Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Inglorious Bustards

In Norwich Castle Museum there is a room full of mounted bird skins. In this room there is a large glass case and in this case are contained the skins of a drove of great bustards. The last drove of the species to have ever walked on the sandy soils of North Norfolk.
Quite often on the way home from school, between changing buses, my friend and I would dive into the castle, quickly divest ourselves of our satchels and coats and spend a few precious minutes in this room ogling the exotic looking birds; the huge wing span of a white-tailed eagle, the vibrantly coloured bee- eaters and even close up encounters with humble rooks perched next to their tree top nests complete with clutches of blue-green eggs. And of course the bustards, these huge turkey-sized birds that were totally outside our experience yet somehow held a link with our county’s past. They told tales of a long ago world which to our young imaginations seemed quite romantic; we failed to comprehend the true significance of the contents of this unassuming glass case: that sad fact was for later, for our more world weary and cynical selves.

The Glass Case full of Great Bustards.

I got this image from the web and apologise unreservedly if I've infringed
 any copyright
Scroll forward 45 years (how can that be?) and if you visited Norwich Castle today you too would be able to gaze at the bustards posed in stately fashion surveying, we can easily imagine, their domain of wide open grassland heath extending far to the horizon beneath endless Norfolk skies. You may idly wonder why these majestic birds were taken from their realm, shot from the unpolluted skies they called their own, blasted from those skies like some worthless chattel to end up displayed as a vanity project, a fashion accessory, to satisfy the blood lust of some Victorian academic. Of course you could also speculate that it hardly mattered because a few decades after these beauties were exterminated their habitat was also largely destroyed, but that doesn’t excuse the recklessness, the bloody-minded thoughtlessness, which resulted in the effective extinction of such a magnificent species.

Well by sheer chance I can shed some light on this episode. A couple of weeks ago I spent several happy minutes sifting through the gems that adorn the shelves of the City Bookshop, a mere stone’s throw from the glass case aforementioned. There amongst a box of local publications, I stumbled upon a copy of the Transactions of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society for the years 1884-85. Irresistible. I baulked at the price tag of £12.50 until I found within the worn pages an account of the life of a certain Dr John Scales who had recently deceased. Never heard of him, but amazingly there was an original signed photograph of the bewhiskered gentlemen as a frontispiece to the article. That alone began to sway the balance, and then the clincher: a series of letters giving a blow by blow account of how, why, where and when the last drove of great bustards was shot in Norfolk and ended up in the Norwich Castle collection. My wallet opened itself and within seconds I was the proud owner of a publication some 130 years old and full of information that at once disgusted, amazed and invoked much head shaking because the frank openness of tales of slaughter are delivered as matter of fact and simply a way of life….or rather death. So, we can now find out the story behind the decimation of the last Norfolk bustard flock. It’s probably best that I simply reproduce the relevant sections here, taking the form of an exchange of correspondence. Think of it what you will, but bear in mind this was a publication from a naturalists’ society – the endorsement of county wide carnage (for there are many other like accounts of shootings contained in the book) is incomprehensible.

Sorry about the length of the text, but I hope you read it and found it interesting. My own thoughts revolve around the complete and wanton way in which people, seemingly everybody from schoolboys to grown men who should have known much better, simply shot everything that moved without once being aware of the consequences. The above correspondence, and other similar accounts I’ve read over the years also shows a degree of wonder that certain species are becoming scarce. You can only imagine what would have still been living in these lands had not our forebears blasted them into oblivion. I am aware of the arguments that run along the lines of only by going through this stage of massacre and subsequent academic cogitation did our understanding evolve, but the degree of ignorance exhibited by Victorian folk was extreme. Happily we have moved on. It’s such a shame the same cannot be said about some of our European neighbours.

