Greater Manchester

“the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds grew from humble and somewhat unlikely beginnings. In February 1889, a group of respectable middle-class women gathered in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury. Their mission was to put a stop to the widespread use of bird skins and feathers in the fashion and millinery trades, which was having such a devastating effect on bird populations.” To edit

St Brides Haven snorkeling


Gorgeous little cove, the white sands and views reminding me very much of a Hebridean island beach. St Brides Haven is one of best spots for snorkeling in Pembrokeshire, if not Wales – head out for the reef protecting the cove for superb snorkeling in a kelp forest with  lobsters, crabs, wrasse, pollack and dogfish and if you’re lucky a seal. You’ll also enjoy yourself investigating the sandstone rock-pools around the cove, including gem and dahlia anemones.

Image: David Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Grace Priory: Best place to see stoats in Britain

Mount Grace Priory is reputed to be one of the best place to see stoats in Britain. The stoats here have starred in “Stoats in the Priory” a David Attenborough wildlife documentary (the first ever film of the elusive wild stoat in its native habitat) and also featured in his Life of Mammals television series leading to the epitaph as “the most famous pack of stoats in Britain’.

This Radio 4 Living World documentary is excellent “Along with the 40-thousand annual visitors to the 14th century Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire are some rather more elusive guests stoats. Visitors to the Carthusian monastery, founded in 1398, are often delighted by the sight of these small predators, and at the right time of year, a litter of kits. Lionel Kelleway is used to trying to spot elusive mammals, and with the help of English Heritage custodian Becky Wright, he’s taken around the stoats’ favourite dens and hunting spots.”

See also short video: The One Show: Stoats in the Priory (BBC)

The Jersey toad

jersey toad

Scientists proved in 2014 that the toads living on Jersey are a different species from the common toad (Bufo bufo) found across UK and Europe and has been named The Jersey toad (Bufo spinosus). Dr. John Wilkinson who works as Science Programme Manager forAmphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), explained “We always suspected there was something special about the toads of Jersey. They grow larger, breed earlier and use different habitats than English toads. Now we know they are a new species, we can ensure efforts for their conservation are directed to their specific needs.”

Curiously. the fact the Jersey is the only channel island with toads has led to a common association between the islanders and the animal, which led dwellers of the other islands to use the term “crapaud” from the French to refer to residents of Jersey in a derogatory way. The toad is now a common cultural fixture in Jersey, with a statue dedicated to it in the island’s capital St Helier. (image BBC)

The last viable colony of black rats in Britain


The Shiant Isles in the Hebrides have the dubious distinction (as of 2015) of being home to what is probably the last viable colony of black rats in Britain, which has almost become extinct in the UK due principally to pressures from the also invasive brown rat.

The RSPB is current engaged in programme to to erradicte the black rat from the Shiant Isles, where some 3,600 live – the number increasing significantly in the months when more food is available (chicks and eggs). This will hopefully  encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed on the Shiant Isles.

Charlie Elder sets out to find these unloved animals before they are erradicted, paying them a curious homage in his amusing Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals (2015).

After noting that the black rat has been with us in Britain for longer than the rabbit, he sails to the Shiants and finds his prey:

An hour passed and the light was beginning to dim, when something moving from left to right at the top of the rocks caught me by surprise: a tantalising glimpse of tail disappearing between clumps of sea pink. I held my breath. Could this be one? There are no land mammals other than black rats on the Shiants, so it had to be. Please let me see you, little fellow, I whispered to myself. I was downwind and motionless, though close enough to have been spotted. Would it dare break cover for the sake of a free meal? Nothing stirred for a while, until . . . There! It sprinted to a new hiding place well above the bait –a rat, no mistake. Several minutes went by before it appeared once more, scampering down the face of the rock and dodging behind a piece of old tarpaulin lying next to a rusty boat winch. Black rats are known for their climbing skills, nevertheless the ability to descend slippery vertical stone head-first at such speed, without falling, was extraordinary.

Later noting:

There is no record that I am aware of for the ‘longest journey in Britain to see a rat’, but I feel fairly confident that my trip from Dartmoor to the Hebrides could lay claim to the title.

