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A round up of the top countryside, conservation, wildlife and forestry stories as chosen by the CJS Team.


Spring is in the air, and so are Dartmoor’s cuckoos! – Dartmoor National Park Authority

Image: Dartmoor NPAImage: Dartmoor NPA

The Dartmoor cuckoo project, which began with the tagging of seven Dartmoor birds in 2013 and 2014, is waiting and hoping that the two birds – called Whortle and Emsworthy, who survived the arduous migration to Africa will make it back to our shores this spring.

Dartmoor National Park (DNP), in partnership with Devon Birds, is taking part in the ground-breaking national satellite tagging project run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to learn about the migration of Dartmoor’s cuckoos and start to understand the reasons for their alarming decline.

In May 2013, satellite tags were put onto four Dartmoor cuckoos, with a further three birds tagged in May 2014. Sadly, the fate of five of these seven birds mirrors the national picture of decline, with a 70% decrease in the population witnessed in the last 20 years: Only two of the seven birds were still sending signals from their wintering grounds in Africa earlier this year, and it is feared that one of these two birds might have perished now as well, leaving us with just one active tagged cuckoo. We hope both cuckoos still survive and will arrive back on our shores in late April. You can follow their routes by following the links on www.dartmoor.gov.uk/cuckoo

In a further effort to understand what is causing these drastic declines, Devon Birds have created a live web map that allows members of the public to enter their cuckoo sightings. This interactive map was launched last year with a plea for records from the public – and we received an amazing 700 records!


Warming seas pose habitat risk for fishy favourites – University of Exeter

Popular North Sea fish such as haddock, plaice and lemon sole could become less common on our menus because they will be constrained to preferred habitat as seas warm, according to a study published today in Nature Climate Change.

Fish distributions are limited by water temperature and some species can only thrive in certain habitats and depths. In the last 40 years the North Sea has warmed four times faster than the global average and further warming is predicted over the coming century, leading fisheries scientists to study how this will impact on commercial species.

The researchers developed a model that combined long-term fisheries datasets and climate model projections from the Met Office to predict the abundance and distribution of the UK’s favourite fish over the next 50 years.

The team including researchers from Exeter and Bristol found that, as the North Sea warms, species will have little capacity to move northwards to avoid warming temperatures, since habitat of a suitable depth is not available. Due to higher temperatures, many of the species studied are predicted to reduce in relative abundance.

Louise Rutterford, postgraduate researcher in Biosciences at the University of Exeter, said: “Our study suggests that we will see proportionally less of some of the species we eat most of as they struggle to cope with warming conditions in the North Sea. We provide new insight into how important local depths and associated habitats are to these commercial species. It’s something that is not always captured in existing models that predict future fish distributions.”


Scottish wildlife organisations call to ban mountain hare cull – Scottish Wildlife Trust

The Trust and a  group of nine other high profile wildlife and conservation organisations are calling on the Scottish Government to impose a three year ban on all mountain hare culling on grouse moors until safeguards are in place to inform sustainable management, and to meet our international conservation obligations. 

The mountain hare is Britain’s only native hare and plays a vital part of the complex ecosystem of Scotland’s uplands and moorlands, including acting as an important source of prey for golden eagles, one of Scotland’s most famous birds.

Mountain hares are often found in good numbers on grouse moors with their large expanses of heather and are protected against indiscriminate methods of killing under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. The Scottish Government has a legal duty to maintain their population in a state of good health. However, mountain hares are now routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors in Scotland. This practice has developed relatively recently in the belief that it protects red grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support this claim.

Director of Conservation for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Simon Jones, said: “Mountain hares are important to Scotland both culturally and from a conservation perspective. We, along with the other organisations are calling for a three year ban, to allow time for all those involved to take stock of the longer term impacts of large scale culling. Once the results of the study have been published we will then be able to identify the best ways to monitor mountain hare populations and measure the impact that management is having on their conservation status. We believe that grouse moor managers have a duty of care to these important mountain hare populations. The unregulated and seemingly unsustainable culling that is endemic on many grouse moors is a threat to these important populations.”


