This site has been created in order to promote and protect the countryside and the wild flora and fauna of the area around Bridge village and the Nailbourne Valley in East Kent. We hope that you find the site enjoyable and informative; but more than this, we hope that it will inspire you to support the conservation of our natural wildlife and landscape heritage for the future.

  • Church Meadow, Bridge

    Church Meadow, Bridge

  • The Meadows, Bridge

    The Meadows, Bridge

Lambs in local fields again

Lambs in local fields again

This week we have seen the arrival of lambs in our local fields again. The first to arrive, as is often the case, were in the field behind the old Bifrons House. Now we also have lambs in a field down by the surgery, and in Bourne Park beside the lake. This is a dangerous time for them: if we get a severe cold spell they are vulnerable, with little wool to keep them warm, and they can die of hypothermia. (Picture Copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)
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The avian flu poultry alert

The avian flu poultry alert

Following an outbreak of avian flu in parts of Europe and the UK, the British Government's Chief Veterinary Officer has ordered poultry keepers (and anyone else with captive birds) to keep all birds indoors in an effort to keep them separated from wild birds which may have contracted the disease. Members of the public who spot dead swans, ducks or geese or groups of 5 or more dead birds of any species in a countryside location are urged to inform Defra on their helpline number 03459 335577. (Picture Copyright © BridgeNature.org 2015)
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sussex cattle in meadows

sussex cattle in meadows

This week (ending 19 March), Sussex cattle have returned to the water meadow in front of Bourne Cottages. This famous breed were once the mainstay of working cattle in the south east of England and would have been used to pull carts and ploughs on farms all over the region. For our previous article on these cattle click on 'Read more' below. (Picture Copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)
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Litter teams clean up A2

Litter teams clean up A2

Following our previous complaint about the litter on the A2 between Bridge and Wincheap, we note that this week (ending 19 March), a cleaning team has been working along the verges picking up the mess. We do not know if this is in any way connected to our complaint, but we thank those who organised the clean up. (Picture Copyright © BridgeNature.org 2016)
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The myth of ‘The Balance of Nature’

Nature does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar. Little Egret, Bridge. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In fact Nature is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth’s history.”
John Kricher. ‘The Balance of Nature; ecology’s enduring myth.’

On 7 February 2017 we finally had to concede that the Nailbourne had dried up. Not a trickle ran in constant flow through Bridge. Since it is a bourne, an occasional stream, which leaks from fissures in the chalk beneath East Kent, this is not to be unexpected; but it spells disaster for our local wildlife and the precious ecosystem of a rare chalk stream. A rich and varied biodiversity nurtured by the cool springwater will be lost: a delicate, heirarchical food chain which was gradually establishing itself in the heart of our valley will break and fail. Many species will either die or move elsewhere.

It is a populist notion that such events are all part of what some people call the ‘Balance of Nature’. They are not. Balance implies a system of self-correction, a sustained position of equilibrium. This is not what happens in Nature. The natural world does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar; it reels and lurches from one disaster to another, like a confused boxer losing badly in a fight.

“Nature is not a balance, it is just one catastrophe after another!”
Professor Richard Dawkins

When a natural catastrophe occurs on a large scale in a meteor strike, a flood, a volcanic eruption, or, on a smaller scale, perhaps the drying up of a village pond or a local spring, there is destruction and there is death. This creates a vacuum in the natural world and Nature abhors a vacuum. Something, in a quest for survival, will fill it; this invariably will be some species of plant or creature which is more suited to the new environment. An opportunity arises, something seizes it, but this opportunism must not be confused with ‘balance’, for the state of things will now be different, the equilibrium has not somehow been restored. Things have changed and in consequence there may now be a new order in the food chain, a new king ruling the jungle. He will rule as long as the new conditions remain or until the next catastrophe arrives to topple him from his place. It’s a continuing struggle for survival in which each individual in each species fights for itself in the face of ever looming death. In the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, over 99% of all the species that ever lived here are thought to have become extinct, either because they just couldn’t live in the environment in which they found themselves, or because a new, more advanced or adapted species was able to out compete them. This is a process called ‘speciation’ and we modern humans may face it one day as did Neanderthal man who failed to compete with us.

