About Me

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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

“Vote for Bob”? I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you.

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair’s devastatingly powerful electoral successes between 1997 and 2005 came about by his commensurate skill at occupying the political centre. He has said as much himself. With a lot of help from his Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair “We don’t do God” Campbell, he managed to embrace virtually the entire parliamentary Labour Party (with the notable exception of that ultimate survivor, Jeremy Corbyn, the other ‘lefties’ such as Terry Fields and Dave Nellist having been ejected under the purge of the Militant Tendency under Neil Kinnock). Much of his success was his skill at “taking” ground that was traditionally held by moderate ‘One Nation’ Conservatives as well as much of the homeland of the whackier libertarian fringes of Liberalism. 

Matteo Renzi - unsure whether he's the Mayor of Florence
or Holly Johnson 
His 10-year lectio magistralis was doubtless closely followed by the young man due to become mayor of Florence, a certain Matteo Renzi, an unelected post-Blairite, a presentation-over-substance leader (called by many “a door-to-door saucepan salesman”) whose main skill would appear to be in offending no one unnecessarily until he can be sure he can continue politically without them. People in Italy used to say you should hold your nose and vote Christian Democrat. Renzi holds his nose and allies himself with characters far out on the left and right, outside his own Democratic Party that already makes Blair’s (then) Labour Party look like a very narrow and pokey niche indeed.

What has all this to do with nature conservation and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Because it involves ecological niche theory as (dubiously) applied (by me) to politics with a small ‘p’ and, in this context, access to limited resources (government and EU grants, membership numbers and revenue, and thereby political influence and power) by NGOs that compete, in some respects, like organisms within a socio-political ecosystem.

Let me set out my relationship with the RSPB clearly. I am not a member and haven’t been so since 1989 when MargaretThatcher was invited to name a BR locomotive, The Avocet (the RSPB’s logo bird). I protested by letter and asked for a clearly-stated and public admission that this was a mistake. (For what its worth, the current website states: “We are scrupulous about never taking a party political stance and take particular care during election periods never to imply support for particular parties or candidates”, so perhaps the kerfuffle left its mark.) I had a nice letter back, but no admission was forthcoming at the time, so that was that. Oh dear, never mind. It certainly doesn’t mean I don’t support their aims and I learnt a lesson of not boxing myself into a corner with unreasonable or impossible demands.

"Birds" Magazine 1974
"Nature's Home"
My mother is a member, however, and I regularly get to see copies of the RSPB magazine,  Nature's Home (it used to be Birds magazine but changed title in late 2013) and keep an eye on the Society’s twitter feed, @Natures_Voice. It's now a fascinating magazine to peruse after almost half-a-century of following it. Slickly produced (and I mean that as a compliment) it's a bit graphics-heavy and content-light for my tastes but then I'm an old fart who's been away a long time. Do you notice anything though? Yes … no birds in the magazine title or the twitter handle. Perhaps the magazine’s content and covers say something different? Well the covers still feature birds but a lot of the content is now general wildlife – other flora and fauna in your garden or on RSPB reserves, herpetology, entomology, botany and wildlife gardening. 

Vote for Bob”? I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you.
Then there is the very odd “Vote for Bob” campaign, (“I’m Bob, and I’m a red squirrel. I’m here to get nature onto the political agenda. My campaign is being organised and paid for by my friends at the RSPB”). Admirable indeed but why was the mascot a mammal? Why was “Bob” a red squirrel and not a bittern, blue tit or a barn owl?  Or indeed a crow? ... I bet he enjoyed Margaret Thatcher naming The Avocet!

Why indeed? There is an organisation that covers general flora and fauna conservation (rather than birds) at a national and county level. It’s called the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and began life as The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912,  going via the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation and becoming The Royal Society for Nature Conservation in 1981. The 47 Trusts have more than 800,000 members. The RSPB has “over one million members”. Obviously there is considerable overlap in these subsets and many people are RSPB members and members of one or more county trusts. As well as the county trusts there are also a growing host of NGOs representing the conservation of specific floral and faunal groups apart from birds and these include plants (“Plantlife”), insects (“Buglife”), Lepidoptera (“Butterfly Conservation”), “herps” (“Froglife”) and mammals (the “Mammal Society”). Even quite small subgroups like bats have their NGOs – in this case the “Bat Conservation Trust”.

RSPB membership growth 1959 - 2012
Conscious of the need not to labour the point, I’ll get straight to it. Is my perception that the RSPB is “doing a Blair” and broadening its ecological niche to the extent that it is impinging on those of other conservation NGOs’ true? And, if so why would it do that? The simple answer is, I don’t know. My perceptions are subjective and I have no hard information to suggest that it is an official policy but we can look at year-on-year membership growth which has slowed or some might say stalled. 

