The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks  to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.

Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.

I find myself, like many others,  outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation.  Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.

I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some  thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and  about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).

Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.

Harari’s  theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than  a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored  by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .

One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).

But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring  the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.

Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported  that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water  is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.

The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.

Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species.  While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.

Ashol-Pan, Kazakh's first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky

Ashol-Pan, Kazakh’s first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky from

A very dear friend of mine was recently bought a lesson at the Hawk Conservancy for her birthday. She is a big fan of birds of prey, especially the kestrel she sees on her daily walk with the dog, but i think the lesson transformed her. Into what remains to be seen! I could definitely see her working with birds of prey but she need to do the Lantra Award in Bird of Prey Management and Husbandry. I  remind her that I made the leap from Care Worker into the environment sector- although i had formal qualifications it was the volunteering and building up skills slowly that really mattered in breaking through, not the MSc.

This morning i can’t shake an image out of my head and I finally remembered why; a story on the BBC back in April of the first female trainee Eagle Hunter in the Altai Mountains for 2000 years. I looked up the story again and every time I’m blown away by the images.

As I write this I recall a conversation with my Father on Christmas Day. I was stunned to hear he had been to see the Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies while visiting my brother before Christmas. Not so strange you might say, but there is history of course. Dad can’t do sci-fi or fantasy that well, so this was a bit of a surprise. Then he recounted the story which I had heard a few times before of the picture he drew as a boy of an eagle standing on a rocky precipice. I reminded him of the picture in my 1974 Tolkien Calendar of Gwaihir the Windlord and Bilbo Baggins and we still haven’t got to the bottom of which came first the picture in the calendar or the memory of the drawing!

Gwaihir and Bilbo

Gwaihir and Bilbo

And of late as I pass below the chalk escarpment of the Surrey Hills near the Mole Gap on my way home to Dorking via Guildford, I’ve regularly spotted two red kites drifting laconically over the fields and hedgerows below The Wotton Hatch. I have seen soiltary birds before down this way but never a pair. I couldn’t be sure if they were mates, but I hope so.



I’m sure there’s some psychological resonances going on here: a return to the instinctive, the need to take flight, views from above, ability to see hidden truths, hunting success (which remains an elusive prey). I’m grateful to my friend, ever my muse, and my father for pulling these connections together from the Moria- like mines of my subconscious.

And just before I sign off, my favourite bird of prey, the Marsh Harrier. So reminiscent of good times in East Anglia working for the RSPB.

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

These are hedges along a footpath to Guildford lane, which is to the south of White Lane.

These are hedges along a footpath from Halfpenny Lane to Guildford lane, which is to the south of White Lane. Photo by Alan Hunt

Thanks to @viewfromMoleValley who tweeted this morning the website  Exploring Surrey’s Past. I thought I’d see what information it had on old hedgerows and I found this record for an ancient hedge. Sadly the GR is a single point so I have no idea as to the extent of the hedge. I’ve walked up there a few times when I lived in Guildford, up over Pewley Downs to St Martha’s and Newlands Corner and there are some great long hedges there.

RefNo: 5559Reference Number:

SHHER_5559Site Name: 12th cenutry hedgerow, White Lane, Guildford

Grid Reference: 502500 149000

Description: Hedgerow dating by Surrey Archaeological Society suggests that the hedgerow on the north side of the lane dates to the 12th century. The hedgerow to the south is likely to be of a similar age, but has been affected by modern development.


I’ve marked this on a new Surrey Hedgerows Google Map (its the only one on therecurrently!) which I intend to build on over time. I’ve also got a Surrey Hedgerows Facebook site where I hope people will send in pictures.

There has been a long running survey of hedgerows in Sussex- the Hedgerow Inventory Project run by Peter Challis and the Sussex Biological Records Centre. I’m not aware of anything similar in Surrey and after 3 years helming PTES’ Hedgerows for Dormice Project 2009-2011. its always been a goal to start a project to train volunteers to map this semi-natural Priority Habitat , Who knows what 2015 will bring?

I wonder how many other very old hedgerows there are out there in Surrey?