Mother Nature is not of gentle mind, she is a violent and ruthless ruler in her empire of the sun. Her flowers bloom sublime, but don’t be confused by her apparent charm and her fondness for the young: she has no compassion. Her disasters appear random, but they are all a consequence of her brutal rule. There is an order in the chaos, but it is heartless, inequitable and cruel. Life on Earth staggers on, trying to navigate through constant adversity and change: ‘carpe diem’, seize the day and do your best to survive, but be assured your death will come and you won’t be calling it a balance when the reaper swings his scythe.

Sometimes we think we see Mother Nature as a beauty, dancing elegantly to illuminate our lives in the darkness of her universe. Her beauty, her dancing and even the colours of her dress are mere mirage; but the miracle, the sublime, spectacular miracle, is that she ever manages to stand at all. We must hope we never live long enough to know when she finally collapses and her empire turns to dust.



New life in a rural hedge

From now on hedge cutting on Mill Lane will take place at least a month or so later each year. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Following a BridgeNature.org campaign to stop Canterbury District Council cutting the hedge on Mill Lane, Bridge, within the bird breeding season, we have just been informed today that the council have changed their policy. The hedge, which grows down the Brickfields side of Mill Lane, has now been recategorised from an ‘amenity hedge’ to a ‘rural hedge’, meaning that from now on it will only be cut once a year after 31 August in compliance with the same modern environmental practice required of grant funded farmers.

This may mean that during the summer the hedge grows a little wider and taller than we have seen in the last few years but the birds, including sparrows, dunnocks, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, collared doves, tits, chaffinches (and possibly greenfinches and siskins) which regularly nest and raise young there will no longer be disturbed mid-season.

Before cutting the Mill Lane hedge is a beautiful rural haven for wildlife. This picture was taken in early May when the oak tree at the junction with Western Avenue is just coming into leaf. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This is another success for BridgeNature.org in our campaigns to protect our local wildlife, but it has been achieved with the intervention of Councilor Simon Cook who stepped in to help us by negotiating with Canterbury City Council. We offer both Councilor Cook and Canterbury City Council our sincere thanks for making this policy change happen. We know our local wild birds will appreciate it.

A world made in pictures

Blue Tit, Bridge Meadows. Unlike the fleeting glimpses of wildlife we catch in the real world, in photographs nature pauses, poses, and stands still to let us look at it, but we are creating an imaginary world. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Out in the countryside around Bridge it seems an increasing number of people are taking photographs. It is wonderful that residents have an appreciation of our landscape, but we must remember that, however much a photograph seems to capture the beauty of the scenery, it isn’t as important or as valuable as the real thing, and photography is not conservation.

For BridgeNature.org, creating and presenting pictures is not, and must not be our main objective. Conservation of our real, living, breathing wildlife and countryside is our essential purpose, not some pretty representation of it in photographic images. Can the same be said of the beautifully filmed natural history programmes we see on television week after week, and of the perfectly produced photographs we see in magazines, online sites and exhibitions? Well, many certainly appear genuine in their intentions, but, whatever the motives of their producers, conservationists fear a real danger that, in presenting films and photographs, the images themselves achieve a profile and value in the public mind, sometimes merely an entertainment value, that casts the pictures’ subjects, our real landscape and wildlife, into the shade. However sublime the photographs may be in their own right, this is cause for concern.

The issue lies within the very essence of the photographic image: capturing and re-presenting a visual likeness of something. Once we have accepted this medium as a way of seeing the world around us, a picture seems real. A film seems even more real, because it moves and captures sound. But both are real only as entities in themselves: the animals, trees and landscapes portrayed within them only exist as coloured dots, or pixels on a screen, the sounds they emit are electronic, made by a loudspeaker.

In public understanding, the old notion that ‘the camera never lies’ still persists to this day, yet it is in itself a lie. At best the photograph only tells us part of the truth, often it is a manipulated deception and, in the very act of switching our attention from the real object to the picture, the real object ceases to have form and substance as it is discarded in favour of a man-made image. We learn to accept this carefully manufactured representation, which, unlike the views of Nature we see in our real imperfect world, pauses, postures and poses to let us look at it until, in effect, the picture or film becomes more real, impressive and permanent than the real thing. To the conservationist this is alarming, because all the while these carefully selected images present a perfect vision of Nature, people assume everything is fine in our countryside: but it isn’t!

