New visitor centre at WWT Welney… and what is it about the WWT?

The Ranger is interested to read of the new lottery-funded Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust visitor facilities due to open Easter 2006 at Welney. A while ago, whilst working at Wicken Fen, I had a bit to do with the WWT reserve at Welney, and visited it quite a few times. I was struck then, and have been since, by the unique approach of the WWT to birdwatching and indeed conservation in general.


It is without any trace of pejorative overtone that I describe their reserves as unashamedly populist. In keeping with the wishes of their founder, Sir Peter Scott, the WWT have brought to the highest level the art of consumer bird watching. Rather than many, obscure, scattered reserves, purchased and managed primarily for their conservation interest, the WWT have concentrated their efforts on a few, magnificent, easily accessible reserves, where the birds are more or less brought to the visitor who can sit in warm and carpeted luxury – if they so wish – to watch them. The birds might not be very rare (although they often are), but you can be damned sure that if you’ve paid your money, you’re gonna see clouds of the things. Can you imagine why anyone would prefer waiting in chilly marshes for the dawn and a chance of a glimpse of some little brown thing 250m away? Madness! Why not come to WWT and just let it all wash over you? WWT is the Ikea of conservation – they are selling not just a product but an experience. And they do it fantastically well. This kind of mass bird-delivery system is a far cry from the offerings at almost every other nature reserve. Needless to say this unique attitude leads to some criticisms. WWT centres often feed the wild birds to encourage them to come to the centres for viewing. And by feeding, I don’t mean a handful of seed or so. No, they dump many tonnes of potatoes and animal feed, allowing the birds to gorge themselves and stock up for their migration flights. Not such a bad thing, really, but at what point does feeding the passing migrants start to interfere with their natural way of life? Do they become more tame and domesticated, and if so, does this affect their chances of survival in other countries where perhaps there is no local WWT to feed them? It’s not a question the Ranger is qualified to answer, but I assume that WWT know the answer, and keep a close eye on such matters. It has also been suggested that WWT is only focussed on birds themselves, rather than also considering their habitats and other connected groups (such as invertebrates), which is a more sustainable position. However, I believe from my own experience of the WWT in Welney that this is not true – even if perhaps it once was. WWT know about conservation in the widest sense and are quite conscious of what they are up to. They are perfectly capable of undertaking good ecology, when it suits them, but have very little in the way of resources compared to many, larger, bodies such as RSPB and the National Trust; leaving them little spare time and money for pure ecology. What they have done instead is to specialise, and to follow the money. Huge resources can be attracted for buildings and facilities, especially from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In fact, it is (or at least was) notoriously easier to get a lot of money, from many sources, for a building, than a small amount for habitat management. WWT have capitalised on this in several locations most expertly. The WWT is a small but dedicated group which has successfully identified a very specific niche in the nature reserve business. It would be hard to imagine any organisation in the UK displacing them from their pre-eminent position.

Little penguin lost…?

Christmastime, the short silly season for news, and a story about a missing penguin is snapped up by media hacks the world over. Here on the Isle of Wight we’re suddenly famous for not having a penguin. The council is worried enough to make a special announcement page (now rather out-of-date) to keep people up-to-date. The reward money by Jan 3rd stood at a cynical

Ivy on trees… kill it or cherish it?

At this time of year our thoughts turn to holly and ivy… and sometimes we encounter one of the ‘old chestnuts’ for debate that just seem to go on and on. Is ivy on a tree a good thing or a bad thing? Should we take ivy off trees, or leave it on? The world seems to be divided sharply into two on this matter. The Ranger, for what it’s worth, is firmly in the ivy retention camp. Ivy (c) ScoobygirlI well remember a Christmastime some 15 years ago when on my rounds in the woodland I managed I encountered the work of an ivy vigilante. Some clever dick had gone along the woodland ride and cut about 10cm out of the big stems of ivy on the oak trees, killing dozens of ivy plants. I was furious, and for years afterwards the dead ivy lurked in the oak branches, accusingly. Of course, it grew back, but that’s not the point. Ivy provides good shelter and food for wildlife, it is a native plant, and it does not harm trees. No, it doesn’t. A weak tree may succumb to ivy infestation, but this is because it was on the way out anyway. It’s also nigh on impossible to get dead ivy out of a tree.

So why do people hate it so? My theory is that it’s a gardening thing. Of course, in a formal situation, such as a park or garden, it’s quite proper to take ivy off trees. Indeed, because ivy is so successful as a plant it can certainly be seen as a weed in some contexts. So gardeners and those who like tidy gardens, like to remove it. The problem comes when they extend this principle to natural and managed woodlands, and assume that ivy elsewhere is also a problem. Not so. I’m happy for gardeners to pick off as much ivy as they like – in a garden. But if ivy is a weed in one context, it cannot be assumed that it will be so in all others. So please, if your secateur trigger finger is itchy, don’t go into your local woodland and cut the ivy stems imagining you’re improving matters. Clip off a few jolly ivy boughs instead, decorate your home this Christmas with this fine, festive plant, and learn to enjoy it in its place.

Death to

The website deathtogreysquirrels has gone down in a blaze of publicity – national coverage of this light-hearted but controversial website seems to have brought so much traffic that the site was swamped – or possibly the site is down for more sinister reasons. The Ranger sincerely hopes that free expression has not been unfairly stifled by whatever means.

