The Wildlife of the Lune Region: A Beginner's Guide

John Self    Drakkar Press

The Wildlife of the Lune Region: A Beginner’s Guide describes a series of outings to explore the wildlife of the region within the Lune catchment. The ‘beginner’ of the sub-title is me, not you.

A pdf version of The Wildlife of the Lune Region was placed on-line in 2016 but has been replaced by this html version.


lune source   Introduction
  1.      Curlews on Green Bell
  2.      Snails on Sunbiggin Moor
  3.      Orchids on Great Asby Scar
  4.      Trees in Edith’s Wood and Greta Wood
  5.      Cinnabar Caterpillars near Heysham Moss
  6.      Marsh Gentian on Keasden Moor
  7.      Small-Leaved Lime in Aughton Woods
  8.      Eels in the Wenning
  9.      Cattle on Fell End Clouds
  10.    Pink-Footed Geese in the Wyre-Lune Sanctuary
  11.    Purple Saxifrage on Ingleborough
  12.    Sand Martins by the Lune
  13.    Fell Ponies on Roundthwaite Common
  14.    Cuckoos in Littledale
  15.    Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries on Lawkland Moss
  16.    Kingfishers by Bull Beck
  17.    Himalayan-Balsam on the Upper Lune
  18.    Juniper on Moughton
  19.    Wolf-Spiders by the Lune
  20.    Hen-Harriers in Roeburndale
  21.    Sitka-Spruce in Dentdale
  22.    Dippers in Barbon Beck
  23.    Alpacas in Rawtheydale
  24.    Hares at Winmarleigh Moss
  25.    Lesser-Black-Backed-Gulls by Wolfhole Crag
  26.    Red-Deer in Wasdale
  27.    Buzzards at Wandale Hill
  28.    Ferns on Leck Fell
  29.    Yellow-Horned-Poppies at Middleton Sands
  30.    Badgers in Lawson’s Wood
  31.    Salmon in the Lune
  32.    White Stoats on Caton Moor
  33.    Rhododendron at Kitmere
  34.    Lapwings on Swarth Fell
  35.    Belted-Beauty-Moths at Sunderland Point
  36.    Bluebells on Middleton Fell
  37.    Swifts on Gragareth
  38.    White-Clawed-Crayfish and Red-Squirrels around the Upper Lune
  39.    Red-Grouse at Ward's Stone
  40.    Wrens in Our Garden


The Wildlife of the Lune Region is a sort of sequel to
The Land of the Lune. The Land of the Lune provided a general review of Loyne, which is the shorthand I use for the region within the watershed of the River Lune in northwest England (shown in the map below). The Wildlife of the Lune Region is focussed more narrowly, as the title says, upon the wildlife of this region. It is not concerned only with the wildlife of the River Lune itself. It considers the wildlife of the rivers, fells, moors, woodlands and valleys of the whole region within the Lune catchment.
      In The Land of the Lune I included topics that I found interesting, in the hope that any reader would find some of them interesting too. Consequently, the text flitted between the history, geology, flora, fauna, people, buildings and so on of the region. This had the virtue that if a reader was not interested in one particular kind of topic then they could be assured that another kind would be along very soon. A reader of The Wildlife of the Lune Region has no such assurance. If you are not interested in the flora and fauna of the region then, apart from the occasional diversions, you will find little relief in the following pages. However, if you consider yourself relatively uninterested at the moment then perhaps you will persevere and become more interested. I was not so interested myself until recently. Like most people, I appreciated the wildlife that I saw but did not think too much about it.
      As a result of writing The Land of the Lune I became aware that there were people who had spent a lifetime becoming expert in the various topics that I glibly skated over. I felt a fraud writing about, say, the bog bush cricket when I wouldn’t recognise one if it came up and bit me. I became involved in the activities of the Lune Rivers Trust, a group of volunteers with the enthusiasm and expertise to oversee the ecology of the Lune river system. I was humbled by the little that my ignorance could contribute.
      I therefore embarked upon The Wildlife of the Lune Region not as an expert but as a newly-enthused amateur. This document is a description of my attempt to find, understand and learn about the local wildlife and the conservation issues that arise. It is not a detailed, technical, academic description of that wildlife. It describes a learning journey that I am happy to share with any other enthused amateur that may wish to accompany me.
      I began writing these words in 2013. I envisaged slotting the words into the structure that had served me well in The Land of the Lune, that is, one based upon an imaginary journey down the River Lune, interrupted by journeys down its major tributaries. I embarked upon a series of expeditions, starting at the headwaters of the Lune, intending to write about the wildlife that I encountered. However, I soon found that my expeditions should not be based upon the details of the Lune river system. The seasons dictated where I needed to be, in order to see what I hoped to see. Also, I needed to tackle first those elements of the local wildlife that my ignorance allowed me to.
      So, in the winter of 2013 I re-organised the words into a more straightforward, chronological narrative - or diary, if you will. I dated those words according to the original expeditions. And then I resumed the narrative in early 2014, aiming to write about a suitable wildlife topic every once in a while. As a result, I hop, seemingly at random, around Loyne. Maps after twenty sections and at the end of this document may help you to determine where we are. If more information is needed on the places themselves then I cannot do better than refer you to The Land of the Lune!
      As will be obvious, the comments and opinions expressed in this document are mine alone. As always, if any reader has any comments on or corrections to anything please let me know (at

A Note on Pronouns

I hope that the switches between ‘I’ and ‘we’ are not too disconcerting. The ‘we’ includes my wife Ruth, who joined in on some expeditions (and encouraged me out of the house for the others).

Photograph Acknowledgements

In The Land of the Lune I got away with amateur photographs taken on an ordinary digital camera. The photographs were, in fact, an afterthought. All that I had written before The Land of the Lune were academic papers and books, where photographs were a rarity. It was an eye-opener to me that the photographs in The Land of the Lune impressed readers much more than the text. It was also somewhat deflating, as many more hours of labour had gone into the latter. Clearly the photographs created a reader’s first impression - and, I suspect, in some cases the only impression.
      Therefore in a document on wildlife I must include photographs. Unfortunately, wildlife photography demands expertise and equipment that I do not have. Fortunately, there are many fine photographers keen to share their photos via on-line photo-sharing systems such as Flickr.
      I have in The Wildlife of the Lune Region liberally borrowed (or stolen) from such sites. I hope that I haven’t violated the spirit of these open access sites by including their photographs here. If any photographer should come across any of their photographs here and disapproves then I will gladly offer them a percentage of the income from this free publication. If that is insufficient mollification then I will offer my fullest apologies and remove the offending photographs forthwith. The captions of all stolen photographs refer to the photographers, most of whom have excellent portfolios of wildlife photographs that can be seen at the web address indicated. I am very grateful to them all.
ch0 map

1.  Curlews on Green Bell
April 2013

green bell Right: The view from the source of the Lune on Green Bell

This was not a promising start. My search for the wildlife of Loyne began with a view of a vast expanse of dull khaki-coloured moor-grass, enlivened only by the remnants of recent snowdrifts. No trees, no shrubs, no rivers, no lakes. Nothing, as far as I could see, but grass.
      It was early April, with a bitter easterly blowing. I could hear nothing but the wind. I stood at the source of the Lune, on the slopes of Green Bell in the Howgills. Actually, because of the snowdrifts I couldn’t locate the exact source. I stood in the first dribble of water emerging from the snowdrift. Before me, I could trace the route of the beck (Dale Gill), heading for Newbiggin-on-Lune, some three miles away. Beyond Newbiggin were the gentle slopes of Crosby Garrett Fell. On the horizon the snow-covered but normally dark Pennine hills stretched away from Appleby towards Penrith. Fifteen miles distant, the bright snowball communication centre on Great Dun Fell had been rendered inconspicuous.
      I would not see much wildlife by looking fifteen miles away. Looking down to my feet, I saw that I was in fact not standing on dull moor-grass. I was paddling in a deep-green substance, some kind of water-cress, perhaps. As I strode downhill, a dark bird, a snipe perhaps, inconsiderately took flight before I could focus upon it. In a gully, trying hard to restrain my excitement, I came upon a small patch of heather and some bright green lichen on exposed slate - topics that I will leave for another day. And, yes, the beginnings of a tree, or at least, a shrub. And in the next gully a veritable copse of trees.

first trees Left: The first trees of Loyne

      If this is to be a worthwhile discussion of Loyne wildlife, I cannot get away with ‘trees’. I need to be more specific. Unfortunately, identifying trees without the help of foliage is a new challenge for me. The dark slate-grey bark with horizontal markings leads me, with the confidence of ignorance, bravely to assert that the first tree in Loyne is a rowan.
      As is immediately obvious, I am not a wildlife expert. I hope to become less inexpert during the course of this journey. In the meantime, I will rely upon the expertise of real and virtual friends to put me right.
      As I walked on past High Greenside I heard a sound that even I could not mistake: the song of the curlew Numenius arquata [1]. Two curlews glided over the moor, with exquisite, flowing notes, an exuberant trill, yet with a touch of melancholy. They had returned to their nesting haunts after wintering in tidal waters, which is quite a bold expedition to have made already after this protracted cold winter. They nest in a scrape upon the ground, producing young of a surprising cuteness. The chicks are mottled, to escape observation, and have a short beak that does not hint at the curved 6-inches of the adult curlew beak. The parents tend to position themselves between the chicks and an approaching human, which gives a good clue as to where to spot the chicks. The parents and young do not linger on the moor once the latter are able to make their way to the shore.

curlew chick Right: A curlew chick (
Andrew Martin) curlew
Far right: A curlew in flight (Thomas Heaton)

      The curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird, although there is not much for it to wade in on this moor. It is some 55 centimetres in length and stands high on long grey legs. It is, however, more familiar in flight, when its evocative song draws the eye towards it. Sadly, its numbers are declining sufficiently to make it an ‘Amber bird’ on the Green, Amber and Red Lists.
      These lists have been devised by the UK’s leading bird conservation organisations. In 2009 246 species were assessed against a set of objective criteria to place each on one of three lists – Green, Amber and Red – indicating an increasing level of conservation concern. There are 68 species on the Green List, 126 on the Amber List and 52 on the Red List. Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action, with Amber being the next most critical group.

trig point green bell Left: The Green Bell trig point, looking towards Randygill Top

      Red List birds are defined to be globally threatened or suffering from a severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population or breeding range over the last 25 years or a longer-term period. Otherwise, if the species:
   •  has poor conservation status in Europe;
   •  or its population has declined during 1800–1995 but is now recovering;
   •  or its UK breeding population or range or non-breeding population has moderately declined (25-49%);
   •  or it is localised (most of its UK population is in 10 or fewer sites);
   •  or it is a rare breeder (1–300 breeding pairs in the UK);
   •  or it is a rare non-breeder (less than 900 individuals);
   •  or it is internationally important (at least 20% of the European population in the UK) then it is on the Amber List. Species that occur regularly in the UK but do not qualify under any of the above criteria are on the Green List.
      Since 2009 the curlew has continued to decline, so much so that it seems to warrant transfer to the Red list. Its UK breeding population declined by about 60% between 1970 and 2010, including 44% just from 1995. Its alarming decline internationally led to the announcement of an International Conservation Plan in 2013. It is now considered ‘globally near threatened’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). However, officially, at the moment the curlew is an Amber bird, which at least I now know does not mean that it is an amber bird.
      My initial foray has helped me to realise that not all wildlife will be as visible and as easily identifiable as the curlew. I will need to curb my normal purposeful march through the countryside. I must pause, look and listen. I will need binoculars and a magnifying glass. I will need guidebooks to help me identify the birds, plants, beetles, lichen, trees, and so on. I cannot rely on serendipity. I will need to prepare my expeditions, to help me anticipate what to look for and where. I should read all I can to help me understand whatever I am able to see of the wildlife of Loyne.
      So, with a slightly better appreciation of the task ahead of me, I continue on my way.

[1].  I give the Latin scientific names in order to provide a veneer of academicism (but only if I write a paragraph or more about the species, otherwise the text will be cluttered with the things). I only give the scientific name once, on the first significant mention of the species.

2.  Snails on Sunbiggin Moor
June 2013

sunbiggin tarn Right: Sunbiggin Tarn

As the Lune heads west from Newbiggin-on-Lune towards Tebay it passes to the south of limestone scars. Rais Beck arises below Little Asby Scar and meanders via Rayseat Sike and from Sunbiggin Tarn, occasionally disappearing through the limestone, to reach the Lune near Raisgill Hall. The upland tarn lies at 250m in a hollow between the scars and the Kelleth Rigg ridge above the north bank of the Lune. The region around Sunbiggin Tarn is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which sounds promising.
      What interests scientists may not interest me, so let me consult its
citation, that is, the official reasons given for granting SSSI status to Sunbiggin Moor. There seem to be three main reasons.
      First, as can be readily appreciated even by me, a variety of habitats is to be found within this small region. The limestone scars give rise to calcareous soil, that is, soil that contains calcium carbonate and hence is relatively alkaline. Around Sunbiggin Tarn, the wetlands and heather-dominated fen include areas of acidic mire. Therefore flora and fauna characteristic of the different habitats may be found unusually side-by-side.
      Secondly, the habitat’s distinctive natures support various rare species. Specifically, according to the citation, the area around the tarn is the only location in the British Isles for Geyer’s whorl snail Vertigo geyeri. Local literature repeats this claim, as indeed did I in The Land of the Lune. However, I am doing my research a little more thoroughly now and I have read elsewhere that recent surveys have recorded the snail at thirty locations in the UK, including two, possibly three, in England. But it hasn’t been seen anywhere else in Loyne, so if I want to see it, this is the place to look.
      So, on a bright June day, I set off, intrepid explorer that I am, undaunted by unforeseen dangers, from the watershed near Grange Scar with the specific objective of finding Geyer’s whorl snail. I knew exactly what it looks like, thanks to Wikipedia. And although it is small (less than 2mm across) I am assured that there are plenty of them. Surveys have found it to be the most abundant snail in the region, forming about a quarter of those collected.

geyer's whorl snail Left: Geyer’s whorl snail (Wikipedia)

      Geyer’s whorl snail is an air-breathing land snail. Surprisingly (to me), some snails have lungs and others have gills, but both kinds of snail can be found in water and on land. As it happens, Geyer’s whorl snail has lungs, although I didn’t expect to see them. The snail is a relic of post-glacial conditions. Since then climate change has greatly reduced its range and it is now vulnerable to changes in the hydrological conditions of its present sites. So it was with some misgivings that I embarked upon my search.
      I was reminded of the dwarf caribou. This caribou may have been dwarf but it was not as small as Geyer’s whorl snail. Anyway, in the 1870s it was rumoured that a relic subspecies of caribou lived in a remote Canadian swamp far from and dissimilar to the habitats of other caribou. Scientists were sceptical and a reward was offered to anyone who brought a specimen of the elusive dwarf caribou. In due course, a local Indian brought forth a skull fragment of such a caribou and claimed his reward.
      However, some scientists remained sceptical, suspecting that the Indian had brought his caribou skull from the distant habitats. So in 1908 a hunting party set out to settle the matter once and for all. Eventually, they came upon a small herd of dwarf caribou, shot them, and triumphantly brought them back to the satisfaction of the scientific community.
      It was indeed a rare species. No more dwarf caribou were ever seen. Perhaps the existence of the dwarf caribou was confirmed at the very instant that the extinction of the species was achieved [1].
      The moral of this tale was perhaps reinforced as I walked past Spear Pots. The OS map marks this as a lake. Now, it is a small flat grassy area. I have vague memories of this indeed being a lake, surrounded by a number of hides, whether to watch or shoot the waterbirds, I don’t know. Either way, the waterbirds are no more, which is perhaps why the lake is no more.
      I continued on to Tarn Moor, around Sunbiggin Tarn. I realised that, amateur that I am, I had chosen a poor day to search for snails. It had hardly rained for weeks. The heather was brittle dry. The ground was unusually dusty. Only by Tarn Sike was there any of the wetness that is more normal for the moor. If Geyer’s whorl snail is anything like my garden snails it would not venture forth on such a desert. In any case, I was concerned that my walking about on Tarn Moor may upset the hydrology and hence the delicate snail. Geyer’s whorl snail is fully protected, which should include protection against my boots. Being a ‘fully protected’ species means that, under UK legislation, it is an offence to disturb, kill or injure a member of that species or to disturb their breeding and sheltering places. Standing on a 2mm snail is, I should imagine, likely to disturb it somewhat.
      So, after reflection, I didn’t, after all, worry too much about the snail. To tell the truth, I am not very excited about snails. As wildlife goes, snails are not very wild and nor do they go much. bogbean
      My aborted search for the snail had its rewards, however. There was a surprising luxuriousness in the vegetation on the boggy banks of Tarn Sike. Amongst the dominant marsh marigold various wildflowers flourished, including the attractive specimen shown to the right.
      After several hours perusing the wildflower catalogues, I am now prepared to identify this as bogbean or buckbean Menyanthes trifoliata. Botanists will shake their heads. How can anyone take hours to identify a bogbean, with its distinctive white flowers, pink-tinged, fringed with white hairs, and with rose-coloured buds? In my excuse, the catalogues all insist that bogbean’s flowers have five petals. All the drawings and photographs show this to be the case. But my specimen had six petals. I was struck by its attractive symmetry.
      This is disconcerting. Are all flora so lax in following their descriptions? Must I read the catalogues less literally? As children, we search for four-leaved clovers among the common three-leaved versions. So perhaps it is not so unusual for plants to have variations. Perhaps, evolutionarily, it doesn’t matter much whether a plant has five or six petals. At least, not as much as it would for, say, a dog to have four or five legs.
      It was then time to attend to the third main reason given in that citation. This concerns the birdlife around Sunbiggin Tarn. It is the largest body of water for several miles in any direction and therefore a focus for many birds. The lake is, however, not large, forming about six hectares of open water. It can be walked around in an hour if you are prepared to climb various fences and walls designed to prevent sheep (or you) wandering into the reeds that surrounds the tarn and its neighbour, Cow Dub.
      The citation mentions twenty-two species of bird to be seen at the lake, from, in alphabetical order, black-headed gull to wigeon. Unfortunately, the birds do not have the courtesy to all turn up at the same time. On any particular visit, only a subset will be seen. My June visit yielded two swans, two moorhen, several gulls, with curlew and skylark heard overhead, one snipe disturbed while I circumnavigated the tarn, and a buzzard hovering nearby.
      However, I trust the citation (except for the black-headed gulls, which I have read elsewhere have recently deserted Sunbiggin Tarn). The surrounding wetlands look fine breeding ground for waterfowl, with the reed marshes providing a degree of protection. The moorlands, relatively unfrequented by humans, are surely nested upon by skylark, snipe, curlew and lapwing. Ornithologists with the time to come repeatedly in order to survey passing birds, especially those on their winter migration, are no doubt rewarded by the sight of many species for whom Sunbiggin Tarn forms a welcome resting place.
      As indeed it does for me.

[1].  The tale of the dwarf caribou is given, with details of other extinction events, in David Day (1990), Noah’s Choice, London: Puffin Books.

3.  Orchids on Great Asby Scar
June 2013

great asby scar Left: Great Asby Scar

The western end of the limestone ridge that begins above Sunbiggin Tarn drains via Chapel Beck through and by Orton to the Lune north of Old Tebay. The scars that lie south of the wall that runs from Knott to Little Kinmond form part of the Great Asby Scar Nature Reserve, most of which lies north of the wall and drains to the Eden. Well, a nature reserve should be of interest, so I decided to have a look.

orton Right: Looking towards Orton from Great Asby Scar

      The limestone has been significantly weathered since the last Ice Age (of 10,000 years ago). Vertical weaknesses in the limestone have been eroded to form deep fissures (called grikes) and many loose fragments lie upon the limestone blocks (called clints) between the fissures. These so-called pavements are more hazardous to walk upon than any pavement which we might harangue the local council about. Nonetheless, it is my duty to investigate the exceptional flora found around the pavements. Unfortunately, the specimens that are of most interest (to experts) are to be found lurking within the grikes, where the shelter, rainwater, and protection from sheep enables various uncommon plants to flourish.
      My enthusiasm does not yet drive me to spend the day on my knees peering into gloomy grikes. I accept what the experts tell me - that within these grikes are to be found woodland plants such as wood anemone and dog’s mercury and herbs such as angular solomon’s seal and bloody cranesbill. At the moment, I would not recognise these even if I saw them (at least, not without a wildflower book to hand). There are also many varieties of fern (rigid buckler-fern, brittle bladder-fern, hard shield-fern, lady-fern, and so on). To my eye, the ferns all look much the same, with the green fronds (which I am delighted to discover is not only my word but the correct botanical name for the leaves of ferns) hidden and occasionally protruding from the grikes.
      Even more occasionally, something more substantial had managed to grow and emerge from the grikes - trees. Most are somewhat stunted although on Little Kinmond there are relatively well-developed hawthorn, ash, rowan and sycamore. Overall, though, the limestone pavements presented an apparently desolate and barren scene.
      The main problem for any flora is not so much the exposure to the elements but the effects of grazing by sheep and cattle. For example, the fact that the large sycamore - I found only one - stands alone is testament to the efforts of sheep and cattle around it. Recently, grazing on the scars has been reduced to enable the flora to recover, although they are still relatively denuded of flowers. Undeterred I set out to look for flowers on the pavements. Passing over the usual daisies, buttercups and dandelions, the first flower that I alighted upon was an unexpected but familiar friend, the bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. I thought the bluebell was a flower of, or near by, woodland. I would not have expected it to flourish on these exposed rocks at 350m. Clearly, the shallower grikes provide enough protection and nourishment.

bluebell orchid Left: Bluebell on Great Asby Scar
Right: Early-purple orchid

      The most prominent flower on the limestone grassland, however, was an orchid, which since it was early in the season and its flowers were deep purple, I confidently identify as an early-purple orchid Orchis mascula. I felt I ought to check this in the catalogue. I found that the early-purple orchid is our commonest orchid and is often seen with the bluebell, so that’s promising. However, I also found that there are about 25,000 species of orchid - four times as many as there are mammals. Moreover, they cross-breed to produce 100,000 or so hybrids. A thorough search through the catalogue would take me some time.
      However, I was distracted by the discovery that the name ‘orchid’ comes from the Greek for ‘testicle’. The root is so shaped, apparently. In Greek mythology, the gods transformed Orchis, the son of a nymph, into a flower after he tried to rape a priestess of Dionysus. After this unpromising start, orchids have become the jewels of the plant world. Actually, the real start for orchids was, according to fossil evidence, before the dinosaurs became extinct. So, orchids are a venerable species. Today, enthusiastic fans will pay fortunes for rare specimens and tropical orchid-hunting had almost the romance of the first jungle explorations.
      As can be imagined, with so many species, orchid flowers vary greatly. However, I must not despair for there are only fifty or so native British species. Their flowers are usually purple-ish, mottled with white or green, and bear their flowers in single spikes or clusters. One can therefore usually confidently identify a plant as an orchid, although maybe not which one.
      There were also flowers around the Great Asby Scar pavements that were not orchids. But I did not worry about those because, with bluebell and orchid, I already felt that I’d done rather better than Alan Coren, who wrote that “This evening, my son and I embarked upon a pleasant excursion to collect examples of the wild flowers with which this part of the forest is so abundantly blessed. We collected a daisy, and fifty-nine things that weren’t” [1].

[1].  Alan Coren (June 6, 1979), The unnatural history of Selbourne, Punch.

4.  Trees in Edith's Wood and Greta Wood
July 2013

Orchids in their thousands, bogbeans with the wrong number of petals, 2mm snails - this wildlife game is quite tricky, isn’t it? I felt a need to retreat to safer ground. I decided to have a look at trees. Even I know a tree when I see one. I started with a wood especially planted for people like me - Edith’s Wood, near Ingleton. This was newly planted in 2002 with native trees (so I won’t be confused by pesky foreign trees or strange hybrids). I refrained from reading which ones, to give myself a challenge.

edith's wood Left: Ingleborough from Edith’s Wood

      However, I needed to do some preparatory reading to get a grip on trees. Alas, I soon found that a ‘tree’ is not precisely defined. It is not part of the scientific classification system for plants. Neither is ‘bush’ or ‘shrub’. But everyone has a commonsense idea of what a tree is, so I’ll leave it at that. I needed to break trees down into more manageable groups and classes, so that I may more easily identify them and appreciate their characteristics. Unfortunately, almost every grouping that is suggested seems to be hedged with various qualifications and exceptions.
      A starting point might be that trees can be divided into those that have seeds that are not contained in anything (the gymnosperms) and those that have seeds that are contained in something (the angiosperms). The former correspond to evergreen, softwood conifers such as pine and fir; the latter to deciduous, hardwood broad-leaved trees such as oak and beech. Except that: some of the former lose their leaves in winter (for example, larch) or are hard-wooded (for example, yew) and some of the latter do not lose their leaves in winter (for example, holly) or are soft-wooded (for example, willow). Also, an evergreen tree is not necessarily very green (for example, Colorado blue spruce); the ‘hardness’ of wood is a subjective judgment that I cannot make unless I take a saw with me on my walks; the leaves of broad-leaved trees do not always seem very broad to me.
      Botanists classify trees as they do other members of the Plantae ‘kingdom’. First of all, trees are grouped into families, such as Fagaceae (informally, the beech family) or Sapindaceae (the soapberry family). The members of each family have the properties that define that family. These definitions involve the use of botanical terminology that it is beyond my competence and your patience to explain. Each family contains one or more genera, such as Quercus of Fagaceae (informally, the oak genus) or Acer of Sapindaceae (the maple genus). Of course, not all genera have familiar informal names like oak or maple.
      Then each genus has one or more species, such as Quercus robur (English oak) or Quercus rubra (red oak) or Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore) or Acer negundo (box elder). Sometimes, a species exists in variations distinct enough to warrant an extra suffix, such as Populus nigra ‘Italica’ (Lombardy poplar), a variant of Populus nigra (black poplar), a species within the Populus (or poplar) genus of the Salicaceae (or willow) family.
      So, now I can give a proper name to a tree, if I can but determine what name it should be. As far as I am concerned, the identification of a tree has to be based on what I can see - its overall form, its leaves (if any), its trunk and bark - bearing in mind that all these are liable to vary according to the season, the location and the age of the tree.
      I started off with the most basic guide I could find. In all of fifteen pages (seven of which were illustrations) it provided advice on identifying about a hundred trees. First, I must place the leaf shape into one of ten categories. To help me, a little drawing was provided. Nobody is a complete novice at this game and I might imagine that I could think of an exemplar for each of the ten shapes:
            ace-of-spades  -  silver birch
            elliptical  -  sweet chestnut
            jagged  -  oak
            long and narrow  -  willow
            needle  -  spruce
            oval or pointed oval  -  beech
            palmate (like fingers)  -  horse chestnut
            palmately lobed  -  sycamore
            pinnate (having two rows of leaflets)  -  ash
            rounded  -  hazel
      This is, of course, rather superficial. For a start, there are several oaks and willows. I really ought to give the species name to be clear. But my hope is that if I can say that a particular leaf is a bit like what I think of as, say, an oak then that will narrow down my search to, on average, ten or so trees in my little handbook. Then I can compare my leaf with the drawings and check my tree against the brief descriptions. For example, if I find a beech-like leaf (that is, an oval one) and see that the tree has “bark smooth, grey; twigs slightly downy”, then I might have a stab at hornbeam Carpinus betulus.
      Thus emboldened, I set forth into Edith’s Wood. Proceeding from the southern corner, I immediately realised a difficulty. The trees had not grown that much in eleven years or so and may not have the mature properties described in my little book. Typically, the bark of a tree goes through various states as a tree ages (much like our skin, I suppose) and in its youth a tree may not have the characteristic overall form of its maturity.
      Still, I was confident that I first encountered oak, probably Quercus robur, and ash Fraxinus excelsior. Then, in the next set, hazel Corylus avellana and hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. Somehow, the species names made the achievement more commendable.
      As I was closely studying a rose in the hope of pinning down its species name, a young deer wandered up nearby, also taking a keen interest in the low-lying leaves, but with a different purpose to me. It took little notice of me. Perhaps it was unfamiliar with the human species, as there was little sign that it frequented Edith’s Wood regularly. A dog rose Rosa canina, I think.
      And so on, slowly through the seven hectares or so ... birch Betula pendula (some looking a little poorly, the only trees that seemed to be struggling), alder Alnus glutinosa, and ... what’s this? So far, I think I might, even without my little book, have had a general idea of all the trees so far but this one was different.
      I had already realised that it is harder than it might seem to place a leaf into one of ten shapes - some of them are rather similar and leaves are rather variable. After due deliberation, ... leaves lobed (a bit like a sycamore), five lobes, could be a maple, “red when young” ... yes, I opted for field maple Acer campestre. I didn’t have a judge to give confirmation but I was convinced. Joy unconfined! I had managed to identify a tree that I am not sure that I’d even heard of before. Or is a field maple what is often just called a maple? (Not that I could identify a maple.)

field maple Left: The young tree (field maple?) in Edith’s Wood

      I am developing a fresh appreciation of the expertise of arboriculturists and silviculturists who can effortlessly identify hundreds of species of trees and immediately recall their distinctive properties. I also see the need for these fancy scientific names. I think I was vaguely aware that a rowan or mountain ash was not really a kind of ash (although the leaves are certainly similar). Now I read that the former is Sorbus aucuparia and therefore of the rose family and the latter is Fraxinus excelsior of the olive family. Who would have thought it?
      Now enthused, I headed for the Woodland Trust’s Greta Wood, near Burton-in-Lonsdale. This, I saw straightaway, presented a different challenge. As I entered the wood on the footpath from Burton Bridge, I walked under a dense canopy of mature trees. Indeed, they are so mature that the wood has been designated an Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW). An ‘ancient’ wood is defined to be one that has existed continuously since 1600, before which date trees were not commonly planted. Therefore, an ancient wood is likely to have developed naturally.

beech Right: Beech in Greta Wood

      However, the word semi-natural, suggests that the wood may not be entirely natural now. As I walked through the gloomy wood, I found a majestic stand of old beeches at the western end, along with many ash and a few oak, but the overwhelming impression was of sycamore. These cast a dark shadow over everything. I can see enough sycamores from my garden. It was a disappointment to see so many here. It seems that many experts share my lack of enthusiasm for sycamore. To the layman, sycamore is a familiar, natural tree. It is, in fact, native to central Europe and is thought to have been introduced here in the 16th century. It is therefore, strictly speaking, a non-native tree, although fully ‘naturalised’, that is, capable of persisting as a self-sustaining population.
      Sycamore disperses its fruit through its characteristic ‘helicopters’. This is does rather too well, for the seeds are widely distributed and grow vigorously under moderate shade. The seedlings do less well under the sycamore’s own dense shade. As a result, sycamore often grows in a kind of partnership with other species, such as ash, which can grow under sycamore and under which sycamore can grow [1].

sycamore Left: Sycamore by Greta Wood

      Clearing sycamore can be counter-productive because it may well be the first tree to re-colonise the cleared land. Sycamore will appear to take over clear land, as an invasive species, until its own presence stifles further growth. Because of its apparent invasive properties (and perhaps lingering resentment for it being alien), sycamore is regarded as a threat to native wildlife. Conservationists therefore advocate its removal, especially from ancient woodland. This policy has not, it appears, been applied to Greta Wood. A Natural England report includes sycamore in a list of 21 species (out of 2,700 non-native species considered) that have “demonstrated major negative environmental effects” [2]. Sycamore is allegedly a “competitor; aesthetically bad”.
      I am no defender of sycamore but that judgement seems debatable. The aesthetics of sycamore are a matter of opinion. It cannot look so bad otherwise it would never have been planted in such numbers to decorate city roads. As regards being a competitor, sycamore seems to grow in partnership with other species, as indicated above. The overwhelming dark canopy is not good for its undergrowth but it doesn’t exactly compete with it. I cannot say if Greta Wood would be better if the sycamore were removed. I can say that I was relieved to escape from its gloominess onto the open footpath that continues along the south bank of the River Greta.
      Here, in a narrow strip of woodland by the riverside, trees present themselves separately, in an orderly fashion, which it is a pleasure to inspect and try to identify, one-by-one. Alder, oak, hawthorn, holly, hazel, spruce ... but, once away from Greta Wood, not a single sycamore, as far as I noticed.
      It is a mystery to me that sycamore can flourish in, indeed dominate, a dense wood like Greta Wood, one which is no doubt under the careful management of the Woodland Trust, but, despite being regarded as an invasive species, cannot reach far out here, into the open, by the riverside, onto land that is not managed (as far as I know). Perhaps sycamore is not such a bad tree, after all.

[1].  Mike Townsend (2008), Sycamore - Acer pseudoplatanus,
Woodland Trust report.
[2].  Natural England Research Report No. 662 (2005), Audit of non-native species in England.

5.  Cinnabar Caterpillars near Heysham Moss
July 2013

heysham moss heysham moss Left and Right: Heysham Moss

In April 2013 the local paper reported that “A huge wildfire ripped through the [Heysham Moss] reserve destroying everything in its wake at teatime last Friday” [1]. Perhaps only in Loyne do disasters happen at teatime. The report continued: “A raised bog ... was devastated during the fierce blaze. It could be years before the vegetation and wildlife regenerate themselves, according to a Lancashire Wildlife Trust spokesman”. I thought that I’d have a look at the devastated reserve, and then revisit after a couple of years to see how the regeneration was progressing.
      The Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve of Heysham Moss is on the western edge of the flat region bisected by the A683 from Lancaster to Heysham. This region lies west of the Lune, between the small ridge that peaks at Colloway Hill (36m) and the village of Heysham itself. The fields are drained by many ditches that yield fine agricultural land for cattle and sheep. In the past, however, this was a vast waterlogged morass, no doubt occasionally inundated by the sea. A century or two ago this region was called Little Fylde. A remnant of the past can be seen at the lowland bog of Heysham Moss. It is at an altitude of about 10m and you can’t get much lower than that. According to the information board at the site, 3m of that 10m is peat laid down in the last 4,000 years.
      Lowland raised bogs once covered much of Lancashire’s coastal plain but they have almost all been reclaimed for agricultural use. Heysham Moss itself is not entirely intact, with drainage and peat-cutting having occurred at the periphery, but the central area is relatively pristine. Here, purple moor-grass and common cotton-grass dominate. There are also characteristic bog plants such as bog myrtle, bog asphodel and round-leaved sundew and many varieties of sphagnum moss.

ditch Left: A ditch in Little Fylde (with ducklings)

      I did not go directly to Heysham Moss but walked to it across the reclaimed agricultural land. I wanted to imagine how different this activity would be if it were all still like Heysham Moss. I walked along the surprisingly tranquil footpath from White Lund. Once away from the road, there was not a sound except the twittering of swallows. Along the track I found ragwort Senecio jacobaea festooned with caterpillars of the cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae.
      Ragwort is poisonous to horses and livestock, although they know to avoid it. In the summer its yellow flowers dominate road-sides. Its notoriety as a weed led to the distinction of having a government bill named in its honour, the 2003 Ragwort Control Bill. During the drafting of the bill it was pointed out that about thirty invertebrate species are entirely dependent on ragwort, and ten of these are considered scarce or rare. The bill therefore backed off from proposing the eradication of ragwort, merely suggesting that its spread be controlled where it might form a hazard to grazing animals.

cinnabar moth Right: Cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort cinnabar moth2
Far right: Cinnabar moth (
Alison Day)

      One of the species dependent on ragwort is the cinnabar moth. It is still a common moth although its numbers have dropped considerably following the attempts to control ragwort. The moth is a striking black and red (cinnabar-coloured, indeed) and its caterpillars are equally eye-catching, being striped black and yellow. This helps warn predators to steer clear of the poison that the caterpillars have ingested. The female moths lay eggs in batches of fifty or so on the underside of ragwort leaves. Numerous caterpillars on one ragwort plant soon reduce it to a bare stem, as was underway on my observation. So voracious are they that they have been used to control ragwort.
      This is a microscopic illustration of the complexities faced by our attempts to control nature. The fact that ragwort is poisonous to valuable animals has helped persuade us that it is a weed that should be eliminated. In fact, the plant itself is a perfectly reasonable specimen and it is not excessively invasive. The cinnabar moth and its caterpillars are attractive examples of their kind and it would, of course, be a shame to lose them.
      I eventually reached Heysham Moss and completed the walk around the perimeter path. I noted impressively high purple moor-grass and scrubby birch and willow woodland. It had been exceptionally dry in the preceding weeks and the whole area looked parched, which I am sure is far from its normal state. But I didn’t notice any real sign of the fire. Either the local paper was exaggerating or the reserve had already recovered remarkably.
      The most lasting impression, however, was of bracken, brambles and clegs (or horse-flies). I am doing my best to love wildlife in all its forms but the cleg defeats me. Would the world be so much worse if Noah had forgotten to invite clegs onto his ark? I can find no mitigating feature that overcomes its habit of settling unnoticed on my arm, sucking my blood, until, too late, I feel the sting and swat it away.
      In the circumstances, I may forego the planned return trip to the moss.