Happy New Year!  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

A New Hope

We are quietly sat on a bench, my friend and I, as we tuck into the booty of the season spread between us - a pack of mince pies, a small box of chocs and a steaming mug of coffee. Simple fare but totally adequate for this much welcome catch up and mardle about our year, the highs and lows, our engagement with all things wild and thoughts for the future. And I get to steal the occasional glance into her lovely brown eyes, so I'm more than satisfied with the arrangement. But although we are surrounded by the sounds and sights of wild birds; the ‘pinking’ of chaffinches, the chittering of blue tits, the distant squawking of wildfowl on the broad, my friend confesses to unease over her role in the conservation life she has chosen. She loves her job and the wonderful people she works with, but I detect seeds of doubt. Can she really make a difference in the face of so much ill intent? Is there really a point is caring? These thoughts resonate with my own mindset of late since I’ve often found myself wondering exactly the same thing. Perhaps with awareness comes a greater sense of despair; maybe in this regard ignorance really is bliss. But how can you fight against the tide of evil despoiling our planet? What can you do about the speed with which mankind is destroying the wild creatures and wild places that we should hold sacred? Sometimes it is very hard to stay positive; hard to see any happy outcomes.

So whilst we sit and chuckle over our Spartan picnic surrounded by the mild and misty Broadland landscape with the woodland birds busy at the feeders, I sense things need to be rebalanced. For both of us perhaps some revalidation is required. The simple truth is we're not going to change the world. Our horizons need to be set lower and the goals pegged at a modest level. We must put to one side the decimation of rain forests, the mindless slaughter of millions of migrating birds, the rape of Africa, the despoiling of our seas - the list seems endless - and we must instead concentrate on what we can, and indeed do, achieve.

My friend works with young people, running events for schools and families and she is brilliant at this. Who knows how many young minds have been inspired to look at the world differently? And I told her so. She is part of a movement that safeguards beautiful wild places and creates a living, breathing sanctuary for countless creatures. This too I pointed out. She abhors the very notion of anybody harming any animal for whatever reason and as we spoke she laughingly told of an ex-colleague who, thanks to her example, will pick up a worm if he sees it on a wet road and move it to safety. It is amusing, but we both agreed it represents an ability to influence peoples thinking. She has done this.

We moved on to reminisce over those times when a connection was made; the look of wonder on a child’s face when they see a swallowtail butterfly, the youngsters that get so fascinated with the contents of owl pellets that you struggle to drag them away from the soggy mess in the dish, the fascination when a scrum of young heads crowd around the contents of a pond dipping tray, or the excited chatter when something unusual like a grass snake or kingfisher (thankfully) appears. It brings a smile to everyone’s face and for a brief moment makes all the planning and stress so, so worthwhile. And she does these things all the time. How worthwhile is that?

And like the slow parting of a thin Broadland mist the melancholy lifts and we consider our lot with fresh hope. We are after all just ordinary people who have been lucky to work in extraordinary environments with some exceptional people. The big issues facing our planet can never be addressed by us alone; we can only ever add our voice to the mass protest that may make governments listen. But we can make a small difference closer to home and in a modest way my lovely friend has certainly done this. She is a star like so many others I have the privilege to know. Keep smiling young lady because you have so much to give.

Merry Christmas folks! Many thanks for supporting this blog during the year. I’ve found it most enjoyable to write and I hope you have gained some little enjoyment from reading it.

Best Wishes

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Broadland Afternoon

Ranworth, a small and pleasant village in the heart of Broadland is a lovely place to stroll around on a bright winter’s day. I visited earlier this week savouring the blissful peace of the season.  Gone now are the pleasure craft jostling for a berth at the busy staithe, the cruisers, canoes, day boats, and dinghies. Gone too are the steady stream of holidaymakers keen to take a short adventure through a freshwater swamp and visit the NWT Broads Wildlife Centre sited at the terminal point of a 500 metre Boardwalk. Gone are the screeching terns, the arrowing hobbies, the chuntering reed warblers and twittering swallows. But all is not still: a new cast of characters has moved in to take advantage of the tranquility. Birds of all kinds are using the unmolested waterways and wet woodland as a winter sanctuary; somewhere to rest and feed to survive another day. Come with me for a walk through this wildlife haven and together let’s see what we can find.

