Old age and SML – Part 2

The intention of the previous post was to stimulate debate and perhaps a response from Council. With hindsight, this might have been more effective if I had drafted it on velum and had it delivered by messenger on horseback! How I yearn for a governing body with the youth, foresight and drive of David Attenborough or Prince Charles rather than the ingrained conservatism of Council members and reserve managers.

Rant over, it seems that South Milton Ley is not only the last refuge of aged birders but also equally popular with aging birds. Two Reed Warblers, ringed as first years at SML in 2014 were re-trapped there this year, seven years later, having made 14 trips across the Sahara. Even this feat was trumped by another Reed Warbler, ringed as a 1st year on 7th August 2010 and re-trapped on 27th May 2021, 3,946 days and 22 Saharan crossings later.

This last bird still falls some way short of the UK longevity record for the species of 12 years 11 months 21 days and is eclipsed by a Wren, HHT003, ringed as an adult at SML on 1st December 2013 and re-trapped there on 21st September 2021, 2,851 days later. Given that the bird must have been at least 18 months (550 days) old when ringed and therefore around 9 years 4 months old when re-trapped, it smashes the current BTO longevity record for the species of 7 years 3 months 6 days.

Old age and SML – Part 1

The membership of Devon Birds has always had a bias towards the elderly. I can remember a former Chairman advising me against a proposal to distribute information via the internet, saying that “there was still a significant proportion of members who didn’t trust even direct debit let alone use the web”. This age range has been particularly evident amongst the few birders who regularly visited South Milton Ley and, as they have gradually dropped by the wayside, the number of records from the reserve has fallen correspondingly. It seems that younger birders don’t have the time or patience to visit a dense habitat where birds are hard to see, preferring to chase after species found elsewhere by other birders.

The aged manager at SML is a committed cyberphobe, and the reserve has suffered as a consequence. Outdated management techniques, based on principals used in the middle of the last century, continue to be employed at SML despite detailed information on more ecologically sensitive methodologies being available online. Repeated and unnecessary drainage operations have been carried out on the SSSI without the required permissions from Natural England and non-native species have been planted, also in breach of SSSI regulations.

The latest major blunder has been the strimming back of bankside vegetation in an area where the presence of Water Voles was finally confirmed just six months ago. This was a unilateral decision by the manager, made without consultation, and breaches Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and Section 41 of the NERC Act 2006 (England). The Water Vole is a priority conservation species. You’re breaking the law if you:

  • damage, destroy or block access to their places of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
  • disturb them in a place of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)

There is no excuse for this as a detailed Water Vole management protocol was included in the South Huish Management Plan, which the SML manager agreed to and definitely has a hard copy of.

Devon Birds Council must shoulder a lot of the blame for this state of affairs. A lack of continuity amongst Council members and a decided lack of relevant ecological expertise has allowed long-serving reserve managers to do their own thing, largely without question. I have argued before that reserve management proposals should be scrutinised by ecologists before being authorised and funded by Council but, with an organisation firmly rooted in a Victorian management structure, nothing has changed. Even the BTO, not renowned historically for dialogue with its members, publishes agendas for committee meetings in sufficient time for members to engage and submit comments. They also publish the minutes of committee meetings with sufficient detail to enable members to understand how and why decisions were made.

Devon Birds rarely engages with members. Agendas are not published and minutes have only been available since January 2021. Posts on Council are filled without being advertised, unless they are particularly onerous roles, which no-one wants to do. Otherwise, Council seems to be largely self-selecting with people co-opted into roles without vacant posts ever being offered to the wider membership. The minutes published this year mention multiple reports circulated in advance to Council members but none of these ever reach ordinary members in time for them to comment.

From the ringing perspective it was concerning to read in the minutes of the 190th meeting that a non-ringing Council member was bothered by the large number of birds ringed in Devon and that Devon Birds should have a policy on ringing. In the following meeting it was stated that a policy, circulated beforehand, had been agreed. Circulated to whom, one might ask? Certainly not Devon’s ringers. Apparently the, now agreed, policy is available on Devon Bird’s website. Nice of Council to let us all know!

Friday 22nd October 2021

Another week away, this time on the Scillies, saw seven days of glorious sunshine with St. Marys sat under a persistent area of high pressure. Not much good for blowing in the vagrants the islands are famous for but it would have been perfect for ringing. Naturally, the ringing curse immediately sprang into effect on our return with persistent rain and wind for the best part of the next week. However, a more benign forecast for the Friday saw me taking advantage of what will probably be my last late start before the clocks go back at the end of the month.

Late starts are all relative and it was 07:30 and decidedly chilly when I started opening the first nets. An apple-laden bough had fallen onto one of the poles in Blaca Ride, snapping it in half at a weak point. Luckily, I had spare poles and this was quickly rectified. As usual, heavy rain had battered reeds into both sides of Marsh Ride and this took another 15 minutes to clear with the hedge trimmer. With everything sorted and an extra 6m net squeezed in along a neighbouring hedge line I was ready to go.

With flocks of Woodpigeon and a few Redwings moving west throughout the morning, I was optimistic but the session was not particularly productive although the first Goldcrest and Firecrest of the autumn were a bonus as was the first returning, wintering Chiffchaff. Final totals were 29 birds: 3 Blackbird, 2 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 6 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Firesrest, 2 Goldcrest, 3 Great Tit, 3 Meadow Pipit, 3 Robin and 3 Wren.