[1].  The Visitor (April 10, 2013), Beauty spot devastated by massive blaze.

6.  Marsh Gentian on Keasden Moor
August 2013

marsh gentian Left: Marsh gentian (
Tim Melling)

As Keasden Beck runs from the expanses of Great Harlow and Burn Moor it passes, just north of Turnerford Bridge, a small undistinguished moor that has been designated the Keasden Moor SSSI. The first sentence of its citation states that “Keasden Moor is of special interest as the only known site for the marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe in the Yorkshire Dales”. This statement is contentious on two counts: first, Keasden Moor is not in the Yorkshire Dales and secondly, there are no marsh gentians there.
      The first is obviously so, from looking at a map. The second is open to contradiction by anyone who succeeds in finding marsh gentian on the moor. The latest Natural England review of the site (26th September 2012) admitted that “no marsh gentian were seen”. The 4cm bright blue, trumpet-shaped flowers surely cannot be missed - but perhaps 26th September is a bit too late in the year to see them.
      So I set off in August, with some optimism, to carry out a systematic search of the moor. I marched up and down the moor carefully surveying narrow strips as I went. It is a small enough moor to be thoroughly traversed in two or three hours. Unfortunately, I saw no marsh gentians. Not seeing is not believing. Notwithstanding the SSSI citation, I will not believe that there are any marsh gentians on this moor until someone directs me to their exact location. I do not intend to search this dreary moor again.
      Marsh gentian is a nationally rare species - and, it seems, perhaps rarer than it was thought. If it were to exist on Keasden Moor this would be at the northern edge of its range in England. It is now believed to survive at only a handful of sites in northern England. sneezewort keasden moor pond

Right: The ‘pond’ on Keasden Moor
Far right: Sneezewort

      Is there a mechanism for de-registering a SSSI? There surely ought to be in case the main reason for establishing a SSSI disappears. Apart from the (non-existent) marsh gentian there is little to commend Keasden Moor. The citation, which is the shortest I have seen, also mentions “a small pond [which] provides an additional feature of interest”. This pond is said to be surrounded by various rushes with common marsh-bedstraw, marsh willowherb, sneezewort and lesser skullcap.
      I can vouch for the rushes but I have to take the scientists’ word for the rest. The pond is protected by a squelchy quagmire of a depth that I had no wish to investigate. If the scientists have in fact reached the pond itself I admire their bravery in the course of their scientific duty. Of the plants mentioned the only one that I found was sneezewort, which is common on the moor itself, not just by the pond. I did disturb a few ducks from the pond, their alarm suggesting that they are rarely visited by humans. Nearby, I flushed out a snipe and elsewhere on the moor a hare was startled into action.
      Overall, then, this small moor forms a haven for wildlife, safe in the knowledge that most humans have the sense not to walk upon it. If it does not deserve to be a SSSI then perhaps it is better regarded as a ‘nature reserve’ although I am unsure of the precise legal difference between the two. In any case, it is not entirely natural because sheep and cattle trample upon it. Perhaps they eat marsh gentian?

7.  Small-Leaved Lime in Aughton Woods
September 2013

aughton woods Right: Aughton Woods, Lune, Ingleborough and hot air balloon

Inspired by my foray into Edith’s Wood and Greta Wood and now informed by two voluminous tree guides subsequently acquired, I aimed to investigate Aughton Woods. I have walked in these woods dozens of times and although I appreciated that the trees were there I had never really taken much notice of them. This woodland comprises Sidebank Wood, Cole Wood, Burton Wood, Lawson’s Wood, Walks Wood and Applehouse Wood. Different subsets of these woods form a Biological Heritage Site, the Aughton Woods Nature Reserve (owned by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust) and the Burton Wood SSSI.
      The ancient name of Aughton is said to mean ‘oak-town’, which indicates that these woods are of some vintage. Apart from oak, there are other native species such as hazel, ash, wych elm, rowan, hawthorn, fir, cherry and alder. The non-native sycamore and larch is gradually being cleared. That is all well and good. These are all old familiar friends - friends with whom I have recently become closer. But pride of place in the literature on Aughton Woods goes to the small-leaved lime. Now they’re talking! I like to search (if unsuccessfully) for something new and rare on my outings.
      The limes are Britain’s most noble trees. They are our tallest broad-leaved trees, with attractive heart-shaped leaves. They grace many parks, public gardens and palaces, such as Hampton Court. Lime wood is fine-grained and doesn’t warp, making it suitable for wood carvings and to make musical instruments. They are hardy trees that provide good shade and will stand severe pruning and, as a result, are often used in street avenues. Limes used to be thought holy trees, able to provide protection against evil.

sll leaves Right: The leaves of small-leaved lime

      The leaves of the small-leaved lime Tilia cordata are, to my great relief, smaller (4 - 7.5 cm) than the leaves of the large-leaved lime Tilia platyphyllos (6 - 15 cm). The leaves of the medium-leaved lime - no, it’s not really called that - that is, the common lime Tilia x europaea are between the two (5 - 10 cm). Which is as it should be, because the common lime is a natural hybrid of the small-leaved lime and the large-leaved lime.
      So if I found a heart-shaped leaf 7 cm long it could be off any of them. However, if I measured all the leaves on one tree and none of them exceeded 7.5 cm then perhaps I’d be safe in identifying it is as a small-leaved lime. Actually, if I found any kind of lime in Aughton Woods it ought to be the small-leaved species. This is because Aughton Woods is supposed to host native trees and the common lime and large-leaved lime are not native to this part of Britain. The small-leaved lime is relatively uncommon and is near the northern limits of its range in Aughton Woods.
      A careful study of the descriptions of the three species reveals differences other than just the size of the leaves - that is, in the precise shape of the heart, the hairiness and shininess of the leaves, the overall shape of the tree, the appearance of the bark, the shape and colour of the flowers, and so on. These, however, are, for an amateur like me, subsidiary features to be used to confirm a provisional identification. My first objective, as I set off for Aughton Woods, was to find a tree with heart-shaped leaves.
      ... And, yes, there was little difficulty in finding small-leaved lime, once I had overcome my preconception that a small-leaved lime is a small tree. It is in fact among the largest trees in Aughton Woods. The distinctive leaves are therefore far aloft, out of reach of my ruler but they look small to me. Some of the trees have lower offshoots, allowing a closer inspection. The leaves may be confused only with those of hazel, but that of course is more of a multi-stemmed shrub, not at all like the sturdy-trunked lime. Hazel leaves are less heart-shaped and have more ragged edges.
      Small-leaved lime may be located without leaving the Lune Valley Ramble path in Lawson’s Wood. There are a couple of specimens by the field as you enter the wood from the east. In the wood there is a series of eight footbridges over small gullies. If you pause on the first five of these you can see a small-leaved lime growing conveniently within a few yards of the footbridge. It is almost as if the limes were planted in order to be viewed from the bridges, but of course that is not the case as the bridges are recent. I was overcome with a peculiar sense of achievement in finding something ’new’ in a wood that I thought I knew well.

8.  Eels in the Wenning
September 2013

hornby weir Left: The weir at Hornby

The River Wenning curves below Hornby Castle to drop over an arc-shaped weir. This weir, unlike most weirs in Loyne, was not built for an old mill. Perhaps it was built to create deep still waters above the weir to enable castle residents to fish and boat. Perhaps it was intended to enhance the aesthetically pleasing view of the castle from the bridge. The weir’s symmetry is not spoilt by the presence of a fish pass. Fish have to leap the weir. However, the north side of the arc is broken by a green structure, the purpose of which is not immediately obvious.
      I once sat by Hornby Bridge to watch a heron swallow an eel (more precisely, a European eel Anguilla anguilla). The heron has a long neck but it is not as long as this eel was. It took the heron some time to get the whole eel inside. Herons are often to be seen standing by the weir. They have their eye on fish that are waiting below the weir for the right conditions to leap it and also on eel that, of course, cannot leap at all. For an eel to move upstream it must leave the water, wriggle across land, and re-enter above the weir. At least, it would have before the green structure was provided to help eels past the weir. It is, however, not intended for eels as large as the one I saw eaten. It is for small eels that are supposed to wriggle up through the green bristles.

hornby eel pass Right: The Hornby eel pass

      The eel pass looks quite a challenge. First, the eel has to locate it. I imagine that small eels travel up in the calmer waters at the river’s edge rather than battle along midstream. So maybe half the eels are on the wrong side for the pass (maybe more, as I picture them coming on the inside bend from the Lune). How do they know to struggle over to the other side? Once there, they have two vertical walls to climb. It is much the same, or worse, for all the other weirs and dams they encounter. Considering what the eel has gone through to get to Hornby weir, this seems a lot to ask. The eel has an implausibly complicated life cycle. It holds the record for the number of names it has for its various life stages.
      Eels are born in the Sargasso Sea. If you search a map of the 100,000,000 square kilometres of the Atlantic Ocean you will find only one sea, the Sargasso Sea to the east of the West Indies. So this region of the ocean must be special. Columbus and other sailors noticed an unusually calm region of the Atlantic Ocean within which floated large masses of seaweed (sargasso is a kind of seaweed). We now know that the Sargasso Sea is bounded by four major currents: the North Atlantic Current (to the north), the Canary Current (to the east), the North Atlantic Equatorial Current (to the south), and the Gulf Stream (to the west). These currents deposit debris within the 3,000,000 square kilometres of the Sargasso Sea.
      In order to learn about the Sargasso Sea, I have carefully read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a book that is always near the top of any list of best books. I found, however, that the Sargasso Sea is only mentioned once (in the title). The book is deep and mysterious, difficult to navigate, midway between the cross-currents of West Indian and British culture and with its narrative threads somewhat entangled.
      Whatever the properties of the Sargasso Sea are, eels are irresistibly attracted to them. They travel 6,500 kilometres from our rivers to the Sargasso Sea in order to spawn and die. The larvae (about 5mm long) are then swept by the Gulf Stream towards Europe. Salmon live mainly in the sea and return to our rivers to breed; eels live mainly in our rivers and return to the sea to breed. So, the young eels are not seeking a specific ‘home’. Where they end up in Europe is, I suppose, just where the ocean currents happen to take them.
      On their way across the Atlantic they grow to about 6cm and become transparent. These ‘glass eels’ arrive at our estuaries in spring. In freshwater the glass eel metamorphoses into a young eel or ‘elver’. It was these eels that were consumed in spring-time ‘eel-feasts’, from which the word elver is thought to derive. They then wander about our estuaries, rivers and lakes for several years, growing to become ‘yellow eels’ of up to 80cm. When they become mature ‘silver eels’, after 15 years or more, they descend our rivers to cross the Atlantic back to the Sargasso Sea.

heron hornby weir Right: Heron by the eel pass on Hornby weir

      This is obviously a hazardous life. The Atlantic currents may not gather the Sargasso Sea nutrients that eel larvae need. The Gulf Stream may not bring the glass eels to our shores. Climate change may be causing it to slow. No doubt there are predators galore in the Atlantic that have adapted to the supply of food that has flowed reliably for millennia. If the glass eel reaches our shores, it faces pollution and all sorts of barrier to its movement up our rivers. Within our rivers, it faces our eel fishery industry, the most valuable commercial inland fishery in England, according to the Environment Agency. If they survive all that they have to try to travel all the way back to the Sargasso Sea. And all the while the herons wait by Hornby weir.
      It is probably no surprise, therefore, that the number of eels in British rivers has declined - by more than 90% since 1970. The European eel is now considered a ‘Critically Endangered’ species by the IUCN. Critically Endangered is the highest risk category and is used for those species that are facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. In 2007 the European Union required all member states to develop Eel Management Plans, the aim of which was to ensure that the number of silver eels returning to the sea to breed was 40% of its earlier level (which, for most river systems, is not known!). A 2010 DEFRA document summarises the eel plan for NW England [1]. Somehow this document concludes that “the available evidence ... suggests that the rivers in the North West RBD [River Basin District] are meeting the silver eel escapement target”.
      The Lune is among the most healthy of northwest rivers but even here eel numbers have fallen significantly. The report includes the following surveys of the Lune:
       sites surveyed   eel found     %
  1991       134           94        74%
  1997        74           47        64%
  2002        75           32        43%
  2007        45           17        38%
So, it seems that the proportion of sites where eel were found has halved in just 16 years. But why has the number of sites surveyed fallen from 134 to 45? Did they give up on sites where eel were not found before? If so, perhaps the last row should really be:
  2007       134           17        13%
This would mean that the proportion of Lune sites where eel were found fell from 74% to 13%, that is, by 82%, in 16 years. In that case, the Lune is doing about as badly as the general figure quoted above, 90% since 1970. Moreover, the number of sites is not that useful a measure. We really need to know how many eels there are at each site.

elvers Right: A delicacy?

      The document also includes some data on eel fishing within the Lune region. Licences are issued for glass eel fishing and since 2005 eel fishers have to report the weight of glass eels taken. In 2007 43kg of glass eels were taken from the Lune (the report says that this is likely to be an under-estimate). A glass eel is not very weighty so 43kg sounds to me like a huge number of a supposedly critically endangered species. There is even commercial yellow and silver eel fishing on the Lune, although the numbers taken (40kg in 2007) are, I suppose, small. Many more eels are caught by recreational anglers but these are supposed to be returned to the water.
      The Environment Agency continues to allow eel fishing on the Lune because “there is no evidence that the North West RBD is failing the escapement target, and therefore no reason to restrict the eel fisheries”. It seems to follow that there is also no reason to propose more than modest measures within the 2010 Eel Management Plan for the North West.
      Perhaps this apparent complacency is reasonable. Maybe the number of eels is subject to many arbitrary natural variations. In 2013 it was reported that the River Severn received ten times more glass eels than it had in previous years; in fact, a hundred times more than in 2009. There was no obvious explanation for this. (I’ve heard no reports of a similar eel bonanza on the Lune.) The most important consequence of this surprise influx was, according to a Telegraph headline, to put “elvers back on the menu” [2]. That’s a novel way to deal with a critically endangered species - eat it.

[1].  DEFRA Report (March 2010), Eel Management Plans for the United Kingdom: North West River Basin District, available on-line (or it was).
[2].  The Telegraph (May 9, 2013), Elvers back on the menu after the biggest harvest for 30 years,
European Eel Foundation.

9.  Cattle on Fell End Clouds
October 2013

In August 2013 Natural England applied to the Planning Inspectorate to erect a fence around Fell End Clouds. This was after an earlier similar application had aroused the wrath of the locals and had been withdrawn. Well, I like a good controversy, so I thought I’d go to see what all the fuss is about.
      Fell End Clouds lies between the slopes of Wild Boar Fell to the east and Harter Fell to the west. The two slopes are patently very different. Wild Boar Fell has a flat, craggy top and descends over peat to the prominent outcrop of Fell End Clouds. Harter Fell is, like almost all the Howgills, smooth and grassy. The slopes differ because of the underlying geology. The top of Wild Boar Fell is millstone grit. Harter Fell is of Silurian slate. The eastern rocks are some 100 million years younger than those on the west, from which they are separated by the Dent Fault.
      Fell End Clouds is neither grit nor slate. It is limestone. Fell End Clouds is a SSSI, like the more extensive limestone area of Orton Scar, because of its geology and the flora that it gives rise to. Looked at from afar, however, the flora seemed to consist of a lone tree, standing prominently on the horizon.

tree on clouds Right: The lone tree on Fell End Clouds

      At closer quarters, I saw short grass with few flowers other than low-lying yellow tormentil. Apart from grass, vegetation was largely restricted to within the grikes of the limestone pavement. The SSSI citation says that there are seventeen species of fern growing here. I didn’t embark on a search for them in case I found only sixteen, thereby causing myself endless sleepless nights. The reason for the scarcity of flora outside the grikes is said to be the high level of sheep grazing. The solitary tree must somehow have escaped the attentions of the sheep but otherwise all scrub and tree species have been unable to grow.
      This is where Natural England comes in, or would like to, it seems. Natural England is, according to its website, an “Executive Non-departmental Public Body responsible to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs”. I presume that it is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and is therefore not independent of government. Natural England’s purpose is “to protect and improve England’s natural environment”. In particular, Natural England is responsible for the welfare of SSSIs, such as Fell End Clouds. Its proposed fence around Fell End Clouds is intended to exclude sheep. It plans to graze a small herd of native cattle instead. This, it contends, would enable the flora to regenerate to a more natural state.

fell end clouds Left: Fell End Clouds

      Fell End Clouds is isolated, with not much local community near it - but what there is vigorously opposed the proposal, for several reasons. First, the very idea of a fence was anathema. All the boundaries in the region at the moment are of traditional dry stone walls. Fell End Clouds itself has no walls to restrict the free roaming of sheep and fell ponies.
      It was feared that the proposed cattle would be hazardous to walkers and would pollute the limited water supply that runs off the fell. It was also argued that since the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 sheep grazing had already been reduced because subsidy payments were no longer paid per head of stock. The flora was, therefore, already regenerating (although this was not apparent to me). Harry Hutchinson, a local farmer, said “Natural England want to see trees growing in the grikes between the limestone, but the farmers think this will change the whole aspect of The Clouds, which has been grazed for centuries” [1]. The fact that local farmers were expected to pay (and be reimbursed later) for the fence and a new cattle grid perhaps did not encourage a positive response.
      The locals did not seem to query Natural England’s assertion that cattle would be better for The Clouds than sheep, and perhaps I shouldn’t either. However, I understand that the remarkable flora of the Burren in Ireland, one of the most extensive areas of limestone pavement in Europe, depends upon a distinctive ‘winterage’ cattle-grazing system that has evolved. Cattle graze the lowlands in summer and are transferred to the limestone uplands in winter. This is partly because of the lack of water on the uplands in summer. The result, of course, is that the cattle are not grazing when the limestone flowers and shrubs grow. I don’t know if a similar regime is proposed for The Clouds.

lime kiln on clouds Right: Limekiln on Fell End Clouds

      The crux of the matter is a basic question that we will no doubt meet again: What is natural? Or, perhaps better, which form of nature is to be preferred? And why? And by whom?
      Is the lone tree on Fell End Clouds an aberration, an anomaly, an accident? Is it unnatural for it to be there? Or is the rest of Fell End Clouds unnatural? Should the tree really be part of a woodland of similar trees growing unhindered from the grikes? (This particular tree, a sycamore, should not be there but that’s another story: let’s pretend it’s an oak.)
      The appeal to ‘tradition’ is unconvincing. Dry stone walls are not that old and are certainly not natural. Sheep may have grazed here for centuries but that doesn’t mean that they will or should be here indefinitely. A few centuries ago we had wild boar on Wild Boar Fell. Legally, it is, I suppose, up to Natural England to decide what is natural. However, whatever criteria they use will be tempered by the local reaction and that reaction will, in general, be influenced by factors other than what is best for nature.
      Personally, I doubt that Fell End Clouds is worth Natural England engaging in a protracted dispute over. The locals will no doubt disagree with that opinion but welcome the conclusion. In my opinion, Fell End Clouds is an intriguing and attractive area, enlivening this particular environment, but it is not a patch on the limestone pavements of Orton Scars and the Yorkshire Dales. Some people will find Fell End Clouds more interesting as a rural industry wasteland than for its ‘naturalness’. There are the remains of a quarry and some fine lime-kilns. The pavements themselves are disfigured by several excavated trenches where various minerals, such as galena for lead, were extracted. But industrial wastelands are outside my scope, so I will leave it at that.

[1].  Cumberland & Westmorland Herald (December 19, 2012), Storm over fencing plan for The Clouds.

10.  Pink-Footed Geese in the Wyre-Lune Sanctuary
February 2014

What is the difference between a goose and a duck? I am increasingly plagued by such naive questions - questions that hadn’t bothered me much before, and questions that I am embarrassed to realise that I cannot answer with any precision.
      Perhaps it is unreasonable to seek precision. The meanings of words such as ‘goose’ and ‘duck’ have evolved informally over the centuries. They may not be the same for different people, at different times, or in different places. Many birds called ‘goose’ in the southern hemisphere are really shelducks. ‘Goose’ and ‘duck’ are not terms invented by us to have defined meanings, such as, say, ‘proton’ and ‘neutron’, where we may demand a precise distinction. They are more like, say, ‘energy’ and ‘impulse’, everyday words that scientists have co-opted and assigned precise definitions that do not entirely accord with their everyday senses.
      Perhaps I cannot do better than “geese are bigger than ducks; geese honk, ducks quack; geese fly in formation, ducks don’t; male and female geese look similar, male and female ducks don’t”. These generalisations are only more or less true. I am coming to terms with this unavoidable imprecision but I am flummoxed to discover that the hallowed scientific classification scheme (kingdom, phylum, class, superorder, order, family, subfamily, tribe, genus, species) is not completely precise either.
      When a species is defined scientists determine the salient features that define it. Some other scientists, however, may consider different features to be more salient for defining those species. New data may become available, for example, from the study of fossils. New features may be discovered, for example, from gene analysis. After discussion and dispute, a new classification may be agreed. So, the much-vaunted ‘tree of life’ has the odd property that branches may be chopped off and grafted on elsewhere.
      It seems that the classification scheme for waterbirds is in a state of flux at the moment. The Anatidae family includes ducks, geese and swans but not some waterbirds that look duck-like to me, such as grebes and coots. This illustrates the well-known saying “if it looks like a duck, it may not be a duck” (or something like that).
      However, the definition of the Anatidae subfamilies, and the species within them, is not agreed upon. Anatidae has been suggested to have three or six or nine subfamilies. At the moment,
Wikipedia lists ten subfamilies. One subfamily, Anserinae, contains what I would think of as swans and geese. The others are various forms of duck. Even now, several waterbirds, such as the mandarin duck, are still swimming in the ‘unresolved’ pool.

wyre-lune sanctuary Right: The Wyre-Lune Sanctuary from Lane Ends

      I have embroiled myself in this imbroglio because I planned an expedition to the only wildlife sanctuary in Loyne, the Wyre-Lune Sanctuary. This was established in 1963 and runs for some six miles along the muddy sands between the Lune and Wyre estuaries. The sanctuary provides a refuge for the many birds that congregate in Morecambe Bay, especially the various species that migrate here in the winter from places such as Iceland. As I couldn’t enter the sanctuary, I anticipated viewing the region from its fringes and therefore focussing upon the larger species (the swans and geese), ignoring for the moment the ducks (which is just as well given their confused status), gulls and smaller sea-birds.
      That, I thought, would be enough for me to cope with. Three species of swan and nine species of goose have been seen in the region. Of these twelve species,
      *   three are resident: mute swan Cygnus olor, Canada goose Branta canadensis and greylag goose Anser anser;
      *   four are common winter visitors: Bewick’s swan Cygnus columbianus, whooper swan Cygnus cygnus, pink-footed goose Anser brachyrhynchus and white-fronted goose Anser albifrons;
      *   five are uncommon, scarce or vagrant visitors: barnacle goose, bean goose, brent goose, Egyptian goose and snow goose (who should visit more often if they want me to give their Latin name).
I was unlikely to see any of the last set, so that left just seven species (three swan and four goose) for me to tackle.
      I was particularly intent on spotting the pink-footed goose, which I had not knowingly noticed before. I understand that the noisy arrowheads that adorn our winter skies are of pink-footed geese (the ‘pink arrows’ perhaps) but I cannot see their pink feet way up there. The pink-footed geese come in their hundreds to bask in the warmth (relative to Iceland) of a Lune estuary winter. I wanted to see them before they returned to Iceland, misled by our unseasonably mild weather so far this year.

Pink-footed goose Left: Pink-footed goose (Greg Froude)

      I was confident that pink-footed geese were in the Wyre-Lune Sanctuary because I had been following the blogs of local birdwatchers [1]. These are fearsomely authoritative: “There were a few waders on the beach including 86 Oystercatchers, 114 Sanderlings and 50 Grey Plovers ... On the telegraph wires were 224 Starlings and in one of the fields 207 Black-headed Gulls ... Our totals included 216 Pink-footed Geese north, 11 Common Scoters west, 32 Cormorants, ...”. There’s no hint of doubt as to the species of bird and an unchallengeable precision in the numbers. 216 pink-footed geese! I sometimes have a few pheasants in the garden. It is not easy to count them as they insist on moving about and hiding in the shrubbery. How do they count 216 geese? Perhaps they take a photograph and pore over it at night. Perhaps there’s something like the Photoshop ‘red eye’ software that counts birds’ eyes.
      The seemingly effortless expertise of these birdwatchers has been developed over decades of experience that I have sadly missed. One RSPB officer says that he “could identify all of the birds in his father’s Handbook of British Birds before he could read” [2]. I assume that he means that he could identify them in the book, not in the wild. It would be a prodigious achievement for a toddler to travel the land identifying Dartford warblers, great northern divers, Scottish crossbills, and about 250 more. I picture his father reading to him at bedtime: “red-breasted merganser, melodious warbler, long-tailed skua, Balearic shearwater, ...”. It would certainly soothe me to sleep but obviously not our RSPB officer-to-be. Rather unfairly, my parents’ ornithological expertise ended with “Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander” (what sort of a rhyme is that?).
      I arrived at the Lane Ends amenity area, near Pilling, to find two birdwatchers already at their stations. They were silently scanning the muddy marshes not with binoculars but with telescope/cameras on tripods. Their gear had an infinity of knobs and dials. Is there any activity that doesn’t become expensively serious to some?
      I joined them, at a safe distance.
      The waters of Morecambe Bay were far distant. The marshes and then mud seemed to continue unbroken to the Lake District hills, which were barely discernible in cloud. The Heysham to Isle of Man ferry seemed to glide miraculously over the mud. A helicopter hovered mysteriously some miles out, stationary just a few yards above the mud. The scene was dominated by the glinting white of the Heysham power station.
      There was no sound of the sea. Normally, at the seaside, we expect to hear at least a gentle rhythmic shish as the waves run up and down the sand or gravel. Here, there was no sign or sound of the movement of water. The marshes, of course, had their pools. Sheep wandered over the drier parts. As you’d expect of a sanctuary, there was no sign of human activity, now or past. No fishermen, no dog-walkers, no abandoned boats, no buildings. At the landward side of the salt-marshes stood the Pilling embankment, which is certainly a sign of human activity. It was built in 1981 to protect the low-lying land of Fylde.

shelduck Left: Shelduck (Ashley Cohen)

      I focussed upon the birds. There were many of them, of many species. I did not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I noticed a little egret, startlingly white on the green marsh. The majority of nearby birds were (I found, after surreptitiously consulting my guide) shelducks Tadorna tadorna. I don’t suppose experienced birdwatchers get excited by shelducks. I wouldn’t say that I was excited exactly but they looked, to me, rather fine birds to be able to put a name to.
      Far off, half-a-dozen, possibly pink-footed, geese rootled in the marsh. After a while, I thought I’d move on in the hope of finding some closer geese, but I was halted by an approaching kerfuffle in the sky. A couple of hundred geese flew noisily over and, joined by others, settled at the muddy edge of the marsh, on, I suppose, the banks of the Lune. They were closer than the half-a-dozen but still too far away for a beginner to identify. If they weren’t pink-footed, then they should have been. I am not going to get neurotically frustrated at being unable to be certain in my identifications. It doesn’t really matter what they were: it was a delight to hear and see them all fly over, as if on cue.

Beware armed trespassers Right: Beware armed trespassers

      On the drive to Lane Ends I had passed a field with about fifty swans in it. I went back to have a proper look at them. At the gate I saw the notice shown to the right. I wasn’t sure if it meant that unarmed trespassers would not be prosecuted but I decided not to chance it. The Morecambe Bay Wildfowlers Association is a new one to me but I don’t think they are a body I wish to have a disagreement with.
      I studied the swans intently. Again, I would not bet my house on it, but I’d say they were whooper swans. They did not have the black knob on the bill that distinguishes the mute swan so they were either whooper swans or Bewick’s swans. They seemed fairly large and with the straight neck more characteristic of the whooper.

swirl of geese Left: A swirl of geese

      As I stood at the gate, another crescendo of hoots and honks approached from the south. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of geese swirled about, occasionally forming lines or Vs, and then disbanding. For several minutes, the flocks broke up and re-formed, as if unsure of their objective. Eventually, they moved out over the bay. Perhaps this performance is a daily occurrence, unremarkable to the locals, but to me it was all most impressive.
      I thought I’d have my sandwiches by the marshes at Patty’s Farm so that I could keep an eye on the skies over towards Pilling. I was treated to a performance by three kitesurfers off the Bank End caravan park. Their sails looked like huge birds of prey swooping over the bay. I couldn’t see the water they were surfing on but occasionally the brisk wind whisked them up in the air and they landed with a splash. They swung around gracefully - but nowhere near as gracefully as the many flocks, of different sizes and shapes, that continued to swirl around over the flat horizons of Pilling. I didn’t need to identify the birds in order to appreciate their display. I will return - but not with a telescope/camera with an infinity of knobs and dials, I fear.

Bewick’s ‘old woman and ducks’ Right: Bewick’s ‘old woman and ducks’

      I also ask myself questions born of inquisitiveness as well as naivety, such as: Who, what or where is the Bewick of Bewick’s swan? This question has led me to learn that the swan is named after Thomas Bewick (1753 - 1828), who wrote A History of British Birds, published in two volumes (1797, 1804). This book is now regarded as the forerunner of all modern field guides for British birds. In fact, a colleague with whom Bewick had a fractious collaboration wrote some of the words of the first volume but never mind the words, it is the wood engravings that make the book special.
      At that time book illustrations had, of course, to be engraved. Bewick revolutionised the art of wood engraving and a measure of his reputation can be gained by the references to him in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and in a poem by Wordsworth (“Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine, And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne ...”). He possessed a profound knowledge of the birds themselves, as he would need to in order to produce such detailed engravings. He disliked London; he campaigned for the fair treatment of animals; and he thought war pointless. William Yarrell, an English zoologist, named the swan in his honour in 1830 but perhaps the swan should feel more honoured to be named after a gentleman with such worthy views. Bewick sometimes engraved his own thumb-print into his work, which is a neat joke. He also often included ‘tail-pieces’, that is, small, detailed, sometimes humorous, engravings, to fill up spaces at the ends of his sections. One (‘old woman and ducks’ - though they could be geese!) is shown to the right.

[1].  Birdwatching Lancashire is a kind of meta-blog. It aggregates posts from various other blogs about Lancashire birds.
[2].  Adam Marek (Winter 2013), The wetland wizard, Nature’s Home, The RSPB Magazine.

11.  Purple Saxifrage on Ingleborough
March 2104

ing from whernside whernside from ing Left: Ingleborough from Whernside
Right: Whernside from Ingleborough

A fine 265-page book on Ingleborough includes an index that mentions only one species of wildlife, the red grouse [1]. So I am not alone in (up till now) neglecting the wildlife of the region.
      The book, the subtitle of which is ‘Landscape and History’, focusses upon the geology, archaeology and human activities within the Ingleborough region. It says that “it is the first book to adopt a fully holistic approach to Ingleborough” and that it creates “what is in essence the biography of a mountain”. And yet, while a ‘biography’ is an account of a life, this ‘fully holistic approach’ (that is, one that considers the whole thing) ignores the wildlife of the mountain. The grouse, incidentally, earn a mention through being participants in a shooting enterprise based at Ingleborough Hall in Clapham that ran from 1830 to 1884 and from 1922 to 1948, until the grouse inconsiderately disappeared.
      Landscape is a slippery concept. According to the dictionary, the word was introduced to the English language in the 16th century from the Netherlands, where it was a painter’s term for a view. Painters tend to prefer to paint views that are picturesque and it therefore became assumed that landscapes were picturesque too. More recently, however, a landscape has been understood to include all components of a view, whether natural or man-made, whether aesthetically appealing or not.
      Whatever the subtleties of its meaning, a landscape usually implies a long-distance view, such as that shown in the photographs above. Any long-distance view of or from Ingleborough will, of course, include some geology and perhaps some buildings or other signs of human activity but it will be dominated by the flora - at least, by the general impression of its greenery. However, a long-distance view, and hence a landscape, will not include the details of individual wildflowers, say.
      The flora of the region around Ingleborough embodies aspects of its history, which the book seeks to describe. One needs only to look at the slopes of Ingleborough to wonder: red grouse? Grouse need heather. Where’s the heather? If it was here, what happened to it?
      Looking at the photographs, other questions arise. Why is the limestone pavement unnaturally exposed? (Having visited Orton Scars and Fell End Clouds we may anticipate the answer.) And those trees across the valley near Chapel-le-Dale - are they conifer plantations incongruously stuck on the slopes of Whernside? When were they put there? Why? These, however, are questions for another day. I was off in search of an aspect of the flora that is evidence of Ingleborough’s past, being a relict of the days after the ice receded.

old landslip Left: The old landslip on Ingleborough

      I have walked up Ingleborough several times but never before with the prime objective of finding a flower. Normally, I follow the standard paths up from Ingleton, Chapel-le-Dale, Clapham or Horton but those paths do not take me close to my target. This, the Arctic-Alpine flower purple saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia, grows at a height of 500m or so on the steep limestone scars north-west of the millstone grit top of Ingleborough. As far as I know, it grows nowhere else in the Loyne region.
      The steep slopes, shown in profile in the photograph to the left, have the appealing name of Black Shiver. I intended to tackle them head-on, with a frontal assault from Raven Scar across Tatham Wife Moss. That way, I figured, I was bound to cross the 500m contour somewhere.
      That was the plan, but I thought better of it. From directly below, the dark cliffs presented a formidable barricade and the huge old landslip, picked out by the morning shadows, did not inspire trust in the stability of the mountainside. So I scrambled up to the right and contoured below the limestone cliffs.

purple saxifrage Right: Purple saxifrage on Ingleborough (
Brian Rafferty)

      Yes, I did find purple saxifrage - but it was not yet very purple. I had thought that the mild winter, with very few days of snow on Ingleborough, would have brought the flowers on early. However, the flowers were only just beginning to open (March 11). I did not see the purple profusion shown in the photograph. Indeed, I don’t think I saw enough purple saxifrage with the potential to produce such a display! Next time, I will visit a little later in the year.
      Purple saxifrage is obviously a tough plant. The low-growing, densely-matted dark green leaves cling to the rock crevices to withstand the elements. Even on the first warmish day of spring a cold wind kept ice in pools on the mountain slopes. The vivid purple flowers, when fully open, are larger than the leaves, with five petals from within which purple stamens protrude. The saxifrage survives, no doubt, because on the vertical scars it is safe from the boots of walkers and the mouths of sheep.
      I sat for some time perched below these cliffs, contemplating the significance of the purple saxifrage, admiring the view across to Whernside and the Lake District hills, out of sight of the many walkers toiling up the standard paths to the top of Ingleborough - most of whom will be (like me, until recently) oblivious of the existence of the purple saxifrage.
      The plant is common in the high Arctic, the Alps and the Rocky Mountains, where it is welcomed as the first plant to flower in spring, often emerging through snow. In some northern communities, the flowers are eaten, used to make tea, and taken as a herbal medicine (the Latin word saxifraga means ‘stone-breaker’, from, it is thought, its propensity to break down kidney stones rather than its ability to grow within rock crevices). Purple saxifrage is said to grow further north than any other flower, at 83°40’ on Kaffeklubben Island off Greenland. Amazingly, we still have a little bit of the Arctic within Loyne.