Our first stop is to search through the massed assemblage of twigs and branches forming the canopy of the swampy carr, lichen encrusted and bare of leaf. This matrix plays host to many small birds: blue, great and marsh tits busily fuss through the tangle searching tirelessly for small spiders and insects hidden from winters chill; robins, wrens and chaffinches occupy the lower tier where they root around in the undergrowth for small invertebrates, snails, and fallen seed; a few goldfinches twitter amongst themselves as they raid the topmost branches of an alder, their vibrant red faces adding a touch of the exotic. As we reach the transition from woodland to more open reed fen, blackbirds flush from a guelder rose clucking sulkily at our unwelcome intrusion. Fieldfares chuckling overhead in search of bright hawthorn berries to plunder remind us that winter has truly arrived despite the brilliance of the blue sky and the vibrant scarlet of the guelder fruits.


Berries of Guelder Rose

The open broad holds large rafts of wildfowl; showy shoveller, timid teal and grey-glossed gadwall, whilst all the time the piercing whistles of wigeon echo across the misty water. A buzzard spirals in from the south it's brown and white chequered underside catching the light from the mid afternoon sun. It drifts across the broad causing mass panic amongst the ducks and coots that take to the air on a multitude of flickering wings. But this raptor had no designs on them, it is intent only on quartering the farmland on the far side for carrion or perhaps an unlucky rabbit: easier pickings by far. A marsh harrier that appears a few minutes later is a different story and loiters with intent above the milling throng of startled water birds. It too is unlucky on this sortie and eventually moves into the distant reed beds in the hope of surprising more isolated prey.


Wildfowl Over the Broad

As we stand close to the visitor centre a lone bullfinch flies above us uttering its distinctive mournful ‘phew’ and a small flock of siskins dance above the alders wittering excitedly to each other. The reason for the appearance of these hitherto well-hidden finches soon becomes clear in the form of a sparrowhawk that glides low across the channel moving silently and swiftly from one patch of scrub to another as it hunts with deadly purpose. It seemed such a short while ago that we could watch hobbies hawking dragonflies here, but their winter absence helps us to appreciate their summer presence; their return next April will be all the more welcomed for it.

The explosive song of a Cetti's warbler shakes us from our reverie and turning we catch the massed heads of dancing reeds set ablaze by the lowering sun. A dazzling spectacle and one that seems to typify this Broadland landscape; a Living Landscape of diverse habitats, fen, woodland, open water and farmland weaved together to form a rich tapestry where wildlife can find sanctuary.

Before returning home we can take a diverting stroll through the churchyard where blackbirds and songthrushes are busy gorging themselves on the berries of ancient yews. These birds, quite possibly migrants from Scandinavia or further east, swallow the berries whole allowing the nutritious succulent red flesh to be absorbed whilst the poisonous seeds pass through without being digested. They seem intent on stripping the bounteous fruits with maximum haste. Competition is fierce and they are all engaged in a race against time and each other.


But Ranworth hasn’t quite finished with us yet, for as we gaze up into a roadside ash a lovely kestrel peers down at us unafraid and unfussed. He is soaking up the last mellow rays of the afternoon sun; his rich buffs and brick reds glowing, his black eye sparkling. This bird like all others lives from day to day, unknowing of what the following dawn will bring. Today with bright blue skies and an unseasonal mildness comes relative easy living; tomorrow with bitter winds, rain and cold could come starvation.


The Lovely Kestrel

Ranworth has done us proud and our visit at this quieter time of the year has shown real beauty and an escape, albeit temporary, from the rigours of our modern world. The wildlife is grateful for the wildness and so, I hope, are we.

Monday, 7 December 2015

There's Nowt so Queer as Folk

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to become involved in much interaction with members of the public on all matters wildlife. Most of these encounters are simple pleasant exchanges of information about the weird and wonderful things they have seen or would like to see, but now and then an amusing incident would occur, not to mention the intriguing and downright bizarre.

Let's begin in the early 80s when the RSPB hosted an annual migration hotline for kids, the idea being youngsters could ring up and let us know about the first migrating spring birds they had seen. Great stuff -and it worked. Of course this was well before the advent of mobile phones and the Internet so necessitated a volunteer (me) manning a proper hard wired telephone between 6-8pm whilst all alone in Norwich HQ. It was on one of these lonely vigils that I received a call from a chap who was obviously rather distressed.....

'I've just hit a pheasant' he blurted.

Not really knowing how to respond I murmured something to the effect that these things happen and that he shouldnt worry. And was he going to roast or grill it, (I may not have said that).