Race to save Ratty as UK water voles face uncertain future: Launch of first National Water Vole Monitoring Programme – The Wildlife Trusts

Water vole cpt Margaret Holland

Water vole cpt Margaret Holland

Once a familiar sight along our waterways, water voles have rapidly disappeared from much of the landscape, experiencing the most serious decline of any wild mammal over the last century.

The shocking drop in numbers is due to the release and spread of non-native mink across the countryside, and also the loss and degradation of much of our waterways.  To ensure that we have a better picture of what is happening to the species nationally and that we are in a position to act quickly when needed, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) is launching the first ongoing National Water Vole Monitoring Programme across England, Scotland and Wales, working in collaboration with The Wildlife Trusts, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Environment Agency, Natural England and RSPB.

Through the National Water Vole Monitoring Programme, PTES aims to bring together all the valuable work that is being carried out across the country, as well as monitor selected historical sites, to establish any changes in the population and to help guide future conservation efforts.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust conducted two national surveys between 1989-90 and 1996-98 that first demonstrated the dramatic decline of water voles across Britain.  The sites that were visited during these two surveys will form the basis of the National Water Vole Monitoring Programme.  By regularly resurveying these sites, PTES will be able to identify any changes that have happened since the late 1990s, as well as detect any emerging national trends.


Bee Wall – protecting our pollinators - Buglife

Living Wall provider Scotscape are teaming up with conservation charity Buglife to test out the best planting schemes to create living walls with a pollinator plus effect.

Throughout the 2015 growing season a test wall at Scotscapes’s Surrey headquarters will be trialling a selection of plants recommended as good for pollinators alongside a range of Buglife approved bug homes.

It is hoped that after analysing the results, these trials will provide knowledge as to the best plants and homes for bugs to grow in these vertical gardens. Leading to a best practice for nature guide to living walls and an off the shelf living wall for biodiversity for future installations.


Doubling of common dolphin encounters in the Hebrides - Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust

A substantial increase in common dolphin encounters off western Scotland is to be studied by Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust in a new season of marine research expeditions beginning next month.

HWDT’s encounter rate with common dolphins has more than doubled over the past 12 years. The findings – recently presented to the European Cetacean Society – have emerged from the charity’s unique long-term monitoring of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Hebrides.

The causes – and broader effects on the marine environment and other species – are still unclear. HWDT is now recruiting volunteers to work alongside marine scientists in its annual summer surveys, which it hopes will shed further light on the dramatic changes. “An increase in common dolphins means that those wishing to encounter dolphins in the wild are in luck – but further research is needed to explain why this is happening, the extent to which this has been caused by human activity, and the implications for other cetacean species,” said Dr Conor Ryan, Sightings Officer at HWDT.

Common dolphins come to the Hebrides each spring to take advantage of seasonal food stocks. They are gregarious, often approaching boats to bow-ride and play in the wake, and are smaller than the region’s resident bottlenose dolphins. The species also travels in large groups – sometimes forming super-pods of thousands of individuals.

Despite their name, common dolphins – known in Gaelic as leumadair or ‘jumper’ – were once only occasionally seen in the Hebrides, preferring more southern waters generally warmer than 10°C. With climate change causing sea surface temperatures in the Hebrides to rise at a rate of 0.5°C per decade, it appears that such warmer water species are starting to colonise new areas in the north or closer to shore.
Yet even as this shift potentially creates new opportunities for common dolphins, it may be generating competition for food with other dolphin species or seabirds. One predicted consequence of warming seas is colder-water species such as the white beaked dolphin being forced to retreat further north. So far HWDT has found no evidence of displacement of the white beaked dolphin – but continued monitoring is needed to establish whether or not the influx of common dolphins is having a negative effect on such species.

UK National Parks urge visitors to capture 'Landscapes of Plenty' in photo competition – National Parks

Join the UK's National Parks family in celebrating Britain's Landscapes of Plenty and you could earn a new pair of boots from outdoor specialist Merrell.

The annual UK National Parks photography competition launches today (14 April) and runs until 31 May 2015. Photographers of all ages and skill level are encouraged to get snapping in any one of the UK's 15 National Parks, capturing some of the diverse landscapes and communities that make Britain's breathing spaces so special.

The theme for this year's competition is "Landscapes of Plenty," a celebration of the productive landscapes of the UK's National Parks. More than just places to play and be inspired, the National Parks are also home to some of the best produce, products, food and drink in the UK. 

Don't forget to enter the BWPA Photography Competition, Botanical category sponsored by CJS, details here: www.bwpawards.org (Closes 1 May)


Britain's tallest native tree – National Trust

A beech tree in Newtimber Woods on the Devil’s Dyke estate in West Sussex has been declared the tallest native tree in Britain. Measuring a staggering 44m tall (144ft), the champion tree is thought to be almost 200 years old.

The discovery was made by Dr Owen Johnson, Registrar for the Tree Register, a unique record of ancient and notable trees in Britain and Ireland. He was alerted to the possible record breaker by dendrologist Peter Bourne. ‘I didn't quite believe Peter when he said the tallest tree in the woods could be 44 metres tall as I know the South Downs well,’ said Dr Johnson. ‘But I found my scepticism entirely unjustified! It's amazing how you can go on discovering marvellous trees, almost on your doorstep, It's also strange and fascinating that this one beech, which must have very good genes, has managed to grow so much taller than all of its rivals in the same conditions.’

Set within a valley, the Newtimber Woods beech is one of a clump of trees planted together. Its great height is a result of continued competition to reach the light and the fact it has been allowed to grow without any management for at least the last 90 years.

‘This breathtaking woodland has been coppiced for a thousand years or more and it’s wonderful to think that it’s now home to the tallest wild tree in Britain,’ said Charlie Cain, ranger for the Devil’s Dyke estate. ‘Spring is the perfect time to come and see this champion as the trees come into leaf and carpets of woodland flowers arrive.’

The new record holder eclipses the previous champion native tree from Gloucestershire, also a beech, which is a metre shorter. At nearly two centuries old the Newtimber Woods beech is reaching the upper limit of a beech tree’s life expectancy.


Litter: can we stop the rot? – Country Life

Beautiful Britain? Not really. The UK is one of the filthiest countries in Europe for rubbish. Country Life’s campaign aims to change attitudes to desecrating the landscape, as we reveal the shocking statistics.

Britain’s collective rubbish dump is at an all-time high. We live in a flyblown nation that has lost its self-respect. Each year, we spend almost £1 billion cleaning up streets, parks and countryside, which represents too much money spent on an avoidable issue, but not enough time spent to make a difference.

How did this sloppy selfishness overtake the whole country? Everyone knows that spreading litter is wrong, yet it has become an acceptable shame for some people and it’s getting worse. Ever-increasing amounts of packaging, plastic bags and fast-food outlets provide the ammunition, but ammunition is nothing without a hand to hurl it.

Fortunately, admirable bodies such as Keep Britain tidy, the Marine Conservation society and the CPRE encourage armies of litter heroes who tidy up parishes, parks and beaches. it follows that, if there’s less litter in the first place, less will be dropped, but it’s still a case of the few taking on the many, with, on average, 2.25 million pieces of rubbish dropped every day—the drifts of debris on roadsides seem to act as a magnet for litterbugs.

Country Life’s five-point National Litter Strategy:

  1. Education programmes for schools to demonstrate the shocking cost of litter to wildlife, the environment and society. We need a new generation to be disgusted
  2. A business rate on permanent takeaway food outlets, earmarked for a clean-up fund
  3. A national clean-up day, supported by Government and industry
  4. Councils to be fined if they fail to meet quarterly cleaning targets and the money raised to be redeployed directly into litter clearing by a task force
  5. The polluter must pay. Littering is difficult to police, especially with the demise of the local bobby, but the number of prose- cutions needs to rise from the current paltry level

A balancing act: fine tuning the production of plant cell membranes – Rothamsted Research

Scientists from Rothamsted Research, who are strategically funded by the BBSRC, have discovered a mechanism that allows plant cells to regulate the rate at which they produce membranes. The work is published in the journal The Plant Cell.

Membranes are the building blocks of cells, which in turn are the building blocks of life. For cells to function the quantity and composition of their membranes must be tightly regulated. Quite how plant cells achieve this feat is poorly understood. The study, using the model plant Arabidopsis, shows that plant cells control membrane production by changing the chemical composition of their membranes. This change in composition is then sensed by the plant as it seeks to maintain a condition of balance within its internal environment (called a ‘homeostatic’ mechanism) and it responds by altering the rate at which membrane is produced.

Dr Peter Eastmond who led the research said: “It’s extremely important for plants to maintain and adapt their cellular membrane systems in response to developmental and environmental cues. Our discovery that plant cells induce changes in the lipid composition of their membranes to control the rate at which they produce more membranes is an important step in helping us unravel how membrane production is coordinated with basic processes that demand new membrane such as cell division and expansion”.


New female osprey at Loch of the Lowes lays first egg – Scottish Wildlife Trust

The Trust can confirm the new female osprey at the Loch of the Lowes Wildlife Reserve, near Dunkeld has laid her first egg of the season.

Wildlife enthusiasts from around the world have had an agonising wait for this osprey to lay an egg after days of being unsettled on the nest. Ospreys can lay up to four eggs, usually around 48 hours apart. This raises hope that there will be chicks on the nest this year.

The new osprey’s predecessor, affectionately known by many as ‘Lady’, did not produce any chicks in what may have been her final year at the Scottish Wildlife Trust Loch of the Lowes Wildlife Reserve.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust Perthshire Ranger, Charlotte Fleming, said: “At around 9.00pm last night, the new female osprey laid her first egg and this has caused plenty of excitement for the staff and volunteers at the Scottish Wildlife Trust Loch of the Lowes Visitor Centre and Reserve. Now there is an egg on the nest, the Osprey Protection Programme will begin in earnest. Thanks to our supporters, including players of People’s Postcode Lottery, the Trust operates a 24-hour watch on the nest site to ensure the safety of the birds and the egg.”  


Is climate change affecting our acorns? – Woodland Trust

New data has shown that acorns could be affected by climate change (Photo: Carole Sutton/WTML) New research analysing data recorded by members of the public on Nature’s Calendar suggests that climate change may be affecting the quality of acorn crops produced by oak trees across the UK. The research published in the new issue of British Wildlife suggests that warmer years lead to less synchronised flowering in oak trees and lower quality acorn crops.

New data has shown that acorns could be affected by climate change

(Photo: Carole Sutton/WTML)

Professor Tim Sparks from Coventry University analysed over 160,000 pieces of data and found that for every four days increased variation in first flowering date, the mean fruiting score for the acorn crop produced that year fell by 20%. Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2002, suggesting the trend is likely to continue in coming years.

Professor Sparks said: “This is a preliminary result which requires further study but there is a significant correlation for both species of native oak. Synchronised years tend to be those with a later mean first flowering date, suggesting warmer years are associated with smaller acorn crops.”

Dr Kate Lewthwaite, Woodland Trust Citizen Science Manager, added: “Information added to Nature’s Calendar by the public is hugely important in helping us make sense of changes in the natural environment. Identifying trends like these can also help us better plan for the future, building the resilience and diversity of our precious native woodland.”

Acorns are a primary food source for a number of species including jays, pigeons, deer and squirrels; some of these species help to disperse seeds but synchronised flowering enables oak trees to pollinate through wind dispersal much more effectively.

Nature’s Calendar is the longest written biological record of its kind, with information dating back to 1736 and is a powerful tool in assessing the impact of climate change.


Call for step change in energy efficiency to avoid disastrous impacts on countryside - CPRE

Woodburner Image via CPREA new report published today by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) shows that England needs a huge investment in energy efficiency if we are to even approach our 2050 carbon reduction target and avoid inflicting widespread damage on the countryside.

The Warm and Green report asserts that energy efficiency has been grossly underplayed in discussions and policy on England’s future energy supply, and that it must become increasingly important in rural areas. The report highlights the potentially huge impact of infrastructure on the countryside if old and new homes remain energy inefficient, and illustrates the dearth of funding for improvements in rural areas.