Photo of “Shiant Isles” by Tony Kinghorn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Red-necked phalarope stronghold


The Shetland island of Fetlar is a hotshot for red-necked phalarope. Almost of all Britain’s breeding birds nest here around Loch of Funzie. In 2014, a red-necked phalarope tagged here was recorded migrating thousands of miles west across the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a journey never before recorded for a European breeding bird. It had flown from Shetland across the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland, south down the eastern seaboard of the US, across the Caribbean and Mexico, ending up off the coast of Ecuador and Peru. After wintering in the Pacific, it returned to Fetlar, following a similar route.

Image of red-necked phalarope by Dave Menke from Wikipedia Commons

Stag beetle loggery at Kew Gardens


The remarkable stag beetle loggery at Kew Gardens. This giant beetle model is an educational exhibit with the added aim of providing a home for saproxylic insects (those which feed on decaying wood), and in particular to provide a safe haven for stag beetles which are globally endangered. It is found in the conservation area of Kew Gardens around Queen Charlotte’s cottage, kept wild. London is a stronghold for stag beetles.

Photo by David Hawgood [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Armitage on grouse


Poet Simon Armitage watched grouse as he passed through the blanket bog of Cotherstone Moor, and wrote in ‘Walking Home’, his travelogue along the Pennine Way:

The next stretch is over another barren elevation, populated by small cairns at regular intervals, like relics of a primitive religion or ritualistic practice, their form and function not yet fully understood. There are dozens of them, and dozens of red grouse too, whose numbers on this moor seem absurd, even to the point where they explode out from under our feet every ten yards or so or waddle off in family groups of seven or eight led by the mother, so many in fact that it would probably be harder to miss a grouse with a shotgun, even when firing blind drunk, than to hit one. I’ve heard it said that to create a diversion and allow her young to escape the female grouse will sometimes feign injury by dragging a wing and floundering along the ground, but I’ve never seen it, even though on these overstocked acres some of these birds are almost within grabbing distance

Image: “Moorland, Cotherstone – – 621337” by Andrew Smith. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tansy beetles on the River Ouse


The Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis),  so called for the adults’ and larva’s preference for the tansy plant is restricted in the UK to about 45 km along the banks of the River Ouse either side of York town centre. A recovery programme is underway to cut back invasive Himalayan balsam and so promote its food plant.

tansy beetle ouse

Image of “Tansy beetle” by Geoff Oxford – Own work via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Armitage in Kielder Forest

Pennine poet Simon Armitage passed through Kielder Forest, Europe’s biggest man-made forest, in his ‘Walking Home’, a dour and wonderful travelogue along the Pennine Way:

As well as providing an infinite supply of liquid refreshment for the region’s midge population, Kielder Water was built to service the heavy industries of England’s north-east coast, but by the time the reservoir was opened those industries had all but disappeared. Some claim that Kielder is not only a white elephant but an environmental calamity, the monoculture of Sitka spruce and its lookalikes signalling the end of biodiversity and effectively carpeting over what was once a rare and treasured moorland habitat. Those with vested interests argue otherwise, that the forest provides sanctuary for endangered wildlife such as red squirrel and raptors, that it offers endless recreational facilities, and that the reservoir, in a warmer world with an uncertain meteorological future, is a well that never runs dry.

Monoculture possibly, monotonous without doubt. In fact it’s plain old boring, slogging along the gravel access road with a drawn curtain of trees on either side. Review in The Guardian of Walking Home.

Skomer Island


Approximately half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters nest on Skomer and its “sister” island of Skokholm with an estimated  total of 310,000 pairs on Skomer itself and 40,000 pairs on Skokholm, making this the world’s most important breeding site for the species. The birds usually nest in rabbit burrows. The two islands are also home to the largest colony of puffins in southern Britain (10,000 breeding pairs), many likewise nesting in the burrows created by the large population of rabbits.

BBC Radio 4’s Living World visits Skomer Island off the south east coast of Wales and home to thousands of seabirds.

There are 25,000 guillemots packed together on the cliffs, no other bird breeds in such close proximity to its neighbours. Fights and squabbles constantly break out, but friendships and pair-bonding are very strong. They keep the same mate for life and produce one chick a year. The fledgling has to leap from the sheer cliff face into the sea below to find its dad, surrounded by thousands of others, and try to avoid being eaten by predatory gulls. Each year each guillemot pair comes back to exactly the same place on the cliff ledge and they defend it vigorously.

