Previously unseen wildlife is colonising British cities but local authorities are concerned by the increase. The Guardian reports
First came the urban fox, then flocks of colourful tropical parakeets. But now deer, woodpeckers, hedgehogs, jackdaws, birds of prey and exotic spiders, fish and insects are colonising British cities, say wildlife experts.
Previously unseen muntjac, roe and fallow deer now boldly enter inner-city areas such as Finsbury Park in north London and have been seen in cemeteries, gardens and golf courses on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bristol, Guildford and Newcastle, says the London Wildlife Trust’s deputy director, Mathew Frith.
He gave a warning that people could soon expect to see wild boar in suburban streets and gardens: “It will not be too long before they impact on our urban areas. They have no natural predators, it is complicated to hunt them, and their numbers are increasing. We can expect them soon.”
Birds of prey, once common in cities, have this year returned in numbers. Red kites, extinct in England and Scotland by the 1800s and down to just a few pairs 20 years ago, are now not just seen flying over London and other cities, but have been found feeding in gardens in places such as Reading, Frith says.
In a remarkable turnaround from the polluted wildlife deserts of the 1970s, inner-city parks and private gardens are now attracting creatures once practically extinct in urban areas and providing habitats for wildlife seldom seen before in Britain.
The invaders, which are mostly welcomed by ecologists but worry local authorities as their numbers increase, are becoming bolder every year as they fill ecological niches.
Jackdaws have been found raiding pigeons’ nests on the British Museum and the National Gallery, and peregrine falcons, which were almost exterminated by the use of pesticides after the second world war, have taken to nesting in the Houses of Parliament, Tate Modern and the O2 arena, as well as on tower blocks and housing estates.
“They used to be persecuted, but now they are returning,” says Frith. “Twelve years ago there were no breeding pairs at all. But now we have eight to 10 pairs in London.”
Smaller animals and birds once rare in cities are also thriving, says ecologist Tony Canning, who works at the Camley Gardens nature reserve near King’s Cross in north London. He attributes some of the increase in urban wildlife to a declining use of pesticides by gardeners. “Sales shot up in the 1980s gardening boom, but people don’t use so much now,” he says.
Increasingly urbanised landscapes are thought to be of mixed value for birds, with species such as pigeons and chaffinches able to survive in these environments, while others, such as the swift, starling and song thrush, are in decline.
One of the most successful urban birds may be the tropical ring-necked parakeet, which colonised Esher in Surrey years ago and is becoming widespread in urban areas in the Midlands. “We now have great spotted woodpeckers right in the centre of cities. I saw one flying over London Bridge last week,” says Frith.
Exotic animals have often been brought to London and to British port cities on boats, but they seldom breed. But no one can explain how a self-sustaining colony of non-venomous metre-long Aesculapian snakes has come to live near the canal in Regent’s Park. They normally eat birds and eggs, but appear to be feeding on rodents.
Hundreds of terrapins, which can live for up to 60 years, are known to inhabit British cities following the craze over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show in the 1990s. This year a mink was spotted in an artificial lake in Thamesmead, one of London’s most deprived communities. “What we are seeing especially is new insects. The red-eyed damselfly was virtually unknown a few years ago. Now it’s in central London. Wasp spiders are spreading everywhere,” says Canning.
Milder winters are thought to have extended the range of insects and spiders to London and southern England cities. Jersey moths and exotic, brightly coloured wasp spiders, almost unheard of a few years ago, have spread from the continent, and red-eyed damselflies, first spotted in Britain in 1999, are now common on London’s waterways.
In August a rarely seen long-tailed blue butterfly was found trying to establish a breeding territory in East India Dock. It is possible that it came off a boat, but just as likely that warmer winters have made it possible for it to survive.
Ecologists cannot say if the present boom in wildlife is because species are being driven out of the countryside or because cities are becoming more attractive. “We have lost some urban habitats, like old industrial sites, and a lot of front gardens have been concreted over,” says Canning. “But a huge amount of conservation work has been done in nature reserves in the past 20 years.”
Equally, thousands of ponds in the countryside have been filled, but frogs and newts now find it easier to live in cities because pesticides are used less.