[1].  David Johnson (2008), Ingleborough: Landscape and History, Lancaster: Carnegie.

12.  Sand Martins by the Lune
April 2014

In April each year, as I walk along my local stretch of the River Lune between Bull Beck and the Crook o’Lune, I keep an eye open for the first sand martins of the year. It is not a systematic search for the very first sand martin: I just want to be able to say that “the sand martins are back”, as some reassurance that the natural world is still functioning. Of the many signs of approaching summer - butterflies, bees, chiffchaffs, daffodils, skylarks, ladybirds, blossom, ... - I prefer to adopt the sand martin because its return is most closely associated with the Lune.

lune from crook Left: The River Lune from the Crook o’Lune

      We all have irrational likings for particular birds unless birdwatching is an obsession (to count 216 pink-footed geese) or a competition (to see as many species as possible). I thought that my attitude to birds might be reinforced by the book How to be a bad birdwatcher, which I have rather belatedly come across [1]. It has plenty of welcome advice: don’t buy expensive equipment; don’t dash to the Shetlands hoping to spot an exotic bird; don’t expect to see the differences between all the warblers ...
      I was brought to a halt on page 47 when I read that the author, Simon Barnes, was, as a boy, a member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club. This is almost on a par with our RSPB officer who could identify all the birds before he could read. I was never a member of this club. Nor was anyone I knew. I doubt that any of us had heard of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club. Ornithology did not exist on our council house estate. I don’t remember anyone talking about watching birds.
      And yet ... the first school prize I ever won (at the age of eight) was The First Ladybird Book of British Birds and their Nests. I still have it, as a memento not as a source of information. It briefly describes 24 birds, from yellowhammer to black-headed gull, for some reason. Sadly, the book did not inspire a lifelong love of birds or even prevent a nearly-lifelong disinterest in birds. By my standards, Simon Barnes is far from a ‘bad birdwatcher’. He knows a lot more about birds than he pretends at the start of his book. By page 148 he is admitting that he has identified 80 species in one morning at Minsmere.
      After the revelation on page 47, I felt patronised by a know-(almost)-all. “You probably know a mallard, and maybe a tufted duck”. Of course I bloody know a mallard, even if I can’t manage 80 species in a morning like you. I’m sorry about the ‘bloody’: I have been contaminated by How to be a bad birdwatcher, which has surprisingly many of them.
      Back to my sand martins. Every spring they return here from their winter sojourn south of the Sahara. The least I can do is welcome them back. They come to nest in the tunnels they build in the banks of the Lune. Sand martins also nest in artificial tunnels such as drainpipes placed in walls for their benefit but their natural home is in river-banks, as is insisted upon in their scientific name Riparia riparia and even more so in our subspecies, Riparia riparia riparia (the Latin ripa means ‘river-bank’).
      This year the sand martins may have beaten me to it. I saw a couple on April 1st. Last year, after the long cold winter, I didn’t see sand martins until April 20th. In 2011 their return on April 9th coincided with a flood that put all their tunnels underwater, which annoyed them somewhat. Perhaps this year the birds were blown here by the southerly wind that has deposited Sahara sand over us, to the fascination of the news media.

sandmartins Right: Sand martins (
Sergey Yeliseev)

      The guidebooks say that sand martins return to the same location every year but I doubt that is completely true. The new Brockholes Nature Reserve near Preston built a special ‘sand martin wall’ and it was colonised by returning sand martins within months. Clearly, those sand martins were not there the previous year.
      If a sand martin returns to the same general region, does it nest in the same tunnel as previous years? The guidebooks imply so but again I doubt that it is really the case. When a sand martin born beside the Lune last year returns as a one-year-old it cannot nest in the same tunnel as its parents. I have not noticed any unseemly family squabbles over domiciliary rights. The one-year-old or parents must find a different tunnel.
      A one-year-old sand martin would surely prefer adopting an already existing tunnel to creating one afresh. It must be an extraordinary effort - to be avoided if at all possible - to excavate a 50cm tunnel into a river-bank, without any special adaptations to do so. The sand martin is a relatively small bird, with modest beak and claws. But obviously they must occasionally create new tunnels, because the old tunnels sometimes become uninhabitable, through erosion or indeed through being buried by bank repairs, as has happened recently upstream of Bull Beck. So, if young sand martins adopt an existing tunnel then perhaps older ones have to as well.
      I have noticed that sand martins can usually be seen at the Crook o’Lune a day or two before any can be seen a mile upriver at Bull Beck. If that is the case, why is it so? It seems implausible to me that the Crook o’Lune sand martins are simply speedier than the Bull Beck ones. My guess is that the first sand martins prefer the Crook o’Lune and bag the best spots. Perhaps the tunnels are safer here; perhaps this calm stretch of the river is better for feeding. The later birds would then have to overlap the already settled sand martins. Does this imply that returning sand martins arrive at the mouth of the Lune and work their way upstream?
      I expect that expert ornithologists can resolve these amateur speculations. Anyway, having returned to this part of the Lune, the sand martins then contribute to its distinctive summer ambience, their constant swirling and twittering over the river being so familiar as to become unnoticed. They are, of course, swooping about to collect insects, midges, and so on to feed themselves and their young, safely ensconced at the end of their tunnels. Occasionally, they will swoop low to take a sip of water in flight.
      If you stand on Waterworks Bridge and observe one particular tunnel on the bank below then you will see that the martins return frequently, every couple of minutes or so. So the birds do not travel far from their nests - they are always swirling about nearby. Sand martins seem to be gregarious birds. They are content to nest close by one another, their tunnels sometimes almost merging, and the members of the colonies seem to relish intermingling their round-and-round, to-and-fro flights above the river.
      The sand martin is a member of the Hirundinidae family, which eats only flying insects. It includes the swallow and house martin but surprisingly (to me) not the swift. All four birds are on the Amber List because their numbers in Britain are declining, probably because of the loss of traditional nesting sites and of changes to their African environments. However, the number of sand martins on the Lune is increasing, if anything. At all events, I am pleased to see their return, as evidence that the travails of winter must surely be over.

[1].  Simon Barnes (2004), How to be a bad birdwatcher, London: Short Books.

13.  Fell Ponies on Roundthwaite Common
April 2014

fell ponies fell ponies 2 Left: Fell ponies on Roundthwaite Common (
Mitch McFarlane)
Right: Fell ponies near Belt Howe above Borrowdale

Are fell ponies ‘wildlife’? It was remiss of me to begin this exploration of Loyne’s wildlife without defining what it is. So, here goes: ‘wildlife’ is life that is wild. What could be simpler than that?
      I am reminded of the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch:
          Prof. Fielding: When I caught Gerald in ‘68 he was completely wild ...
          Gerald (a gorilla): Wild!? I was absolutely livid!
In our context, ‘wild’ means undomesticated, untamed, capable of independent existence in the natural world. Independent of humans, that is. Unfortunately, the natural world changes, partly because of human activity, and for some species independence may become impossible or, at best, risky. We are increasingly aware that we have created problems that we have an obligation to help some species overcome.
      The Sunbiggin Moor snails are ‘fully protected’ because changes to the climate and to the environment have rendered them vulnerable. We provide passes for eels and sanctuaries for pink-footed geese. We take salmon eggs and breed them on the salmon’s behalf. We shoot grey squirrels to help red ones. We protect bats. We provide hives for bees, nesting boxes for barn owls, ponds for frogs. There’s hardly a species left that we don’t try to help along the way! All these species, while not fully independent, are scarcely ‘tamed’. We would, I think, consider them all wildlife.
      On the other hand, if I had pet goldfish then they would not be wildlife. They would depend entirely upon my tender care. If I were to tip them into the Lune then I doubt that they would have sufficient wherewithal to survive long enough to be considered wildlife. Likewise, I wouldn’t fancy the chances of the farmer’s chickens if they wandered far from his fields.
      Fell ponies are all owned and looked after by someone. For example, the Roundthwaite Common fell ponies are members of the Lunesdale Fell Pony Stud of Roundthwaite Farm [1]. However, for most, if not all, of the year the ponies are perfectly capable of leading a feral existence up on the fells. That is partly what defines a ‘fell pony’!
      I don’t want to keep debating with myself whether a particular species qualifies as ‘wildlife’ for my purposes. So, I will consider all ‘life’ to be within my scope, whether strictly ‘wild’ or not (with the exception of human life, although some of that is certainly wild enough).
      Fell ponies are not wild but docile, as far as a human walker is concerned. Although the ponies are frequently encountered on the Cumbrian hills, including the Howgills, Birkbeck Fells and Roundthwaite Common, I have never known them to be alarmed or attracted by walkers. Perhaps that is also a reflection of walkers’ behaviour towards the ponies. Indeed, they deserve our respect, for all fell ponies are registered with the Fell Pony Society, whose patron is Queen Elizabeth II - which is not bad for a pony of humble northern stock.
      Fell ponies are native to northern England, no doubt pre-dating Roman times, and it is the region where they are still mainly to be found. Their hardiness, strength and agility gave them a working role in early farmsteads, for ploughing, pulling sledges, and transporting goods. Being strong, fast and steady walkers, fell ponies were used as pack-horses to transport goods (wool, foodstuffs and other merchandise) long distances. This continued well into the industrial age, as the ponies transported iron, lead and coal around the factories and mines of northern England.

roundthwaite common Right: Roundthwaite Common

      As is our wont, we began in the 19th century to use fell ponies for sport and leisure, such as for the Cumberland sport of trotting. This has proved to be the saviour of the breed. The demand for their labour has greatly decreased in recent centuries, although, as befits a good patron, the Queen still finds rightful uses for fell ponies, in transporting deer and grouse off the hills around Balmoral. Nowadays, though, with the pedigrees being meticulously recorded by the Fell Pony Society, the concern is to keep the breed pure enough to be displayed at classes and, of course, to serve as a family pony for general riding. Colours acceptable to the Society are black, brown, bay and grey. Woe betide any fell pony born chestnut or piebald or even with a dash of white other than on the head or hind fetlock. The pony’s even, sure-footed walk helps to ensure safe passage over the roughest terrain. The breed has been adopted by the Riding for the Disabled movement. The ponies are not naturally great racers but their expertise at traversing rough, marshy or hilly ground has led the Fell Pony Society to develop a form of cross-country trial for them. And, with its heritage, the pony is also suited to recreational carriage-driving, as so memorably demonstrated by the Queen’s husband.
      Attentive readers may have noticed that, scarred as I am by my attempt to define ‘duck’ and ‘goose’, I have not tried to do the same for ‘pony’ and ‘horse’. I am aware that it is all too complicated for me. Informally, a pony is a small horse Equus ferus (in competitions, ‘small’ is defined as less than 14.2 hands). Most modern pony breeds are small through having lived on marginal habitat, like our fell ponies. A breed (which is itself not a scientifically defined term) may classify an individual animal as a horse or a pony based on its pedigree. There are about 300 breeds of horse and 100 of pony [2].

Borrowdale Left: Borrowdale

      Confident that I can leave the matter in the safe hands of the Fell Pony Society, I walked over the series of summits - Jeffrey’s Mount, Casterfell Hill, Belt Howe, Winterscleugh and Whinash - that line the northern slopes of lower Borrowdale in order to appreciate the Lunesdale fell ponies in their element. I saw about 25 ponies dotted about the Common, some in groups of four or five and some alone. They all took far less notice of me than I did of them.
      As I walked west from Jeffrey’s Mount the hum of the motorway gradually transmuted into the songs of skylarks. By Winterscleugh I could hear nothing but skylarks. It seemed that every few yards another skylark was sent singing skywards. It is sobering to reflect that, if plans had not been rejected in 2006, the hum of the motorway would have been transmuted not into the songs of skylarks but into the throb of 27 wind turbines. This would have been England’s largest terrestrial set of wind turbines. The proposers argued that this barren moorland held little appeal to anyone and that more visitors would come to see the windmills than come to walk the hills. They may be right. I walked all the way along the ridge to the old track of Breasthigh Road, back east along the Borrowdale valley, over the bridleway to Roundthwaite and saw only one other walker. No doubt, if there were more walkers then there would be fewer skylarks. And if there were wind turbines, even fewer. The fell ponies, however, would, I’m sure, remain unperturbed.
      Apart from the fell ponies and the skylarks, I saw, without searching conscientiously, a few peacock butterflies, a dipper, some pied wagtails and wheatears, a buzzard and some tadpoles. This is not exactly a wildlife safari comparable to seeing herds of wildebeest and packs of lions but that is what it is and should remain - blissful silence, apart from skylarks, unaccompanied by wind turbines.
      Knowing the fell pony’s equable temperament and suitability for general riding, a walker who felt as tired as I did towards the end of this expedition might be tempted to co-opt a pony for a relatively effortless descent from the moor. I wouldn’t recommend it. I doubt that the ponies are that equable, and I am sure that their owners are even less so.

[1].  Carole Morland of Roundthwaite Farm and Lunesdale Stud has written a book about fell ponies, as has Sue Millard of Greenholme, whose ponies graze the nearby Birkbeck Fells:
      Carole Morland (2008), A Walk on the Wild Side, Kirkby Stephen: Hayloft Publishing.
      Sue Millard (2005), Hoofprints in Eden, Kirkby Stephen: Hayloft Publishing
[2].  Here's a list_of_horse_breeds.

14.  Cuckoos in Littledale
May 2014

Birdwatchers who are serious, but not so serious as ornithologists, are nowadays called ‘birders’. They go ‘birding’. Perhaps that’s because there is more to birds than just watching them. You could listen to them, for one thing.
      I went to Littledale to hear a bird. I didn’t particularly want to see it. The appeal of the mysterious, disembodied sound echoing around the hills might be diminished by a sight of an ordinary bird creating it. Every May I make a pilgrimage to Baines Cragg and Little Cragg, near the head of the River Conder, in the hope of hearing the cuckoo Cuculus canorus. I have not thoroughly researched alternative cuckoo locations in Loyne: all I can say is that I am rarely disappointed in Littledale. The number of cuckoos in Loyne has declined, as it has elsewhere in the UK, but so far they have continued to return here. On a sunny, late May evening the calls of cuckoos resonate within the amphitheatre of Littledale, below Ward’s Stone and Clougha Pike.

baines cragg Right: Baines Cragg, with the Lakeland hills beyond

      It is an evocative sound of which we are curiously fond, considering that it is as monotonous a bird call as there is. Perhaps it is the elementary musicality that appeals. The cuckoo calls in the key of C, descending by a minor third, with the interval widening to a fourth through the season. Several classical composers, including Beethoven, Delius, Saint-Saens, Johann Strauss and Vivaldi, have mimicked the cuckoo.
      The cuckoo call, so simple and yet appealing, is the call of choice to be mechanically simulated within a clock, the cuckoo clock (although there it is a major third, in order to sound less doleful). The cuckoo must be the only UK bird to have a museum devoted to it - the Cuckooland Museum in Tapley, Cheshire, which is mainly a museum of cuckoo clocks.
      Of course, to many people the call of the cuckoo appeals because it is the clearest sign of approaching summer - at least, it used to be when the cuckoo was more common and the people were more rural. It was recognised as such in what is regarded as the first English song, the 12th century “Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu”.
      The cuckoo’s iconic status in pastoral England is reflected in many myths. For example, several villages (including Austwick in Loyne) claim to be the origin of the old story of villagers wishing to appear simpletons, in order to drive away putative newcomers, by trying to enclose the cuckoo to prevent it flying away, thereby preserving spring and summer forever. Hence the old expression “to fence in the cuckoo”.

cuckoo Left: The cuckoo in flight (Nick Ford)

      The seasonal appearance and disappearance of birds was something of a mystery before the details of migration were unravelled. Many people believed that the cuckoo, which in flight has a superficial resemblance to a sparrowhawk or falcon, did not fly away at all but transformed itself in the autumn into a hawk - and vice versa in the spring. Also, it was thought by some that there were no female cuckoos. The male cuckoo was supposed to mate with hen birds of various species who then laid ‘cuckoo eggs’. Perhaps this apparently free-and-easy sexual life led to the word ‘cuckold’, which, according to the dictionary, comes from the French for cuckoo. However, it somehow became the husband that is made a cuckold, as Shakespeare indicated in Love’s Labour’s Lost:
          The cuckoo then on every tree
          Mocks married men, for thus sings he: Cuckoo!
          Cuckoo, cuckoo — O word of fear,
          Unpleasing to a married ear.
      Of course, the female cuckoo does exist, although she only makes a kind of bubbling call, and she does lay genuine cuckoo eggs - many of them, in fact, up to 25 a season. The need for such a profusion of eggs suggests that the nifty strategy of using foster nests is none too successful.
      Cuckoos have used over a hundred species as hosts, with the meadow pipit and reed warbler being the most common UK hosts. With so many host species, each with their different eggs, how does the cuckoo ensure that its own eggs are not so different to the host eggs that the parents become suspicious? It has long been known that a particular female cuckoo has a preference for a specific host species and lays eggs that match those of that host. In modern terminology, each female cuckoo belongs to a specific ‘gens’, that is, a subset of the species that has evolved to rely upon a particular host. That, of course, is no explanation: it is merely a jargonised re-phrasing. It is believed that the gens-specific properties belong to the female cuckoo, with the male being able to mate with females of any gens, thus maintaining the cuckoo as a species.
      The female cuckoo has evolved the useful trick of retaining its egg within its body for longer than other birds. The embryos therefore tend to be more advanced than the eggs of the host birds and more likely to hatch first. The cuckoo chick evicts all the other eggs and chicks (if any) in order to monopolise the host parents’ feeding.
      Evolution is amazing but it is always a work in progress. The cuckoo seems to have benefitted from its distinctive evolution. Why have the host species not evolved to respond? Well, to an extent they have. Some host species will mob cuckoos (although they are somewhat deterred by the resemblance to sparrowhawks), which shows that they have learned to distrust or fear the cuckoo. A fair number of hosts are not fooled by the imposter eggs either. They simply abandon a nest with an alien egg.
      And cuckoos are not so smart. They cannot distinguish their own eggs either. One study showed that over half of cuckoo eggs were laid in nests that already had a cuckoo egg [1]. In removing an egg at random when laying its own the cuckoo is liable to remove an earlier cuckoo egg. The cuckoo hatchling will in any case remove any other cuckoo egg, along with all the other eggs.
      It is always a relief, as well as pleasure, to hear the cuckoo because the UK population has more than halved in recent years, putting it on the Red List. Possible reasons for its decline - and indeed that of other birds, particularly summer migrants - are discussed in the book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo [2]. This is clearly a complicated topic which I cannot hope to do justice to here but I can perhaps indicate its complexity by mentioning some of the reasons put forward. In the last century increasingly intensive farming - involving the use of pesticides, the removal of hedges, the increase of autumn-sown crops and the replacement of wildflower-rich hay meadows - caused the widespread loss of farmland birds. While attempts have been made to mitigate the problem, breeding farmland birds have continued to decline to about half what they were fifty years ago.

littledale Right: Littledale

      Migrant birds face a set of additional problems. A survey of bird declines in the period 1994-2007 found that seven of the ten most rapid declines were of summer migrants: cuckoo, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher, swift, turtle dove, wood warbler, yellow wagtail. This is more than you would expect pro rata as our migrants constitute less than a quarter of all our birds.
      Our migrants face difficulties in their breeding grounds (here), during their journey, and in their non-breeding grounds (such as Africa). Some of these difficulties also face non-migrants and some are inter-dependent, but listing some of them indicates the complex mosaic of problems:
   •   the continued intensification of farming
   •   increased predation by, for example, grey squirrels
   •   increased destruction of undergrowth by deer
   •   decline of moth caterpillars (especially the big hairy ones that cuckoos like)
   •   the arrival of migrant birds and their food (caterpillars, flies) being increasingly out of synch because of climate change
   •   illegal hunting of birds on their journey
   •   the failure of African wintering grounds (for example, through drought)
   •   general environmental degradation in Africa, such as deforestation
      Only fifty years or so after we began to appreciate fully the astonishing scale and nature of the journeys of our migrant birds we are faced with an apparently intractable set of problems to overcome if this migration is to recover to what it had been for previous millennia, before humans interfered. Meanwhile, as we struggle with this, we should recognise that our cuckoo is not really ours. It spends more of its time in Africa - and if we are not careful it may soon spend none of it here.
      Our Littledale cuckoos, having no parental duties, are free to leave us after their egg-laying is completed, which they do in July or August. They take no interest in their offspring, which must make their own way south beyond the Sahara. And next spring to come all the way back to Littledale (I hope).

[1].  C. Moskát and M. Honza (2002), European Cuckoo Cuculus canorus parasitism and host’s rejection behaviour in a heavily parasitized Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus population, Ibis 144 (4): 614–622.
[2].  Michael McCarthy (2009), Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, London: John Murray.

15.  Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries at Lawkland Moss
June 2014

Small pearl-bordered fritillary Right: Small pearl-bordered fritillary (
Andrew Webber)

A kindly lepidopterist informed me that I had been mistaken in referring to the pearl-bordered fritillary in The Land of the Lune. It should have been the small pearl-bordered fritillary. It was a gaffe comparable to saying “Mr Smith” when referring to the former Conservative party leader Mr Duncan Smith.
      The informal names of species do not, dare I say it, always accord with common sense. A small pig is a pig that is small (small for a pig, that is). Like most adjectives, the ‘small’ takes the set denoted by the following noun and limits it to a subset. However, the ‘small’ in ‘small pearl-bordered fritillary’ is not an adjective. It is part of the species name.
      There is, alas, another species with the informal name of ‘pearl-bordered fritillary’. A small pearl-bordered fritillary is not a pearl-bordered fritillary that is small. (The latter must be referred to as a ‘little pearl-bordered fritillary’, I suppose.) One species cannot be a subset of another because species are, by definition, distinct. If the name had been hyphenated to ‘small-pearl-bordered-fritillary’ (just as Duncan-Smith might be) or if the other species were ‘large pearl-bordered fritillary’ then novices would be less easily muddled [1]. Lepidopterists see no problem. They are perfectly content to have three other pairs of British butterflies with names suggesting that one is a subset of the other: mountain ringlet and ringlet; northern brown argus and brown argus; Réal’s wood white and wood white.
      I mustn’t complain because, on the whole, whoever gave names to our butterflies did a splendid job. Red admiral, painted lady, purple emperor, marbled white, Camberwell beauty, small tortoiseshell, ... - what evocative names for these beguiling insects! However, the names are not exactly snappy. By the time you’ve said “There’s a small pearl-bordered fritillary” there isn’t. I wonder what lepidopterists call them when off duty, chatting in the pub, if they do. It may be presumptuous of me but I’m going to call the two species ‘small-pearl’ and ‘pearl’.
      The species that confused me are Boloria euphrosyne (small-pearl) and Boloria selene (pearl). I intended to search for the former. I wanted to see the butterfly that had caused me grief. There is (I read) a colony, one of only two in Loyne, at the Lawkland and Austwick Mosses SSSI. This lies north of Fen Beck, a desultory watercourse that runs west from Lawkland to join the River Wenning. The small-pearl is a relatively rare butterfly, having declined so significantly in England that in 2007 it was added to the UK list of priority species for biodiversity action.
      I walked to Lawkland Moss from Eldroth and tramped through the thigh-high grass and thistles of swampy, tussocky meadows, where I was welcomed by clegs, and battled through some of the birch, alder and willow woodland. I then crossed to Austwick Moss (there is no public footpath to it but that is no deterrent to a committed trespasser). Again, I struggled across the moss, through woodland, rough grassland and heather. These are strange, other-worldly, man-forsaken wildernesses that it is little pleasure to walk within. The ground is uneven, possibly from earlier peat digging, with clumpy grass tufts. After wet weather it must be a morass impossible to cross on foot.
      I saw a number of brownish butterflies (meadow browns and skippers, I assume) and many black butterflies that, after a thorough search of the butterfly books (which show no black butterflies), I deduce are not butterflies at all but (probably) chimney sweeper moths. I saw no small-pearls. All in all, it was a miserable outing that left me wishing never to see Lawkland and Austwick Mosses again.
      A week later (June 25) I returned, demonstrating my exemplary commitment. This time, I approached from Austwick to the north. The sun was not shining, which I took to be a bad omen. Again, I entered the scrubby meadows of Lawkland Moss. Again, there were plenty of brownish butterflies that weren’t small-pearls.
      But then, as I’d all but given up, I glimpsed something orangey. I walked slowly to where it had landed and found it happily settled on a grass stalk, where it proudly displayed for me the upper and lower sides of its wings. Unmistakably, a small-pearl!

pbf spbf Left: Pearl-bordered fritillary; Right: Small pearl-bordered fritillary (Nigel Kiteley)

      I don’t know if pearls also frequent this meadow (I assume not, as the kindly lepidopterist would otherwise not have been so certain that I was mistaken) but I had read that the two butterflies are best distinguished by looking at the undersides of the hind-wings, which are obviously best observed when the butterflies are at rest. Both butterflies have a row of seven spots (the ‘pearls’) along the outside border. The pearl has a distinct extra spot within the wing; the small-pearl has a more complex pattern of whites, browns and oranges. As I say, this one was definitely a small-pearl.
      Eventually, the small-pearl flew off. It is a mystery to me how experts can recognise butterflies (and birds too) from the merest glimpse as they fly past. There is presumably something distinctive, if not definable, in the flights of different species. This may be so with small-pearls. Its flight seemed more purposeful than that of the other butterflies flitting about. With relatively few rapid flaps of its wings, it was soon yards away, before settling again on some grass or wildflower. It also flew well above the grass and appeared a rather bright orange that I would imagine to be even brighter in sunlight.
      I don’t know if a pearl’s style of flight differs from a small-pearl’s but if it does then I think I might be able to identify a small-pearl if I saw one in flight. I certainly couldn’t distinguish them from their size, despite their names, because, according to the books, one is 18-23 mm and the other 17-22 mm - nor from their appearance in flight, as the upper sides of their wings seem identical (I could have labelled the photograph at the beginning ‘pearl-bordered fritillary’ without fear of correction).
      As I continued around the meadow, now knowing what I was looking for, I could put my hoped-for expertise to the test because, as I walked along, a number of other small-pearls took to flight. Perhaps on a sunnier day they would have been flying voluntarily. I am sorry to have disturbed them but I am sure that the small-pearls felt it was in a worthy cause.
      I found it best not to try to keep up with the small-pearl whilst it was flying. For one thing, it could fly faster than I could walk over this terrain. It was better to let the butterfly land afar and then creep up upon it. Generally, the small-pearl was content to allow a close approach (to within a yard or two). Binoculars were useful to locate and study the butterflies from a distance.

lawkland moss orchid Left: The Lawkland Moss meadow, where the small-pearls were seen
Right: A Lawkland Moss common spotted orchid, one of the small-pearl’s food plants

      The meadow was transformed. Last week it was torture; now it was pleasure. I spent some time pottering about, feeling at one with the butterflies. All the small-pearls that I saw were in a meadow enclosed on three sides by woodland, and therefore sheltered from the breeze. But then I didn’t look elsewhere, once I’d found my small-pearls in this meadow.
      However, I did not see ‘swarms’ of small-pearls - a dozen at most, and, of course, I may have re-seen the same butterfly. Maybe there are more later in the season but anyway I am led to wonder about the viability of the colony. Indeed, I wonder what a ‘colony’ is. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a colony is “a group of organisms of one species that live and interact closely with each other”. Does that imply that they do not interact with organisms outside the colony?
      I understand that there are also colonies of small-pearls on Newby Moor and in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Newby Moor is some five miles northwest of Lawkland Moss and is also a peat mire but without the extensive birch woodlands and enclosed meadows that are home to the small-pearls at Lawkland Moss. The Silverdale region is further west and is limestone country with very different habitat.
      How far do small-pearls travel? Some butterflies travel far, for example, painted ladies, which migrate here across the channel. However, a small-pearl would be recklessly bold to leave the enclosed meadow at Lawkland Moss that meets all its needs. There is no similar habitat in any direction for some miles. It would not know to head for Newby Moor and the chance of reaching it by chance must be slim - and of reaching Silverdale much slimmer.
      So, my presumption is that the three colonies are discrete, that is, that the individuals in one colony never meet those of the other colonies - and have never done so since the intervening habitat was replaced by farmland and building. If there is only a handful of small-pearls at Lawkland Moss then they are no doubt vulnerable to problems of in-breeding, extreme weather conditions, loss of habitat and disturbance by inquisitive visitors.
      If the colonies are discrete, what makes the individuals all of one species? As I understand it, a species is defined by the fact that the individuals within it are capable of interbreeding. In practice, if my presumption is correct, the individuals of the different colonies do not interbreed. They may have the potential to do so but it is never realised. At least, I assume so. Has anyone confirmed that small-pearls from Lawkland Moss can interbreed with small-pearls from Silverdale?
      The colonies now live in such different habitats that perhaps they have evolved differently after many generations apart (and, of course, a butterfly generation only lasts a year - or less in a long, hot summer when two generations are possible). Perhaps the wild ‘island’ of Lawkland Moss is hosting something similar to the evolution of Darwin’s Galapagos Island finches.

[1].  To avoid muddling myself in future I could do as some writers do, capitalise the name of a species (such as Red Deer), leaving ‘deer’ for all species of deer. There are, however, two problems with this (apart from the ugly profusion of capitals barging into sentences). One is that it is necessary to be careful about whether a name is indeed that of a single species. For example, in a list of trees - alder, birch, elder, elm, hawthorn - which should be capitalised? The Wildlife of Lancashire (2004) book by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust would have Alder, birch, Elder, elm, Hawthorn. This looks silly (and wrong, to me) and makes a distinction that I doubt that I will need to make. Secondly, a name may refer to a single species in the British context but not globally. For example, ‘eel’ for us means the European eel, not any or all of the other 800 species of eels. Should I write ‘eel’, ‘Eel’, ‘European eel’ or ‘European Eel’? The Wildlife of Lancashire uses Eel. So, instead, I will use my own convention. If the name of a species has more than one word I will string them together with hyphens, for example, red-deer. It is clear then that the qualifying words are not adjectives but are part of the name. Nobody else seems to use this convention (although it would help those who cannot decide where to put hyphens (if any) in common spotted orchid!) but it seems simple enough to me. Let’s see how it goes.

16.  Kingfishers by Bull Beck
July 2014

I don’t always have to travel far in my search for the wildlife of Loyne. Sometimes it comes to me. Yesterday (July 9th) I saw two kingfishers by the beck at the bottom of our garden. This beck begins as Tarn Brook by the Caton Moor windmills and runs, as Bull Beck, through Brookhouse to the River Lune.
      I had glimpsed a kingfisher a few days earlier - the first that I had seen by Bull Beck for many years. To see two together was, for me, rather special. I had been drawn to them by an unusual sound - a kind of short, sharp screech or whistle. We have dippers and grey-wagtails by the beck, as well as the normal garden birds, but none have a call similar to this. I located the birds at a bend in the beck and we watched for a while before they flew upstream, one pausing for some minutes on a small branch above a pool. We did not see it try to catch fish. Indeed, I am doubtful - but hopeful - that there are enough fish in this small beck to sustain a kingfisher or two.
      The kingfisher Alcedo atthis was placed on the Amber list because of its decline in Europe during the previous decades. It is specially protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. The
RSPB estimates that there are about 4,600 breeding pairs of kingfishers spread somewhat thinly across the UK. The RSPB has a particular reason for monitoring the kingfisher population - the kingfisher played an important, if unwilling, part in its formation. In the 19th century, society ladies adorned their hats with kingfisher feathers or indeed whole kingfishers. Others objected to this and a group in Didsbury, Manchester began writing letters to the ladies, pleading on behalf of the poor kingfishers. In 1889 this group became the Plumage League and two years later the Society for the Protection of Birds. The ‘Royal’ was added in 1904.

kingfishers Left: Kingfisher and queenfisher (Ken Jensen)

      I don’t know if the two kingfishers we saw constitute one of the 4,600 pairs. I cannot be sure that they were a pair. Male and female kingfishers look identical apart from the former having a black lower bill and the latter a red one. This I did not notice, sorry.
      Kingfishers are territorial birds that will fiercely protect their domain. For most of the year a kingfisher is solitary, controlling a stretch of river up to two miles long. If another kingfisher enters the territory, fights may occur where each bird tries to grab the beak of the other and hold it under water.
      The Bull Beck two were quite amicable. If they weren’t a pair perhaps they were young kingfishers, not yet mature enough to be argumentative. However, young kingfishers are rather less iridescent than mature birds - and they seemed fully iridescent to me.

bull beck Right: Bull Beck

      The colour of kingfishers is, of course, its most immediately obvious and appealing characteristic. It is what catches the eye as the kingfisher flies quickly by. However, although it may look bright blue or green, it is really a dull brown. That is, if we could just see the light reflected directly from the wings it would be brown, but actually we see light that has bounced around the structure of the wings, causing iridescent colouring that changes according to the illumination and angle of observation.
      If the two kingfishers were young ones then, since kingfishers do not travel far, they were likely to have been born locally, perhaps even by Bull Beck, which seems too much to hope for. Kingfishers, like sand-martins, nest in tunnels excavated in a river bank. They lay five to seven eggs, two or three times each season. That’s a lot of eggs, indicating that mortality is high. Less than a quarter of young kingfishers survive to the next breeding season. Only a quarter of adult birds survive to the next season as well.
      Kingfishers are no longer pinned to hats but even so they have a difficult life. The early days of fledgling kingfishers are particularly hazardous, even more than they are for most birds. Kingfishers must become competent fishers within a few days, before they are driven out of their parents’ territory. Kingfishers are, as can be easily imagined, vulnerable to severe weather. They stay here over winter and the shallow waters they feed in may be iced over for days on end, leading to starvation. Summer floods can destroy nests and make fishing difficult. So I fear that I must accept that these kingfishers may be fleeting visitors rather than long-term residents.
      However, it is encouraging to see them at all because the most important factor for kingfishers is water quality. The water must be healthy enough for the small fish and aquatic insects that kingfishers need. Moreover, the water must be clear enough for the kingfishers to see them, as they skim over the surface or peer into the water from a perch. Once in the water, a kingfisher is effectively blind, as a third eyelid covers and protects the eyes.
      It has been estimated that an adult kingfisher must catch over 2,500 fish a year. They do not care whether they are minnows or tiny trout and hence kingfishers are not popular with anglers. But, of course, the kingfishers wouldn’t be where they are if there weren’t enough fish for them - and enough left over for anglers.
      The fact that UK kingfisher numbers seem to have improved in recent years is perhaps an indication that our freshwater systems - rivers, becks, canals and lakes - are now cleaner and better able to support kingfishers. If so, perhaps the two kingfishers are a good sign for Bull Beck. Or perhaps my recently heightened wildlife perceptiveness has revealed to me kingfishers that have been there all along (but I doubt it).

