread on the ground would make you invisible when you walked on it.

Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna

Lesser celandine is a small, low-growing perennial herb in the buttercup family. Lesser Celandine has bright, yellow star-shaped flowers. Each flower is about 3cm across with eight to twelve petals. It has rosettes of glossy dark green heart-shaped mottled long-stalked Look out for it on path edges in early spring Leaves: glossy, dark-green and heart-shaped with long stalks.

Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna in Surrey

Lesser celandine loves damp woodland paths and tracks, as well as stream banks and ditches. You can also spot it growing in gardens, meadows and shady hedgerows.

Lesser celandine is also known as pilewort which hints to its primary medicine use -as a treatment for haemorrhoids. This was based on the doctrine of signatures which suggested the knobbly tubers were thought to resemble piles The leaves are high in vitamin C and were often used to prevent scurvy.

As one of the first flowers to appear after winter, they provide an important nectar source for queen bumble bees and other pollinators emerging from hibernation.

Lesser Celandine in Surrey

Did you Know?
It was once thought that you could use lesser celandine to predict the weather as they close their petals before raindrops.. Wordsworth was such a fan of the lesser celandine, he wrote three poems about them: The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine.

The 21st February is known as “Celandine Day” as this is when peak flowering has been observed to begin. In 1795, the renowned naturalist Gilbert White noted that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne on this date and a similar result has been recorded over the centuries ever since.

The Lesser Celandine is said to be the floral equivalent of the swallow: both reappear around the same time each year, and herald the coming of spring. In fact the word ‘celandine’ comes from the Greek chelidon meaning ‘swallow’ This also gave the lesser celandine the name ‘spring messenger’

Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis

Galanthus is a small genus of approximately 20 species of bulbous perennial herbaceous plants in the family Amaryllidaceae. Listed as Near Threatened on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Perhaps the first sign that spring is just around the corner is the snowdrop poking its way through the frosted soil of a woodland. Snowdrops are able to survive the cold winter months and flower so early, because they grow from bulbs. Standing around 7–15 cm tall, snowdrops have white bell-shaped flowers at the end of an erect flowering stem with two to three leaves.

Snowdrops don’t have petals The flower is composed of six white segments known as tepals (they look like petals). The inner three tepals are smaller and have a notch in the tip, with a green upturned ‘v’ pattern visible.

Snowdrops are found across the UK. They favour damp soil and are often found in broadleaved woodland and along riverbanks, but can also be seen in parks, gardens, meadows and scrub. The species normally flowers in January and February, but there are an increasing number of December flowerings being recorded and even the occasional November sighting. 

Despite its long history in the UK, however, it may not actually be native here; it is a native of damp woods and meadows on the continent, but was not recorded as growing wild in the UK until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, it has certainly become naturalised and can now be seen across the country.

Snowdrop bulbs are poisonous if eaten, but traditionally, snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine a compound in the bulb has been used to develop a dementia treatment.

Snowdrops do produce seeds provided there are pollinators around. Early emerging queen bumblebees will help spread them if the weather is warm and dry enough. However, as they flower so early, snowdrops do not rely on pollinators to reproduce. Instead, they spread via bulb division.

Snowdrop in Surrey

Did you Know?
In the Language of Flowers, the Snowdrop symbolises chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity The flowering of snowdrops is one of the first signs that winter is drawing to an end. As a result, the flower has long been viewed as a symbol of hope for better times ahead. However, to see a single snowdrop flower was once viewed as a sign of impending death and it was considered bad luck to take one into a house.
Christians dedicate snowdrops to the Virgin Mary. On Candlemas Day (2nd February) snowdrops were once scattered in place of her image on the altar. Avid collectors of snowdrops are known as galanthophiles.

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

The winter aconite, is a species of flowering plant in the buttercup family Ranunculaceae, native to calcareous woodland habitats in France, Italy and the Balkans, and widely naturalised elsewhere in Europe. The Ranunculaceae.winter aconite, is a hardy tuberous perennial that forms golden carpets of jewel-like flowers. It glows in the sunlight above ruffs of bright, green leaves in late winter and early spring

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

The plant’s official name, Eranthis hyemalis, comes from the Greek er, meaning ‘spring’ and anthos, meaning flower, combined with the Latin hyemalis, meaning ‘winter-flowering’. The common name, winter aconite, alludes to the leaf shape, a characteristic by which plants were classified in the 16th century. Winter aconite has similar foliage to plants in the Aconitum genus, which includes monkshood and wolfsbane, and it belongs to the same family Wherever you find it, it has probably escaped from a garden or cemetery but it is well naturalised, typically in shady or wooded areas dotted around the country.

All members of Ranunculaceae are toxic, although they don’t all have the same chemical composition. Substantial ingestion of any part of winter aconite causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, colic, bradycardia, disturbed vision, dyspnoea and cardiac arrest.

Winter aconite contains pharmacological chemicals such as khellin. Khellin is a vasodilator but, because of its toxicity, it is rarely used therapeutically. It can be converted into sodium cromoglicate, which is used as prophylaxis against asthma attacks, and amiodarone, which has anti-arrhythmia actions and is used for atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias.

The nectar and pollen rich flowers of the winter aconite are a magnet for early insects such as Queen bees

Winter Aconite in Surrey

Now is a great time to get out and enjoy the wildlife in your local area. Walking for just an hour a day can bring physical and mental benefits, whilst the fresh chill air will help boost your immune system and help to keep your body active.

We all feel like hiding away more in the dark days of winter, but a world of intrigue and beauty awaits those who venture from their warm houses.

If you do spot any of the plants we’ve looked at in this this blog, it would be good to hear your comments and see your pictures. Please share them on our Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifematters.org or Instagram pages here: https://www.instagram.com/wildlifematters2020/?hl=en

Thank You

River Wey on a frosty morning

Copyright: Wildlife Matters 2021.


A Winters Tale – The story of the Badger

So quiet and peaceful, Tranquil and blissful, There’s a kind of magic in the air

What a truly magnificent view,  A breathtaking scene.

This is the first in a series of blogs about the iconic mammal, Meles Meles – better know to most as the Badger. So, lets take a look at what Badgers are doing in the British mid-winter.

A badger’s home is called a sett. These are often found in woodlands, field edges and in larger gardens. In urban areas, badger setts can be found in parks and green spaces. 

Badgers live in social groups of 5 to 6 adults. There is usually a higher number of females in the group, it’s believed this helps to counteract the higher mortality of males through road kill, and fights. Only some of the females, known as sows, will breed each year. These are the older or more dominant sows, whilst the smaller sows, often with visible scars on their rumps from fighting for dominance within the group will be subordinate to the breeding sows. If a subordinate sow does breed, the dominant female will often kill the cubs and leave them outside the sett.

In winter, badgers spend more time underground in their setts. They don’t hibernate, but they will lie low and sleep for extended periods of time. They do emerge to forage in mild weather, generally being more active further south and if they are regularly fed by people.

Although breeding takes place in early spring and again in late summer, badgers, like many mammals, use delayed implantation. The mating occurs either inside, or close to the entrance of the sett. Interestingly, a female badger may mate with more than one male and have a litter of mixed parentage. This helps with the genetic diversity within the group and can lead the variations in colour. Sows can ovulate a second time and mate again, whilst already carrying blastocysts from an earlier mating, and still start the pregnancy at the same time to produce a single litter of cubs. This remarkable ability is called superfetation.

Blastocysts, the fertilised eggs, are implanted on or around the Winter Solstice, on 21st December every year. Each blastocyst, a tiny ball of cells that becomes an embryo, takes around 7 to 8 weeks to develop into a badger cub.

