Too many chaffinches?

I am a bit of a sucker for surveys which combine my two hobbies of walking and bird identification.  So when the River Thame Conservation Trust contacted me about a bird survey in the Thame catchment, I signed up.  The purpose is to understand the freshwater habitats and species of the catchment and to monitor changes in them.

I have been given a tetrad (two-kilometre square) on the edge of the study area some distance from the River Thame.  It is in the Wormsley valley near Stokenchurch (SU79H, with the grid reference SU7294 in the bottom left-hand corner).  I covered this tetrad for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) bird atlas in 2009-10, and was particularly thrilled to see a crossbill here in February 2010.  So I hoped to do so again.


View west from Lower Vicar’s Farm

The survey methodology is similar to that of the bird atlas. You walk through your tetrad for two or three hours, four times in the year, taking in a range of habitats and recording everything you see or hear.  We are asked to start about half an hour after dawn.  You then record the findings on the BTO’s birdtrack.

So I set off at about 8.30am last Saturday from Cowleaze Wood car-park, about a mile north of Christmas Common in Oxfordshire.  Masses of chaffinches flew up from the ground into the beech trees, very difficult to count.  I heard a nuthatch and jay and immediately saw three red kites.


Cowleaze Wood

The Vale of Oxford was a pale mist beyond the Chiltern escarpment.


View down the escarpment

I had to leave my tetrad briefly so stopped the clock. I got back into it on the bridleway approaching Lower Vicar’s Farm in the bottom of the Wormsley Valley.  Redwings flew across the track, feeding on the copious berries.  There were lots more kites but I didn’t want to double count so I was a bit cautious about the numbers, recording 14.


Bridleway to Lower Vicar’s Farm


Lower Vicar’s Farm







The pond at the farm is a bit stagnant, and it looked like a sparrowhawk had been there.


The bridleway is a dead end at the Buckinghamshire boundary beyond Lower Vicar’s.  It is ridiculous that there is no definitive path along the bottom of the valley, and something to be investigated before 2026  when the map is closed to applications based on historical evidence (though I am pretty certain this has been tried before unsuccessfully).


Looking north along the bridleway


Looking south along the non-definitive route







I climbed up the hill on the footpath through an old maize crop where I saw 25 linnets. Some of them perched on the wires.



The view was lovely.


Then it was into the woods again, at first through young birch, then more mature trees, and then conifers.  Cowleaze is owned by the Forestry Commission with public access. There were a lot of tits in the conifers, and I saw marsh,coal, blue and great tits, and heard goldcrests.  It’s hard work looking up into the tops of the trees to identify birds.


I spent a bit of time near where I had seen the crossbill seven years ago, crazy really but you never know!

It is deplorable that the adjoining mature beechwood has no public access, it looks so inviting.


I had some time left over and so I walked on access land on the other side of the Christmas Common road, looking across to Bald Hill.  This was a completely different habitat. I saw more redwings here.


My total was 25 species.  When I entered my 81 chaffinches (probably an underestimate) on the BTO website it challenged me in red letters, saying ‘unusually high bird-count’.  I find that odd, but I confirmed it.

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Len’s copse

On 19 November, when Len Clark was exactly 100 years and three months old, he joined many of his friends at the National Trust’s property at Polesden Lacey, to celebrate his immense contribution to the outdoor movement.

Len has been involved with the trust for 55 years; he joined the council in 1961 as the appointee of the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) and served on influential committees and encouraged the trust to buy many open-space properties.

The day began with glorious autumn colours as I walked with Anne Robinson, fellow trustee of the Campaign for National Parks, from Dorking Deepdene station, with views over the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


Box Hill from the west

We joined Len and members of his family at Polesden Lacey, along with a number of mostly former and mostly male employees of the National Trust and their spouses.  It was lovely to see so many old friends, but it was a reminder of how male-dominated the trust was until fairly recently, before director general Fiona Reynolds introduced change.  The former chairman of the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), John Gamble, was there and others from YHA, the Campaign for National Parks and the South Downs Society.  I represented the Open Spaces Society as Len is one of our vice-presidents.


