Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Extreme One Bite, One Fish Tactics

Not for the first time this year I had under-estimated (forgotten) half-term's impact on the canal

Trimming the kit down to the absolute bare minimum was quite a facinating exercise in itself. To date during the rebirth I had taken the dalek to sit on with its secret drawers and slidy bits containing a vast number of now redundant, but formerly life-saving, pole rigs. In reality I only 'needed' two rigs for the big roach method, one orange, one black, for differing backgrounds but I couldn't leave the house without six. Still it was a serious climb-down from a hundred and twenty-odd 15 year-old and subsequently unusable variations

Although a list of items of kit would not take long to compile I will limit myself to saying that my rucksack stool was still half empty even with flask and bait included

The rod holdall was dispensed with and I managed to decant a shortened version of the pole (three longest joints missing) two sections of landing net handle and two spare top sets into a single rod bag. Add to this a net bag and we were ready to go, in fact my cold weather clothing took up more space than the kit. Now THAT was a first as canal fishing went

The purpose of all this was to enable me to quickly travel further from the car and get fishing in locations I would otherwise not have bothered walking to weighed-down with heavier stuff. Firstly because I wanted to get there early to take full advantage of the period between dawn and first boat, secondly to revisit swims I remembered from the dim and distant past and thirdly the fact that a really simple approach is so very appealling...quick to set-up and put away, focussing the mind and ensuring that I do not get distracted with the option of small fish or general confusion on such occasions

On Saturday morning I trekked a good distance from the bridge at first light. A number of tempting pegs were passed but I had my mind set on an area from which I recalled catching plenty of roach on bread before the reincarnation and where, in the month of March, I had also seen a bed of violets blooming under the hedgerow, not that they would be there as a milestone at this time of year but it had stuck in my mind

Previous experience had told me that signal crayfish were more likely opposite cover (can anyone corrobrate this?) so I chose an open peg immediately before a row of hawthorns on the outside of a bend. The other lesson was that the big roach-seeking method would often produce a simple one bite, one fish result so no mistakes could be entertained and, frankly, the bites have seemed unmissable anyway

A mid-channel line was selected and the popped-up flake nailed to the deck awaiting interest. A good degree of drifting-off ensued as various rural events unfolded before my eyes and ears most interesting of which was a particularly relaxed small herd of bullocks which wandered slowly past and only one of which took time to stop and wonder what I was and why I was sat there opposite purely to look at him. They headed off to the rear of the hawthorns and out of sight, occasionally stopping to nibble at the sparse vegetation but not to fertilize it, this occurred on the move.

Back to the float..nothing

Some moments later, uproar beyond view. First impression was that the unwitting cattle had been allowed to enter an area off limits by contractors leaving gates open by some brickwork which had recently been repaired and that someone, possibly the farmer, wanted to get them back where they belonged asap. New language was learned and much yelling endured. Then it went quiet and, a minute or two later, a Volvo went by at a reasonable speed (for a farm track) with a fair old amount of revving included. 'Just someone late for work after all', I thought, and the beast returned to a relaxed state

As I returned to the float its insert lifted right above the surface and a good fish was hooked. A decent fight followed, suitably enhanced as the elastic refused to emerge smoothly due to the fact I'd neglected to run it through the water before I started and, as I started to bring the pole round to the right, the narrowness of the towing path became amplified as I realised there was no convenient hole behind to push it through and in the subsequent dither I commited an error which would have been unheard of in the past in I allowing the line to go slack and the barbless hook to drop-out. The air went purple as red mist blended with blue language and, as I swung the line to hand, a tell-tale blob of that shiny transparent slime of the roach was on the hook spade and shot.

One bite, no fish...and then the boats started so I knew it was then simply a case of waiting until it was time to go home

Nine long-tailed tits twanged their little avian jew's harps and flitted across the gap in front of me as they passed between bushes, the last of them somewhat reluctant to cross the divide alone but they were followed sometime later by another three who joined the first bunch and then suffered a fearful ear-bending! Maybe they were late for the rendezvous or simply intruding and in need some kind of winter flock-joining initiation

During the session a large number of tiny fish topped all around and two large fish broke the surface, one with a crash, two pegs to my right as simultaneously a shoal of medium-sized roach topped regularly at the end of a straight to my right. Far more action that I would have anticipated if you had asked before I started

Next day I was back. An hour earlier of course with the clocks having changed but the water was more coloured than Saturday and I passed a couple of sleeping narrowboats on the way along (always a risk in case the occupants are awakened) to fish where the two big fish had topped but, nevertheless, the penny didn't drop

The approach would be the same but after half an hour's fishing the float pulled to the left and the deflating sound of a boat coming from the same direction, which I tried very hard to make sound like a tractor or a plane or something, let the air out of the balloon of optimism rather earlier than I would have hoped and it was closely followed by three others

A female reed bunting landed in the bushes opposite and I waited an age for it's head to appear from behind bunch of haws to get a photograph through the early morning murk

No bites and no toppers. It was cold and raining when I left home but despite what might otherwise have appeared a somewhat pointless visit I did identify a particulary enticing swim on the way back to the car with rushes both inside and across which had somehow eluded my gaze the day before

Three trips, six hours, no fish. These are the days!