Picture this: protected fields north of Conyngham Lane, Bridge, under threat from development. In a few years’ time, will we just be left with pretty images as mementos of our countryside? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today, our wildlife and countryside are under threat as never before. They are not as valued or as protected as we might hope they are. In recent years large tracts of our AONBs have been lost to housing development. Even specially protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been neglected: in 2011 only 26 out of 710 ASSIs and SSSIs on enclosed farmland were in favourable condition (1). Our farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970 (2); woodland butterflies have declined by 51% since 1990 (3); 728 wildlife species are at risk of extinction from Great Britain (4). We need to decide what it is we want to value, treasure and protect: is it all the wonderful photographs and films we see of our wildlife? Or is it the real thing? If we make the wrong choices now, all that will be left are some pretty pictures to remind our grandchildren of what we squandered.

(1) UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011
(2) BTO Farmland Bird Indicator 2016
(3) Woodland Butterfly Indicator 2016
(4) State of Nature Report 2016

Campaigns for conservation

Valued countryside: fields at Brickfield Farm, Bridge. The historic Bridge Place can be seen in the background. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

BridgeNature.org was conceived in 2012 with the objective of encouraging the appreciation of the wildlife and countryside in our local area. We began with a monthly newsletter, but later moved on to a website with regular articles, environmental information and picture galleries.

This is all very well meaning and, we hope, informative, but it has little value if we are not prepared to stand up and be counted when the very countryside and wildlife which we write about is under threat. So, from the outset, BridgeNature.org has campaigned zealously to protect our countryside with lobbying letters to local bodies like The Kent Downs AONB Management Unit, Kent Wildlife Trust and Natural England, as well as our own Parish Council and Canterbury City Council. We have also spoken on behalf of our countryside, hedgerows, trees and wildlife at public meetings and planning consultations.

So far, the success rate of campaigns which we have initiated or with which we have been associated has been astonishing, but it has been a team effort involving members of public bodies, action groups and of course the support of the public.

1. In 2014 we reported on an application to build a large equestrian arena and accommodation block in a field next to the hop farm in Bourne Park. This would have had a dramatic impact on the local scenery and would have brought heavy traffic into the area. In combination with Bishopsbourne Parish Council and local residents we campaigned to stop the progress of the application. The proposal was refused. Success

2. In 2015 we supported a resident in Union Road, Bridge, who was campaigning to save some of the oldest trees in the village from being felled by a local property developer. Together, and with immense public support, we achieved our aim. Only one tree (a dead one) was cut down. Success

3. In 2015 and 2016 we joined the campaign led by some residents of Lower Hardres and Nackington to stop the development of a huge solar farm between Nackington and Bridge on some of the best agricultural land in Britain. Bridge Parish Council Planning Committee voted to take a neutral stance on the issue, but, as a result of the combined protests of other local authorities, concerned environmental groups and the public, the proposal was twice withdrawn and now appears to have disappeared. Success

Sparrows in a devastated nesting site, Mill Lane, Bridge, 17 July, 2015. The result of inappropriate hedge cutting practices by Canterbury City Council. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

4. In late Summer 2014, 2015 and again in 2016, we made formal complaints to Canterbury City Council and Natural England regarding CCC’s regular policy of cutting the hedge on Mill Lane, Bridge, during the nesting season while a number of birds were clearly nesting there. This has led to the annual devastation of active nesting sites. To date CCC have not changed their policy, claiming that the hedge cutting is to make the road safe! This is nonsense. BridgeNature.org will continue to campaign to prevent this vandalism in our parish and we are now in contact with CCC Councilor Simon Cook who is kindly working with us to resolve this issue. Pending
On 5 Jan 2017 we were informed that this issue has now been resolved and the hedge will be cut after 31 August each year in compliance with modern environmental guidelines. We thank Councilor Simon Cook for his efforts in bringing about this change. Success