The RSPB is certainly the largest “fish in the pond” and has had some very public struggles with its credibility in recent years, a credibility which it has seen upheld in judgements. Some of these criticisms were undoubtedly mendacious. That said, while looking for data on this blog-post I came across a  blog post, a newspaper article and a fascinating powerpoint presentation that do provide something of a smoking gun in terms of evidence for a recalibration of the RSPB’s artillery in 2012-2013. The latter even includes the term “brand stretch” (slide 24) as the charity seeks to broaden its appeal. That said, there is NO EVIDENCE of a conscious attempt to poach membership from other organisations but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The damage, if there is any, may well be collateral, unacknowledged and unknown in its extent.

"Big Blue"?
I am a life-long naturalist who started out as a birder. I taught Environmental Science to some extraordinarily-gifted young people for 15 years. I appreciate why the RSPB (and all the other conservation NGOs) should seek to get their members to look at the bigger picture, a systems approach and see that the fate of birds cannot be hived off from that of bats or bugs or badgers. I’m also very conscious that ecological niche theory dictates that generalists are often very successful in rapidly-changing and difficult environments and that specialists are often squeezed at such a time. My hope however is that if the RSPB actively wants to be all things to all conservationists, a sort of IBM, Amazon, Google or Tony Blair of the UK’s wildlife charities and ends up, nolente o volente, cornering a slice of other NGOs niches, as “Bob”, the new magazine title and content and even its twitter handle suggest, that this policy fails and it falls flat on its face, leaving plenty of room for the rich diversity of fantastic, specialist and local NGOs that have served us so well in recent decades and can do a far better job TOGETHER than a single "Big Blue".

Monday, 28 March 2016


Day 1 - 9/3/2016 - Arrival at airport and travel to our hotel……

The planes (from Munich and Stansted) arrived at Trieste on time. For K. and Paul there was time to check the airport grounds and three species were added to the list, hen harrier (2), common buzzard and Eurasian kestrel, and soon we were off towards our hotel, Istarke Toplice in NW Croatia about 90 minutes away. Everything went smoothly along the coast and through Trieste and by 8:00 p.m. we were sitting in our restaurant and enjoying two magnificent home-made “fresh” fuži pastas, one with white truffles Tuber magnatum and the other with penny-buns Boletus edulis, the latter being extraordinarily abundant in Istria’s oakwoods in autumn 2015.

Day 2 - 10/3 - Around the hotel grounds and along the River Mirna to the coast

The grounds of the hotel and the immediate surroundings are excellent for birding and a walk before breakfast was in order. The extensive riverine oakwoods in front of the hotel rapidly produced calling great spotted, green and grey-headed woodpecker with distant views of hawfinches too. A detour up a rocky path for a singing rock bunting failed to yield a sighting of the bird but as we descended Paul recognised the cat-like call of a middle spotted woodpecker which gave frustratingly brief views, at which point it was time to return for breakfast. The enormous numbers of song thrushes in the local woods were in full voice.

After breakfast a tour of the area around the hotel was in order. A brief stop  at the large rock behind the hotel seemed to yield a wallcreeper, it was, after all, a bird climbing about on the rockface, flicking its wings, but it was not to be, just a blue rock thrush and the only red visible was Paul’s red face! After brief views of a Eurasian nuthatch and a calling short-toed treecreeper we encountered a territorial fight between three lesser spotted woodpeckers that included the strange, slow bat-like courtship flight that this species engages in at this time of year. Both green and grey-headed woodpeckers were heard but not seen and a hawfinch gave brief views and a small flock of  house martins already visiting the colony on the nearby aqueduct pump-house. 

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) basking in cool  sunshine
Making the climb up to the quarry yielded a singing male cirl bunting and, in a small suntrap with a willow bush or two in flower, several butterflies including at least four painted ladies, a couple of peacocks, a nettle-tree butterfly a clouded yellow and a brimstone together with a couple of violet carpenter bees, a wall lizard (but which species?) and a hummingbird hawkmoth which posed nicely on a rock - not something you usually see later in the year when it is warmer. Large numbers of migrant Lepidoptera had passed through Malta three days earlier and the painted ladies were probably the vanguard of a much wider invasion. Unfortunately, when we arrived up at the quarry there were no wallcreepers to be seen and we consoled ourselves with views of raven, rock dove and the first early spider orchids of the year.

Shelducks (Tadorna tadorna) are increasingly common
around the Northern Adriatic in recent years.
From the hotel we headed towards the mouth of the river Mirna – Quieto for lunch. The lagoon where it reaches the sea is protected and an Important Bird Area. The sea produced a few species including the only Mediterranean shag and black-necked grebes of the week but there were some interesting birds in the lagoon including shelduck, great white and little egrets, Mediterranean gulls and three ferruginous ducks, all males.

Heading back up the river the second of several great grey shrikes were seen. These are winter visitors and, after a brief respite for the local invertebrates will be replaced by numbers of red-backed shrikes in a few weeks. There had been no sign of the local corn buntings on the way down the river. These are very late nesters and were still in a large flock on the farmland and not yet holding territories. On the way towards the river mouth we’d had poor views of a male and female merlin. On the return the view of the male was splendid. Like the great grey shrikes these are scarce winter visitors to the area. 