‘No, nohe continued ‘The bird thass still in the car - I daarn't touch it”, (he was a local man).

After obtaining a bit more information I discovered the caller lived close to my home so I dutifully called in and was shown to his car which had a neat six inch wide hole punched through the radiator grill. Expecting to become immersed in the grizzly task of extracting chunks of medium rare pheasant bedecked around the engine compartment, imagine my surprise when on peering through the hole I could see a black beady eye glaring back at me. To my amazement the pheasant was very much alive and kicking – and after its day to day routine had been curtailed by somebody whacking into it at 50mph was not best pleased.   After a bit of ferreting around we found a black plastic bin liner and I managed to extract the bewildered but belligerent bird. I thought it must have sustained some hitherto unnoticed injury, I know I would, but when I released it into nearby woods it sped off, hurtling into the undergrowth on whirring legs.  A very game bird you could say.

And then another proud caller to a wildlife information service….

‘I thought you would like to know Ive just had two eagles over my garden!

‘Wow’ said I, judging this to be a suitably impressed response. It struck me that more information would be helpful and thinking perhaps we had a caller from the Cairngorm region, I then asked exactly where this gentleman resided.

‘Mulbartonwas the unexpected reply (this is a village a few miles south of Norwich).

Oh dear! What to do now. I plumped for the standard. ‘Do you think they could have been buzzards?

‘No I think they were eagles – they were big and brown?

‘Well buzzards do look like small eagles I suppose, but eagles arent common in Mulbarton.

And so it went on. It really is a nightmare kind of conversation this, because quite understandably people just arent used to seeing these things close to and the last thing you want to do is hurt their feelings. After all maybe, just maybe, a sighting of historical significance had indeed been made. We will never know for sure (but trust me they were buzzards).

This kind of call was not uncommon, the classic being somebody asking you whether you could tell them what that ‘big bird was I saw whilst out for a walk with the dog last week’. No further information, just an expectation that you could magically shine light on the mystery. After a while I found it best to say 'buzzard' - I reasoned I stood a 50/50 chance of being right.

The best such birdy story I heard though came from a colleague at the RSPB. Essentially a lady rang in to find out what kind of bird was feeding on her bird table. All she could say by way of description was that it had a red patch on its head. The RSPB guy naturally thought it was a goldfinch or maybe a redpoll, but both these options were dismissed by the caller. Intrigued, and thinking that a rarity may have turned up, the chap agreed to pop into the house which was within striking distance of his office. When he arrived he was amazed to see a tame and presumably escaped common crane pecking seed from the bird table in question. The lady had simply forgotten to mention the bird was four feet tall! Don't know if it's true, but it is certainly believable.
There are also those one liners that baffle and befuddle. For instance, the bloke who commented in a quite disappointed tone that Cley Marshes didnt look anything like the image he saw on Google Earth. Or again the gentlemen who refused to pay the beach car parking charge because he had only driven down there to blow his nose!  The great British public – dont you just love em!

Not all exchanges have a comic twist though.
Whilst manning the NWT stand at the Royal Norfolk Show a few years back, a lady approached wondering whether we could identify a bird she once saw whilst living overseas. Fearing a potentially fruitless exchange loomed with me limply concluding 'buzzard', I was happy when a colleague stepped in, none other than the Marsh Tit in fact. I cracked on with whatever I was doing and after a few minutes asked Nick (that's his real name) what the outcome of the discussion was. In a bemused voice he said he thought the bird was likely to have been a brown noddy. Nothing particularly surprising perhaps, except that the lady wanted to know because the bird, or birds, effectively saved her life: she was once shipwrecked and fearing starvation had to catch these 'brown seagulls' and eat them raw in order to survive. You just never know do you?
Do you think there are big cats loose in the British countryside? I've always been skeptical, reasoning that 99% of these sightings can be attributed to Chinese water deer that glimpsed in the gloaming, with their white ‘tusks’ aglow, could easily be mistaken for a large feline. So, when early one morning a lady rang the office to say she thought a big cat was loose close to her home, I suggested it may actually be one of the more benign alien invaders.

            'Oh, No' she said quite calmly 'I'm familiar with those'.

'Maybe a large dog that's got loose?' I ventured.