In the early decades of the 20th Century there were 100,000 guillemots on Skomer but numbers plummeted to just 2000 after the second world war, probably due to oil pollution in the sea. Now numbers are slowly recovering but the increase in storms may be a problem for them in the future. Listen

Image of puffins on Skomer by Skomer-WickLand” by SkrrpOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Grassholm Island


Located 11 miles of the coast of Pembrokeshire, Grassholm is home to more than 39,000 breeding pairs of Gannet, representing around 10 percent of the world population – the third largest Atlantic gannet colony in the UK (behind St Kilda and Bass Rock). The island is also the westernmost point in Wales.

Image: Gannets on Grassholm – – 174369″ by dave challender. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ivell’s sea anemone – Britain’s most recent extinction

Ivell’s sea anemone (Edwardsia ivelli) is the only know endemic animal to be known to have gone extinct (probably) in Britain in modern times. It has not been found since 1983 despite detailed searches at its only known site, Widewater Lagoon in West Sussex.

From Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals by Charlie Elder. An excellent and amusing read,

“It was the summer of 1972, and Oxford zoology graduate Richard Ivell had risen early, eager to press on with his research. He stepped into his backyard to sort through several buckets of mud and brine collected the day before. These thick, stinking sections of sediment dug from Widewater Lagoon in West Sussex provided raw material for his master’s thesis on the ecology of brackish environments. Sandwiched between land and open sea, lagoons are vulnerable and yet hostile habitats, where fluctuating temperature and salinity test life forms to the limit. Landlocked Widewater, a shallow stretch of water running for nearly a mile next to the A259 near Worthing, provided the perfect place to study. Bordered by the back gardens of houses to the north and beach huts to the south, the narrow basin is kept topped up by rainfall and by the sea that percolates through its shingle banks during high tides. Various kinds of prawns and cockles live within its confines, and some of these creatures would have been scooped up in the samples Richard had collected just a couple of metres out from the seaward edge. The mud had settled overnight within the buckets, each surface a dark brown disc submerged under a lens of clear salt water. In the quiet, life had stirred.

Forty years later, the memory is still vivid, as Professor Ivell told me on the phone from the animal biology institute in Germany where he now works. Peering over the rim of one of the containers, he couldn’t believe what he saw. ‘In the stillness, small anemones had emerged and their lightly banded tentacles were spread out flat against the sediment. The thing I remember is how beautiful they were, and how fragile, like tiny flowers in a desert. It was quite amazing to see.’Unable to identify the small burrowing species, he showed a colleague at Oxford University, Richard Manuel. If the catchphrase among Anthozoa taxonomists is ‘know thine anemone’, then Dick was the person to ask. An expert in such marine life, he realised that these specimens, no more than a couple of centimetres long, buff coloured with twelve transparent tentacles, the outer nine marked with cream bands, were new to science.”

Pioneering wildlife photographer


In 1905, Emma Turner built a houseboat on Hickling Broad, still today the largest reed-bed in England, in Norfolk to photograph the wildlife, while lying in the marshes her lens poking out from the reeds, Six years later she managed to photograph a young Bittern in the nest proving that Bitterns were breeding again in Norfolk having been driven to extinction in Britain in the late 1800s. This BBC Radio 4 programme tells the remarkable story of Emma Turner a pioneer of bird photography (1866-1940); who spent some 20 years on her boat, she nicknamed ‘Water Rail’ (after the first photograph she took in the Broadlands).

Big Ben’s starlings

On the evening 12 August 1949  a flock of starlings landed on one of the minute hands of Big Ben causing it to slow by five minutes. The clock was unable to chime at 9pm but was back to normal by midnight [here].

Incidentally, an entire episode of The Goon Show in 1954 parodied of the futile efforts to disrupt the large common starling roosts in central London.

Sadly, the magnificent murmurations over the city are now a thing of the past as this RSPB article reminds us, although they are still the second most common bird found in London’s gardens according to the  annual Big Garden Birdwatch.