Despite female badgers eating less and living off fat reserves, winter is when they give birth to their cubs, that are born helpless and blind. New-born cubs are thin and about 12cm (5.5 inches long) with a light covering of silvery grey fur and weigh about 75-130g. This fur is a little darker on the legs, and sometimes there are faint stripes on the face. Sows will generally have two or three cubs, collectively known as a litter. The newborn cubs will stay underground with their mothers and family groups for around 8 to 10 weeks. If is often possible to tell whether a sow has cubs, as her teats are prominent between February and the end of May.

The cubs have a silky, grey fur with a fluffy look. Both adults and cubs will remain extremely cautious and not venture far from the set  The aim is for the cubs to start venturing above ground in April or early May, when invertebrate food is plentiful and they have as much time as possible to put on fat to prepare them for their own first winter.

Most cubs are born in a specially modified nursing chamber within the sett, which is usually close to the entrance. This will have good airflow and a dense pile of bedding that is moved in by the pregnant sow prior to giving birth. Sometimes, a subordinate sow may make her nursing chamber in a smaller sett, or even straw, hay or bracken but always away from the attention of a more dominant pregnant sow.

The cubs are born with their eyes closed. They develop their first teeth at about four weeks, and their eyes open at around five weeks old. Even then, they can’t see well for a few more weeks, 

Badger cubs show hints of their two dark eye-stripes in their otherwise thin, silky fur, but by the time they leave the sett they have developed full adult coloration. They also behave exactly as adults do when threatened, facing the enemy with lowered heads and fluffed-up coats. This displays remarkable confidence for their size, suggesting that the stripes may be a warning.

When the cubs are around 6 to 7 weeks old, they will leave the nursery chamber and begin exploring within the sett. Around 8 weeks old, they may come up to the sett entrances. Watching a sett in late April and early May is the best time to see the cubs’ first foray above ground.

Keep an eye on the entrance because they will probably remain in it, or nearby, as well as staying extremely close to their mother. She will herd them below ground at the first sign of danger, and even drag a cub to safety by the scruff of its neck.

Sows will suckle their young for about 12 weeks, normally until around the end of May in the UK, after this, the weaning starts, and the sow will allow the cubs to suckle less, forcing the cubs to start finding their own food.


‘Meet the Peckham’s’ – A new Sparrowhawk family during lockdown 2020

One of the highlight’s of 2020 for me has been sharing time with a new Sparrowhawk family that live nearby and visited my garden, on an almost daily basis

Sparrowhawks, or to be accurate ‘Accipiter hawks’ are short winged birds of prey. Sparrowhawks are perfectly adapted for rapid manoeuvring in woodlands which are their main habitat.

Sparrowhawks are sexually dimorphic – the male and female are differing sizes and colours. Female Sparrowhawks are around 25% larger than the males. During the mating season the male’s are naturally cautious, as they are well within the prey range of the female and it is not unknown for male Sparrowhawks to be predated by the females at this time.

Sparrowhawks are small, short winged raptors with long tails. Mature adults have piercing amber coloured eyes and thin, yellow legs. Female Sparrowhawks have brownish – grey backs and wings, and for those who love detail, a larger white line above their eyes, whilst the smaller male is slate grey. The Male’s barring on the chest and underbody is much finer than that of the female. To me it always looks like they are wearing ‘stripey’ pyjamas.

Back in the early spring, I spotted the female Sparrowhawk in my garden. She was perched on a branch in the conifers that divide my garden from the neighbours. She was preening herself, presumably having just had a meal.

 A couple of days later, I noticed the usual cacophony of sound from the local sparrows stopped as they all quickly dived into the hedges around the garden. I looked around and saw a male Sparrowhawk, perched high in the apple tree and beautifully silhouetted against the morning sky.

This was really exciting. I knew by the amber yellow eyes of both birds they were both mature. Sparrowhawks will usually breed the year after hatching. Younger birds have greenish-yellow eyes and older birds eyes resemble the colour of a blood orange. 

Sparrowhawks nest between May and July. They prefer to nest in dense woodlands, although they have adapted to live in parks, small coppices and larger gardens. Sparrowhawk nests are not pretty. A random collections of sticks and small branches, strung between a pair of branches, often high in the tree canopy. 

Victoria on her nest

Sparrowhawks will lay 4 to 5 eggs that they incubate for 33 days. The chicks usually fledge from 27 to 31 days later. The Male will do all the hunting whilst the female is incubating the eggs.

I located David and Victoria’s nest in a small area of woodland, on the edge of a former arable field, about two minutes walk from my house. It was around 12-15 metres from the ground and the expected mix of sticks and twiggy branches. I found the nest by watching where the birds were flying and finding discarded feathers on the ground. Over the following month I checked the nest daily whilst taking my lockdown exercise. During the second week, I noticed Victoria was staying on the nest more and began the incubation countdown.

Sparrowhawk Eggs

During this time, David spent 12 to 15 hours a day away from the nest, hunting to feed Victoria and himself. He relies upon his speed, agility and the element of surprise to catch smaller songbirds such as sparrows and blue tits. If you have ever observed Sparrowhawks hunting you will know they use regular routes that provide them with hedges, fences or even a shed. 

Sparrowhawks are regularly seen in gardens with good populations of small birds. A popular feeding station for garden birds will be an obvious attraction to them. That’s why I was seeing David hunting in my garden. He arrived late morning on a daily basis.

I have a large population of sparrows that nest in the roof of my house, getting in under the ridge in the tiles and creating a labyrinth of tunnels and nesting chambers. Outside, I have a number of blue tits nesting, some in boxes, others in the crevices of the older trees and even some under the eves of the shed. 

It was easy to tell when David had arrived as the cacophony of sound the sparrows make from dawn to dusk, would suddenly go silent as they frantically took cover in the hedges and shrubs. The crab apple tree was a popular hiding place for them, but David soon realised this and could take the sparrows from the outer branches or even in mid air with some ease. That said, only around 10% of Sparrowhawk hunting flights are successful. David Peckham instinctively used a variety of hunting techniques that are typical of sparrowhawks – the characteristically, flying fast and low along the garden hedge line on my neighbour’s side, before flipping over the top to surprise his prey. One one occasion, he came over the garden gate and skimmed so close to me that I could feel the breeze as he flew past my head at high speed.

David the Sparrowhawk in my garden

Where the sparrows instantly go silent, the blue tits often make a specific call. It’s clearly identifiable as an alarm call warning of the Sparrowhawks presence and I have noted blackbirds and pigeons reacting to it as well. This appears to be a universal warning to all birds. 

Due to their size, Male sparrowhawks are more likely to hunt the smaller garden birds, such as sparrows. Tits,and finches Despite their name sparrows are not always the main prey of sparrowhawks, they will take any small bird species. The larger female’s are able to take larger species, such as wood pigeons, doves and even magpies. Sparrowhawks have long talons and typically take prey in a twisting motion with the talons making an instant kill. They will then land and pluck the prey. This looks like a frantic stomping frenzy, but is in reality a very efficient process with the precision use of beak, talons and toes. Evidence of this is the fairy ring of discarded feathers. It has been known for Female sparrowhawks to drown their larger prey such as magpies and wood pigeons although I have never seen this.

In early July, I noticed that Victoria had begun to leave the nest along with David to go hunting for the new family. I began to spend more time watching the nest. I had spotted the white downy feathered chicks on a number of occasions, but couldn’t be sure how many were in the nest. Both parents spent the majority of the day hunting and I could observe the nest for up to three hours a day after work in the early evening. Over a few days I was able to see the nest had four chicks. This worked out well for me having named them parents after ‘the Beckham’s’ and the chicks immediately were named after their children, as Brooklyn, Harper, Romeo and Cruz (OK, I had to look this up!)

Sparrowhawk with chicks on nest

Over the next month I was able to watch the chicks grow and their white down turn into brown feathers with the beautiful chestnut edges. The stripey patterns on their chest are very tightly barred together and their greeny yellow eyes almost clash with the bright yellow legs.