Male Merlin (Falco colombarius) seen beside the road
In cold winters they often move on but this year four or five shrikes have remained in the Mirna valley throughout. Most of the other birds seen were common local residents including stonechats and black redstarts. Arriving back at the hotel at dusk there was little left to do but rest and wait for dinner – again a marvellous meal produced by Edi and Mirijan in the Trattoria Dolina – Istrian / Italian food and east European numbers of birds. What’s not to like, eh?

Day 3 - 11/3  - The caves of Škocjan,  the valley of the river Osp & Škocjanski Zatok

The River Reka before it tumbles into the Škocjan caves 
Our failure to hook up with wallcreeper at the hotel meant that it was imperative that we did so today caves at Škocjan near Divača in Slovenia. This was a splendid opportunity and one not usually accorded to the public on regular visits and we had an opportunity to visit one of the best sites for the species at the mouth of the caves. Arriving at 09:30 we were met by Karmen Peternelj, the park’s European projects’ officer who led us “in” the exit and down in a small funicular lift to where the river Reka (which later becomes the Timavo when it exits 40km away in Italy) tumbles into the cave system and begins its journey beneath the Karst.

Toothwort (Lathraea squamata)
Search as we might on the towering rock faces there was no trace of the wallcreeper and very few other birds, just a wren and a grey wagtail! There were compensations however. Even the help of the young eyes of Domen Stanič and Sara C. failed to find it, although the guides had seen the bird as recently as Monday, just 72 hours earlier. The river was extremely high and powerful and made for a great display and the woodland close to the circular walk had a magnificent spring flora on show, including Hacquetia epipactis, bear’s-ear primrose, maidenhair fern, hepatica, snowdrops in profusion, bulbous corydalis, toothwort, mezereon, spurge-laurel, wild garlic, nine-leaved bittercress, alpine squill, dogstooth violet, fragrant hellebore, wood and yellow anemones, lungwort and white-flowered spring crocus. Most years these species would have been in flower later but this year, as elsewhere in Europe, everything is very early.

After saying goodbye and thank you to Karmen we stopped for a coffee in the caves’ restaurant. We would have to go on to a second (third?) wallcreeper site, the most reliable one even if it required a bit of a climb! There would be a third (fourth?) fallback site that has a bird in late afternoon if we failed here! Making our way to the site on a rock face just behind Trieste we stopped for lunch in an olive grove before making our way up to the cliffs with a large cave-mouth at the base. The climb up was fairly demanding but everybody managed it and even before we had all arrived Domen’s young eyes had spotted the wallcreeper which performed well, if rather distantly (about 75m away). 

Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) creeping on a wall
(Photo: Sara Cernich)
Still in winter plumage and hopping languidly across the rockface, it occasionally paused, immobile for a minute or two before setting off again, making the occasional short flight, showing off white-spotted vermillion wing feathers to perfection. On one occasion it flushed a fairly sizeable insect from the rockface and it proceeded to fly-catch, butterfly-like in the sunshine. High above it on a jutting branch sat one of the local peregrines, almost out of sight. As we set off back down towards the van Domen picked up the bird returning to the original rockface and most of group (those that were not already too far back down the path) were treated to a further ten minutes or so of its antics as it made its way towards the cave, before climbing up and out of sight. 

endemic sandwort (Moehringia tommasinii)
(Photo: Domen Stanič)
The birds weren’t the only thing to look at, there were flowers too including the endemic sandwort Moehringia tommasinii, the cliffs behind the hotel being another of only three sites for this incredibly rare plant. It is probably already extinct at a fourth site in Italy, perhaps as a result of damage by rock-climbers. There were also clumps of the strange yellow and white corydalis Pseudofumaria alba and spikes of the grape hyacinth Muscari botryoides.

Flushed with success and back at the van there was still time to stop off at the newly inaugurated visitor centre at the Škocjanski Zatok-Val Stagnon bird reserve, managed by DOPPS and the beneficiary of the Honeyguide Charitable Trust donation from this holiday. There were some birds to see, especially on the first pools, including wigeon, ruff, the only common snipe(s) of the holiday, pygmy cormorants and, particularly beautiful, a flock of about 25 great white egrets, most with the ‘aigrettes’ that were almost their downfall a century-and-a-half ago and in breeding plumage and some already with the red legs associated with breeding birds. Again there were house martins present and the very early March arrival now seems standard practice for these birds.

Heading back towards the hotel the final bird, apart from the great grey shrike on its usual tree and poor views of an uncooperative grey-headed woodpecker was a large female goshawk alongside the van. There has been an immature female present in the area in question all winter so it is unlikely to have been a breeding bird as youngsters are not tolerated within their territories by pairs and they are often forced to occupy more open and suboptimal habitats. All that was left after this was  a wash and brush-up and dinner.

