Perfect site for red kites

EMMI 3HUNGER PANGS: a red kite drops in for a snack [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

RED KITES have become virtually synonymous with the Chiltern Hills over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.

Once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain, the birds had become virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century after a couple of centuries of human persecution, with perhaps as few as a dozen pairs surviving against all the odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales.

Nowadays the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, thanks to a successful re-introduction project between 1989 and 1994 – and it was that re-emergence of the species which prompted Emmi Birch to set up a Facebook group for people to share photographs of the magnificent birds.

“The group was created in May 2016 to purely enjoy photographs and film of the red kites,” Emmi recalls. “Living in Buckinghamshire, I have had the pleasure of seeing the red kite population grow rapidly.

“Years ago, we would very occasionally see one and everyone would stop what they were doing and rush outside just to get a glimpse. We now have the privilege of seeing these incredible birds every day in the skies above us.”

Indeed the Chilterns Conservation Board nowadays publishes a leaflet about where to see red kites in the Chilterns, where there are now more than 300 breeding pairs.

Emmi is not alone in her appreciation of the birds, it seems. When she set up the group Red Kite Sitings UK she hadn’t anticipated that it would soon have more than 1,000 members.

ALAN EWARTSPLASH LANDING: a Welsh sighting in Ceredigion [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

On the site’s welcome page, she wrote:  “I’m hoping that this group will allow others to post their photographs and film of red kites from around the UK, so that those who aren’t familiar with these magnificent birds can enjoy them and those, like me, who never tire of seeing the kites can just indulge themselves looking at yet more photos and film of these beautiful birds of prey.”

Fellow enthusiasts haven’t been slow to share their pictures of kites soaring on the breeze all over the UK, a reflection of the extraordinary success of this conservation movement, which had its roots in the foresight of some pioneering visionaries in the early 20th century who realised how close the birds were to extinction.

Contributors to the website include Fife-based enthusiast Allan Brown, who has posted a number of stunning pictures of the birds on the wing north of the border.

Allan Brown's stunning shot of a red kite at Argaty, PerthshireON THE WING: a red kite at Argaty in Perthshire [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

Describing himself as an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer, Allan says: “I am interested in all raptors, but I particularly like red kites for their agility, acrobatics and colours.

Another enthusiast who describes himself as “just an amateur with a camera” is Alan Ewart in Wales. He says: “I took up photography less than two years ago and I’m lucky enough to have two feeding stations both within an hour’s drive. Once I’d been once I was hooked on these magnificent birds.”

RED KITEWELSH WONDER: a red kite at Bwlch Nant yr Arian [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The full story of the birds reintroduction is told in detail by Elfyn Pugh in an article for the online birdwatchers’ magazine Birds of Britain.

By the turn of the 20th century the remaining population were clinging on in their Welsh stronghold, having been plagued by unscrupulous egg collectors,  shot for their skins and mounted as stuffed birds in glass cabinets.

EMMI 2PHOTO BOMB: Emmi’s site has contributors from all over the UK [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

A determined group of individuals and landowners were appalled at the continuing destruction and formed the first kite committee in 1903 to start protecting nests, with the RSPB becoming involved a couple of years later.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the red kite identified as a globally threatened species, that the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council got together to discuss reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.

The programme has continued ever since, with colour-coded wing tags identifying the different places of fledging or release, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen and the Black Isle.

Red Kite on he hnt at Glen QuaichMAJESTIC: on the hunt at Glen Quaich [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

But the Chilterns remains a major stronghold and a perfect place to photograph the birds soaring on the thermals above Stokenchurch and Radnage.

Says Emmi: “My interest started around 13 or 14 years ago when I saw my first red kite fly over the garden. I was absolutely amazed by the size of it.”

In Wales the kite is a national symbol of wildlife and was voted the country’s favourite bird in a public poll run by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll and announced by Iolo Williams in the final episode of Iolo’s Welsh Safari.

He said: “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”

red kite 2FEEDING TIME: Bwlch Nant yr Arian visitor centre [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The enthusiasm is not universal – the tabloids do run occasional stories of residents complaining about being dive-bombed by birds of prey, but Emmi’s page followers are sceptical about such lurid claims, pointing out that the birds are natural scavenger, not hunters, and tend to gather to feed on carrion, mainly dead rabbits, mice and pheasant, and animals killed on the road.