17.  Himalayan-Balsam on the Upper Lune
August 2014

Him balsam Left: Himalayan-balsam

Now that the banks of Himalayan-balsam are in flower, eliciting gasps of appreciation from some strollers by the lower Lune, I thought that I’d find out where the balsam begins on the upper Lune. We owe most of our lower balsam to seeds being washed down the Lune from the upper balsam. I am not aware of any balsam along the banks of the fledgling Lune from Newbiggin to Tebay, so I began my search at the M6 bridge in Tebay. I had at most about ten miles of the Lune to patrol because a bank of Himalayan-balsam may be clearly seen from Killington New Bridge.

tebay Right: Footbridge at Tebay, from under the M6 bridge

      The start of my walk was enlivened by swarms of green-veined-white-butterflies feeding off muddy ruts under the M6 bridge. Quite what nourishment they find there I cannot imagine. From the footbridge, several fish may be seen - more than is normally seen from bridges down-river. And there was no Himalayan-balsam before the path swings away from the Lune, so it was all rather pleasant - apart from the noise of the motorway ...
      Himalayan-balsam Impatiens glandulifera is a large annual plant that was brought to the UK as a decorative flower in the 19th century. It grows to two metres or so, with a soft, green, red-tinged stem. The flowers are pink-purple, with a sweet-smelling nectar, naturally attractive to bees. After the balsam has flowered, seed pods are formed which explode when disturbed, distributing the seeds far and wide, especially if the seeds should fall into flowing water, which is likely as the plant prefers to grow in moist soil such as river banks. Each plant can produce 800 seeds, which are viable for up to two years.
      Victorian botanists have, therefore, enabled us to enjoy plants with the virtues of ‘herculean proportions’ and ‘splendid invasiveness’, as they promised. However, Himalayan-balsam is so successful at colonising river banks and damp woodlands that it causes nearby native plants to struggle for space, light, nutrients and pollinators. Fairly soon, there are no native plants nearby. So, native biodiversity is reduced. Then, when the balsam withers away at the first frosts, there is no vegetation left on the banks, which leaves them at increased risk of erosion.
      Those unhappy at the sight of a non-native mono-culture consider this a problem to be tackled urgently. The balsam arrived here unaccompanied by the natural enemies that constrain it in its native habitat. Research efforts are underway to identify a co-evolved species that attacks the balsam but not indigenous species. This is obviously a dangerous strategy. We don’t want to repeat the Australian experience of introducing cane-toads to eliminate sugarcane beetles only to find the toads running amok.
      In the meantime, little can be done apart from uprooting each plant and destroying it so that it cannot disperse its seeds (an activity called ‘balsam bashing’). This is easy to do, as the roots are remarkably puny for such a large plant. In principle if not in practice, the balsam may be eradicated in a couple of years if there is no further infestation. The effectiveness of balsam bashing is a matter of debate. Richard Mabey, an esteemed writer on the relations between nature and culture, writes “Work parties spent ‘balsam bashing’, despite (or perhaps because of) the pervasive scent of the squashed stems and the ceaseless grapeshot of seeds, are high points in the social calendars of conservation volunteers. Whether the jollies are justified, or have any ecological impact, are moot points” [1].
      If Mabey were not such an esteemed writer then I might suspect him of trolling, that is, of seeking to provoke a reaction (like the one that follows). I don’t consider balsam bashing a ‘jolly’, nor is it a highlight of my social calendar, empty though it is. It’s hardly a social event: it’s hard work, bent over, for hours on end, mindlessly pulling up balsam. To suggest that people balsam bash because of an attraction to the scent or to the excitement of seed scattering is absurd. Mabey knows perfectly well that balsam is bashed before the seeds are ready to scatter, otherwise the situation will be made worse. I presume he must have his reasons for his opinions on Himalayan-balsam. Perhaps I need to consider the context in which they were expressed in order to appreciate them.
      ... I returned to the Lune at the ancient Lune’s Bridge, where an Environment Agency car was parked, as there often seems to be. I don’t know what they are investigating here but I doubt that it is Himalayan-balsam. A thorough search around Lune’s Bridge and the A685 bridge found none ...

Lune’s Bridge Left: Lune’s Bridge

      Mabey was writing within a book entitled Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants where he acted as defence lawyer for weeds. He wanted to argue that weeds are not always guilty of all that they are accused. So, when he considers the Himalayan-balsam as a weed, he needs to defend that too.
      The everyday definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place tells us immediately that ‘weed’ does not have any botanical definition. We decide where is a ‘wrong’ place. Therefore, ‘weed’ is a psychological construct. Moreover, it is obvious that what is a ‘wrong’ place depends on who, when and where the opinion is expressed.
      Weeds annoy us: they grow where they shouldn’t; they banish the plants we’d prefer to grow there; some are ugly and smelly; some scratch and sting us; some have the audacity to run wild after we’ve invited them in good faith to this previously green and pleasant land. Ruskin thought them “impertinent” for always sticking their roots in where they were not wanted [2]. He also believed that God put all plants on Earth for our benefit - to eat, to admire, or whatever. It is tempting to humanise weeds as aggressive louts but they are only doing what evolution has led them to do, as all plants do.
      Not all of the above applies to the Himalayan-balsam. Those who appreciate the splendour of its flowers might need some convincing that Himalayan-balsam is a weed not an adornment.
      Mabey argues that weeds are not only human-defined but they are human-encouraged, in the sense that they grow where we disturb the land, by, for example, attempting to grow crops. Of course, if there were no humans there would be no weeds. And if we disturb land it tends to be what we regard as weeds (nettles, bindweed, brambles, and the like) that take over first. Himalayan-balsam may be most apparent in areas of urban desolation but it does not require disturbed land to flourish. It will happily take over river banks that have been virtually unchanged for centuries.
      Supporters of Himalayan-balsam find solace in a report that concluded that Himalayan-balsam “exerts negligible effect on the characteristics of invaded riparian communities, hence it does not represent [a] threat to the plant diversity of invaded areas” [3]. This appears to contradict an earlier study that found a highly significant increase in species richness and diversity following the removal of Himalayan-balsam [4].
      ... From Lune’s Bridge the path south follows a track rather high above the Lune, some of which it is possible to survey with binoculars. No balsam was seen. At Brockholes the track drops down to the Lune and on to Salterwath Bridge. Here seems prime Himalayan-balsam habitat: lush, damp and partially shady. If there were balsam above this point then its seeds would surely flourish here - but there was no sign of it ...

Salterwath Bridge Right: Salterwath Bridge, with Grayrigg Pike beyond

      It is the academic botanist’s job to debate, discuss and refine the experiments. What am I to make of such controversies?
      I cannot get into the minutiae of the experimental studies but I can look for, and be wary of, mis-statements of what the reports claim to show.
Wikipedia, for example, says that the former study “concludes that in some circumstances, such efforts [that is, balsam bashing] may cause more harm than good”. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort. It presents no evidence that removing the balsam causes more harm than good. It isn’t concerned with removing the balsam at all!
      My interpretation of the study is that on six measures Himalayan-balsam was found to have a negative, but statistically insignificant, effect on other species. I must accept what the statistics don’t tell me, but, on the other hand, if Himalayan-balsam is really neutral, what are the chances that all measures will come out negative? One in 32, I believe, if the measures are independent.
      When I stand in a thicket of Himalayan-balsam, with the leaves by my ears, I can reach down and grasp the stems. Occasionally I may grasp a nettle. That is all. There is no danger of accidentally uprooting a valued native plant. There is effectively only one species present, the balsam. There is only one way in which this balsam could not have led to a decrease in the number of species compared to before the balsam invaded: that is, if previously there was at most one species present. For example, there may have been only a thick bank of nettles. In that case, the Himalayan-balsam has simply replaced the nettles - and we may be rather content with the exchange.
      To digress for a moment, nettles are the bane of our childhoods and one of our most detested weeds. We once took a visitor from Bulgaria for a walk along our lanes and she was surprised that we did not ‘harvest’ the nettles. She did, to make us nettle soup, which wasn’t too bad. In fact, nettles have a long history as a food source and a medicine. No doubt many of our weeds were of use to us in the past and might be of use in the future. However, we must not fall into Ruskin’s fallacy of assuming that plants are here for us. To digress even further, the baneberry has berries so poisonous that they may lead to death. Is it a weed?
      Returning to Himalayan-balsam, the report that found a negligible effect did not study areas completely dominated by balsam. It considered plots in which there were about ten species present and in which the balsam was considered to cover about half the area. If I wander away from my thickets of balsam into the fringes of its invasion zone I encounter conditions more like those studied in this experiment. The balsam is not so high: it doesn’t need to be, as it’s not yet competing against other balsam. It is intermingled with numerous native species. Balsam bashing here is a more laborious process. I cannot just grab handfuls of the stuff with my eyes closed. I must carefully select (weed out) the balsam stems. Progress appears to be much slower but it is perhaps as important to prevent the balsam’s further spread as it is to tackle ‘lost’ areas.
      I can well imagine that a study focussing on areas not fully invaded will find most species still present (which is what the study counted) although probably not in the same numbers as before. If, however, a study considers areas that are 80-100% covered with Himalayan-balsam (as the earlier study mentioned above did) then, even with my limited amateur experience, I would expect different results, as the earlier study found.
      ... From Salterwath Bridge the road runs south to Carlingill Bridge and then on to Fairmile Road. The road is rather high above the Lune, from which it is shielded by a line of trees. I decided to skip ahead to Crook of Lune Bridge at Lowgill and reconnoitre back from there. Again, although the habitat seemed ideal for it, I could see no balsam near the bridge, nor for a mile up-river ...

Crook of Lune Bridge Left: Crook of Lune Bridge

      Why do Mabey and others defend Himalayan-balsam? I have mentioned some of the reasons:
   •   it looks attractive and may be thought to brighten the urban environment;
   •   it does no harm, according to some interpretations of research studies;
   •   it is an annual and therefore dies away each winter (the seeds don’t though!);
   •   rather than balsam bashing, it would be better to control the conditions under which it flourishes, by decreasing the amount of nitrates and phosphates in the water;
   •   the bees like it, especially in late autumn when other flowers have died away (but those other flowers have had insufficient pollination because of the balsam’s attractiveness to bees);
   •   it is now far too established throughout the UK to be eradicated anyway, especially where it grows in inaccessible areas.
      Nonetheless, Himalayan-balsam is now considered by the UK government to be not a mere weed but a member of the set of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS), which DEFRA regards as “one of the greatest threats to biodiversity across the globe”. A programme to banish all non-native plants would require thorough research through horticultural histories to determine which of our plants should be sacrificed: escallonia?, rhododendron?, eucalyptus? laurel? But if we go on about non-native species then we risk being accused, like Gardeners’ Question Time recently, of being “layered with racial meanings” and linked to “the rise of nationalist and fascist parties”.
      It is not non-nativeness per se that makes a particular species a threat. To be objectionable a non-native plant needs to have negative characteristics that outweigh its positive ones. If it out-competes native plants, such as cowslips, which then become in danger of extinction, we might take action to protect our cowslip. If an introduced plant had a fruit that resembled a strawberry but was poisonous, then we might seek to have it prohibited. There are many such negative properties but the one that the DEFRA policy focusses upon is invasiveness.
      DEFRA defines invasive species as ones “that can become dominant in the environment where they may impact on other (native) species, transform ecosystems and cause environmental harm”. The boundary is not always clear. Sycamore is non-native but has only recently come to be regarded as invasive, at least, in environmentally sensitive areas. It is definitely regarded as invasive in other contexts, such as Australia. The snowdrop, too, is an import and might, by the definition, be considered invasive. But, of course, we are too fond of it now to wish to get rid of it.
      Himalayan-balsam is officially an Invasive Non-Native Species. What does that imply? DEFRA’s 2003 review of INNS policy made a number of ‘key recommendations’ that indicated an intention to develop a nation-wide programme of action [5]. In due course, we have begun to tackle the problem of Himalayan-balsam along the Lune and its tributaries. The Cumbria Freshwater Non-Native Species Initiative has been established and in 2012 organised over 4,000 hours of volunteer balsam bashing. In 2011 the Lancashire Invasive Species Project was set up to coordinate the control and eradication of invasive species throughout Lancashire. Several local groups have set about the balsam.
      If all else fails, we can resort to the law. As Himalayan-balsam is listed under Schedule 9 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is an offence to plant or otherwise allow this species to grow in the wild. However, nobody has ever been prosecuted with respect to Himalayan-balsam under the 1981 Act - not least, because of the difficulty of defining “in the wild”. I suppose that whenever I am on a countryside walk and pass Himalayan-balsam, thereby allowing it to grow, I am, strictly speaking, breaking the law.
      ... I returned to the Crook of Lune Bridge to continue my search down-river. This path is part of the Dales Way and it is indeed an idyllic walk. Below the bridge two sandpipers were happily piping. There were also several grey-wagtails, a dipper or two, a heron, and, when I paused to inspect the river closely, many tiny fish in the Lune’s shallows. There were also two women swimming in a secluded, deep pool.
      But then I saw my first Himalayan-balsam, on the riverbank below Crook of Lune Wood. I uprooted it, of course. The photo of Himalayan-balsam above shows it before I uprooted it. I walked on to the footbridge over Ellergill Beck but saw no more balsam. Indeed, a later cursory inspection of the Lune at Lincoln’s Inn Bridge near Sedbergh revealed no Himalayan-balsam there either. I like to imagine that I have, single-handedly, prevented infestation of a fine three-mile stretch of the Lune.
      The balsam on the lower Lune is for another day, or several.

[1].  Richard Mabey (2010), Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants, London: Profile Books.
[2].  John Ruskin (1876), Proserpina.
[3].  M. Hejda and P. Pysek (2006), What is the impact of Impatiens glandulifera on species diversity of invaded riparian vegetation?, Biological Conservation, 132, 143-152.
[4].  P.E. Hulme and E.T. Bremner (2005), Assessing the impact of Impatiens glandulifera on riparian habitats: partitioning diversity components following species removal, Journal of Applied Ecology, 66, 66–79.
[5].  DEFRA’s Invasive Non-Native Species Framework Strategy is at:

18.  Juniper on Moughton
September 2014

I thought that I had better go to see the juniper on Moughton before it was too late. Too late? The juniper on Moughton has been there for thousands of years. Surely, it is not about to disappear - is it?
      Common-juniper Juniperus communis is one of only three native conifers, the others being yew and Scots-pine. Juniper is a long-lived, slow-growing, adaptable plant. It can grow from sea-level to mountain-tops and on a range of soils, from the lime-rich soils of southern England to the base-rich or acidic soils of Scotland. On Moughton it grows on limestone. It can form an erect tree but on Moughton, where the juniper is fully exposed to the elements, it is a low, spreading shrub, rarely more than a metre high.

Juniper on Moughton Left: Juniper on Moughton, looking towards Ingleborough

      Juniper has a tough, wiry, red-brown bark. It flowers in April with the male and female flowers on separate plants. The female berries are green, turning blue-black as they ripen. These are the berries well-known for flavouring gin and cooking.
      But doesn’t ‘conifer’ come from the Latin conus (cone) and ferre (to bear)? How come juniper has berries not cones? So another naive question arises: what exactly is a ‘cone’? After diligent research, I found that a cone is an organ on conifers that contains the reproductive structures - which doesn’t take me very far. But I also found that juniper has ‘berry-like cones’, so that’s fine, then. I have learned that a cone is not necessarily cone-shaped.
      Although it is one of the commonest trees worldwide, juniper is the rarest of the three native conifers in the UK, even more so after a significant reduction in its distribution in the last fifty years. This is mainly because of changes in land management, such as over-grazing and afforestation. Juniper is now identified as a UK BAP priority species, that is, as one considered to be among the most threatened and requiring conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
      Juniper was once widespread on the hills of the Yorkshire Dales and the Forest of Bowland. It usually grew as a shrub within open woodland of birch and rowan. I would imagine that a century or two ago juniper was common on the slopes of Ingleborough, Whernside and neighbouring peaks. I am not aware that it survives as a native species anywhere within Loyne to the extent that it does on Moughton - and even there it is rather sparsely spread.
      I expect that sheep are mainly responsible for the disappearance of our juniper. Sheep have also removed almost all vestiges of heather, previously widespread, from the slopes of Ingleborough and elsewhere. Perhaps sheep do not find it necessary to leave the sheltered abundance of grass in Crummackdale to tackle the fractured limestone pavements on the top of Moughton for the dubious pleasure of nibbling the tough leaves of juniper. For the same reason, I assume, there is still heather to be found on Moughton, enough to lure two red-grouse seen on our visit but not, I am sure, enough to lure sufficient grouse to satisfy any shooters tempted to use the now dilapidated grouse butts on the plateau.
      Humans may be partly to blame for juniper’s disappearance too. In the past we found many uses for juniper and our harvesting of it helped to disturb the ground and create conditions for it to seed. No doubt, once the juniper had no value, we often simply cleared it out. Juniper was used for firewood and to line farm walls. It burns with little smoke, ideal for curing ham and for illegal distilling. The berries (but now from overseas juniper) are still used not only for flavouring but also in liqueurs and sauces - and were also used, as recently as the 1980s, within ‘juniper pills’ to terminate a pregnancy. The berries had a variety of medicinal uses, from resisting the plague to acting as an antidote to poison. Juniper was also hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits, but for some reason this is unnecessary nowadays.
      The juniper has been on Moughton for a very long time, probably since shortly after the Ice Age. The healthy specimens on Moughton are accompanied by many dead and dying ones. I expect that that has always been the case because, as far as I can tell, they are dying of nothing more serious than old age.

dead juniper Left: Dead juniper, with Pen-y-Ghent beyond

      However, this may be about to change.
      In 2011 juniper in Teesdale was found to be dying. It was being attacked by a fungus Phytophthora austrocedrae (to be precise, a fungus-like plant pathogen) that had somehow been imported from South America. When the juniper roots are infected, the foliage turns a lighter green, withers, turns a bronze-brown, and the plant dies. Other pathogens cause similar symptoms and it therefore takes an expert to recognise Phytophthora austrocedrae, which is usually done by analysing the inner bark.
      The fungus has since been found at many juniper sites in the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, and elsewhere, according to the Forestry Commission map. This is naturally a cause for alarm. The Telegraph immediately worried about the threat to gin and tonic (akin to its reaction to the glut of elvers, chapter 8) [1]. It need not be too worried as there is plenty of juniper abroad, where the gin is made, and we have not (yet) exported the fungus.

moughton scars Right: Moughton Scars with Moughton beyond

      It is, however, not a frivolous matter. As yet, UK scientists do not know precisely how the fungus spreads or how it may be controlled. Even if we are not particularly fond of juniper, we should be aware that it is a key food plant for a wide range of invertebrates and birds, and there is a specialised group of insects, fungi and lichens associated with it.
      The public has been made aware of the threat of ‘ash dieback’, because ash is such an iconic British tree. There are about a dozen other trees, including alder, larch and horse-chestnut as well as our juniper, that are also under various threats. Have our trees always been under such threats, and we have only recently become aware of it, or are they becoming increasingly vulnerable to alien pathogens? If the latter, what can we do about it?
      Earlier this year Natural England reported that Phytophthora austrocedrae had been confirmed on Moughton. We went to Moughton half-expecting to find the juniper fenced off, as per Natural England’s guidelines, in order to prevent people like us blundering about inadvertently spreading the fungus. However, there were no fences or warning signs to indicate that anything was amiss. The juniper, although somewhat decrepit, did not show any of the symptoms of the fungus attack. I am no expert, of course, and in any case we only investigated the juniper on the northern part of Moughton, from the Whetstone Hole footpath up to the trig point. We did not go on to the southern half, where there seems to be less juniper. By that stage we had lost our enthusiasm for finding dying juniper.
      We preferred instead to walk along the exhilarating cliff edge of Moughton Scars over to Beggar’s Stile above Crummackdale in order to enjoy the marvellous views of Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent over the sea of limestone pavement. But we could not entirely forget that these magnificent hills had lost all their juniper - and that soon the Moughton plateau behind us may do likewise.

[1].   The Telegraph (June 19, 2013), Juniper tree disease threatens G&T.

19.  Wolf-Spiders by the Lune
September 2014

Loyn Bridge, Hornby Right: Loyn Bridge, Hornby

I have been re-reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places [1] in the hope that I might find some profound insight into the concept of wildness. The book describes a series of expeditions to elucidate the nature of wildness, although not of wild life but of wild places. Macfarlane spent a night shivering on the summit of Ben Hope, Scotland’s northernmost mountain. He tramped across the vast boggy hags of Rannoch Moor. He spent time alone on the island of Ynys Enlli off the Lleyn Peninsula. He slept on a frozen tarn during a blizzard below Red Pike in the Lake District.
      However, after all these bold endeavours, he concluded (page 316) that “wildness was not about asperity, but about luxuriance, vitality, fun. The weed thrusting through a crack in the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake. There was as much to be learned in an acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope”.
      That is a relief. I have plenty of weeds and tree roots to study in preference to spending nights on freezing mountain tops. In that spirit, I have come to reflect on the nature of my own expeditions. I too have sought, in my less heroic way, the extreme rather than the commonplace. When I went in search of, say, purple-saxifrage on Ingleborough, it was not because I had suddenly developed a deep interest in purple-saxifrage itself, as a flower. That would be irrational because purple-saxifrage is, as far as I know, no more interesting than any of the other 440 species of saxifrage. A wildflower guide devotes no more space to purple-saxifrage than it does to other saxifrages. If I’m going to search for purple-saxifrage then perhaps I ought to make an equal effort searching for the others.
      No, the reason that I am interested in purple-saxifrage is not to do with its properties as a flower. It is because purple-saxifrage is rare in Loyne, because its existence on Ingleborough is part of the history of the region, and because the search for purple-saxifrage presents an invigorating challenge. Similarly, the search for locally rare species such as the small-pearl-bordered-fritillary, the marsh-gentian, the small-leaved-lime and so on appeals to me because the challenge provides a pretext for me to learn more not just about those species but also about the ecological challenges facing Loyne.
      However, perhaps I should not neglect the commonplace even if it seems to have little specific to tell me about Loyne. As I sit here at my desk, I can see spiders and flies (I should house-clean occasionally). The wood-pile that I can see outside hosts worms, snails, slugs, ants and beetles. I have no idea if there is any interesting Loyne-specific story to tell about spiders, flies, worms, snails, slugs, ants or beetles.
      Let me consider spiders. I read that there are over 600 species of British spiders. That’s more than there are British birds. But whereas I can name many birds I am struggling to think of more than a handful of spiders: tarantula, daddy-long-legs, money-spider, redback, black-widow. That’s about it. I then read that all but one of those are not species at all but groups of species (like, say, gull and raptor in the bird world). The one species, redback, is Australian. Two of the others, tarantula and black-widow, are not British either. Of the two British groups, one of them, daddy-long-legs, does not include just spiders. It also includes crane-flies, which are not spiders or flies, and harvestmen, which are not spiders or men. The money-spiders, of which there are over 4,000 species worldwide, are said to be so-called because of a superstition that if they land upon you they will bring you good fortune. That, however, doesn’t seem a foolproof method of identifying them.
      So, I cannot name, let alone identify, a single British spider! This is not entirely my fault. Some British spiders, even quite common ones, don’t seem to have names (I am not yet prepared to utter Coelotes atropos in any conversation). Others, such as Araneus diadematus, have several: cross-orbweaver, cross-spider, diadem-spider, European-garden-spider. Most have plausible, but to me unfamiliar, names, such as cave-spider (Meta menardi), green-huntsman (Micrommata virescens), spitting-spider (Scytodes thoracica), and so on. There is also an invisible-spider (Drapetisca socialis), which I have not seen to put a name to.
      Where do I begin? I should ensure that I know what a spider is. Spiders (order Araneae) are of the class Arachnida of the subphylum Chelicerata of the phylum Anthropoda of the kingdom Animalia. Anthropods (which include insects, crustaceans and spiders) are invertebrate animals with an external skeleton, a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Chelicerates (which include horseshoe-crabs, sea-spiders (which are not true spiders) and spiders) have biting appendages before the mouth - in the case of spiders, usually fangs to inject venom into prey. Arachnids (which include scorpions, mites and spiders) have four pairs of legs and two body segments, the cephalothorax and abdomen. Spiders, unlike other arachnids, produce silk from spinnerets, usually found at the end of the abdomen.
      Spiders don’t travel far but since Loyne has a wide range of habitats, I’d guess that 300-400 of the 600 British species are to be found here. If I were to write about a species of spider each month that would keep me going until 2045 or so. Is there anything particularly interesting to say about any one of them? Well, here’s one that might have specific Loyne appeal, in so far as any spider is appealing: northern-bear-spider, Arctosa cinerea. These are ‘wolf-spiders’, so-called because they are agile, robust hunters, not, sadly, because they hunt in packs. Arctosa cinerea is one of Europe’s largest spiders, its body (not including the legs) being up to 17mm long.

Arctosa cinerea Left: Arctosa cinerea (
Steven Falk)

      Most spiders have eight eyes. Perhaps you knew that. I didn’t. So, an eye for each leg, except that the eyes aren’t on the legs, of course - they are on the head, as usual, except that spiders don’t have heads (the head is merged with the thorax). The eyes are usually poor compared to those of most insects, as most spiders rely more on touch and taste. But Arctosa cinerea is a hunter and needs good eyes. It has two large eyes in a middle row, two medium-sized eyes in a top row, and four small eyes in a bottom row.

thrush gill island Right: The Lune near Thrush Gill Island, where Loyne’s Arctosa cinerea were first recorded in 1976

      It just so happens that Loyne’s Arctosa cinerea are at the southern limits of the British range, apart from some in Wales that I won’t mention. It lives on the shingle edges of the River Lune. It hides under the cobbles and digs holes that it covers with silk, where it presumably remains during floods. It likes to live near the water’s edge but not amongst vegetation. This implies that this apparently barren region must satisfy rather precise conditions to suit the spider: the river must not flood for too long, or the spider will drown, but it must flood often enough to wash vegetation anyway. This is an example of how tampering with the flow of a river may have effects on wildlife that we don’t even know about.
      The British Arachnological Society’s map indicates that Arctosa cinerea has been found along the Lune between Hornby and Kirkby Lonsdale. I thought that I’d investigate. How do arachnologists arachnologise? I doubt that they set out to find a specific species of spider. I imagine that they catch whatever spiders they can, perhaps using traps, and then study them with lenses at their leisure and pleasure.

japanese knotweed Left: Japanese-knotweed and Himalayan-balsam up river from Loyn Bridge

      Anyway, I decided to walk north along the Lune Valley Ramble from Loyn Bridge at Hornby to see where Arctosa cinerea live. I didn’t expect, and nor should you, that a novice spiderman could just go and find a particular spider for you. For one thing, Arctosa cinerea wisely begins to hibernate in September. Alas, I found that most of the shingle beaches were on the opposite bank, where there is no public footpath. Even more alas, most of my bank was protected by depressing swathes of Himalayan-balsam, plus some Japanese-knotweed for good measure. I clambered over to a few shingle beaches and self-consciously turned over a few hundred cobbles (I don’t know what I would have said if anyone had asked me what I was up to). I sent a few small spiders scampering about. None were considerate enough to keep still to allow a close inspection. I hope that they weren’t Arctosa cinerea because I picture them as considerably more fearsome.
      My overall conclusion, however, is that while all the creepies, the crawlies, the wigglies, the slimies, and so on are indeed part of wildlife in all its glory there are just too many of them, all much of a muchness to me. I have no doubt that they are really deeply fascinating in their own way but if I developed a serious interest in spiders, say, I’d have no time for anything else, which I’m sure we’d all regret.

[1].  Robert Macfarlane (2007), The Wild Places, London: Granta Books.

20.  Hen-Harriers in Roeburndale
October 2014

Hen-harrier mallowdale pike Left: Hen-harrier (
Mike Barth)
Right: Mallowdale Pike

The inconsequential flow of this narrative has been interrupted by an event that may alarm, anger and shame us in Loyne. In September two young hen-harriers were killed - or, in case lawyers are reading, disappeared in suspicious circumstances - in the Roeburndale region of Bowland. I am temporarily abandoning my self-imposed rule of only writing about what I have seen, or at least tried to see, in order to give the background to this event.
      The hen-harrier Circus cyaneus is not just any old bird. It is the icon of Bowland. It forms the logo of the Forest of Bowland AONB. How did it come to be so? Why was it necessary to put tracking devices on the fledgling hen-harriers? Why did they suddenly stop transmitting in September?
      In the early 20th century, habitat loss and persecution drove UK hen-harriers to nest only on the Orkney Islands. During and after the 1939-45 war, while estate owners and their gamekeepers were distracted, the hen-harriers gradually spread south. They began to breed again in England in 1968. The recovery was always fragile even though there is suitable habitat for several hundred pairs. Hen-harriers are birds of open landscapes, not only the uplands to which breeding has recently been restricted. They usually nest on the ground in mature heather. Breeding activity generally starts with adult males attempting to attract a mate by means of spectacular aerial displays known as sky-dances. In recent decades Bowland provided a relative stronghold for breeding hen-harriers in England.
      A Natural England report reviewed the breeding success of hen-harriers in England for the years 2002-2008. In those seven years there were 72 successful nests in England, yielding 225 fledged young. Of those 72, 52 (with 179 fledglings) were in Bowland. Of those 52, 42 were on land owned by United Utilities (a water company) and 10 were on land managed as driven grouse shoots. The report does not give the areas of land involved but I doubt that United Utilities owns more of Bowland than is used for grouse shooting. So, an obvious question is: why were there so few successful nests on the grouse moors? Also, why were the proportion of nesting attempts to be successful and the number of chicks per successful nest lower on the grouse moors? Perhaps United Utilities and the owners of grouse moors do not have the same incentives to want hen-harriers not to flourish.
      The report also analysed the reasons that Bowland nesting attempts failed. The numbers were small - 22 on United Utilities land and 8 on the grouse moors - but they indicate that the most common cause of a United Utilities failure was predation and of a grouse moor failure was ‘unknown’. The only case of persecution being the reason for failure was on the grouse moors. None of the Bowland breeding failures was considered due to the disappearance of a parent bird, which occurred mysteriously frequently in the 24 failed breeding attempts in England outside Bowland.
      As you would expect, the hen-harrier is a protected species. Even so, the report concluded that “direct evidence [has been found] that hen-harriers have been persecuted” and “that whilst illegal killing continues to be a widespread activity ... the prospects for the hen-harrier’s return to its former range and numbers unaided are slight.”
      Since 2008 this gloomy prognosis has turned out to be not gloomy enough. By 2013 the number of hen-harriers breeding in England had dropped to zero. Hen-harriers do travel considerable distances - so visiting hen-harriers would still be seen in England - but they tend to breed near their birthplace. Therefore, there would be a decreasing chance, year-by-year, that hen-harriers would breed in Bowland unless something changed soon.
      In 2011 the RSPB announced the ‘Sky-dancer project’: “an exciting new four-year project aimed at raising awareness and promoting the conservation of hen-harriers in the north of England”. DEFRA had (or has or will have) a ‘Hen-harrier Joint Recovery Plan’. Its details appear to be awaiting agreement with RSPB and GWCT (the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) involving apparently difficult compromises between the need to safeguard a legally protected species and the desire of some to sustain unnaturally high numbers of another species in order to shoot it. Anyway, there was no lack of awareness of the problem.
      Earlier in 2014 there was cautious optimism when four hen-harrier pairs nested in England, including two in Bowland. With 24-hour protection, the two Bowland pairs raised nine young, two of which were fitted with the tracking devices that failed in September. The makers of the device say that the probability of it suddenly mal-functioning is very low. The probability of two failing is very very low. The most likely explanation seems to be that the devices were disabled, perhaps by the birds being shot or killed by a fox.

black clough Right: Black Clough, near Abbeystead

      Most of the grouse moors of Bowland are owned by the Duke of Westminster, the UK’s richest aristocrat. Men - and perhaps women too - supplement his £8.5 billion by paying a thousand pounds a day to shoot grouse on the 23,500 acre Abbeystead Estate. What do the estates’ gamekeepers think of hen-harriers? Perhaps the answer lies in their job-title. They are paid to keep game, not to keep non-game, especially not non-game that, they believe, harms game. I once mentioned to a Bowland gamekeeper that, despite walking and running on the Bowland hills for over thirty years, I had never seen a fox there. He replied “That’s ‘cos I kill ‘em all”. Twenty-seven in one year, I think he said.

Weasel trap Left: Weasel trap

      If you walk by a wall fringing a grouse moor you may come across metal grids fixed to the tops of gates in the wall and on planks across puddles next to the wall. Weasels don’t like to get their feet wet, so they run along the tops of walls and gates or, if they are on the ground, on the planks over puddles. They run into the grids but not out of them. Members of the general public react differently to the killing of foxes, weasels and hen-harriers, but perhaps some gamekeepers don’t.
      There are proposals for tougher penalties for wildlife crimes, a regulation scheme for grouse moors, and a principle of vicarious liability, whereby estate owners are held legally responsible for crimes committed by their employees. These are highly contentious. In 2007, Prince Harry and a gamekeeper were interviewed after two hen-harriers were killed on the Sandringham estate. Natural England, the body responsible for Special Protection Areas such as Bowland, is a ‘non-departmental public body’ but the Secretary of State has the legal power to ‘issue guidance’ to Natural England. Natural England is dependent upon the government for its funding. Would Natural England really seek to alienate owners of large estates? The minister who ruled out vicarious liability was a former trustee of GWCT and owner of grouse moors.
      Even RSPB, an independent charity, seems to have its hands tied. Its Sky-dancer project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which imposes a condition that its grants must not be used for political lobbying. Therefore, RSPB feels inhibited, or prevented, from arguing the case for vicarious liability.
      Perhaps belated hope lies in a recent study carried out at Langholm Moor in Scotland. Here ‘diversionary feeding’, that is, the provision of alternative food to parent hen-harriers, reduced predation of grouse to what might be considered reasonable levels. The Countryside Alliance, however, considers that the problem does not lie with grouse moors. It says that “birds of prey are, on the whole, doing incredibly well and most are at their highest levels since records began” and that hen-harriers are “susceptible to bad weather, disturbance, poor habitat and lack of available food”, for none of which the managers of grouse moors can be blamed [1].
      I expect that the Alliance considers the buzzard to be “doing incredibly well”. A gamekeeper employed by another former GWCT trustee was recently found guilty of killing ten buzzards. A spokesman for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) said: “We condemn these actions utterly. The selfish, stupid actions of one man – who was not and never has been a member of the NGO – must not be used to tarnish the good name of gamekeeping”.
      The RSPB’s Sky-dancer project is offering a £1,000 reward for any information that leads to a conviction, should it emerge that one or both of our hen-harriers were illegally killed. All that is known at the moment is that the last transmissions from the two birds were at 7.33pm on 10 September on Summersgill Fell, west of Thrushgill, and at 10.51am on 13 September on Mallowdale Pike.

[1].   The Observer (January 5, 2013), Hawks in danger of extinction in illegal hunting campaign.