Day 4 – 12/3 - Rakov Škocjan, Cerkniško Jezero & Senožeče

Day 4 dawned much colder and windier than yesterday, and the closure of the international road border crossing at Sočerga added considerably to the journey which was a shame. Woodpeckers hate wind and indeed, the woodpecker surveys by DOPPS are postponed if the days are not flat calm, so it was with some trepidation that we set off under leaden skiesfor Rakov Škocjan, a limestone gorge towards the Slovene interior.

Tkalca Jama or Weaver’s Cave was blocked
and the river had backed up
Arriving after about an hour, with little to show but a pair of woodlarks flying off the verge of the road, a male sparrowhawk with prey, our ‘usual’ great grey shrike and large flock of lapwings near Postonja, something interesting had happened. The river Rak from which the gorge takes its name, instead of a fast-flowing mountain stream with nesting dippers, tumbling into the Tkalca Jama or Weaver’s Cave, was a lake! Evidently all the rain had swept a mass of logs and debris into the cave, blocking it, as sometimes also happens at the Škocjan caves which famously backed up in 1966. Apart from a few common buzzards, a coal tit and a calling black woodpecker there were few birds to be had and we headed for the lake at Cerkniško Jezero

The lake was extremely high. Up to the level of the road in places, and any birds that there were (coots, great crested grebes, pochards, tufted ducks and a flock of five ferruginous ducks, were ‘diluted’ across about 30 square kilometres of shallow water. Arriving at the imaginatively named island of Otok (meaning ‘island’ in Slovene) we walked around a nice patch of mixed woodland dotted with clearings. Even though it was windy there were a few birds including nice views of marsh tit, goldcrest and, finally, a decent view of a grey-headed woodpecker, admirably photographed by Mike Kempton in spite of the very poor light conditions.

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus)
(Photo: ©Mike Kempton)
There was plenty of ground flora to admire too, similar in large part to that observed at the caves at Škocjan but at an earlier stage in the year and with much larger numbers of spring crocus and many, many Christmas rose Helleborus niger. The geography around the northern Adriatic is like a time machine. In woods close to the coast a species such as cornelian cherry or snowdrop may already be over when in cool, upland north-facing areas inland it hasn’t yet begun to flower. Moving away from the coast one has the strange experience of going ‘back in time’ through the spring or forward into autumn. Making our way back to the van a bullfinch was heard calling, a species that this far south in Europe occupies cool mixed woodlands, rarely appearing on the coast. At the van itself K. picked up on a crested tit which gave great views, together with a goldcrest.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)
Moving on, we saw the only greylag geese of the day, a pair. They remain inexplicably rare inland even if the feral Italian coastal population now numbers in the thousands. The causeway to Gorenje Jezero was still (just about) above water so no forest diversion was required. On the shallow, southern basin there were about 30 or so mute swans but little else. Continuing on around the lake, the only stop on the asphalt was for a suspiciously “wild” looking cat hunting in a meadow beside the road. Crouching as Paul neared, it sprinted off, the long thin tail and, especially, the white paws suggesting it was less than the genuine article! Wild cats are common around the lake and elsewhere in the Karst. So much so that there is little or no interbreeding with domestic ones, the unpaired females having plenty of choice of real wild tomcats – a situation that is certainly not the case in Scotland.

Passing through Martinjak, the white stork’s nest, familiar to "generations" of Honeyguiders, was still on its chimney-pot but has been dramatically trimmed and placed within a sort of weldmesh basket. The birds were not due to arrive for another fortnight. It had grown so large in recent years, even with an elder tree growing out of it, that it was threatening the roof of the building supporting it.

Finishing the loop around the lake, we began to cross the old flood plain or polje. There was a lot of bird activity in a cultivated field on our right and a cursory check revealed chaffinches and tree sparrows, a flock of about 40 linnets together with large numbers of starlings and a dozen or so fieldfares. Fieldfares are common breeders around the lake but unlike mistle thrushes (also seen) they do not defend winter territories and wander locally, mixing with members of the same species that arrive from further afield.

Further out onto the polje there were large numbers of great white egrets feeding on, what were to judge by the burrows, a considerable number of common voles Microtus arvalis, a species absent from UK (other than Orkney where it was probably introduced accidently during the Neolithic period) and which reaches extraordinary densities in C. Europe. As well as common buzzards there were also at least two hen harriers, a ringtail and a splendid adult male which gave excellent  views as it hunted a metre off the ground, head into a stiff breeze, pouncing at one point onto what proved to be a vole (or other small mammal). Nearing the bird in the bus it got up, flying a further 150 metres into the field to eat its meal in peace.