Around the middle of August, Brooklyn and Romeo were noticeably more active and had begun to venture out of the nest. Their loud calling for their parents now making the nest easy to locate simply by following the sound. A week later and Harper and Cruz were exploring out of the nest and all four chicks were exercising their wings by flapping them. It was fascinating to observe them developing their balance as their tail feathers began to grow. The wing beating almost as vital as eating and sleeping in their lives now. 

Just before the August bank holiday, Brooklyn fledged the nest. She was never far away but had ventured to the surrounding trees. On the bank holiday Sunday Romeo fledged, followed about four hours later by Harper. Throughout this time David and Victoria were both regularly returning to the nest with a constant supply of food. I had noted the majority were sparrows and blue tits, but I had seen two blackbirds before seeing Victoria arrive with a dove, that provided a large meal for all four chicks. Cruz was the last to fledge on the bank holiday Monday afternoon. All the chicks were still reliant on their parents for food and would be for another four to six weeks.

Although today, Sparrowhawks are widespread that hasn’t always been the case. The Victorian landowners used to shoot them as “Trophies” for display in their taxidermy cabinets whilst gamekeepers shot them as pests on a regular basis. This reduced Sparrowhawk populations throughout the UK for many decades, in fact, it was only the reduction in Game shooting during the second world war that saw Sparrowhawk numbers begin to recover.

Sadly, the recovery was short lived as the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides (such as DDT), during the 1950’s and 1960s caused sparrowhawks, among many other native species a huge range of problems. 

The organochlorine pesticides that had built up in the sparrowhawks bodies, through them eating infected mammals and birds caused they’re eggshells to thin, leading to cracking and splitting, rendering the eggs unviable. The Sparrowhawk population in the UK crashed throughout the 1950s and they almost became locally extinct in the east of England, where DDT usage was at its highest. 

The British Sparrowhawk population only began to recover after the organochlorine chemicals were banned in the early 1970s, following an outcry from the public in the UK, and indeed, throughout much of the world. It took the East of England Sparrowhawk and additional decade to recover, and breeding did not recommence until the early 1980s.

David the Sparrowhawk in the Woodlands

Sparrowhawk numbers recovered throughout the 1980s to an estimated population of around 32,000 breeding pairs, but tragically, this recovery was short lived, with Sparrowhawk populations declining in some regions primarily due to lose of habitat and food source, in addition, to another rise in persecution. This set about a further two decades of decline with surveys showing numbers of breeding pairs dropping annually right through until 2008.

Some people were concerned that sparrowhawks were predating to many garden or song birds and they were associated particularly in the decline of the sparrow population. It’s worth noting that scientific studies have never supported this idea, in fact, they show the correlation between songbird and Sparrowhawk populations remains consistent with no long term impact on songbird populations. When the Sparrowhawk population was decimated by DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, songbird populations remained unchanged. 

Small bird species such as sparrows, tits and finches will typically rear between 5 and 15 chicks per year. The reason these species rear so many young is an evolutionary adaption because, in the absence of predators, many of these chicks will not survive, primarily through starvation and disease. There simply wouldn’t be enough nest holes, caterpillars or habitat to support the huge increase in numbers. Scientific studies by the BTO and others, over many years indicate that in order to keep songbird populations stable as few as two of these chicks need to survive. In our gardens, we can help by creating a diverse habitat of trees, hedges and shrubs. These provide safe food and safe hiding and nesting places for songbirds.

Sparrowhawks now have few natural predators in most of the UK. They are predated by Goshawks and Pine Marten, but these species are no longer widespread enough in the UK to cause any major population problems. 

The most common thing I’m asked is how do you identify a Sparrowhawk because hawks and falcons look similar, particularly in flight. For me, the species most often identified incorrectly, isn’t in fact a hawk. Cuckoo’s have very similar colouring and are roughly the same same size as a female Sparrowhawk. Cuckoo’s also fly in a very similar way to sparrowhawks. They are of course non native, migrating to the UK from Africa to lay their eggs in the nest of others leaving the chicks to be raised by them.

David the Sparrowhawk roosting in my apple tree

Goshawks have similar markings and share the woodland habitat. A male Goshawk is around the size of a female Sparrowhawk (around 37cm) whilst the male Sparrowhawk is noticeably smaller at around 30-33 cm. Goshawks hunt in dense woodland and have not adapted to hunt in gardens. 

Kestrels share a similar outline and profile. A Kestrel is around the size of a male Sparrowhawk. Kestrel’s do sometimes feed in gardens but tend to be found over grass and heathland, where they hunt voles and small mammals. The clearest indication is eye colour. Kestrel’s all have dark eyes.

So what about ‘the Peckham’s’ – Well, I’m delighted to say that all four chicks fledged successfully.  They will have flown away to establish their own territories, which can be several miles away. David, as is common for male sparrowhawks has flown away from the territory and will spend the winter months alone, hunting when the weather allows. Victoria has stayed close to home and can be seen throughout her territory on a regular basis. She still visits the garden on occasions, but will not be feeding everyday now, she will rely on her fat reserves to help her through the shorter, colder winter days.

David and Victoria have both survived their first year. Once a Sparrowhawk makes it to adulthood they have a survival rate of 69% and live, for an average of four years, according to the RSPB. In the Spring I hope that David will return and that he and Victoria will once again breed and successfully raise their chicks.

Sparrowhawk Feathers Found discarded by their nest

2020 A Christmas like no other…

What a year 2020 has been. Amongst the many difficulties, one rare highlight has been the recovery and surge of interest in wildlife and the natural world. Even 2020 couldn’t stop the leaves falling and now we’re getting ready for the strangest of Christmas times of our lives. Maybe now is a good time to reflect upon some of the things that have become a part of Christmas

Christmas and some of its traditions remind us that our lives are inextricably linked with nature and the cyclical rhythms of the natural world.

Many of things we associate with Christmas are rooted in Pagan traditions. In our busy modern world the relatively simple Pagan life is generally misunderstood, for example, the term Pagan came from Christians and was used to describe anyone that wasn’t a Christian, which at that time, was most of us. Today, Christianity maintains many Pagan traditions. Let’s take a look at some of them and see how may you know.

The Winter Solstice is the origin of Christmas. The Winter Solstice was a time of celebration for the Romans, Celts, Norse, and Druids, amongst others. They all held big celebration’s around the winter solstice.

For us, living in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice ( the shortest day of the year) falls around 21st December, and this is why Christmas is in late December around the same time as many existing pagan holidays.

The winter solstice was a huge part of pagan life, just as Christmas is for us today. Pagans were primarily agricultural people and winter marked the end of harvest and toiling in the fields The Winter solstice was an opportunity to enjoy the company of loved ones, to feast and be Merry.

Winter in the northern hemisphere is a dark, cold, and often hungry period, when people’s spirits could easily drop, so the winter solstice celebrations helped to keep people entertained and enjoy themselves working to prepare their land before the spring solstice, that would see the sun come around once again.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia between 17 and 24 December. This was in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The Romans would spend the week of Saturnalia, by feasting, drinking, giving gifts, and being joyful. Unlike us, The Romans exchanged only small gifts for good luck. They believed this would bring in a bountiful harvest the next year.

So what about the big man himself? Well, he was known as St. Nicholas,, a patron saint of children, the poor, and prostitutes. (who knew the last one!) St Nicholas lived in the 4th century AD, and it is said, he was a bishop who was known for giving gifts to the poor. The legend describes St Nicholas as having a large beard and he wore a long cloak. But even before St Nicholas, there was Odin, a god worshipped by early Germanic tribes. The legends say Odin was an older man with a long, white beard. It says Odin would ride through the night skies with his 8-legged horse called Sleipnir

The story goes that the children would fill their boots with straw and carrots and leave them on the roof for Sleipner to feed on. Odin would reward the children by leaving small presents in their boots.