5. In Spring 2016 we campaigned to save two trees on Bridge Recreation Ground from being hacked back to their stumps in the potentially terminal exercise of pollarding. Two beautiful, healthy mature trees were to be vandalised simply because they were considered to be taking up too much room and causing moss on the tennis courts which were built in a damp location long after the trees were planted. Bridge Parish Council initially approved the pollarding, but, with a BridgeNature.org campaign involving local residents, letters to the Parish Council and the rigorous lobbying of Canterbury City Council Planning Department the Parish Council were persuaded to change their policy. The trees remain under threat, but we are ever vigilant. Success

6. Since conception BridgeNature.org has campaigned to protect the green fields around Bridge from housing development. They lie within our designated Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so housing development on them is generally restricted, but that has not stopped a long list of city councilors, parish councilors, prospective MPs, landowners, confused residents and aspiring property tycoons from trying to build there in order to satisfy their own wants. BridgeNature.org has spoken out vociferously on this issue, and just this month our views were endorsed by a government inspector who ruled that a city council proposal for a housing development of 40 houses cannot go ahead on Brickfield Farm, Bridge, because it would breach planning law and damage our AONB. We thank all those who joined us in this campaign. Success

These successes in protecting our wildlife and countryside have not necessarily been brought about by some innate ability or powerful political authority, they have been achieved by the combined actions of ‘people who care’ standing up to make their voices heard, or, more practically, sitting down to write, sometimes in defiance of local political authority.

The countryside of our AONB and the trees within our Conservation Areas have been protected by law for the good of us all and the future generations who follow because they are rare assets in an increasingly urbanised national landscape. Who would seek to destroy such treasures? Only the ignorant, the arrogant and the selfish; but we have all within our midst! Whatever the ambitions, lack of awareness or political powers of such people, we must make it clear to them that we will not allow them to destroy the things that we hold dear, and the more people who join in that call the louder it will be heard.

As 2016 draws to a close BridgeNature.org thanks all those residents who have supported our campaigns to date and we hope that you will support us in the future.

Brickfields, a farm reprieved

Brickfield Farm, Bridge, May 2015. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Following Canterbury City Council’s recent proposal to include the building of 40 new dwellings at Brickfield Farm, Bridge, on their new District Local Plan, the government inspector who checks such plans has written to the city council telling them that he is refusing permission for that inclusion and the proposal must be removed from the plan. The inspector gave his verdict on the basis that such development would damage The Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty within which Bridge village and much of our surrounding countryside is situated. We include this from the inspector’s letter:

“Brickfield Farm, Bridge (allocation for 40 dwellings). This is one of the sites that the Council has identified to address the 5-year housing land supply position. I am not satisfied that the inclusion of this site has been justified, particularly in terms of its effect on the Kent Downs AONB in which it is located. It could be considered through the emerging Neighbourhood Plan but the MM [Main Modification] proposing its inclusion in the LP [Local Plan] should be removed, as should the proposed change to the PM [Proposals Map].”

*NB: We have added what we believe are the correct explanations of abbreviations in brackets.

This is a wonderful reprieve for Brickfields and a vindication for all those who have campaigned to protect our local countryside, but something even more important has happened here: this inspector’s judgement is a victory for all the National Parks and AONBs across the nation because it acknowledges and verifies the significance of designated areas of protected countryside and recognises that reckless and irresponsible housing development by local authorities must not be allowed to go ahead in protected areas.

While this is excellent news, the new Bridge Neighbourhood Plan still includes plans to build on Brickfield Farm. Our Neighbourhood Plan Committee may say they want small scale incremental development now, but, over the years, this adds up and consumes just as much land as one large development. We currently have 8 dwellings on Brickfields with a proposal for 8 more. Is this the final tally, or when and where will it end? Those of us who have been working for years to prevent building development on the green fields of our AONB (often in the face of sneering disinterest from within the Parish Council) now have the backing of a government inspector with the view that housing development across the fields at Brickfield Farm would constitute unacceptable damage to a designated landscape and a breach of the law which protects it. In the future Brickfield Farm must not be held in limbo, as a building site waiting to be built on, it must be recognised for the valuable farmland that it is: a treasured asset in our sector of the AONB which we are legally and morally obliged to conserve for future generations.