Dogstooth violets (Erythonium dens-canis)
Having circuited the lake in the strong wind, all that we could do at this point is visit a final woodpecker site in the hope of finding another middle spotted and black woodpecker but it was looking unlikely in the light of the strong bora, a geostrophic north-easterly that was blowing hard. Heading back down the motorway the lapwings and starlings were in a panic and the reason became clear with a passing peregrine falcon. Arriving at Senožeče the ground flora was splendid, with masses of lungwort, snowdrops, wood anemones, hepatica, Haquetia epipactis and especially large numbers of dogstooth violets, a rare species in the Karst where there is plenty of slightly-acidic soil overlying the limestone. We gave it our best shot, but it was not to be. There was too much wind and no woodpecker activity as we headed back towards the hotel, Our dispappointment being assuaged with another splendid meal in the restaurant, a notable absentee being the great grey shrike, no longer on its usual bush. Perhaps it had printed its boarding card made its way to the gate? An unfortunate Beech Marten (Martes foina) 
encountered on the road

Day 5 – Škocjanski Zatok, The Lake of Doberdò & Isola della Cona

An unfortunate Beech Marten (Martes foina)
encountered on the road
Day 5 dawned bright and (unfortunately) very breezy once again. An early morning walk did provide good views of hawfinches and a grey-headed woodpecker and well as very the entertaining sight of short-toed treecreepers diplaying on a tree-trunk right outside the hotel itself. Setting off at about 9:00 we were briefly delayed when we stopped to take a close look at a beautiful but unfortunate beech marten that had finished under a vehicle. 

At Škocjanski Zatok Paul presented the DOPPS representative, Borut Mozetič, with a donation from the Honeyguide Charitable Trust which will help DOPPS with their important research work into conserving Slovenia’s birds. Contributions such as these, while small compared with government and European funding, can be used quickly, effectively and without strings or bureaucracy, for example as mileage payments for the survey workers who took part in the woodpecker survey on March 20th, finding 8 calling middle spotted woodpeckers in the Karst, showing that the species has firmly established itself in the west of country in the last decade, having been historically confined to the east and south of the country last century.

Crossing back into Italy, we headed towards the Lake of Doberdò in a final but ultimately vain search for black woodpecker. Along the way the first barn swallows of the year crossed the road in front of the van. Again the wind was blowing hard and keeping all the woodpeckers out-of-sight and completely out-of-earshot. Cutting our losses we headed towards the nature reserve of Isola della Cona, a huge wetland reserve (2,200 hectares) at the mouth of River Isonzo. 

Gadwall (Anas strepera)
After lunch we made our way around the hides where there were plenty of wetland birds including pygmy cormorant and large numbers of waterfowl including greylag goose, mute swan, teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and shelduck with the four day checklist reaching 100 species. At the main hide there were large numbers of summer plumage great cormorants sheltering on a gravel island, many of them with the white heads of the sinesis subspecies. The first arrivals from Africa were also visible at the reserve in the form of ruffs and black-tailed godwits that are traditionally the first trans-saharan migrants to arrive in spring in this part of the world. This trickle  will become a flood in the coming weeks. By now time was getting on and it was time to make our way to the airport about 15 minutes away for the various flights where we said our goodbyes, wrapping up a thoroughly pleasant and fruitful few days.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The internet abhors a vacuum or why we desperately needed “Padania Classics”.

I love Italy dearly, and "my own" north-east in particular. We're like a married couple, tiffs and to-dos, exasperation and ecstasy but so far we've always kissed and made up and in 2014 we celebrated our silver anniversary together. I fear it maybe 'til death us do part. That said there are some habits she has that I'll never accept and today I'll tell you about one of them that has a direct bearing on nature and the environment.

"Capannoni" (warehousing / factories) outside Jesolo (Venice) Similar structures are dotted right across 'Padania', the macro-region stretching from Italy's border with Slovenia right across to Milan and beyond - from Streeview

The Region Veneto (and to a lesser extent my own, neighbouring Region, Friuli Venezia Giulia) has fine reputation abroad. It remains one of Italy's economic power-houses and its capital, Venice, is the single most incredible human-created tourist spectacle, bar none, on the planet and within 50 miles of which lie other, "minor" cultural deities such as Verona, Vicenza, Padua and Treviso as well as outsiders such Ravenna and Ferrara not far away. Throw in 24 UNESCO-listed and 6 unlisted Palladian villas and almost 2000 listed Venetian villas and you get the picture. Nowhere else on the planet, (at least nowhere else on the planet outside Italy) comes close. Period. So what's the problem?

