Photograph: Robin Chittenden/Alamy
Photograph: Robin Chittenden/Alamy
I returned from the meetings filled with amazement, and the stirrings of a hope which has been all too rare in recent years. First, at the launch of Rewilding Europe’s Wildlife Comeback report three weeks ago, I heard about the remarkably rapid spread of large wild animals back into places which lost them long ago.
Then, at the World Wilderness Congress 11 days ago, I heard how people and nations with very few resources, under almost impossible circumstances, were protecting or reintroducing “difficult” wild animals, species which are controversial, and which require the largest habitats.
Amid the hope and wonder, what hit me hardest was this: while in Britain we applaud the courage of people in poorer nations and celebrate their successes, while we send money abroad to conserve large wild animals and, rightly, become upset if people start killing them, we seem determined not to participate. Protecting species towards the top of the food chain, with all the difficulties that can involve, is something other people should do: we would rather stand back and watch.
I have been trying to understand why we are so far behind the rest of the world, why we fetishise deforested and almost empty ecosystems, why the United Kingdom, in the words of the biologist David Hetherington, is “the largest country in Europe and almost the whole world” which no longer possesses any of its big (or even medium-sized) carnivores, and why, above all, our conservation groups seem so unconcerned about the depletion of nature in Britain and so disinclined to address it.
Rewilding Europe points out that its findings do not invalidate concerns about the global loss of biodiversity. This is happening at rates unparalleled since the previous mass extinctions, caused by meteorite strikes or gigantic volcanic eruptions, and it is being driven by human action: the trashing and clearing of habitats, pollution, acidifiation, global warming and the direct killing of vulnerable species.
Europe is not immune to these extinctions, and some species, on land and particularly at sea, are being pushed to the brink with astonishing speed.
But at the same time something remarkable and unexpected has been happening. In many parts there has been a great restoration of habitats: partly accidental, as farmers have vacated marginal lands; partly deliberate, as ambitious European conservation groups have secured the protection of large areas. There has also been a sharp reduction in the persecution of many species which people previously either hunted for sport and food or sought to exterminate as vermin. Animals which were once hated are now protected and cherished. Even the species which seemed least likely to return – those which require large territories and were reviled by people – have started to bounce back.
For example, by the first world war, the wolf’s range in Europe had contracted to just 7% of what it had been at the time of the French Revolution. It was extinct almost everywhere. Well into the second half of the 20th century it was still persecuted in its last redoubts.
But since 1970 its population in Europe has quadrupled: there are now about 12,000 wolves on the continent. Relict populations in eastern Europe, Italy and Spain have expanded into much of Germany, the French Alps and as far as central France, Catalonia in Spain, Denmark, Belgium and even, on two occasions, the Netherlands. While its populations are not everywhere secure, it is now as likely to be welcomed as feared, as a new generation of nature lovers delights in its reappearance, and as wolf-watching businesses have sprung up, generating income and employment in places where both were in short supply.
Lynx populations have also quadrupled over roughly the same period (to about 10,000 animals), and have spread – largely through deliberate reintroduction by conservationists – from their holdouts in the Carpathians, the Balkans and Scandanavia into places from which they had previously been erased. They are once more living in France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy.
A similar story can be told about golden jackals, returning to much of their historical range in south-eastern Europe, and brown bears, whose population on the continent has doubled in the past 45 years. Even the wolverine, deeply unpopular with sheep farmers and reindeer herders, still persecuted in some places and requiring vast territories for successful reproduction, is believed to have doubled in number in the 1990s alone.
The return of certain herbivore species has been even more dramatic. European bison have risen from 54 captive animals a century ago to 2,700 free-living beasts today. Alpine ibex have expanded from the 100 animals remaining in Italy’s Gran Paradiso massif in the 1820s to 37,000, spread across the mountains of Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany and Slovenia. Southern chamois numbers have risen from 40 in the 1950s to 69,000 today.
The range of the elk (known as moose in North America) has increased threefold over the past two centuries, and they are still moving rapidly westwards across Europe, now expanding into parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states, Poland, Austria and Germany, from which they had been missing for many years. A century ago only 1,200 beavers remained in Europe; now there are more than 300,000 of them, occupying most of their former range.
It should be emphasised that, remarkable as these recoveries are, most of these populations are still far below their original size, and occupy far less land than they did before human persecution and the destruction of their habitats began. What we have seen so far is a partial recovery from a great reduction. The state of nature is a state of great abundance, and the recoveries offer us just a hint of how it might have been, and, in some places, could be again.
But missing from most of this story is the United Kingdom. Many of the species I’ve mentioned once lived here. Bison in Britain died out during the peak of glaciation, between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago . They might have been prevented from returning at the end of the ice age (when this landmass was still attached to the continent) by human hunting pressure. Wolverine survived here until about 8,000 years ago. Elk were exterminated later: the last remains found in Britain are 3,900 years old.
Bears died out about 2,000 years ago. The most recent lynx bones date from the sixth century AD, but cultural records might extend to the ninth century, when a stone cross on the isle of Eigg that carries what appears to be a carving of a lynx was erected . The last clear record of the wolf in Britain is an animal killed in Sutherland in 1621 . Beavers might have persisted into the mid-18th century .
There have been a couple of introductions of these missing species: the beavers officially released in Knapdale in western Scotland and unofficially released into the catchment of the River Tay, the bison and moose now living in enclosures on the Alladale estate in northern Scotland, a few escaped wild boar. But otherwise this wildlife revolution has more or less passed us by.
Only three of the mammal species listed in the Rewilding Europe report are thriving in Britain: the grey seal, the roe deer and the red deer. The red deer’s enhanced population here (it has more than doubled in the Scottish Highlands since 1965) is, paradoxically, a result of the abuse and neglect of the natural world. The deer no longer have any natural predators here. Stalking estates boost their numbers by feeding them in the winter. They also use funnel fencing and salt licks to provide what is in essence canned hunting to the City boys who come to shoot them. There are now so many and they are so easily found that you might as well shoot sheep.
When you think of the fuss we make about the 500 or so wild boar living in Britain, then discover that there are now 600,000 in Spain and 600,000 in Italy, a million in France and a million in Germany, you can, I hope, understand why I see Britain as the most zoophobic nation in Europe.
