Thursday, 12 January 2012

Secret Seals of the South East

Recently I was a guest presenter on BBC 2’S Autumnwatch, tracking down the secret seals of the South East. This population of grey and common seals, ranging from the Thames Estuary down to the Straights of Dover, has probably been around for a very, very long time, but the problem is, no one really knows. Unlike seals up in Scotland and along the Norfolk coast, these seals are pretty much unstudied. Hence the tag “secret seals”.

I flew out to the treacherous Goodwin Sands, tidal sand banks in the middle of the English Channel to try and find the animals. Sure enough, there they were, bobbing about with huge container ships and off-shore wind turbines swinging around in the back ground, and it’s the wind turbines that got me onto the subject of accidental nature with my seal expert John Bramley from the Kent Mammal Group.

A recent blog post looked at how a migrating Osprey has been helped by an offshore wind farm providing a roosting spot. Now, John has suggested to me that seals may be benefiting too.  And there are two ways in which the wind farms are creating a cool bit of accidental nature.

Firstly the giant poles, which are driven into the seabed, are probably beginning to create lots of small reef systems around their bases on the seabed. Much like sunken ships do. This will be a more productive habitat for small marine life, which will in turn be better for bigger marine life, like fish, which are food for seals. More fish may mean more seals. A good start. Secondly, the wind farms have effectively created no-take zones. Fishing boats are not allowed in and around the wind turbines. It’s too dangerous. So, suddenly by complete accident we have a few square miles of protected marine habitat where there was none. So, all those potential extra fish benefiting from the new reefs are then protected.

We know from the only English no take zone in existence around Lundy Island that productivity increases markedly both in and around no-take-zones. So, it’s not unreasonable to think John is right about this. Because no one has studied the seals in the long term its hard to see if there has been an effect of this potential increased food supply, but local boatmen suggested to me that they think numbers are on the up. Far from a planned result of offshore wind farms, but good to my mind.

The seals out on the Goodwin’s were largely grey seals. I went to look at Common Seals at a small estuary called Pegwell Bay on the mainland Kent Coast. These seals success has a much more defined link to we humans.

Pegwell Bay where they live is a nature reserve. It’s protected as a European Special Area of Conservation. Strange, as either side of the bay, the coast, despite having potential to be a wonderful wildlife habitat, has been built upon left right and center. Why was this estuary saved from that fate? The answer lies in that during World War One the estuary was owned by the Ministry of Defence. They made a port along the river; it was a major staging post for Royal Navy ships and for transporting troops to Europe. After the war the base was decommissioned but remained MOD property. Because of that, it was never built on, and nature reclaimed the site and it became an oasis of green amongst a rather grey coast. A case of accidental nature if ever there was one. The seals are certainly benefitting from it today as their numbers seem to be increasing, and there are even reports of them breeding there.

I guess after my films on Autumnwatch go out the secrets seals of the South East will be a little less secret in one sense. But in another there still very much a mystery. We have so much to learn about them that they are still certainly still surrounded by questions. For instance, no one even knows how many seals live here in this part of the world.

I love the idea that some of Britain’s largest and most charismatic animals are living in the South East, I hope some happy moments of accidental nature can help it stay that way.