The work of local authorities may also be encouraging wildlife. Tens of thousands of street and park trees were planted in the 1950s and 1960s in British cities and many of these are nearing maturity, offering new habitats for many types of birds such as magpies, which only nest above 25ft.
But not all new urban wildlife in urban areas is welcome. Last week scientists from Queen Mary College, University of London, said that almost 100 freshwater species not native to the UK have invaded the river Thames catchment area, costing hundreds of millions of pounds to eradicate. They include Chinese mitten crabs, zebra mussels, Asiatic clams and other species which can rapidly multiply and take over the habitats of native wildlife and infest waterways.
The recolonisation of British cities parallels what is happening elsewhere in Europe and also the US. Wolves have been found within 25 miles of Rome, and wild boars are now so common in Berlin that the city authorities have issued hunting licences.
American scientists warned last week that wolves, mountain lions and wild dogs could soon be a common sight in densely populated cities. “Raccoons, skunks, foxes – they’ve already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well. The coyote is the most recent and largest. The jury’s out with what’s going to happen with the bigger ones,” said Dr Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, who has been tracking the wild dogs.
“It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores. In the future, and I would say currently, it’s cities where we’re going to have this intersection between people and carnivores. Overall, I think it is amazing what is happening. If we give a bit of room here and there, nature does its own thing. We are finding many animals are surprisingly tolerant of what humans do.”
- Wildlife Update : More bad news : The little things that rule the world are facing disaster (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- WILDLIFE UPDATE : Fury at minister Richard Benyon’s ‘astounding’ refusal to ban deadly bird poison (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- A Golden Opportunity for Wildlife (theecologist.org)
- Hyderabad: A showcase of urban biodiversity (rtcc.org)
- WILDLIFE UPDATE : Attenborough – asking us to ‘learn from nature’ and not ignore the signs! (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Rhinestone Coyotes (& Other Urban Wildlife) (balloon-juice.com)
- Wildlife photographer awards 2012 (bbc.co.uk)
- ‘Eat UK oysters’ scientists urge (bbc.co.uk)
Millionaire landowner – and Wildlife minister – accused of putting wealthy friends before his parliamentary brief. The Independent reports
The Wildlife minister,
has been accused of being “the gamekeeper’s friend” by refusing to outlaw a poison used by some to kill protected birds of prey on shooting estates.
Mr Benyon, a millionaire landowner who is strongly associated with shooting interests and owns both a pheasant shoot in Berkshire and a Scottish grouse moor, has declined a request from senior MPs to make possession of the poison, carbofuran, a criminal offence – as is the case in Scotland.
The effect of his refusal is to make a substance which is particularly deadly to birds of prey, despite it being a banned chemical with no legitimate use whatsoever, still available to any gamekeepers who wish to get rid of raptors illegally when they are perceived to be predating on gamebirds.
His stance, which is only the latest controversy arising from Mr Benyon’s personal involvement with game shooting policy, met with fierce criticism yesterday. “The minister’s shocking refusal to outlaw the possession of a poison used only by rogue gamekeepers to illegally kill birds of prey would be inexplicable were it not for his own cosy links to the shooting lobby,” said the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.
“Instead of protecting the interests of his friends on the shooting estates and undermining the well being of British wildlife, the minister should be following the ad vice of MPs and the Scottish precedent by making carbofuran possession a criminal offence.”
Dr Mark Avery, former conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and now a leading wildlife campaigner, said that Mr Benyon’s refusal to act on carbofuran was “astounding”.
“The minister responsible for protecting wildlife in England does not believe it is worth helping to stamp out the poisoning of birds of prey by making it a clear offence to possess a poison for which there is no legal use in this country,” said Mr Avery. “He is certainly the gamekeeper’s friend – even if he is not a friend to wildlife.”
Mr Benyon’s refusal is revealed in a report today on wildlife crime from the cross-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee, which discloses that between 2002 and 2011 there were 633 confirmed bird of prey poisoning incidents in the UK, with species killed ranging from golden eagles and white-tailed eagles to peregrine falcons – and carbofuran was used in 316 cases, or 50 per cent.
The report links the persecution of raptors firmly to shooting interests. “Unfortunately, some gamekeepers persecute birds of prey,” the MPs say. “One study found only five successful hen harrier nests on the 3,700 square kilometres of driven grouse moor in the UK in 2008, an area which has the potential to support 500 pairs.”