At the World Wilderness Congress, I heard the brave and remarkable Li Quan explain her project to reintroduce the tiger into south China. The obstacles – political, financial, ecological, humanitarian – she has had to overcome are mind-boggling. But, having established and begun to rewild a viable captive population, and having sold the idea to local people, her project is almost ready to release the first animals. Think of this, when you hear farmers and fishery owners insist that we can’t afford to have beavers in Britain.
Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, discussed the creation of the vast peace parks straddling the borders of Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe that he helped to oversee. Extremely poor and emerging from a devastating civil war, Mozambique nevertheless managed to support one of the world’s biggest and most ambitious conservation programmes. It has helped to secure the survival of species that even the bravest European wildlife groups are not yet ready for: the lions, hyenas, elephants and rhinos which once lived throughout Europe, but which are not even contemplated as potential reintroductions here, though we expect much poorer nations to look after them.
So why does Britain lag so far behind the rest of the world? Why do our conservation groups appear to be so lacking in ambition and aspiration? Before I try to tackle this question, here are two observations.
1. The places in which you would expect to find most wildlife, and in which you would expect a significant ecological recovery, are those:
a. where the human population is lowest
b. which are furthest from the cities
c. which are the least favourable for farming.
In Britain this means the uplands. This is why I have become obsessed with the way they are managed. But wildlife in the uplands, amazingly, is faring worse than it is in the crowded, intensively farmed lowlands. The State of Nature report, published in May, revealed that while 60% of wildlife species in Britain as a whole are in decline, in the uplands the rate is 65%.
The primary reason is that almost all the trees and scrub – on which the majority of species depend – have been removed, mostly by sheep farming. On the continent, the uplands are now largely forested, while the lowlands are largely bare. That is what you would expect. Upland soils tend to be much poorer than lowland soils, so farming is less productive there: generally many times less productive. But in Britain, while the lowlands are largely bare, the uplands are even barer. The places that should be our wildlife reservoirs are in fact wildlife deserts.
This state of depletion has been maintained by three means, in escalating order of importance:
a. Stalking estates artificially boosting the population of deer
b. Grouse moor owners cutting and burning the land (and killing hen harriers and other predators) to maximise the population of the upland chickens people pay to shoot
c. Governments spending public money to sustain farming – almost entirely sheep grazing – in the hills.
There would be no hill farming in Britain or anywhere in Europe were it not for subsidies.
Keeping the uplands bald, whether or not it makes social, ecological or financial sense, is now government policy. Last week the secretary of state for the environment, Owen Paterson, told parliament:
I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do.
This, remember, is the government that refuses on principle to intervene in the market unless it is deemed unavoidable. Yet the environment secretary pledges to use public money to maintain a wasteland. Why?
2. The policies you would expect conservation groups to prioritise would be those that optimised the protection of wildlife. Instead, they have more or less optimised its destruction.
A study by the biologists Philip Shaw and Des Thompson found that:
Wooded habitats in the Cairngorms [in the Scotish Highlands] are about 13 times richer than heather moorland and 11 times richer than grassland, in terms of nationally important species. These disparities are even more pronounced when the extent of each habitat is considered. Despite being the main habitat for some 39% of important species, woodlands cover only about 17% of the land area of the Cairngorms. In contrast, moorland appears to support only 3% of the Cairngorms’ important species, but covers some 42% of its area. 
The figures are even starker when you consider species found nowhere else in Britain:
Of 223 such species, 100 (45%) are associated mainly with woodlands or trees … Conversely, moorlands hold proportionately fewer restricted-range species, being the main habitat of just one such species: the fungus northern bilberry redleaf.
I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: the entire basis of upland conservation, as pursued on most of the upland reserves owned or managed by the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the National Trust, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and other bodies, is based on a misconception: that in keeping them open and largely devoid of trees, they are best protecting wildlife. This belief, which is largely unexamined by the groups that propound it, is diametrically wrong. It explains why many upland reserves are about as biodiverse and ecologically inspiring as the average car park.
(For more on British conservationists’ obsession with keeping habitats open, see the devastating set of slides compiled by Mark Fisher. Some of the policies he has unearthed are so strange you hardly know whether to laugh or cry.).
Our conservation groups are obsessed with the vegetation that results from repeated deforestation: primarily heather moorland. Heather thrives on burnt ground and depleted soils. Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the National Trust and Natural England all advocate “cutting and burning” to maintain these ecological disaster zones and prevent the restoration of the cleared forests. Need I point out that a conservation movement which believes that cutting and burning is the best means of protecting the natural world, is one that finds itself in a very strange place?
Little illustrates the dire and perverse state of conservation policy in this country better than the report published by the National Trust a few days before the inspiring meetings I’ve mentioned.
I’m not singling this out because it is the worst document I have read by a British conservation group. Sadly it isn’t, by quite a long way. I mention it because it’s considered by the authors to be visionary, novel and forward-thinking. Perhaps by this they mean that it’s only 40 years behind the rest of Europe, rather than 60.
The report is the National Trust’s plan for managing an upland property which is large by English standards – 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) – over the next 50 years. The property is the High Peak Moors, a treeless near-desert in the heart of England lacking most of the strands in the web of life.
Without any explanation or attempt to justify the decision, it has concluded that for the next 50 years and perhaps indefinitely, this property will remain what it calls an “open landscape”.
It will let some trees repopulate the valleys and the ravines, but insists that:
The open landscapes and vistas of the moors should be retained, so there
shouldn’t generally be trees on the open moor tops.
Why? Scour its 52 pages and you’ll be none the wiser. It’s an assertion, repeated in various forms throughout the report, which is neither explained nor supported.
The National Trust is often a force for good: see for example its Natural Childhood campaign and leading role in the Wild Network. But here it emerges at its worst: complacent, anodyne, misrepresenting our choices, and mistaking a timid, retentive sally into the mid-20th century for a radical and visionary plan.
This is not to deny that its report is a small step in the right direction, and a recognition of the growing public interest in ecological restoration. But it also reflects the lack of ambition of the conservation movement, and the myths it uses to justify this stance.
Usually, when British conservation groups seek a justification for their war on three-dimensional habitats, they fall back on tradition: this is how the land was, so this is how it should remain. They ignore the fact that almost the whole of the British Isles, including the uplands, was densely forested, before it was cut and burnt and grazed by people and their animals [6, 7].
But in an appendix to this report you can find the following:
Pollen records and tree stumps buried in the peat provide a fascinating record of past vegetation, and indicate that the High Peak Moors were once much more wooded that they are today … in the 16th and 17th centuries … massive woodland and scrub clearance occurred to make way for grazing, including on the moorland tops.