21.  Sitka-Spruce in Dentdale
December 2014

Recently I noticed an advertisement offering a woodland for sale. To be precise, it offered the wood not the land. For about £250,000, I could buy 28.8 hectares of mature forest, provided that I promised to fell all the trees by 2017, yielding about 10,000 tonnes of timber, so that the cleared land could revert to the owner for restocking.
      I didn’t really have a need for 10,000 tonnes of timber and nor did I have £250,000 to spare but I was intrigued by the notion that I could temporarily adopt a forest in order to chop it down. I had assumed that owners of forests felled their own trees for their own profit. In this case, the owner was presumably content with £250,000 and none of the work. The sale document didn’t actually say who the owner is but it mentioned the Forestry Commission and Cumbria County Council as ‘authorities’.
      The Forestry Commission would need to give a licence to whoever bought the forest before it could be felled. I doubt that the Commission owns the forest, as it is fairly small. The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 as a government department to restore wood supplies after the First World War, with a secondary objective of sustaining rural populations. It planted fast-growing conifers on the swathes of poor land that it bought to become Britain’s largest land owner. After the Countryside Act of 1968 the Commission’s focus moved towards conservation and recreation. Today the Commission also engages in forestry research to protect and improve the biodiversity of forests. The woodland for sale was at Mossy Bottom at the head of Dentdale. The majority (87%) of the forest was Sitka-spruce Picea sitchensis that were planted in 1971-72, along with a few European-larches.

dentdale Right: Looking west along Dentdale from Great Knoutberry Hill, with the plantation of Low Langshaw Moss on the slopes of Whernside (
John Shepherd)

      Sitka-spruce is probably Britain’s most numerous tree. It cannot be said to be our most common tree, as that would suggest that it is widespread. It isn’t. Almost all our Sitka-spruce is packed into regimented forests on our northern and western slopes.
      Sitka-spruce is native to the west coast of North America (Sitka is a small port in Alaska) and was introduced to Britain in the 19th century. It requires plenty of moisture, which Mossy Bottom certainly provides. It grows quickly on poor, exposed sites. It is a tall, narrow tree that will grow close to its neighbours. It is resistant to disease. It yields large quantities of timber. Its wood is light and strong - ideal for making paper, boxes, musical instruments, boats, aircraft, and so on. It seems perfect for Mossy Bottom!
      Is it perfect for Dentdale? To gain an appreciation of the Mossy Bottom Sitka-spruce I went to have a look. There are several other conifer plantations in Loyne - for example, in Bretherdale, Garsdale and Hindburndale - but they are usually small and inconspicuous. However, from the surrounding hills of Dentdale or in the quiet, green, rural valley, the conifer plantations seem prominent and intrusive. From the Google Earth view of upper Dentdale you might think that large areas have been redacted for security purposes.
      Perhaps this subjective feeling of intrusiveness is provoked by the fact that only in Dentdale do the public footpaths lead the walker into the depths of the forest. Elsewhere in Loyne, as far as I can remember, footpaths skirt the conifers, to which we can therefore turn a blind eye, or stay far from them, so that we can admire or ignore them from a distance.

hazel bottom Left: The partially felled plantation of Hazel Bottom, with the Settle-Carlisle railway on the slopes of Great Knoutberry Hill

      The footpath that goes through Mossy Bottom above the line of the Settle-Carlisle railway in the Bleamoor Tunnel soon reduces the view to one only of nearby, over-powering identical spruces, from which one longs to escape onto the open moorland. At least, that is how I remembered it. But as I dropped down from the top of Blea Moor I could see that much of the forest had been felled more recently than it had been Google Earthed.
      The scene was one of some desolation. Large areas had been laid bare, with only old stumps and scruffy piles of brash remaining. In places, new rows of young spruce, in various stages of growth, had been re-planted. Some patches of mature trees remained, including some near where Mossy Bottom is marked on the map. I don’t know if the 28.8 hectares are still for sale. There was no sign of any forest workmen I could ask, nor indeed of any equipment for on-going work.
      Enough of the forest remained for me to try to get more fully into its spirit by walking off the footpath into its depths. I had no fear of getting lost because the trees were in straight lines to guide me back out. Beyond a few yards, the forest was dark and silent. Hardly a splinter of light penetrated the dense canopy. No undergrowth grew. There was just a springy carpet of dead, dry needles. The lower branches of the trees seemed dead too. I doubt that many animals live on the forest floor. I expect that there are some birds that are at home in the upper branches but I didn’t hear any, although admittedly December is not the best month to hear birds.

mossy bottom dentdale Left: The partially replanted plantation of Mossy Bottom, with the Settle-Carlisle railway line disappearing into Bleamoor Tunnel
Right: Dentdale from Brown Knott

      To be fair, I doubt that Mossy Bottom was replete with wildlife before the forest was planted. Even so, it is dispiriting to see Sitka-spruce planted in serene, green Dentdale. But not so long ago Dentdale was not as serene and green as most of it is today. The Sportsman’s Inn below Arten Gill hints otherwise. ‘Sportsmen’ came to shoot red-grouse on the then heather-clad slopes. My impression, incidentally, is that the grouse are returning and indeed seem quite friendly now that they are not expecting to be shot.
      Forestry policies are, of course, a matter of national controversy. Elsewhere, for example in the Lake District, obtrusive, rigid conifer plantations are being removed or at least softened by the planting of deciduous trees. Newer plantations are skillfully landscaped, with irregular shapes and mixed species, to provide a more pleasant, varied aspect to the hillsides. However, as far as I could tell, no such policy applies to Dentdale. Sitka-spruce seems set to continue.
      Perhaps I need to take a longer term view. Our hills were previously wooded and the removal of trees many centuries ago led to the erosion and degradation of the exposed soil. The new conifer forests were planted for the economic production of timber, not to protect and regenerate the soil, although it may have that effect, hard though it is to acknowledge this standing in the gloom of Mossy Bottom. I must try to regard the Sitka-spruce as a temporary crop. Eventually, when the very last spruce has been felled, perhaps the soil will have been stabilised and reinvigorated to enable native flora and fauna to return and flourish. One can but hope.

22.  Dippers in Barbon Beck
January 2015

A midwinter, midweek walk in Barbondale is a particular pleasure. There are no cars parked at the picnic spot near Blindbeck Bridge. There are no cars being driven over the Barbondale Road into Dentdale, for a jaunt. There may be the occasional farm vehicle but otherwise all is silent, apart from the bubbling of Barbon Beck itself.
     Within the wood of the Barbon Manor estate few birds are to be heard. A rook may caw; a pheasant may squawk; a robin may sing. Perhaps a small flock of long-tailed-tits may twitter past. A heron may try to fly unnoticed from the beck. The only distraction from the peaceful solitude is the realisation, made manifest in winter, that the wood is sadly becoming overgrown with rhododendron.
     Once out of the wood, one may hear the mewing of a couple of buzzards circling towards Castle Knott. Snow lies on the ground and ice fringes the beck which runs strong and clear - and very cold. There are no birds by the beck, it seems.
     However, if one walks along by Barbon Beck it is likely that a bird that is in its element will be seen - the dipper, or, in full, the white-throated-dipper Cinclus cinclus. The dipper’s name is doubly appropriate. The bird dips, or bobs, repeatedly as it stands on a rock midstream. With its white bib, its action seems almost comically obsequious. Also, the bird dips, or drops, into the water from time to time, to swim or splash about, looking for insects. These two characteristics, distinctive for British birds, make the dipper easy to identify.

dipper Right: Dipper (
Margaret Holland)

     An obvious question is: Why does a dipper bob in such a fashion? To satisfy us any answer would need to explain how the action gives the dipper some evolutionary advantage. Dippers don’t reflect on the matter: they just breed, eat, and try not to be eaten. The bobbing must, I suppose, help one or more of those activities.
     So suggested answers are: it is a breeding display or a means of communication (but dippers bob throughout the year, although more energetically at breeding times, and it is usually a solitary bird, with no fellow dippers to communicate with); it provides different viewing angles into the flowing water and thus enables prey to be better seen (but, in my observation, dippers don’t seem to be looking into the water when they bob - and why would it need to be such a precise, regular bob?); it helps to camouflage the dipper against the turbulent beck (but for my eyes, but perhaps not its predators’, it, on the contrary, draws attention to the bird).
     None of those answers satisfy me, so I’ll suggest some more. Maybe it’s a way of helping the leg muscles, tired from gripping rocks in fast-flowing water, avoid cramp. (Do animals other than us get cramp? They surely must.) Perhaps the dipper is keeping alert, to escape any would-be predator. Perhaps it is nervous about diving into the cold water, like a diver on a high springboard. Perhaps it’s just a ritual, like Rafael Nadal’s serving rigmarole. I think dipper-philosophers should ponder this profound problem more deeply, so that we may sleep better at night.
     The dipper is an aquatic bird but it is not adapted to the water like waterfowl, with, for example, webbed feet. It has its own adaptations, appropriate to its niche, fast mountain streams:
   •   Its wings are short and strong, enabling them to serve as flippers underwater.
   •   Strong claws can grip rocks in swift water.
   •   Thick down keeps the dipper insulated.
   •   A very large preen gland waterproofs the feathers.
   •   A third eye-lid helps to see under water and to clear the eyes after diving.
   •   A nostril flap closes when the dipper is under water.
   •   Its eyes have strong focus muscles to help underwater vision.
   •   Its blood has high haemoglobin concentrations so that it can store more oxygen.

barbon beck barbon beck 2 Right: Barbon Beck, looking north (left) and looking south (right)

     Clearly, with all these adaptations, the dipper is a special bird, well suited to our mountain becks. It is worth pausing by Barbon Beck to study the dipper with binoculars. Of course, not all the adaptations can be seen but at least we can appreciate the dipper’s capabilities. It can be alarming to see it suddenly drop, apparently recklessly or by accident, into rapids, disappearing for several seconds - only to pop up, implausibly, some distance upstream.
     Meanwhile, the dipper takes little notice of us studying it. If, however, we begin to approach, it will fly ahead of us to stand and bob on another rock twenty metres away. It will continue to fly ahead for some time until it decides that it has had enough of this game, and will fly back past us, with a fast whirring of its wings and a peep or two of disapproval. It is a distinctive, sharp little call. I usually hear dippers in our beck (mentioned in Chapter 16) before I see them sweeping past. It always flies not far above the water, following the path of the beck, eschewing any short-cuts.
     The Barbon Beck dippers are in fact flying back because they have reached the end of their territory. A dipper patrols its stretch and will not intrude upon its neighbour. Between Blindbeck Bridge and Short Gill Bridge two or three dippers are likely to be seen. Although dippers are described as birds of the mountain becks, I often see them on the more placid lower reaches of the Lune. I don’t know if these birds spend all their time on the Lune, or whether the Lune marks the end of its territory along some nearby tributary.
     Dippers are the earliest of our birds to nest, starting in February. I saw no sign of the Barbon Beck dippers preparing to breed, which I am relieved about. I wouldn’t want to disturb this crucial activity. There are few beck-side shrubs to provide cover for dipper nests, which are made mainly of moss and built into crevices on banks or under bridges.
     The length of a dipper’s territory is determined by the availability of nesting sites (which, although I’m no dipper, I’d judge to be low along Barbon Beck) and, of course, food. Dippers feed solely on aquatic life. They eat caddis-fly larvae, nymphs, and occasionally small fish. (Dippers used to be killed because they were believed to harm precious fish stocks.) They forage among the stones on the beck’s bed, clinging to rocks and swimming with their wings.
     As is obvious at Barbon Beck, dippers do not, unlike many songbirds, forsake us when winter comes. This alone deserves to endear the dipper to us. They stay within their territory, which means that it must provide adequate sustenance throughout the year, for the dipper pair and for their brood of four or five young (or more if there’s a second brood).
     The dipper is completely dependent on clean, clear, fast-flowing water, with adequate food and safe nest-sites. Pollution and turbidity, caused by erosion, and any damming or channelling that alters water flow is liable to cause problems for the dipper. A sight of a dipper on a beck is therefore a time to rejoice. It is a sign that the beck is healthy. Barbon Beck and indeed most of Loyne’s becks are, I’m pleased to say, healthy enough to support dipper populations. Nationwide, too, populations appear to be stable and thus the dipper is in the minority, being on the Green list of British birds, enabling me, for a change, to end on a positive note.

23.  Alpacas in Rawtheydale
March 2015

Drivers leaving Sedbergh on the A683 and crossing Straight Bridge may be distracted by strange animals browsing in the fields. These are alpacas. If they are not in the roadside fields, they may be seen by walking on the footpath to Hebblethwaite Hall, passing through the farm of Ghyllas, which has built up a herd of about a hundred alpacas since 2000, part of a '
Why Not Alpacas' campaign.
     The alpaca Vicugna pacos is a species of camelid. In other words, it is of the Camelidae family, which, as you’d expect, also includes camels. Camelidae is the only extant family within the suborder Tylopoda, which means ‘swollen foot’. It is the broad cutaneous foot pad that distinguishes the camelids from the other even-toed ungulates within the Artiodactyla order, which also includes pigs, deer and giraffe.
     Camelids are herbivorous but they are not ruminants, that is they do not acquire nutrients by fermenting plants in a special stomach prior to digestion. Their stomachs have three chambers, not four; their teeth differ from ruminants’; their upper lips are split in two; and their back legs have a different musculature, causing a different action when lying down. There are seven species of camelid, including four from South America: alpaca, llama, vicuña and guanaco, the first two being domesticated forms of the last two. The four species can interbreed to produce fertile offspring. For example, a male llama and a female alpaca produce a haurizo.

alpaca Left: Alpaca

     Whoa. What makes a set of organisms a ‘species’? The 4 species of South American camelid could produce (by my arithmetic) 12 hybrids. As the 4 species can interbreed, I would expect the hybrids, which are presumably intermediate, to be able to do so as well. From the 4 species and 12 hybrids, we could have 252 hybrids, and in the next generation 65,532 hybrids, and so on.
     Why are the original four groups considered to be species but none of the hybrids? I have stumbled into a problem so fundamental that it has its own name: ‘the species problem’. It seems that there is no universally accepted definition of ‘species’, despite the fact that it is the basic unit of the biological classification system.
     Scientists like to name, list and classify things. That was what Carl Linnaeus had in mind when he came up with his scheme in the 1740s. At that time the types of organism were considered to be God-given, fixed and permanent. They could therefore be categorised like, say, chemical elements or types of rock.
     However, Darwin’s The Origin of Species of 1859 showed that the enterprise was inherently flawed, because organisms change, albeit rather slowly on a human timescale. The classification scheme was no longer to be considered a description of a static system. Instead, the focus was on how organisms evolved and how new species emerged.
     We may perceive that some animals are similar and we might consider them a species (say, hippo). We can see that they differ from another set of animals (say, zebra). We may then come across a smaller animal that looks rather like a hippo. Is it the same species, or different (a pygmy-hippo)? In the distant past, there have been other hippo-like animals. Were they hippo? Today, it is not so easy to see any difference between an alpaca and a vicuña. Since the former is a domesticated latter, why are they considered different species?
     To avoid just relying on someone’s opinion, a definition of ‘species’ would be welcome. Ernst Mayr’s ‘biological species concept’ of 1942 tried to provide one: “a species consists of populations of organisms that can reproduce with one another and that are reproductively isolated from other such populations”. The emphasis here is upon reproduction rather than appearance.
     This definition has its difficulties. For a start, it does not apply to asexual organisms, such as bacteria and most fungi. Some organisms that cannot interbreed, such as some breeds of dog, are nevertheless considered to be of the same species. Some organisms that can interbreed, such as lions and tigers (and indeed our four camelids), are nevertheless regarded as different species.
     What does the ‘can’ in ‘can reproduce’ mean? Does that allow an ‘in principle’ reproductive capability that, in practice, may not be realised for some reason? How does one demonstrate in principle reproduction? And how ‘isolated’ do the populations have to be? Our Lawkland and Silverdale small-pearls (Chapter 15), separated by a few miles of farmland, are considered to be of the same species, but perhaps they might not be if they were separated by an ocean.
     Why is the clause about isolation necessary? Isn’t the species of an organism determined by what it is, not where it is? The camels in the Australian outback aren’t considered a new species through being separated from the Middle East camels. That may be because we know how the outback camels got there: they are descended from camels imported to work in the Australian deserts. But if the camels stay in the outback for long enough they may evolve to differ from Middle East camels. Would they become a new species because of these differences or because they are in Australia?
     The biological species concept is also unsatisfactory because it is of limited practical use. It cannot be easily applied to most organisms - that is, the ones that are no longer with us. It is difficult to contemplate in principle reproduction between proposed species that lived millennia apart. This is unfortunate, as the species status of now extinct organisms is a crucial part of evolutionary theory.
     Even for living organisms it is not clear how you show species-hood. Imagine that you find a spider that you’d like to claim to be of a new species. How do you show that it is incapable of in principle reproduction with any known spider species (all 40,000 of them, plus all extinct species)? Or is the onus of proof on those who might deny that it is a new species? There is an understandable tendency for naturalist-explorers to identify a specimen as a new species because then they may have the honour of naming it, perhaps after themselves, for everlasting fame.
     There have been a score or more of other definitions of ‘species’. None of them is accepted by all but I assume that one or more have enabled experts to pronounce that we have four species of South American camelid.
     Nowadays it is hoped that gene analysis will provide a rigorous basis for a precise definition. Unfortunately, genetic differences between organisms do not always correlate well with the species differences that we have emphasised up to now. Sometimes genetic analysis reveals differences that we were previously unaware of. For example, the giraffe species has at least eleven genetically distinct populations. Perhaps, eventually, a genetically-based definition will be imposed upon the word ‘species’ - but if so it will not fully correspond to our understanding of the word ‘species’ today.
     It seems that we must accept that the edifice of evolution is built upon the shifting sand of an imprecise definition of species. This is not just a philosophical discussion and a cause only of academic angst. It enables creationists to attack the foundations of the theory of evolution. And how can I campaign about ‘species conservation’ and ‘endangered species’ when somebody might demand that I define what a species is?
     I am, to my chagrin, little the wiser as to why it has been decreed that there are four species of South American camelid. I decided to go and ask the alpacas. They all looked at me inquisitively, eyes wide, head erect on their long neck, ears up. They looked cherubic - but also gormless. Not a single one approached to tell me, straight from the alpaca’s mouth, why they are a species.

alpacas Right: Some of the inquisitive Ghyllas alpacas

     However, I also met the owner of the Ghyllas alpacas, and we had an interesting, if inconclusive, discussion about the nature of species. He told me about a local man who once had a zonkey - a hybrid of zebra and donkey. Darwin, in fact, was quite intrigued by the various zebra-horse hybrids and wrote a fair bit about them. However, none of them, including the zonkey, is a species, because they are sterile. We also considered the multitude of breeds of dogs (all one species) and wondered why some hybrids, or mongrels, are more valued than the pure breeds. We concluded that it is not a matter for science alone.
     He was somewhat puzzled by the fact that the two groups of camelids (the South American and the Middle Eastern) are so far apart. It does seem strange today but, of course, in the distant past there were other camelids, now extinct, at intermediate points between them. No doubt, given sufficient time, camelids could have migrated over the vast land masses and have evolved differently along the way. Maybe the land masses themselves have moved to separate the two groups.
     I learned that there are two kinds of alpaca at Ghyllas (although I couldn’t tell the difference): huacaya-alpaca and suri-alpaca. I say ‘kind’ because I don’t know what the proper word is. Some experts seem to consider these different species; others different breeds. I find it disconcerting that experts cannot decide these matters for me.

shawl Right: Alpaca shawl

     I knew that the Ghyllas alpacas are bred for their fibre, to be made into blankets, rugs, cardigans, shawls and so on, and I could tell that each individual alpaca was a beloved member of the family. Nevertheless, I had the temerity to ask about alpaca meat. It is, apparently, a tender, succulent meat, long considered a delicacy in South America. Here, of course, it is a rarity, or non-existent, on our menus.
     The owner said that his alpacas are a domesticated form of the guanaco, one of the two wild South American camelid. I was vaguely uncertain about this, but I didn’t have my notes with me, and he knows much more about alpacas than I will ever need to. But, now that I am home, I read that until 2001 the alpaca, then called Lama pacos, was indeed considered to be descended from the guanaco. However, DNA analysis showed it to be descended from the vicuña, and it was renamed Vicugna pacos [1]. (The details of this DNA analysis are incomprehensible to me but I have included the paper’s web address below in case you’d like to discuss the matter with Ghyllas.)
     This shows that I ought to regard species classifications as provisional - and also that alpaca farmers have more important things to worry about than the philosophy of speciation. In particular, they must keep alpacas fed during the winter, when, of course, the grass doesn’t grow. He was busy (until interrupted) unloading many bales of hay.
     Alpacas live at 4000m in the Andes, so they have no difficulty in coping with the rigours of a Rawtheydale winter. However, they are not well adapted to survive severe conditions alone. In 2013 about 250,000 alpacas in Peru died when their farmers were caught unprepared by a sudden blast of snow and ice. The Ghyllas alpacas do though find our winters somewhat gloomy compared to the Andes and therefore need vitamin supplements. I know how they feel.

[1].  M. Kadwell et al (2001). “Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 268 (1485): 2575–2584, at

24.  Hares at Winmarleigh Moss
April 2015

Nobody visits the Winmarleigh Moss SSSI without great determination and a good reason. I had both. Winmarleigh Moss lies - and I mean lies - about three miles east of Pilling in the middle of the flat expanse of the Fylde. It can only be reached by walking for some time to get to Crawley’s Dyke and then following the dyke to cross diagonally over the Moss.

crawley's dyke Right: Approaching Winmarleigh Moss by Crawley’s Dyke

     The SSSI is all less than 10m above sea level but even so it is a metre or so above the surrounding fields. Those fields have all been drained to provide rich farmland. Winmarleigh Moss is a remnant of the vast bog of Pilling Moss that was here until a couple of centuries ago. The SSSI is not large, only 90 hectares or so, but it is the largest area of lowland raised bog remaining in Lancashire.
     A few millennia ago the region was covered with trees. Once the trees had been chopped down it gradually became a bog. Today the process is in reverse: trees are re-growing and the bog is drying out. The reason that I went to Winmarleigh Moss was to see what was being done about this.
     This presumes that something should be done about it. Why don’t we just let nature take its course? Well, it is too late for that. We have already prevented nature taking its course, by chopping down trees and draining fields. We have so mutilated the natural environment everywhere that we no longer know what ‘natural’ is. We tend to assume that what we have recently destroyed was natural - and therefore we feel an obligation to restore it.
     Pilling Moss was never scenically attractive. Restoring the bog of Winmarleigh Moss will not bring tourists flocking. It will not bring any economic benefit either, unlike the surrounding farmland. The main reason for preventing the bog disappearing is that it provides a distinctive ecological niche that several rare plants and insects depend upon.
     The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, which owns most of Winmarleigh Moss, proposed to tackle the problem in four ways. First, all the trees and scrubs, except some on the periphery, would be removed. Long ago the bog was inadvertently created by removing trees; now the bog was to be deliberately re-created by removing trees. The ditches on the eastern half of the Moss would be filled in, to prevent water draining away. Then, bunds, that is, low mounds of peat, would be built on the western edges, to hold water in. Finally, overflow pipes would be used to manage water levels in different areas of the Moss. Thus, it was hoped, the Moss would be re-wetted in a controllable fashion, without harming nearby farmland.
     The proposal I had seen had the work scheduled for September 2014 to March 2015. So I walked to the Moss to see how they had got on. I also hoped to see some of the wildlife for which the Moss is known - not the plants and insects, as it was the wrong time of year for most of them, but specifically the brown-hare Lepus europaeus which is fairly common in the region. Nationally, however, the number of hares in Britain has dropped by 80% in the last century. We may attribute this drop to disease or increased predation by foxes but the likelihood is that, as usual, we are to blame.
     The hare is the only British game species that does not have a close season. Britain and Ireland are the only European countries not to ban the shooting of hares in the breeding season. This means that it is not illegal - when it surely should be - to kill a mother hare, thereby causing its young to die of starvation (the father hare takes no interest in its young). The leverets are accustomed to being left alone in their ‘forms’ for all but a few minutes every day, but if the mother does not return at all then they will, of course, die. It is thought that 40% of our hares are shot every year.
     In 2013 the government rejected an attempt to introduce a hare close season, considering it unnecessary. Perhaps it thinks that the venerable Hare Preservation Act of 1892 is sufficient. This made it illegal to have hare on the menu between March and July. As hares are not really agricultural pests, the only reason to shoot them is for ‘fun’. At least, hare-coursing (where hares are run down by dogs) has been banned since the Hunting Act of 2004, although its supporters say that the aim of ‘the noblest of field sports’ is not to kill hares but to provide competition between dogs. Those hares that die are unfortunate: the rest, being merely severely stressed, are lucky.

hares Left: Brown-hares (
Alex Eames)

     The hare has probably suffered less from direct persecution than it has indirectly from changes to farming practice. Hares do not hibernate or migrate and therefore need a food supply, of a variety of grass and herb species, throughout the year. This was naturally available before agriculture and even after it, until recently, with traditional hay meadows and crop rotation. Nearly all such meadows have now been lost, replaced by grassland, usually of a single species, for silage production. The hare has fared particularly badly in western regions that are predominantly dairy farming.
     Moreover, the hare’s decreased food supply tends to be badly timed. More autumn sown crops are now planted, causing a food shortage when the energy needs are highest, that is, during the breeding season. The removal of hedgerows and the increase in stock densities deprives hares of places to ‘lie up’ during the day and to safely leave leverets. Many leverets are killed by silage machinery as they wait for their mothers to return at dusk.
     If this all seems rather depressing then, according to the Hare Preservation Trust, “after the long winter months there can be few sights more uplifting to the human spirit than the spring-time boxing antics of these delightful creatures”. That may be so, until one learns that this is not, as used to be assumed by analogy with many other species, male hares being macho before mating. It is usually females trying to deter over-amorous males: that is, violence to ward off sexual assault. Ah well.
     Although the hare is considered to be a lowland animal I regularly see hares on the Bowland fells, for example, on my nearest hill of Caton Moor. Once I watched for some time four hares running around the moor. They ran in great loops, up, down and around the moor, for no obvious purpose. They simply seemed to be enjoying themselves. Occasionally, they would come across one another on their loops and would engage in a brief encounter but it was more like passing high-fives than a serious boxing match.
     Approaching Winmarleigh Moss from the east, it seemed that the planned work had not begun, or it had finished if it had (there was no sign of ongoing work). The birch trees still stood and the Moss looked like a parched island surrounded by green fields. At closer quarters, however, a new bund at the eastern end was found to be holding water back, and trees and shrubs by the Crawley’s Dyke footpath had been cleared, with a raised ridge creating peaty pools to the south. Overall, though, most of the Moss seemed unchanged.

winmarleigh moss crawley's dyke path Left: Work on the eastern bund of Winmarleigh Moss.
Right: The footpath by Crawley’s Dyke, showing the contrast between the green farm fields and the dry Winmarleigh Moss, with new pools.

     Standing on this dry island, perched a metre above the surrounding luxuriant farmland that has sunk through drainage and peat extraction, it is easy to see the difficulty of converting the region back into wet moss. At the moment, it is a strange unnatural mixture of peaty pools and dry vegetation. Still, a start has been made, and it is appreciated by the snipe, at least. I came across a group of seven, which diminished as the snipe left one-by-one, each with a disapproving ‘snip’ call. On the walk I saw my first swallow, wheatear and orange-tip-butterfly of the year and also, to my surprise, in this exposed region, a roe-deer.
     It was silent apart from the contented chittering of many birds - until I became aware of the low hum of the motorway, five miles away. Try as I might, I cannot escape humanity. Having been brought back to reality, I noticed a tractor spraying a nearby field with who-knows-what and then another tractor levelling the soil of a recently de-grassed field. Nearby, the Bay Flying Club airfield and the Moss Side Racing Stables have replaced our rare lowland raised bog.
     On this occasion I saw only one hare and this was not on Winmarleigh Moss itself. At least, having seen only one, I was spared the fisticuffs. I expect that the dry grass and heather and the peaty pools of the Moss are not to its liking. I doubt that the surrounding green fields are ideal habitat either. If the hare needs a variety of grasses then it won’t find it here. The large, flat, open fields of sheep-cropped grass, surrounded by fences, hawthorn hedges and sometimes wide ditches, provide little cover and protection for the hare and their young. They must lead a life of perpetual furtive trepidation. They will never experience the exuberance of the Caton Moor hares.

25.  Lesser-Black-Backed-Gulls by Wolfhole Crag
May 2015

The River Roeburn rises deep within the Forest of Bowland between Mallowdale Fell and Greenbank Fell below the knobbly peaks of Wolfhole Crag. This is a wild moorland area crossed by the rough track of Hornby Road (the Old Salt Road) that attracts only the occasional cyclist, horse-rider or walker. One of whom was me, some years ago, when I attempted to walk upon the Wolfhole Crag ridge. I was surprised to find my anticipated peace and solitude ruined by the cacophony of a huge colony of nesting gulls.
     This colony, I subsequently read, was of the lesser-black-backed-gull Larus fuscus, one of eleven species of gull to be seen in Britain (up till then I had not really bothered to distinguish one gull from another). They may be ‘lesser’ to an ornithologist, at least with respect to the great-black-backed gull Larus marinus, but they are still of some size, with a wingspan of 60cm or so. It was an unnerving experience to confront thousands of them determined to prevent an invasion of their territory.

brennand fell Left: Brennand Fell from Wolfhole Crag

     The majority of the gulls were nesting on Brennand Fell, in a large, sheltered, secluded bowl south of Wolfhole Crag. The lesser-black-backed-gull is said to have begun to breed in the Forest of Bowland in 1938. By 1959 there were 1,000 pairs. According to a 2005 book, the colony continued to grow “to become the largest known lesser black-backed colony in the world” and in 1979 “the colony held 25,500 pairs and it continues to thrive” [1].
     I recently re-walked the region and I was not surprised to find that the colony is no longer thriving. I had read about it in the national press [2]. . It had become a matter of public interest because the history of the gulls’ colonisation of the Bowland Fells illustrates some of the difficulties of conservation policies.
     Gulls are few people’s favourite bird. To most of us gulls are familiar as scavengers of seaside chips. They are noisy, aggressive birds, and there are, it seems, too many of them. The lesser-black-backed-gull, in particular, has grown rapidly in urban areas, where it is considered a pest.

lbb gull Right: Lesser-black-backed-gull (
Kevin Agar)

     However, looked at dispassionately, gulls are bona fide members of the avian world and the lesser-black-backed-gull is quite a handsome specimen. It is, in fact, not so numerous. A little over 100,000 pairs breed in the UK. So, at its peak, the Bowland colony held about a quarter of all UK lesser-black-backed-gulls. The UK is home to 40% of the European population but most of those birds are found at fewer than ten sites. For these reasons, the lesser-black-backed-gull is on the Amber List.
     Now that we have established that we should be concerned about the lesser-black-backed-gull, we can ask: Why has the Bowland colony fallen from 25,500 pairs in 1979 to about 2,000 pairs now? That is a fall of over 90% in just 35 years. If a colony of, say, avocets had fallen 90% there would be a campaign to find out why.
     In general, the lesser-black-backed-gull increased in numbers throughout its European range in the 20th century [3]. These increases are thought to be due to increased food availability from fish discards and landfill sites. Since 2000 the population has declined a little, probably because of a reversal of the reasons for the previous increase. These fluctuations, however, do not approach the 90% drop found in Bowland and therefore its explanation would seem to be specific to Bowland.
     One thing that has changed in Bowland since 1979 is that the region has been made ‘open access’ land. We are all now free to wander at will to disturb the nesting gulls. I do not visit Brennand Fell often enough to know whether this is a factor. I doubt it because very few walkers would be sufficiently determined to visit this remote emptiness and if a walker were to come accidentally upon the colony they would, I’m sure, soon retreat, as I did.
     I am not aware of any changes to the local flora and fauna that could explain the decline. Like most gulls, the lesser-black-backed-gull will eat almost anything - mice, eggs, young birds, worms, chips, and so on. Whatever they need must have been in sufficient supply to support 25,500 pairs and their young.
     Apart from the noise, another thing that I recall from my first visit to the colony is the smell. Fifty thousand birds and their young, all within a fairly small area, create a large concentration of excrement. All of this gets washed down through the drinking water extraction equipment on the River Dunsop.
     I can, therefore, well understand that there was concern that all these gulls might pollute the water supply and that in the 1970s a licence was granted to enable the culling of some of the gulls. A 2011 Natural England report says that “an estimated 50,000 were killed and tens of thousands of clutches destroyed at the Bowland Fells colony in 1978-82, reducing the colony from 25,000 to less than 10,000 pairs” [4]. It also says that “there is no information available on the numbers or distribution of lesser-black-backed-gulls killed in England in 2010 because there is no reporting requirement under the relevant general licences”.
     I don’t know the details of the licence that was granted; I don’t know why there is no reporting requirement for lesser-black-backed-gulls when there appears to be for great-black-backed gulls; I don’t know how many gulls might be considered safe as far as water pollution is concerned. I do know that the culling continued after 1982 with the licence being renewed several times.
     In 2001 the lesser-black-backed-gull’s conservation status changed to endangered and the Bowland Fells were declared a Special Protection Area (SPA). However, the official SPA citation document was never updated to reflect the fact that the gull was now legally protected. This ‘oversight’ meant that the culling could continue - and it did. It may not be immediately obvious why anyone would continue to kill thousands of birds annually (by poisoning, cannon-netting, gas gun, shooting and the use of stupefying drugs), at some expense and with no element of ‘sport’, when the original justification, to protect the water supply, no longer held.

duke of w Right: Duke of Westminster (Chris Holmes)

     The licence to cull the gulls was granted to the Grosvenor Estate (Abbeystead), owned by the Duke of Westminster. The lesser-black-backed-gulls occupied moorland that could otherwise be used by grouse. Moreover, the gulls eat grouse eggs and young. For years the Abbeystead Estate continued to kill gulls within what should have been a Special Protection Area, with the acquiescence or ignorance of the government body, Natural England, that was responsible for overseeing such areas. Obviously, this killing was to improve the supply of grouse for grouse-shooters.
     In 2011 the culling licence expired and was (at last) not renewed. Nevertheless, a Natural England survey reported “significant and widespread culling and disturbance measures across the Abbeystead-Tarnbrook Fell colony in 2012”. It seems that the 2012 culling was illegal, but nobody was prosecuted.
     Natural England said (in 2013) in response to concerns about the gull colony that it seeks “the cessation of the current regime of disturbance and culling at Bowland Fells ... Working through agreement remains Natural England’s preferred approach ... we pursue any modifications to existing consents on a voluntary basis with the aim of achieving a negotiated position with owner occupiers. Natural England’s policy is to use enforcement as a last resort as, in most circumstances, it is a much lengthier and more costly process and can be subject to appeal” [2].
     The tone of their comment indicated that they wanted the culling to stop. Of course, Natural England would prefer to follow the path of ‘agreement’, ‘voluntary basis’, ‘negotiated position’, and so on rather than ‘enforcement’. Would they follow it quite so far if they would not otherwise have to confront one of England’s richest land-owners and the powerful grouse-shooting fraternity?
     However, Natural England’s strategy seems to be a wise one because their report of June 2013 said that “this year no culling or disturbance has taken place on Brennand Fell and Whitendale Fell (west) adjacent and accordingly the number of nesting gulls has risen ... Lesser black backed gull nests with eggs in the Abbeystead/Tarnbrook colony doubled to 2,140 in 2013 (1,046 in 2012) following voluntary cessation of culling during 2013” [5].

gulls Left: Gulls at High Stephen’s Head, with Whernside and Ingleborough beyond

     Natural England has over 4,000 SSSIs and other protected areas to monitor. It cannot possibly inspect every one every year. But it seems to have surveyed Abbeystead in 2012, 2013 and 2014. This in itself is a comment on its lack of trust that the lapse of consent for culling would be obeyed. So, the prestigious estate of Abbeystead needs continued monitoring in order to protect the lesser-black-backed-gull colony from the grouse-shooting industry.
     At all events, a May walk in the Wolfhole Crag region is now a different experience. The only sound is still that of gulls, redolent of the seaside and, at first, anomalous on a moorland, but it is no longer an agitated, aggressive discord. They kaw as they glide on the breeze and chatter beside their nests. There are far fewer of them, and they seem contented, perhaps because they have ample space to spread their wings and perhaps because they are no longer in fear of extermination. They seem to have distributed themselves more evenly across the vast moor. For example, I came across a hundred or so above High Stephen’s Head, where I have not noticed gulls before. It is sensible of the gulls to nest outside the drinking water catchment because that makes it hard to find an excuse for killing them. Perhaps the grouse moors will become gull moors.

[1].  Andy Brown and Phil Grice (2005), Birds in England, Poyser: England.
[2].  Guardian report.
[3].  Defra report.
[4].  Natural England report (2011), The potential impacts of licensed control of large gulls in England on conservation status and Special Protection Areas.
[5].  At the time of writing Googling “SSSI 1018211” - the reference number for this Bowland Fells SSSI unit - yields the information given above but this is liable to be replaced by reports of later inspections.