They add that of the 152 people who have been convicted of offences against birds of prey under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, some 70 per cent were gamekeepers employed on shooting estates.
Focusing on carbofuran use, the MPs say: “It is extremely toxic to birds, and a single grain would kill a large bird of prey such as a golden eagle.” They add: “A gamekeeper who was convicted of poisoning birds of prey in Skibo, Scotland, in 2011, was found to possess 10 kilos of carbofuran, sufficient to kill every bird of prey in the UK.”
However, when members of the committee asked Mr Benyon to make possession of it illegal, he refused, saying that poisoning was an offence anyway, and that outlawing the chemical “may not be a proportionate course of action”. The MPs reject Mr Benyon’s arguments and call on the Government to outlaw possession of carbofuran and other similar substances in England and Wales – “to discharge its obligations under the EU Birds Directive, to demonstrate its commitment to addressing raptor persecution, and to send a clear signal that it regards poisoning birds of prey as wholly unacceptable”.
The MPs also call on the Government to consider introducing an offence of “vicarious liability” in relation to birds of prey persecution – which would mean that if a gamekeeper were convicted of illegally killing a raptor on a shooting estate, say, the landowner who employed him would also be liable for prosecution.
“Given the scale of ongoing persecution of birds of prey, the current law appears to carry insufficient weight,” the MPs say. The offence of vicarious liability was introduced in Scotland in 2011 and the MPs call on the Government to review its effects and to make the results of any such review public.
Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, said last night: “Through their suggestion of tighter controls on the use of certain pesticides, like carbofuran, the committee has provided any easy way for the Government to protect birds of prey.”
Shooting minister: Benyon’s record
Since becoming Wildlife minister in 2010, Richard Benyon’s keen support for shooting interests has involved him in controversy.
He came in for ferocious criticism earlier this year for sanctioning a research project into the effect of buzzard predation on young pheasants, which would have involved buzzards’ nests being blasted by shotguns. The policy was dropped following intervention with Mr Benyon’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by Downing Street – 24 hours after extensive coverage of the plan in ‘The Independent’, in which Mr Benyon was labelled “The Bird-Brained Minister” and David Cameron‘s own links to game shooting were highlighted.
Mr Benyon now faces questions about an upland shooting estate in West Yorkshire which was being prosecuted by the Government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England, for illegally damaging protected habitat, a blanket bog – until the case was suddenly and mysteriously dropped. Mr Benyon is the minister directly in charge of Natural England, but neither Defra nor Natural England itself is willing to offer any explanation of why the prosecution of the Walshaw Moor estate was abruptly dropped in March this year. Now the RSPB has attempted to open up the case by asking the European Commission to intervene.
- Fury at minister Richard Benyon’s ‘astounding’ refusal to ban deadly bird poison (nwhsa.wordpress.com)
- Fury at minister Richard Benyon’s ‘astounding’ refusal to ban deadly bird poison (independent.co.uk)
- Wildlife Minister Refuses to Ban Deadly Bird Poison (zen-haven.com)
- Birds of prey poisoned because law not upheld (telegraph.co.uk)
- MPs highlight raptor slaughter (bbc.co.uk)
- Journalists must declare their interests (guardian.co.uk)
- RSPB lodges EU complaint over Walshaw Moor controversy (guardian.co.uk)
- RSPB lodges EU complaint over burning of grouse moor (independent.co.uk)
- MPs criticise bird poisoning laws (itv.com)
Finally – hopefully – some timely good news for these wonderful creatures! Henricus Peters
British scientists have made a breakthrough which may enable cattle to be vaccinated against TB, doing away with the need to cull the badgers believed to be infecting them. Michael McCarthy of The Independent reports
Currently, vaccinating cattle against bovine tuberculosis is banned throughout Europe, because there is no way of distinguishing in current diagnostic tests between an animal that has merely been vaccinated, and an animal that has actually contracted the disease.
Vaccinated but healthy cattle would thus appear contaminated and could not be sold or traded abroad – and TB vaccination of cattle has been prohibited across the EU since 1978.
However, researchers led by Professor Glyn Hewinson, of Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, have developed a so-called “diva” test – meaning differentiation of infected from vaccinated animals – which makes the distinction between the two clear.