Fooled you! Not a Venetian villa at all but a mock-up 'mobilificio' (furniture factory store) outside Codroipo, complete with concrete statues. For sale too if you have delusions of grandeur and are insane. This is my personal favourite and shows, or I hope it shows, a fine sense of irony, self-effacement and humility. It was killed off as a commercial concern by the crisis and an Ikea opening up 20 miles away. - from Streeview
 A dear departed friend of mine, the first Italian friend I made, a naturalist called Ignazio Zanutto used to tell the tale of a trip to the Province of Padua with a botanist in search of rare and endangered wetland flora. At a certain point along yet another straight road with roundabouts in a sea of cement, houses, small factories and, here and there, tiny patches of ancient wet meadow with rare orchids and adders-tongue ferns the botanist grasped the steering-wheel hard and, at the top of his voice, howled "Argh!! La metastasi umana!" ... "Human metastases!" What was he screaming about? The appalling state of what passes for Italian "town planning", particularly in the north and north-east and the savage "consumo di suolo" - consumption of land -  all the worst excesses of post-First World War UK with ribbon development, speculative building and the devouring of green field sites, much of it top grade agricultural land, under a torrent of concrete, asphalt and hardcore.

Semi-abandoned industrial units outside Fossalta (Venice) - from Streeview
Some numbers: The Veneto is in second place in Italy for loss of green field sites, having lost between 8.5% and 10.5% of its overall surface area to concrete in the period from 1956 to 2010 - between 1,550 and 1,900 km2. According to a study by ISPRA (Italy's Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) the Veneto is just behind the Lombardy Region (which has lost between 9 and 12%) and ahead of Lazio and Emilia Romagna (in joint third place with 7.5 - 9%). After 250 years of industrial development the UK, of a similar order of size to Italy, has obviously also lost land, just 6% IN TOTAL to urban sprawl.
The (for me) infamous, giant "Gardens of Jesolo" shopping centre outside Jesolo (Venice) which has roof-gardens but whenever I pass just seems totally abandoned although I'm told it's still open. Below is a photo from the AGRIBET0N website, apparently boasting about it as one of their finest works!?! - above from Streeview, below, the web.

What does that mean in terms of area? At a provincial level between 1993 and 2006, the Region Veneto's Tavolo tecnico permanente di sviluppo disciplinare, its planning control office , estimated that the province of Verona had lost 8,000 hectares to development, followed by Venice a little less than 7,000 ha and Padua 5,000 ha. Treviso saw 4,500 hectares go under concrete, Vicenza 3,500. while the smaller provinces of Rovigo and Belluno lost 1,500 and 1,000 hectares respectively for a grand total of  33,159 hectares or 332 square kilometres. How big is that? An area roughly a fifth of the size of metropolitan London urbanised in just 13 years.  In that time the population of the Veneto grew from 4,405,288 to 4,841,933, up about 1% a year. just 436,000 new residents but a piece of ground 10 metres by 76 metres under concrete for every new resident added! Since 2006 however, and the economic crisis, those losses have slowed and many of the speculatively-contructed factory buildings and warehouses lie empty along with other, older ones, lain waste by the downturn. No "green belt", no rational aforethought, just naked, speculative greed. Utterly fucked.

An anonymous Padanian idyll. The muddy river winding between its concreted banks, 
the dredgings, road embankment, trucks and sound barriers. - from Streeview
What's left? A sea of some of the most hideous townscapes in Europe. Mile after mile of soul-destroying ugliness and brutality, waste and shortsightedness. Exactly what happens when money (lots of it) meets a lack of culture and education.... a sort of sad, lower-case Dubai. I once attempted to discuss this with a notable town planning academic who shall remain nameless, recently retired from the Università Iuav di Venezia (founded in 1926 as the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia ("the Higher Institute of Architecture of Venice"), while acknowledging the problem he was extremely defensive and didn't want to talk about it ... at all!

Veneto. The Region that has made ribbon development a virtue and a centrepiece of its "growth". - from Streeview
Which is why Padania Classics is important. It's a website and book cataloguing this catastrophe They DO want to talk about it. They do want to tell you about it, both in English and Italian, holding a light up to this, admittedly minor, Crime Against Humanity. They're on Facebook too. This isn't one of those optimistic stories with a potentially happy ending; you know the sort: "If we do this then we can avoid the consequences!". The damage is done and it will take centuries of abandonment and weathering to grind the resultant mess back into the limestone river gravels it was mostly created from.

Why screw-up the countryside with asphalt and concrete on one side only when you can do it on all four? - from Streeview
I've not tried to pick the ugliest or the worst. Just a few random shots plus my favourite via Streetview to give you a flavour of sites that await the unsuspecting visitor. You have been warned.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The New DOPPS visitor centre at Škocjanski Zatok - Val Stagnon, Koper - Capodistria, Slovenia.

This post is coming out a bit late as I've been offline for a few days after some clown cut the phone cable to about 800 houses. Domen beat me to it with his post here (with more and better bird pictures).

It's pretty clear where a lot of the funding has come from.

On Wednesday (02/03/2016) I was at the inauguration of the new DOPPS visitor centre at Škocjanski Zatok - Val Stagnon on the outskirts of Koper - Capodistria, Slovenia's 3rd city and only port. Everybody who knows me is aware I have been a great admirer of DOPPS, Birdlife International's partner in Slovenia, since I became aware of their work around the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia. They are immensely professional, achieving huge amounts over the decades with limited resources and endless commitment.

Radipole Lake, Dorset, UK (l.) and Škocjanski Zatok, Koper, Slovenia (r.)

Squeezed between a motorway and the port of Koper, Škocjanski Zatok is a wetland site covering 122 hectares just outside the city, a small surviving piece of what was once a much larger site. To give British readers an idea, in many respects it is very like the RSPB's reserves of Belfast Lough and Radipole Lake, close-to-coastal wetlands in the urban fringe with all the problems of heavy use and potential conflicts which this entails. Until the reserve closed for the building work in late 2014 it was the main haunt for joggers from Koper. Better than doggers I suppose!?

When I arrived to live nearby in Italy in the late 1980s there seemed to be very few birds present and the large (brackish) area (Stanjolski zaliv) was covered with shooting butts used by Italian hunters. Thankfully these characters have now largely gone from Slovenia (they pay to shoot the odd mallard, pheasant and partridge elsewhere) but are still a major issue in Croatia, Serbia and more recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

An Istrian Ox or Boškarin and a Cattle Egret (summer picture, photo Domen Stanič)

Now the birds are back and the freshwater section of the reserve is kept in tip-top condition with the help of Camargue horses and the local breed of ox, the boškarin with its own fascinating history of decline, genetic extinction and resurgence as a solid, rustic old breed, better-adapted to the local climate and conditions than more delicate but perhaps more "productive" modern cattle. The water management infrastructure is excellent and it should be possible to manage levels to perfection.

What about today? What about the visitor centre?

The main visitor centre set in an industrial estate but with the great backdrop of a
snow-capped Monte Slavnik - Taiano in NE Istria
Well it is large, err... very large and, err... architecturally challenging, an aggressive "here to stay" project. That said, it's not in a rural setting. Anything but, so perhaps it should be a bold statement given that the backdrop to the reserve consists of the huge cranes in the port of Koper, giant mountains of containers lapped by a sea of Audis destined, perhaps, for China or the Middle East. The smell of methyl mercaptan, imperceptible at the opening and harmless enough, coming from the part of the wetland that was drained and developed, takes me back to my childhood and the gravel pits in the Lea Valley. But I can't help it. The infrastructure alienates me further from its raison d'être. The birds.

Cranes 'n' cranes. At about 2pm on inauguration day the reserve was 'blessed' with a flock of about 200 cranes passing over the Visitor Centre, trumpetting. The 'augurs' were a sort of Roman high priest of good luck. One was said to his work "Agere augurium, aves specit" - "to conduct the augurium, he observed the birds". The Ancient Greeks too practised Ornithomancy. On that basis the future of Škocjanski Zatok is very rosy indeed! (r.h. photo Domen Stanič)
And here's the rub. I live close to what is probably Italy's finest reserve for birding, Isola della Cona. There is a bird list of 325 species, up there with the Coto Doñana and the Carmargue. Considering how nearby it is, I rarely visit unless I'm working there. Why? It might provide me with a rapid 50 species of birds on virtually any day of the year, but the hides, visitor centre, 'tea-shop' and hogging footpaths leave me, spiritually, rather cold - a process I call "the suburbanisation of birding" and one I'll talk more about in another blog. I think this is a common sentiment in a certain type of naturalist, the one that takes a day out for more than just a list, or great views of birds close-up. No. There's more to it than that. Tim Dee deals with it very well in this article from the New York Times when talking about, without naming, the new RSPB reserve at Lakenheath.
Lucky young DOPPSers enjoying the sun and the new visitor centre

It's important I finish this blog being upbeatand positive. The buildings are beautiful and functional. There was a great crowd and I'm sure the bar and shop will do a roaring trade so close to the city and so close to Trieste. Whatever an old ex-pat. fart says or thinks, banging on about the "the suburbanisation of birding" or feels in his 'se stava mejo quando se stava pezo'* head, it matters not a jot. I wish DOPPS every success with the magnificent new visitor centre and the thousands of lucky schoolkids who will get to visit it each and every year. There was certainly nothing like that for us when we were young. Well done DOPPS!

To re-set my brain, to de-suburbanise it and get everything back in perspective, without EU project financing and disabled access, cream teas and T-shirts in the gift shop I set off with Domen in search of one of Europe's more elusive birds. I've had no luck with this species at all this winter and I better get some soon as I'm supposed to be showing it to people next week. Domen's hunch was correct. There it was in all its glory. If I were an ornithomancer I would say my luck's changed. We'll see.

Wednesday's Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) - photo Domen Stanič
*"things were better when things were worse".

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Woods are good! Well are they always?

"You ought to do a blog" they used to said. "Yeah, I know!" I'd reply, Andy Pipkin-style, trying to change the subject. Well, finally, here it is.

A photo of the village of Monteaperta in the Prealps north of Udine in
NE Italy taken in the 1950s, from
Foreste, uomo, economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia AA.V.V.. – Udine, Museo friulano di storia naturale, 1986, 223 pp.