26.  Red-Deer in Wasdale
May 2015

red deer stag Right: Red-deer stag (
Matt Carr)

There is only one place to go in Loyne if you want to set off with a reasonable expectation of seeing red-deer Cervus elaphus. That is Wasdale. I don’t mean the famous Wasdale in the western Lake District, where we can all take fine photographs of Great Gable and Scafell across the deep lake of Wastwater, a view recently voted the very best in England. I mean the virtually unknown Wasdale in the eastern Lake District, where nobody has ever taken a fine photograph. Implausible as it may seem, this Wasdale belongs to Loyne because the waters of Wasdale Beck, which set off northeast, eventually swing east and then south to become Birk Beck and to join the Lune near Tebay.

wasdale Left: Wasdale

     I have visited the Wasdale region four times in the last three decades. On three of those occasions I saw red-deer. On one of those occasions I saw a solitary human. I deduce, on the basis of this modest data set, that you are more likely to see red-deer than people in Wasdale.
     If four visits seems rather scanty experience upon which to form such a generalisation, I apologise, but if you’ve been to Wasdale once then you’ll know that going four times shows a real commitment to seek out every nook and cranny of the Loyne region. There are no nooks and few crannies in Wasdale. There’s nothing that would appeal to the serious Lake District walker. If you were to ask one of them if they have walked in our Wasdale, then it would be very likely that they have never heard of it, let alone walked in it. Lake District walkers expect to walk upon rough, craggy mountains, with steep cliffs and deep gills within which sparkling becks run down to serene tarns and lakes. The Shap Fells of the eastern Lake District, however, have smooth, grassy ridges, with very few rocky outcrops and many peat bogs within which water seeps reluctantly eastwards. There are no lakes, unless you count the reservoir of Wet Sleddale.
     There is desolation but it’s not without appeal, if you like solitude. There is, for example, a good path by the wall over Whatshaw Common, Little Yarlside and Great Yarlside to the large, delicate cairn of Harrop Pike, where there is a grand view, not so much to the west (to the Lake District) but to the east (to the Pennines and Howgills).

harrop pike Right: The Harrop Pike cairn

     The Shap Fell ridges are separated by the valleys of, from the north, Wet Sleddale, Wasdale, Crookdale, upper Borrowdale and Bannisdale. The middle three belong to Loyne, with Crookdale and upper Borrowdale flowing through the picturesque valley of lower Borrowdale to join the Lune at Borrowbridge. Visitors are rare in all these Shap Fell valleys apart from Wet Sleddale, where film enthusiasts make a pilgrimage to Uncle Monty’s cottage of Withnail and I.
     The absence of people is, of course, one of the reasons that red-deer may be seen around Wasdale. These deer are part of the herds of the eastern Lake District, based at the Martindale Estate but free to wander at will, undisturbed, around these empty hills. They are thought to be England’s only deer to be descendants of local wild animals. The red-deer found now in the New Forest, in Norfolk, in Wales and on Exmoor are probably descendants of deer reintroduced or escaped from captivity.
     The red-deer is Britain’s largest land mammal. Stags are considerably taller (shoulder height about 120 cm) and much heavier (about 200 kg) than the roe-deer stags (about 70 cm and 25 kg) that are more familiar in our region. Red-deer hinds are slightly less tall and about half as heavy as the stags. Red-deer moved into Britain after the last Ice Age and provided food, skin and tools for Mesolithic people. As the trees were cleared, the deer, originally animals of woodland, adapted to the open moors. Their numbers declined although some red-deer were protected within hunting forests, which had few trees. The increase in woodland in the 20th century led to an expansion in the range and number of red-deer. Red-deer no longer have any natural predators and their populations therefore need careful management for a sustainable balance within the environment. They do, of course, have some commercial value, for hunting and for their venison.

red deer Left: Red-deer hinds (James Common)

     On my most recent visit to Wasdale, we first glimpsed a few deer crossing from Wet Sleddale, as we sat near Wasdale Pike, having a snack, with a view of the M6 traffic far away. Then, as we dropped into Wasdale, we saw a herd of fifty or more deer browsing on the slopes below Little Yarlside and Great Yarlside. We watched them from afar with binoculars.
     As we moved on, they became aware of our presence and traversed around the hillside, in an elegant, leisurely fashion, not with the nervous bounding gait of alarmed roe-deer. They made their way around to Gargill Pike and then, as they realised that their path was now bringing them closer to where we were heading (to the layby on the A6), they thought better of it and turned back. Some disappeared over the ridge skyline into Crookdale; others settled back on the slopes of Little Yarlside. It felt a privilege to share this wilderness with the red-deer.

27.  Buzzards at Wandale Hill
June 2015

Our wildlife is not very scary, compared to that of most other countries. It presents little danger to us - unless it perceives that we are a danger to it. Or, more likely, to its young, for if the perceived danger is to itself it will probably skedaddle. But when it comes to protecting vulnerable young, parents will, if necessary, resort to violence.

buzzard Left: Buzzard (
Neil Rolph)

     I assume this to be the reason why I was attacked by common-buzzards Buteo buteo while walking in the eastern Howgills. Above the farm of Murthwaite, between Wandale Hill and Harter Fell, I became aware of the familiar, distinctive mewing of two buzzards circling above. As I walked on, the mewing gradually became more agitated and closer. It no longer had the tone of a distant, reassuring accompaniment. It sounded more like a threat.
     And then suddenly there was a great whoosh as a buzzard swooped within a couple of yards of me. And again, and again. I looked up to see the buzzard preparing for the next assault (I didn’t check if one or both buzzards joined in). It began from about a hundred yards up, at about 45 degrees, and headed straight for me at great speed. It was like standing on a railway line as a train approached, but knowing that the train would serve away at the last moment. At least, I assumed that the buzzard would swerve away. It surely wouldn’t want to hit anything, even me, at that speed. It was not an assumption easy to put to the test. The instinct is to throw arms up, duck and turn away.
     This experience was certainly scary. Apart from the assault itself, the difficulty was in determining how to end it. If the buzzards were protecting their young then I didn’t know where they were and therefore where to hurry to escape bombardment. Buzzards nest in trees or on crag ledges. They don’t nest on the ground on the open moor, as many birds do. Therefore the logical thing is to head for the open moor, away from trees and crags. It may be logical but it is not easy to expose oneself as a standing target. Anyway, that is what I did. I headed for the slopes of Harter Fell. And I was relieved that eventually the buzzards relented.
     Four hours later I returned towards Wandale Hill from Yarlside: I had to get back to the car somehow. Sure enough, as I scrambled down the slopes, two buzzards could be heard mewing above. And then there was the now familiar whoosh as one swooped by. This time, however, the buzzards didn’t develop any ferocity into their fly-pasts and after a few reconnaissance sorties they moved away down the valley of Backside Beck.
     I don’t know if they were the same buzzards as earlier. Like other raptors, buzzards do not nest communally, but one pair could have been nesting to the east and one to the west of Wandale Hill. It is not something I feel like investigating closely. A group of buzzards is called a ‘wake’ although I have never seen such a group. They are family birds and are usually seen singly or in pairs. They pair for life and do not usually move far from home. Occasionally, a small group may be seen circling above but this will be parents with their juveniles.

wandale hill yarlside Left: Wandale Hill from Yarlside
Right: Yarlside and Kensgriff from Wandale Hill

     The common-buzzard is indeed common in Britain. It is the bird of prey most likely to be heard and seen (except perhaps the kestrel if you spend most of your time driving on the motorway). Incidentally, the mewing sound doesn’t always mean that a buzzard will be seen in the sky as the sound may also be made by a buzzard perched in a tree. It is a medium-sized raptor - although it doesn’t seem medium-sized when it swoops towards you. I wish now that I had taken a photograph of the approaching buzzard to prove it to you, but I was in a hurry to skedaddle myself.
     The buzzard is one of our few birds whose numbers have increased significantly in recent decades. There are now around 60,000 breeding pairs in the UK. In 1970 only two pairs were breeding in Lancashire; by 2000 this had increased to 70 pairs; it is now approaching 500 pairs. It is natural to suspect that the increase in buzzards may have contributed to the general decrease in songbirds. This, however, is not the case because buzzards are not particularly partial to songbirds. They prefer small mammals (voles, mice and rabbits) and carrion. Songbirds have declined even where there are no buzzards.
     Nonetheless, the fact that buzzards do indeed eat birds has led to some surreptitious attempts, even by government agencies, to reduce the numbers of buzzard, especially by estates that would prefer other birds to be shot rather than eaten (as the buzzard-poisoning case, mentioned in Chapter 20, indicates). In 2012 DEFRA proposed to set up a research programme, using public money, of course, to control buzzards around shooting estates. They soon withdrew the proposal after widespread public objections.
     In 2013 Natural England granted a licence for buzzard eggs to be destroyed on a pheasant shooting estate but kept the permission secret, for reasons unknown. This was somewhat unusual, if not unique, considering that raptors are legally protected. Again, public protests led to a governmental back-down, at least in the sense that no further licences to destroy buzzard eggs have been granted, as far as I am aware.
     It is good to know that the public has developed such a fondness for these fine birds of prey. I am sure that this fondness would only be enhanced by a closer familiarity, as I developed at Wandale Hill. To be swooped upon by aggressive buzzards is one of life’s experiences not to be missed. I thoroughly recommend it.

28.  Ferns on Leck Fell
July 2015

Robert Macfarlane’s revelation (mentioned in Chapter 19) that wildness can be found in the small, familiar and close-at-hand, as well as in the large, rarely-visited and distant, came to him while peering into a grike on the limestone pavements of The Burren in Ireland. Perhaps it is time I took up peering into grikes, an activity which I had postponed in Chapter 3.
     I prefer to set myself a specific, if difficult, objective rather than set off in the vague hope of spying something interesting. So I decided to look for rigid-buckler-fern Dryopteris villarii on the slopes of Leck Fell. This fern, I read in Natural England’s description of the Leck Beck Head Catchment Area SSSI, is rare in the UK but also locally frequent (if one knows where to look!) on Leck Fell. It is in fact found only in the crevices of limestone rocks in northwest England and north Wales.

rigid-buckler-fern Right: Rigid-buckler-fern (
Tim Melling).

     Fifteen species of fern have been found on Leck Fell, which doesn’t sound too daunting a number to tackle. Worldwide, however, there are about 12,000 species of fern, the majority of which are leptosporangiate ferns, meaning that their spore-cases derive from a single cell. Ferns are venerable species, being found in the fossil records of 360 million years ago, long before the first flowers of 130 million years ago. Ferns are plants belonging to a group known as Pteridophyta. The study of ferns is called pteridology and pteridomania refers to the Victorian craze of collecting ferns and artefacts relating to ferns.

leck fell Left: Leck Fell, near The Crumbles, with rampant bracken

     Ferns, unlike mosses, are vascular plants, having roots, stems and leaves, but they reproduce via spores and not seeds or flowers. It is the spores which provide the main way for a beginner to identify ferns. Superficially, ferns seem to fall into two groups: those (the majority, which includes rigid-buckler-fern) with green, triangular fronds and those with various less elegant shapes, such as hart’s-tongue, maidenhair-fern and several spleenworts.
     In the first group, each frond has a number of green leaves growing more or less symmetrically in pairs from the stem and each leaf has a number of what I will call leaflets (the proper name is pinnae) growing in pairs from the stem of the leaf. The shapes of the frond, the leaf and the leaflet vary between species - but not by much, to my eyes.
     The spores are produced on the underside of the fronds in a structure called a sorus. The sori considerately arrange themselves into distinctive shapes for the different species. In the case of the rigid-buckler-fern, the sori are dark, round or kidney-shaped, relatively large and positioned in pairs on either side of the stem of the leaflets. The spores are, of course, ripe for only part of the year, in July and August for the rigid-buckler-fern.
     Now, where to look? The SSSI report says that the key area for rigid-buckler-fern is “at the Crumbles”. Unfortunately, no Crumbles are marked on the Ordnance Survey map. However, the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club refers to a pothole called ‘The Crumbles’ at grid reference 666803, which is within the region described in the SSSI report. So, I set out to begin the search there.
     On reaching the region, two problems became obvious. First, the whole place seemed overrun with bracken. Bracken is a fern - but not the fern I want to see. From a distance, it looks (like other ferns) somewhat similar to rigid-buckler-fern. The prospect of searching through thousands of ferns that are, in fact, bracken in order to find the rare rigid-buckler-fern did not appeal much.
     However, bracken does not grow on limestone. So I needed to restrict my search to the limestone areas. The second problem was that the limestone did not really form the pavements that I had envisaged. It occurred as small cliff outcrops and scree. Therefore, there were, sadly, few grikes for me to peer into.
     After you’ve looked at thousands of ferns that all look like bracken every fern looks like bracken. However, I did eventually find, within a crevice between two limestone boulders, a fern that I managed to convince myself was not bracken. It appeared to differ from bracken in several respects: its stem had some small red ‘hairs’ and was not smooth like bracken’s stem; the stem was rather more flexible; in colour the leaves were a lighter green; the leaflets were more rounded than the pointed leaflets of bracken (more like human incisors than the bracken’s crocodile teeth). For all I know, bracken might occur in natural variations that would encompass both these specimens (I won’t forget my experience with bogbean, described in Chapter 2). The photograph below shows a frond of bracken and of the mystery fern side-by-side.

fern Further left: The fern within the limestone crevice two ferns
Right: A frond of bracken (on the right) and a frond of the other fern (on the left)

     I eagerly turned the leaves over to see the distinctive sori. Unfortunately, there were none, on both specimens. In fact, very few of the ferns around had sori. I deduce that an individual fern plant does not produce sori every year, although I haven’t been able to confirm this from the guidebooks. Sadly, the specimen that was perhaps not bracken did not really look like the rigid-buckler-fern shown above either. In some frustration, I could not face any more bracken-like ferns. As I left, I grabbed a bracken frond that did have sori on it in order to compare them with the illustrations in the books at home.

sori Right: The frond with its sori

     To my surprise, these sori turned out not to be those of bracken. Bracken’s sori form a thin line around the fringe of the leaflets (the sori with the fringe?). The sori of my specimen were large and white with, typically, two or three on both sides of the leaflet’s stem. I’d have a stab that the fern is male-fern Dryopteris filix-mas, which I read is common in damp and shady places. The sexist name is thought to be because this fern was considered more robust and vigorous than the ‘female ferns’ called lady-fern or maiden-fern, so called, presumably, because they look relatively delicate and graceful. Perhaps the fern that was probably not bracken was a male-fern or a relative such as scaly-male-fern, dwarf-male-fern or mountain-male-fern.
     So, who would have thought it? All those ferns that I had dismissed as that invasive nuisance, bracken, were not all bracken at all!
     What do these ferns think they are playing at, masquerading as bracken? They’ve had ample time (360 million years) to develop a bit of character but, no, they pretend to be bracken. Where’s the point in that? Species conservation is all very well but do we really need 12,000 species of fern if most of them insist on looking like bracken? My frustration is, I feel, fully warranted. They could have made more of an effort to help me out.
     I am tempted to return to Leck Fell to carry out a more careful investigation, or to search for rigid-buckler-fern in proper grikes, such as those around Ingleborough. But I have little enthusiasm to do so. An ability to distinguish the various species of ferns is not one that I am anxious to acquire. It may be useful or, at least, interesting to know the difference between, say, snake’s-head-fritillary and silver-washed-fritillary but I cannot foresee much need to distinguish the various fern species. With relief, I leave them to the pteridologists.

29.  Yellow-Horned-Poppies at Middleton Sands
September 2015

To mark the official end of this fitful summer I decided to visit a sandy beach. Unfortunately, although Loyne is blessed with a variety of habitats, from upland peat moors and limestone cliffs through flood-plains to salt marshes, it doesn’t really have any sandy beaches. However, the Environment Agency considers the Lune estuary to end on a line from Knotts End to Heysham, and so to include Middleton Sands. This sounded promising, as it forms part of the Morecambe Bay Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation.
     Sadly, I was too late to appreciate Middleton Sands at its natural best. At least 200 years too late. The 1848 OS map shows a pristine coast between Potts Corner and Red Nab. Inland it marks only a ‘Middleton Tower’, an early 19th century sandstone folly with battlements. North of Red Nab the coast is shown to continue straight to Near Naze on Half Moon Bay.
     I was drawn to Middleton Sands because I had read a 2008 report that stated that there was “a tiny (0.4 ha) dune remnant at Potts Corner, Middleton Sands”. Sand dunes exist nowhere else within Loyne and, since they provide a distinctive habitat that suits particular species, they deserve a visit. 0.4 hectares may sound tiny but it is 4,000 square metres and that surely cannot be missed. In 2008 the Middleton Sands dunes made a small contribution to the estimated 88.7 ha of sand dunes that remained in north Lancashire. This 88.7 ha represented an 84% decline of the sand dunes at the time of the 1848 map, when dunes ran more-or-less continuously from Lytham to Fleetwood. Today, of course, the dunes have been largely replaced by houses, shops, roads and leisure amenities or subsumed by golf courses.
     Sand dune is now a scarce habitat in Britain and, rather belatedly, has been made a Priority Habitat for conservation in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This new-found respect for sand dunes is not entirely for reasons of biodiversity. It is now realised that dunes provide an important defence against floods, both as a barrier and as a means to reduce wave action during storms. This natural defence is much cheaper and often more efficient than sea walls and other hard coastal defences.
     The walk along Middleton Sands was not disappointing. It was much worse than that. It was depressing to see how, in less than 200 years, we had so utterly changed this short stretch of ordinary coastline. There was a beach, of a sort, between the mud of Morecambe Bay and the banks of the fields inland, and even a narrow strip of sand, too pebbly to allow the building of sand castles, I expect. Above the sand the pebbles became stones and rocks piled up below the modest banks. Not much grew on this narrow beach. I came across a few yellow-horned-poppies Glaucium flavum, which are rather straggly plants as they have every right to be, living in a salty wind. There were also some clumps of sea-holly, sea-sandwort and lyme-grass.

middleton sands Yellow-horned-poppy Left: Middleton Sands beach
Right: Yellow-horned-poppy

     I expect that the definition of ‘dune’ is rather flexible. It would, I feel, be bending it too far to describe any of this beach as a dune. A dune is built from wind-blown sand. There is just not enough sand here for the wind to blow into dunes. Dunes are characterised by their dynamic nature - how they change shape in response to wind and waves. There is no chance of this at Middleton Sands as the dunes, if they existed, would soon encounter the bank defences. So, despite my best hope, I could not point to 1 square metre (let alone 4,000 of them) of what I would consider to be sand dune.
     The overriding impression, as one walks along the Middleton Sands ‘beach’, is of human detritus, of the everyday rubbish and scruffiness that we have become too familiar with to notice. Amongst the seaweed and shells is all sorts of junk. Many of the pebbles and rocks are not even pebbles and rocks - they are old scraps of concrete and bricks, from buildings and defences that have fallen into the sea. On most of the old bricks I could read “Claughton Manor Brick Co Caton”. So the eyesore of Claughton Quarry on my local hill of Caton Moor has been created in order to make bricks to be transported here for buildings that end up disfiguring this beach. How futile it all seems!
     Above the banks one sees the backsides of the campsites that line the coast. ‘Campsites’ is a misnomer: these are now sites for ‘mobile homes’ that never move and are bestowed with names such as Wywurry. Those homes nearest the sea are positioned to within an inch of the bank edge. As a result the owners live in fear of bank erosion. From the beach there’s a parade of ad-hoc defences of concrete, fence, wire and rubble, in varying states of disrepair.
     Between the campsites lies a region where, if you clamber up the bank to have a look, you are confronted with ‘private’ signs and warnings that CCTV is surveying your every move. This is Middleton Towers, which would be a ‘retirement village’ if it were ever completed. There were intended to be 650 dwellings, with self-contained amenities, including a nursing home and free transport to escape from the site. The builders went into administration with only a fraction of the dwellings completed.

middleton Right: Middleton Tower holiday camp

     Middleton Towers is on the site of the old Middleton Tower Holiday Camp, which could house up to 3,000 holidaymakers. It was built in 1939 and closed in 1994. I can imagine 3, but not 3,000, holidaymakers on Middleton Sands beach, although, looking at the old postcard, there seems to have been more sand a while ago (and maybe even a fringe of sand dune). They must have found all the entertainment they needed on the site, mainly in the theatre built like an old liner.

jetty steps Left: The old jetty and steps

     From the beach today one sees various remains: an old jetty or ramp (was there ever enough water to launch boats in?); old steps that end mid-air with the bottom steps washed away; old drainage pipes sticking far from the bank (presumably indicating the degree of erosion); an old brick building of indeterminate function half washed away. Above them all, Middleton Tower still stands, preserved as a Grade-II listed structure, although it has no aesthetic or historic merit that I can see.

middleton sands Left: On the mud of Middleton Sands

     All the time, as one walks along the beach, one is faced with the dominating presence of Heysham power station. It does not produce the noise and smoke of old factories but there is a permanent hum that provides comfort to the mobile homers nestling in its bosom. Its bulk prevents any view of the Lake District hills across the bay. As the 1848 map shows, the power station is on an artificial promontory built out between Red Nab and Near Naze.
     The thought of walking back past the dereliction on the beach did not appeal. The tide being out, I walked instead onto the mud of Middleton Sands. Here I hoped to find some natural solitude. On the horizon I could see wind turbines. Many of them. I tried to count them: at least 200, I think. It was hard to be precise because, due to the curvature of the earth, many of the blades of the turbines seemed to disappear into the sea.
     Nuclear power station behind me; hundreds of wind turbines ahead of me. To my right, Barrow, making nuclear submarines; to my left, Blackpool. What are we doing? Have we made all this necessary? A 4x4 was driven onto the mud, around in several loops, and off. I turned to the Lake District hills for consolation. Four sets of wind turbines were visible.
     As I walked back to Potts Corner I was met by a herd of thirty or so cows and bullocks migrating from the south. They were munching through what little vegetation they could find. Shortly after, two lads, who I assume to be farmhands but could have been youths having fun, judging by their lack of expertise, drove the cattle, with shambolic shouting and running, across the mud and ditches back to where I suppose they belonged. When even farmers treat such a potentially special environment with disrespect what hope is there?

30.  Badgers in Lawson’s Wood
September 2015

The recent government decision to extend the badger culling programme prompted me to visit our local badgers in order to reassure them that the guns are moving south, to Dorset. The badger Meles meles is Britain’s largest carnivore (apart from Homo sapiens). The nation’s ambivalent attitude towards badgers is discussed in a recent book by Patrick Barkham [1]. The badger is fondly loved, even by the many who have never seen one, thanks to The Wind in the Willows and Rupert Bear books and to the display of its frolics on Springwatch TV programmes, sadly spoiled recently when a badger misbehaved by eating avocet chicks. This leads to the other view, of the badger as a farmer-annoying, disease-carrying pest that deserves to be persecuted, as it has been for centuries, and to be the target of eradication programmes.
     They do at least deserve their privacy, so we don’t pester them often. This was only the third visit in about ten years. We set off before dusk for Lawson’s Wood (part of Aughton Woods). We take only peanuts, which we sprinkle by some large holes in the grounds. We settle ourselves downwind to wait.

badger Right: Badger (
Ben Tutton)

     The first visit yielded only some vague snufflings in the dark undergrowth, both unnerving and unsatisfying. The second visit was more productive. Before daylight had faded and before we had settled some ten yards away, out popped a badger to look straight at us. The badger seemed quite calm about the situation, which was a relief as it can be fierce if it feels in danger. Its head, in a direct view, was thinner than I had expected from photos but overall he seemed a remarkable specimen to have living wild in woods within a mile or so of our home. We looked at the badger for a few seconds, and maybe it looked at us. Its sense of sight is poor compared to that of smell and hearing. If it saw us, it was unperturbed. It continued rooting about, popping in and out of its home, enticing one or two of its friends out, and enjoying the special treat of peanuts.
     In the dark, one becomes more aware of the badgers’ sounds. According to the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit “the badger has a surprisingly diverse vocal repertoire which may relate to both their nocturnal habits and the relative complexity of their social structure”. The Unit lists sixteen distinct sounds - churrs, purrs, wails, chitters, keckers, growls, snarls, yelps, squeaks, snorts, barks, clucks, hisses, coos, chirps and grunts - and provides audio files and an interpretation of their meaning. These should be thoroughly studied before a nocturnal visit in order to understand fully what is going on. Whatever was going on we left them to it.
     The badger belongs to the family of mammals named Mustelidae (possessing musk glands), commonly called the weasel family. This also includes the otter and stoat. Badgers live in groups of ten or so within networks of tunnels and chambers known as setts. They usually live within woodland and spend the day underground. It is difficult therefore to know how many badgers there are in the country. The Lancashire Badger Group estimates that there are a thousand or so setts in Lancashire.
     The verb ‘to badger’ is an odd one. Badgers don’t badger; they are badgered. The word comes from when dogs were set upon badgers. After a comprehensive set of enactments - the Badger Act (1973), the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Protection of Badgers Act (1992) - such an activity is no longer legal. However, it still occurs. Some owners of hunting dogs consider badgers a more worthy challenge than rabbits. Other people destroy, perhaps even set fire to, the setts. And it is estimated that 50,000 badgers a year - that is, about one-seventh of all badgers - die on our roads.
     Farmers are not fond of badgers. As one local farmer told us, badgers damage land, fencing and crops and eat eggs and small livestock (although their diet is primarily worms, grubs, fruit and nuts). At this point it would take an effort of will, which I lack, to avoid the controversy of badger culling. The least that can be said is that you would expect there to be convincing evidence that badgers are indeed responsible for the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) before approval is given to otherwise illegal activities.
     Prince Charles was already convinced in 2005 when he wrote to the Prime Minister asserting “all the evidence is that TB is caused and spread by badgers” [2]. I can understand ‘spread’ - but I am perplexed that badgers ‘cause’ bTB. Anyway, the only evidence he mentioned was a “recent study in the Republic of Ireland which proved that badger culling is effective in ridding cattle of TB”. As is invariably the case, the facts are less clear-cut. The general opinion is that, with many other factors involved, there is no conclusive evidence that badger culling led to the decrease in bTB in Ireland. The Irish government claim only that culling “has contributed” to the decrease. Nonetheless, Prince Charles felt able to conclude “I do urge you to look again at introducing a proper cull of badgers where it is necessary”. Clearly, there was and no doubt still is a powerful lobby for badger culling.

The Lune from Lawson’s Wood Left: The Lune from Lawson’s Wood

     The Independent Scientific Group (ISG)’s 289-page report of 2007, written after 11,000 badgers had been killed between 1998 and 2005, concluded that “Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain ... It is highly unlikely that reactive culling could contribute other than negatively to future TB control strategies ... Proactive culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the future control of cattle TB ... We consider it likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB” [3].
     That sounds conclusive. Has anything changed since 2007? The government has changed even if the scientific evidence hasn’t. The government is now more sympathetic to the rural vote.
     In fact, things changed in 2007, with the Labour government. Presumably not content with ISG’s conclusions, it immediately asked its Chief Scientific Adviser to review the ISG final report. Analysing the same data, he duly and dutifully arrived at a different interpretation. He concluded that culling “would have a significant effect on reducing TB in cattle” [4].
     ISG then wrote a final final report in which it said that “It appears that the main conclusions of the two reports differ mainly because the ISG concluded that it was not practically or economically feasible to carry out culling on the scale necessary to gain beneficial effects. [The adviser]’s group of experts did not include the practicalities or costs of culling in its considerations” [5]. The ISG then felt obliged to concede “that under certain well-defined circumstances it is possible that culling could make a contribution towards the reduction in incidence of cattle TB in hot spot areas.”
     A priori, it seems unlikely that badgers are so obviously responsible for the spread of bTB that their mass slaughter is justified. A badger only wanders a mile or two from its sett in its whole life. They are much less mobile than other bTB carriers such as deer and rats. Cattle themselves carry bTB and, as we realised during the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, they get around the country with alarming ease (because farmers move them). Perhaps badgers acquire the disease from infected cattle rather than vice versa. Perhaps farmers are biassed towards attributing blame to a silent scapegoat rather than to cattle mismanagement. Certainly, badgers are not necessary for the spread of bTB since the disease exists in parts of the world where there are no badgers.
     The 2013-2014 badger culling programme was limited to Somerset and Gloucestershire. The Independent Expert Panel, commissioned by DEFRA, found that the programme was inhumane and ineffective: many of the 1,861 badgers killed died a painful and lingering death, and less than half the number intended were killed. It was not part of the panel’s brief to comment on any effect in reducing bTB, as the programme’s aim was to investigate the feasibility of the culling activity, not to reduce bTB. Nevertheless the National Farmers Union claimed that the culling programme did lead to a decrease in bTB. (In fact, bTB rates are falling in England anyway, mainly, it is thought, as a result of tightening cattle measures.)
     Again, the government was disinclined to accept the conclusions of its independent experts. Although a motion in March 2014 to end badger culling was passed by 219 votes to 1, the Environment Minister introduced a bTB strategy in February 2015: “Our 25-year strategy includes cattle movement controls, vaccination in edge area and culling where the disease is rife. This strategy has worked in Australia and is working in New Zealand and Ireland ... We will not let up, whatever complaints we get from protest groups” [6].
     The minister is either confused or disingenuous. There are no badgers in Australia and New Zealand. She was presumably referring to programmes to eradicate two alien species, water-buffalo and possum, that the governments wanted to eliminate regardless of any impact on cattle. There are, of course, many other differences between UK badger culling and the antipodean programmes. After meeting with the minister, the Badger Trust (one of those pesky ‘protest groups’) considered that they were “better briefed and had a clearer understanding of TB policy than the Secretary of State who is responsible for its implementation”.

bTB cases Right: Lune Valley bTB cases 2012-2013

     Still, a 25-year programme sounds impressive. During it, the culling programme will be rolled out to where it is deemed necessary. Will it, in due course, roll out to Loyne? According to a Farm Northwest newsletter, there have been cases of bTB in the Lune valley between Lancaster and Kirkby Lonsdale, with more cases in 2013 (the last year reported) than in 2012. It is not clear from the map (shown to the right) whether what looks like the single 2012 case in the Lune valley was a new case. Anyway, as can be seen, the Lune valley cases are twenty miles from the nearest other outbreaks. How could badgers be responsible for the spread of bTB into the Lune valley? Nonetheless, the fact that we have bTB here is bad news for any badgers in Lawson’s Wood.
     On our latest visit to the wood we had difficulty finding the sett where we had watched the badgers a few years ago. It was overgrown with brambles and bracken. There was no sign of recent badger activity. We waited until after dark but there were no badgers.
     Do badgers ever voluntarily abandon a sett? As they have invested decades of work in creating their home it is hard to see why they would. The local farmer mentioned above would no doubt be pleased that the badgers have gone. More generally, the government’s culling programme has, as was predicted by DEFRA, been seen as a green light for the illegal killing of badgers. Such activities have more than doubled in recent years, according to the Badger Trust.
     Despite the title of this section, you didn’t really think that I would broadcast the fact that there are badgers in Lawson’s Wood, did you? If I knew that there were any there, I would keep it secret.

[1].  Patrick Barkham (2013), Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain’s Most Enigmatic Animal, London: Granta.
[2].  Prince of Wales correspondence.
[3].  Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2007).
[4].  Sir David King (2007), Tuberculosis in Cattle and Badgers: A Report by the Chief Scientific Adviser.
[5].  Badgers and cattle TB: the final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2008).
[6].  Daily Telegraph report (2015).

31.  Salmon in the Lune
October 2015

The Lune north of Arkholme Right: The Lune north of Arkholme

A walk along the Lune Valley Ramble on the west bank of the River Lune between Kirkby Lonsdale and Arkholme is far from roads and houses. It is likely to be in silence, disturbed, if you’re lucky, only by the sound of salmon Salmo salar splashing as they leap from the water.
     It is not known why salmon leap when in calm, flat water. We can understand their need to leap over weirs and waterfalls but why do they leap unnecessarily? Are they exercising for more difficult leaps later? Are they trying to rid themselves of the parasites they acquire as they move upriver? Are they somehow preparing for their crucial breeding stages? Are they checking that there are no anglers about?
     I like to imagine that they leap in exultation, at the thought that their life’s hazardous journey is nearing its end. These salmon were born some ten years ago in the Lune. They stayed in the Lune for up to five years (as parr) and then travelled (as smolt) to deep sea feeding areas where they remained for up to four years. They then returned to the Lune to spawn and, in most cases, to die (as kelt). Their homing behaviour depends on their olfactory memory - and therefore we must not change the smell of the Lune! One female creates several shallow depressions (called redds) and lays up to 5,000 eggs in each. The mortality rate is obviously high and therefore each individual salmon that completes the journey has good cause to celebrate.
     The number of salmon recorded at the Forge Weir, Halton counter since 2004 is shown in this table [1]:
  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008  2009  2010  2011  2012  2013  2014
 12781  9824  7443 11166  9420  8289  8315  6318  4273  4514  3544
Clearly, the numbers have declined significantly in recent years. And judging by accounts of Lune salmon fishing many decades ago the numbers now are far lower than they once were.
     Although there is the occasional good news of salmon being seen in previously polluted rivers, such as the Mersey and Derbyshire Derwent, overall the picture is gloomy. Only 19 of the 64 principal salmon rivers in England and Wales reached their conservation targets in 2013, compared to 42 in 2011, according to Salmon & Trout Conservation UK. In Scotland the number of rod-caught salmon fell by 50% between 2009 and 2014, with the 2014 figure being the lowest since records began in 1952, a loss considered to be a
cultural catastrophe. The Tweed, one of Scotland’s iconic salmon rivers, recorded a near 50% fall just from 2013 to 2014.
     With so many salmon rivers failing it is natural to infer that the causes are to be found at sea rather than within individual rivers. It doesn’t logically follow, of course, because it could be that all the rivers suffer from the same problem, or maybe different problems that have the same effect. Nonetheless, it may be a consolation to some to be able to attribute the causes elsewhere, even if that makes them harder to eliminate.
     It could be that climate change has caused those species that the salmon prey upon, and that prey upon the salmon, to move. Perhaps the sea lice that plague salmon farms along the Scottish coast are also affecting wild salmon. Perhaps the sea is too polluted, or over-fished, or has too much traffic. Whatever the cause, it is not easy to see what can be done about it.

Forge Weir Left: Forge Weir

     All this seems to let the Lune anglers off the hook. Nonetheless, with so few salmon and so many anglers, I am bound to ask the question: do the anglers harm the salmon?
     Even allowing for the fact that not all salmon pass through the Forge Weir counter (some leap the weir), it seems that only a few thousand salmon swim up the Lune each year. Such a small number of fish needs careful nurturing. I see anglers lining the banks of the Lune from the estuary up to Tebay. There are several angling clubs that own stretches of the Lune and its tributaries, as well as many large estates that fish the river. The total number of anglers must run into hundreds.
     Of course, anglers will dismiss the notion that they are in any way to blame for the disappearing salmon. For one thing, a byelaw says that a Lune angler may only kill four salmon a year. Only? If every angler were to take his share of four there might be no salmon left. Actually, now that the number of salmon has fallen below the Lune’s conservation target it is likely that anglers will soon not be permitted to kill a single salmon. They will be required to catch-and-release fish, that is, immediately return caught salmon to the river with the least possible injury.
     The declared salmon catch for England and Wales in 2012 was 26,297 fish (8,508 caught by net, 17,789 caught by rod). This was over 10,000 less than the 2007-2011 mean of 36,659. Of the 17,789 rod-caught salmon in 2012, 6,275 were killed. If I have understood the mass of data correctly, the number of rod-caught salmon on the Lune in 2012 was 624. This may not sound many but it is still a significant proportion of the total salmon. Does this volume of fishing have an effect on the salmon?
     I recall a classic experiment that impressed me decades ago [2]. Some perch and some minnows were placed in a tank. Ordinarily, the perch would eat the minnows but a sheet of glass in the tank separated the perch from the minnows. After bumping into the glass a few times, the perch stopped doing so. When the glass was removed the perch still stayed in their half of the tank. When the minnows swam to the perch’s end the perch no longer ate them.
     I don’t know if this experiment has been replicated or invalidated but anyway it is now generally accepted that fish are able to remember and adapt their behaviour on the basis of their memories. A number of studies have shown that fish form mental maps (and so can navigate changing environments), recognise companions, and avoid places where they met a predator or were caught on a hook. No doubt this applies to Lune salmon too.
     One interpretation of the experiment is that the perch feel pain when they bump into the glass and thereafter seek to avoid it. The question of whether fish feel pain is, of course, controversial and the usual groups immediately jump to the expected side of the fence.
     According to the RSPCA, “There are a number of studies which we believe provide enough evidence to show that fish do feel pain and this remains our view” [3]. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) group say “Numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated that fish feel and react to pain ... Anglers may not want to think about it, but fishing is nothing more than a cruel blood sport. When fish are impaled on an angler’s hook and yanked out of the water, it’s not a game to them. They are scared and in pain and fighting for their lives.” On the other side, the head of the Anglers’ Trust, says “This debate about fish feeling pain has always been a red herring, so to speak. Anglers care passionately about the protection of fish stocks and do more than any other group to protect and improve freshwater and marine environments” [3].
     Caring about fish stocks is not the same as caring about fish. Let me explain with a different example. I once went to a talk about dragon-flies. It turned out to be about the photography of dragon-flies. The speaker was more interested in the photography than the dragon-flies, which he knew little about. If dragon-flies were to become scarce he would be in no position to give advice. If he did so he might be particularly focussed on photogenic dragon-flies. He no doubt cared about ‘dragon-fly stocks’ but he did not care much about dragon-flies.
     Photographing dragon-flies is less harmful to dragon-flies than fishing salmon is to salmon. I doubt that the typical angler worries overmuch what a salmon experiences, whether it is pain or not, when it is hooked or gasping on the bank. It’s possible to care about fish and fish stocks and not care about fishing. I do, for one.

angler Right: One proud Lune angler; one dead Lune salmon.