View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

In October I signed up to monitor Burpham Court Farm, Guildford, for the BTO Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS). This Sunday gone was my 3rd Core Count (the first Sunday in the month) and the first on my own. As a relative newcomer to wetland birds- I am mammal ecologist- I enlisted the support first of Ken Ankorn, SWT Planning Officer and Surrey Bird Club member: and on my second outing in November, Mike Waite, SWT Living Landscapes Manager (my boss!) and in the best way possible all-round nature know-it-all!
Burpham Court Farm is owned by Guildford Borough Council, and is connected to the wonderful corridor of wetland habitat along the River Wey which includes Riverside LNR, Parsonage Meadow North of Guildford and sites that make up the Wey Valley Meadows SSSI to the south. Regular sightings so far have been large flocks of Canada Geese, Lapwing, Teal and Widgeon with growing numbers of black-headed gulls. Last month we spotted a solitary Snipe. This morning I logged 160 Lapwing, 100 Teal, 22 Widgeon and 45 BH Gull, and the snipe was there again. Last month it had been skulking in the rushes, today he was happily at his business drumming that long, long beak into the soft mud. Other sightings today were two grey herons, 1 lonely mallard, 2 pied wagtail, 2 moorhen and a Greater Black-backed gull.

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

I’m glad I had come on my own today. It was great to have the support of Ken or Mike but even with two it was hard to get close enough to the 3 scrapes at Burpham without disturbing the birds. This time however, I was able to get down to the north side of the Wey, bending here in a large U as it leaves the Navigation, without sending anything flying. I was therefore surprised to see through my scope, as bold as brass, a dog fox nosing amongst the rushes on the other side of the ditch line towards Slyfield. The birds didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by him. But when I edged out from behind an alder to get a better view…boom! 150 lapwings went skyward. An amazing sight.

Location of main "scrapes"- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

Location of main “scrapes”- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

But Where are all the coots? And a surprisingly low number of moorhen too. There is not much fringing and in-channel vegetation along the Wey here, and even less since the Environment Agency undertook channel clearance as part of their flood recovery programme. But the situation can’t be helped by the resident American Mink. They are of course mostly known for their impact on water voles but there is evidence for impacts of Mink on water birds, and particularly coot & moorhen (Ferreras and Macdonald 19991)

“Mink presence significantly affected the density of breeding coots and the number of chicks hatched per pair of coots, as well as the average number of nests per pair of moorhens and the percentage of moorhen clutches hatched.  Mink diet during the birds’ breeding season (March–September) was studied through scat analysis. Ralliformes (coots or moorhens) represented 10% of the ingested biomass and were the fourth prey in importance after rabbits (45%), fish (25%) and small mammals (14%). Mink obtained 11% of their energy requirements from coots and moorhens. Impact of predation by mink during the bird breeding season was moderate to high for moorhens (16–27% of adults and 46–79% of broods) and high for coots (30–51% of adults and 50–86% of broods).”

In November, Mike and I were treated to a full floor show from these glamorous predators. Emerging from behind a thick alder coppice stool, not one but two of these dark destroyers made their way along the river bank. I suspect there are more, and records submitted to SWT over the last two years bear that out: the Wey (and Mole) have resident populations of Mink. There are no water vole at Burpham and at present there are no known water vole populations on the Wey. That said no county-wide surveys have been undertaken since 2007. A full resurvey of sites known to be populated up to then is underway, the bulk of which will be resurveyed in 2015.


Although there were plenty of signs, the mink didn’t show up today but instead as I hunkered down to survey scrape 3, I chanced a glance over my shoulder to see if the cormorant I had picked up on the last two surveys was around, Instead I caught sight of a large , slow-moving (dare I say lolloping?) shadow passing across the meadow, with jackdaws and crows in hot pursuit. I had my suspicions as soon as I saw it, having watched a field-full of these stunning birds of prey on a survey in Oxfordshire when I was a consultant, but only when it banked sharply to retaliate against a particularly brave corvid did I see the notched tail and confirm it as a red kite. That was a first for me for the site.

