Licence to kill

5 September 2019:

Ringed Plover and chickGreat news with the new Ringed Plover nest cages, which I believe was the first time that they have been tried at Landguard Nature Reserve. They worked! In fact they worked better than my expectations held for them, with pairs from all nests protected, except one, going on to hatch their eggs. The nest that failed was deserted and not predated. As the cages do not stop predation by rats, weasels and stoats it does suggest that the usual predation is by large avian predators such as gulls and crows or foxes. All nests that were not protected because their nests were too close to the beach cordons perimeters or just that the available cages were already being used, were predated. As I have noted before the angling prohibition along the beach from April to mid-July that is an attempt to stop the gulls attracted by anglers from then going on to predate eggs and chicks, works really well with hardly a gull to be seen on the beach, so gulls not to blame. What has been noted and documented are the crows predating ringed plover nests of their eggs and chicks. Such as this entry in my 2018 ringed plover diary: "Nest south end of south cordon predated by two Carrion Crows, observed by Matt" (Observatory Warden).

Nest cageOther reliable witnesses account for chicks being taken by crows on the beach in 2018 and at the back end of the breeding season in 2017. This year without a Kestrel to lay some of the blame on, it was all too evident to me that the local pair of breeding crows were doing their best in feeding themselves and their young, high up on one of the lighting towers on the edge of Viewpoint Road. It was these two crows that I saw time and time again in the beach cordons causing great alarm in the nesting ringed plovers. Yes, I would try to walk up to them waving my arms to scare them off but at the same time realising that this was largely a futile gesture, as they would be back when I wasn't there. I also thought that it would have been better to act on the courage of my convictions the previous winter, by killing these two crows, or in the parlance of the day "use lethal control", as if that sanitises it somehow. It is not a good feeling to want to kill any sentient being but I have no qualms about it myself when it is undertaken for conservation purposes as long as it is targeted and not wholesale.

Our ringed plovers have declined by around 50% in recent decades but the crow population is growing despite it being a bird on Natural England's General Licence, which means that anyone can kill one as long as requirements of the licence are met. It was this apparent laxity that led to the General Licence being challenged and the licence being revoked by Natural England last April, although you could still apply for a licence. It was then reinstated in June while I was waiting to hear about my application. I was accused of being paranoid about the crows but had to explain to this person that paranoia is only applicable when whatever is bothering you isn't happening. Other well-known local birders asked why I wanted to intervene in such a way and that I should let the natural order of things sort it out. But we have had a managed environment in some form for thousands of years. Take woodland for example the most biologically diverse woodlands are the managed ones, that continue ancient practises of coppicing, pollarding etc. These woodlands retain species that have evolved alongside these practices over a long time. Non-intervention within conservation can often lead to lack of diversity. Most ringed plovers still nesting on the English coastline are the direct result of intervention in as much they mostly remain successfully breeding on the coast in warden/ranger nature reserves. I was told that these two crows are an asset to the Reserve as they hold a territory and don't let other crows in that may equally be a problem. Yes this is partly true, but it has taken these two crows time to perfect their ringed plover nest and chick predation. They didn't get that proficient overnight and the gap from their removal to new crows taking up the territory and learning new tricks would give the ringed plovers more room for success, which in turn would ensure ringed plovers returning to the beach to breed. This is why the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust all carry out lethal control. If they ever stop these measures, perhaps due to the growing call for preservation over conservation, it will be the day that I stop my membership.

Ringed Plover in nest cageThe long and short of it is that we struggled to get three fledged ringed plover chicks. Fledging for ringed plovers mean that they have to be able to fly off the beach. We had 16 chicks that didn't make it and a great proportion of them, I am sure in my mind, were taken by the crows, all around a few days old. Why, when you are a relatively clever bird like the crow would you not keep going back for more once you have perfected your trick? The only relief came when the crow chicks left their nest and the crow family kept to the north of the reserve for a period, just when one ringed plover brood had hatched. Two pairs of ringed plover had already left the beach rather than having another nesting attempt which is unusual, the constant attentions of the crows being just too much. The crows may have been foraging further afield or defending that end of their territory, or both. It wasn't a coincidence to me that three chicks from this ringed plover brood went on to fledge. Please get behind your local Wildlife Trust, RSPB, National Trust as they are doing a great job in conserving our dwindling wildlife and become a member… of at least one! Conservation measures at Landguard Nature Reserve have accounted for 29 fledged ringed plover chicks in 6 years. Larger beach cordons, visitor awareness, more dogs on leads, nest cages, angling prohibition are all in the mix as should 'targeted lethal control'. If lethal control had been used on this pair of crows last winter this year would undoubtedly have seen more fledged ringed plover chicks. I know that as a species they don't have to be very successful every year to enable their survival as the adults can be long lived but after last year where all the chicks were wiped out, they could do with a little help.

There have been a few more Greenfinches about this summer which hopefully indicates that they may be recovering from a disease that they are known to pick up from bird feeders that are not regularly cleaned. I always look out for the odd Grayling butterfly especially in the bungalow garden as they disperse from their breeding grounds further up the coast and I saw my first returning Wheatear of the autumn migration on the 31 July.


Share the ShoreI copied this sign from an RSPB sign that I noticed at Kessingland Beach. It seemed to me to have just the right level of engagement and message to complement existing signs. I did of course ask first if I could and I was sent an attachment with other sign designs to get ideas from. Thank you very much RSPB. Who could miss a rather surprised looking pug dog?

Unfortunately two visitors missed all the signs saying that you must have your dog on its lead. After being asked twice and offered a lead, if it was needed and then going on to collect evidence by taking their photograph, the two tracked me down to the Bungalow office and hammered on the door. I was then accused of trying to run their dog over and being a pervert whereupon I said I was ending the conversation and closed the door. I was more than a little surprised when the person tried to then open the door and started to barge against it, while shouting out that my car and home will be damaged etc. All this was heard by my wife and children, which was very upsetting for them at that instance. Thank goodness that people with such bad anger management issues are few and far between. As they were abusive and threatening and tried to force their way into a council premise of work, I called the police and a crime number was issued. In six years of work here, I have never come across anything close to that encounter. I hope it is not a sign of the times but fear that it may be.

I did have to ask some campers to leave the Nature Reserve one weekend as camping is prohibited. Just imagine if it wasn't, every Tom Dick and Harry would be camping on the Reserve. They wouldn't leave and were quite dismissive, laughing at the mention of receiving a fine to do with the Public Site Protection Order. Outside their tent were various smashed beer bottles, which I knew would also just be left there for people to cut their feet on. I called the Police and they arrived some hours later. They were moved on but their details were not gained so no fines could be imposed. 

Stinking GoosefootThe rare in the UK Stinking Goosefoot plants were found in relative abundance this year on the seaward side of the Rifle Butts. At one count 118 plants were tallied a really exceptional number as figures are usually in single figures, if they manage to germinate at all. They were present alongside an Orache species which looks superficially similar. If in the slightest doubt at recognising this really quite easily identified plant, the leaves can be rubbed and fingers smelt as there is not another plant in the UK to my knowledge that smells quite like rotting fish!

Sick Seal pupTwo young seals this summer were attended by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) both with unfortunate outcomes. The first located on the beach by the Café/Visitor Centre was taken away as it was very under weight. Unfortunately it was already too weak to survive. Some people including some that should know better, protested at the young seal being taken away. Stating that the mother seal parks the pups on the beach while going off to fish, this is true in many cases but the BDMLR are very use to assessing the condition of seals and know when to intervene. They really wouldn't do it unless absolutely necessary. The other pup was attended on the beach at the Point but was in such a bad condition that it was put out of its suffering there and then by a Vet.

I recently took some fixed-point photographs on the Reserve. This helps to document incremental changes in the habitat such as scrub incursion or its removal. In these four photos taken between 2015 and 2019 bramble removal and the increase of Marram grass along the head of the foreshore can be seen.

Scrub 2015Scrub 2018Marram grass 2015Marram grass 2019

The Wildlife Safari Days were a partial success with one of the two days almost predictably being rained off. I had some good feedback on the event so that is always pleasing.

Wildlife Safari DaysI have often gone out on the reserve on still summer evenings with my bat detector, it picks up the high frequency sounds that bats make when echo locating. The detector turns the sounds into audible noises for the human ear. I wanted to add to the scant bat records for the site and perhaps see if they had previously been under-recorded rather than bats not making use of the site. On all these ideal flying occasions I didn't pick up any bat activity although last summer I saw a bat quite clearly off the north end of Left Battery and could even see that it had a white underside which Daubentons bats have. During last winter Bird Observatory members looked around Left Battery to record hibernating moths and butterflies and came across a bat hibernating which was photographed. The photo of the bat was identified as a Daubentons bat. Early this summer after asking a group not to climb the mining station I walked back to the bungalow and noticed a bat flying over the garden and I picked it up clearly on the detector at 45 which seems to indicate that it was a Pipistrelle bat. On subsequent evenings I tried to pick up bats around the bungalow again but didn't have any luck. I realised that this might be something to do with my impatience and not being prepared to stand around for long enough. I decided to leave the detector on an outside window sill and with the windows open I should be able to hear it if it picks up a bat and sure enough it did. More often than not it would pick up fleeting pass-byes but on the odd occasion it would pick up some serious foraging, this is indicated by the sounds becoming tighter together and ending in a raspberry type sound as the bat makes contact with its prey. Every record I shared with the Bird Observatory as they collect all the other biological data to forward on. I feel that this proves that the Reserve is used more by bats than was previously documented or thought. However the best thing to do is to put a more sophisticated type of detector device up all night. From this type of detector the data can be downloaded the next day and analysed at leisure. The Bird Observatory through their contacts with Norfolk Bat Group, have now organised to do this, although the busiest month for bat activity, August, has now drawn to an end.

Another summer gone seemingly just as it had started and Landguard Nature Reserve has provided another season for visitors to walk the dog, run, cycle, swim, watch and study wildlife and generally unwind which helps keep us all keep on an even keel both physically and mentally. Felixstowe really is very lucky to have a place like this on its doorstep.

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