26. Tempting fate by Kevin O'Hara

Thursday 21st April 2011

© Amy Lewis

We have been really blessed with the weather, so for someone like me who never misses an opportunity to gripe at the lack of it, this is a real bonus. As they say though, we are never happy and I could do with some rain for the garden right now, but only at night, on week days and definitely not during the bank holidays.

The warm spring has seen a flurry of insect activity; there are plenty of ladybirds in the garden and plenty more less desirable ones on the wing too. This will hopefully bode well for many bird species whose previous two breeding seasons have very much been a wash-out.

The fine weather is attracting a constant stream of migrants to our shores and also allowing several more intolerant species to stay too. Avocets, a remarkable-looking wader, are finding the conditions in and around the Trust’s nature reserves in Druridge Bay very much to their liking, as up to six are regularly present. The marsh harriers have also returned, and we are more than hopeful that conditions will better suit breeding this year. It’s great to see such fantastic birds and proof that the varied management regimes within the Bay’s nature reserves are working to increase the abundance and variety of species present.

Whilst doing some survey counts last week I was also treated to another magnificent summer visitor. Mobbed by a throng of smaller birds and gulls, an osprey winged its way lazily up country towards Kielder. Hopefully they too will be successful again at bolstering the English population.

It is early days but there are indications maybe that some policies are working in the wider context. Druridge Bay and Kielder, along with Prestwick Carr and several other larger areas are all part of this bigger picture, this vision of a joined-up landscape fit for people and wildlife - A Living Landscape. Getting this right on a large scale will help so many species overcome their population declines and start to flourish again.

Some species however will always need that extra helping hand. I mentioned the dormouse last week and our efforts in woodland management, and another species in dire need of an extra helping hand is the water vole. This little fellow, once so familiar to many of us along our rivers and streams, is now confined to the north Pennines. Lost from the bulk of the county by predation by non-native American mink and habitat loss, this species lives in reasonable densities where it survives, but try as you might, it is very difficult to get them to expand their range through conventional habitat improvements.

It’s a complicated affair but basically water voles won’t expand their range unless there is a good reason to do so, that being the presence or near-presence of their own species. The habitat can be superb, but if there are no other voles in the vicinity they will just stay put, such is their dispersal strategy.

It would be wrong to contemplate encouraging the species to expand without any control of mink, its arch nemesis. These however are some of the decisions you have to make to safeguard a species.

I was reminded of these factors last week whilst in Allendale, where there are some superb habitats available but no water voles, yet just a few miles upstream they are abundant in places. Around both Druridge Bay and the Wansbeck this was the same story, and where I can once remember them there whilst conducting otter surveys, now they are all gone.

So whilst we have some success stories that fill the media, there are as many that are not quite as successful or as easy to solve as some may think.

For the water vole there is hope, but we wait with baited breath for its outcome, which as they say, is a story for another day.