Observing nature

24 Jun 2015

We have just returned from a holiday in the sub-alpine region of France. There was a lot of nature to observe and this is an opportunity to share our experiences.

Let me start with the behaviour of that most interesting species, the human being. We stayed in one hotel for five nights and each evening the conduct of some of the species was the same. The dining room overlooked a beautiful lake and the surrounding mountains. There were a limited number of tables by the windows and there was much manoeuvring to try to grab one of those tables. So there were several couples circling close to the door of the dining room when it opened but all seemingly uninterested in entering it. However, once one couple made a move there was a slow motion stampede. To make matters worse, some of these same couples managed to get through a gorgeous four course meal in less than an hour. I assumed they were British because the French would never attempt such a feat.

We spent the days in the mountains. We were not very high, between 500 to 1,500 metres above sea level. Once we climbed the extreme paths behind the hotel, we arrived onto beautiful alpine pastures. There appeared to be no grazing livestock and the pastures were going to be made into hay; they had just started mowing as we returned to the UK. The number of wild flowers in the pastures was amazing and the air was filled with their scent and the buzzing of insects. I thought that this must be the ideal that many green groups would like to achieve in the UK.

But, but, but…… there were no birds flying over these pastures. In addition, there were only a few birds skulking in the many woods that lined the side of the steep climbs. You could hear them but rarely saw them. I kept on wondering why this was so? The local environment seemed ideal for farmland and woodland birds.

One explanation soon became apparent to us. There were a number of raptors gliding on the air currents above the wooded hills. Some seemed nasty pieces of work. I could see why even the birds in the woodland were keeping such a low profile.

The explanation as to why there were no birds over pastures that were buzzing with insect life was less clear to me. Raptors may be one explanation but I was unconvinced that this could be the full explanation. So when we returned to the UK I asked a couple of twitchers.

They immediately provided the explanation. The birds that would be expected to be flying over the pastures hoovering up insects are the migrating species. They, in turn, are now hoovered up by vast nets at the watering holes on their migrating routes through Africa. The twitchers said that they are amazed that any now survive the journey.

I briefly wondered if the French farmers in the region are getting it in the neck for the apparent absence of birds. It would be grossly unfair if they are but green groups seem to always like to conclude that it is the farmers’ fault. In the UK, despite the great efforts made by UK farmers to reverse the decline in farmland birds, the numbers have stubbornly plateaued. For some species there are reasonable explanations as to why, usually relating to the lack of a particular habitat or food source. However, it is important to note that the lack of farmland birds may not always be due solely to the actions of UK farmers: a more honest debate is necessary.