Friday, May 25, 2012

Benyon Blitzes Buzzards

I'm angry.

Less than week ago the RSPB announced that hen harriers are now on the brink of extinction in England due to ongoing persecution by shooting interests.

Hen Harrier. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray

Only one pair of hen harriers now nest in England. Utterly appalling.
What is the government doing? Absolutely nothing.

(Mark Avery has been following up on this lack of action in his series of blogs entitled Wuthering Moors. They start here and the latest is here.)

Can things get worse? Well, yes they can. Defra, the government department charged with all things related to our natural environment, who should be taking action to protect hen harriers (but aren't) recently announced that they are offering nearly £400,000 to potentially persecute yet another bird of prey, buzzards. Unbelievable but true. The tender is available for download here.

Buzzard. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray.

Magnificent, majestic, magical buzzards, protected birds of prey, are possibly going to have their nests destroyed. Why? The heinous crime with which buzzards are charged with is taking a few young pheasants. Eh? The logic of the whole thing escapes me on all levels.

Buzzard. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray.

1. Taxpayers' money should not be used to support private shooting interests.

2. The 'evidence' that buzzards are having an economic impact on pheasant shoots is flimsy and anecdotal at best. An unpublished study by ADAS apparently found that 1-2% of young birds might be taken by raptors. (These figures are taken from Raptor Politics)

3. Buzzards are native birds of prey. They belong to us, to these islands. Pheasants are introduced, numerous (millions) and bred to be driven and shot; for profit. Why not ban pheasant breeding and subsequent release into the wild to protect buzzards?

Pheasant. Photo from Wikipedia taken by user Lukasz Lukasik.

4. Buzzards are fantastic birds to see and to hear. I don't want the government to sanction killing them.

Not everyone is in agreement with my views. The Countryside Alliance make their own views clear here as do the BASC here. The claim that buzzards cause serious damage at pheasant release pens is unsubstantiated. It's a classic ploy. Create doubt and controversy to hide the real motive.

Another fantastic photo taken by Steve Ray (Greater Kent Birder)

We all value the wildlife we have. It inspires and enriches our lives, contributes to our wellbeing and delivers the ecosystem services we need to survive. We must make sure wildlife has effective protection and is managed. We do this through complying with our national and international obligations.

I didn't write that last paragraph, Defra did. Perhaps Richard Benyon the minister in charge of this department needs to read his own website.

The RSPB is stunned, and hopefully will take some action soon to capture the wave of anger and shock that many people are feeling. We must not weaken the protection given to our birds of prey. We should be strengthening it. Doing nothing to stop the persecution of our birds of prey is not an option.

I've posted my comments on various sites, I've emailed politicians, blogged and signed 2 e-petitions. Thank you to Steve for his marvellous photos.

Now I'm going to go and enjoy the countryside looking for butterflies.

Recent comment of note on this subject include...

There's an e-petition here. I can't find an RSPB petition yet......

Richard Benyon
is the minister at Defra. His email address is

George Monbiot at The Guardian comments here. He also wrote an informative piece about the minister Richard Benyon's environmental credential here.

Martin Harper, the RSPB Director of Conservation has written a punchy blog on the subject.

Dr Mark Avery is the former RSPB Director of Conservation. He's written blogs here and here.

(What these 2 men don't know about the protection of birds of prey in this country isn't worth knowing.)

BASC policy on raptors is here. It's an interesting read.

Stirling University (my own alma mater) have published a number of papers on game birds; a recent paper (Impacts of birds of prey on gamebirds in the UK: a review) is here. The authors conclude: 'On the whole, however, it appears that raptors account for a relatively small proportion of mortality among released birds and the impact on subsequent shooting bags is unknown'.

Steve Ray's photostream on Flickr is here.

The Wildlife Trusts have a FB page here.

Alan Tilmouth (DustyBins) comments here.

Raptor Persecution Scotland comments here.

Raptor Politics sums things up here.

Defra have put out a Myth Bust statement which somewhat misses the point of the fury surrounding their press release.