When making his comments, the government inspector was checking Canterbury District Local Plan, he was not examining the (yet to be completed, yet to be adopted) Bridge Neighbourhood Plan and has therefore made no criticism of it; that plan will be examined later, on its own terms. In the meantime BridgeNature.org urges all our residents who care about our local countryside to make it clear to our Parish Council at every opportunity that they should respect the designation of our AONB together with the import and implication of the government inspector’s decision. With hundreds of new affordable homes about to be built at Mountfield Park, just 3 minutes’ travel away from Bridge, we believe further housing development on Brickfields is not acceptable; in the bright new light cast by the government’s inspectorate building more housing on Brickfields would constitute wilful, obdurate vandalism, and any suggestion of it should be removed from the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

BridgeNature.org would like to express thanks to all those who have voted, campaigned and written letters against development on Brickfields. Somewhere up in the ether your voices have been heard.


The return of the Redwing

One of a flock of about 20 Redwings, Bridge Meadows, 4 December 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This month we have a small flock of about 20 Redwings apparently living in or near Bridge Meadows.

BridgeNature.org last reported on a Redwing sighting in March 2016 when one bird was spotted in a wheat field near Flint Cottages. The Redwing is, in theory, a relatively common bird in northern continental Europe, Scandinavia, and across the Baltic states to Russia, where it lives out in open countryside. With about 690,000 (1) visiting this country between October and March to enjoy our milder climate, one might assume the bird is a regular sight in Britain too, but most of those birds that come here apparently locate themselves in northern England or Scotland, so we do not believe it is a common bird in this area and we have only made one previous observation here, although other people may have seen them.

With a similar appearance to a thrush, the Redwing is indeed the smallest bird of the thrush family; it can be distinguished by a thick pale stripe above the eye and an orange-red tinge to the flank. This red patch becomes more evident on the underwing in flight.

There are two sub-species of Redwings which can be differentiated: the smaller Scandinavian bird (the more common) which we have in our meadows this month, and the Icelandic bird which is slightly larger. Both visit the UK for Winter and, interestingly, the lone Redwing observed near Flint Cottages back in March was noticeably larger than the current birds, so perhaps it was one of the Icelandic species.

Only about 4-16 pairs of Redwings are thought to breed in the UK each year (2), and they are now an RSPB Red List endangered species in this country.

(1), (2) RSPB figures.

Footprints in the mud

The shape, size and sharp edges of this print suggest it is from a deer. (Ruler measures in centimeters). Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week BridgeNature.org received reports of unusual animal footprints on land within the Bridge and Bishopsbourne area, so a field visit was made to try to discover the identity of the animal which made the prints.

The field in question is unfenced, holds no livestock and has been ploughed, so the surface is very rough, but a path across it has been made smooth by the regular passing of walkers and it appears that ramblers of another kind have also used the path leaving their footprints as evidence.

The prints themselves present as a weathered and worn jumble of old and more recent indentations of different sizes and shapes, but essentially two shapes appear prevalent. The first shape is the smaller in size and features what we believe is the print of a cloven hoof, curving in a tight horseshoe shape with a gap at the front. This print has sharp, pointed edges. These features make it typical of a deer. The most obvious candidates to make such prints in this area would be the fallow deer which inhabit Kings Wood near Challock and are known to range across the woodland and open countryside at least as far as the A2 at Barham. Fallow deer are observed regularly in the summer on farmland near the Duck at Pett Bottom and we have received a confirmed report of a small deer of unidentified species in fields between Pett Bottom and Bishopsbourne. Other possible candidates for making the prints may be roe deer which live in the west of Kent and are known to be gradually moving east; but, as yet we have no confirmed sightings of them in this area.

Possible wild boar print? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The second type of prints appear bigger suggesting a larger animal of some kind. The foot imprint does not resemble the split horseshoe shape of the others, and the prints are less sharply defined. Are these the prints of large adult fallow deer, a different deer, or something else altogether?

One suggestion which has been put forward to us is that these may be the prints of wild boar. It is a possibility: wild boar do live in Kent and have been sighted in this district (actually in Bekesbourne) within the last six years or so. Wild boar have pig-like trotters which do not leave the sharp horseshoe shaped prints of deer: the impression left by boar is more like two slightly diverging toe shapes with curved edges and a rounded foot shape behind. This could fit with some of the prints in our field, although in soft mud we would expect to see evidence of dew claw prints behind the foot and there is little evidence of them. However, perhaps supporting the possibility of wild boar, two sets of tracks of these heavier footprints lead away from the relatively smooth path and set off over the ploughed field leaving deep, wide indentations in the earth suggestive of heavy creatures with feet covered in thick mud. This does not seem characteristic of deer.

