Sunday, 11 December 2016

I have moved websites!

I have moved to a fancy new WordPress blog.
Please take a look at my latest blog on the Peregrine Falcons

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Beautiful Early Morning with the Red Deer

Everything seems to have settled down after the establishment of the leks during the rutting season in October. The men have been sorted from the boys, and the boys now seem a little lost and confused. The females calmly graze by their designated protective fellows, and their babies by their side look like they are to getting as much of the grass as they can whilst there is still some sugar in it to help them grow strong for winter.
I got to the park early this morning, before the golfers arrived to chase me off the course, so I could  get a proper glance at the red deer in the early hours. As I arrived the sun was just starting to reflect like gold dust in the sky, with the misty morning dew seeping away after the bitter evening before. The light of a new day warmed the backs of the red deer, as it did it warm my face, so I smiled and peddled on to see what was occurring within their groups today.
Firstly I was greeted by two rather troublesome teenagers, loitering by a fence and clearly up to no good. One glared cautiously as I edged closer, as if he was keeping for any authority that may catch them. The other in the meantime was up to the dirty work, making rather a mess of the fence post, vigorously rubbing his antlers against the wood with every intention of grating it to a toothpick. It was clear that the testosterone filled season was not enough for these two who just weren't satisfied, needing to find something to do other than behaving themselves!

After leaving Kevin and Perry to their fence post I peddled on to find a much more civilised section of the park on the edge of the golf course. There stood three does with a fawn from this year, protected by an older and grand male with what I assumed to be his young disciple. Between them they did not seem too worried about my presence as I crept to a nearby tree where I sat and watched. As I crouched there it was the most peaceful I had been all morning, with the golden light slowly sweeping across the green, and the deer enjoying the fresh due sweetened grass. The squirrels were dancing around the trees, scurrying to gather all the horse chestnuts they could find. The odd Magpie was hopping around, dancing and chattering to himself looking for mischief to get up to. I on the other hand was as motionless as I could be, taking it all in and soaking up every bit of this magical moment that I could

Unfortunately my peace was short lived. They were there! Golfers! No time to dawdle but to scarper home for breakfast - and quickly.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Rutting and Red Deer Conservation

It’s rutting season again! The stags are full of testosterone, chasing the ladies, and calling to warn other males of the unwelcome greeting they will receive if important antics are interfered with. Last week I had a fantastic afternoon watching the males, albeit from a very safe distance, with fascination over the tireless determination used to maintain their territories. Although not all males will successfully mate with a female this year, I am sure the herd will have no trouble this autumn and winter in surviving to produce young in the spring. Whilst the Red Deer are doing very well in Wollaton however, a little reading up on this species made it all too clear that the thriving and fruitful resilience of the our population is not uniform across the continent.
Red Deer are the most widespread large mammal across Europe, however recent genetic studies suggest a number lineages dating back to the last ice age that are both distinct from the Red Deer in other regions, and endangered.  During the peak of the last ice age, Red Deer populations became isolated whilst finding refuge from the cold and harsh conditions. Later, with the warming of the earth’s climate these isolated herds moved to different corners of the continent, creating the isolated lineages across Europe today. The Red Deer that seem so widespread across our continent are probably a number of separately divergent and evolved herds or even subspecies, unique to certain areas of Europe. It is really important to understand the extent of separate evolution between herds like these, as although the distinction between groups may seem trivial, it could have important consequences for conservation of the European Red Deer.
When two populations become isolated for a long enough time from a phenomena such as an ice age, they can evolve unique adaptations to their individual habitats. As two isolated populations may evolve separate adaptive traits through time, it could mean a hybrid between these two distinct and locally adapted populations would not be adapted to either habitat, but be a mish-mash of adaptations suited to the two different areas. When individuals move between populations, problems often arise that mean individuals such as the deer may suffer in the long run if hybrids become a frequent occurrence.
One isolated Red Deer lineage that is both endangered, and unique from any other populations across Europe is the Mesola Red Deer population from Italy. The Mesola population is not only small and suffering from a huge decline in genetic diversity, but is also the last Italian Red Deer population remaining since the retreat of the last ice age. Since monitoring of this population began, catastrophes and inbreeding through a lack of genetic diversity have been identified as important threats to the population’s survival. An option to reduce the risk of inbreeding is to introduce Red Deer from other populations into the Mesola population, to increase genetic diversity within the herd. As discussed before however, we need to be careful to try and maintain the locally adapted traits that make this population unique to any other Red Deer herd across the globe.
Whilst it seems I am approaching the thought of moving Red Deer between populations with some red hot and smoking barge pole, it has to be said that in European Red Deer conservation, translocations to date have been quite successful. In Croatia, two distinct populations have still been maintained with the help of translocations between populations to try and boost the genetic diversity within each herd. Without careful movement of the deer, the Croatian populations may have suffered from inbreeding and so an increase in susceptibility to disease through a lack of genetic diversity. It is still to be ironed out for sure if there will be any long term ecological consequences as a result of translocations, but at the moment things seem to be improved after these conservation efforts.