     When there is a contentious topic with entrenched attitudes it is good to turn to a detached, neutral, scientific view. Unfortunately, in this case it is hard to find, because researchers are usually funded by some agency, which may colour their view. For example, Professor Arlinghaus asserts “Fish do not have the neuro-physiological capacity for a conscious awareness of pain ... behavioural reactions by fish to seemingly painful impulses were evaluated according to human criteria and were thus misinterpreted ... There is no proof that fish can feel pain” [3]. That sounds authoritative. But he works for the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, which hardly sounds neutral.
     Discussions of the fish-pain question get bogged down in three ways. First, there’s a philosophical debate about what exactly ‘pain’ is, which leads to the intractable issues of emotion and consciousness. Second, there’s the question of how, or even whether, we can avoid anthropomorphising about pain. After all, although I know when I feel pain, I cannot know about your pain and therefore I have to project my thoughts onto you - and it is hard not to do likewise for fish. Third, there’s the neurobiological basis for pain. Are the fish brain and nervous system so different from ours that it could be argued that fish are physically incapable of experiencing pain?
     However, the fish-pain question is not the one I want to ask. Reflecting on a salmon’s internal processes, if any, may not help. I have a more straightforward question: Does the experience of being fished affect the subsequent behaviour of the salmon?
     Before considering this, I’d like to mention the response of a coalition of concerned angling groups to the salmon crisis. In 2014 Salmon & Trout Conservation UK wrote to the government “to demand urgent implementation of a five point action plan to halt the sharp decline in salmon stocks.” Yes, demand, yes, urgent. Here is the plan (in brief):
        1. The Government needs to speed up action to remove or bypass barriers.
        2. The Government and the water industry need to take the action necessary to maintain adequate flows in all rivers with stocks of migratory salmonids.
        3. Measures are needed to ensure that farmers follow best practice, through raising awareness and targeted use of incentives.
        4. Funding for river restoration work should be increased.
        5. A limit on the maximum number of fish that can be taken in the North-East coast net fisheries should now be introduced.
     These five actions would no doubt be worthwhile but you may notice that they share one characteristic: they are all actions to be carried out by someone else, that is, not by anglers. Meanwhile and thereafter anglers may carry on as always with their sacrosanct activity. Later, not within the action plan, the coalition does concede that “on vulnerable rivers the Environment Agency should consider making catch and release compulsory.” If the salmon situation is so serious that angling groups must demand urgent action then the least we might expect of them is that they stop killing salmon.

Angler at Aughton Woods Left: Angler at Aughton Woods

     So I will assume that all salmon fishing is, or should be, catch-and-release and on that basis I return to my question: Does the experience of being fished affect the subsequent behaviour of the salmon? (It certainly does if the salmon is not released.)
     This is a simple question to which I have not been able to find a simple answer. Left alone, salmon would swim up the Lune where they wished and would eat what they wished. Does the experience of being hooked out of the river cause them to avoid places where they would otherwise choose to be (like the perch in the tank)? Does the fact that this hooking occurs while they are attempting to feed make them wary of feeding (like the perch in the tank)?
     I did find a Norwegian study that reported that salmon which had suffered repeated capture, hooking in the throat, bleeding from a hook wound, increased playing time, increased handling time, or exposure exhibited increased stress and unnatural behaviour when released, conditions which have been shown to increase mortality in other fish species. If anglers truly cared for salmon then they would surely not simply deny or ignore such a finding.
     A DEFRA report of 2103 said “No data are available on the mortality of salmon incurred during normal angling activities” (which is a pity) and “Whilst the use of catch-and-release is likely to result in some fish dying through exhaustion or damage, studies have demonstrated that if fish are appropriately handled, mortality following capture is low and a large proportion of fish survive to spawn.” So catch-and-release does harm salmon - but only to an acceptable (to DEFRA) degree.
     Clearly, the salmon situation is at crisis point. Any possible negative influence ought to be avoided. The angling groups have insisted upon a legal requirement that any proposed work in or by a river should be backed up by evidence that it will not harm fish. It should be the same for anglers, and everyone else. Anyone who interferes with salmon in any way should be required to prove that this interference does not have a negative effect upon the salmon. If angling were not supported by centuries of tradition and by the ‘sporting’ establishment would a proposal for a new activity that involved yanking salmon out of the river on a hook be approved?
     Ten years ago when I had my sandwiches by the Lune near Newton I was treated to a continuous saltatory display by the salmon. This autumn, under similar (as far as I can recall) conditions, I saw only two fish leap. The river seemed silent, moribund. Perhaps the lack of heavy rain this year has prevented the salmon moving upstream. I did at least see a kingfisher and a few heron - and they must have fish to eat, albeit small ones compared to breeding salmon. No doubt they would eat young salmon, given the chance. If they are not careful they might appear in an item 6 on the anglers’ action plan.

[1].  Lune Rivers Trust’s annual report (2015). This report does not include the December 2014 figure so I have added the average December figure for 2010-2013 to the 2014 total given there.
[2].  Popular Science Monthly (August 1927, p33).
[3].  The Telegraph (13 Jan 2013), Fish cannot feel pain say scientists. (No longer on-line)

32.  White Stoats on Caton Moor
January 2016

Caton Moor Right: Caton Moor

You can’t really set out to see a stoat. Stoats are seen by chance, if they are seen at all. But I had resolved that when the first snow of the winter fell on Caton Moor then I would set off in search of a white stoat [1].
     By chance I have, during occasional visits in the last 35 years, seen two white stoats on Caton Moor. I don’t know if I am lucky to have seen as many as two, or unlucky to have seen only two. I just don’t know how common white stoats are on Caton Moor. I have also seen several brown stoats not on snow. I’ve never seen a white stoat without snow nor, I think, a brown stoat with snow. These observations, scanty though they are, provoke a number of questions in my febrile mind.

brown stoat Left: Brown stoat

     As is well known, stoats in places where there is plenty of snow, such as the Cairngorms, turn white in winter and stoats in places where there is little snow, such as Dorset, do not turn white. But how does the mechanism work in intermediate places like Loyne, where snow is patchy and unpredictable?
     What causes the change? Is it in anticipation of snow, or in response to it? Does it occur gradually or quickly (like human hair that turns white overnight as the result of some trauma)? Is it an adaptation to the environment, like that of a chameleon? Does turning white occur once each winter, or could a stoat turn white, then brown, then white in response to snowy periods? If you took a Dorset stoat to the Cairngorms would it turn white? If you took a Cairngorms stoat to Dorset would it turn white? If turning white is such a nifty strategy, then do other species adopt it? Do all stoats in a particular location turn white or do they all not turn white? If not, why not? Are the numbers of white stoats decreasing, in response to climate change?
     I have found the answers to some of these questions in a book by Carolyn King and Roger Powell [2]. It seems that the white stoat provides a pristine case study on the interaction between genes and the environment.
     First of all, some preliminaries. Stoats are members of the Mustelidae family, which also includes weasels, minks, ferrets, martens, badgers and otters. The stoat Mustela erminea and weasel Mustela nivalis are within the Mustela genus of this family. Ermine is an alternative name for the stoat, usually used for the white stoat and for its fur.
     In the United States, Mustela erminea (our stoat) is called the short-tailed-weasel and Mustela nivalis (our weasel) is called the least-weasel or common-weasel. They also have a long-tailed-weasel. In Ireland Mustela erminea (our stoat) is usually called the weasel. There are no Mustela nivalis (our weasel) in Ireland. You could say that there are no weasels in Ireland, but the Irish might say that there are no stoats. Clearly, outside the UK, the weasel is not so easily distinguished and the poor stoat is totally confused.
     Stoat and weasel have a huge range, across the whole northern hemisphere from western North America to eastern Asia. Within that range there are many climatic zones with prolonged snow cover. Some stoats and weasels live at 3000m in permanent snow. Snow is not a problem for stoats, as it is for many animals. With its long, thin, sinuous body the stoat is well-adapted to burrowing in grass and small tunnels and is therefore equally well-adapted to burrowing within snow, where it may seek prey, find safety from predators, and take refuge from the cold.

Stoat versus rabbit Left: Stoat versus rabbit (
Brian Stevenson)

     A stoat has quite an appetite, needing to eat up to one third of its body weight every day. This is because it leads such a frenetic life: it is alert, with rapid movements; its pulse runs at 500 beats per minute; it digests and defecates within two hours; and it doesn’t sleep for long. It can kill rabbits twice its weight. I once saw a stoat doing a strange leaping dance beside a hedge. I then noticed that it had at its feet a dead rabbit. It was leaping up trying to get the rabbit into the hedge but it was too heavy and the stoat lost its grip. It eventually succeeded. On another occasion I saw a stoat disappear into a stone wall. I stood by the wall and eventually the stoat popped its head out, stared at me, squeaked, and went back inside. It repeated this performance every minute or so. The squeaks became gradually more threatening so, bearing in mind what a vicious killer the stoat is, I thought I had better move on. The stoat does not hibernate in winter. With its slim, fat-free body, it needs twice as much energy to retain its body heat in winter as it does in summer. It is therefore essential that the stoat be adapted to survive harsh winters.
     Now we can consider the change to white. Stoats moult twice a year, in spring and autumn. The new fur, replacing the old, is brown except for autumn moults in cold climates, when it is white. The moult does not occur instantaneously and therefore stoats may be seen at an intermediate brown-white stage. In mild climates (such as here) the moult can take a month; in the Arctic it takes a few days.
     The moult is triggered by the hours of daylight. This is easily demonstrated by manipulating the lighting over the cages of captive stoats. They can be induced to moult at any time of the year, even if the temperature is not consistent with the apparent sunlight. In this respect, the stoat is similar to other animals that moult.
     In the United States it was found that the boundary between white and brown winter stoats was at points where there was at least one inch of snow for fifty days of winter. In Britain stoats whiten in somewhat milder winters (Caton Moor normally has an inch of snow for only a few days of winter). The boundary line divides Wales, Scotland and parts of northern England from the rest of England - but of course it is not a precise, single line, as mountain-top stoats are more likely to whiten than low-level ones. Caton Moor, with a highest point of 361m, is hardly a mountain-top.
     If the temperature or some other environmental factor were the sole determinant then stoats transferred across the boundary (say, from the Cairngorms to Dorset) would turn white or not according to the conditions in their new home - but they don’t. They moult at the usual time but into the ‘wrong’ coat. So the colour of the new fur is controlled mainly, if not entirely, by heredity.
     British weasels do not turn white. Swedish weasels do - or at least those in north Sweden do while those in south Sweden stay brown (rather like the British stoat divide). However, the two sets of Swedish weasels are two different sub-species (the two sets of British stoats are not). British weasels belong to the same sub-species as the south Sweden weasels. Therefore the reason that British weasels don’t turn white may be more to do with their genes and evolutionary history than the climate.

The lady with the ermine Right: The lady with the ermine (by Leonardo de Vinci) This nature study shows that Italian stoats are considerably more cuddle-able than British stoats. Moreover they seem to turn white, or at least off-white, in milder climates because the lady is not suitably attired for an outing on snowy Caton Moor. (Some experts believe Leonardo to be mistaken and that the animal is in fact a white ferret. Or perhaps Leonardo was a poor painter of ermine.)

     The boundary between white stoats and brown stoats is not a line but a transition zone. Within that zone (which includes Caton Moor) more or less stoats turn more or less white. Transition zone stoats are usually pied, rather than fully-white or fully-brown (actually, fully-white stoats are not fully white: they retain the black tail tip). This suggests that our stoats are a hybrid of northern fully-white genes and southern fully-brown genes. The colder or snowier a region normally is, the more pied stoats there are (and, I would guess, the more white they are).
     In the transition zone female stoats are more likely to turn white than male ones. Perhaps the gene that determines whitening is dominant in one sex and recessive in the other. This would ensure a genetic polymorphism so that the population always has some individuals with every combination, in which case some will benefit whatever the weather conditions turn out to be.

Stoat in ermine Left: Stoat in ermine

     The reason that stoats turn white is obvious. It confers a clear evolutionary advantage. Stoats have much to gain by being able to live in snowy conditions but the penalty for being brown against a white background or white against a dark background is large. They become much more visible to their predators - hawks, owls and foxes. Other species, such as the mountain-hare, arctic-fox, ptarmigan and caribou, also turn white in winter. It is also clear how this is a self-regulating mechanism. Those stoats that moult to an inappropriate colour are more likely to be predated and therefore less likely to pass on their ‘inappropriate’ genes.
     I have found no discussion of the effect of climate change on the transition zone for stoat-whitening - but I would expect the zone to be moving north. When we came to the region nearly forty years ago there were ‘ski-orienteering’ events organised on the Howgills. The organisers could be confident that there would be enough snow. Today, the odds are that a winter date would see no or little snow on the Howgills. Ski-orienteers are now more commonly found further north. I expect white stoats are too.
     So my expedition to snowy Caton Moor was made not in the belief that the brown stoats would suddenly have turned white in response to the fresh snow. My hope was that, after this exceptionally mild and wet winter (so far), those stoats unfortunate to have genes that have turned them white would have sufficient self-awareness to have hidden themselves away over the last few weeks in order not to make an easily-predated spectacle of themselves but that, now that the snow has fallen, they would be gambolling about, in their element.
     Unfortunately, it proved not to be the case. I saw no stoats, white or brown. On reflection, given the decreasing occurrence of snow on Caton Moor, I think it unwise for any stoat to turn white there. I suspect that white stoats have disappeared but I will keep looking and if I see one I’ll let you know.

[1].  Since my convention (which I recommend) is to hyphenate what are to others multi-word common names for species, it is clear that “white stoat” refers to a stoat that is white, not to a species that would be called white-stoat by me and white stoat or White Stoat by everyone else.
[2].  Carolyn King and Roger Powell (2007), The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

33.  Rhododendron at Kitmere
February 2016

Now that most trees and shrubs are without their leaves it is a good time to appreciate those that aren’t. I went to see the rhododendron Rhododendron ponticum at Kitmere, a small lake five miles north of Kirkby Lonsdale. Here the saga of our rhododendron is clearly displayed for us.

Middleton Fell from near Kitmere Right: Middleton Fell from near Kitmere

     Kitmere is an artificial tarn created in the 1880s to provide a head of water for one of the country’s first hydroelectric schemes at Rigmaden Park, some 100 metres below on the slopes to the Lune. Anyone with the resources for such a scheme would naturally turn the lake into a private leisure amenity, with a boathouse, and would, as was the fashion, encircle the lake with exotic plants such as rhododendron, thereby masking the fine views of Middleton Fell to the east and the somewhat bleaker surroundings to the west.
     Rhododendron was introduced into the UK in the 18th century and was especially popular on country estates, such as Rigmaden. Rhododendron is a genus of over a thousand species, most of which have thick, dark green foliage and bright, showy flowers. It is native to southern Europe and across Asia to China, pausing to become the national flower of Nepal. It thrives in mild, wet climates on poor, acidic soils.
     When you arrive in search of Kitmere, the first impression is that there is no Kitmere. It is possible to walk the footpath north of the lake without being aware of the lake because it is hidden by high, deep, impenetrable thickets. However, a short trespass from the east enables the lake and boathouse to be seen and, with a concentrated effort of mind (ignoring the new wind turbines to the west), the scene in its prime to be imagined.

Kitmere from the dam Left: Kitmere from the dam

     Unfortunately, Rigmaden Park, like many country estates, ran into difficulties in the early 20th century and was left unoccupied from 1948. No doubt, Kitmere was abandoned to its fate at the same time, if not before. What we see now, therefore, is the outcome of letting rhododendron do as it wishes for seventy years or so, or more.
     Rhododendron spreads in two ways, by seed and by rooting from branches that touch the ground. The original rhododendron was presumably confined within the boundary wall or fence around the lake. The effect of seed dispersion can be seen on the surrounding rough moorland, where shrubs of rhododendron are spreading outwards from Kitmere. With each flower head producing up to 7,000 seeds, all the rhododendron around the lake creates vast numbers of seeds to waft over the moorland every year.
     The effect of rooting from branches can be appreciated if you try to move within the rhododendron by the lake. The stems of the original rhododendron are all now surrounded by many metres of thickly interlaced branches, forming an impenetrable barrier almost around the whole lake. The bushes reach a height of ten metres or more, with a canopy of the dark leaves letting very little light in.
     The natural understory has disappeared. There is insufficient light and nutrient for the original native plant species to survive. If there were still any native flowering plants here then they would have difficulty attracting pollinating insects because they would be drawn to the blooms of the rhododendron instead. And, as can be seen, there are, apart from a group of Scots pine at the northeast corner, no other bushes or trees in or above the rhododendron canopy, because no seedlings can become established under it. So, there are very few plants around Kitmere other than the rhododendron.

Kitmere boathouse Right: A view of the Kitmere boathouse obtainable only by intrepid trespassers

     Therefore there are very few animal species other than any that can live off the rhododendron. In a normal old British woodland, we have mosses and lichens on the ground, with grasses and flowers, shrubs like hazel and gorse and mature trees such as ash and oak. Each of these layers supports a range of small species, which in turn support many larger species. None of them will be found in the rhododendron thickets. Consequently, there will be few birds in and above the rhododendron, for there is little for them to feed upon. (There may, of course, be birds upon the lake: on my last visit two swans asserted their ownership of the water.)
     Rhododendron is toxic to almost all native species and, of course, since rhododendron is alien none of our species depend upon it. There is some evidence that this toxicity inhibits the germination and growth of adjacent plant species. A few insects and herbivores may try to eat the leaves, and may die as a result, but they are liable to become toxic for any predator. Rhododendron is extremely dangerous for horses, although most horses have the sense to avoid it unless very peckish. It is not so good for us either: people have become ill from eating honey from bees that have feasted upon rhododendron.
     So, all in all, despite the apparently luxuriant growth, the land around Kitmere has a very impoverished flora and fauna compared to native habitats. Essentially, we have a single alien species. Moreover, if you try to walk around the edge of Kitmere you will find it impossible to do so because in places the rhododendron has grown to hang far over the lake. It shades out the edge of the lake, to the detriment of any life there. As can be imagined, if the rhododendron were by a flowing beck (as it is in many places in Loyne) then it would eliminate the native invertebrates that would otherwise fall into the beck and that fish such as trout depend upon.

Kitmere from Talebrigg Hill Left: Kitmere from Talebrigg Hill

     The spread of rhododendron cannot be controlled by grazing animals, such as the sheep on the adjacent moors, as they won’t eat it. Indeed, the toxic chemicals, such as phenols, are produced most by the young leaves, which protects growing rhododendron from herbivores. The leaves themselves are coated in a sticky exudate to deter small insects from eating the buds. Mature rhododendron is, of course, rather tough for chewing.
     To get rid of rhododendron we must therefore do it ourselves (and it serves us right for introducing it). Herbicides are of little use as, even if they can get into the waxy leaves, they do not satisfactorily penetrate the vast root systems, from which new shoots will appear. We just have to dig the stuff out, using mechanical diggers, if possible. We have to dig all of it out, including from the surrounding moors, or it will return from any remaining roots. It will return anyway, from some of the millions of seeds in the soil, and therefore the rhododendron must be re-removed for several years. The toxic cuttings and humus layer must, of course, be cleared away.
     At Kitmere there has been some recent cutting and burning of rhododendron near the lake’s dam but this can only be a temporary measure. Otherwise, there is little sign of any attempt to eradicate the rhododendron. Rigmaden Park itself was renovated and re-inhabitated in the 1990s and I assume that the estate still owns Kitmere. As rhododendron is listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it is an offence to plant or otherwise cause this species to grow in the wild. Perhaps it should be an offence to allow it to spread further in the wild.
     Kitmere and its rhododendrons are in an out-of the-way location. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps. But not entirely. In the recent discussions about extending the Dales National Park westwards, the proposal was to make the new boundary lie along the Lune’s western watershed, more or less along the Old Scotch Road. This would have included the Kitmere rhododendrons. The National Park didn’t want them, and I don’t blame it.

34.  Lapwings on Swarth Fell
March 2016

After a few months hunkering down in the Loyne valleys in order to avoid the icy blasts over the hill-tops, it is time to begin frolicking in the brisk moorland sunshine. The lapwings agree with me. Some of them have begun their move up towards their breeding grounds. They are still silent, however. Indeed, the moors are eerily quiet at the moment, with only the occasional curlew attempting a tentative warble.

Lapwings Left: Lapwings (
Jackie Moreton)

     In the winter months lapwings (more properly, Northern lapwings Vanellus vanellus, and also called peewits or green-plovers) congregate in large numbers on the Lune floodplain and around Morecambe Bay. They sometimes swirl around in ominous, silent clouds, all black, it seems, until they tilt as one to show their white undersides. These lapwings are not necessarily the ones now moving onto the moors. In the winter most lapwings migrate south, some as far as Africa. Most of our winter lapwings have arrived here from further north. I assume that lapwings, like most birds, breed in the same region every year and that most of the lapwings that I see on the moor now have recently returned from their winter travels.
     I am puzzled why the lapwing is a bird of ill-repute. It always seems an exuberant bird to me, especially in spring, with its playful, tumbling aerobatical exhibitionism and its humorous call that always reminds me of those old birthday ‘party blowers’ (that unravelled like an absurd lizard’s tongue). The lapwing certainly doesn’t look menacing, with its elegant crest and attractive bottle-green and iridescent purple colourings - although I admit that it is quite fearsome in its swooping attacks to defend its nest.

Lapwing Right: Lapwing (
Neil Rolph)

     A flock of lapwings is called a ‘deceit’ but whether that name preceded or followed their reputation I don’t know. Peter Tate records a number of myths relating to the lapwing [1]. One story has the lapwing, along with the stork and swallow, appearing at the crucifixion of Jesus. The stork cried “Strengthen him! Strengthen him!”; the swallow tried to remove the thorns from his crown; but the lapwing flew around shrieking “Let him suffer! Let him suffer!”. Naturally, the stork and swallow were duly blessed but the lapwing was condemned for eternity.
     A Swedish tale has a handmaid to the Virgin Mary caught stealing some scissors and, as punishment, turned into a lapwing with a forked tail that looked like it had been snipped by scissors and compelled to cry “Tyvit, tyvit” (“I stole, I stole”). A Danish story has a greedy woman who angered Jesus turned into a lapwing, doomed to weep between heaven and earth forever. A Russian myth has the lapwing refusing to obey God’s order to carry water to fill the lakes and rivers at Creation time and as a result being compelled to drink from puddles rather than lakes and rivers. Apparently, in rural areas of Britain it used to be believed that lapwings were the souls of the dead who remained on earth because something troubled them. Chaucer’s poem of 1382 The Parliament of Fowls refers to “the false lapwing, ful of trecherye”.
     So, overall, the poor lapwing was not a bird regarded with any fondness. Two of Shakespeare’s characters are disparaged as lapwings. In Comedy of Errors he writes “far from his nest the lapwing cries away”, which refers to the lapwing’s practice of pretending to trail a broken wing to distract predators away from the nest. And in Hamlet “this lapwing runs away with the shell on his head” alludes to the fact that lapwing chicks leave their nest much more promptly than other birds.
     Clearly, Shakespeare assumed that his audience knew about lapwings. Today’s audience would probably be flummoxed by such similes. All most of us know about lapwings is that there aren’t so many of them as there used to be. At least, southern ornithologists bemoan that it is so. There, the low meadows that once thronged with lapwing are now empty of them, because modern farming practices have destroyed their former breeding sites. Since 1960 lapwing numbers in England and Wales are thought to have declined by 80%, which places the lapwing on the Red list.

lapwing eggs Kitmere from Talebrigg Hill Left: Lapwing eggs
Right: Swarth Fell northern cairn, looking to Wild Boar Fell and Mallerstang

     Here in the north, however, the numbers of lapwing seem to be holding up, although perhaps lowland farming has driven them to nest higher on the moors. I’d expect that lapwings that nest on the top of our mountains do so later in the year than lowland nesters. Last year, in the middle of May, I came across a lapwing nest, with the usual four eggs arranged neatly with their pointy ends inward, at 670m on Swarth Fell, south of Wild Boar Fell.
     Lapwings’ eggs were considered a delicacy in Victorian Britain. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian Flyte’s refined world is captured by a scene describing the peeling of lapwing eggs sent to him by Lady Marchmain, for whom the lapwings obligingly laid their eggs early. But lapwing eggs were not a delicacy just for the rich. Paul Evans mentions that in 1845 a single egger in Norfolk gathered nearly 2,000 lapwing eggs in one day [2]. Which prompts a question: which disappeared first, the lapwing or the egg?
     The Lapwing Act of 1926 made it illegal to gather lapwing eggs but in any case I felt no impulse to sample the eggs I found on Swarth Fell. I, for one, wish the lapwing parents well.

[1].  Peter Tate (2009), Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition, London: Random House.
[2].  Paul Evans (2015), Field Notes From The Edge, London: Rider.

35.  Belted-Beauty-Moths at Sunderland Point
April 2016

Nature imposes humility upon its observers. I have noticed that wildlife writers, experts though they are, rarely consider themselves expert enough. They often seek advice or help from those who are even more expert. For example, the authors of recent books about butterflies, otters and birds, when they want to see a white-letter-hairstreak, or otters in the Somerset Levels, or a stone-curlew, they do not just set off in the hope of doing so [1, 2, 3]. They contact a local or national expert on white-letter-hairstreaks, otters, or stone-curlews and persuade him or her to lead them to the best spot.
     This could be because professional authors do not have the time to waste on fruitless searches - unlike me, for whom the search, whether successful or not, is part of the point of the exercise. Of course, I would like to see a stone-curlew but there seems little satisfaction or achievement in just being taken by an expert to see one. It’s not much better than just looking in a book or on Youtube. It had not occurred to me before to pester an expert to lead me to Geyer’s-whorl-snail, to marsh-gentians and so on, but then you do need a threshold level of competence before the expert will not tell you where to go.
     The real reason that authors seek help is that they recognise that the natural world is so broad and complex that a ‘generalist’ cannot possibly have the depth of knowledge that a specialist has acquired after a lifetime’s focussed study. The Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg writes eloquently about how a person can become focussed upon, obsessed even, with a tiny part of the natural world [4]. He himself is a world-recognised expert on Swedish hoverflies. When I say ‘world-recognised’ I mean recognised by the score or so people in the world who are interested in Swedish hoverflies. The other 7.4 billion minus a score or so of us are perplexed that anyone can find Swedish hoverflies so fascinating, as Sjöberg is well aware.
     The obsession may arise because of a professional necessity to find a niche within which to establish a reputation by means of academic papers. These papers are, of course, read only by a score or so. A whole book on Swedish hoverflies would not be read by many more - unless it is turned into a wry philosophical study of “finding happiness in the little things”, in which case it may become a bestseller. But really the obsession derives, as with physical exploration, from a desire to discover the unknown and to establish some mastery over a necessarily tiny domain, such as hoverflies on a small Swedish island.
     I did not ask for help to see a belted-beauty-moth Lycia zonaria. I had read that a group of lepidopterists planned to carry out their annual survey of belted-beauty-moths at Sunderland Point so I arranged to just happen to be there at the time.
     The belted-beauty-moth is one of England’s rarest moths with the colony at Sunderland Point thought to be our only remaining healthy population. It was first found here in 1975. Occasional moths were recorded in later years but it was not until recently that the size of the colony was established. The peak count was over 1,500 moths but more normal totals are around 200. At Sunderland Point the moth is attempting to survive on a saltmarsh whereas in other countries it breeds in sandy coastal areas. The moth has disappeared from other English sites because of coastal construction and, so as not to be out of step with this tradition, here at Sunderland Point an energy company has obtained approval for taking its wind-turbine cables through the site. By tagging along with the lepidopterists I hoped to have a perhaps final opportunity to see a belted-beauty-moth in our region.
     The name of the belted-beauty-moth suggests that it is a rather fine moth, as moths go. These particular moths don’t go far. The female belted-beauty-moth doesn’t fly at all. It is therefore to be found on the ground or on plants or posts. The male belted-beauty-moth does fly but not very far if it’s got any sense, as it won’t find any females further afield.

Below: Belted-beauty-moths (male, left; female, right) (
Tim Melling)

bbmm bbmf      I have had little success in the past identifying moths. Whenever I have tried to look one up in the catalogue there always seemed to be too many moths and not enough differences. However, the belted-beauty-moth looks fairly distinctive. It is a small, dumpy moth, the males being triangular with grey and pale brown stripes and the female being oval, dark grey with narrow horizontal stripes. If there were any to be found, I was optimistic that my new friends would find them.
     The sun had evaporated the frost from the lawn by the time I set off for Sunderland Point but the nip in the air would not, I feared, encourage the moths to venture forth. From Potts Corner I could see the moth-hunters dotted about the marsh, hunched over like figures in a Lowry painting as they peered and poked into the grasses. My first thought was that this was the very area where on my last visit (Chapter 29) I had seen cows rampaging over the marsh. I wonder how many belted-beauty-moths the cows munch and trample.

Moth-hunters at work Right: Moth-hunters at work

     I edged closer to the moth-hunters but they seemed so earnest and intent in their searches that I did not intervene. I strolled further south and then returned on the seaward side of the marsh, the tide being far out. I asked a young lad - the only young person in the group - if he had seen any moths. “Only one, a female” he replied, a little grumpily, I thought, and wandered on. He stopped after two yards, exclaiming “here’s another one”. I joined him to have a close look. The female belted-beauty-moth is not (to me) the most impressive specimen. Having no wings, it looked like a bundle of grey fluff. I am tempted to say that it reminded me of what I find in my belly button but that would suggest that I don’t bathe often enough. I did my best to pay due respect to this very rare (in England, at least) moth.

bbm Left: My first belted-beauty-moth (included only to show how hard they are to find - it’s about halfway up, one-third in from the right).

     After a while the lad wandered on and within another couple of yards he’d found another one. It was clear that my presence was having a beneficial effect upon the search, so I mingled among the other moth-hunters, to give them a hand too. I had gained the impression that the female belted-beauty-moth was a second prize. It was the male belted-beauty-moth that the moth-hunters preferred to find. I suppose that, with wings, at least it looks more like a moth. I asked a lady moth-hunter, a regular on these surveys, if she often saw the male belted-beauty-moth flying, as that would make it easier to observe than all this peering into the long grass. She said “I’ve only ever seen one flying - and that was snaffled by a bird”.
     The moth-hunters continued in near silence. I don’t think they were finding many moths. Occasionally, there would be a gathering, including the photographers among the group, where I assume a male had been found. I didn’t join them. Thanks to the lady, my attention had drifted to the birds, for there were plenty of them, with the skylarks in particularly frisky form. I left the intrepid moth-hunters to it.
     An activity such as this prompts the question: Why is it important to save the belted-beauty-moth at Sunderland Point? There are about 160,000 species of moth. Would just one of them really be missed? In any case, we are not talking about saving the moth from extinction because there are plenty of belted-beauty-moths elsewhere in the world.
     Many of the reasons given for protecting species do not, it seems to me, apply to our belted-beauty-moth. The belted-beauty-moth is not an iconic species, such as the black-rhino, which, if it were to disappear, we would regret and perhaps feel ashamed about, since we would have been the cause. Very few people appreciate the belted-beauty-moth. Hardly anyone living in Loyne even knows that it exists at Sunderland Point - indeed, nobody did until recently. It therefore contributes very little to our own sense of well-being.
     But it is not there to please us. Nor is it there to provide us any other service (such as providing food or medicine), which conservationists claim is or may be the case with other disappearing species. I am not aware that belted-beauty-moths serve any other species either. As the lady moth-hunter indicated, birds eat them but I doubt that belted-beauty-moths form an essential part of any bird’s diet. It is sometimes said that all species form a crucial part of the complex natural world that we do not fully understand and that if any component disappeared then the whole eco-system may become vulnerable as the links between food chains became broken. I would need convincing that the Loyne eco-system would collapse without the belted-beauty-moth.
     I think we are left only with ethical arguments: the will to protect nature demonstrates the value of a society; if we cannot save other species perhaps we won’t be able to save ourselves; we do not have the right to eliminate species that future generations might like to see; all species are a part of nature and have a right to survive. Much more could be said but I fear that I will not be persuaded, in the case of the belted-beauty-moth of Sunderland Point. In the past many millions of species have, despite their ‘right to survive’, disappeared (from a particular region or from everywhere), and relatively few of them because of us. It is a natural process that species disappear.
     It is, I expect, the fate of the belted-beauty-moths at Sunderland Point to disappear. This is not to say, of course, that we should knowingly eliminate them by, for example, laying wind-turbine cables across their domain unless, after due consideration, it is on balance thought right to do so. I just suspect that the colony is too small and fragile to survive and, although I know I shouldn’t admit it, I won’t lament its loss overmuch. Sadly, I have not yet acquired the humility of a true wildlife conservationist, for whom every single species is special.

[1].  Patrick Barkham (2010), The Butterfly Isles, London: Granta.
[2].  Miriam Darlington (2012), Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, London: Granta.
[3].  Charlie Elder (2009), While Flocks Last, London: Corgi.
[4].  Fredrik Sjöberg (2014), The Fly Trap, London: Penguin.

36.  Bluebells on Middleton Fell
May 2016

The Peregrine (1967) by J.A. Baker is often named as the best nature book of the 20th century [1]. I cannot say whether it is in fact the best but I can say that it is one of the strangest. Ten years of diligent observations within a small region of Essex were presented as if they were made within a single October-to-April period. This creates the impression that Essex was a teeming cornucopia of wildlife, with owls asleep in every other tree and peregrines a-plenty to gaze upon. Anybody with the observant eye of Baker who repeatedly patrols the same patch will learn where the owls sleep and the peregrines fly, and will therefore see much more than the casual observer. Even so, anybody who sets out in search of wildlife knows that it is elusive and secretive. Anything rare, such as a peregrine in Loyne, is naturally hard to find and sensibly so, as otherwise it would become rarer still.
     Baker spent many years drafting, re-drafting, polishing and re-polishing the text of The Peregrine. He also wrote a second book The Hill of Summer (1969), which is less highly regarded but similarly presented precise observations in a lyrical style. It is not often that an author presents a masterpiece (or two, if you wish) and very little else. It is like a composer writing a symphony (or two), carefully labouring over every single chord for many years in order to get everything just so, without bothering with trifles such as overtures, suites, rhapsodies, tone-poems, and so on.
     A particular aspect of Baker’s style has been revealed by a study of his drafts. It seems that he kept a count of the number of metaphors and similes on every page. It is not known why he kept this count. He may have had a target in mind for the number of metaphors and similes on the page in order to achieve his desired style. Or perhaps he had a threshold that he wanted to ensure that he didn’t cross, to avoid the text appearing too flowery. At all events, it is apparent that Baker felt that metaphors and similes were crucial to the literary effect that he sought. The outcome is a dense, allusive text that causes the reader to pause after almost every sentence to reflect upon the metaphors and similes within.
     Why were metaphors and similes so important to Baker, and perhaps to all nature-writers? The Peregrine includes dozens of descriptions of the peregrine and its flight. An unadorned factual account might be interesting enough but not on the umpteenth reading. It needs to be embellished afresh each time, preferably with an insightful new perspective.
     So, the peregrine (a bird with “blue-grey upperparts and dark blue wings and head” as blandly noted in the RSPB handbook) has, in three successive sentences of Baker, a head “like a hooked pike glaring from reeds”, bars on the head “like strips of polished leather” and eyes that glinted “like wet flint” (p103). And the peregrine swoops “like a falling head, a shark’s head dropping from the sky” making a sound “like the wind harping through high wires” (p154). The flight of the peregrine, as with much else in nature, cannot be adequately conveyed by a mere description (just as attempts to capture the bouquet of wines have to resort to metaphors and similes).
     It is, then, part of the nature-writer’s art to find piquant metaphors and similes for aspects of nature for which a factual description is inadequate or impossible. It is not a skill that I have sought to develop although I can appreciate its difficulty. Imagine seeing, say, a magpie, and try to think of an original metaphor or simile that would enliven its description.
     In the case of the bluebell it is perhaps an unnecessary skill because the name itself is a metaphor, as it is for many plants (arrowhead, bird’s-foot, cigar-flower, dragon’s-teeth, eyebright, flaming-sword, ghost-tree, hart’s-tongue-fern, iron-cross-begonia, jacob’s-coat, kingfisher-daisy, lipstick-plant, monarch-of-the-east, necklace-poplar, old-man’s-beard, parrot’s-bill, queen-of-the-night, red-hot-poker, sunflower, trumpet-gentian, umbrella-pine, velvet-plant, wedding-cake-tree, yellow-kangaroo-paw, zebra-plant). Generations of poets and writers have extolled the virtues of Britain’s best-loved flower, the bluebell. It is pointless for me to strive to find a metaphor that nobody has previously thought of in order to say something new about such a familiar flower.
     Instead, I have two questions to ask. First, how come the bluebell turns the lower slopes of Middleton Fell such a startling blue in May?