What made these large prints? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Our mystery remains at least partially unsolved and we retain an open mind as to what creatures may have made all the footprints. In order to provide a possible answer in the future, we would very much welcome news of readers’ sightings of deer or wild boar in our area if and when they occur.

Detail of the prints above. This print from a heavier animal is much larger yet retains a split curve at the front. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The unfamiliar Mipit

Meadow Pipit, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Meadow Pipit, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Silhouetted against the bright sky and a low winter sun, birds sitting on power lines and telephone wires can be virtually impossible to identify with the naked eye, so many visiting species simply go unnoticed. But modern technology can sometimes help, as in the case of the picture above. This bird was photographed this Autumn while perched on a power line near the Nailbourne when the bird was far too far away to be distinguished with the naked eye, and even through a zoom lens; but it was later identified on the computer screen as a Meadow Pipit.

Residents of Bridge may be surprised to know that the Meadow Pipit, which some experts abbreviate to ‘Mipit’, is a resident British bird and numerically one of our most common, but they are an upland species and their distribution is to the north and west of the country, so they are by no means a regular sight in this area. In Winter British numbers are supplemented by migrants from the north: many from Greenland and Iceland find their way to Ireland and the west of England but birds in our area are more likely to be visitors from Scandinavia. They tend to be lowland ground feeders with a preference for marshy or waterside locations where they eat beetles, spiders and a range of flies, particularly the cranefly (daddy long-legs).

Bird-watchers often have difficulty distinguishing the Meadow Pipit from the skylark, but the skylark’s head crest is generally the giveaway. Yet another bird, which looks very similar at a distance, was recorded on the same power line at exactly the same time as the Mipit. This bird sported similar colouring to the Mipit, but the beak was short and stubby while the Mipit’s beak is markedly narrow and pointed. These features were impossible to distinguish on location under a bright winter sun, but having examined the picture of the second bird, we believe it is a corn bunting. Corn buntings and skylarks are both regularly observed in our local meadows and they were featured in our article ‘Somewhere over the railway…’ which can be found here:


Corn Bunting?, Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Corn Bunting? Sheep Dip lane, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Vermin over the hill

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week wild rabbits were culled using ferrets to unearth them on Star Hill in Bridge. “Quite right too,” some locals said, “they’re just vermin!”.

We often hear the term ‘vermin’ cast casually and disparagingly at certain animals, which are regarded with disdain, while others are treated with favour. So, what exactly is the definition of vermin, and what does it mean in consequential terms?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines vermin as “Mammals and birds injurious to game, crops etc., e.g. foxes, weasels, rats, mice, moles, owls; noxious insects e.g. fleas, bugs, lice; parasitic worms or insects; (fig) vile persons”. It’s a very vague definition, which seems open to the inclusion of any creature which eats the crops in our fields, kills game birds before they can be shot in sport, or irritates us in some other way.

Across Britain that small OED list of so-called vermin has, at one time or another, been stretched to include: magpies, seagulls, crows, rooks, stoats, kingfishers, house sparrows, rabbits, deer, red squirrels, grey squirrels, pigeons, snakes, woodpigeons, kites, buzzards, frogs, eagles, geese, wild cats, domestic cats caught poaching, collared doves, ducks, jackdaws, rooks, jays, curlews, pole cats, lapwings, oystercatchers, choughs, dippers, water voles, hedgehogs, wolves, hawks, otters, bullfinches, hares, green woodpeckers, badgers and many other animals which today we would call wildlife.

A few of these creatures, like the wolf, the flea and the adder were obvious candidates for extermination in the survival instincts of our ancient ancestors, but many of the names on the list come from the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532, which ordered the public to take part in a mass killing of rural wildlife for the sake of preserving farm produce. Some animals, like woodpigeons, rats and rabbits clearly were legitimate threats to farm crops, but many others like lapwings, water voles and hedgehogs were killed simply because of ignorance about their lifestyles. In some cases the law was used as a cover for killing animals for superstitious reasons rather than for any real threat they posed to agriculture, and millions of other creatures were killed under the law because they were good to eat rather than because they caused any nuisance.