There's an e-petition calling for the introduction of offence of vicarious liability for raptor persecution in England here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Helix cantiaci

Due to the recent inclement weather things have been a little slow in the botanical department. All is not lost however, as snails seem to be loving it. So there's time for a little more helical delight. We found this very pretty snail in Dover.

To digress a moment. Everyone knows that if you're in possession of Y chromosome and live in East Kent (east of the River Medway), you're a Man of Kent. If you live west of the Medway you're a Kentish Man. The Association of the Men of Kent and Kentish Men was established in 1913 to celebrate these idiosyncratic cultural distinctions. A possible derivation of this tradition is that the Medway was the border of the ancient kingdoms of Jutish East Kent and Saxon West Kent.

What has this to do with snails? Well, what applies to men, could also apply to gastropods. Snails have cultural identity too. As there are Kentish Men, there are also Kentish Snails. The snail above is a Kentish Snail Monacha cantiana.  I know Dover is actually in East strictly speaking these particular Kentish Snails should be called Snails of Kent.

The Kentish Snail was probably an accidental introduction to the UK by Roman farmers. Monacha is from the Greek monachos, meaning 'solitary' (as in monk) and cantiana refers to Kent. The old Kingdom of Kent was called Cantia regnum in Latin.

Kentish snails are not only attractive (well, this colour variation is) but also hairy snails. Juveniles are hairy but the hairs wear off over time. The hairs may assist young snailings in getting a better grip on slippery wet vegetation.

The snail was named (I believe) by the naturalist George Montagu (1751-1815). George wrote a roaringly good book called Testacea Britannica or Natural History of British Shells (1803). (It's accessible free on Google Books.)

Here's page 422 from Testacea Britannica describing Helix cantiana...

I assume the Dr Lister referred to above is the naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1714). He wrote a weighty tome on British Shells called Historiae Conchyliorum (1685). His wife, Anna produced the stunning engravings. Here's an example from Wikipedia.

I've digressed again......pardon. Back to George Montagu. Here he is. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

George was not only an expert on shells, but also a skilful ornithologist. He wrote an Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds (1802) (The 2nd Edition (1831) is freely available on Google e-books.)

Few individuals have the honour of having a species named after them. George is one of this select group. He was responsible for discovering that hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), are in fact 2 separate species. The following pictures of Montagu's harrier aren't mine. They were taken by Steve Ray (Greater Kent Birder) and are used with his permission.

George was born in Wiltshire in 1753. He pursued a military career, becoming a Captain in the army 1775, 3 years after he married Ann, a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bute. In 1776 he was posted to America during the War of Independence. A member of George's company was killed in battle in 1777 and George relinquished his commission 2 weeks later. Contemporary reports indicate George was an honourable man who was deeply distressed by the brutality of soldiers towards civilians.

His time in America seems to have kindled his interest in natural history; through shooting unusual American birds that he wanted to show his family (There were no digital cameras in the 18th century.) George later rejoined the Militia in Wiltshire and attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He started started writing in around 1792 and in 1795 was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He was clearly a naturalist of some note by this time. Tragically he died of tetanus 3 days after stepping accidentally on a rusty nail. He contributed a vast amount to our understanding of native species of birds, snails and fish, and more besides. His legacy lives on.

More information

A good biography of George Montagu by Tony Pratt (2003) is here.

George's paper on Hen Harriers (Transactions of the Linnean Society, May 5th 1807) is online here at the Internet Archive.

George also has a fish named after him.

If you wish to purchase a copy of Lister's book on shells it will set you back 16,000 Euros (excluding VAT). Phew!

A jolly good key to UK snails (specific to the Bristol area) is here.

More information on Monacha cantiana is here on Animal base. I couldn't see any hairs on the snails I found but here's a picture of a young hairy one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I'm called Little Buttercup

As it was a Bank Holiday weekend and the weather was predictably cold and wet, we decided, en route to Ramsgate, to go and look in a muddy ditch in Fowlmead Country Park. I know, I know what you are thinking....'Mel leads a really exciting life'. I do too! This was no ordinary ditch. It was the ditch wherein Kingsdowner found the nationally rare grass poly (Lythrum hyssopifolium) last year. A brilliant bit of botanical detective work!