'No, I don't think so; I think this is a puma'

'What makes you say that?' I asked, my voice laden with doubt.

'Because I'm looking at it right now in the field next to my house, it's a deep sandy brown, about a metre high at the shoulder and has a long thick tail.'

Nothing more to be said really. No way to validate the claim and no way to know exactly what she had seen; crucially, no photograph to back it up. However should you ever be in the vicinity of Rockland St Mary, beware!

Apart from the 'can you please identify......' type calls the one we all dreaded was the complaint about otters…..

These were a real no win situation because you had to have some sympathy for the poor person whose prized Koi had been munched to a pulp whilst standing up for the legal rights of one of our iconic natural treasures. Easiest thing to do was to refer the caller to an expert conservationist who could cite the appropriate legislative issues, advise knowledgably about mitigation procedures and more importantly take the heat. However, one late afternoon when all alone and unable to bring my sloping shoulders into play, I received a call from a lady who was, to say the least, slightly animated.

'An otter has just now emptied my pond of expensive fish!' She exclaimed.

My heart sank and knowing there was nobody to palm this one off to, I steeled myself for the pending tirade whilst my subconscious groped for the comforting image of me quaffing a large glass of red later that evening.

She continued 'And I love it!'

The relief spread through my hitherto slumped body like a stream of warm treacle 'Really? Well that’s wonderful news'

'Yes, yes, I'm so excited I just had to let you know. I'm now off to the aquatic suppliers to get some more fish so I can watch it over again!'

Sometimes the rewards came in the most unexpected ways.

Whether you believe in UK big cats or not, it does pay to keep an open mind as aptly illustrated by the image below.

Is it a bird? Is it a turtle? Or is it a seal with attitude?

A few days ago a fellow blogger received this pic from a lady who snapped it at Brancaster. She didn't know what on earth it was and neither did we. A turtle suggested itself, but in Norfolk?. In winter? If not a turtle then what? We think we now have a solution, although without further images and more information it is difficult to be absolute. Have a go at identification; let me know what you think and I'll post the 'answer' in a few days.

To conclude this log of ditties, the following instance made me chuckle for some time after it happened, in fact I still chuckle as I write. It occured thus…whilst managing the NWT Ranworth Broad Visitor Centre, I set up a telescope that allowed kids to get a really close view of an Egyptian goose that had chosen to nest on the roof of the building. One little chap approached and I asked him whether he would like to see our goose. ‘No thank you, he politely replied ‘I’ve already eaten’. Priceless.


Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Don't be a Passenger

Whilst people have been engaged in the frenzy of Black Friday (Saturday, Sunday, Monday….) profligacy, efficiently clearing the shelves of various 'discounted' goods they believe they need, I have been reading a book by Mark Avery entitled ‘Message from Martha’ documenting the frenzy with which the passenger pigeon was even more efficiently cleared from the ecological shelves of North America. It is an incredulous read, at once bewildering, beguiling and utterly depressing. At least I found it a struggle not to become hopelessly sad and deflated over the way in which man drove a bird, once the most numerous on earth, to utter extinction within a few decades. The scale of slaughter is incomprehensible, just as the scale of the passenger pigeon population was incomprehensible; billions of birds darkening the skies for days on end as they migrated across the vastness of the continent we now call USA on a front wider than a mile; breeding colonies that stretched for tens of miles; roosting sites so thick with birds that stout branches from sturdy trees crashed to earth under the accumulated weight. And now they are gone. Gone forever in what is in evolutionary terms a blink of an eye.
I remember being aware of the demise of the passenger pigeon when I was a lad (no, I'm not old enough to have seen them), and naively assumed every one of my generation would have been aware of their disastrous plight. Seems I was wrong. Certainly people I've spoken to recently, including my mum and dad, were ignorant of the story which surprised and rather perplexed me. Surely the phenomenon of mass extermination would be high in the consciousness of anybody born within a couple of decades of the event? Surely it is from horrendous episodes like this that we humans must learn and gain wisdom? My naivety it seems knows no bounds.

But you know what really depressed me more than anything is that the same thing is happening now. Maybe not so dramatically or so speedily, but nevertheless as assuredly.