Next week of course the boats will be tucked back up in the yards and the colour will drop out a touch more overnight from now through to the end of the (old) season offering greater potential for bread to snare those big roach and other strays. I know from years gone by that the first two weeks in November are the best for canal fishing so no need to be downhearted. Just being outside is enough for me

Dog count:
Saturday -
2 alsatians who I have met a couple of times before and sniff round the bread
Sunday -
2 jack russels, one of which actually stole my bread
1 greyhound called Badger, who I am reliably informed travels alongside his boat on the towpath and waits under bridges if it rains but never travels onboard
2 labradors - 1 black, 1 brown and well controlled by a suitably waxed-clad Country Gentleman
1 retrievery thing
2 more greyhounds as I left
So, it's official, 3 in 10 dogs...
are greyhounds

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Way Things Were

Taking Parps, the littl'un, fishing recently set me thinking about fishing trips when I younger

My earliest recollection is of going to Frankton Pools with The Old Duffer, or Relatively Young Duffer as he would've been then (had I thought of it), and asking if I could have a go for the first time

He cut me an ash pole from the hedge at the roadside and tied some line to it with a small float and a hook to nylon (I have always recalled this as string and a bent pin but I think this is simply wishful romanticism on my part!). I caught 6 gudgeon...that bit I am sure of...and I was ______ (please fill your own word in here as I can't bring myself to say it!)

The venue comprised two stream-fed ancient pools, some 200 years old, with a dam at the top of a steep wooded bank holding it all back. On one side was the lane and on the other pasture fell into the water at the end of the dam, while trees with pegs between completed the remainder of the scene at the shallow end, I use the word 'shallow' somewhat reservedly as the depth in the middle of the dam was not great. In fact were it not for the quite incredibly deep silt contemporary man could probably have walked across without getting his ear-rings wet

The larger pool featured quite regularly in my early life and remains the only place I ever caught any crucian carp, except for a flukey one on caster during an evening match on the Oxford Canal at Rugby twenty or thirty years later (or more). They all seemed to be the same size and apparently stunted as the water was shallow and they must've been pectoral to pectoral in there. It silted-up year on year and the old stone dam wall always looked as though it could slip down the slope into the spinney at any moment. It was one of those places where the build-up of silt and rotting organic matter was such that the slightest disturbance of the mud would release the most pungent smell into the air which would then linger if you were near it and then follow you home on your wellies as a reminder

There was an occasion when a guy had left his rod leaning against the wall while he wandered off and while he was gone it was towed-in by a fish! He couldn't figure out what had happened when he returned but I'm fairly certain the fish was even less chuffed about the event than he was. A lesson learnt for me at a tender age, and one ignored by him

One of the most entertaining moments was alway when the farmer came round to take money for day tickets. The Old Duffer rarely shirked an opportunity to wind him up and on one occasion claimed he had seen an otter there early in the morning, and then sat creased on his box as the unfortunate stout rosy-faced chap announced it to all-comers as he did his rounds. Otters were locally non-existent in those days. Amusement travels far across water!

Later, when I got interested in wider ecology, it was one of the first places I went to see, listen to and record daubenton's bats, and share the pleasure with The Dog when he was about 7 or 8 years old. That was until a tawny owl hooted and we had to beat a hasty retreat to the 'safety' of the car! Watching the bats' mysterious shapes scooting around above the water's surface like little dark scalextric machines on invisible tracks with tight bends, or snitches in quidditch, against the moonlit water was incredible and the reason I went there for this was that I remembered them from my times fishing there as a kid late into the evening. We had Observer's Books to learn from in those days and the inspirational images of bats in the wild animals volume engaged me sufficiently to appreciate bats and this species even back then. The bat thing has since got out of hand however and takes up many hours with detectors and all manner of other equipment in spring and summer evenings

At a time when I was setting out fishing open matches and team competitions I came across the need for bloodworm on hard venues, mainly in winter leagues in the south midlands. Having gleaned info on how to 'scrape' for bloodworm from various publications the first place I tried, having made the requisite scraper from a broom handle and a suitable blade, was the small pool at Frankton but, as with everywhere else I tried, the bed was littered with leaves and branches and one or two small worms per sweep was about the best I could manage, unlike the photographs I had seen with hundreds of worms in a continuous splodge wrapped along the edge of the blade. It seemed that all of the ponds I could think of shallow enough and silty enough to scrape were surrounded by trees!