Photo: © CPRE

Based on research conducted by Cambridge Architectural Research and Anglia Ruskin University for CPRE, Warm and Green finds that we can cut carbon emissions from homes by 44 per cent through an ambitious retrofitting programme. Yet the research shows that even if we make such upgrades, we would still be considerably short of meeting energy demand while cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. One possible scenario to meet the demand is to plant half of England with biomass crops, build 3,500 new wind turbines, and install 8,000 hectares of new solar panels.

Seeking solutions to the huge challenges we face, the research looks at case studies from across the country to explore motivations for and barriers to making energy improvements in rural homes and community buildings. It finds that cost, the difficulty of finding skilled installers and payback time are barriers that are too high for many people to overcome. To ensure progress on reducing our energy demand, the report calls for a bold national programme to reduce energy and carbon emissions from homes and community buildings; the implementation of stronger zero carbon standards for new homes; and for rural communities to receive a fairer share of funding for energy efficiency. 18 per cent of the population live in rural areas, but those areas receive less than 1 per cent of funding for energy efficiency improvements.

Download the Warm and Green report here.


Flourishing faster: how to make trees grow bigger and quicker – University of Manchester

Scientists at The University of Manchester have discovered a way to make trees grow bigger and faster, which could increase supplies of renewable resources and help trees cope with the effects of climate change.

Hand section from Poplar tree (image via University of Manchester)Hand section from Poplar tree (image via University of Manchester)

In the study, published in Current Biology, the team successfully manipulated two genes in poplar trees in order to make them grow larger and more quickly than usual. 

Professor Simon Turner from the Faculty of Life Sciences led the research: “The rate at which trees grow is determined by the rate of cell division in the stem. We have identified two genes that are able to drive cell division in the stem and so override the normal growth pattern. Although, this needs be tested in the field, this discovery paves the way for generating trees that grow more quickly and so will contribute to meeting the needs for increased plant biomass as a renewable source of biofuels, chemicals and materials while minimising further CO2 release into the atmosphere.”

The genes, called PXY and CLE, control the growth of a tree trunk. When overexpressed, making them more active than in their normal state, the trees grew twice as fast as normal and were taller, wider and had more leaves.

As well as the potential to increase biomass supplies for the growing biofuel and industrial biotechnology sectors, the discovery could help plants deal with the environmental consequences of climate change.

Professor Turner adds: “Our work offers the possibility we may be able to maintain a fast growth rate even in the face of adverse and changeable environmental conditions that all plants are likely to be faced with. Most plants, including crops, respond to adverse environmental conditions with lower growth rates that result in correspondingly lower yields. Understanding how the plants respond to environmental signals and to what extent we are able to manipulate them to override these signals is likely to be very important for continued improvements to crop performance. In future it may be possible that manipulating the expression of the PXY and CLE genes can override environmental signals that normally alter plant growth. “This is something that needs to be tested in the field, but offers a potential way forward for what is one of the most pressing challenges of the day.”

The paper "Wood formation in trees is increased by manipulating PXY-regulated cell division" will be published in the hard copy of the journal Current Biology on Monday 20 April 2015. An online version is available


Record count of snake’s-head fritillaries for second year running at Iffley Meadows - BBOWT

For the second year in a row, careful management of Oxford’s Iffley Meadows nature reserve has ensured a record count of snake’s-head fritillaries – an impressive 89,830 individual plants, an increase of more than 5,000 on last year.

The floodplain meadows, abutting the city’s southern bypass and the River Thames, are home to one of the largest concentrations of Oxfordshire’s county flower, whose chequered, purple, pink and occasional white nodding flowers wow visitors each April.

This year’s count took place on 15 April, as Britain’s only native fritillary plant, and listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, reached its climax. 

Spend an hour or two on a guided walk of the meadows this Sunday, led by Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers who look after this very special nature reserve just a mile from Oxford City centre.

Under the Trust’s careful management, numbers of the snake’s-head fritillary plants have increased from just 500 when it took over management of the Oxford City Council nature reserve in 1983. Recent years had seen numbers stabilise at 40-60,000, though summer flooding in 2007 led to a low of 32,000 by 2012.

