Bullfinches in Devon

A male bullfinch came to my feeder yesterday – it is the first time I have ever had a bullfinch come to a feeder either here in Devon or elsewhere. I guess it is not that uncommon but I have never seen it before.

Bullfinch 1
This is an adult male – very smart


I decided to get my new Devon Bird Atlas out to see how they were getting on in the county.

Bullfinch 77-85
This is the map of bullfinch distribution between 1977 to 1985 – 1298 tetrads contained breeding records – 71% of the total

Bullfinch 07-13
The 2007-13 survey has shown a statistically significant 18% decline – now only 981 tetrads contained breeding records (53% of the total)

There appears to have been some declines around urban areas like Exeter and Plymouth and in some rural areas in South and East Devon. Apparently the reasons for these declines are currently not fully understood – another species therefore to keep an eye on.

If you haven’t already done so I strongly recommend you acquire a copy of the new Devon Atlas  – copies of the 1977-85 Atlas are also still available.


Squirrel on my bird feeder

I’ve put up my bird feeders in the garden now I’ve moved back to Exeter. It didn’t take long for the local grey squirrel to find them. It did however take it around an hour to work out how to get onto it. Eventually and inevitably it worked it out.

Grey squirrel 4
Using its hind legs / claws it lowers itself on the feeder

Grey squirrel
Time for some show boating

Grey squirrel 3
Preparing to leave

Grey squirrel 2
Using its front claws to haul itself off

Squirrel 4Reminded me of a few years ago when I photographed this grey squirrel at Castle Drogo in the ‘squirrel proof’ nut feeder

Red squirrel 3This however is what should be in my garden – a ghost in the landscape

A trip to Holne Moor – cuckoos, scrub and flood prevention

I spent the afternoon yesterday with Kevin Cox, who lives in the Mardle Valley, is an RSPB Council member and heavily involved with Devon Birds. We talked about Devon birds, Devon Birds and the management of Dartmoor’s commons. Kevin has recently purchased part of Holne Moor from South West Water.

Holne 1
Holne Moor overlooking Venford Reservoir.

We went up to Holne Moor to have a look around. A very interesting visit for me. This is the key bird research area I have written about recently – the place where Exeter University’s Professor Charles Tyler, his team of research students and nest finders have been working (The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group) – see here and here. This is the area where some of the key cuckoo research is taking place as well as being an area which supports high population densities of whinchat and meadow pipit.

Holne 4
The moor is grazed and has a swaling programme but does have quite a lot of small trees dotted around the landscape – cuckoos need these small trees so that they can survey the landscape and see where the meadow pipit nests are. On many commons now these dotted isolated trees are absent and new regeneration is now difficult due to the grazing and burning pressure.

The area is also very interesting as it gives a clue as to how natural flood management measures might work on Dartmoor in the future and play a part in ‘slowing in the flow’. South West Water have retained a belt of land around their reservoir at Venford. This area has been fenced off.

Holne 2

In this photograph you can clearly see the fence line – with grazed moorland to the right and the lightly grazed enclosure to the left. You can see that patches of light scrub have developed in the closure.

Holne 3
Here is another view of that enclosure.

These two photographs tell me a couple of things.

Firstly, if Dartmoor was not grazed, scrub and eventually woodland would quickly develop – the George Monbiot re-wilding scenario. Dartmoor is of course as I have said many times before an important historical and cultural landscape and therefore if the re-wilding scenario were to happen across the Dartmoor landscape then most of that would be lost. The landscape of Holne Moor is a good example of this as it has been ‘designated’ as a Premier Archaeological Landscape – see here for further details.

Atlas of Antiquities 1Jeremy Butler in his 5 volume Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities sets out a detailed catalogue of the archaeological interest.

Atlas of Antiquities 2
The map and accompanying text details the importance of the area from the Bronze Age, through the Mediaeval period to the present.

The challenge for all those involved with the management of such places therefore is getting the balance right between archaeological interests and biodiversity – both of which are of European Importance. I have written about this challenge before and it seems to prove intractably difficult to solve even though all parties are in fact pretty much in the same place – i.e. everyone wants a grazed landscape.