Here is the flooded ditch, which, I think I can promise now, you will see again later in the year. More Foulmud than Fowlmead down there.

Grass poly, growing below at RSPB Fen Drayton...

...likes disturbed ground and winter flooding. Not spring/summer flooding though. It flowers in June/July, so I wonder how this late flooding will affect this recently discovered population? As you can count the number of places where grass poly grows in the UK on one hand, its fate here will be interesting to watch. Emails (last year) to Natural England to inform them of this new site for an 'Endangered' species have so far not elicited a reply. Hmmm.

But, to go back a few steps. Before I'd even gotten out of the car, a voice said 'What's this little buttercup here? It looks different'. I scrambled out and looked down in the scraps of grass in the carpark. Indeed it does look different to any buttercup I've seen before.

For a start, it's small. This little buttercup (the whole plant) is about 5cm across. And the flowers have no petals or only a couple of petals. Every flower I looked at was missing petals (buttercups typically have 5).

This is small-flowered buttercup Ranunculus parviflorus, an increasingly scarce species and on the rare plant register for Kent. Having missing petals is usual in this species.

Whilst I enthral you with my tale of finding small-flowered buttercup at Fowlmead, you may wish to partake in some musical accompaniment. HMS Pinafore is one of my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Here's a saucy, modern interpretation of Little Buttercup's song in a production by Essgee of New Zealand.

Back to botany. 

This little buttercup is a plant of disturbed ground; building sites, broken turf, rabbit holes, track edges, etc.. Fowlmead is a recently disturbed site made up of shale spoil; a perfect spot :-) Its seeds seem to be long-lived in the seedbank so it's typical for it to turn up post-disturbance. Maybe not a huge surprise to find it here then? Well, there are no records close-by and it's a rare plant in East Kent. So where did it come from? Perhaps it was dormant in the spoil or soil brought into the site (I can't find out anything about this). 

A close-up of a flower shows the diagnostic down-turned (reflexed) sepals and hairy stems.

The fruiting head has hooked spines on the achenes (fruit containing the seed).

All in all a really exciting find. What other gems are still to be found at Fowlmead? Well, I visited last year with my niece, and found basil thyme (Clinopodium acinos) and narrow-leaved bird's foot trefoil (Lotus tenuis). I'm sure the site will yield more unusual and/or rare species.

Will plants like grass poly and the small-flowered buttercup be out-competed as the site matures, or will they survive because this is a country park where offroad cycling and other activity will maintain levels of disturbance beneficial to this annual little buttercup? I hope the latter.

Further Information
The Kent Botanical Recording Group has a project to survey for and record rare plants in the county. It's a proactive and welcoming group.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Shell Fest

Sandwich Bay is within spitting distance of home. At low tide, it's a long sandy beach and there's rarely another person in sight. Bliss. An excellent place to indulge a favourite past-time.

I love beach-combing. In a short time I'd acquired sodden trainers, wet socks, damp jean bottoms, soggy knees and pockets bulging with precious finds (and a good helping of sand). Here's a selection of acquired treasures, although let me say at the outset, that I'm a bit rocky on shell identification so any help would be much appreciated.

I've tried to group my finds in families. First up are bivalve molluscs.

Variable scallop Chlamys varia; a beautiful bivalve with unequal ears (auricles is the correct term for the appendages at the hinge). Lots of salmon pink mottled ones....

...and some were black...

..and one looked like a scallop/oyster hybrid!

Queen scallop Aequipecten opercularis has more equal ears. I'm not sure about my identification but these shells look different (wider?) to the variable scallops above (to me anyway).

The patterning is glorious.

Next up are gastropod molluscs. From left to right I reckon these are; a periwinkle and 4 whelks; common whelk, netted dog whelk, dog whelk and sting winkle.

The whelks have a siphonal canal leading from the aperture. The shell at the top is what I think is the periwinkle - it has no siphonal canal.