The Santa Claus we know today, is clearly based on the traditions of St. Nicholas, Odin, and Sleipnir, but he’ s a far more modern creation than that. Today’s Father Christmas was born, not from myth and legend, but instead, directly from the marketing department of Coca Cola, whose White bearded, barrel bellied character, clad all in red, was the star of 1930s America. His popularity spread faster than Dancer and Prancer et al, on a busy Christmas Eve.

This year we won’t be carol singing for fear of spreading the Corona virus, but the tradition of groups of people singing door to door around their local villages was derived from the Pagan activity of wassailing. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’. The wassailers would walk around their villages in small groups, singing to banish evil spirits and wishing good health to their neighbours. Of course, no wassailing group was complete without their traditional drink that was made from mulled ale, mixed with curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar. It’s seems the Pagans knew who to party!

In the thirteenth Century, St Francis took the essence of wassailing to develop what we know today as Christmas Carolling

Wildlife and nature is inextricably linked to our Christmas celebrations . Let’s take a look at some of the species that have become part of all of our Christmas’s

Robin’s are found in many gardens and parks They are a firm favourite for many people. They are easy to spot, inquisitive, and have a loud song that they sing from prominent perches throughout winter.

Both males and females have the red Breast feathers. Robins very territorial defending their “patch’ vigorously, except during the breeding season, when the male’s let the female’s build a nest in their territory , Both sexes travel extensively from December in search of a mate, and are therefore much more visible.

There are many stories about how robin’s became associated with Christmas. My favourite is the theory that Victorian posties, who wore bright red tunics were nicknamed ‘robin redbreasts’ so it’s no coincidence that Robin’s began appearing on Christmas cards during Victorian times

Reindeer are a big part of Christmas today, but they are relative newcomers to our Christmas story, when they featured in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the night before Christmas’ Even the most famous reindeer of them all – Rudolph – only became a part of Christmas in 1939 when Robert L. May, a department store worker wrote a Christmas story to help increase sales at Christmas.

Donkeys are depicted in the nativity scenes and are one of the original animals of Christmas. A popular myth is that the cross on the donkey’s back is a reminder that a donkey carried Jesus to the manger in Bethlehem Of course Donkeys have their very own Christmas song ’Little Donkey’

Talking of songs, Swans feature in the 12 days of Christmas. Mute swans are resident in the UK and can be seen in virtually every area of the UK, all year -round. Other species, such as Bewick’ swans migrate here for winter. Amazingly, almost all of the Whooper swans from Iceland migrate to the UK and Ireland every year. One of the easier ways to identify swan species is by the colour of their bills; The native mute swans have orange bills, whilst the winter migrant whooper swans bills are yellow.

Another bird to feature in the 12 days of Christmas is the Partridge, that becomes the first gift of Christmas in a pear tree. This song is about gifts given by a true love. However, it is claimed the ‘true love’ mentioned in the song is said to represent god, whilst the partridge in the pear tree represents Jesus.

Like the partridge, turtle doves also have a religious connection. The two turtle doves signifying the old and new testament. Doves are often seen as symbols of peace, love and loyalty.

Of course it’s not only fauna that has become part of Christmas for us. Flora features extensively to. Mistletoe was a symbol of love and friendship in ancient Norse mythology. In Britain, perhaps influenced by the Norse tradition, the custom of kissing under mistletoe developed, with a berry picked from the sprig before a kiss. When all the berries were gone there could be no more kissing.

The reputation of Mistletoe as a romantic plant surprises me. I see little romance in a parasitic plant, amazing as they are. Mistletoe attaches itself to a tree and then grows out of a branch, living off the tree’s food and resources. Mistletoe is toxic to us, but like holly berries, it makes a great source of food for some of our wildlife. Something mistletoe has in common with holly is that they are both ‘dioecious’. This means they have distinct ‘male’ and ‘female’ plants – only the female plants have the berries. Even the name, mistletoe translates as ‘poo on a stick’, from the Anglo Saxon ‘mistel’ meaning dung and ‘tan’ meaning twig or stick. Seeds are spread by birds ingesting the fruit and fertilised by the pooing in the tree.

Holly is found in a variety of habitats from woodland to gardens, holly, or more precisely, its berries, provide an important food source for many birds, including redwings and fieldfares. In pagan Britain, holly was used traditionally at winter solstice to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth.

So how did the correlation between mistletoe and kissing start? The tradition goes all the way back to the pagans. The Romans, Celts, Druids, and the Norse all had a thing about mistletoe. It was considered to be a highly sacred plant, involved in several pagan rituals. In the Roman world, mistletoe honoured the god Saturn. To keep him happy, they would perform ‘fertility rituals’ underneath the sprigs of mistletoe – and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like!  One myth, I really enjoy comes from the Druids, where mistletoe symbolised peace and joy. In times of war, if enemies met underneath woodland mistletoe, they would drop their weapons and form a truce until the next day.

Christmas Tree Over the years, the evergreen fir has become the tree of choice for people to celebrate Christmas. Christians saw it as a sign of everlasting life, while the Romans used firs to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Pagans used its branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as a symbol of the spring to come. Across many parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn were used as Christmas trees – plants were put into pots and brought inside in the hope they would flower at Christmas. Some people in the UK prefer the our native Scots pine. It is an absolutely majestic tree which can live for centuries. It’s mostly found in the Caledonian Forest . Scot’s pine supports an incredible array of wildlife, including red squirrels, capercaillie and crested tits. There are also numerous insects which make their homes amongst the Caledonian pinewoods.

Decorating the Christmas Tree

The Romans are believed to be the first to decorate trees. It’s one of a number of traditions, including feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts during Saturnalia. The Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god, either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint. Early Germanic tribes also decorated their trees, this time with fruits and candles to honour the god Odin throughout winter solstice.

So Christmas, like so many of our modern day celebrations draws heavily on traditions from across Europe. In some countries, such as Poland, Finland and Denmark it is a tradition to celebrate animals at Christmas by giving them gifts. In Poland, when families share a traditional sweet biscuit they will break some off to share with the animals, as the legend goes, sharing the food will enable the animals to talk at midnight. In Denmark, it is a tradition to walk in the woods to feed the birds and other animals at Christmas time, and in Finland, they hang food on trees for the birds and the animals to share with the wildlife.

Christmas 2020 will be unlike any we have had before Many of us won’t be able to celebrate with our friends and families- and that is truly tragic So many things we associate with Christmas may not happen, but we can rely on nature to keep her cyclical routines giving us the stability and comfort through what has been a year like no other Wishing you all a peaceful, safe Christmas

Mycelium – The magic of Mushrooms

Have you ever looked in your fridge only ro find mould on bread, or that the strawberries have gone soft and mushy? 

Yes, it’s happened to me too.  Did you ever wonder what was really happening to your food in the fridge? Join me for a meandre into the magical world of mushrooms.

What you have seen in your fridge  are white or cream coloured fibre’s that are called hyphae, but the vegetive structure is called mycelium. The fruiting body of mycelium, is something we will be more familiar with, mushrooms.

Mycelium is fascinating, its was on earth way before humans, or indeed, any land life form, so to find out more about Mycelium, we need to take a journey back in time, so grab yourself a cup of tea, as we need to travel back in time for a few billion years!

We’ve arrived at a time on Earth, when single celled organisms had been in our oceans for a long time already, but the land is still a rocky mass – with no life.  Around this time, bacteria were developing the ability to use the sun for photosynthesis, a process of converting sunlight into nutrients. The by-product of photosynthesis is oxygen, which the bacteria released into the atmosphere, allowing for more complex life to form. This is known as the “Cambrian Explosion”. 