Let's think about what extinction really means. It means a species that took thousands, maybe millions, of years to evolve is gone forever; never, ever to be seen again. It's not just the death of a single entity; it's the total extermination of a unique organism, one that occupied an important niche in the ecosystem in which it dwelled. Extinction is permanent.

Ok, so the passenger pigeon is history and there is nothing to be done to secure its return, but what of today? It would be heartening to think it could not ever happen again, that us humans simply would not allow such a shameful scene to unravel. Think again. It could well be happening under our very noses to one of our most favoured and familiar animals: the hedgehog. Numbers of this prickly garden inhabitant have been slowly dwindling for the last few decades and nothing has been done to halt the decline. I watched a brief report (and it was brief), on the TV news recently when the drastic slump in hedgehog numbers was treated almost as a lighthearted bit of trivia, a kind of 'well isn't this a fun fact' approach. The word 'extinction' was used, i.e. the species is heading that way, but it was not delivered with gravitas. It should have been because if we allow our hedgehogs to disappear into oblivion God help us all. To compare the way we consider items newsworthy, the hedgehog snippet was followed by a longer piece informing us about a record breaking number of lights decorating a Christmas tree somewhere in Canada. This wondrous phenomenon caused a bit of banter between the presenters: seems to me that priorities are somewhat skewed there.

It really stuns me that we all regard the continued persecution of whales and the obscene poaching of African elephants and rhinos with (rightful) dismay, yet nobody seems to actually care that our own mammals are under just as much threat, albeit from differing causes. And those causes are pretty much down to us. We concrete our gardens, we fragment their habitat, we run over them in our fast cars, we tidy our countryside and gardens so that hibernation sites disappear, we burn them alive in our bonfires and we poison them with slug pellets. Not to mention the effects of human induced climate change which may well be affecting breeding cycles. A lot of pressure on a small vulnerable mammal. It may not cope for much longer. What then? Will anybody care? Will we look fondly at old drawings of Mrs Tigggywinkle and sadly shake our heads? What does it need before people take it all seriously? Something is horribly wrong with our psyche and terribly wrong with our environment.

It's not just hedgehogs of course. Considering the birdlife in our own garden for a moment, the changes over the past thirty years is profound: bullfinches - gone, redpoll - gone, house sparrow - gone, songthrush - gone, and still more recently greenfinch - gone. Five species of once common, even abundant, birds have disappeared from our local environs in such a relatively short time span. It won't be long before starlings join them; a single pair hangs on where once dozens existed. It would be wrong to suggest there have been no gains; sparrowhawks, jays, magpies and goldfinches are more regular now, but in most instances these are simply bouncing back from low points endured through decades of persecution - poisoning, trapping, shooting - that population levels. Only goldfinches seem to have really bucked the trend. There is, by the way, no correlation between increases in predators and demise of potential prey items. Maybe they have some effect, but these species have been coexisting for tens of thousands of years and will always live in a kind of harmony. In any event if predation by corvids and sparrowhawks was destroying songthrushes, why not blackbirds? If greenfinches why not chaffinches? No, there are other, man-made, factors driving declines. And that problem must lie in the wider countryside, particularly with the way in which our environment is managed.

For a species to decline it must suffer from such things as food shortages, habitat destruction, unnatural levels of persecution, interruption of breeding cycles or a combination of these factors. The more specialised the species the more susceptible they become to change. If we take the case of the songthrush, it has shown huge declines in the wider countryside where intensive agricultural practices have degraded nesting and feeding sites as well as diminishing the volume of available food. All this leads to an inability of the species to breed successfully to a degree necessary to sustain the population. Mortality is high amongst birds and it seems year on year the number of fledglings making it through the winter to breed the following spring is too low to replenish those adults and young that die during the harshness of that season. In our gardens we poison slugs and snails, use pesticides to kill insects, tidy away anything we consider unsightly and effectively create a sterile mini landscape. No refuge here for our bespeckled friends. So numbers decline, and continue to decline year on year in a slow inexorable slide to local extinction. Blackbirds on the other hand are much better adapted to garden life, they are bigger, more aggressive and bolder than the thrushes, and will try their beaks out on a wider range of food. And I bet their density is higher in urban and suburban environments as opposed to the wider countryside. It really cannot be coincidence that declines in our wildlife populations - birds, mammals, invertebrates and flowers - over the last 50 years is matched to the changes in land management over the same period. And the maddening thing is we know it is so but are doing nothing about it. More infuriating still is the fact that we know how to fix things but simply don't seem at all inclined to do so.

Without wishing to be at all political (because it applies to some degree to all major parties), I listened to the economic statement given by the chancellor last week and not once was the environment mentioned. Not once was there any indication that nature in any form was valued, not once was there any pledge to plough cash into conservation. Plenty on home building, lots about investment on infrastructure, much about defence: nothing about the environment in which we all play out our lives. Economics and nature should not be mutually exclusive.

So, you may quite reasonably ask, where is this ramble leading? What answers is Madden going to bestow upon us? Sadly I don't have any answers, I'm not sure anyone does. But that shouldn't prevent us from caring, because if we truly care we may be moved to do something, or more to the point may mobilise the powers that be, i.e our government, to do something. Effectively force them to carry out their legal and moral obligations and start implementing the accumulated wisdom of a 21st century society. There are a few things we can do and for what it’s worth here is my take (not an exhaustive list). Sorry if I’m preaching to the converted and for clarity there is nothing in the list that I don’t do myself, so I know these things are very simple and very effective:

·         Lobby your MP - we all have an elected MP representing us, why not take a few minutes to write to them on environmental issues you feel strongly about? Persecution of hen harriers, lead shot poisoning our countryside, sustainable palm oil supply would be a good start. They have a duty to listen and if enough people contact them over a particular issue they will be forced to take it seriously. You could also pen a missive to your local paper to document your concern. They seem only too willing to print well expressed letters which are likely to stimulate debate. At the very least you will be bringing an issue into the consciousness of the readership.

·         Sign petitions - when an issue of real conservation concern surfaces, it is quite often the case that somebody, or some organisation, will start an on line petition through Gov UK. As I understand it these petitions have a six month life during which they need to attract 100,000 signatures to force a debate within parliament. If you read about such a petition and you agree with its sentiments then you should sign it. Not only should you sign it but you should share it with as many friends, family and acquaintances as possible. These things don't happen by themselves, they need people to make them happen. Good places to start are here and here.
·         Join your local wildlife trust - in Norfolk it is of course Norfolk Wildlife Trust, but there is one representing every county. These organisations do a fantastic amount of high impact conservation work and channel their energies into local habitat acquisition and management as well as very important educational activity. It is well worth trawling through a website or two - this will be an excellent start - and you will see the range of activities undertaken by these immensely valuable bodies. Join today and directly help support wildlife in your own neck of the woods. If finance and inclination allows, you could also do much good by joining the RSPB thereby adding your voice to a body that now has real clout.

·         Survey work - several organisations rely heavily on voluntary surveyors to help monitor populations of wild creatures. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) probably runs the most comprehensive set, some of which rely on casual observations of birds by members of the public. Birdtrack is one such survey and anybody can contribute. See here for more details. If you feel you have more time and appropriate identification skills there are several other surveys that provide invaluable data to inform government decision making on matters of serious conservation weight. Many other organisations run annual or occasional surveys that are aimed at the general public, i.e, all of us. You should all take part in such things as the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (next scheduled for 30th/31st January 2016) and Butterfly Conservation’s Garden Butterfly Survey,  these take little time, are great fun and help collect information on population distribution and abundance that can be used to target conservation activity.

·         Feed the birds - any argument along the lines that feeding birds in your garden is wrong because they become over dependent on artificial food sources should be ignored. Birds everywhere are under immense pressure and their natural food supplies are being depleted both in the wider countryside and nearer home. Feeding them regularly with high energy food can only be good. If you are worried about the over dependence argument then you can always stop the feeding for a few days so that the birds forage over a wider zone for a spell. Every day is a matter of survival for wild creatures: find food you live, fail and you die. Feed them, they need it.

It is certainly well too late for the poor passenger pigeon but it is not too late for the hedgehog and many other wild creatures in the UK and around the world. It was an inconceivable notion for the government of the USA that passenger pigeons would ever become threatened, let alone extinct. They were wrong. We must not make the same mistakes.