Len (left) and John Gamble

We walked across the park to a semi-circle of three benches, made from Bookham oak, installed as a thank-you to Len.  From here there is a fine view across the valley to Tanner’s Hatch youth hostel, so dear to Len.


View to Tanner’s Hatch youth hostel

The middle seat has a quotation carved on it: It is good to be out on the road, and going one knows not where (John Masefield).  Len has not yet chosen the quotations for the other two.

After pausing at the seats we headed down the hill to Len’s copse, five beech trees in the field in front of the youth hostel.  Four of them had already been planted, and the fifth was planted by Len’s sons, Alastair and Stuart.  By now it was raining, but it didn’t spoil our day.


Alastair (left) and Stuart plant the tree


Len and his tree









The setting was perfect.  Jamie Parsons, the trust’s area ranger who masterminded the project, had done a fine job.


Jamie Parsons

We returned to the tea rooms where Len made a little speech, without any notes, recalling some stories from his times with the National Trust and YHA.


Len addresses us

It was a day to remember and a fitting tribute to Len who has done so much for the organisations represented there and is a wonderful friend to us all.  You can watch him making his speech here.


Len’s copse with Tanner’s Hatch beyond

Posted in AONB, National parks, National Trust, Open Spaces Society, People, South Downs National Park | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Trump trashes the environment

The Ramblers were among the many who suffered Donald Trump’s absolute contempt for the environment nearly ten years ago.  He decided to build his £1-billion golf, leisure and housing development on the Scottish coast at Menie, ten miles north of Aberdeen.  This coast is a designated site of special scientific interest for its dune system and unique wildlife. 


View south from Menie links, copyright Stanley Howe

Trump on his golf-course website says:  I have never seen such an unspoiled and dramatic sea side landscape and the location makes it perfect for our development.  In other words, show me your best piece of wilderness and I’ll destroy it.  US national parks look out.

The destruction of the splendid Aberdeen coastline with its free access was opposed by the Ramblers and countless other environmental organisations, including the government’s adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the RSPB.


walk magazine, summer 2008

Aberdeenshire Council rejected the planning application but the Scottish Government called it in and held a contentious public inquiry in 2008.  The then director of Ramblers Scotland, Dave Morris confronted the future president, recording in the Ramblers’ magazine walk (autumn 2008): ‘Under cross examination from the Ramblers, Donald Trump appeared to have little understanding of Scotland’s right-to-roam legislation and admitted that he intended to build an exclusive gated development with no public access over large parts of the site—although he promised to abide by the law’.

The Scottish Government approved the application.  Dave Morris commented: ‘This is a remarkable decision which suggests that Scotland is now exposed to any developer who promises lots of inward investment and jobs, irrespective of any environmental constraints’.  The inquiry’s reporter (inspector), James McCulloch, put the alleged national economic gain before environmental issues.

Press reports show that the economic arguments did not hold true, the golf course did not provide the promised local jobs and is losing millions of pounds each year.  Trump did not build the houses, nor did he create a gated community.  But he is not a nice neighbour; he has erected walls of earth (sound familiar?) to shield his clients from nearby houses and has intimidated local people.  His operations have severed the water supply of 92-year-old Molly Forbes, who now has to collect water from a well.

There is a nauseating video in which Donald Trump Jr says: ‘We were told that there was zero chance that we’d ever be able to build a golf course in the dunes because of various environmental statutes etc that we had to go through and work out.  We went ahead with the purchase anyway because it was really his dream to be able to build a course of such magnificence, of this magnitude, of this stature.’

The Trump family merely saw the environmental protection as a small obstacle in the way of their megalomaniac dreams.  One man’s dream is all our nightmares.

But of course this devastating development is minute when compared with the damage that Trump can now inflict on our planet, particularly if he withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement.  You can sign a petition against that here.

Posted in Access, campaigns, Ramblers, Scotland, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How independent?

At the recent party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Natural England (NE) its chairman Andrew Sells told us that NE had ‘integrity through independence’.  But how does that square with his other assertion that ‘You won’t catch us opposing anything that government proposes’?  