Masquerading as the eradication of vermin, this killing frenzy went on across Britain for many decades until, in the mid 18th century, it was stopped because of general alarm at the massive devastation done to our wildlife and countryside. By then, it was too late for some animals, and to this day their numbers have never recovered. However, a century later, with the burgeoning popularity of ‘country sports’ like hunting, shooting, fishing, badger baiting and hare coursing, the mass killing of so-called vermin had escalated again, and by the mid 19th century it was once more being conducted on an enormous scale until a series of animal protection acts were brought in to reduce the slaughter.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

In British law there is no legal definition of vermin: it is not written in stone. Today, many of the animals which were once persecuted are now treasured and encouraged for the biodiversity they bring to our countryside. Even now this considered approach has its detractors. A lot of rural folk still have a list of vermin held firmly in mind and they seem to take a certain relish in having these creatures killed, but, before casually condoning the slaughter, everyone should know the answer to this question: how did these animals get onto their list of vermin? Was it because they pose a genuine threat to farming and social welfare; or because they spoil the fun of ‘country sports’; or because killing them is the fun of country sports; or because of tradition, confusion, ignorance and superstition?

Whatever our views on wildlife there is one creature which, over the centuries, has caused far more destruction and nuisance in our countryside than all the others put together: and we all know who it is…

*This article takes some general references from ‘Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800’, a seminal work by the author Keith Thomas; but we do not suggest any views or opinions expressed herein are necessarily shared by that author.

Of brilliance and tragedy

Kingfisher at the Old Sheep Dip, Bishopsbourne, 1 Nov 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Kingfisher at the Old Sheep Dip, Bishopsbourne, 1 Nov 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Why is the Kingfisher so called? You may wonder how this diminutive bird earned his regal title. He does not have the majestic posture of the heron, or the fearsome aura of the osprey, but stand quietly on the bridge on Sheep Dip Lane for a few moments, watch a Kingfisher exercising his skills in the Old Sheep Dip, and you too may agree that this extraordinary little bird really is the sovereign of his craft.

This year, once again, we have at least one pair of Kingfishers living on our bourne and delighting all those who get a glimpse of them. They are mesmerising birds to watch: their colours in flight are brilliant and their skill is incredible, even though everything they do appears to be done at great speed. They arrive in a flash of electric blue darting low across the water, then perch on a prominent rock or branch overlooking a stretch of slow moving water watching for fish and small swimming creatures. When prey is sighted, they will plunge in a curving dive to enter the water, sometimes several feet away from their vantage point, and rarely seem to fail to make a catch. This is in part because of their the ability to switch instantly between two forms of vision: in the air their vision is monocular, but under water it is binocular, meaning they can instantly correct for the refraction of light in water to retain sight of their prey.

When a fish is caught the Kingfisher will return it to the perch, ensure it is dead, clasp it more aerodynamically in the beak, then, with great urgency it will fly off to feed the young in the nest. This will be a burrow two to three feet long, somewhere along the riverbank. There may be up to six chicks waiting eagerly for food, and with each of them needing perhaps a dozen small fish a day, the parent birds have a busy time keeping them fed.

As a species the Kingfisher is a master predator whose future seems secure; as individuals, from day one their lives are full of hazards. If they survive in the nest, free of predators and fluctuating river levels long enough to start fishing for themselves, they may drown at the first attempt, or they may be driven from their home before they learn sufficient survival skills. Many youngsters die within the first couple of weeks of leaving the nest. Then, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, ponds ice over and fish hide deeper, food is harder to find and many Kingfishers simply die of starvation or exposure. Only a quarter of all our Kingfishers, including the young, are thought to live from one breeding season into the next (1). That proportion appears to be enough to keep the species in continuity, for now, but we must treasure these crown jewels of the riverbank and do what we can to ensure our lives do not restrict theirs.

In Britain the appalling children’s ‘sport’ of throwing stones at Kingfishers thrived, with official encouragement, for centuries, but today these iconic little birds are specifically listed for special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and extra penalties apply to anyone who harms them or disturbs a nest.

(1) RSPB figure.