Such a test, if used in conjunction with a new cattle TB vaccine being developed simultaneously, would enable the Government to ask the EU for the law to be changed, so cattle could indeed be immunised against a disease which is rapidly spreading in parts of Britain, and has precipitated the highly controversial badger cull that is about to start.
However, both the vaccine and the test have to be validated by regulatory agencies, a long and complex process which “may take years”, according to the Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens.
That has to happen before EU law could be altered and the cattle vaccination ban lifted. In the meantime, the trial cull of badgers is set to begin in two pilot areas in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The trial cull, which is strongly supported by farmers but has attracted intense opposition from animal welfare activists, who have been accused of harassing farmers and who have threatened to disrupt nighttime shooting operations.
The development of the diva or differentiation test was “absolutely critical”, Mr Gibbens said.
“Yes, it has been developed, but there is a long way to go,” he said. “We believe we’ve got one that can be practically applied, but in terms of getting international recognition for it, it is months and possibly years away.”
Such a test has to be validated by the Paris-based OIE – the Organisation Internationale des Epizooties – or the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Similarly, the new cattle TB vaccine being developed in parallel by the Weybridge team has to be validated for efficacy and safety by Britain’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate – a process which has already begun.
If both are passed as fit for purpose, Britain can then attempt to persuade the other 26 member states of the EU to lift the vaccination ban, something to which the Government is committed, Mr Gibbens said. “We’re determined to push this through,” he said. “But to get the vaccine and the test sorted, and a change in EU law, is some years away. I really would like to say we could accelerate this whole process, but I think ‘years’ is right.”
Mr Gibbens, who has been Chief Vet, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2008, said that more than £34m had already been spent on research “and we’re committed to spending [£15.5m] in the next four years on a whole range of parallel streams of activities to try and get vaccines for cattle and badgers”.
The other main area of the research is on an oral TB vaccine for badgers, which would be much simpler to administer – as it could be left out in bait – than the present injectable badger TB vaccine, which was licensed in 2010, and for which badgers have to be individually cage-trapped. Such an oral vaccine is being developed, Mr Gibbens said.
The Government is increasingly being criticised for not using the available injectable badger vaccine as a TB control programme instead of culling, something which is now happening in Wales.
Earlier this year John Griffiths, Environment Minister in the Labour Welsh Assembly, reversed the decision of the previous Labour-Plaid Cymru administration to carry out a cull, and a mass vaccination programme is being carried out in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. So far, 930 animals have been vaccinated
But the Government declines to go down this road, Mr Gibbens said, because “it’s not quickly effective enough, it’s difficult to do in practical terms, and it’s expensive”.
Cage-trapping badgers for vaccination (or indeed for shooting) costs about £2,500 per hectare, whereas simply shooting them as they run freely – which is about to happen in the English pilot culls – costs about £200.
While the cost of the pilot culls in England is to be met by farmers, the cost of the vaccination programme in Wales is currently being met by the Welsh Assembly Government.
- Letters: Badger culling vital to help stop bovine TB (guardian.co.uk)
- Badger cull trial open to interpretation (guardian.co.uk)
- Badger cull could be postponed as disruption tactics take effect (theweek.co.uk)
- You: Farming ‘shortcomings’ undermines case for badger cull (guardian.co.uk)
- Q&A: The badger cull (bbc.co.uk)
- Badgers: To Cull or Not To Cull? (itv.com)
- Badger Update : Tempers rising over cull as farmers confront activists (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Brian May launches campaign to stop ‘indefensible’ badger cull (standard.co.uk)
- Badger cull to reduce TB slightly (bbc.co.uk)
The Big Butterfly Count, taking place in the worst year on record for the insects, will alert conservationists to species most at risk. The Guardian reports
If this summer’s 50 shades of grey are getting you down, imagine how miserable it is to be a winged insect. In what is shaping up to be the worst year on record for butterflies, Sir David Attenborough on Wednesday urged people to find a window of sunshine and join the biggest butterfly count in the world.
The wettest April for a century and the dampest June on record has left lepidopterists despairing about the fate of Britain’s59 species, almost three quarters of which are in decline and one third are in danger of extinction.