Now, let’s take a quick jump forwards Sixty million years. More complex life forms have now developed on land, in the shape of fungi. They have the unique ability to eat rock! OK, to say Fungi could ‘eat’ rock may have been a slight exaggeration, what the fungi actually did, was to secrete a digestive enzyme, that gave them access to the nutrients in the rock, nutrients not available to any other organism at that time. Before this, I’m told, Fungi fed on the build-up of bacteria on the sea shore for millions of years as there was nothing else to eat on the land.

Overtime, the oxygen released by mycelium encouraged the development of other life forms. Plants began to grow and phot synthesise energy from the sun. Small plants, such as Liverworts etsablished themselves but they needed nutrients and minerals to spread ever wider. Mycelium, needed energy, so both had access to the needs of the other. So began, nature’s first mutually beneficial partnership, or what we know as symbiosis.

Nature works symbiotically, or in natural harmony.  As plants died, the fungi decomposed the dead plant material into nutrients and returned those nutrients to other plants. Plants provided the mycelium inderground with the energy they photo synthesised from the sun. as more plants began to grow, they released even more oxygen into the atmosphere. This symbiosis continues today. Mycorrhiza networks continue to evolve, with Scientists claiming the these networks benefit up to 90% of plant growth in the modern world. 

OK, so lets get back to 2020. Plants and fungus have a long term symbiotic relationship, that’s been so successful, that plants and fungi have colonised in every area of the world. Scientists have found them in Antartica, and Mycorrhizal networks have even been discovered at Chernobyl and Hiroshima, having survived nuclear explosions.

I first heard of Mychorrizal networks as a child. One day, whilst walking in my local woodland I saw a young sapling, it was shaded by many other, much larger trees, and I thought, How can that young sapling ever grow enough to become a big tree and keep the woodland growing into the future? What I didn’t understand then, lead me on a journey of discovery and a passion to live in harmony with the natural world. 

As I discovered more about nature, I learnt about fungi’s mycorrhizal network, and how, it steps in to feed the smaller trees, with the nutrients they need, and keeps supporting them, until the trees are strong enough to survive and become the future of that woodland. For me, that nurturing and care, that helps every living thing to grow and be part of a symbiotic and diverse eco-system, is a way of living that leaves only the softest of touches on our planet. Today, Mycorrhizal networks are everywhere, not just in woodlands and gardens.

Mycorrhizal networks also act as communication networks, sending signals to trees and plants, that warn of potential dangers, in the form of pests and disease, and, the Mycorrhizal networks pass on chemicals that deter or hinder the growth of competing plants by depriving them of nutrients. Mycelium is a cornerstone of our ecosystem, forging relationships with other organisms, including us humans, in our modern world.  For us, it’s an important food source, providing us vegetables, fruit and the yeast we need for bread, it’s used in many medicines, agriculture and as a leather substitute in vegan friendly clothing.

Mycelia reproduction happens when a spore germinates to form a type, known as homokaryotic mycelia. When two monokaryons come in contact with each other, and if conditions are right, the hyphal walls break open, in a process known as hyphal anastomoses. This allows for the nuclei of one monokaryon to move into the mycelia of the other. As the mycelium continue growing and spreading inside, or on the surface of the substrate, it absorbs nutrients that are then transported to support the reproduction in the fruiting bodies, this is what we know as mushrooms.

Mushrooms, like plants need external stimuli to develop, but it’s the mycelium that grow in ever expanding circles under the soil. As the mycelia deplete the nutrients in the inner part of the circle, they die, leaving an empty central area, whilst the younger mycelia, continue to develop a never ending cycle of new circles.

Mycelia release different types of enzymes in their environment to break down materials into simpler material forms that they can easily absorb. For example, complex sugars and proteins are broken down to their basic forms, glucose and amino acids. Mycelia will naturally grow towards water or areas with high moisture concentration to absorb water they need for sustained development. In this way, mycelium can spread anywhere there is soil with sufficient nutrients to support its continued growth.

Mycelium in the Ecosystem

Fungi play a vital role in our ecosystems. This is because of their ability to recycle nutrients through decomposition, and then make the nutrients available to other plants. 

There are many species of Fungi that do their work in different ways. Most can be classified in one of three groups; parasitic, saprophytic, or mycorrhizal. Parasitic fungi as the name implies, require a living host to consume. This can lead to the eventual death of plant or tree. Saprophytic fungi live on dead organic matter. They recycle nutrients from the dead organic matter through decomposition. Some fungi can be both, parasitic or saprophytic. The cultivated mushrooms you find in supermarkets are saprophytic species.

For me though, it’s the mycorrhizal fungi that really demonstrates the magic of mycelium. Mycorrhizae in latin means; “myco”-fungi and “rhiza”-root. This relates roughly as “Fungus root”, a description that dates back to the 19th century.

Mycelium in the modern world: Climate Change

Can mycelium help save the planet from the modern world? Well, yes it can. Mycelium acts as a carbon storage facility and will reinvest the carbon into plants. This relationship is so prevalent that scientists believe 92% of all plants form a mycorrhizal relationship in the soil. Woodlands are one way of offsetting carbon from the climate as they act as natural carbon sinks.

Britain was once a gigantic forest. Now, tragically, it is the country with the least woodland in Europe. This will be a massive factor in how we deal with climate change in the future. The UK government has already stated that we need double our woodland areas to achieve the goal of being carbon zero by 2050. It is believed that this will be achieved by returning farmland to woodlands.

Mycelium and people Our relationship with mycelium

Mycorrhizal networks play a vital role, in fact, life as we know it would not be possible without Mycelium networks. We utilise Mycelium to develop higher growth rates in cereal crops, vegetables and fruit, to enable seeds of plants to germinate faster and more reliably, and also for those seeds to be stronger and more resistant to pests and diseases. As well as providing reliable, strong crops that do not need fertilisers and spraying with chemicals, the use of mycorrhizal fungi in soil, improves the transfer of water, the trapping of carbon and nitrogen that helps to reduce the build up and impact of climate change on our planet.

With so many species of fungi still to be discovered, the possibilities of mycelium and its natural networks and symbiotic relations to benefit the natural world we live in appear endless. These tiny, fibrous lifeforms that can be found in your own garden, but have survived for billions of years, even through nuclear explosions must surely have a key role to play in the future of our planet.

So next time your walking in your local woodland or park and you see some mushrooms, stop and appreciate these incredible gifts of nature. Mushrooms really are Magic.

Trail Hunting Exposed A pack of lies

Friday the 13th has for centuries been regarded by the superstitious as a day of bad luck. This, of course, depends upon your opinion. Friday 13th November 2020 will be remembered by many as the good day. It is the day that Trail Hunting was fatally injured by one of its own, Lord Benjamin Mancroft, Chairman of the Master of the Foxhounds Association, and former Chair of the Countryside Alliance, supported by a cast of MFHA Directors and staff including: Mark Hankinson, Hunting Office Executive Director, and former Master of the Wilton Hunt, Richard Tyacke, Hunting Office Director and former Master of the Wynnstay Hunt, and two former Police Officers, Philip Davies, the MFHA’s legal advisor and, Paul Jelley, a former Devon and Somerset Police Officer.

The Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) released video’s of Zoom calls recorded during August 2020 of key MFHA Directors and staff, openly discussing how to ‘fool the Police’ and the Courts of this land to believe the hunts were carrying on ‘legitimate business’ of Trail hunting and not ‘hunting a quarry’

For context, Trail Hunting did not exist before the Hunting Act. It was introduced in February 2005, when the Hunting Act came into force, with its clear assertion that it was illegal to hunt wild mammals with packs of hounds.

The MFHA believed it could simply adopt the name and tradition of Drag Hunting, but the Masters of the Drag Hunting Association wanted nothing to do with the ‘blood sport’ packs and refused to join forces or share the name. 