A grey squirrel reveals its motives Possibly the squirrels themselves have cunningly engineered it, and are even now laughing at us over their nuts.

The site has been unavailable since at least 6pm on 16 December, probably earlier. The two days before had brought a huge surge of traffic to Naturenet with people searching for deathtogreysquirrels (yes, we do look at our server logs – that’s one way we always know how to put the latest must-have info on Naturenet) although this is now (18 Dec) petering out, presumably because the site itself is down and because the national coverage (in the Daily Mail) is in the past. To check if the site is up or down right now click here. Please do let us know if it returns- or if you know anything about its disappearance. Update 16 January 2006: it seems that the website is gone for ever, after its owner made some sort of truce with the squirrels. How queer!

Dr S. Max Walters (1920-2005)

The Ranger was saddened to hear of the death last week of Max Walters, one of the best known names in botany and practical conservation in the 20th century. When working at Wicken Fen NNR in the 1990s, I encountered Max, who was on the management committee, on many occasions. When we first met, he was typically blunt and forthright, and put this young whippersnapper firmly in his place. It was only a few days later, at home, when my eye fell on my bookcase and I recognised the name of the co-author of one of my prized New Naturalist tomes, and I realised just what an eminent scientist had seen fit to offer me his advice. As time went on I grew to enjoy our meetings, and I learnt from him and his fierce passion for plants and for botany. Perhaps his most lasting effect on me was to show me how to look beyond the gaudy ‘flagship species’ which so often form the front end of nature conservation and see the richness of other species and groups that lie behind – in his case, usually plants. This translated into a healthy scepticism about the prominence of birds and mammals in such situations, and a willingness to go out on a limb for more obscure, but ultimately more rewarding groups and species. Conservation management, ecology and botany have lost a champion, but his work lives on in those he taught, his writings, and the plants and land he cherished for so long.

Dr S. Max Walters

Schedule 5: protected animals

It might not be the most popular page on Naturenet but this is a perennial favourite which has been there right since day one in 1995, and today the Ranger has updated it. Yes, it has been updated other times since 1995, what do you think we are?

The ladybird spider Eresus niger (now Eresus cinnaberinus) - protected by Schedule 5

So if you ever wondered just which animals (apart from birds) are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 then this one’s just for you. The Ranger uses this page himself very regularly, as do many others. Many thanks to keen-eyed Samuel Watson for pointing out a mistake on there which prompted a thorough overhaul.

Grey squirrels are trouble enough – and now they’re white

Ok, now they really are laughing at us. Possibly it’s even some oh-so-witty rodent pun on the Isle of Wight. It appears that some grey squirrels in Scotland have started surviving in an albino version – as explained by the Scotsman newspaper:

…with some experts suggesting the white coat provides better camouflage against bright, modern buildings than either of its cousins. And numbers are on the rise, with three separate colonies in the Lothians reported to wildlife experts recently. Albino squirrels were spotted in Livingston, West Lothian earlier this year and now it has emerged that two other colonies are living in Edinburgh and Haddington, East Lothian.

A white squirrel

It seems remarkable, if true. But there’s no reason to disbelieve it. Whatever will these amazingly adaptable creatures come up with next? It’s hard to know if this latest development has any implications for the embattled red squirrel – probably not. But intriguing, nonetheless.

Olympic fever – are we the victims of 2012?

You know the Ranger is hardly one to complain, moan or stir it up. But this time it’s just bubbling up and has to be said. We’re delighted at the success of London in gaining the 2012 Olympics. It’s super. We’re even more pleased about the Green Games initiative. That’s fantastic – for East London, anyway. But today The Ranger was in a meeting discussing a big lottery bid for the Isle of Wight. By big, we’re talking seven figures here, and we’ve been working on it for over a year.

Olympics, London 2012

The good news is, our bid’s nearly ready for the next stage. The bad news is, we learn from our well-informed contacts that the unofficial word on the street is that the Lottery is pretty much gonna shut up shop until 2012 as it’s going to have to give out such a massive heap of beans to support the Olympics. Now, officially the news is that it’s business as usual, and no doubt if you ask the Lottery people they’ll tell you as much. And let’s hope they are correct. Because it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that a massive load of money is needed from the lottery to support this Olympic project, and that it’s got to come from somewhere – unless they’ve been sitting on a golden egg for years, which is most unlikely (despite the rumours to the contrary). So what will suffer as a result? Everyday lottery bids such as the ones we Rangers spend lots of time and effort producing, managing and supporting, and which pay the wages of quite a few of us. And it’s not just rangers. Small community groups and charities, culture, heritage, education, children’s facilites, health, regeneration projects… all those things which up to now the lottery has benefited, all will suffer: and the benefit will be concentrated on one main theme – sport – and one main region – London. There are laudable efforts to spread the benefit, but however you spin it that’s got to be the end result. This cannot be good overall. The Lottery has become an essential funding stream for such a lot of things which once were publicly funded. We’ve become dependent upon it and we have not had to do without this largesse before. Other sources of funding (such as grant giving parts of local councils) which once supported for community groups and organisations no longer exist. This run-up to the Olympics could be a lot tougher than we expect.