At the moment, new research is being undertaken to get a better understanding of the Red Deer species, and hopefully as a result we can continue to protect the distinct populations that remain across Europe. Whilst this exciting research is being undertaken on the continent however, we can still go out and enjoy trying to understand our native population thriving here. Whilst this is on a slightly different level to the population geneticists guiding conservation action in Italy, Croatia and Iberia, we can still enjoy investigating our own Red Deer all the same. If anything, I think knowing about the rich and interesting history of this species makes me appreciate the local animals’ company a little more than before.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Badgers, Bovine TB and Bad Scientific Practice

Bovine tuberculosis is a long term epidemic in the South West of England that spreads fear across cattle farmers as cattle are slaughtered in attempt to control spread of the disease. With the potential of transmission from badgers or cattle to humans the badger cull pilot scheme was launched in 2013 with the aim to reduce Bovine Tuberculosis in the British cattle herds. Since the cull however, people have found themselves stuck between articles stating the apparent success of the cull, whilst other groups are actively campaigning to stop the apparently useless and meaningless destruction of one of Britain’s most iconic species. It is a shame that given the importance of this disease and amount of conflict rising between the two parties however, that clashing beliefs are probably a result of governmental ignorance to scientific practice. Throughout the pilot cull so far, little attention has been paid to scientific evidence and because of it we are still non-the-wiser as to whether the cull could successfully help to eradicate tuberculosis or not.
The threat of bovine tuberculosis in Britain is real. Since 2008, 227,835 cattle have been slaughtered in England as a result of this disease, and at the moment protecting the cattle with a vaccine is not a legal, or viable option either. Approximately 28,500 cattle per year have to be killed after testing positive for the bovine tuberculosis disease, and shockingly many of these deaths will be the result of an inconclusive test, meaning healthy cattle are being destroyed. There is also no legal vaccine due to the interference that will follow with the test either, meaning options for freeing the country of bovine tuberculosis and this economic burden on the industry are far and few between.
After a background of scientific evidence gathered to understand the connection between badgers and bovine tuberculosis, the government sanctioned the culling of badgers in the South West of England in 2013. In Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset, farmers were appointed to control badger populations via both cage trapping, and free shooting. In 2016, the culling areas were then widened to seven locations in addition to these previously existing areas. The number of license holders for the disposing of badgers were later increased 2016. Culling in these new areas will be carried out over the next four years, so you would hope this expansion would be a result of the successful pilot culls surely!? Unfortunately, due to a series of irresponsible errors on the government’s part, the answer to that is no. The disorganisation that has surrounded the cull means that we don’t even know if the cull is or is not successful, and because of this, both sides of the badger cull debate are up in arms.
Add caption
Well-grounded evidence behind the cull states that the control of badger populations must follow an all or nothing approach. Heavily reducing the badger population size in our countryside would help reduce bovine tuberculosis. However, culling small numbers of badgers in patchy areas would be unlikely to have the desired effect. Whilst undisturbed badger clans remain relatively stationary so disease does not spread quickly, culling will disrupt this system. Badgers evading the cull or moving into land vacated by the cull will have a larger range that could increase the spread of the disease. To sum it up, not conducted carefully, the bovine tuberculosis problem could actually be exacerbated by the culling rather than solved.
As the badger cull was and still is such a controversial movement, it would make sense that pilot tests were conducted with precision, vigilance and careful monitoring to gain enough information to either support or neglect this as a form of disease control. Unfortunately from the moment culling targets were set, the project was not treated with nearly enough sincerity. Following Independent Expert advice, a target to reduce population size by 70% was set in the three areas for 2013. To achieve this, a range was calculated based on population estimates, to cull between 1876 and 2584 badgers. This meant that if the lower limit of 1876 badgers were killed, there would only be a 1/40 chance that 70% of the population would have been killed. Of course in attempt to cut corners the government took the 1/40 chance in order to “remain realistic” in meeting given targets, and set for 1876 badgers to be killed in these areas. Even before a single badger was shot, not enough effort was being made to ensure the highest probability of success for the badger cull.
 If it wasn’t enough that the cull used a target that was unlikely to sufficiently control the badger population, this target was then given little chance of being met or adhered to. Firstly, culling was carried out by the farmers themselves, making an extra job for workers who may not have the adequate free time to effectively undertake the badger control. It came to no surprise then that in 2013, only between 37-51% of badgers were culled in Somerset, and between 43-51% in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, in 2014, the government discarded the Independent Expert monitoring of population size methods that revealed the previous year’s failures, and left the farming marksmen to assess the population size. In 2014 no published estimates of population sizes were achieved. Lastly, as the final nail in the badger culling coffin, restrictions on maximum cull duration, cull area size and percentage of accessible land, previously considered “unduly inflexible”, were proposed for abandonment by the government, as apparently no longer fundamental guidelines to the cull. It is no wonder that the catastrophe was soon followed by an announcement declaring that “despite killing badgers, cattle slaughtered for TB continue to rise in and around the area.” (DEFRA). Anger has since boiled from both sides, where the cull was neither taken seriously, or responsibly enough to be worth it.
Whilst it seems that there is little hope for the cull, new pilot areas are being rolled out across the country in what seems to be half hearted attempt to address bovine Tuberculosis in Britain. To certain members of the public, this movement has not been conducted to help the cattle industry, but as a means of being seen to be doing. The culling could provide a reasonable means of badger control, just as it is currently conducted with other species like deer and other forms of wildlife. Given the unscientific way the piloting procedure has been conducted however, the success of the badger cull seems dubious if the current practice is not given a serious shake-up. If the cull continues to follow suit as it has in the past three years, we can’t only hope for failure of the cull, but expect that we will not know the effectiveness of the cull at all, and cannot help to guide future wildlife con