The trust has decided to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm. Why? Answer comes there none.
I perked up, however, when I read that “the full range of native wildlife should be present”. So imagine my disappointment when I could find no mention of lions – let alone wolves, lynx, wolverines, moose, bison, capercaillie, pine martens, wildcat, beavers, eagles or boar. The only species mentioned under “reintroductions” is the black grouse.
Now I’m not suggesting that lions or wolves or wolverines should be introduced to the High Peak Moors: apart from other considerations, the property isn’t big enough. But I strongly object to the way in which the National Trust misrepresents our ecosystems and their history. When it says “the full range of native wildlife”, what it is talking about is the barest remnants of what once lived here.
There’s a parallel with the sanitised, tea-towel histories it presents to visitors to its historic buildings. It airbrushes the people who were cleared to make way for its grand estates and landscaped gardens. History begins for the trust when the big houses were built. The communities they displaced, the eviction, imprisonment, transportation or execution of those who stood in the way, though well-documented by historians , doesn’t feature.
When writing about the land it owns, the National Trust airbrushes the wildlife and ecosystems that lived there before the great clearances that created the open landscapes it preserves. There might be a potted history in Appendix 3, but the rest of the High Peak Moors report suggests that what you see now is what has always been and always will be, that there is no real choice about how the land should be treated, no option but to maintain it more or less in its current state, with some minor modifications.
This is what gets to me most: not just that the vision of our conservation groups is a mere half century behind the rest of Europe, but that they misrepresent the state of nature in this country. They pretend that the current management system is more or less the best that could be envisaged. They glorify our shattered and depleted ecosystems.
For example, in response to the column I wrote about the state of the Lake District, John Darlington, the National Trust’s regional director, maintained:
Increasingly we recognise the value of places such as this for clean water, for storing carbon in precious peat-rich soils, for food and for nature, and of course for recreation, tranquility and inspiration. Farmers are critical for the delivery of many of these things.
In reality, the best protection for clean water supplies, soil carbon, nature and tranquility is the reduction or cessation of farming in crucial places. For example, if you want to prevent floods and ensure a steady supply of water downstream, the best means of doing so are to get the sheep off (which compact the soil and prevent trees and scrub from returning), to stop the dredging of tributaries by farmers and to de-canalise the rivers. So why do conservation groups feel obliged to recycle such myths? Is the fear of the farming lobby so great that the groups supposed to protect the countryside must repeat National Farmers’ Union propaganda?
This is not to suggest that the conflict between hill farming, wildlife and watersheds is easy to resolve; though I’ve put forward some proposals that I hope might help.
Nor is it to propose that there should be no farming in the hills: I recognise the value of the culture and traditions associated with it, just as I recognise the value of the wildlife and water storage it displaces. But why can’t we have some honesty about these issues? Some recognition that different aspects of what we might want to see in the uplands – traditional grazing and wildlife restoration for example – might be in conflict? What harm would it do to acknowledge this?
You get some idea of the extent to which the conservation groups have collaborated in both the destruction of the natural world and the cover-up of that destruction when you realise that not one of our national parks is rated higher than category V in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s directory of protected areas. Most of the world’s national parks are category II: “Large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes.” Some are category I: “Strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity,” or “wilderness”.
Category V areas are not protected in any meaningful sense: they are, broadly speaking, ranchlands and similarly altered ecosystems. And that is all we have. That there should be designated areas in which farming traditions are recognised and respected is not something I have a problem with. That there should be nothing else is something that concerns me very much.
What it means is that there is no significant area of land in the United Kingdom in which either humans or wildlife can escape intense human impacts. I believe such escapes are essential for developing a sense of ourselves and our place in the world, for allowing the mind to run free, for shedding the stress and confinement of our crowded lives. You want to get away from it all? Then you’ll have to go abroad.
Does this stark fact not give our wildife groups occasion to stop and think and wonder what they’re up to? Wouldn’t an ambitious, proactive conservation movement be challenging the fact that we have nothing better than category V protected areas? What do these groups exist for after all? To reassure us that everything is just fine, even as the natural world is locked in a state of extreme depletion?
Why are our conservationists content with so little? Why do they, despite their vast memberships and influence, allow the farmers, deer estates and grouse moor owners – a very small proportion even of the rural population – to define the countryside and our relationship to it? Is there no vision other than a slight modification of what the private landowners want? Where is the leadership? Where is the inspiration?
In this open, blasted, impoverished land, there is little foothold for either wildlife or new thinking. We need to start a debate, a debate which asks a number of obvious questions. What are we doing and why? What is the basis of the decisions we have made? Is it sound? What do we want and how could we get it? These are the questions our conservation groups have failed to ask. Until they do so, they will continue their long and lonely trek into fatuity.
At the moment their vision seems as empty and simplified as the moors they fetishise. It is time they started thinking like a forest.
Footnote 1: Derek Yalden, 1999. The History of British Mammals. T and AD Poyser, London.
2: Oliver Rackham, 1986. The History of the Countryside. JM Dent and Sons, London.
3: David Hetherington, 2010. The Lynx. In Terry O’Connor and Naomi Sykes, eds. Extinctions and Invasions: a social history of British fauna. Windgather Press, Oxford.
4: Bryony Coles, 2006. Beavers in Britain’s Past. Oxbow Books and WARP, Oxford.
5: P.Shaw and DBA Thompson, 2006. The Nature of the Cairngorms: Diversity in a Changing Environment. TSO: Edinburgh. 444 pp. ISBN: 9780114973261
6: R Fyfe, 2007. The Importance of Local-Scale Openness Within Regions Dominated by Closed Woodland. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol.22, no. 6, pp571–578. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1078
7: JHB Birks, 2005. Mind the Gap: How Open Were European Primeval Forests? Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 20, pp154-156.
8: EP Thomson, 1975. Whigs and Hunters, p223. Penguin, London.
The rare long-tailed blue butterfly has settled on chalk grassland owned by the National Trust and laid eggs. Photograph: Matthew Oates/National Trust
It is not blue birds but the long-tailed blue that has been found flying over the White Cliffs of Dover.
The rare migratory butterfly has settled on chalk grassland owned by the National Trust and laid eggs, leading lepidopterists to hope for a spectacular late-summer emergence of the exotic insect on British soil.