Compost Companions

The Christmas cooking is done. The entertaining is over. The holidaying is complete. And surrounding me now are the remnants of what has gone before.
Most of it is spilling out of the recycling area of the kitchen. Paper, bottles, plastic wrappers and rotting food. It will disappear as if by magic when the recycling fairies arrive to take it away. Unfortunately, unlike the tooth fairies, the recycling species don’t leave money.
Fairies aside, there will definitely be other winged visitors coming to the recycling area at the bottom of the garden too, arriving to investigate one particularly part of it, the compost area.
Now, I am not a composting connoisseur. I am sure many things go onto our compost that those who know better would advise against. But, by not being overly cautious with my kitchen left overs, I seem to have attracted a diverse collection of natural scavengers.
For instance, with the mild winter I’ve noticed a variety of flies out and about enjoying the rotting fruit, without which they would surely struggle to find food at this time of year. I’m pleased about this. Flies and their associated maggots get a hard press, they’re always associated with dog poo and dirt, and therefor frowned upon.  But, without these mighty miniature munchers, nature would seriously lack one if natural street cleaners that tidy up our world.  If flies want to go through my kitchen left overs on the compost, then good on them.  Clean it up guys, go for it.
OK, I admit flies are, perhaps, not everyone’s cup of tea, but they’re far from the worst of the visitors to this area of the garden. That lowly position belongs to my dog. She devours all sorts of things she would turn her nose up if you were to put it in the dog bowl. But, make said inedible waste available to scavenge off the compost and oh boy, what a treat. It really has been Christmas everyday for Delilah this last week or two.
Once gorged on something wholly unsuitable she will then sure enough return to vomit it all back up in the sitting room.  No, dogs and composts are a bad mix. An unhappy accident of the compost world.
But I’m working out ways to keep her out and still allow my favorite compost visitors in, the starlings. A bit of mash potato and couscous salad went out yesterday and within moments a huge flock of starlings fell out of the sky into the young ash sapling that frames the recycling area. From here they made darting sorties down onto the rotting mountain and devoured the accidental offerings. These birds with their glossy metallic multi-coloured coat, intricately fascinating repertoire of calls and songs and rather fun, mob handed attitude always give me great pleasure to watch. And whilst they do visit the garden to simply comb the lawn for grubs or pick up some bread of the bird table, I kind of enjoy their sorties into the compost the most. I guess because I didn’t expect them to do it, and I enjoy the accidental nature of my relationship with them in this instance.
I have no doubt that others will be enjoying the compost. Famously grass snakes revel in the heat as the vegetable matter decomposes, an ideal place to lay eggs. And hedgehogs hibernate here through the colder winter months. I have suspicion that all manner of small rodents make an appearance once the lights are out too, scavenging away. All of them a happy re-cycling accident, benefitting from our over-indulgence at this time of year.
So, whilst the thought of having to drag myself out into the cold night to go and fill those recycling bins ready for the fairies, and slop the food bucket onto the compost, at least I know from nature’s point of view, its going to be well worth the effort.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Victorian Accidental Nature Reserves

Scottish Highland Capercaillie and young at Highland  wildlife holidays ScotlandI spent much of last week in the beautiful surroundings of the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, on a recce for this year’s Autumnwatch, investigating a story about deer. It’s a stunning landscape, with vast sweeping vistas of forests, mountains and lochs. The air was crystal clear and from the top of the Cairn Gorm Mountain Railway the views were spectacular. It just felt so wild and untouched. But of course, it’s not, far from it.
Most strikingly there are a vast amount of the forested areas being managed, foreign conifers laid out in regimented rows, like huge sheaves of corn waiting to be harvested. This is nothing less than a farmed landscape. Occasionally, tucked away in deep craggy valleys, where the foresters couldn’t work, there are still pockets of the traditional Caledonian Pine Forests that would have once stood in their place, but these are few and far between.
The wildlife value of the modern forest is risible. They are a monoculture little better than the giant fields of grain crops you find further south in Britain. The thick dark canopy of needles allows no light onto the forest floor here, which consists of a barren carpet of dead needles. Nothing can really exist at all.
Compare that to what should be the natural habitat, the Caledonian Pine Forest, and the difference is astonishing . Here Scotts Pine trees are beautifully spaced and layered with a mix of old and new that allow light to flood to the floor, encouraging a wealth of plants like blaeberry and heathers to flourish. The biodiversity of these places is just as nature intended, rich, diverse and beautiful. Tantalising species like Pine Martens, Capercaillie, Cross Bills, Crested Tits and of course the charming red squirrels, make up an A-list of wildlife superstars that call this habitat home.
It can be a depressing trudge around the highlands looking and hoping for a glimpse of this rare Caledonian Forest habitat, it’s just so rare to find it. But, some places offer a much better chance than others of finding it. And those places exist thanks to our relatives in the Victorian Age. They created a classic example of Accidental Nature.
You see it was the Victorians who really got excited by hunting. It became a really big hit with the social climbers of this world. Hunting deer, grouse and salmon was the thing to do. And the thing to have if you had the money wasn’t a yacht at the Cannes Film festival or a villa in Monaco for the Grand Prix. No, the thing to have was a hunting estate.
Huge areas of natural habitat where prey species flourished, i.e. the Caledonian Forest and moors, were shielded away from the local crofters who were otherwise turning these places into farmland. This land grab may well be wholly socially unacceptable, but effectively back then it created giant nature reserves. They didn’t have the regulation of today’s safe hideaways, and the animals were shot and killed, but a large proportion of the habitat that the Victorian’s hived away for their own sporting gains, still remains today. And obviously the animals being hunted were never allowed to die out, because that would have defeated the purpose of owning the hunting estate. So, today these estates represent many of the best examples of Caledonian Forest that we have left, along with strong populations of the species that live in it.
One particular estate, Kinveachy, at 33000 acres in size, is one of the very best examples of this Accidental Nature reserve. It holds maybe 10% of Scotland’s Capercaillie population and it’s where last year I filmed Britain rarest mammal, the Scottish Wildcat.
It’s carefully run by Sporting Manger, Frank Law, who has to play a delicate balance between his hunting clients and the needs of what has now been classed a European Special Area of Conservation. Talking to Frank there seems no doubt in his mind just how important the wildlife is, and he’s exceptionally proud of what the estate represents for nature. What’s more he is absolutely convinced that if it wasn’t for the Victorians and their love of killing things, very little of the Caledonian Forest would be there today. And as hunting still plays a key part of the estate’s income, hunting is still important in keeping the Caledonian Forest as it is and helps pay for the increasing amount of conservation work that is now carrying out.
It would be good to imagine a future where hunting is no longer needed on the estate. But how strange that the remaining wilderness of today in the Cairngorms has depended on humans desire to kill animals. I guess when it comes to Accidental Nature we can never be sure how our actions of today will unfold for the natural world of the tomorrow.