The last three years have seen consistently higher counts at Iffley Meadows, thanks to a combination of fine summer weather and the Trust’s management regime of a July hay cut followed by cattle grazing in autumn and early winter. The hay cut removes excess nutrients, while grazing keeps competitive sedges and rushes in check.

Wildlife Trust reserves ecologist Colin Williams isn’t complacent: “The upwards trend is certainly encouraging, but there are parts of the meadow where numbers are still to recover. Our challenge is to apply what’s worked successfully in some areas of the meadows to other areas so that more plants will flourish in future. In addition to the hay cut and grazing, our ongoing Iffley Meadows Biodiversity Improvement Project work of pollarding willows and digging out ditches to improve drainage should help to further improve conditions for these and other wild flowers that bloom here during the spring and summer.”


Unusual ‘blue bird’ spotted at Amwell – Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust

For only the seventh time in Hertfordshire’s history a white-spotted bluethroat has been seen in the county, at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Amwell Nature Reserve.

The stunning bird was spotted by Ian Rose and Amwell’s Volunteer Warden, Darren Bast, in front of the main viewpoint at the reserve. Darren said: “Ian set eyes on it first. We were walking back to the main viewpoint - I was looking for swallows arriving and Ian was looking for sedge warblers. Initially we thought it was a bearded tit, which would have been a fairly unusual sight in itself. Then we thought perhaps a dunnock, as it had its back to us. When it turned round we were both amazed and delighted to see it was a bluethroat! What a stunning sight.”

Jenny Sherwen, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Reserve Officer at Amwell Nature Reserve, said: “Bluethroats breed mainly in northern and central Europe and are migrating in spring and autumn. It looks like this individual decided to take a pitstop from its journey at Amwell. There is always the potential to see something unusual at the reserve when birds are migrating. What a fantastic sight!”

There was a bluethroat recorded at Cornmill Meadows in the Lea Valley in 1996 and before that, one was ringed at Rye Meads in 1983.


Warm spell offers best chance to see toads in a decade – Canal & River Trust

The sudden changes in weather this spring could give us the best chance to see and track the country’s declining toad populations in a decade.

A ToadA toad (image via Canal & River Trust)

Celebrated in ‘Wind in the Willows’, toads were once a common sight on the waterways, but numbers have declined in recent years due to a combination of causes including loss of habitat and increased road traffic. 

Experts say that the colder temperatures during March followed by the sudden rise in temperature through April means that the toads are now likely to have migrated en masse, and should benefit from breeding in larger groups.

The last decade of milder springs has seen a steady migration over a longer period, often starting in early March and continuing until May.  This has made it more difficult to track the animals, and identify their breeding grounds.

Paul Wilkinson, ecologist at the Canal & River Trust, said: “Toads are one of the real characters of British wildlife, and often choose to breed on our waterways. The weather this year gives us the best chance in years to see them and find out which areas on our waterways are important for them to breed, which means we’ll be able to protect those areas in the future. Also, as they’re more likely to breed in groups, they’ll have strength in numbers and tadpoles will be more likely to survive into toads.Canals provide a perfect place for toads to spawn, as the fish in them deter frogs from also trying to lay their eggs in the same spots. We’re asking people to keep an eye out for toads or their toadspawn - which looks like long strings of frogspawn - on their local canals. People can also keep a look out later for black tadpoles in swarms, these are different to the brown frog tadpoles that try to hide away due to the fact that they are much tastier to predators.”


General Election 2015 - we bring you a summary of main party manifestos – Countryside Alliance

The main political parties have now published their manifestos ahead of the General Election on 7th May. We have been through each manifesto in order to bring you each party's rural commitments according to our own campaigning priorities, as set out in our own manifesto. 


Scientific papers

Boyle, P., Hayes, M., Gormally, M., Sullivan, C. & Moran, J. (2015) Development of a nature value index for pastoral farmland—A rapid farm-level assessment. Ecological Indicators. doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.03.011


Bruyere, B. L. (2015) Giving direction and clarity to conservation leadership. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12174


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