It was then Trail Hunting was invented. Trail Hunting, is a thinly veneered ‘smokescreen’ –  a bastardisation of the traditional sport of Drag Hunting, where a pack of hounds followed a pre-laid scent trail and blood hunting where the pray is live wild animals. Trailhunters purported to lay a trail for the hounds to follow, and then claimed ‘accident’ whenever they were caught out killing a fox. 

The MFHA Zoom seminars were specifically designed to advise ‘blood hunts’ of the methodology needed to escape prosecution, if they were caught illegally hunting by Hunt Saboteurs. The Zoom based seminars specifically addressed the importance of video recording the laying of trails and explained what information the Police would be asking for. They even included a testimony of one hunt who escaped prosecution after Hunt Sabs videoed the hounds killing a fox – but were able to show pre-recorded video footage of the the Hunt laying a trail so the Police could not have reasonable doubt that the fox was killed intentionally.

You can watch the full length videos below of the MFHA Zoom Seminars via the links below.

Link to Video 1

Link to Video

Of course, these video’s caused a storm on social media platforms with millions of people calling for those involved to be prosecuted and an end to hunting forever. The lack of response, or denial of any allegations, were not forthcoming from the Hunters. A cleear sign of their concern as to the garvity of the video call exposure. They remained quiet, no doubt following advice, and sat tight, issuing a few social media posts claiming their comments were taken ‘out of context’ but even these were unusually half hearted and were not worthy of response. The MFHA hunkered down in appearing to believe they could sit this situation out. 

They were wrong. ITV news, broadcast on the main 10pm evening bulletin, a video of the Beaufort Hunt actively hunting live quarry. Despite the claims of the Countryside Alliance that the Beaufort were Trail hunting, the hard hitting footage brought  the reality of hunting into living rooms throughout the UK and the British public were ‘outraged’ Trail hunting, already realing from the MFHA video exposure was now exposed as the brutal, cruel and cynical activity it has always been.

Importantly, The ITV news report confirmed that the Police were investigating the allegations made on the MFHA video calls. This was the breakthrough we had all been hoping for.

The police investigation will be headed by Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, part of Devon and Cornwall and National Police Chief Council. Netherton wrote the Operational Advice on Responding to Hunting Incidents document for the National Police Chiefs Council.

In over thirty years actively opposing hunters, I have seen myself the depravity and brutality of fox hunting. I’ve seen foxes killed horrifically, and I’ve seen many more run to freedom. In my experience the majority of Police Officers oppose hunting, but most, have little understanding of the Hunting Act, and, for example, often won’t ask to see Terrier Mens written authorisation from the Landowner, which they must have with them, as this is requirement of the act.

I’m sure the MFHA Zoom videos will have been watched with interest in many Police forces across the UK, and many hard working Police Officers will not take kindly to being treated as ‘mugs’ for over fifteen years, nor, will they be feeling confident in supporting any of their mates who ‘like a spot of hunting’.

Once the news of the pending Police investigation was revealed, it was vital to encourage national landowners to withdraw the permission to hunt. A busy day on social media for many of us, was rewarded when Forestry England announced the suspension of all Hunting licences on its land until the outcome of the Police investigation. The hunting facade was cracking, and the frenzy of activity from wildlife campaigners soon caused an avalanche of landowners, such as the National Trust and United Utilities who are the UK’s largest corporate landowner – suspending all hunting licences pending the outcome of the investigation.

I’ve heard it claimed many times that blood sport groups in the UK are powerful. I don’t agree with this. They are certainly influential, with many of their supporters coming from the English Institutions – such as Lords, Estate owners and of course, a number of Judiciary and serving and former Police officers. It’s also true, they have very ‘deep pockets’ and access to legal and financial support, often from within the ranks of the hunting, this is surely, the primary purpose for the very existence of the Masters of the Foxhounds Association. An incredibly expensive facade of ‘acceptability’ for a minority pastime whose main activity has an act of parliament to prohibit it. You couldn’t make this up! Smoke and Mirror, reflecting deception on a corporate scale.

The minority pastime of hunting wild animals with hounds was never a sport, as they have so often claimed. Hunting is widely deplored by the majority of the British public with over 8 out of 10 people calling for a complete ban on hunting.

Hunting has been fatally injured by this exposure. The video exposure will certainly ‘finish off’ the Hunters ‘bastard creation’ of Trail Hunting, what landowner can now allow these exposed liars back on their land? The thin veneer of acceptability, the MFHA may have had, has gone for good along with the trust of the majority of the British people, including many of those who they once relied upon for their support.

Like many of you I have been opposed to hunting all my life and I want to see an effective ban on hunting with the ‘teeth’ of custodial sentences for those who break the law.

I hope you will continue to use your own influence and add your voice to the many of us who want to see an end to blood hunting in the UK. 2020 has been an incredibly hard year for all of us, but my faith has been restored because we are one massive step closer to achieving the end of blood hunting, thanks to a dedicated and hardworking group of Hunt Saboteurs, and one very courageous and dedicated wildlife warrior. If you would like to support the vital work of the Hunt Sabotuers please give what you can here Thank You

Cluster 5 Corona Virus – The end of the fur trade?

Has Corona Virus ‘killed off’ the Fur Trade forever?

Picture Credit: Mads Claus Rasmussen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

According to a 2016 report released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, 75% of China’s wildlife trade is dominated by fur production with animals farmed for their fur, such as raccoon dogs, foxes and mink, often ending up at wildlife wet market.

Transmission of the virus from mink to humans, and mutations related to mink, were first documented in the Netherlands, which prompted the government to bring forward to the end of 2020 a ban on mink farming scheduled to go into effect in 2024. After the discovery in the Netherlands, the authorities in Denmark initiated a large-scale surveillance program of all mink farms in the country, with regular testing and genomic sequencing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that cases of minks ill with COVID-19 had been documented in Utah in August 2020.

As of 9 November 2020, COVID-19 infections in mink have been reported in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. (China, the world’s largest fur farmer is noticeable by its absence of any reports on corona virus in other species).

This prompted Denmark to announce its intention to cull all mink in the countries mink farms  – as many as 17 million. At present, 207 mink farms in Jutland are affected – and at least five cases of the new virus strain were found. The Danish government confirmed Twelve people had become infected. Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, said the mutated virus posed a “risk to the effectiveness” of a future Covid-19 vaccine. Ms Frederiksen cited a government report which said the mutated virus had been found to weaken the body’s ability to form antibodies, potentially making the current vaccines under development for Covid-19 ineffective.

Fur Farms – The Facts

Picture Credit: Getty Images

More than 50 million mink a year are bred for their fur, mainly in China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. At the time of writing (mid November 2020) outbreaks have been reported in fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the US, and millions of animals have had to be culled.

Mink, like other mammal species, are known to be susceptible to coronavirus, and like humans, they can show a range of symptoms, from no signs of illness at all, to severe problems, such as pneumonia.

Mink become infected through catching the virus from humans. But genetic detective work has shown that in a small number of cases, in the Netherlands and now Denmark, the virus seems to have passed the other way, from mink to humans. Last month, it was revealed that lions and tigers at a New York zoo had caught covid-19 from their keepers. 

Covid Cluster 5

“Cluster 5” is the name given to a mutated variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It was discovered in Northern Jutland, Denmark, and is believed to have been spread from minks to humans via mink farms. On 4 November 2020, it was announced that the mink population in Denmark would be culled in order to prevent possible spread of this mutation and reduce the risk of new mutations happening.

The World Health Organization stated that Cluster 5 has a “moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies”. Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI) warned that the mutation could reduce the effect of COVID-19 vaccines under development, although it was unlikely to render them useless.