To see more of Kinveachy visit

Saturday, 6 August 2011


There is a fabulous story by Matt Walker on the BBC's web-site that really gets to the heart of the biggest effects of Accidental Nature.

It suggest that wildlife is actually evolving in urban environments, not merely changing its behaviour, due to the pressures of humans. If you consider that the urban environment is the newest habitat on earth (after all jungles, oceans, deserts and so on have been around for millions of years) then perhaps this is not surprising. The urban environment is undoubtedly going to be at the forefront of evolution, life will try to find a way where ever it is and the newest challenge is our human world, so thats where the newest evolution will be.

Apparently some scientists have come up with a buzz word, "Synurbic" to describe what's going on today. All well and good but perhaps forgetting that Accidental Nature has been going on ever since humans evolved and put pressure on the plants and animals around them. So, i think the idea that this is brand new to todays world may be a little off the mark, but it shows how this area of biology is becoming very topical. And, it's certainly highlighting that the future of nature on our planet is going to rely very heavily on species that evolve with us.

It's a stimulating piece, have a read.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Sewage Sparrows

When I asked "where is your Accidental Nature?" a few blogs ago, one of my Twitter followers, @Englishfolkfan, suggested sewage works could be a great example. I hadn't thought about sewage works, but it seems reasonable to expect that with relatively large areas of green space, undisturbed by the general public, they could make great places for nature. Sure enough, it seems they are, proof arrived yesterday with a filming job from the Autumnwatch office.

This Friday I've been asked to go and film Tree Sparrows, at Beddington Sewage Works. The birds are in serious decline in the UK, numbers having plumeted far faster and deeper than the more widely appreciated decline in house sparrows, 87% in the last 25 years. The birds are traditionally farmland birds and their decline has been linked to re-production failure caused by a lack of insects on modern farms. The insects are vital for feeding the young as they will not feed on seed until more mature. As modern farms have little natural habitat for insects and use pesticides, chicks never make it out the nest as adults struggle to find them food. Eventually the breeding birds die with no young to succeed them and the population vanishes.

The adult birds have problems too.  They feed on seed and have probably taken a hit like all farmland species with tidier farms and very little winter stubble these days.  The cold months are hard to get through. Within the concept of Accidental Nature, you could argue that if tree sparrows needed winter seed crop provided by humans to flourish, then its not unreasonable to just suggest that if they don't do well when we stop providing them food, so be it, that is nature's way. Rather like Herring Gulls and fisheries discard. But, let's not forget that Farmland will have taken away natural habitat that could easily have supported the birds and those insects for the chicks would have been in abundance too. So, its not just a case of modern farming techniques, but long term eradication of suitable habitat by humans. In the first instance, the traditional farms may have a positive effect on numbers, but modern ones certainly not. So the accidental relationship between the birds and humans is not so straightforward then.