An RSPB spokesperson was quoted in one Daily Mail article reassuring people: “They are not the fearsome predators that people in the Victorian era thought them to be and they are not like a sparrowhawk or kestrel, which would go for a live prey.”

EMM1NATURAL SCAVENGER: kites prefer to feed on carrion  [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

Outside the breeding season the kite is a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts, with up to 100 being counted in Britain and some 500 birds being counted in Spain, where large numbers of European kites spend the winter.

As Elfyn Pugh writes in his 2005 article: “It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the red kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.”

That’s a sentiment Emmi and her fellow red kite enthusiasts would endorse. The distinctive whistling call of roosting kites is echoing loud and clear across the Buckinghamshire countryside these days – and long may that continue.

 

Lakeside path comes into bloom

IMG_0595NATURE RESERVE: spring sunshine transforms the quarryside path at Spade Oak

SPRING has sprung with a vengeance at the Spade Oak Lake in Little Marlow – and not before time after the unseasonal March snowfalls and recent riverside flooding.

For weeks, the path round the border of the former gravel pit has been a mudbath, deterring even the hardiest of anglers and birdwatchers.

But with the sudden April rise in temperatures, the site has been transformed and the nature reserve has come into its own again.

It was here during the 1960s that aggregate was extracted that would be used for the M40 and M4 motorways. But the restoration of the site saw the creation of a remarkable nature reserve comprising the lake and surrounding woodland.

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DEEP WATERS: nowadays the lake is a sanctuary for water fowl

Much of the restoration work focused on encouraging birds to use the site as a breeding sanctuary, and breeding birds include little ringed plovers, kingfishers, reed warblers, great crested grebes and terns.

Alongside these are the ducks, gulls and geese who provide a cacophony of background sound on a still evening as the bats come out to flit and flicker around in the gloaming on the permissive path which runs around much of the lakeside perimeter.

This is one of nine fishing venues operated by Marlow Angling Club and is said to host carp, tench, bream, pike, perch, roach, rudd and eels.

IMG_0599GONE FISHING: Marlow Angling Club members fish at selected spots around the lake

It was back in 1966 that the Folley Brothers began to dig the former farmland in Coldmoorholm Lane to extract the valuable flood plain gravel that was in great demand for the motorway building program. Gravel is no longer dug from Spade Oak but the area is used by the current owners, Lafarge, as a depository for gravel dug elsewhere.

In 1999, Little Marlow Parish Council and Lafarge began discussing a permissive path around the lake to celebrate the millennium, and the official opening took place in 2002.

IMG_0598IN FULL BLOOM: the lake path through the trees towards the Spade Oak pub

And a very pleasant waterside ramble it is on a spring or summer’s evening, with the gulls and geese shrieking in dismay at some temporary disturbance and the gentle clank of the two-coach train lazily meandering its way from Bourne End to Marlow alongside the lake path.

Ah, bliss! Nature has been quick to reclaim the former quarry, and the millennium project has proved a wonderful resource, not just for the villagers of Little Marlow but for all those tempted to take a waterside ramble on a warm evening.

After the rain, the sun…

IMG_0530NEW HOPE: spring finally arrives at Douai Abbey

BACK in the darkest days of winter, the aim was always to see the Beyonder website go “live” over the Easter weekend.

That’s the weekend, after all, when many attractions reopen after the winter, when families are hoping to get out and about and make the most of the holiday weekend and when the roadsides and footpaths are finally bursting into bloom in a big way.

Unfortunately the long rainy spell made it difficult to get too many sunny pictures during March. Many footpaths are still mudbaths, there was snow on the ground until late in the month and other work commitments made it difficult to sort out some of the practical problems of  adding content and social media links to the website before formally inviting friends and interested strangers to ‘visit’.

IMG_0553MUDBATH: the Thames Path outside Bourne End disappears under water

Hopefully the worst of the wintry weather is behind us. The blossom is certainly out in the hedgerows and there’s a little more free time to get out and about to speak to some of the local people we want to interview.

There’s a great deal to organise, though – especially on the campaign front. Although many parish councils have been doing a sterling job with their spring cleaning, the litter problem on our roads is still a blight on the landscape and a depressing testimony to the selfishness of today’s throwaway society.

That’s something we want to do something practical about – but there are still a lot of people to talk to before we can properly share our plans for the best way of tackling the problem.