A vivacious little creature with distinctive tails on its wings, the long-tailed blue is found across Africa, southern Asia and Australia but it cannot survive the winters further north than the Mediterranean.
In the 20th century, it only reached Britain in significant numbers twice – in 1945 and 1990 – but it has a talent for popping up in unusual places. In 1990, it appeared in Kensal Green Cemetery in north-west London and laid eggs in Gillespie Park, by Arsenal’s football ground. In 2003, the butterfly laid eggs on the North Downs close to Denbies vineyard.
This year the long-tailed blue has been seen in Hampshire, Sussex, Suffolk and as far north as Derbyshire, and has colonised almost a mile stretch of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown Leas, east of Dover. Ironically, here the rare butterfly has laid eggs on Lathyrus latifolius, everlasting pea, an invasive escapee from gardens considered a pest by conservationists, who seek to remove it from native flower-rich chalk grassland.
Other unusual migratory butterflies including large numbers of clouded yellows, the continental swallowtail and Queen of Spain fritillaries have invaded southern England in what has been one of the best summers for many insects for a decade.
“It’s all happening,” said Matthew Oates of the National Trust. “There’s been some really wacky migrants. This is a deeply memorable butterfly year.”
If conditions remain fine, the eggs laid by the long-tailed blues on the White Cliffs should emerge as adult butterflies by late September.
According to Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation, if there is an Indian summer with gentle winds coming up from southern Europe, the influx of migrant insects may get even more notable with a potential influx of monarch butterflies and spectacular moths including the death’s head hawkmoth and the crimson speckled.
While the long-tailed blues on the White Cliffs will have flown in from the continent during recent fine weather, Fox warned that isolated sightings of the long-tailed blue may be individuals which have snuck into Britain as caterpillars on imported vegetables. “It’s not unusual for people to report caterpillars from fresh peas, mange tout or green beans bought in British supermarkets which turn out to be long-tailed blues,” he said.
Compton Martin is not the most obvious place to have a conversation about drilling for gas, and what’s already happening in US states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio. It sits on the northern edge of the Mendip Hills, in the famously picturesque Chew Valley. It may say something about the place that it still has a functioning village water pump.
At a bus stop, I meet two local mums: Chloe Mann, 35, and Sarah Kirwan, 39. “It’s quiet little village,” says Mann, a mother of two who works part-time at a law firm. “It feels like a lovely little enclave of the countryside. We always feel like it’s Hobbitshire – a green valley where nothing happens.”
But something big may be about to. Since 2008, in partnership with an Australian firm called Eden Energy, a Welsh company named UK Methane has owned Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses that cover large swathes of countryside south of Bristol, some of which sits on top of the old North Somerset coalfield. In March this year, the firm’s director, one Gerwyn Williams, publicly announced that he was interested in test-drilling for gas in Compton Martin, and the nearby village of Ston Easton.
If successful, this could be followed by the extraction of coalbed methane, a controversial practice related to “fracking”, the notorious business of producing gas via hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits. In fact, coalbed methane extraction can itself involve fracking techniques – and in any case, if sufficient gas is discovered, the fracking of local shale could eventually follow.
Both possibilities are the focus of noisy hostility, here and elsewhere. Despite official reassurances about its safety, shale-fracking has been linked to earthquakes, water contaminated with pollutants such as arsenic and lead, noise pollution, and more. For similar reasons, coalbed methane extraction is maligned by eco-activists as its “evil twin”. Possible evidence for such claims is not hard to find: as I discover when I pitch up at a local meeting organised by a group called Frack Free Somerset, many campaigners point to the increasingly renowned case of Tara in south-west Queensland, Australia, where residents have reported no end of worrying phenomena since coalbed methane extraction began there. Not just gas leaking into local rivers, but an array of health problems from headaches and nosebleeds to skin rashes.
The conversations I have with people here suggest a weird mixture of The Archers and Dallas. “This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, so I can’t see how they’re getting away with it,” says Compton Martin’s sub-postmaster, Ray Stewart, who runs a post office that is almost surreally tiny. He then sounds a note of ambivalence. “But we need energy, do we not? We all use it.”
I bump into Kim Russell, 55, about 50 yards away, who is climbing on to a fearsome-looking motorcycle. “I don’t agree with it,” he tells me. “The amount of pollution fracking creates, and the stories you read about water suddenly catching fire and all that. And anyway, the community won’t benefit.”
Put simply, Britain is in the midst of a dash for gas. In this week’s comprehensive spending review, George Osborne re-affirmed the government’s support for new inshore gas exploration; March this year saw the creation of a new Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas. And all around the country, prospectors are scouting for new gas fields, amid talk of untapped resources that could supposedly meet a large share of the UK’s energy needs for decades to come.
Fracking has become a media byword for all this, but “unconventional gas” actually encompasses three processes. Fracking itself uses a technique whereby deep wells are drilled into underground shale deposits, and pumped with water, laced with sand and chemical agents – which fractures the rocks, and releases natural gas (along with lots of contaminated H20, often in the form of a residual sludge).
Coalbed methane extraction is a related method, which is actually at a more advanced stage in the UK. It involves the drilling of wells into coal seams followed by the pumping out of water, which results in gas being released by the coal, and being brought to the surface. Lastly, there is the so-called underground coal gasification now proposed for – among other places – an area beneath Swansea Bay in west Wales, which involves the partial burning of subterranean coal deposits.
All three are part of a huge, ongoing story. After the infamous events of April and May and 2011, when two earth tremors in the Blackpool area were blamed on test fracking and operations were stopped, the most high-profile unconventional gas project is once again focused on the Bowland basin in Lancashire, where the energy firm Cuadrilla aims to frack for shale gas, and has just sold a 25% stake in its operations to the gas conglomerate Centrica, formerly British Gas, for £40m.
In the commuter-belt village of Balcombe in West Sussex, Cuadrilla is set to begin test-drilling for shale oil and gas. Small-scale production of coalbed methane is already happening near Warrington in Cheshire, where a pilot project is also using gas to generate electricity. The Australian firm Dart Energy has applied for planning permission for 14 coalbed methane wells and a network of pipelines near Falkirk, and is prospecting elsewhere in Scotland. Whole swathes of the British landscape, in fact, are now synonymous with exploration licences that run to 300, each of which has its own number: in and around Somerset, the ones to watch are 225, 226, 227 and 228.
