Friday, 30 March 2012

Input need for Tick Survey

Xeroshield are developing a tick removal device and are considering setting up a facility for the detection of Lyme disease parasite in ticks.

Support with data collection has been requested.  Follow the link for more information.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Heather Beetle - first sighting in 2012

Photo: Malcolm Storey
The first sighting of adult heather beetles in 2012 have been reported from Colonsay  (with thanks to Crystal Maw, RSPB).  This is very early and it may be that we are seeing the result of the relatively mild winter.  Are we going to see a 'good' beetle year in 2012?

I would be grateful for reports of any more sightings.  The beetles are likely to be seen flying amongst heather on still, warm days.  They are about 7mm long and as shown in the photo, are a dark green colour with a prominent brown stripe down the back.

For more information see the Trust's website.  I am collating survey data collected over the last few years and will be publishing some details on the website.  I will be running a survey to capture details of  heather beetle sightings and heather damage again this year and I will be grateful for support with this.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Heather & Eligibility for SFP

There is a cloud on the horizon relating to the eligibility of heather covered land to receive single farm payment (SFP). This issue has come to a head in Northern Ireland where the EU auditors have decreed that heather over 50 cm tall is not suitable for grazing, and therefore is not eligible land for the purposes of claiming SFP.
The Scottish Farmer reported on this issue in the article on 24 March 2012.
The EU has advised the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland  (DARDNI) that heather can be considered eligible on a case-by-case basis, providing it is capable of sustaining agricultural activity, for example, grazing livestock, and is maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition. Therefore, heather can be considered eligible if it is:
  • Accessible to grazing livestock, and
  • Has significant forage value, and
  • Is used for agricultural purposes (i.e. grazed by livestock).
In Northern Ireland this issue has spawned its own guidance booklet (see page 14) that describes how to assess what heather is eligible both in terms of height and if over 50 cm, how to assess the area of heather within a single field that can be accepted before becoming ineligible (20% > 50cm max). This is a nightmare for farmers and landowners.
Note that under the DARDNI guidance, cutting or burning of heather on its own does not make heather eligible as this management does not constitute "agricultural activity".
The issue centres around the definition of “permanent grassland" which is defined as "land used to grow grasses or other herbaceous forage naturally (self-seeded) or through cultivation (sown) and that has not been included in the crop rotation of the holding for 5 years or longer; it may include other species suitable for grazing provided that the grasses and other herbaceous forage remain predominant".
The concern is that the definition of herbaceous forage would exclude large expanses of tall heather. It may be that the current CAP regimes can continue, outside Northern Ireland as existing, but the review of the CAP, which is due to come into effect in 2014, may introduce some unpalatable changes.
This is something that The Heather Trust will be working hard on.  The situation in Northern Ireland is unacceptable, but it will be important to make sure that this epidemic of idiotic bureaucracy does not spread to the rest of the UK.  If it does it will be another example of the law of unintended consequences.  It would be bad for owners of uplands, bad for farmers, bad for heather, bad for biodiversity, but good for sales of handheld GPS units.

Shortage of Louping Ill Vaccine

This vaccine is essential to protect sheep from the Louping Ill virus, which is transmitted by sheep ticks. The Scottish Farmer on 24 March included an article which described the current shortage of vaccine. Current indications are that the vaccine will not be available until October, and this will mean that it is not possible for most farmers to vaccinate their sheep against this disease, this year. while this may be unavoidable to maintain the quality of the vaccine, it is unacceptable for sheep farmers to be left in the lurch like this, and it will break the continuity of the attack on Louping Ill which is essential for farms trying to eradicate this disease.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Grass Fires in Dumfries & Galloway

For confirmation of the high fire risk at present, see the photos of the fire on the south-west slopes of Dumfries' local 'mountain', Criffel.  The report is of grass fires and I hope it has been possible to control the fire before it got into the rank heather on the higher slopes.

This fire has occurred in an area where we have had seemingly non-stop rain since the middle of last year.  Other drier, areas be warned.

England: Walshaw Moor Estate - Management Agreement

The public inquiry about proposed heather burning restrictions on Walshaw Moor Estate came to an abrupt halt.  A short statement was agreed by both parties and it was published on the Natural England website on 9 March.

Since then, a management agreement has been put in place and this was published on the Natural England website on 23 March.  The full consent notice contains the detail and it can be downloaded from this page.  The agreement summarises the position and confirms that the estate will be able to continue management through burning, subject to various caveats.

Understandably, a lot of discussion has taken place that has not been reported and it remains to be seen how this agreement affects the management of other moorland in England, and elsewhere.

Fire Severity index

The Fire Severity Index indicates the likely severity of a fire, should one occur.   Today, the Met office has issued the following advice regarding wildfire risk for the UK.

The Fire Severity Index is showing more elevated levels in the days ahead. Northumbria and parts of Scotland are  showing VERY HIGH fire conditions for Wednesday 28 March. Parts of the south Midlands through to Berkshire are showing VERY HIGH fire conditions on Thursday 29 March.

Importantly, the Fine Fuel Moisture Code (how dry is the surface dead litter - ie, how easy is it to light a fire) is yellow across the UK. As the school holidays approach, with Easter around the corner, the situation is very similar to that of the end of April / beginning of May last year - which saw the worst widespread fire weather conditions for many years. Only this year the drought is an exacerbating factor within the Midlands and South East.