Bluebells on Middleton Fell Bluebells, copper-beech and Lune valley Left: Bluebells on Middleton Fell
Right: Bluebells, copper-beech and Lune valley

     The bluebell is, as we all know, a flower of dappled woodland. We expect to have to walk into our woodlands in order to appreciate at close quarters the fine violet-blue carpets. (Is that a metaphor? It depends on your definition of ‘carpet’. I picture J.A. Baker agonising through the night to get his count absolutely correct.). And yet on Middleton Fell, overlooking the Lune valley, the bluebells are out in the open, painting the hills blue, much as heather paints some of them purple in the autumn. These bluebells provide, from the A683 north of Barbon, the finest long-distance view of bluebells in the region.
     As the bluebells are on the western, shady side of the fell they don’t have to cope with the full force of our spring sunlight, such as it is. That , however, cannot be the full answer because bluebells are not seen on other open, shady hill-sides. My conjecture is that these bluebells were not always out in the open but were once protected by trees that have been removed, leaving the bluebells to struggle on, amongst the bracken and grass.
     Of course, I felt an obligation to check out such a conjecture and I duly tramped up for a close investigation of the bluebells south of Brow Gill. There were a few straggly trees within the field but, I admit, I did not find evidence that a woodland had been felled. However, I did notice some old, overgrown, isolated rhododendron nearby, together with a couple of copper-beech, a cultivated variety of beech that is not native to the region. I wonder if, some time ago, somebody created a recreational woodland here?
     I persevered. I found an 1862 OS map - and this does indeed show the present bluebell region as woodland. In fact, it is shown as joined up with the woodland named as Heartside Plantation on today’s map. Moreover, the two fields further south (west of Howegill Head) where there is now a profusion of bluebells in the open are also shown as woodland in 1862.
bluebell e bluebell s bluebell i
Right: Bluebells (from the left: English, Spanish and Italian)

     My second question is: What can be done to protect the native bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta?
     As is sadly the case with some other native species, the bluebell is under threat from introduced species, in this case, the Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica and the Italian bluebell Hyacinthoides italica. The alien species have been brought to our gardens and allowed to spread into neighbouring woods, where they out-compete our less vigorous native bluebell or hybridise with it, producing, generation-by-generation, a less British bluebell. It is a great shame because our native bluebell, with its delicate deep-blue curves, expresses a patriotic British-ness to which our pale Latin interlopers can only aspire. We surely cannot continue to allow these continental upstarts into our country to vanquish our natives. The forthcoming referendum is our chance to put a stop to this, once and for all.

[1].  J.A. Baker (1967), The Peregrine, London: Collins.

37.  Swifts on Gragareth
July 2016

Of the few birds that we are guaranteed to see every year, the swift Apus apus is the most mysterious. This is because, although it is familiar, it is usually seen high in the sky, flying higher than its friends, the swallow and house-martin. We never see swifts on the bird-table or perched in a tree or on a telegraph wire. Swifts so rarely land that their feet have evolved away but not quite to nothing (despite apus meaning ‘no feet’).
     The swift only lands to nest. Even then, the swift is secretive compared to the swallow and house-martin, which nest openly in barns and under eaves. The swift has, at least in this country, largely abandoned its original nesting sites of caves and holes in trees to nest, for example, under the tiles of our roofs, entering through crevices. Unfortunately for the swift, modern building methods aim to insulate and seal our houses and therefore eliminate such crevices. To help the swifts, sympathetic builders nowadays include ‘swift bricks’ in the walls for them to nest in.
     It is possible to include one-way windows (like those in police interview rooms) to view and film the swift’s nesting activities. Its habits have therefore been thoroughly studied. We know, for example, that the swift, and its young, enter a kind of hibernation state if bad weather prevents feeding. Nestlings may live for five days without food. The swift has a more efficient breeding regime than the swallow, as is indicated by the fact that the swift has a single brood of usually two eggs, whereas the swallow has two or three broods of usually four eggs. The young swift flies straight from the nest and stays airborne for two or three years flying to and from Africa before, at last, alighting briefly to nest.
     Fascinating though they may be, these nesting studies do not reveal the real swift. Swifts are in their element in the air. To appreciate swifts fully you need to get in amongst them, that is, close to them while they are flying. To this end, I recommend visiting the Three Men of Gragareth. The Three Men are large cairns on the slopes of Gragareth, overlooking the remote farm of Leck Fell House. The Three Men are not unaccompanied. There are several other cairns nearby, haphazardly constructed and positioned.

The Three Men of Gragareth Left: The Three Men of Gragareth (
Colin Gregory)

     In the summer swifts like to swoop around the various cairns, skimming the ground and soaring above. Therefore, if you stand still as an extra man by the Three Men the swifts will swoop around you. Then you will appreciate the great speed at which they fly. They can reach over 100 mph, which is thought to be beaten only by birds such as the hobby and peregrine. The merest flick of its wings enables it to change course and to glide for some distance at such speeds. You’ll see the elegance of its manoeuvres around the cairns. However, it can be somewhat unnerving to have the swifts zoom so closely by. Their wing shape has been likened to a scythe or scimitar or boomerang - and you wouldn’t like to be hit by any of those at that speed. The swifts will, of course, not hit you, even if you try to get out of their way.
     As you stand by the Three Men of Gragareth, you will know that the swifts’ aeronautical display is not for you. And yet it seems to be a display. If you stand, say, a hundred yards away from the cairns, you will not be surrounded by swirling swifts. I see no reason why the insects that the swifts need should be more abundant by the cairns than elsewhere. I conclude that the swifts just enjoy zooming around the cairns. I know I would, if I were a swift. The swifts fly every day, all day and all night (apart from when nesting), and at some speed. The oldest known swift was 21 years old and is estimated to have flown over 3 million miles!
     At the Three Men you will have the rare opportunity to look, at close quarters, down as well as up at the swifts. You will be able to study the colouring of the birds from all angles. There will probably also be a few swallows joining the swifts and this intimate acquaintance with the birds will enable you to develop the skill of distinguishing between swifts and swallows.

swift Right: Swift

     The swift has longer, more curved wings; the swallow has a more forked tail; the swift flies and glides faster with a screaming call; the swift is, apart from a pale throat, plain brown all over (appearing black in flight), while the swallow is light underneath, with a glossy blue-black head. Overall, though, the two species provide a good example of convergent evolution, whereby two unrelated species evolve towards similar appearance and behaviour through occupying the same ecological niche. The swift’s nearest relative is in fact the humming-bird of America. The swift group (the Apodidae) separated from all other birds about 65 million years ago.
     Whereas I (in Chapter 12) expressed a preference for the sand-martin as the harbinger of the new summer, for many people - including the poet, Ted Hughes - it is the swift:
         Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
         Materialise at the tip of a long scream
         Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
         On a steep

         Controlled scream of skid
         Round the house-end and away under the cherries.
         Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
         Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

         For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
         Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
         Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
         Then a lashing down disappearance

         Behind elms.
                 They’ve made it again,
         Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
         Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
         Still all to come –

The globe is still working - but not as well as it was. The swift is among the birds listed in Chapter 14 as suffering the most rapid decline in recent years: 40% between 1994 and 2007. There are, however, still about 85,000 swifts nesting in the UK.
     In the past swifts were known as ‘the devil’s bird’, presumably because of its mysterious nature and the somewhat ominous dark swirling and thin screaming (as of lost souls) above us. A close encounter, such as that at Gragareth, will, I think, remove such negativity and provoke instead some affection for these magnificent aeronauts.

38.  White-Clawed-Crayfish and Red-Squirrels around the Upper Lune
October 2016

The white-clawed-crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes is Britain’s only native crayfish. Crayfish are, of course, not fish. They are freshwater crustaceans, related to lobsters, their marine cousins. In fact, they are our largest native freshwater crustaceans, although usually less than 10 cm from snout to tail-plate. I have never seen one in the wild, a state of affairs that I would like to remedy. So, where and when to search?
     Females overwinter with a clutch of a hundred eggs or so held beneath their tail. Juveniles are released in the summer and, if very lucky, may live for ten years or so. They can live in a variety of watercourses, from a few centimetres to two metres deep, and in still or fast-flowing streams, provided that there are refuges. During winter the crayfish may move into deeper water or burrow into banks.
     White-clawed-crayfish are especially sensitive to changes in their environment. They require a food supply and unpolluted water, rich in oxygen and slightly alkaline (and therefore peat-free). Crayfish also need sufficient calcium to grow their carapace. They usually spend the day hidden among cobbles and tree roots in the river’s bed and forage mainly at night, feeding on a wide range of food, from leaf litter to live or dead fish. Crayfish use undercut banks and overhanging trees as refuges, which are particularly important for young and moulting adult crayfish vulnerable to predation by birds, otter and fish. Some river structures, such as weirs and fast-flowing culverts, may form barriers to white-clawed-crayfish, leading to isolated and unsustainable populations. Crayfish are also liable to be washed away in spate floods.
     The secretive and unexciting lifestyle of crayfish has led to their neglect in popular culture. If there are any stories, myths, legends or nursery rhymes about crayfish then I must have missed them. As a result, most of us know little about crayfish beyond that some people consider them to be a delicacy. Which is unfortunate, both for the crayfish, which needs our protection, and for us, because they are a ‘sentinel species’ capable of indicating problems with the health of our river systems.
     The white-clawed-crayfish has declined significantly recently throughout Britain and mainland Europe. This is mainly because of competition from non-native crayfish, particularly the signal-crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, and a lethal disease (crayfish plague) that it carries. So, not satisfied with out-competing our native crayfish, signal-crayfish also carry a plague which is harmless to them but not to white-clawed-crayfish. There are five other species of non-native crayfish that have escaped into British rivers. Spores of crayfish plague and signal-crayfish eggs may be inadvertently transferred on, for example, fishing gear from a watercourse with signal-crayfish to another with white-clawed-crayfish. Signal-crayfish may also walk short distances over land to a new watercourse.

White-clawed-crayfish and signal-crayfish Right: White-clawed-crayfish and signal-crayfish (Environment Agency)

     The signal-crayfish, a relatively large edible crayfish, was introduced from North America in the 1970s in order to create new markets. Inevitably, it seems, some signal-crayfish escaped and then spread rapidly through our rivers and ponds. No doubt, some signal-crayfish were deliberately introduced into rivers so that their populations could grow and then be harvested. Signal-crayfish are larger and more aggressive than white-clawed-crayfish. Although they can co-exist for a while, signal-crayfish will soon (typically, in about four years) out-compete over food and refuges. Moreover, male signal-crayfish will mate with both female species, with the products of inter-species matings being sterile. The white-clawed-crayfish may be most easily distinguished from the signal-crayfish by their undersides: the former is pinkish-white; the latter’s claws are red. From above, the former tends to look brown-olive and the latter red-brown.
     The devastation of the white-clawed-crayfish population has been even more drastic in mainland Europe than it has been in the UK. So, even though it is now found in only limited areas of the UK, this still constitutes about a quarter of the world’s population. There are now very few UK river catchments that contain white-clawed-crayfish and not signal-crayfish. At the moment, the Lune catchment is one of them. The latest Environment Agency report that I have seen says that the white-clawed-crayfish may be found at thirteen locations around the upper Lune, although it sensibly doesn’t say precisely where. I did, however, see a noticeboard at Orton which said that white-clawed-crayfish were to be found in nearby becks although not in the beck that it was standing beside. So I wandered around the surrounding becks of Orton on the lookout for white claws.
     I did not look very conscientiously because I had also read from the Environment Agency that white-clawed-crayfish are a protected species. It is illegal to handle them without a licence and these are normally only given to those who are authorised to monitor their populations. I half-heartedly turned over a few cobbles, hoping not to disturb any crayfish. I was content to see their habitat, if not the crayfish themselves.
     I was pleased to see that the becks were crystal clear, as the crayfish no doubt prefer, but I fear that it is only a matter of time before the Lune has signal-crayfish, introduced deliberately or inadvertently over its watershed. They are to be found now in, for example, the River Keer through Carnforth. Currently, there is no effective method to prevent signal-crayfish spreading throughout a catchment once it is present. Even without signal-crayfish, the number of Lune white-clawed-crayfish has greatly diminished, mainly because of pollution and loss of habitat.
     As I strolled around the Orton and Tebay region I saw road signs advertising the presence of red-squirrels Sciurus vulgaris, so I thought that I’d look out for those too. The red-squirrel is a species with a sadly similar story to that of the white-clawed-crayfish. It too has seen its population plummet due to the loss of its native habitat but mainly because of the introduction of an alien species also from North America, the grey-squirrel Sciurus carolinensis. Greys were first released in Britain in 1876 and by the 1920s had become a plague. A bounty scheme in the 1950s killed a million greys - but still they spread. Grey-squirrels are now classified as vermin.

red squirrel grey squirrel Left: Red squirrel (
Andrew O’Brien) and grey squirrel (Steve Ransome).

     The native red-squirrels and introduced grey-squirrels do not directly compete but greys monopolise the available food and also carry a disease (parapoxvirus) that does not seem to affect them but often kills reds (again similar to the crayfish situation). In 2011 a five-year government-backed conservation project Red Squirrels Northern England was launched. In 2013 this project felt able to report a 7% increase in the number of red-squirrels in the north of England, the first increase after 150 years of decline. According to the latest report of the local Red-Squirrel Officer, red-squirrels are “doing well on the River Lune .. down river .. to near Sedbergh”, thanks to a programme of trapping and killing the greys. Some reds have been reported south of Middleton. Judging by the road signs, at least, red-squirrels are certainly around the upper Lune.

Murthwaite Park Right: Murthwaite Park with Wild Boar Fell beyond

     However, I have not been lucky in observing red-squirrels in the Loyne region. I have seen more red-squirrel road signs than I have red-squirrels. To be precise, I have seen only three red-squirrels in recent years, on two occasions in Murthwaite Park at Cautley by the River Rawthey and once running on the road between Murthwaite Park and the Cross Keys Inn. Murthwaite Park is a SSSI because, although it is small, it is the largest area of ancient woodland in the Howgills. It is mainly birch and hazel, with oak, sycamore, alder, holly and willow. It is not a park in the modern sense of the word but a very scrubby, sparse wood with few trees of any great height, apart from those on the fringes. It is sometimes said that red-squirrels prefer conifers to broad-leaved trees. This conception may have arisen because red-squirrels cope better within mature conifer plantations. In fact, native red-squirrels should feel at home, naturally, in native woodland such as Murthwaite Park.
     Within the wood it seemed eerily silent on my last visit. I could hear no birds apart from the occasional distant mewing of a buzzard, but then it wasn’t the season for birds to chirrup. It takes an effort of will to imagine the whole of the Howgills covered in such scrubland. We know that before the sheep were introduced the Howgill hills were forested. Where we now stride out on grassy slopes with distant views it would once have been a challenging scramble through undergrowth, in silence and with no views, much like Murthwaite Park today.
     At the Cross Keys Inn we learned from the proprietor that the red-squirrel that had become a friendly visitor there was no more, having been run over on the A683. If it was the one that I saw on the road then I am not surprised. And if it was the same red-squirrel that I saw (twice) in Murthwaite Park then perhaps the entire local population has been extinguished. So I hope that the red-squirrel spotters around Sedbergh and beyond are reliable.
     Although I began this exploration of local wildlife, four years ago, in a light-hearted frame of mind, I have been unable to sustain it through this catalogue of woes facing our species. I am sorry about that but a rational appraisal of the situation is too depressing to allow anything else.

39.  Red-Grouse at Ward's Stone
November 2016

To escape from my worries about local wildlife I have been reading a book about India published in 1822 [1]. It was written by Daniel Johnson, who was a “surgeon in the honorable East India Company’s service and resident many years [up to 1809] at Chittrah in Ramghur”. The title of the book is difficult to determine as the title page has, as was the custom of the time, many words, in various sizes and fonts. However, the words up to the first full-stop are “Sketches of field sports as followed by the natives of India with observations on the animals”.
     And that is a fair description of the book’s contents. As the pages make clear, there was a profusion of wildlife in India two hundred years ago - and this life really was wild. There were, for example, “an immense number of venomous snakes in all parts of India” such that “apprehension and fear attend every step”. Johnson also writes that “the number of persons bitten by mad dogs, and mad jackals, that came under my care while surgeon at Chittrah would appear almost incredible, were they to be stated here”. He describes his experiments - almost always unsuccessful - to find remedies for those bitten by snakes or suffering from hydrophobia (or rabies).

Frontispiece Right: Frontispiece of “Sketches of field sports ...”

     I am sure that no surgeon could have saved those attacked by tigers, which were plentiful in many parts of India. An attack by a tiger seemed to be accepted by the natives as a fact of life (or death). He mentions a tigress that “during two months, killed a man almost every day, and on some days two”. It was facilitated in this by the Indians’ “thorough belief in predestination” which meant that after an attack those remaining would just carry on in much the same way thereafter.
     The pages repeatedly mention the overwhelming abundance of dangerous wildlife: “Black bears are common throughout the hills and very numerous in Rogonautpore and Geldah” ... “Wolves are found in all parts of India” ... “Leopards and panthers are numerous throughout the jungles” ... “Wild hogs are plentiful in every part of India” ... “Hyenas are common on all the south side of the river Ganges” ... “Wild buffaloes are plentiful in many parts of Bengal” ... “Elephants are numerous on the north side of the river Ganges near the mountains from Chittagong to Hardwar”. In addition, there appears to have been vast numbers of game animals, such as deer, partridge, duck and hare.
     As a consequence, some Indian natives made it their business to become expert in catching specific animals. The book contains detailed descriptions of their various contrivances, from elaborate tiger traps to techniques for catching snakes. For example, to catch ducks they would first float large pots on the lake until the ducks became familiar with them and would then put a similar pot, with two eye-holes, over their head and surreptitiously move into the lake with only their head (in the pot) above water. When a duck came close it would be grabbed.
     Inevitably, it seems, the catching and killing of animals for the two original reasons - for food and for protection - evolved into a third - for amusement. This was, of course, a pastime that could only be indulged in by the few Indian natives of wealth. Johnson describes a ‘hunquah’, a sport of minor rajahs. First, a part of the jungle was selected where the hunquah was to occur, and shortly before it fires were lit ten miles or more all around to compel the animals within to shelter in the targeted jungle.
     The day before the hunquah, several hundred people were sent to the leeward side of the jungle to fix a mile-long series of nets. Beside each net platforms were raised where the rajah and his friends could sit and wait. On the morning of the hunquah ten to twenty thousand people assembled and arranged themselves into a line many miles long on the other side of the jungle. They then walked forward, making “a most hideous noise”, in whatever way they could (guns, fireworks, pots-and-pans, and so on), forcing the animals towards the nets. There the animals would be trapped and/or shot by the rajah and his friends.
     The word ‘hunquah’ comes from the verb ‘hunkna’, meaning ‘to drive’. Hold on ... that reminds me of something. Oh yes, driven grouse shooting, our gentry’s sport of choice on our northern moors. It too uses fire, not to entrap the quarry but to burn the heather so that it may be eaten by grouse. There is also a team of ‘beaters’, although only a handful of them compared to the vast numbers for a hunquah, both sets of beaters being of a lowly class relative to those doing the actual shooting. There is also the equivalent of the platforms in the form of grouse butts, spaced out across the moor, where the rajah-equivalent and his friends await the grouse. So perhaps the concept of driven grouse shooting was not an original brainwave but was brought back from India by some British gentleman?

Heather burning Left: Heather burning (
Victoria Buchan-Dyer)

     The practice of driven grouse shooting began in the 1850s after the invention of the breech-loading rifle. It is therefore not the long-standing rural tradition that is claimed by those who engage in driven grouse shooting (who, for brevity, I will call grousers). The new rifle enabled a grouser to keep up a more or less continuous volley of fire, especially if he had a minion standing nearby to reload his rifle (or rifles) all day, as shown in videos on youtube. The quantity of birds shot was what mattered. It certainly wasn’t the variety, because unlike the hunquah, which trapped all species, large and small, driven grouse shooting was focussed upon a single species, the red-grouse Lagopus lagopus.
     Red-grouse are a subspecies of the willow-grouse found across northern continents. They feed largely on young shoots of heather. Unfortunately for them, they are rather numerous on the moors, somewhat plump, considered tasty by some, and have a mildly erratic flight that provides a challenge to grousers but not too much, as, say, a snipe would. They are therefore shot in their thousands every autumn.

Red-grouse Right: Red-grouse (Sam Linton)

     A couple of weeks ago there was a debate in parliament on a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, now recorded in Hansard. The MP introducing the debate (Mr Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay) did not beat about the heather. He agreed with a fellow Tory (Mr Bellingham, MP for North West Norfolk), who had immediately intervened, that the petition was “extremely ignorant and misleading” and that it was “illogical” to seek to ban driven grouse shooting but not walked-up grouse shooting. The latter involves walking up the moor with a gun and perhaps a dog and shooting the occasional grouse that happens to be disturbed.
     These two MPs were either exceedingly dim or deliberately untruthful (or both, of course). Nobody who attended or listened to the preceding evidence session or had read any of the documents submitted (as MPs beginning a debate surely would, or should, have done) could be unaware of the differences between the two forms of grouse shooting, such that it may make sense to ban one but not necessarily the other [2]. Driven grouse shooting has, unlike the walked-up form, many features that raise significant environmental and social concerns:
        • large numbers of birds are killed or wounded ‘for fun’ in a slaughter unfit for the 21st century;
        • in order to provide an excess of red-grouse to shoot, birds of prey, such as the hen-harrier, are illegally persecuted and many species of ‘vermin’ (even mountain-hares) are killed;
        • the practice of heather burning leaves many upland moors in poor condition, causes carbon loss, decreases water quality and may increase flood risk downstream;
        • lead shot is left on the moor or in grouse to be eaten (there is no legal limit on the amount of lead allowed in grouse, unlike other meat: what possible reason can there be for this?).
All this is for just a few thousand grousers. Meanwhile the wealthy moor-owners receive large payments of government, that is, our, money under the Common Agricultural Policy.
     Several MP grousers spoke in the debate. As they mellifluously extolled the benefits (mainly to them and their friends) of driven grouse shooting, disregarded any possible problems, and insulted those with the temerity to seek a ban, my mind wandered off. I imagined their words being spoken by the magnificent eight, the group of men who on August 12th 1915 set the world record for the number of grouse shot in one day (2,929) on the slopes below Ward’s Stone, the highest point of the Forest of Bowland and within ten miles of where I live.

ward's stone Left: Ward’s Stone, with native local fauna, plus heather burning in the distance

     2,929 grouse is 366 per grouser. I don’t know how long a grouse shoot lasts, but let’s assume that a generous luncheon and the need to be back in time for a gracious tea on the lawn restricted it to six hours. Then every grouser would have killed a grouse every minute for six hours. That’s on average, of course: the nature of driven grouse shooting is to have periods of waiting and then feasts of killing.
     That’s 2,929 grouse on one day. Lord Ripon (1852-1923) killed 97,503 grouse in his lifetime, until he fittingly fell dead upon the heather [3]. I note the pride and precision of these records. It’s as if grouse killing were a sport like cricket and they were recording the runs of W.G. Grace. I don’t know how many innings, or shoots, Lord Ripon had but he was, I’m sure, twice the sportsman W.G. Grace was, so his average was probably about 80 (grouse per shoot). That would mean over 1,200 grouse shooting days. Altogether he killed 556,813 animals, including 229,976 pheasants in one 28 year period. So that’s many thousands of shooting days in total. It is important that our great men do not have so many duties and commitments that they haven’t time for a spot of recreational killing.
     Even after nearly a lifetime of a relative lack of interest in wildlife I cannot imagine myself killing a single bird without feeling shame and remorse and with no iota of pleasure or achievement, let alone one every minute for six hours or over 300,000 in total. What do the grousers feel? They say that we should not hark back a hundred years, because grouse shooting is different nowadays. But then I think of the video that I referred to above. This advertises grouse shooting on the Coverdale estate but with none of the usual guff about an exhilarating day in a moorland paradise. It shows nothing but cold, relentless, remorseless killing.
     I was disturbed from my reverie by speakers referring to a bird new to me, the golden-pullover. It apparently flourishes on the idyllic moors created by the “careful custodianship“ (Mr Whittaker, MP for Calder Valley) of those “unsung heroes of conservation” (Mr Soames, MP for Mid Sussex), that is, the gamekeepers. I heard that “hen-harriers need gamekeepers as much as grouse do” (Mr Double). This summer there were exactly 0 hen-harriers and approximately 300 red-grouse per sq km of English grouse moor. Yes, hen-harriers need gamekeepers ... to stop killing them. Ah, the golden-pluvver.
     My mind wandered back again to August 12th 1915. It was, of course, during the First World War. The magnificent eight - two Majors, two Captains, two ‘the Hon’s, one Earl and one plain Mr - included four military men and yet they felt able to disport themselves on the moors killing thousands of grouse, whilst at the same time thousands of their countrymen (of a lower class, of course) were being killed in like manner on the fields of Europe.
     It is particularly poignant to note that on that very day, all 250 men of E Company of the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment - who had all been co-opted from the Royal Estate of Sandringham - were killed in the Dardanelles, their bodies never being found. Today, the royal family, despite professed concern for wildlife through involvement in organisations such as the WWF, are happy to shoot grouse. Do I sense a lack of empathy on the part of the grouser, and not only towards grouse?
     But 97,503 grouse? Pah! That’s a big number, but small game. Johnson reports that Mr Henry Ramos, judge of the circuit of Bahar, killed over 360 tigers. That’s more like it. If our royalty considers hunting - even if it is only of red-grouse and in reality involves just standing in a butt all day - to be a worthy part of its social calendar, then it ought to make a real spectacle of it, as Prince Nawaub Vizier Asop-ul-Dowlah did.
     His hunting expeditions involved “about ten thousand Cavalry, nearly the same number of Infantry, thirty or forty pieces of Artillery, and from seven to eight hundred elephants”. His Highness and fellow dignitaries marched this huge cavalcade for up to twenty days towards the designated hunting arena, accompanied by a travelling market of “forty to sixty thousand persons”. They, that is, his Highness and fellow dignitaries, would then spend up to a month hunting. Then they would all troop back to his palace.
     Clearly, the Prince was absurdly wealthy, especially for a country where almost everybody else was very poor. He had “more than a hundred gardens, twenty palaces, twelve hundred elephants, three thousand fine saddle horses, ...” but “possessed no great mental powers” and was “without taste or judgement”. He was, however, an excellent marksman. He practised his skill by firing from his palace at pots of water carried on the heads of passing people. He said that it was of little consequence if he killed anyone, having plenty of subjects in his country. That’s the spirit! Likewise, who cares about a grouse being killed? There are plenty more where it came from.
     I know even less about wildlife in India today than I do about our own wildlife but I would bet that there are considerably fewer snakes, jackals, tigers, bears, wolves, leopards, panthers, hogs, hyenas, buffaloes, elephants, deer, partridge, duck and hare than there used to be - but considerably more people. So my worries about local wildlife have now been extended to cover wildlife worldwide.

[1].  Daniel Johnson (1822), Sketches of field sports ...
[2].  Mark Avery (2015), Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands, London: Bloomsbury.
[3].  Martin Stephens (2013), The Sportsman’s Library - Grouse Shooting, London: Read Books.

40.  Wrens in Our Garden
December 2016

I am looking forward to Christmas. On Christmas Eve I will join some friends and, according to tradition, ramble about the village all night, visiting the various hostelries, until the church bells strike midnight. Then we will hunt for wren, which, having found and killed, we’ll fixed to the top of long poles. We’ll then proceed to the homes of the wealthy where we’ll sing, with cheerful menace:
        The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
        St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
        Although he is little, his family’s great,
        I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
The good landlady would be unlikely to decline as she knows that otherwise we will bury the wren on the estate in order to place a curse upon it. Thus a merry time will be had by all. Apart from the wrens.
     My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather might have written the above words - apart from “apart from the wrens” because I am sure that he, like his contemporaries, would have been indifferent to the casual callousness of his wren-killing. He didn’t just have it in for the wren. He caged skylarks and blinded them to make them sing better. On Shrove Tuesday he tethered cockerels and stoned them to death. He killed kingfishers to hang them up so that they could predict the direction the wind would blow.

wren Right: Wren (
Nick Wakeling)

     When I began this exploration of local wildlife I subconsciously assumed that I was belatedly attempting to rediscover an empathy with the wildlife around me. This empathy, I assumed, had been lost by the increased urbanisation or, at least, suburbanisation of my previous generations. In the distant past, surely, we lived in harmony with wildlife, because we lived so much closer to it.
     However, it seems that it was more complicated than that. At one time we thought nothing of impaling a wren on a pole. It is hard now to comprehend how such gratuitous brutality was acceptable. Were wrens so abundant that the odd impaling was neither here nor there? Well, wrens are abundant now and nobody goes around impaling them.
     Dare I ask whether our brutality had a religious foundation? The wren custom itself, a form of which persists today with the ‘Wren Boys’ in Ireland, is thought to have its origin in early religious rites, according to Sligo Heritage. Genesis 1 says that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing”. Then, after the Flood (Genesis 9), God blessed Noah and his sons: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered”.
     I can see no suggestion of empathy or compassion there: every beast must be in fear of man. Contrast this with Buddhism, which considers all animals to be sentient beings that should not be harmed or killed. Admittedly, this is partly because the animals are considered to be reincarnations, possibly of our own relatives, and nobody would want to harm their predecessors. However, as the previous Chapter showed, it was not only Christianity that encouraged man’s dominion over nature.
     The relationship between the human species and all other species on the planet, and our effect upon them, is clearly complex. At the least, the great increase in human numbers, with its demand upon the Earth’s finite resources, is bound to have had an effect upon many species. It is easy to see, for example, how the hedgehog will find it difficult to adapt to the many more buildings and roads. And also that changes in intensive farming practice will harm farmland birds. Today, wherever I look I see less: fewer wildflowers, fewer bees, fewer fish, fewer birds, fewer frogs, fewer butterflies, ...
     It is not that we have any ill-will towards the hedgehog, farmland birds and the many other species affected by the spread of humanity. Their problems are but an unfortunate side-effect of our actions. However, there are many other kinds of side-effect where it is arguable that they really ought to have been anticipated. For example, it should hardly have been a surprise that pesticides had harmful effects on the environment, as described by Rachel Carson in her influential book of 1962 [1]. And could it really not have been foreseen that introducing non-native species such as Japanese-knotweed and grey-squirrel was not a good idea?
     In some cases, the remedy, or attempted remedy, is clear: ban the pesticides, eradicate the grey-squirrel, help the hedgehog by providing refuges and safer ways of getting about. In other cases, the side-effects are so sweeping and the causes so complex that our response is unclear. For example, if climate change is causing the arrival of cuckoos to be out of phase with the caterpillars that they feed upon, what should we do about it?
     Humanity’s affect upon the environment is so profound that many species now, sadly for them, depend upon our careful custodianship (to borrow a phrase) of the planet. Much of the natural world cannot now find the natural balance that it found in the past. It needs us perpetually to adjust the scales, to achieve the balance that we, if not they, prefer.
     There is an increased awareness of the need to deal with the unintended consequences of our various actions. However, during the course of my investigations I have been surprised by the degree to which we continue to justify deliberate actions harmful to nature.
     No doubt, in the past, our attitude to animals was coloured by the fact that we had to kill them to eat in order to survive. Our predecessors did, in fact, eat skylarks but I doubt that there would have been much nourishment from a wren. As we were killing birds to impale on a stake to roast over a fire it is not such a leap to accept impaling wrens in order to obtain food indirectly.

wrens Left: Wrens among the sweet peas.

     However, nowadays, hunting is for fun rather than food. Society’s attitude towards hunting seems not to have changed much since the days of Gilbert White (1720-1793), regarded as England’s first ecologist after his detailed studies of the nature around him [2]. He wrote as if in awe of hunters, regarding the need to hunt as ‘inherent’ and the practice of it an essential rite of passage towards manhood: “Most men are sportsmen by constitution; and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain ... Unless he was a hunter ... no young person was allowed to be possessed of manhood or gallantry”. (Females were not considered.)
     I have learned during the course of this exercise that wildlife cannot be considered in isolation, unfortunately. People and politics inevitably play a part. How else can one make sense of the fact that the RSPB (for the Protection of Birds, remember) can support the killing of birds for fun? How else can one understand how DEFRA can approve the killing of a protected native species (the buzzard) in order that thousands of non-native birds (pheasants) can be killed for fun?
     We have, I suppose, made progress in one sense at least: wanton cruelty towards animals, apart from during certain forms of hunting, is now illegal and indeed society considers such actions deplorable. Thus, the wren is no longer impaled. Indeed, I will overcome my despondency at the travails of our wildlife by ending this manuscript by adopting the wren as a symbol of natural resilience, representing the hope that despite our worst endeavours, nature will win, in the end.
     Despite the impalers, the Eurasian-wren Troglodytes troglodytes is now probably our most common bird, with over eight million breeding pairs, although numbers may fall drastically during a long, harsh winter. Not only is it our most numerous bird but it is also our most widespread, being resident in all habitats throughout the UK, apart from the highest hilltops.
     The wren is not so easy to spot, being such a small bird. It is, in fact, the third smallest British bird, after the goldcrest and firecrest. If it isn’t seen, then it may well be heard because perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the wren is the loud song that emerges from its tiny body and, moreover, it does not restrict its joyful song to the breeding season, as most birds do. However, in our garden, at least, the wren is relatively quiet in December.
     One summer wrens must have nested nearby for a family of them delighted in frolicking among the sweet peas by the window. The wren is a very energetic bird - at least, the male is! He builds half a dozen nests in the spring and then the female may deign to choose one of them. She lays up to eight eggs and there’s often a second brood (I hope that she doesn’t insist upon another half a dozen nests to choose from). With all these eggs, the wren population soon recovers after any harsh winter. Most wrens do not move far from their birthplace and tend to defend their winter territory. So perhaps our present wrens are descendants of the sweet pea family.
     One fine summer day I sat for a while by upper Barbon Beck watching several wrens flitting in and out of the rock crevices beside the beck. We tend to think of wrens as birds of the shrubbery because normally we glimpse them as they nervously dart into the bushes while we move by, mowing the lawn or walking in the woods. However, they seemed more in their element out in the open by Barbon Beck. They seemed perkily content disappearing into the beck-side crannies hunting for insects (I assume) or just playing (perhaps). I could see where their scientific name came from. It was a pleasure and privilege to be able to watch them.
     And so I'll end thinking of the indomitable wren, hoping that it will serve as a beacon of hope for nature.

[1].  Rachel Carson (1962), Silent Spring, Houghton Miffin.
[2].  Gilbert White (1795), A Naturalist’s Calendar, with observations in various branches of natural history, London: B. & J. White.
lune estuary

Plover Scar lighthouse from Sunderland Point, where the Lune disappears into Morecambe Bay

    © John Self, Drakkar Press