BurphamWEBS111214 (4)
It’s very pleasing in such a developed part of the UK that there are still areas like Burpham and the corridor of wetlands along the Wey. I’m looking forward to keeping track of comings and goings here over the winter and beyond.

1 Ferreras, P. and Macdonald, D.W. (1999), The impact of American mink Mustela vison on water birds in the upper Thames. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36: 701–708. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2664.1999.00431.x

Flooding EghamAs I write this the devastating effects of flooding on individuals and communities, particularly in the south of Britain, can be witnessed daily through the media. In Somerset, and here in my own county of Surrey at Staines, Chertsey and Egham, homes have been damaged and people evacuated. 900 people have been rescued across the county since last Sunday. The political blame game is in full swing and the misguided call for dredging appears to be winning the day. But as one Environment Agency colleague succinctly put it, thinking that dredging would help alleviate these floods was like thinking you can fit four teapots full of tea into one bone china cup if you remove the spoon-full of sugar.


HedgesFlood(C) Adam GrayThankfully, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), together with the BluePrint for Water Partners that includes The Wildlife Trusts (for whom I work) have published “Floods and Dredging, A reality Check”. The report summarises the effects of dredging on river systems, highlighting that it can be a useful tool in the toolbox increasing channel conveyance and reducing water levels in small floods, particularly on heavily modified water bodies. However the report emphasises the need for a Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), with focus on natural practices to slow water and increase infiltration rates, including “planting woodland, shelter belts and hedgerows”

The first title for this blog was going to be “Apart from flood mitigation, soil protection, mitigating runoff and pollution of watercourses, hosting natural predators of crop pests, stock management, food, wood fuel and climate regulation, what have hedgerows ever done for us..? ?” A Hedgelink report summarises the ecosystem services provided by hedgerows (1), including identifying an important role in water management.

“A 50m hedgerow at the bottom of a 1ha field can store between 150 and 375 cubic metres of water during rainy periods for slow release down slope during dry periods”

Evidence points to hedgerows being useful in storing water and increasing its transit time across fields. A 50m hedgerow at the bottom of a 1ha field can store between 150 and 375 cubic metres of water during rainy periods for slow release down slope during dry periods. This effect is greatest in soils rich in clay or organic matter. Because of their deep roots, hedgerows remove water faster from the soil than crops during periods of excessive rainfall, through increased evapotranspiration.(2,3)

flooded fieldsSince 1945 there has been a drastic loss of hedgerows through removal and neglect throughout the UK, especially in eastern counties of England. Between 1984 and 1990, it was estimated that the length of hedges declined by about 23% in Great Britain (4).As well as the decline in biodiversity, this loss could present a significant reduction in the services, such as flood management, provided by hedgerows.

But supporting evidence is still needed, and last year Hedgelink members proposed that ecosystem services provided by hedgerows as a top research priority. DEFRA have awarded funding to produce a research review to be undertaken which will be published in late Spring.

1. Wolton 2009 The importance of hedgerows and the services they provide to society. Hedgelink.
2. Provision of environmental services through the Environmental Stewardship scheme. Final report to Defra (research contract NR0121). By Land Use Consultants in association with GHK Consulting Ltd. March 2009
3. Trees, Hedges and Water. 2000. Document produced jointly by Solagro (France), Rural Development Department of Lower Austria, An Taisce (Ireland) and The European Natural Heritage Fund (Spain).
4. Barr, C.J. et al (1993), Countryside Survey 1990, Main Report, DOE London.


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Staples Lane, Clandon Downs, TQ063503

Staples Lane, Clandon Downs, TQ063503

Ash tree in hedgerow, Staple Lane, Clandon TQ 064503

Overlooking woods at High Clandon Farm TQ06275053

Gappy Field Maple hedge, Clandon Downs TQ06435035

Clandon Downs TQ06435035

Clouds over Clandon Downs

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in hedge bottom, Staples Lane, Clandon Downs TQ05865137

Staples Lane Clandon Downs Panoramic

Staple Lane, East Clandon TQ06435035

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