 I would like to give credit to the resources used to write this article, and I would please urge you to carry on reading to form your own opinion on the matter. Thank you for reading.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Summer Swallows!

So the summer has come to a close whether we like it or not, and with the end of the long and sunny days (sometimes!), comes an end to natures family making as well. The Swallows in particular have exploited any nooks and crannies available to nest their young. A local stables has a thriving Swallow population that comes back each summer from Africa, and this year I have been photographing the families, observing the behaviour, and intently tracking their progress as the chicks attempt to fledge the nests.

Any Swallow mother and father in these stables requires vigilance, determination, and a fierceness that will ward off the Magpies in the area looking for an easy snack. Swallow chicks are plentiful with tens of nests in these stables, and so these children provide a nice meal for any scavenger able to avoid the wrath of the swallow parents. Although the Magpie is well over twice the size of the swallows however, this proves rather difficult. The presence of a Magpie around a Swallow nest is made apparent to all, as the rippling and churring chatter of the Swallow parents changes into a sharp, shrill, and shaking screech. The doting parents immediately turn into bombers, swooping and gliding and diving on the Magpie. On one encounter a younger looking Magpie was found at the helpless and unyielding end of a Swallow attack, cowering as multiple parents joined in on protecting their chicks from the scavenger. There is no doubt that Magpies are fatal to any chick within its reach, but for the Magpie, getting so close may sometimes be all too difficult.

  If the Swallow parents are able to ward off predators, the sons and daughters will be ready to fledge the nest and clumsily explore the world outside the nest. One morning we came to the yard to be distracted by a number of siblings ready to fledge the nest. One brave individual had already ventured out of his nest, to nearly crash into us, before desperately clinging to walls, becoming entangled in a cloak of dusty cobwebs, and eventually fall onto a window ledge nearby. The parents would chatter away to their child, encouraging him and giving him every bit of available advice that may help him. Watching them fly as if learning to ride a bike that has recently had the stabilizers removed. Each flap would tilt the unstable body from one side to the other, as the fledgling would clumsily meander its way through the sky. It would not be long before the youngsters could carve their way through the sky like a knife through butter, but until then the fledglings would be very vulnerable to the Magpie who was searching for breakfast.

