Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

Migration excitements

The spring migration season is always an exciting time for birdwatchers – and I’ve been particularly fortunate this year. It’s required a couple of early morning starts in the Forest of Dean, wading through floodwaters at Coombe Hill, and a mad dash to Herefordshire – but each one has been immensely rewarding.

The trips to the Forest of Dean were to go on a couple of RSPB guided walks at Nagshead led by Lewis Thomson, the warden. He has an astonishing ability to pick out individual birdsong from the cacophony around: you go along a path, then suddenly he’d point in some random direction and say, “there’s a garden warbler in that bush!” – and you’d look, and there it would be.

We saw a number of stunning birds on the two walks, including both pied and spotted flycatchers and a very showy wood warbler, but the best event was at the end of the second walk. Lewis noticed a pair of redstarts (migrants from north Africa) at a nest site he’d not seen before, and as we watched we realised we were seeing a key moment in their lives: she was inspecting the nest that he’d built to attract a mate. She disappeared inside the tree hole to look around, while he hopped nervously around the branches outside. We were close enough that, with binoculars, we had exceptionally good views of this little drama.

Last Friday I found myself wading through floodwaters with fellow birder Dave Doughty. We were at Coombe Hill Meadows, in the flood-plain of the Severn. A red-necked phalarope had arrived. It’s one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds – most of the few dozen that nest do so on Fetlar, one of the remoter Shetland islands, to which they migrate from their wintering area in the Arabian Sea.

The chance of seeing unusual birds on passage between wintering and breeding sites is one reason why Britain is a good place for birdwatching. Another is that it is unusually well located for attracting rare vagrants from distant places – which can turn up anywhere. This happened rather spectacularly last weekend.

The story goes that Paul Downes, a birder in Herefordshire, had been getting his wife Christina interested in bird-watching. This almost went wrong last Sunday afternoon, because a diversion to see one bird led to her being late for dog-training. As a result she went up Bradnor Hill afterwards to give the dog a longer walk. She came back and said, “there was a strange bird up there…”.

It may have got the journey wrong – but it had plenty of admirers

This turned out to be a bird rarely seen in the UK: a cream-coloured courser. This kind of discovery may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for lifelong birders.

It’s a bird that doesn’t do Europe: it inhabits a swathe from north Africa, Arabia and across to Pakistan, but nowhere further north. However, unusual weather has brought a few into southern Europe this spring, and it’s possible that this individual is one of them.

I read about this on Monday, and figured that with a free evening, fine weather and a late sunset, I could get to see it. Hence a mad dash after work.

Cream-coloured courser, Bradnor Hill, Herefordshire

By half seven, I’d parked the car on the road past the club house, and made my way over the top to where other birders had gathered, along the 8th fairway. There, just on the edge of the rough, was the courser.

It may not have been quite the semi-desert with which it is normally associated – but it was unperturbed by its abundant admirers, all keeping at a respectful but eager distance. As Paul Downes later put it, “the little show-off [was] seemingly performing laps of honour to the assembled photographers and birders!”

Spotted flycatchers

Yesterday morning, I received an email from Lewis Thomson, the warden at the RSPB’s Nagshead reserve in the Forest of Dean, that made me immediately change my plans for the day. He said: “Just to let you know there are lots of Spotted Flycatchers at Nagshead at the moment. They are much easier to see now as family parties feed in prominent locations before leaving for Africa.” I had to go!

Spotted flycatchers have become something of a bogey bird for me. It started back in May, when a comment by Ian Forrest – about how easy they were to see in Tilery Woods near Stockton – led me to a dawn walk there, and my first blank. Nagshead is another place where they are fairly abundant, although four separate trips there this summer, with the explicit aim of seeing them, all drew a blank. (How I managed this is still beyond me, as they were seen easily on other occasions)

Spotted flycatcher, Tunstall, Durham: photo Jaybee

Spotted flycatchers are one of a number of migratory bird species that are suffering a serious crash in numbers over the last few decades, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Michael McCarthy has drawn attention to their plight in his excellent and very readable book, “Say goodbye to the cuckoo“. Birds from sub-Saharan Africa are suffering particularly badly: although it is possible that conditions where they winter may be deteriorating, McCarthy suspects that global warming is to blame. For example, as Britain warms up, the caterpillar glut that takes place  in spring happens earlier, before the migrant birds arrive; but if the trigger that leads to their leaving Africa is not changing, then they will struggle to adapt to the changes in their food supply.  Either way, their population across Europe has halved in the last 25 years.