As Kevin Cox said to me on site yesterday (I paraphrase) – the archaeology has survived on here on Holne Moor for thousands of years through the ebb and flow of vegetation and farming cycles, however at the moment there is a biodiversity crisis and we may only have 30 years to save some species such as the cuckoo. Surely there is enough flexibility and goodwill within the system to tweak a few management techniques and thereby work out how to enable the cuckoo (and whinchats, meadow pipits etc) to flourish (e.g. ensure there are perching places and enough food for cuckoos) – the work that the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are currently researching.

The second thing that the two photos above tell me is how quick and easy theoretically it will be to naturally add regenerating trees and scrub to the landscape in very small but strategic places so that natural flood management schemes can help slow the flow. If enclosures were erected around specific stream valleys the developing scrub would quickly emerge and add ‘hydraulic roughness’. The areas of grazing land lost would be tiny and as long as the Commoners were compensated and not penalised as the current ‘ineligible feature’ nonsense currently would do then surely this too is a win-win for everyone.

I thought yesterday was going to be dominated by Storm Imogen – it certainly seems to have around our coasts but inland it was pretty windy but in my experience was mostly dry and allowed me instead to make a new friend, see a new place and think more about Dartmoor and its management.Holne 5


Storm Imogen – not looking good

Storm Imogen arrives today with a Yellow warning of rain and an Amber one for wind. It has reminded me of February 2014.

Amber Feb 2016

Dawlish storm 14 1
Stormy seas at Dawlish Warren – Feb 2014

Dawlish storm 14 2
The sand dunes took a battering – Feb 2014

Dawlish storm 14 3
The railway line at Dawlish Feb 2014

Dawlish storm 14 4
Dawlish railway line Feb 2014

That storm was a southerly – Imogen is more south westerly – fingers crossed for everyone and everywhere today

10 Tors training in the rain and wind Feb 16 – a day to remember

After my post yesterday morning (which I wrote Friday evening) I was rather apprehensive about embarking on a 10 Tors expedition on Saturday.

The weather had worsened over night and on Saturday morning we had an Amber warming of rain over Dartmoor and Devon.

As Team Managers and Leaders (Torquay Boys Grammar School and National Trust Wild Tribe) we had spent quite a lot of Friday evening discussing the situation and looking at options. We were clear that the Saturday walk route needed to be radically altered and shortened but there was real merit in testing the young people in trying conditions. Alternative routes were devised which would be safe but would be challenging – a key 10 Tor principle.


Upon arriving at Meldon Car park this was the scene over the cattle grid.

And this was the runoff – it was raining cats and dogs….

WaterfallVarious teams set off on their revised similar routes – here is the scene looking up at Homerton Hill on the south bank of Meldon reservoir – there isn’t normally a waterfall there!

Into Meldon
And the flow into the reservoir is nearly overwhelming the bridge

These photos show the scale of the rain – but give not idea who windy it was – at this point we were heading into the wind which was unpleasant as the rain was stinging on our faces – walking with the wind was pretty challenging as it nearly blew us over and on a few occasions actually did!

SaturatedA pow wow at Vellake Corner where we decided to change the routes again – super-saturated peat!

Here is the West Okement thundering down the Valley – note you can’t get to the beginning of the bridge!

We finished our day out at 2pm at the Dartmoor Inn near Lydford. This is what 10 Tors is all about – it teaches young people resilience, endurance, leadership, tenacity, a love of Dartmoor(!!) and a sense of achievement.

In case you think we have been cavalier yesterday- let me give you the stats – we had approaching 50 young people walking today – along with 11 adult supervisors and 4 young people who have already completed 55 mile 10 Tors. Of the 11 adults 4 are qualified Moorland Leaders, one was a former senior officer in the Royal Marines, another is a serving Police Officer and one is a member of the Dartmoor Rescue Service. We don’t do this lightly.

Being there when Dartmoor is extreme is a privilege and something I wouldn’t want to miss – a day to remember.