Should the fledglings make it this far in life, they could learn to soar through the skies, catch food, and communicate with extended family members before setting off on their treacherous voyage. The birds began to leave in early September, but this year’s fledglings have remained for around 3 weeks after their parents set off to Africa. The return journey will take about six weeks, and the final destination of the Swallow will depend on where in Europe they come from. It has been found that these birds are so good at reliably flying along a similar flight path each year from their first migration, unguided by the parents, because there are certain genes involved in determining where the bird will fly to. The Swallows will travel down through western France and eastern Spain from the UK into Morocco. The birds will then cross the Sahara desert and the Congo rainforest, finally reaching their home for the winter. Travelling 200 miles each day, let’s hope that the birds are currently well on their way to a good few months holiday in the sun.

Monday, 9 May 2016

(very) mini documentary on the early family life of the Coots

I know I should probably be revising instead, but have taken the evening off to put a short video together about the new coot families arriving at the lake, whilst unveiling a nasty secret about their family lives...

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Spring is here! (apparently)

 The snow has been falling, the wind blowing, and the rain pouring down onto Nottingham - of course this can only mean its spring. It has been a while since I took a visit to the university lake, and despite the recent strange weather, it is like somebody has waved a wand over the lake, transforming it while I have been home for Easter. The black headed gulls that were so numerous have vanished and taken with them the grey and drab cloth that swamped us over winter. In every corner of the lake a nest has risen out of the water to host a coot family that is soon to arrive. Some new arrivals on the lake who looked like something crafted by the devil himself, and a slightly older friend from last term I was a delight to meet again too. Everything is happening on the lake, and I can’t wait to see what may happen next!

On first arrival, I caught a glimpse of my first nesting Eurasian Coot. There she sat, very satisfied with her arrangement of sticks and leaves piled up high in the water. The lady of the house had to constantly maintain her mound in this shallower part of the lake to avoid her home being swept beneath her with the gentle currents. As usual, I was transfixed by her forthrightness as she was plumping all her leaf cushions, shaking them and patting them down on her bed ready for her babies to arrive. I wasn’t too sure what difference this made as the bed didn’t seemed to change all too much from before she had started organising her nest, but I got the feeling this was a very important task that needed to be attended to.
the Eurasian Coot, very proud of her nest  in the scummy corner
of the lake

While I  felt quite privileged being able to watch this one nest so close, it was not long before I realised coot nests had popped up all over the lake. All along both sides of the lake the water is quite shallow, meaning nine nests in total were made all along the banks of the lake. There was one nest amongst the willow tree branches where the twigs could easily be bundled together, held by the long fingers of the willow branches like a leafed cage around the home. Another had been dumped in a slightly unexpected place, amongst the scurvy and scummy remnants of rubbish, twigs and slime. The gentle currents in the lake pushed surface debris to this south corner of the lake, perhaps making it easy to gather nearby items quickly, before it would be broken down by the slow running water.
The nest tucked into the bank of the lake, and the Coot pruning
her feathers in the rain
believe it or not a family live here!
In contrary to my initial thoughts, it soon became apparent that the coots had no good sense of housekeeping at all in their nest building. While they did spend a substantial amount of time ensuring the nest remained sturdy and intact, this is the point that I stopped agreeing with their requirements of a good home. I came across yet another nest in the lake in one of the grimiest locations they could have chosen. Between some black railings and a few willow branches that had rooted amongst a pile of stagnant rubbish settled my best find of the day. Out from behind the rubbish, emerged three ugly and wrinkly individuals, with heads red like fire with tufts of burnt off feathers, sprouting out these strange evil looking minions’ necks. I laughed to myself as the coot parents doted upon these horrible children, a parent’s love really is blind.

the ugly little chick next to an unhatched egg

While I was happy to see the new arrivals, my heart leapt when I found a slightly older friend who I had met last term. I was concerned after walking most of the way around the lake and catching no sign of the Egyptian Goose family. My worries were set aside however, when then there he was, barely recognisable, a gangly and strange looking teenage chick, bumbling around on the boat ramp. The father was nowhere to be seen, as Billy (which I have now named him) is old enough to only need the care of one parent. The transformation that can happen in the space of a month is still hard to believe. The look of strength in his legs now was phenomenal, fully grown and just waiting for his adolescent body to catch up. His body was now half the size of an adult, and his proper juvenile feathers had come through. It was magical to see him from the fluffy little ball I had first met curled up in the sun. Through frosts, and wind, and snow, rain and sleet, this little chick had grown up so much and it was a wonderful thing to see.
mother and chick, or now teenager
Billy looking very gangly - still has a lot of growing to do!