I have vague memories, from when I was a kid, of Dad excitedly showing me a flycatcher that had arrived in the garden, and was hunting insects from a prominent perch. Some years later I saw one on the edge of a copse on the way up Leckhampton Hill, doing the same thing. Nevertheless I had not seen one recently – not since taking up birdwatching seriously – and was keen to do so.

Just outside the Lower Hide at Nagshead is a dead tree, which is a favourite perch for flycatchers. Except yesterday. I waited there expectantly for a while, hearing only a distant sniggering – “He’s back, let’s hide!”. A suitably spotted bird arrived near the top of the tree and I was momentarily excited – before realising that the large hooked beak could only be that of a crossbill. Nevertheless a kingfisher appeared at the lower pond, and did so while a young family was there, who’d never been in a bird hide before: it was a delight and privilege to share the excitement with them.

Spotted flycatcher, Tunstall, Durham: photo Jaybee

I bumped into Lewis during the afternoon, who was staggered at my lack of luck with the flycatchers. A little while later he heard and saw them flying around the conifer plantation near the lower hide, and found me to point them out to me. By the time I arrived they had disappeared into the upper canopy! At this point it began to rain and he had to leave, but I was determined to stay on, sheltering under a branch while the rain toppled down. As it was clearing up, I noticed a small family of spotted flycatchers, close to where Lewis had last seen them, but settled and prominent enough for me to be sure what they were before they flew off. The frustration was finally over – and it seemed fitting that it should happen at the end of a rain storm!

Forest birding

I’ve discovered that birding in forests requires different skills than around wetlands. At somewhere like Slimbridge or Saltholme, the birds are often easily visible on the water or striding along the water’s edge. However, in a forest, if the tastiest insects are high up in the canopy, why would a bird want to come down and wave its feathers just so a human can see it?

Desiring to become proficient in forest birding, I’ve visited the RSPB reserve at Nagshead in the Forest of Dean a few times. However, each time I went, I came away having seen very little of the star species there. (I did see a family of wild boar trotting through on one occasion, though!) Top of my list was to see a spotted flycatcher… I spent two hours at a prime location, and saw nothing… only to see later in the day that someone else on the reserve (actually, the warden) had seen eight pairs!!

All this led me to whinge to the reserve warden, Lewis Thomson, about my lack of luck at Nagshead – so he kindly agreed to take me on an early morning bird walk. It’s surprising how different the place looks when you have an expert to show you!

Hawfinch chomping rowan berries. Photo: Lewis Thomson

Our first stop was a set of large rowan trees, full of berries. This is a regular, early morning stop for local hawfinches – but which tend to disappear into the heart of the forest once the day wears on and people are around. This large, massively-billed finch is nationally scarce, but the Forest of Dean is a stronghold for them. There were about five which flew around the rowans, guzzling the abundant berries, often sitting long enough on exposed branches for one to be able to admire them properly. There were also some pied flycatchers around, which are impressive birds in themselves, although this time the hawfinches were the more attention-grabbing.

Shortly after leaving the rowans, I received some big lessons in forest birding. As we walked slowly along one of the paths, Lewis heard a redstart, and shortly after spotted it flitting around one of the trees. Clearly, being able to recognise the songs and calls is an important skill when leaves and branches so often get in the way, whereas it’s almost unnecessary near wetlands. Then we waited, and eventually the redstart – a female – became readily visible. Lewis explained that it’s a mistake to follow after a bird that has disappeared into a bush – this will only force it to fly away. If one waits, the bird may well hop into view, becoming relatively comfortable with being watched.

Our walk lasted about a couple of hours, and has given me a new appreciation of forest birding. But we dipped on spotted flycatchers… I’ll have to wait until next spring for them, I think!