The siphonal canal is (I paraphrase from Wikipedia) the channel down which the siphon is extended (in a living animal). The siphon is the structure through which water is pulled into the mantle cavity and over the gill.

We found many common whelks Buccinun undatum. Its scientific name means wavy (undatum) trumpet (buccinum). It feeds on bivalve molluscs by either wedging open their shells or by boring holes in shells and injecting a chemical cocktail. This cocktail comprises of chemicals which soften the shell, paralyse the animal inside and start to digest it. The resulting nutritious soup is gorged on by the whelk.

The netted dogwhelk Nassarius reticulatus is a really pretty whelk with a criss-crossed reticulated patterning. 

Humans are not the only animals to consider oysters a delicacy. I only found a single oyster drill or sting winkle Ocenebra erinacea. Its name suggests a fondness for oysters and it's regarded as a pest on oyster beds.

There's also an Atlantic oyster drill Urosalpinx cinerea which was introduced (unintentionally) to UK waters and is now found off the Essex and Kent coasts.

Is the damage on this tellin (?) caused by a boring whelk?

I got a shock when I picked up these whelks :-))

Hermit crabs. The one on the left is living in a netted dog whelk. The one on the right is in a...well, I wondered if this was an Atlantic oyster drill shell? I'm not sure. Hermit crabs are actually more like a very small lobster than a crab. This one looks as if it could do with a new residence.

There are 15 or so species of hermit crab in UK waters. The most frequently found species in rock pools and on sandy beaches is the common hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus.

This delicate conical gastropod (1cm tall) looks like a small painted topshell Calliostoma zizyphinum, although it was all pearly, creamy white. I only found the one.

There were quite a few grey topshells Gibbula cineraria. Most were 1cm tall or less.

Gibbula is from the Latin for hump and cineraria means ash coloured. Its name manes little ash coloured hump. It has an umbilicus next to the shell aperture.

Slipper limpets Crepidula fornicata were a regular find. This one is covered in encursting bryozoans.

They are actually gastropod molluscs - even though they're not curly and whorled. I wrote about slipper limpets on my old blog.

All the shells in the next photo are less than 1cm long. Just above the pink scallop and under the 'little ash coloured humps' is a cowrie.

As it's 'spotless' I'm guessing it's an arctic cowrie Trivia arctica. They feed on sea squirts. Very dainty shell which I've subsequently lost :-(

When I was rooting around amongst the sand, I came across this isty-bitsy thing.

From its pentaradial symmetry, its clearly an echinoid of some sort. Appropriately it's called a pea urchin Echinocyamus pusillus.

That's a penny by the way :-))

A picture of a live animal can be seen here. They feed on detritus, marine algae and plankton. Below is the underside.

The mouth is the big hole and the anus is the small hole. Of course, this is only the sun-bleached outer skeleton of the animal.

I thought this was a jelly fish but on getting home and consulting my books, I reckon it's a sea gooseberry Pleurobrachia pileus.

Incredibly I find they are not related to jellyfish atall but are classified in a separate phylum Ctenophora. They move using cilia, which are arranged in rows so give it the name comb-jelly.

I wasn't the only one indulging in a little beach-combing.

Turnstone, Sandwich Bay

Further Information
Sandwich Bay is home to the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust. Worth every penny of the membership fee. 
The best website I've found, by far, on British marine bivalves is Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales)
Field Studies Council webpages on The Seashore.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Little Shuffler

Whinless Down is a remnant of chalk downland on the edge of Dover.

Standing at the top of the down there are panoramic views up the valley (the houses of Elms Vale on the left)...

...and turning round, towards Dover and the Channel, with Dover Castle perched on the hill in the distance.

Despite the grotty weather, in some brief sunny spells, where there was shelter from the blustery wind, I saw a couple of green hairstreaks....

...and a few dingy skippers; this one nectaring on Cyprus spurge Euphorbia cyparissias, a non native species which is pretty abundant on parts of Whinless Down. The bright yellow-green of the Euphorbia was striking and it smelt like honey. It was certainly attracting bees and butterflies.

I walked along this muddy path (carefully avoiding the dog poo) on the lower edge of the down.