So, why I am I being sent to this sewage farm to film the birds? It's the wrong sort of farm isn't it? Well, it may be, but it seems a new relationship has started up.  Beddington has got the second largest colony of tree sparrows in the country, fledging well over 500 young a year. Why the success? Simple really, the sewage sludge is spread out onto large beds, on which all sorts of "weeds" flourish. (for weeds read wild flowering plants!) This type of rough unkept habitat, known as ruderal habitat, is full of weeds that will provide year round seed for the adult birds, and is home to great insect life too, ideal for the young chicks in the summer. So, the Tree Sparrows are thriving.

The film I've been asked to shoot revolves around some ringing research work that is trying to track this years chicks. For the full story, you'll have to watch Autumnwatch when one of the presenters will be off trying to find the ringed birds. Its a wonderful tale about Accidental Nature, sewage was never intended to help Tree Sparrows thats for sure. And perhaps if the trend of Tree Sparrows setting up shop in sewage works continues they'll become known as Sewage Sparrows, but somehow, I doubt it.

Keep your eye out for the story on Autumnwatch and if you want to know more now visit here...

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Seal Pup Update

For those of you interested here is a quick update from Alex at British Divers Marine life Rescue on the common seal pup that was rescued last week.....

"Pup is doing well she weighed in at about 8kg, umbilicus a bit infected so she has had some antibiotics and that has dried up. She is fine apart from that feeding well and now has a little belly on her. She is likely to be there until beginning of October so will let you know how she is doing and when the release date is in the hope that you can make it. They had another one come in from Hastings so she has another one to keep her company!"

Monday, 1 August 2011

Ancient Accident

Over the weekend I've had the chance to catch up with some old friends, James and Sally. They live on a farm a few minutes down the road. When we got talking I discovered they had an old guest back in town, a Barn Owl.

I've been thinking about doing some filming on the farm and news that they've a resident Barn Owl again has added fuel to the fire. You see, I love the Barn Owl. An old painting of the bird with its wings outstretched used to sit above the fire place in the sitting room when I was a boy. As a young child, who had never seen such an animal, it looked a big and impressive beast. That iconic image meant the birds have always been a big figure in the landscape of my wildlife imagination. And, of course, they've been a figure in the wider human landscape for a very, very long time indeed. Right back to when humans very first started building the structures from which they get their name. 

They do fit the Accidental Nature mould so well, even if in a very ancient way. Here was a bird that nested in holes in trees or cliff faces and fed on small rodents. Along came humankind, who, through farming, created lots of sheltered holes in sheltered places (barns) and near these holes humans were farming grains, which attracted rodents on which the birds could feed. It was a perfect accident for the owls who became so commonly connected to these buildings that they became named after them, in Britain at least.

This should have been seized on by farmers as a good thing, because they wouldn't have wanted the rodents feeding on their crop. But one of the many other names given to Barn Owls is Devil Owl, and they were often percieved as omens of doom and shunned away. It took many centuries before farmers recognised the birds usefulness and duly started to actually leave holes in their barn buildings on purpose. I didn't realise they did this until filming on Exmoor in an 17th Century barn and having the Owl Hole pointed out to me by the farmer. It was part of the original design and sat just under the apex of the eves, ideal height for the barn owl to fly in and out of the roof where it would nest. An owl family had been in residence there for as long as the family could remember, way back for generations. I guess it was at this point in time where the relationship stopped being accidental.

The species flourished, as it has done so across the world, and it is one of the most widespread bird species on the planet. I am sure this global success may well have something to do with the continued success of the species to which it is so closely linked - us.

Of course we have played a negative role in the birds' history in this country too. As we developed poisons to kill rodents and farming became more efficient the rodents became less of a trouble and so the importance of the owls as pest controllers dropped. They also suffered from eating rodents who had eaten poison (secondary poising) as well as the troubles with re-production caused by DDT in the 1960's. Genreally farmers stopped worrying about providing nesting places in barns and all in the Barn Owl no longer had the ingredients it needed to flourish.

These days of course the picture is rosier, but not by accident. There has been a huge push over the last few decades to help barn owls spread back across Britain and many farmers have had visits from conservationists asking for permission to put up Barn Owl Boxes on their land. The birds have responded well and whilst I don't think there is any danger they'll be called Box Owls, the relationship between mans activities and owl numbers is clear again, only this time its no accident.

What I love about Barn Owls is that we think of them as being part of the essence of nature. And yet, if you consider Accidental Nature, they are also the essence of the effect humans can have on the landscape. A positive effect. A symbol of humans as part of nature. They are, I think, very significant species indeed and I am looking forward to getting out on the farm to watch them. I'll let you know how i get on with filming these oh so ancient accidents.