Covid 19 Cluster 5 Name and mutations

In Denmark there have been five clusters of mink variants of SARS-CoV-2; the Danish State Serum Institute (SSI) has designated these as clusters 1–5 (Danish: cluster 1-5). Among these variants, seven different mutations in the spike protein of the virus have been confirmed. The specific mutations mentioned were del 69–70 (a deletion of the histidine and valine residues at the 69th and 70th position in the protein), Y453F (a change from tyrosine to phenylalanine at position 453, inside the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain), I692V (isoleucine to valine at position 692), and M1229I (methionine to isoleucine at position 1229).

‘Cluster 5’

Covid-19 originally came from a wild animal, it was then transmitted to humans and, later, passed back to a small number of humans.

Several different mutations have been discovered within corona virus in mink, that do not arise in humans. But tests have found that patient antibodies responded less well to Cluster 5 and further laboratory investigations are being carried out.

How different is Cluster 5 to the more common strain of Covid-19?

At first scientists thought that the way the virus looks clinically, its severity and its rate of transmission among those infected was similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses. However, further studies have shown it has a combination of mutations that were not previously observed.

Initially mink were infected after coming into contact with infected humans. Other animals, including dogs, cats, lions and tigers have contracted Covid-19 via respiratory droplets. Mink can act as a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, passing the virus between them, and pose a risk for virus spill-over from mink to humans. As viruses move between human and animal populations, genetic modifications can occur.

It’s not that surprising that mink have been infected. The list of mammal species infected during the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, was at least 16, including mink, palm civets, fruit bats, several species of horseshoe bat, red fox, wild boar, raccoon dog, and domestic cats and dogs.

Officials in The Netherlands believe mink contracted the illness from farm workers and the farms have since been put into quarantine. The Netherlands stopped the creation of new mink farms in 2013, while existing mink fur farms had until 2024 to close. Due to the Covid pandemic the closures have been brought forward and all mink farming in The Netherlands will stop at the end of 2020.

4. World Health Authority – WHO

In their statement released on 6th November 2020, the World Health Authority (WHO) stated that; “Initial observations suggest that the clinical presentation, severity and transmission among those infected are similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses,” “However, this variant… the ‘cluster 5’ variant, had a combination of mutations, or changes that have not been previously observed. The implications of the identified changes in this variant are not yet well understood,”

The UN said preliminary findings indicated this mink-associated variant has “moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies”.

WHO called for further studies to verify the preliminary findings and “to understand any potential implications of this finding in terms of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines in development”, adding “Although the virus is believed to be ancestrally linked to bats, its origin and intermediate host(s) of SARS-CoV-2 have not yet been identified,”

According to the WHO statement, since June 2020 there have been 214 human cases of Covid-19 in Denmark with SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, variants associated with farmed mink. Of those, 12 cases had a unique variant, with all those cases identified in September 2020 in North Jutland, Denmark.

The virus was found the unique variant in people aged from 7 to 79 years, and eight had a link to the mink farming industry and four cases were from the local community. To date, six countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the US – have reported SARS-CoV-2 in farmed mink to the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Mink Culls

Picture Credit: Getty Images

Denmark has ordered the culling of all mink animals in fur farms, estimated to be around 17.5 million individuals. One in five Danish fur farms have recorded covid infections in Mink.

But this problem isn’t new – back in July, Spain culled 100,000 mink after cases were detected at a farm in Aragón province, and tens of thousands of the animals were slaughtered in the Netherlands following outbreaks on farms there. The US then confirmed Covid cases in farmed Mink in Utah in August 2020.

Within the last week, Poland has found 18 cases of coronavirus among mink farm workers as it continues tests among the animals. While the authorities have not yet received results of the animal tests, they said that COVID-19 cases were confirmed among people connected with the farms

Poland is one of the world’s top producers of mink fur, with 354 farms, containing around 6 million mink.

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture has informed the owners of three mink farms in Ireland that their animals are to be culled to halt the potential spread of a mutated form of the Covid-19. Irish CMS,Dr Holohan, said ‘ the move would be advised as the presence of farmed minks presents an ongoing risk to public health” Dr Holohan went on to state “that all mink should be culled as a matter of urgency”.

Why this should be the end of Fur farming

Picture Credit: The Wildlife Trusts

One of the lessons we must learn from Covid-19 is that we cannot carry on pushing animals to the limit of their endurance without serious consequences for both animal and human health

The Fur trade had a reported turnover of almost $1bn (£750m) in 2018-19. Furs are sold to the garment industry but also used in a vast array of products, incluidng, some false eyelash products. China and Hong Kong in particular are the largest markets.

Coronavirus outbreaks have already spelled the end of the mink industry in the Netherlands. The UK and Austria banned fur production years ago, Germany has phased it out and Belgium, France and Norway plan to as well.

Now it’s time for countries such as Denmark, Poland, the USA and China to end this horrorific trade in animal furs and belts.

The appalling conditions and lack of space that these animals are forced to live in, the mutations of coat colours they endure through breeding and the barbaric execution methods, including an electrical probe inserted into the anus to avoid damaging the pelt, have no place in any society. We do not need to wear fur, we have many alternatives that look and perform equal to, or better than fur. It seems odd to me that wearing the fur of a dead animal could ever be considered as ‘glamorous’

Now that fur farming has stopped and no longer has ‘live animals’ this is the time to end the trade for good. In addition to the animal suffering, the potential for disease spread is another reason for all fashion companies to go fur-free NOW!

Wildlife Matters Blog Post

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In defence of the Grey

Most of us like squirrels – they are entertaining to watch, fast, dexterous, bushy tailed, excellent climbers that can be seen scampering around in search of nuts and berries in our towns, parks and woodlands.

For many, they are possibly the only wild mammal they have seen. For most, especially in the south of Britain, that squirrel would have been a grey. Greys have successfully colonised our urban and country landscapes in the 200 years since they were introduced by the Victorians, as ‘a novelty’ to add interest to their country estates.

So why are many of our best known conservation charities busily campaigning to ‘Save the Reds’?

We hear scary talk of small strongholds of red squirrels courageously ‘holding out’ on small land boundaries and even islands – we are told our ‘native squirrel’ is outcompeted by the non native (read invasive) greys and is on the verge of extinction.

We’re always hearing the ‘greys’ have driven the native ‘reds’ from their homes with a combination of being bigger, faster and carrying a deadly squirrel pox virus.

How strange?

Grey squirrels seem to provoke the strongest of reactions from animal loving brits. They have all the characteristics of animals that we tend to love, and yet they are actively persecuted by our conservation charities. They are often referred to as “Tree Rats” and have recently been added to the vermin list in England and Wales.

So, let’s have a look at some of the claims of the conservation charities.

The red squirrel is in trouble and is facing extinction in parts of the UK.

Deforestation for agriculture, fuel and war caused red squirrels to become extinct in Ireland and South Scotland by the early 18th century, and rare in the Scottish Highlands by the early 19th century. Reds were reintroduced to Scotland from England, and in 1793 Scandinavian Reds were brought in to save the species. In 1837, 20,000 imported red squirrels were sold in London – many of whom escaped into the wild.

The grey squirrel is widely accepted as the main reason for the decline of the red squirrel over the past century.

Boosted by the reintroduction of foreign Reds and by a massive reforestation of conifers, replacing the Broadleaf woodland, red squirrel numbers recovered rapidly and by the late 1800s reached peak numbers – described to be at ‘plague’ proportions. Hence, they were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands as woodland pests who strip bark, rob birds’ nests and raid gardens (sounds familiar?). Between 1900 and 1925, red squirrel numbers declined drastically under human persecution, which in Hampshire’s New Forest officially ended only in 1927.

A quote from the time sums this up – ‘It invades gardens, and will take peas from their pods as cleanly as a man. In spring it turns carnivorous and eats eggs and young birds. It damages trees by biting bark and preventing the flow of sap.’ (Natural History – Animals, by George Jennison, curator of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens 1927).

Grey squirrels compete with red squirrels for food and shelter.