Shuffling across the path in front of me were these delicate, elegant little snails (they're about 1cm tall).

Let me introduce a very special snail; Pomatias elegansthe round mouthed snail or land winkle. They are not only utterly, stunningly gorgeous but absorbingly fascinating ecologically. This is a dapper little animal with very attractive reticulated patterning on its whorled shell.

If you turn one over, you find something very unusual; an operculum...

...Pomatias is from the Greek poma, a lid or covering. The operculum is a hard flat shell attached to the snail's foot. It covers the 'round mouth' (the shell aperture) and seals the shell tight shut if the snail is threatened or when dormant to prevent dessication. The operculum in Pomatias is hard and, for its size, pretty thick. The picture below was taken a few months back of some empty shells we found in Park Wood, near Chilham.

Pomatias is distinctly different from most common or garden snails we find in the UK. Land snails do not have operculums (or opercula). Hmmm.

The classification (taxonomy) of land snails is complex and ever changing (see Wikipedia on the subject here). My head aches just thinking about it and I've had to read about it to write this blog post. There are 2 main groups of land snail; Pulmonates (the vast majority of our land snails) and Prosobranchs. Pulmonates share a common lineage but prosobranchs are a more heterogenous group. Little Pomatias is a prosobranch, related to the marine periwinkes (recall that it's called the land winkle).

Here's a quick comparison of our typical terrestrial snails and Pomatias...

Most land snails                     Pomatias elegans
No operculum                          Has an operculum
2 pairs of tentacles                  Single pair of tentacles
Tentacles retractable               Tentacles not retractable
Eyes on tentacles                     Eyes at base of tentacles

In addition most land snails are hermaphrodite and Pomatias has separate sexes. Pomatias also has a long trunk or proboscis, which it uses to move. So it doesn't crawl like other snails, it shuffles. It's actually called The Shuffler.

Zooming in closer the 'trunk', eyes, single pair of tentacles and operculum, are all visible.

It's simply lovely to watch it shuffling along a path.

(The background clicking noise and the 'in & out of focus' effect is my Fuji Finepix auto-focussing. 
The shakiness and jabbering is me.)

There are actually only 2 species of operculate land snails in the UK (although operculate snails are more numerous in the tropics). Our little Shuffler and Aciclua lineata, an incredibly teeny (2-4mm) snail which lives in wet moss. I've never seen one.

Picture of Aciclua lineata from Wikipedia

According to the Kent Red Data Book it favours woodland leaf litter in the south of England. I'll have to go and look for it :-)

Our shuffling snail lives preferentially on chalky/limestone soils. It's also possibly a marker species for ancient hedgerows (see ref. here) on those soils. As with so many unusual and beautiful animals, this little snail is under threat from over-intensive farming. Downland is a rare habitat in the UK; so much of our downland has been ploughed up. Our lives would be so much the poorer without such wonders as The Little Shuffler.

More information on...

Whinless Down

A pdf leaflet (White Cliffs Countryside Partnership (WCCP)) for Whinless Down is available here.

WCCP run groups of conservation volunteers who help maintain vital chalk habitats in the Dover area. The timetable for spring/summer tasks is here.

The Kent Wildlife Trust acquire and manage chalk downland habitats in Kent.

Pomatias elegans
Snail's Tales, a blogger (Aydin Örstan) specialising in all things snail has excellent pictures of Pomatias elegans coming out of it's shell here. There are some more super pictures and information on The Wee Shuffler here.

The Mollusks: A Guide to Their Study, Collection and Preservation. Charles F. Sturm, Timothy A. Pearce, Ángel Valdés. I accessed Chapter 22 (Land Snails) co-written by Aydin Örstan (Snail's Tales blogger) here.

Watson, L. and Dallwitz, M.J. (2005 onwards). The families of British non-marine molluscs (slugs, snails and mussels). Version: 4th January 2012. Here and illustrations here.

The Living World of Molluscs was a mine of useful information which I used to write this blog.
Terrestrial snails
Round-mouthed snails
The tentacles of snails