Dartmoor in February and it’s 10 Tors training in the rain

I’m off 10 Tors training today – the weather doesn’t look too clever.Yellow warning
The inevitable yellow warning of rain…….

RainLots of rain and some strong winds ……

I’m supposed to be heading up to Great Knesset – last time (2014) I was there it looked like this

Great Knesset

Even though it is pouring and gloomy Ian manages a smile even if Tony can’t.

Last February the north moor looked like this

North Dartmoor

North Dartmoor 2

North MoorWish it looked like this today

Will update tomorrow……


Eating meat and the planet

One of the themes that runs through my blogs is how the intensification of British agriculture is detrimentally impacting on wildlife, habitats and the environment generally. For example I have written recently about the huge growth in maize cultivation (see here), the decline of the cuckoo (see here) and the loss of heather on Dartmoor (see here). I guess therefore that it is no surprise that I am attracted to read a book entitled ‘Farmageddon’ by Philip Lymbery who is the CEO of the organisation Compassion in World Farming. To be honest I can only read the book in the small chunks as it is quite depressing but it unfortunately does tell a tale which we all eventually need to confront.


For me, the key sentence in the book is this, it is talking about factory farmed animals, “Together they consume a third of the world’s cereal harvest, 90% of its soya meal and up to 30% of the global fish catch – precious resources that could be fed direct to billions of hungry people.” Unbelievable except that it is true.

Factory farming involves keeping animals inside sheds all year round and feeding them there on cereals, soya or fish meal. This raises all sorts of issues surrounding animal welfare, pollution (from their waste), overfishing along with the intensive pesticide, fertiliser driven agriculture needed to produce the animal feed. Livestock agriculture also produces around 10% of manmade climate change.

This is of course all driven by the world population’s desire to eat meat rather than having a vegetarian diet. Livestock agriculture requires around 10 times as much land to grow the same amount of food which is plant based. Different types of livestock agriculture have varying efficiencies of converting ‘grass’ into animal protein – this is called the feed conversion ratio – see here and here for more details. There is an interesting article in the Economist from 2013 setting out the same story  – see here.

Different countries eat differing quantities of meat per capital – see here for a table (note the dates at the top of the table are the wrong way round). This shows that in the UK we eat on average around 80kg meat per annum, in the US the figure is 124kg. In both the UK and the US the consumption levels are pretty stable. However in China in 1961 3.8kg of meat were eaten per annum and by 2002 this had risen to 52kg. Now 50% of all pork produced in the world is consumed in China ……

So what is the situation in the UK regarding the production of meat? Pig and chicken farming in the UK is generally pretty intensive with animals reared in sheds. However when it comes to cattle we have not adopted a factory approach to beef/dairy production yet. Cattle and diary cows in this country feed on grass fields during the spring, summer and autumn and are only brought into sheds in the winter when the ground conditions deteriorate. This method has much higher animal welfare standards than factory farming but it not without its environmental impacts – most cattle and diary cows are pastured on improved fertiliser enhanced grasslands. Feed does have to be grown to feed the animals during the winter – traditionally this would have been hay or silage but now is more likely to be maize.

In essence if we in the UK ate 1/2 or 3/4 the amount of beef we currently do it would free up a huge amount of land where crops could be grown which we could eat instead.

Interestingly I have just started getting my fruit and veg from Riverford – the organic farm co-operative near Totnes.

Riverfords 1

In my box this week was Guy Watson’s weekly article – on this very topic ‘Ruminating on ruminants‘.

Riverfords 2
If you want to read more about the Riverford’s ‘How much meat’ debate – press here.

This isn’t an anti meat, anti farming debate – it is about how we can sustainable manage the planet and feed the growing population – by making meat a bit more of a luxury item and not an every day necessity would make a massive difference.

Let’s also be clear many of the wildlife habitats and landscapes we cherish in this country and elsewhere depend of cattle and sheep grazing for their survival. There may be a debate about whether our uplands are overgrazed but as I have said before without any grazing on Dartmoor we would lose a huge archaeological landscape from the Bronze Age and many habitats and species we love – see here for example.









The Land – Can Britain feed itself