There is some truth in this. Both Reds and Greys eat nuts and berries and share the same habitats. In truth, Greys are better adapted to British broadleaf woodlands than reds who are more arboreal and are more suited to pine and coniferous plantations.

Grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus and transmit this to red squirrels. Once infected, red squirrels die of starvation or dehydration over 1-2 weeks.

Okay, ‘squirrel pox’ is a very emotive name for a virus and this statement infers ‘intent’ on behalf of the grey to transmit it’s ‘deadly disease’

Parapoxvirus (squirrel pox) affects both grey and red squirrels. It is often ‘alleged’ that Greys carry the disease but are immune to the virus. Not true. What is true is that whilst both reds and greys can carry Parapoxvirus the larger, stronger greys have developed some resistance to the virus and it is rarely fatal to them. The virus is often fatal to reds. Both species suffer the same horrific effects of pox scabs forming, usually around the rear leg and genitals.

Grey squirrels very rarely die from this disease as their population has developed immunity having been exposed to the virus for many years. In sharp contrast, there are no known red squirrels that have developed immunity to the disease, and the mortality rate for untreated, infected squirrels in the wild appears to be 100% – most dying within 4–5 days of being infected.

There has been some more recent anecdotal evidence on resistance to squirrel pox in the red population, including the finding of a healthy red squirrel with antibodies to the virus in Cumbria. However, the mortality rate is still considered severe, and certainly capable of local extinction of red squirrels in areas that succumb to the disease.

It is quite clear from research in the first half of the 20th century, that Parapoxvirus was endemic in the red squirrel. A paper by Middleton in 1930 clearly indicated clinical symptoms of the disease in red squirrels, and further noted that these symptoms were seen in red squirrels which had not come into contact with grey squirrels. In fact, out of 44 districts where red squirrels were affected between 1900 and 1920, only four had grey squirrels present.

Okay, so it’s clear that Parapoxvirus is an aggressive, fatal disease that is species specific to Squirrels. It is also only recorded in the UK (recently North America has recorded incidents in Greys) but it is not present throughout Europe where reds and greys survive in mixed populations. This appears to be a UK only issue; but no one is asking the obvious question, WHY?

Grey squirrels now occupy much of the UK but conservation management enables red squirrels to survive in some places.

Conservation management is one of those terms that says nothing and means different things to different people. For instance, here it could refer to using birch trees on the edge of a woodland, specifically planted to detract squirrels from the inner broadleaf beech and oaks; or it could mean, trapping squirrels, placing them in sacks and bludgeoning them to death. In fact – in the case of many of the current ‘save the reds’ campaigns – it actually means both.

Both red and grey squirrels strip bark and it can sometimes be serious. However, it is sporadic from year to year and has been found to be nothing to do with food shortages and, indeed, was prevalent where pheasants were being reared for shooting and fed on grain in winter – providing an extra food source for squirrels. You would think that a young researcher would be keen to follow up on such a hypothesis, but we have been unable to trace any such ongoing scientific research.

Compared with the destruction of trees by human beings, damage from squirrels is insignificant – except for some, mostly aesthetic, flaws in high-value trees grown to more than 100 years of age for top quality furniture.

Whilst habitat management is used to protect red squirrels, this alone hasn’t been enough to stop their decline, so additional measures are required to save red squirrels from extinction.

Okay, for additional measures please read culling. Culling squirrels have become something of a British obsession over the last century and more, and we have come up with many ways of reducing both red and grey squirrel populations.

Here is a brief synopsis of our squirrel culling history:

In 1931, The Field magazine launched an ‘Anti-Grey Squirrel Campaign’ and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) encouraged the destruction of the species. At that time around 10,000 square miles of Britain had been colonised. During the following six years, despite the campaign, the grey’s range doubled.

Between 1945 and 1955, County Agriculture Committees set up Grey Squirrel Clubs, which were provided with free shotgun cartridges by MAFF (at taxpayers’ expense). This mass culling failed to prevent grey squirrels increasing both in numbers and range, and in 1953 the Forestry Commission launched a ‘bounty scheme’, which encouraged the public to capture and kill grey squirrels, cut off their tails and take them to a police station to receive a shilling for each tail.

A 1953 shilling would be worth around £3 today. After three years of this subsidised slaughter, the ‘reward’ for a grey’s tail was doubled and remained at two shillings until the scheme was abandoned in 1957. Over one million squirrels had been killed under the four year ‘bounty scheme’ costing taxpayers at least £3million and yet, at the end, the grey squirrels were more numerous than ever and covered an extended range, despite all the shooting and trapping.

In 1973, the Forestry Commission (following a highly successful media propaganda campaign that contemptuously labelled grey squirrels as ‘tree-rats’) launched an attempt to persuade the public and Parliament to accept mass poisoning of grey squirrels with the anti-coagulant Warfarin.

The Forestry Commission assured the RSPCA that this poisoning would cause ‘little hazard’ to other woodland animals and that there was ’no evidence’ of secondary effects on predators such as foxes, stoats and weasels. We now know that anti-coagulant poisons have killed thousands of non-target domestic animals – mostly dogs – and contaminated the entire wildlife food chain.

Anticoagulant poisoning, which leads to victims dying slowly over many days from internal bleeding, is described by the government’s Pesticide Safety Directorate as ‘markedly inhumane’. It is particularly cruel for squirrels, with the Forestry Commission itself reporting that post-mortems of poisoned squirrels revealed that haemorrhage into joints was ‘common’.

Scientific evidence shows that control of grey squirrels in some key places where they are in contact with red squirrels is necessary to ultimately prevent the extinction of red squirrels in the UK. Control of grey squirrels is a last resort and is restricted to a few, targeted areas.

With the Forestry Commission’s anti-grey propaganda campaign, supported by the National Trust, having softened up public opinion and MP’s, the Government implemented the Grey Squirrel (Warfarin) Order 1973 permitting the poisoning of grey squirrels in England, except for eight counties where red squirrels could be affected. For the same reason, Scotland and Wales were excluded from the mass poisoning.

This would suggest that the Government have been following the advice of their departments MAFF (now DEFRA) and land management experts for many decades without any successful conclusions or outcomes.

With this track record, why should we believe the latest statement to support the culling of squirrels?

There is currently no viable alternative solution. There is no available vaccine or contraceptive for grey squirrels. A future contraceptive couldn’t be used in areas where populations of red and grey squirrels overlap as it would also affect the fertility of red squirrels

It seems completely illogical to be developing a vaccine for grey squirrels when they have developed a natural immunity to Parapoxvirus – surely, we should be looking at ways to develop the same resistance in reds as the first priority.

Evidence shows that in areas where conservation management has been used, red squirrel populations are now thriving.

Local extinction of grey squirrels through culling to introduce non native, captive bred red squirrels – is that really conservation?
Grey Squirrels did not ‘invade’ Britain of their own accord – our ancestors introduced them.

They have no control over the pox that they carry, nor do they intentionally pass it on reds,

What they have done is become very effective in colonising areas where the reds are no longer present. 

Grey squirrels are not predatory to reds – they simply do what they do; which is to be grey squirrels.

We introduced them without consideration of the consequences, how can it be right then, that our only solution is to kill them by the tens of thousands, year after year, for most of the last century.

Nobody seriously believes that the grey squirrel could be exterminated in the UK.

A report by Stephen Harris and colleagues at the University of Bristol concluded that culling greys to save reds is neither viable nor economic. It concluded that “We could save ourselves a lot of time, money and effort by not persecuting grey squirrels”.

No one wants to see the red squirrel become extinct in Britain, but neither should we accept the culling of the tens of thousands of grey squirrels and the infinite number that we will have to kill if current plans are to continue in perpetuity.

The methods of killing grey squirrels have been horrific, expensive and ineffective. We need to show a bit more respect to this highly successful species and look at viable alternatives to culling.

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