Two days later we had an example of NE’s lack of independence.  The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has cut the funding for NE’s invaluable research into how people use the outdoors.

Fake consultation
I wrote about the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) when I learnt about the threat to it in March.  At that time Defra was consulting about its future, but none of us knew that this was a fake consultation and that Defra had already decided to make the cuts in order to let the contract for work to start in April 2016.

Poulshott Wiltshire web

Poulshot village green, Wiltshire. Photo: Graham Bathe

The survey used to involve interviews with about 800 respondents in their homes across England.  It was undertaken every week and provided robust information about their visits to the outdoors, the type of destination, the duration of the visit, main activities and modes of transport, money spent, motivations and (importantly) barriers to visits.

Natural England had carried out this survey consistently for the last seven years, producing year-on-year figures which could be compared.

Now many of the questions have been removed and the sample sizes reduced to a third or a quarter; monthly surveys have changed to quarterly and weekly surveys to monthly.  The figures can no longer provide trends.

People at the heart
This is all happening just as NE publishes its excellent conservation strategy, Conservation 21, which puts people at the heart of the environment and the health benefits of outdoor activity have never been more evident.  NE needs to champion getting people outside but it won’t be able to measure its success without gathering robust data.  Defra has made a decision which clearly puts NE at a disadvantage—but we don’t hear NE saying so, because it won’t oppose anything government proposes.


Wildflower meadow near Covey Hall Farm, Otley

As for the fake consultation, Defra has responded: ‘The fact that we had to make this decision before the consultation period had ended was an issue that faced many of the surveys included in Defra’s consultation and, although this is at odds with general practice for official statistics, notice of this had been given to the UK Statistics Authority and overall support for this approach given.’

That’s no excuse—Defra must have known when it launched the consultation on 25 February that it had to let the contract before April.  Why waste our time on a meaningless consultation?

The government apparently attaches little importance to evidence-gathering.

See this story on the grough website which gives more quotes from Defra and NE.

Posted in Access, campaigns, Defra, Natural England, People, riding, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Piddington path-check: day 2

My second day of checking the paths in the parish of Piddington and Wheeler End for the Ramblers was on 31 July (see report of day 1 here).  I tackled the eastern side of the parish, south of the A40 which crosses it in an east-west direction.  

I parked beside Wheeler End common and the first gate I came to was one installed under the Chiltern Society’s Donate a Gate scheme, by the Ramblers’ Wycombe and District Group in honour of John Esslemont’s long service.


My walk this day was mainly on paths through woodlands and as they are a web of routes I had to keep retracing my steps in order to walk every one.  These paths were largely problem free.  However, I was concerned to see the sign below on a bridleway, and will make sure Buckinghamshire County Council takes action should the event be held here next year.


I reported a missing waymark where there was potential for confusion on footpath 8.


Waymark needed here

At the northern end of the day’s walk I had a good view across to West Wycombe and the hilltop mausoleum.


I walked to the bottom of Bullocks Farm Lane to find the north-east end of footpath 12 which runs parallel to the lane in the fields, a useful route because the lane is narrow with steep banks so it is hard for a walker to escape the traffic. I had difficulty finding the path because the stile was hidden in vegetation (which I cleared), as was the signpost (which I couldn’t reach).


Stile after I had cleared it











Similarly, at the south-west end of the path, the signpost was buried in the hedge.  I reported both to Bucks County Council and when I visited again on 29 September, found that they had been cleared.












As I walked footpath 12 I could look to the fields north of the A40 where I walked on day 1.


Bridleway 10 is a wide track through the woods, partly used for forestry.


On the definitive map it comes to a dead end at Pyatts Farm (SU 815 925) and on the ground continues on the farm access.  I shall need to check that the lane is public to be sure that walkers’ and riders’ rights here are preserved post 2026 when the definitive map is closed to applications based on historic evidence (although this one is probably still in use by walkers and riders).  The track is in neighbouring Lane End parish so I shall liaise with those who are researching this parish for historic routes.

I shall also need to check what is the status of the continuation of bridleway 9 where it enters Lane End parish (SU 812 928), now cut off by the M40 a short distance to the south.