There’s also no point in encouraging people to find the website until there’s plenty to read – so we are also in the process of looking for features, reviews and photographs to help give the magazine a proper sense of identity and purpose.

Bear with us while we work on that – and do get in touch with your ideas, suggestions and contributions. We are still hoping to go “live” this spring, so watch this space!

 

Happy hunting ground

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Across The Water, by Kevin Day

THERE was a deer park  at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Langley Park is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

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Cows Explore Misty Field, by Jerry Lake

Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George, the fourth Duke, succeeded in 1758 and commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim.  In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.

It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

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Love Swans, by Kevin Day

Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.

Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.

The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build  Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.

Princer Tree by Jerry Lake
Pincer Tree, by Jerry Lake

The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.

The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.

Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.

Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures, some of which are featured here.

The Park Pictures photostream on Flickr includes around 50 superb pictures taken by local photographers Kevin Day and Jerry Lake in 2009 and the Friends website includes details of how to contact these photographers.

The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.

 

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Winter Sunshine, by Andrew Knight

 

 

Park for all seasons

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With 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

Although the 14-acre lake and popular San Remo cafe tend to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

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As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops.

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One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page, with April highlights including a den-building day and outdoor activities for toddlers. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.

Springwatch fans shocked

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SPRINGWATCH fans have reacted with shock and anger to the news that presenter Martin Hughes-Games is to leave the popular BBC series.

More than 1,300 followers of the programme’s Facebook page were quick to voice their horror at his departure – with many attacking the BBC for “political correctness” and airing their concerns that he might be replaced by newcomer Gillian Burke.

The wildlife presenter announced he was quitting on Twitter – prompting an outpouring of support and sympathy from his 50,000 followers.

Hughes-Games has presented on the programme for 12 years and said in his resignation tweet: “It’s good to go when the show is looking strong. Massive thank you for your support.”

The BBC said in response: “Martin has been a vital part of the success of the Watches– both on and off screen– for the past 12 years, so we’re very sad to see him go. We wish him every success in his new ventures. We’re excited to be bringing Springwatch back to BBC2 in May.”

It brings to an end an uncomfortable last 18 months for the presenter who appeared on the show alongside Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and new girl Gillian Burke.

In September 2016 he announced, again on Twitter, that he was being axed by the BBC in order, he felt, that diversity targets could be met.

That claim was denied by the corporation – but many of the show’s Facebook fans said they believed he was being marginalised for reasons of political correctness and hit out at Gillian Burke’s presenting style.

Hedgehog numbers ‘halved’

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Hedgehogs are continuing to decline in the UK, according to a new report.

Surveys by citizen scientists show hedgehog numbers have fallen by about 50% since the turn of the century.

Conservation groups say they are particularly concerned about the plight of the prickly creatures in rural areas.

Figures suggest the animals are disappearing more rapidly in the countryside, as hedgerows and field margins are lost to intensive farming.

But there are signs that populations in urban areas may be recovering.

David Wembridge, surveys officer for the conservation charity, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), said two surveys of the number of hedgehogs in gardens and one of numbers killed on roads show an overall decline.

But he said there is “a glimmer of hope” that measures to create habitat for hedgehogs in urban areas are paying off.

“Numbers haven’t recovered yet but in urban areas at least there’s an indication that numbers appear to have levelled in the last four years,” he said.

In rural areas, the number of hedgehogs killed on roads has fallen by between a third and a half across Great Britain, The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018 report found.

Emily Wilson, Hedgehog Officer for the campaign group, Hedgehog Street, said the apparent decline in the rural population of hedgehogs was “really concerning”

British Wildlife Centre

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THE British Wildlife Centre was started in 1997 by David Mills. Before then, on the site of what is now the wildlife centre, David farmed a herd of award-winning Venn pedigree Jersey cows which, in its day, became one of the leading Jersey herds in the country.

In 1994 David ceased farming and reluctantly sold his beloved herd to realise his dream – to create his own zoo. He decided to specialise in British wildlife as he felt that there was need to educate the public about native species and the challenges they face living in the wild in Britain today.

The Centre finally opened for pre-booked tours in 1998, with David doing everything himself; looking after the animals and giving guided tours, with a friend helping out with the admin. The Centre opened fully in 2000 and has been growing slowly but steadily since, with over 20 staff now employed.