The Fire Severity Risk data is listed by grid reference across the country, and it can be seen on the Met office website.  Data is currently available until 31 March 2012.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Heather Burning / Muirburn / Swaling

This wonderful spell of weather, which in Dumfries seems to have been a very long time in coming, is coinciding with the peak time for heather burning.  However, I understand that in many parts of the UK those who are still within the local burning season, have had to stop burning because the conditions are too dry.  This is always frustrating, but I urge caution.  There is enough pressure for change to the burning dates and it does not help the cause if there are a series of out of control fires caused as a result of burning in unsuitable conditions.  The use of a small test fire is recommended as a way of testing the conditions before lighting a full size fire to see it set off across the hill faster than it can be controlled.

If there are any incidents of out of control fires I would welcome notification as it helps me to know of problems that have occurred.  Notification can be done anonymously as a comment to this blog entry, if it helps!

This type of incident is what everyone would like to avoid.  Note that there are several photos that can viewed.

Burning seasons:

Scotland: 1 Oct – 15 Apr + extension to 30 Apr with landowner’s permission
England: upland 1 Oct – 15 Apr, lowland 1 Nov – 15 Apr
Wales: upland: 1 Oct – 31 Mar, lowland: 1 Nov – 15 Mar
Republic of Ireland: 1 Sep - 31 Mar
Northern Ireland: 1 Sep – 15 Apr
Isle of Man: 1 Sep – 15 Mar

More on Lyme Disease & Ticks

See the The Westmoreland Gazette's article which includes a quote from Wendy Fox the chairman of BADA-UK. She knows all about the threat as she has been left disabled by Lyme disease.

The Tick Bite Prevention Week (26 March - 1 April) is coinciding with a great spell of weather which will see large numbers of people heading for the hills which will provide satisfaction for plenty of ticks questing for a blood meal.  Be warned.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Breakthrough in Tick control on the horizon?

Judging by recent articles in America, a warm welcome is being given to Tick-Ex (or the F52 strain of the Metarhizium anisopliae fungus, if you want to be technical).  Tick-Ex uses no synthetic chemicals, relying instead on a strain of fungus that occurs naturally in soil.  Trials have reduced the numbers of ticks by 74%.  If field trials are successful this year, the product could be available (in the US?) in 2014.

If this research provides a lead to a treatment that will reduce ticks by this amount, it will give the Tick Bite Prevention Week (26 March - 1 April) a good boost.

See the articles that have covered this development:
Fungus kills Lyme disease-carrying ticks
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network:
Tick-Attacking Fungus Shows Promise in Battle Against Lyme Disease
Scientists discover new, safe way to control tick populations

Does anyone know anymore about the development or application of Tick-Ex?  If so, please use the comment facility below, to share your knowledge.

Wales: Consultation about CCW, EAW & FCW merger

The Welsh Government is consulting on whether to introduce a single body to replace the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission for Wales.  The consultation closes on 2 May and see the consultation document for full details.

Talla and Gameshope estate purchase bid fails

The John Muir Trust and the Borders Forest Trust had hoped to buy the 5,300 acre Talla & Gameshope Estate in the Borders, which had an asking price of £1.1m, but they were outbid.  See the BBC News article for more detail.. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Wales: Burn safely and in season

See the Welsh Government's News release for some reminders about heather burning in Wales:
+  the season ends on 31 March in the uplands, and 15 March elsewhere
+  a burning plan is required
+ the Fire & Rescue Service should be informed before lighting any fires.

Yet again there is an emphasis on the damage that fires can cause and no mention of why burning should take place to improve the condition of heathland vegetation through management.  I hope that someone is getting the message somewhere as I fear that the authorities in Wales see burning as a threat, not as something that provides benefit.

See the earlier post from 26 January that provided details of the leaflet "Heather & Grass Burning in Wales"

The comment facility is available to prove my fears are ill-founded.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Phytophthora austrocedrae found in Juniper in Upper Teesdale

Photo: Forestry Commission
An outbreak of infection by the pathogen Phytophthora austrocedrae has been confirmed in juniper bushes in the Moor House - Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve in Cumbria & County Durham.  The Forestry Commission has published a briefing about this on their website.

My concern about this stems first, from the impact this pathogen, and its associated pathogens P. ramorum and P. kernoviae, is already having on important species, but second and most importantly, I believe that there is chance for the Phytophthora spp. to have a large impact on heathers and other dwarf, heathland shrubs.  Some cases of impact on Bilberry have already been associated with P. kernoviae.

I watch and wait with fingers crossed.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Natural England's fresh approach to hill-farming

Photo: Farmer's Weekly
See Jeremy Hunt's article in Farmer's weekly.  This is encouraging stuff and long overdue.  I note that there is still strong reference to stocking rates.  I do not know all the details on these farms, but this is a concept that can be too restrictive.  I argue that in addition to considering the number of sheep it is also essential to consider the timing.  This should be more sensitive to the needs of the land than simply summer and winter stocking rates.  This appears to be happening in the two case studies in the article, but I would like to see stocking linked to required outcomes and give the farmer more flexibility to manage the land to achieve this.  Work with the land!  Power to the farmer!