Looking north along recorded route of BW 9


From the end of the recorded section of BW9 on the parish boundary looking south into Lane End parish









This path does not appear to be in use and so could be at risk, although the M40 may present an insuperable barrier.



Posted in Access, Bucks, Ramblers, Ramblers' path-check, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ironstone country

On the last day of British Summer Time I walked around Great Tew in the ironstone country of north-west Oxfordshire.  Mini-escarpments crinkle the landscape, with rich red-brown soils.


Looking east from near Hill Farm, South Newington

I walked with my friends from university, Mary Alexander and Drusilla Belfield and her dog Janet.


Drusilla, Mary and Janet near Upper Grove Ash Farm

Although this was a social occasion, I kept an eye out for path problems.  The paths cross large fields in a purposeful manner; they had been newly disturbed and not yet marked out (the law allows 14 days after the first disturbance for the reinstatement of a cross-field path).  I have reported some missing waymarks to Oxfordshire County Council as well as the need soon to mark the path shown below.


The footpath on the black line between SP 413297 and 421299 has not been marked across the field and it needs a waymark.

Where the cross-field path is a track used by vehicles the farmer has found it convenient to leave it unploughed.  I wish more paths were like this.


We had lunch at the top of a hill with a view north west to Bloxham spire.


On the way back I noticed on the map a white road marked as ‘South Drive (Path)’ on the Ordnance Survey map, running west from grid reference SP 402303 to the B4022.  A footpath joins it part way along so it must be a public highway, but it has a misleading sign.

5-south-drive This will need researching before 2026 when the definitive map of rights of way is closed to applications based on historic evidence, it is possible that public rights on this route might then be extinguished.

To the south is another route marked as ‘Mill Lane (Track)’ which also has a footpath joining it but has no clear status.  Although there is no private sign, it still needs to be researched.


It was only a six-mile walk but it took in a variety of landscapes.


Upper Grove Ash Farm


The footpath back to Great Tew

At the end of the walk I visited the church.  Great Tew is an estate village.


The church has a fine Norman door and mediaeval wall-paintings.


There is an impressive seventeenth-century gateway.

11-gatewayIt was a good way to spend a muted, autumn day, among golden colours and red-brown soils.

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Trouble at the mill

As a property developer, Henry Pelly must surely know the law on public paths.  Yet he bought Luccombe Mill at Bratton, near Westbury in Wiltshire, apparently unaware that local people had, for decades, been enjoying the Watercress Walk which runs across his land.

The path runs between grid references ST 921520 and 922518, both on the Imber Road south-east of Bratton village, on land owned by Henry Pelly and Wessex Water.

Private notices 
Mr Pelly bought the mill last August.  When he put up private notices and barbed wire across the stiles, the local people put in an application to Wiltshire Council to add the path to the definitive map.  They have 78 witness statements to prove that the path has been walked continuously without challenge for more than 30 years, so there is a powerful case that this is already a public highway.  It is on Wiltshire Council’s register of definitive map applications here.


Katherine Beaumont and Liz and Phil Workman at the entrance to the footpath. Photo: Trevor Porter

One of the witnesses, Katherine Beaumont, sent Mr Pelly a letter of welcome.  He replied rather patronisingly that ‘There are many wonderful walks in this area clearly shown on the OS map and as a local I am sure you are aware of the alternative Wessex Water route to the spring—and not through our garden.’  It is tosh to claim the Watercress Way is through his garden, it runs through woodland some distance away, with hardly a view of the house.

Long use
The previous owner of the mill, Mary Seymour, deposited a statement in December 2015 under section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980 declaring there were no public paths on her land.  However it is hard to believe that Mr Pelly bought the mill without knowing that people had long used the path and that the chances are that it is already a public highway.

I was on Radio Wiltshire this morning for the Open Spaces Society explaining that, provided there is good evidence of use for more than 20 years, the path is a highway and people have a right to continue using it.  I hope Wiltshire Council will swiftly determine the application so that this much-loved path is recorded, reopened and restored to the people.

Posted in Obstructed path, Public paths, walking | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments