Thursday, 26 March 2015

Managing diseases on moorland: our letter in The Scotsman

Dear Sir,

We were surprised that Mr Murray (letters yesterday) should doubt the clear conclusions of 30 years of peer reviewed research into the damaging impact of tick on grouse populations.

Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and others illustrates this effect and also provides practical solutions such as regular sheep dipping and species management which benefits grouse, sheep health and possibly even human health.

Anyone who has ever seen a tick-infested plover chick would surely value such work.

There are incentives to undertake this control at no cost to the public thanks to sheep farming and driven grouse shooting. This should be celebrated because managing diseases on moorland is an expensive business - the cost of treating, vaccinating, fencing and shepherding 1000 sheep in a tick-infested area costs tens of thousands of pounds per year.

Grouse moors are open spaces which can support a number of Scottish wildlife species including mountain hare that benefit from grouse moor management. We believe management plans to limit tick abundance on moorland are a valuable part of supporting moors - provided an informed, planned and balanced approach is taken.

We hope that our current research project with the James Hutton Institute and Scottish Natural Heritage to establish how to accurately count mountain hare (a tick host) will inform and help moor managers develop such balanced plans.

Dr Adam Smith
Director Scotland
Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust
Perth Aerodrome, Scone, Perth.

Stay updated and get all the latest GWCT news

Sign up to our FREE weekly newsletter >

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Boosting biodiversity - feeding birds in the ‘hungry gap’

Picture by David Mason
This article is taken from our Fields for the future guide which details our work at the pioneering Allerton Project farm. Click here to download this blueprint for farming, wildlife and the environment.

Lack of food in winter has been identified as a contributor to the national declines in numbers of some farmland birds.

The observation that many farmland birds make use of game crops in winter prompted us to research the potential of this habitat as a conservation measure and develop it further aimed at those species that had suffered declines.

We looked at the use of a large range of seed-bearing crops by a range of farmland birds and produced recommendations for the composition of seed mixtures that might be appropriate Countryside Stewardship habitat options. Since then, wild bird seed mixtures have been included as an option in agri-environment schemes.

Our work showed that kale, quinoa and a cereal such as triticale or millet provided the best sources of food. These crops were advocated as an ‘intimate mixture’ by early Stewardship schemes, but our research showed that the crops were best grown as single species strips or blocks so that each could be managed according to their differing agronomic needs and seed production could be optimised to benefit birds.

Early Stewardship scheme restrictions on fertiliser use also limited feeding potential for birds and our trials suggested an optimum rate of 60kg nitrogen per hectare (N/ha) (rather than the 30kg N/ha limit advocated within Stewardship).

Our research also showed that different crop species retained their seed for differing periods through the winter. By January, teasel seed supply was reduced by only 70% as only goldfinches were able to feed from this species, but for most crop species, seed had become completely exhausted.

For these crops, the seed supply declines as bird numbers increase during the first half of the winter, and then bird numbers drop in response to the continuing decline in the supply of food (see Figure 4). Our recommendation is that wild bird seed mixtures are implemented in combination with supplementary feeding in the second half of the winter. Influenced by our long-term data from the Allerton Project, this became an option within Stewardship schemes in 2013 and farmers can be paid to feed their birds in this ‘hungry gap’ period.

Get Your Free Guide

This article is taken from our Fields for the future guide which details our work at the pioneering Allerton Project farm.

Click here to download this blueprint for farming, wildlife and the environment.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A dog's life in the Uplands

You might be suprised to learn that pointing dogs (Pointers, Irish setters and English setters) have been on the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust payroll since the 1960s.

They are essential in helping us conduct our grouse counts in the Uplands.

Pointing dogs are the group of working dogs which have been bred for generations to find game by air, scenting as they run across habitat which is likely to “hold” game.

Records of pointing dogs being used to locate birds goes back to before the 1500s when dogs of a spaniel type were used to locate birds for falconry and for locating birds that were then netted on the ground to provide food for the lord’s table.

As the term pointing breeds implies, the dogs locate the birds in cover and then “point” to where the birds are by freezing into the classic pointer stance, head up, tail out and one front foot slightly raised (often vibrating with excitement) “saying they're just here!”

So why do we use pointing breeds?

By using pointing dogs to find the birds it allows the dogs to do the running about and hold the birds once found, allowing the field worker time to plod along behind but be very close to the birds as they flush, a spaniel or Labrador would flush the birds at some distance to the observer.

Due to the nature of the habitat and terrain grouse numbers can't be assessed by observing the birds from vehicles driven along field edges.

By harnessing the dog’s natural ability to locate birds hidden in cover and then freezing motionless on point we can accurately measure the numbers of grouse on a given area.

Two major roles for the dogs include carrying out grouse counts in the spring when we use the dogs to allow us to estimate spring breeding densities and then in the summer when we can measure post breeding densities and productivity.

However their role does not end there, the dogs are also used to locate and point incubating hen grouse, and for pointing chicks in the first two weeks of their life before they can fly.

The woodland grouse workers even continue to use the dogs for one of the tasks they were originally bred for over 500 years ago. The dogs locate and point to black grouse and capercaillie where they are then caught in nets, but instead of ending up on the table they have high tech radio locating collars fitted, the old and new working together.

The dogs are vital for our Uplands research and provide both pleasure and angst in varying amounts! Food and other small ongoing costs for each dog come to around £10 per week so we're trying to raise £10,000 which will cover the bills for 20 pointing dogs for a whole year.

Please help our pointing dogs

Friday, 20 March 2015

Working together for nature conservation

Picture by David Mason
Encouraging Farmer Clusters in Scotland could deliver huge benefits for biodiversity. GWCT Scotland Director Adam Smith (@ScotGrouse) explains more about a project due to start soon.

We all know that with skill a little can go a long way, but what if that little were organised in such a way to be greater than the sum of its parts?

This is essentially the goal of collaborative conservation farming; near neighbours working with each other to deliver effective conservation and cropping at scales large enough to be really meaningful. In England our ‘Farmer Cluster’ approach has been a real success story, garnering support from Natural England, but most importantly being led by farmers.

At its core this is a bottomup approach, stimulating clusters of farmers to choose for themselves how and where to manage for wildlife, with the experts on hand to provide advice when wanted.

In Scotland the benefits of collaborative or ‘landscape-scale’ conservation have been recognised and even desired by the Government, and there has been some good work done by bodies such as the
Tweed Forum. But for groups of tenant farmers on a large number of adjacent land holdings, discovering and co-ordinating farmland conservation for themselves is still relatively new.

Understanding what is needed to help these busy folk to achieve great things for wildlife is ever more important as money in the agri-environment pot declines.

Last year we were delighted when The MacRobert Trust suggested that it might help us explore the challenges behind farmer-led conservation on its Deeside Estate. This 2,000 hectares of let farmland
sits in the Howe of Cromar, a bowl-shaped geographical feature on the eastern side of the Cairngorms.

The land and farming are mixed arable, grass and wooded farmland; typical of the type of farmland and farming on about a third of Scotland’s land area. Landscape-scale conservation is really the
only way to manage for clean water and the farmers in this area already have experience of this kind of work, having established riparian buffers to protect streams that feed into pearl mussel rivers.

We hope that lapwing, black grouse, brown hare and red squirrels might come to benefit in the future,
and find a way to tackle the 20-year gap in grey partridge sightings. The project is an exciting opportunity, bringing together local tenant farmers’ knowledge with the Trust’s monitoring capability and our farm conservation advice.

We aim to:
  • Review the estate’s wildlife to provide a reference baseline.
  • Assess the interest in and restrictions on the estate’s tenants bringing together an integrated plan to enhance environmental measures.
  • Facilitate a best practice cluster.
  • Consider the most effective delivery of greening
Much of this first year will be information gathering, speaking to the farmers and surveying. We propose to make use of our GIS department in addition to gathering and accessing various data from bodies that hold environmental information on the Howe of Cromar. Maps are an essential part of facilitating such farmer-led projects – a picture is worth a thousand words.

This is a significant opportunity for local farmers to demonstrate that by working together, and with the facility of advice, they deliver many goods, such as food and biodiversity. Given the land tenure, landscape and climate, this project has the potential to demonstrate good practice to a wide range of
other land managers who influence and shape our agricultural policy.

Stay updated on this story and all the latest GWCT news

Sign up to our FREE weekly newsletter >

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spring grey partridge count under way

Photo by Laurie Campbell
by Nev Kingdon, Partridge Count Scheme Co-ordinator

The 2015 spring count of the Partridge Count Scheme (PCS) gets underway with farmers, gamekeepers and land managers across the country assessing the breeding abundance of wild greys on their land…

Many sites recorded good chick production last autumn and the subsequent increases in national average bird density means we are hopeful about what will be seen this spring.

But we need more farms and shoots to get involved if they have any remaining wild grey partridges. In return, the PCS offers a targeted and effective method for long-term partridge conservation by identifying management factors that can be achieved on the ground.

To get involved with the spring count join the PCS here >

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

5 top tips for successful Grey partridge re-introduction

1. Ask for advice tailored to your land before making any attempt to re-introduce grey partridges.

2. Do not re-introduce grey partridges if you have over two pairs per 100 hectares on at least 400 hectares. Aim for a recovery project instead.

3. Before starting your re-introduction make sure you improve the habitat, intensify predator management and provide feeders.

4. Where there are none or very few grey partridges still present, fostering young greys to wild-living pairs and parent-reared family groups is the best strategy to start with.

5. Reduce the risk of accidental shooting and disturbance to grey partridges during the breeding season.

Get your FREE Grey partridge conservation guide

Click here to download your FREE guide >

How others see the GWCT - by Sir John Randall MP

Guest blog by Sir John Randall MP (@uxbridgewalrus)

Members of Parliament are expected by our constituents to be knowledgeable on every subject, or at least to have an opinion. On many issues we may be well informed already, but when trying to garner information that can be deemed reliable, it is not always as easy as it might seem.

Animal welfare, wildlife and conservation issues can be very emotive topics and there is no shortage of advice being proffered to MPs by constituents and lobby groups. We may well be bombarded by well-meaning members of our constituencies who only want to hear one side of an argument.

For as long as I can remember I have loved wildlife, and although a denizen of the suburbs by birth, I have spent a lot of time in different parts of the country enjoying the fauna and flora. However, it would be wrong to think that I could ever understand the countryside in all its facets.

My association with the GWCT started when I was looking into possible legislation to create a close season for the brown hare. Offered a briefing, I soon discovered that this was not only a much more complex issue than I had initially imagined, but perhaps more importantly, I was impressed by the depth of research and knowledge that was brought to my attention.

I also was acutely aware that the members of staff of the GWCT that I was talking to shared my love of wildlife, were very knowledgeable, but also passionate. I therefore needed no second invitation to see the Trust in action at its excellent Allerton Project demonstration farm at Loddington. Once again I was very impressed at what I saw and heard. My overarching impression is that the depth of knowledge and experience from the Allerton Project needs a wider audience. This is particularly true for parliamentarians, but is also true for mainstream media, as it is crucially important for information to be given to the public that is based on sound, science-based research.

Of course there will always be some controversial areas where value judgements will have to be made, and indeed other conservation bodies have to take difficult and sometimes controversial decisions. Politics is no different and there are no easy answers to many of the problems we face. I have found the GWCT to be an important source of information that politicians can rely on. Facts without emotion but produced by people who are committed and passionate.

Find out more about what we do

Sign up to our FREE weekly newsletter >

Monday, 9 March 2015

Hedgehog research - our letter to The Telegraph

Photo by Laurie Campbell
Dear Sir

Geoffrey Lean accurately identifies the big questions about hedgehogs (Our humble hedgehog is disappearing fast. Comment 5th March).

Although hedgehogs are easy to catch and mark there has never been any systematic survey of them in the 70% of Britain that is farmland. In that wider countryside the trend in hedgehog numbers is unknown, and we have few estimates of local density.

As both predator and prey, the hedgehog is in the middle of a food web that is grossly distorted by human activities. Intriguingly, exploratory GPS tracking in Wiltshire showed that hedgehogs favoured gardens even in the middle of farmland; but we don’t know whether this is because productive farmland is devoid of prey, or because it has too many predators.

The farmed environment has been the chosen arena of GWCT for more than 70 years, and many of the ideas about hedgehog decline are familiar from our best-researched gamebird, the grey partridge.

Recently GWCT decided to include the hedgehog in its research, as resources allow.  We hope to discover what is really going on, and identify how to manage farmland to achieve the most satisfactory balance between all our native species, while still feeding the humans.

Dr Jonathan Reynolds
Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

Get our FREE weekly newsletter - sign up FREE here >

Friday, 6 March 2015

Cover crop update - Spring 2015

Winter is now behind us and crops at the Allerton Project, designed to meet game shooting and Environmental Stewardship requirements, continue to do well.

With valuable input from Kings, the move away from maize to various wild bird seed mixtures has been successful, providing a diverse range of holding, driving and feeding crops.

The kale-based spring-sown wild bird mixtures planted in May have thrived due to the mild winter and the brassica species grew through to December. These have been complemented by the second year plots, which were full of nutritious kale seed that provided food for a host of farmland birds.

The autumn-sown wild bird seed mixtures remain of great interest, and both farmland wildlife and visitors have responded positively to the ‘mirrored’ old and newly planted plots. Planting these mixtures in September provides a valuable source of insect-rich brood-rearing cover from May to July, followed by a broad range of seeds through the following winter.

This option has been lacking on many farms, but now that an ‘autumn bumble bird’ wild bird seed mix is included in the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, hopefully its exposure at the Project will encourage growers to plant it.

Get your FREE Cover Crops Guide from the GWCT

Click here to download your essential guide to which game cover crops to plant produced by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sunshine, wildlife and grain - working with Kelloggs

Sharing knowledge with Kelloggs farmers
Alastair Leake explains about an exciting new partnership with Kellogg’s

Each year Kellogg’s buys 100,000 tonnes of English wheat to turn into Bran Flakes, All Bran and Special K at its factory in Wrexham. Most wheat is sourced from a group of growers in Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, including grains grown at our Allerton Project farm.

The market for breakfast cereals across Europe is becoming increasingly sophisticated with less emphasis on products that are eaten from a bowl with milk, to cereal bars and multi-grain products which can be eaten ‘on the move’.

However, consumers are increasingly interested in knowing the provenance of the food they are buying, as well as being reassured that it is being grown in an ethical and environmentally sustainable way. To ensure this, Kellogg’s set up its first farmer supply group two years ago among its Spanish rice growers, who grow the grains for Special K and Rice Krispies, and then in 2013 a wheat group in the UK.

Kellogg’s brings the farmers, known as the ‘Origins’ group, together twice a year and provides them with free technical information from industry experts. Several of these have been held at our new training centre at the Allerton Project and involve subjects such as black grass management, crop nutrition and the role soil biology can play in plant health.

In addition, we have a contract with Kellogg’s to provide one-to-one visits to its farmers to provide advice on aspects of environmental management and Stewardship schemes, and from 2015 we will be assisting with the administration of the overall Origins project.

Sofi Lloyd, project manager, who works at our Allerton Project, heads up this new role and said: “It’s a great opportunity to get our research work out to a new group of farmers, and focus on the things that a ultinational brand and its customers want. As the Origins strapline says, ‘It all begins with Sunshine and Grains’, but there is a great deal more besides, which is very much in the hands of the farmers, and our role is to help them deliver delicious breakfast cereals and abundant wildlife.”

Follow this story with the FREE weekly GWCT Newsletter

Click here to sign up FREE >