And now there is a new twist. On Thursday, as reports suggested inland shale might hold enough untapped gas to meet the UK’s needs for 25 years, it was confirmed that negotiations between the government and the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group had resulted in a new “industry charter”. Its key provisions mean that if new gas is discovered, “local communities” could receive financial benefits: £100,000 for every well that is fracked as part of exploration, and 1% of revenues if things prove to be commercially viable. Thus far, this is only envisaged as applying to shale gas. When it comes to coalbed methane, the official line – given to me by an industry insider – runs as follows: “It is true that coalbed methane can be hydraulically fractured, but it has not been done in the UK, and there are no plans to do so. But if there were, coalbed methane would be included in the scheme.”
Fracking, it should be noted, has been widely used on coalbed methane deposits in Australia and the US. So as well as the possible arrival of rigs and tankers, perhaps small villages in the Mendip Hills may yet see a modest financial windfall.
The business economics of unconventional gas are interesting indeed. Prospecting is often done by small, unknown companies, whose apparent aim is to interest bigger firms, and then sell them stakes in full-blown production. UK Methane is a perfect case in point: apparently based on an industrial estate in Bridgend, it has no listed telephone number. When I phone a mobile number for its boss given to me by an anti-fracking activist, a nervous-sounding voice answers, and suggests I send an email to a bog-standard BT Internet address.
I do as I’m told, seeking information about the company’s plans for Compton Martin, Ston Easton, and the nearby town of Keynsham. The reply reads as follows: “Hello John, We are in the middle of a corporate transaction at present so I am unable to comment. Everything is fluid. Once I am in a position to be able to make some firm decisions I will call you. Best regards, Gerwyn.”
What he seems to be referring to is the recent selling of the Australian energy firm Eden Energy’s stake in British gas exploration – which includes its share of the action in the West Country – to a new UK firm called Shale Energy. The price was £10m, £750,000 of which is to be paid in cash, with £6m in Shale Energy shares, and two lots of £1.6m, to be paid when any gas discovered reaches first 500bn cubic feet, and then a trillion cubic feet. Such are the weird economics of unconventional gas, and numbers that tend to dance in front of your eyes.
The town of Keynsham is 13 miles from Compton Martin. In August last year, UK Methane announced that it was about to apply for planning consent to commence test-drilling for gas in another unlikely location: a patch of local land next to a roundabout on the Bristol ring-road. Thus began a saga that seemed to have reached an uneasy pause last December, when the company withdrew its application, claiming that the level of information being requested from it was “far higher than that for any other previous planning application that we have been involved with”. It is now set on applying for what it calls “full production permission”, though when that might happen is unclear.
Watching all this closely is a coalition of local organisations, and a core of activists. One of them is 28-year-old Laura Corfield, who runs an eco-oriented social enterprise called Shift Bristol. I meet her in a cafe on the high street. “People have described UK Methane as a company of two guys in a broom cupboard,” she says. “For a while we were like, ‘Are they playing games? Are they really super-clever?’ But actually, I don’t think there’s anything hidden. At one point, they gave us their mobile telephone numbers. I don’t think they understand the fight they’re getting into with the environmental lobby. And now, they’re not saying anything at all.”
What will happen as and when they apply for full-blown gas production? “If they’ve had that much trouble for just a test bore-hole, the reaction they’d get to that would be monumental. I actually think it would make our job easier if they come back with a bigger proposal.”
Unlike Compton Martin, I suggest, Keynsham looks like the kind of place that might appreciate an injection of funds as part of a future gas deal. And if that was proposed, it might make things more uncertain, mightn’t it? “Yes,” she says. “People are either actually strapped for cash or very fearful of being strapped for cash. I think they might find security in something like that. It’s a bargaining chip, isn’t it? It makes the decision harder for people. I guess we’ll just have to find somebody that can crunch the calculations.”
The third site in which UK Methane seems to be interested is in Ston Easton, a sleepy hamlet close to the old Somerset mining town of Midsomer Norton. There is not much here, apart from the Church of St Mary the Virgin, a luxury hotel currently offering an al fresco ballet show, and a smattering of farms.
One belongs to Jonny and Tom Osborne, 48 and 46 respectively, whose dairy and sheep farm has been in their family for three generations. I meet them midway through the morning, when Tom is seeing to a herd of sheep in a barn that backs on to gently undulating countryside. “Why destroy your environment for the sake of some gas, when you might cause so much damage?” he says. “They should just leave it alone.”
“The ponds here are from a natural spring,” says Jonny, pointing towards a large expanse of water in the middle distance. “In the farm over the way, they sink bore holes, to get water for the animals, direct from the water table. So you can see why we’d be worried about contamination. It’s time we put something back in the land, not destroyed some more.”
I wonder: would they feel any different if their village was offered money?
Tom lets loose a dismissive snort. “But how can you compensate people for what might be lost? That’s just a bribe, isn’t it?”
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The technology – a Fiat Ducato camper van with a reliable fridge – is the easy bit. But the heroic mission to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) to Britain is dauntingly complex.
This week Nikki Gammans, a biologist and the driving force behind the bid to return this rare bee to Britain, led the release of 49 queens on the RSPB’s reserve by the brooding Dungeness nuclear power station.
It follows the release of 51 bees last summer and the statistics demonstrate just how challenging re-establishing a lost insect species can be.
The headline figure – not one of those 51 short-haired bumblebees has been seen again in the wild since their release – is discouraging. But if anyone can succeed it is Gammans, supported by a coalition of supporters including local farmers, government agency Natural England, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus.
Gammans studied under Prof Jeremy Thomas, architect of the most successful insect reintroduction project in the world – returning the extinct large blue butterfly (again using stock from Sweden) to the West Country. That mission took Thomas more than a decade – and the short-haired bumblebee project may need as much patience.
It was 2009 when Gammans began working on the first ever programme to reintroduce a native bumblebee. For the third year running this spring she drove her van (purchased not with lavish conservation funding – that doesn’t exist – but with a modest family inheritance) to southern Sweden. There, with the blessing of the Swedish authorities, she and her small team of volunteers caught 100 queen bees.
Gammans and half-a-dozen volunteers had a tiny window in which to catch the queens before they began nesting, and had to release any bees carrying pollen – a sign they had already established nests.
The bees were then placed in the Fiat’s fridge to send them into a relaxed torpor on the long drive home. Once in Britain, they were placed in quarantine for two weeks.
The previous summer, the bees were fed thanks to volunteers who collected pollen from other wild bees by catching them and gently brushing it off their bodies. To gather just 10g, volunteer Alan Kenworthy went out three times a week last summer and harvested pollen from more than 300 wild bees. (Bees are rather more efficient pollen collectors than man.)
Last year, the Swedish queens began laying eggs in quarantine, perhaps because they were fed too well. So this year, Gammans fed them nectar and just one grain of pollen each day, before rapidly increasing their ration in the days before release so they would have the requisite energy for their release into the countryside.
Despite more than half succumbing to parasites and other diseases (as they would in the wild) while quarantined, Gammans and her team reckoned that the 49 survivors looked much livelier than last year’s.
The bee I carefully released from its individual container onto yellow flag iris was certainly in fine fettle as it busily drank nectar and then cruised off, with that casual, heavy-looking flight of one of Britain’s best loved insects.
Some people may wonder what is the point of spending so much energy on reintroducing one rare species of bumblebee, that was last seen in Dungeness – an improbable bumblebee hotspot – in 1988. But, as Dave Goulson argues in his excellent new book, A Sting in the Tale, the project is already a massive success.
Thanks to Gammans’ work with local landowners, more than 850 hectares of Romney Marsh around Dungeness is now farmed sensitively, allowing for wild flower strips and traditional meadows, which will help the short-haired bumblebee re-establish itself. More importantly, this management benefits thousands of rare species – birds of prey, songbirds, rodents and butterflies. Some of the rarest of Britain’s 25 bumblebee species are already thriving: the shrill carder and the ruderal bumblebee have returned to Dungeness after an absence of more than two decades.
Gammans is “not too worried” about the lack of positive sighting of last year’s queens – it’s so difficult to monitor something as small and mobile as a bumblebee that she is convinced there will be survivors somewhere. “Obviously last year wasn’t the best year for the bees, it was cold and wet, but the queens that survived are going to be pretty tough and pretty feisty,” she said. “They are going to be able to cope with anything in the future.”
Press release embargoed for 00.01am on 06.03.13
Research launched today to mark the start of Climate Week, Britain’s biggest climate change campaign, identifies the rise of the ‘Re Generation’. Instead of disposing of unwanted items, consumers are choosing to recycle, re-use or re-sell items they no longer want.
The figures reveal an overwhelming reluctance to consign used items to the bin. The Ipsos MORI survey found that 94% do not usually throw away clothes and 96% do not dispose of their old mobiles, with the majority of respondents (65%) recycling, re-selling or giving away their phones. Even when it comes to food, the most disposable of everyday items, there are five million adults in Britain who never throw food away.
Instead of taking the ‘easy way out’ and binning leftover goods, consumers are now trading online, swapping with friends and family or donating to charity as well as using more traditional recycling channels.
Unwanted clothes are predominantly donated to charity (61%) followed by recycling (12%), however, 25-34 year olds are looking for more enterprising options and most likely to sell their unwanted clothes (14%), above the national average of 8%.
Whilst re-selling isn’t an option for food, the research reveals that only 5% of people throw away food on a daily basis, indicating a nation that is highly resourceful when it comes to re-using food and making the most of leftovers. The age group least likely to throw away food are 55-75 year olds, of which only 2% dispose of food on a daily basis.
The findings are reflected in the priorities of Climate Week’s partners. Its Headline Partner, Andrex® Eco, is a toilet roll that is 90% recycled and 10% bamboo, which uses five times less land than trees. Crown Paints encourages people to take unused paint to its decorating centres, Ecotricity generates power from the wind and Shields Environmental helps the telecoms sector re-use old equipment.
Kevin Steele, CEO, Climate Week comments “Our survey clearly shows that people in Britain want to protect the environment and are taking action every day that helps to do so. This picture is confirmed by the half a million people around the UK who are attending events run for Climate Week.”
With 63% of people expressing a desire to help prevent climate change and over half (56%) believing that their actions can make a real difference, the research shows that most people want to take action to protect the planet. It also shows, with 83% of people recycling on most days, that they will do so if given the opportunity.
Climate Week runs from the 4th to the 10th March 2013 with half a million people taking part in over 3,000 events across the country. Activities include Britain’s biggest environmental competition, the Climate Week Challenge, Climate Week Swap events for people to exchange unwanted items as well as the prestigious Climate Week Awards.
Notes to Editors
About Climate Week (4-10 March 2013)
Climate Week is Britain’s biggest climate change campaign, inspiring a new wave of action to create a sustainable future. Each year, half a million people attend 3,000 events – visit www.climateweek.com to find out more.
Climate Week promotes ways that people can live and work more sustainably. It is an annual renewal of our ambition and confidence to combat climate change, and is for everyone wanting to do their bit to protect our planet. Climate Week is supported by over 200 national organisations and people such as the Prime Minister, David Cameron and Sir Paul McCartney.
About Climate Week’s partners
Climate Week’s Headline Partner is Andrex® Eco, Kimberly-Clark’s first truly pioneering sustainable toilet tissue product.
Voted Product of The Year, by UK consumers, Andrex® Eco is revolutionising perceptions that ‘eco’ toilet tissue can’t be both soft and top quality.
Climate Week’s Supporting Partners are Crown Paints, Ecotricity and Shields Environmental:
- Crown Paints measures the carbon footprint of every product it manufactures.
- Ecotricity is changing the way energy is made and used in Britain.
- Shields Environmental is integrating the needs of business and the environment for the telecoms sector.
Details of research
Ipsos MORI conducted an online poll of over 1,000 adults aged 16-75 in February 2013. Those surveyed were asked about their recycling habits, what action they took with unwanted items and the impact they felt they could have on the helping prevent climate change.
Naomi Barry/Crystal Cansdale
Tel: 08453 707 024
Email: [email protected]
Online duvet retailer reports massive increase in duvet sales due to the onslaught of cold weather.
Fuelled by the prediction of cold weather and the fear that heating systems could fail, The Duvet and Pillow Warehouse, dapw.co.uk is seeing customer rushing to buy their warmest duvets.
Jonathan Attwood a spokesperson for dapw.co.uk said. ‘Our customers are rushing to buy our warmest duvets. Many have heard warnings of plummeting temperatures and heating failures due to the excessive cold and want to be prepared’.
Attwood also said that ‘some savvy customers have realized that by having a thicker duvet they can turn their heating right down at night and still stay warm’. Saving on heating bills but avoiding freezing pipes.’
Matthew Bateman, Managing Director, Home Services at British Gas, said: “Obviously when the weather is colder boilers are on for longer and working harder and therefore there are more that break down.”
What’s more with the AA urging drivers to stay at home Britain’s are turning to the internet and sites like dapw.co.uk to order bulky items to be delivered to their homes without having to risk travelling.
http://www.duvetandpillowwarehouse.co.uk is a fast growing ecommerce business disrupting the sleepy bed and bath sector.
The DAPW customer proposition is simple, a unique combination of beautiful products at upto 60% off high street prices. Delivered with happiness.
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A fungal disease caused by Chalara fraxinea was found for the first time in a nursery in South East England. The disease is widespread on the Continent and can kill ash trees.
The nursery imported 2,000 ash trees from the Netherlands last autumn and distributed the trees to 90 different companies and gardeners nationwide. The customers were sent instructions recently by the Government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) to destroy their trees. They have to dig the trees out, chop them up, double bag them and take them to be buried at a landfill site. Fera hopes for co-operation and responsible behaviour from the tree owners.
Additionally, Fera is carrying out an investigation on which overseas nursery the disease originated from and if the fungus has already spread to wild trees in the UK. Some attempts have previously been made to ban ash imports in order to prevent the disease entering Britain but such bans would breach Britain’s obligations under international trade agreements. However, experts are now carrying out a risk assessment to determine the scale of the threat with a view to possible laws banning or restricting imports of ash trees.
Fera is positive about containing the threat of an outbreak this time but close attention is needed in the future to prevent further risks. “The UK has the highest interception rate for pests and diseases on plant material of any EU Member State. This impressive and reassuring statistic is largely thanks to Fera’s Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate.” – states a recent Fera press release.
Symptoms of the disease include black spots that can turn into cankers on the tree’s bark, brittle dying twigs and branches and leaves turning brown or black and wilting before dropping off. Everyone is encouraged to check their ash trees for symptoms and report any suspicious signs to Fera or the Forestry Commission.
More on this issue can be found on the Telegraph’s website.
28 May 2012
Flowering fields in Kent will today welcome home Bombus subterraneus – otherwise known as the short-haired bumblebee – nearly a quarter of a century after the bee was last seen in Britain.
After three years of preparing for this reintroduction, backed by Natural England, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, queen bees will be released at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve this morning. The partnership will closely monitor how the bees take to their new surroundings and over the summer months, surveys will be carried out to determine bee numbers and to see if they are exploring beyond the release site.
The short-haired bumblebee is one of 27 bumblebee species native to the UK. It was formerly widespread in south-eastern England and could be found as far as Yorkshire and Cornwall. Numbers fell during the twentieth century and by the 1980s it was restricted to Dungeness and the Romney Marshes in Kent. It was last seen in Britain in 1988 and declared extinct in 2000.
The short-haired bumblebee project depends on the creation of healthy bumblebee habitat by local farmers. Using Environmental Stewardship funding, farmers in Dungeness have been preparing for the bees’ homecoming by growing flower-rich borders and meadows essential for a range of nectar feeding insects from bumblebees to butterflies.
The short-haired bumblebees being released today have been brought over with great care from Sweden by project leader Dr Nikki Gammans and her team. With close cooperation from bee experts and the Skåne County Administrative Board in Sweden, queen bees were collected from meadows in Sweden earlier this month, and then quarantined at Royal Holloway, University of London for two weeks prior to today’s release. During quarantine, the bees were screened for parasites to make sure that only healthy bees and no foreign parasites would be re-introduced to the UK.
Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England commented: “The return of one of Britain’s lost species is a cause for celebration. This is a great example of the type of dedicated partnership between farmers, scientists and conservation organisations that can make a real difference for wildlife in this country.”
Environment Minister, Richard Benyon said: “The drone of the bee is one of the sounds of summer and bringing back this species of bumblebee after it’s been absent from the UK for 12 years is wonderful news. I hope it will thrive and in time, spread to new areas.”
RSPB Conservation director Martin Harper said: “Dungeness is a spectacular place and a haven for a wide range of wildlife. We have put in a lot of work here recreating flower meadows which are vital if we are going to bring bumblebees back to our countryside.
“This area was the last place the short-haired bumblebee was recorded before it disappeared 24 years ago so it is very exciting to see it finally coming home. But this is just the start – we will all be working hard to make sure this, and other threatened bumblebee species, expand their ranges and recolonise south eastern England.
Dr Ben Darvill, CEO for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said; “Bumblebees are now scarce in many farmland areas due to intensive agriculture. The work in the South East of England, in preparation for this reintroduction, shows what is possible when bee-friendly practises are used. Farmers here are running successful businesses and producing food, whilst supporting healthy pollinator populations. Bumblebees are farmers’ friends, so it makes sense to support them. We hope the successes in the South East will encourage others to help bumblebees too.”
Paul Lee from Hymettus said; “We are delighted with the way the project has moved forward. The benefits can already be seen in the return of several threatened species of bumblebee to the area and this successful reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee would be helping restore yet another link in the ecological network, and provide one of the iconic sights and sounds of the British countryside.”
Bees in the UK continue to suffer declines due to a loss of habitat – Britain has lost 97% of flowering meadows in the last 60 years. This concerns conservationists and scientists because bees are a vital pollinator of our food crops with an estimated worth of £510 million a year. Defra’s National Ecosystem Assessment 2011 report estimates that pollinating insects are worth £430 million a year – the cost to pollinate our food crops each year if they disappeared altogether. A recent Friends of the Earth report updated the cost to £510 million.
The project is working with farmers, conservation groups, small holders and other land owners in the area to create flower-rich habitat. To date the project has had enormous success with bumblebee habitat creation. More than 650 hectares of land is now managed, mostly under Environmental Stewardship Scheme, to provide ideal conditions for bumblebees. Environmental Stewardship is administered by Natural England on behalf of Defra and funds farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.
Farmers in the area are a vital part of the project and have put in place measures including pollen and nectar rich flower margins and rotational grazing. They have helped create corridors of suitable habitat linking farmland and nature reserves in the area, allowing bees to spread out. By creating corridors of flower-rich habitat across Romney Marsh area, we have seen an increase and spread in the numbers of bumblebee species in Kent. Five threatened species, which include England’s rarest bumblebee the shrill carder bee, have all increased their geographic range in this area after decades of decline.
Larry Cooke, arable and sheep farmer, Romney Marsh :
We need bees and other insects for food production, so it’s vital that we look after them and provide habitats where they can thrive. With the support of Environmental Stewardship, we’ve been growing vetches and red clover in two or three flowering phases a year, which supports bees and other insects by providing them with a long season helps them work with us alongside main agricultural production. This has not only benefited the insects but other wildlife like brown hare and farmland birds. I know we are giving this new bee population the best possible start here and I look forward to seeing them on the farm.
Simon Ashworth, arable pastoral farmer Romney Marsh:
“My brother and I took over my father’s farm in the 1950’s and we haven’t changed the way it runs! We farm beef, sheep, potatoes and wheat and all the fields are in ELS and old stewardship schemes. Wild flower borders around our fields are planted with pollen and nectar mixes which encourage the foraging of bumblebees.”
22 May 2012
Natural England confirmed today that the great white egret – a species of heron – has nested for the first time in Britain.
The nest site – at Shapwick Heath, Natural England’s National Nature Reserve in Somerset – is being monitored by staff and volunteers from Natural England, the RSPB and Somerset Ornithological Society. Activity on the site strongly suggests that the birds may already have young and in the next few weeks, Natural England hopes to be able confirm that the nest contains chicks and that Britain can welcome a new species to its list of breeding birds.
The great white egret is more usually found in mainland Europe, but in recent years, there have been increased sightings of these elegant birds in England, a small number of which have been visiting the reedbeds and wetlands of the Avalon Marshes. Until now, none of these visitors have nested and there is growing excitement that this summer could see the beginning of a growing trend.
The female bird was ringed as a nestling in May 2009 in Besne, in France, and records show she travelled to Lancashire, Wales and Gloucestershire before visiting the Somerset Levels for the first time in April 2010. She has stayed in the region ever since and managed to cope with two relatively cold British winters.
Local birdwatchers spotted nesting activity on the Shapwick Heath Reserve in early April this year and alerted the Somerset Ornithological Society, Natural England and the RSPB. The three organisations immediately established a 24 hour nest watch operation with volunteers, who have currently clocked up over 1000 hours of nest-watching time. This ensured the birds were not disturbed whilst they completed their nest, concealed deep in the reed beds.
This species tends to return to the same nest site each year, so it is hoped that this pair will be pioneers and that a colony of great white egrets will become established on the Avalon Marshes.
Simon Clarke, Reserve Manager for Shapwick Heath said; “This is hugely exciting and we’ve been keeping everything crossed and a close eye on the nest since the signs of nesting activity were first noticed last month. In the last few years, we’ve been carrying out a lot of work to improve the reserve’s reedbeds for bitterns and otters – but it seems great white egrets have also appreciated the work we’ve done.
Tony Whitehead speaking for the RSPB said: “This is another major step forward for nature conservation, and the RSPB is delighted to be working alongside NE and the Somerset Ornithological Society to protect these pioneering birds as they breed for the first time.
“The Avalon Marshes are a wonderful example of landscape scale conservation, where partnership working has produced one of Western Europe’s largest and best wetlands. Places such as these are vital in providing valuable space for newly colonising species as well as safeguarding populations of vulnerable birds such as bittern. And the really exciting thing is now predicting what’s going to turn up next – it’s the sort of place where anything’s possible”
Simon added; “Despite the appalling weather conditions over much of this period for wardens and birds alike, these egrets have shown extreme diligence in tending the nest site. Although chicks have not yet been seen, a significant change in behaviour has been noted which suggests we may soon have some very demanding new additions to the Reserve!”
RSPB and Natural England have set up a recorded information line for people to keep up to date with the birds progress and details on visiting the reserve to view the birds. The number is 07866 554142.
Visitors to Shapwick Heath are welcome but parking is very limited. Therefore, in order to avoid disturbance to local residents, visitors are asked to park at the Avalon Marshes Centre, Westhay, BA6 9TT, where you will find directions to the Great Egret Watch.
The Reserve is also currently taking part in a Bioblitz. The Avalon Marshes Bioblitz involves experts, volunteers and members of the public finding, identifying and recording as many species on the area’s nature reserves over a two week period. Local conservation groups such as the Somerset Invertebrate Group will hold field meetings on the RSPB’s Ham Wall Reserve on 22 May and at Natural England’s Shapwick Heath Reserve on 29 May, which will be open to non-members to experience bugs at close quarters!
In addition the Somerset Botany Group will conduct surveys at Shapwick Heath on 22 May, and Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Catcott Reserve on 29 May.
All events are open to the public, please call the Natural England office on 01458 860736 for more details.
The nest is made up of a mound of reeds lined with softer plant material, and concealed deep in the reedbeds. Usually 3 – 4 eggs are laid with the young looked after by both adults.
European population are estimated at over 24,000 pairs (Birdlife, 2004). The great white egret is the size of a grey heron, with similar habits but can be confused with the much smaller little and cattle egrets.
Great white egrets feed on a range of aquatic animals including fish, frogs and insects. In the breeding season the tip of their yellow bill turns black on both sexes, and they develop beautiful long plumes along the back.
These plumes were once used to adorn ladies’ hats and dresses, and it is estimated in 1902 alone some 200,000 birds were killed to satisfy the fashion conscious women of Europe and USA (Wading Birds of the World, Soothill, 1989).
The great white egret is distributed across most of the tropical and warmer temperate regions of the world, but is rather localised in southern Europe.
This magnificent wetland reserve is managed by Natural England and covers over 500 ha at the heart of the Somerset Levels and Moors. Habitats include lush green wildflower meadows; still, dark ditches; damp, secretive fens, shady, wet fern woods; and open water, fringed with rustling reedbeds.
The reserve is well known for its huge flocks of starling ‘murmurations’ coming into to roost in winter. The spring migration sees hobbies arriving from tropical Africa.
An incredible 64 different species of birds nest at Shapwick, including Cetti’s warbler and great-crested grebes while dragonflies and over 27 species of butterfly are abound in the summer. Butterflies include the silver washed fritillary, purple hairstreak and orange-tip, while the path to Meare Hide is the best place to see the large and impressive White Admiral.
Over 24 different mammals have also been seen at Shapwick, including water voles, lesser horseshoe bats and, of course, otters. Shapwick Heath is also the location of the Neolithic Sweet Track, the oldest man-made routeway in Britain.