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.