A contrarian and hotly-contested article appeared a few days ago on National Geographic's Italian website entitled "La crescita incontrollata dei boschi italiani" - "The uncontrolled spread of Italian woodlands". To a UK-based reader this might come as a shock. Having reached a minimum of 5% or so in 1918, British forest cover has slowly clawed its way back, in spite of 20 million sheep, to 13% or so, the highest level for a 1000 years even if it doesn't seem to have done much for the fate of the country's woodland birds. It's seen as an unalloyed positive as it often is in Italy. 
A photo of the same village, Monteaperta  taken in the mid-1980s, from
Foreste, uomo, economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia AA.V.V.. – Udine, Museo friulano di storia naturale, 1986, 223 pp.


What are the numbers for Italy? Well, Italy covers 30,127,700 hectares and there are now 10.9 million hectares of woodland or 32.6% of its land surface, a figure that has risen by 3 million hectares (more that Britain's total forest cover), in just 30 years and up from just 4 million hectares 80 years ago!  The Region I live in, Friuli Venezia Giulia, now has almost 50% forest cover, up from 10% at the end of the Second World War when forests covered just 10% of the Region's c. 800,000 hectares!

Monteaperta in 2010, squeezed ever more tightly by the surrounding forest 
What on Earth Is Going On?

Even he seems unhappy with the outcome!
Italy is organised is very differently from UK from a legal and social perspective. One of the main differences is legal, with the application of the Napoleonic Code as the basis of Private Law that sees property inheritance dictated by degree of relatedness and not by whim (your "will" decides only a small part of what you leave when you die and to whom). Not for the Italians (other than part of a single Region in the North, Alto Adige) is there the option of Majorat, the passing of the farm to the eldest son. This means that with every generation land holdings are split up between all the children (or other relatives if the person dies 'without issue'), many of whom may have emigrated or moved away to the cities in search of work. The end result is massively fractionated holdings and huge amounts of effectively abandoned land, especially in the uplands where it is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to put together a viable single land holding. People may own quite a few hectares but these are often split into tiny pieces with difficult access in broken terrain.

Winners and losers

Canadair. More forest means more fires and more expenditure
A simplistic view of this, and one parroted by the politicians, is that all this is a wonderful thing but it is really just a side-product of abandonment, emigration and depopulation. What's more, Italy spends
many millions of Euros a year fighting forest fires with aircraft, helicopters and ground forces (Forestry police, Civil Protection and volunteer fire-fighters and their equipment) together with millions more on infrastructure projects (forest roads and fire-ponds) to make their work easier.

Winners there are, apart from the individuals and companies in the civil protection business. As people and their grazing animals have moved out, wild ungulates (roe deer and red deer and wild boar) have moved in with growing numbers of wolves on their tail, the latter's numbers growing from  a minimum of about 100 in 1970 to almost 2000 animals in 2015. Other animals are arriving too as the forest spreads and as people leave, including brown bears and golden jackals coming from Slovenia where forest cover recently exceed 50%. "Nasties" too, are gaining and as wild ungulates increase so do ticks Ixodes sp. and with them Lyme disease and the newly-arrived tick-borne encephalitis.

It's not just mammals either. Other organisms associated with woodland are doing well and several species of previously-rare or localised woodpeckers including black, grey-headed, middle and lesser spotted woodpeckers are spreading rapidly, particularly in the north-east of the country. Various plants and insects restricted to woodland are benefitting including the European peony Paeonia officinalis.

Rock Partridge (Alectoris graeca). Once abundant in the Karst
above Trieste but extinct since the late 1980s due to scrub
encroachment of its habitat
(Photo: by the author, Pag Island, Croatia, 2015)
The losers however, are many more as abandonment sees open habitats scrub-over and vanish in the uplands or subject to heavy modification by agricultural intensification and development in the lowlands and plains. In the Karst above Trieste alone 15 or 16 species of birds are now locally extinct (ext.) or endangered (end.) including rock partridge (ext.), ortolan bunting skylark (ext.), tawny pipit (end.), wryneck (end.) and corn bunting (end.). Where endangered ones do hang on, such as at the Alture di Polazzo, 100 ha of well-managed grazing, it is where humans and their domestic animals persist as well. The same applies to other elements of the flora and fauna too, with plants and insects losing habitat to scrub and woodland but doing well in traditionally-managed settings.

What to do?

The problem is difficult to resolve if there is not the political will to tackle it, especially at a time of austerity. Land rationalisation and consolidation is a must to create viable agricultural units in the uplands but thus far little has been done away from lowland areas in the 1970s and 1980s when boosting production was seen as important. Until people can see a future for themselves in the uplands within Italy then depopulation and decline will continue until woodland covers the entire Alpine  and Appenine chains. The wolf is at the door.

The Trnova Forest wolf pack, just 15km from Italy's NE border.