Launching the third year of Butterfly Conservation‘s Big Butterfly Count, the biggest citizen science project of its kind in the world, Attenborough said it was more important than ever to discover if butterflies are dodging the downpour. The count, in which people are asked to record online all the common species they spot in a 15-minute window in their garden or local park, will alert conservationists to the species most in danger so efforts can be better targeted to prevent their extinction.
“The fact that every single person can produce a statistic that is of real value is a great spur,” said Attenborough. “But let’s not underestimate the spin-offs. Many people will for the first time start taking a careful and critical view of their surroundings. The butterfly count helps butterflies but it also helps natural history and eco-sensitivity in this country.”
Conservationists fear that this summer’s extreme weather will trigger local extinctions of rare species such as the heath fritillary, which only flies at 40 sites in Britain, and the high brown fritillary, found in 50 locations. But there are also concerns over common species and Butterfly Conservation hopes the count, which is supported by Marks & Spencer, will reveal how the small tortoiseshell is faring after counts revealed a dramatic population slump for this once-common garden butterfly.
The summer of 2012 may become the worst year for butterflies since records began in 1976. If butterfly sightings are lower than the sodden summer of 2007 it would suggest there are fewer butterflies than ever in the British Isles, as numbers have been in steady decline since the 1970s.
“The enthusiasts and scientists on the ground are very concerned and they are rightly concerned,” said Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation. “There’s a realistic fear of it being an extremely bad year. Sun-loving butterflies are having to cope with some of the wettest, coldest and dullest spring and summer weather on record.”
Prolonged wet weather prevents caterpillars from thriving and stops adults finding mates and laying eggs for next year’s generation. Most butterflies need warm temperatures and sunshine to acquire enough energy to fly.
Butterflies are experiencing a struggle between the warming effects of climate change, which should benefit sun-loving species, and extreme weather events, which insects struggle to cope with. It is not all doom and gloom, however: climate change is helping 10 species, including the peacock and the Essex skipper, expand northwards through Britain.
A few damp-loving butterflies have also thrived in recent wet summers, most notably the ringlet and the speckled wood. Britain’s butterflies have adapted to survive miserable summers, and insect numbers can quickly recover after dire years. The problem for the rarest species is that they are confined to small pockets of nature reserves – unable to escape local conditions in good or bad years – making them particularly vulnerable to extinction. Poor weather can cause already rare species to enter a death spiral – becoming so small in number that they never fully recover.
As well as count butterflies, Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, said people could plant wild flowers and grasses in their gardens and called on every park to replace a portion of its mown grass with wild flower meadows to boost butterfly numbers.
“I look on mown lawns with horror,” said Warren. “Some people may think wild flower meadows look scruffy but I would defy anyone to walk through a wild flower meadow full of butterflies and not find that a wonderful experience.”
- Butterfly fears after record rain (walesonline.co.uk)
- Sir David Attenborough warns of threat to UK Butterflies after record wet weather (itv.com)
- Butterfly fears after record rain (express.co.uk)
- Record Wet Weather Threatens UK Butterflies (news.sky.com)
- Butterflies on a wing and a prayer as cold wet weather threatens numbers (scotsman.com)
- National News: Butterfly fears after record rain (coventrytelegraph.net)
- Butterfly fears after record rain (standard.co.uk)
- Spring weather baffles butterflies (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Disaster year for butterflies: Wet summer could lead to worst population crash in 36 years (dailymail.co.uk)
- Spring weather baffles butterflies (guardian.co.uk)
The National Trust, the Natural History Museum and The Wildlife Trusts are supporting the Cub Naturalist Activity Badge and providing exciting new resources to encourage Cub Scoutsto get outdoors and take the pulse of nature.
Below are downloadable resources and links to support 6 fun activities that Cubs can do to work towards their Naturalist Activity Badge. Follow the link to download theactivity pack explaining the 6 activities and the leaders’ notes.
Downloadable resources at -
- David Attenborough presents award to old friend Ted Smith (guardian.co.uk)
- Tonight’s Cub Scout bridging ceremony was a big success (eoghann.com)
- We have a dream…of a #naturalchildhood (outdoornation.org.uk)
- VIDEO: Centenary of the Wildlife Trusts (bbc.co.uk)
- Exciting Night at Cub Scouts (ovari.wordpress.com)
- Wildlife Trusts celebrate 100 years (bbc.co.uk)