The crucians in the larger pool were the first fish I ever caught on bread and it resulted in, first, Fine Lady, when I could get it, or Mother's Pride, and now Warburton's, being propped-up by my bait bill. They were such shy-biting fish but a few minutes after baiting with white ground-bait a few of them would succrumb (sorry, couldn't resist) and give a hard-fighting account of themselves on the old Sigma Canal rod and Shakespeare Match International closed-face reel...a warm glow descends

In fact my extensive note books show that on 31st July 1978, then aged 15, I fished the near end of the dam wall of the larger pool with bread under a '4 dust Ultra dart' (remember those?, a brass-loaded, self-cocking, straight balsa canal float) and white crumb taking 8 crucians for 2.7.8 so their average size was not exceptional! The Old Duffer had 16 of them for 6.14.0. A day ticket was just 60p and the weather apparently was cool, rainy and windy, much like this July
So, to complete the circle, I went for a drive down there the other evening in the knowledge that when the associated farm changed hands a few years ago the ponds would have done so too. This would have been my first visit since the bat watching episode circa 10-12 years ago and it certainly had changed! The whole is now fenced as a deer enclosure and the dam wall is now quite over-grown but the two pools are still intact albeit as the home of a herd of black fallow deer. The path across the dam still leans way from the water at an alarming angle and gives the impression that one might slip down the bank into the dark wood ('went into Noddy mode there for a moment. I wonder if Sly lives in there?) at any time, especially if wet!

Nevertheless, enquiries might well now be made

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Gobio gobio, wherefore art thou Gobio?

 A truly incredible thing happened on Sunday

It was a significant sign that maybe the zander in the North Oxford Canal are reaching a more natural level in balance with the other species previously present

Even these guys were interested, admittedly in spiders rather than fish

It is, as they say, 'a known fact' that gudgeon are the first victims of Team Predator when it first gangs-up on its prey in a newly pioneered waterway

Up to about 1995 it was possible to catch a few gudgeon in a session, in the days before big fish seriously influenced the angler's thinking. Often ten or fifteen little squeakers could be taken and sometimes as many as fifty, very occasionally even more, though they were never so numerous as on the Oxford Canal proper from Banbury south nor in canals such as the Staffs/Worcs or Birmingham/Worcs where hundreds could be caught in matches, and maybe still can. Soon after though they were gone and the dubious pleasure of them puking bread crumb on your trousers with them

The float wouldn't sit still once the crayfish found the bread to their liking
As I sat there enduring the incessant signal crayfish bites in the mist, not one, not two, but three tiny gudgeon leapt clear on top of the near shelf with that unmistakable 'fr-r-rip' as their little pectoral fins flapped frantically against their flanks in an attempt to take flight. These must, one would think, have been the tip of a whiskered iceberg below the surface and will be something worthy of further investigation soon without doubt

So that was the good news, as for the crays, well - they're just criminal

A Debate 'Otter than Ever

I only had a photo of a scottish otter and knew you would tell the difference
After a bit of a discussion over concern about recolonising otters (not to mention signal crayfish and spurious zander catches!) this weekend
(see Daniel Everitt's blogpost
it has been a subject at the forefront of my mind. However, having been out of the angling loop for so many years until early 2011, I am always in danger of stating the obvious without realising that someone has said it before, probably yesterday (or, worse still, several years ago!), but there has been something nagging at me which needs airing, at the very least to satisfy my curiosity

A number of british record rod-caught freshwater species sizes are now far in excess of weights one might have anticipated 20 years ago. I note that record barbel, bronze bream, carp, chub, tench, zander, etc., are now unrecognisable from those I remember and close-on 20 of the current records have been set since the dawn of the current millennium, but why, it's not as though angling has only just been invented is it?

This must have been discussed in the angling press in the past but of course I am oblivious to this and strangely a good amount of research has not uncovered any clues; having said that, if I had read anything from those quarters I wouldn't know whether to believe it, so sensationalist is that sector of the sport. This could imply that it was discussed so long ago that the information has not found it's way onto the web because it's widely known or that it really hasn't been touched on in any detail (unlikely)

Two immediately obvious potential causes spring to mind and would probably spring to anyone's whether they had been away from the sport for so long or not...but then you'll tell me this is common knowledge/claptrap so at least I'll be clear on that!

The first is to question whether breeding for introduction to commercial fisheries is sufficiently far 'advanced' that some species of fish can be bred to grow bigger? I am sure this must be possible but why this would be of interest to anyone other than someone on some kind of simple misplaced glory-hunt is beyond me

Fast food for fish. The new logo

The second thought I had is that certain, probably artificial, baits might serve to increase fish weight like a sort of Chubway fishy fast-food overdose, or but this might be more readily applied to stillwater fish which would more likely rely on such a food source if angler's bait is all-but the only option available to them and a tendency toward unnaturally increased size would soon then become a self-fulfilling prophesy once they reach proportions which would be unsustainable without anglers' bait, that or they die anyway...or fail to put on further weight. Carp would be a typical example of this, were it true, as many of the larger fish I see photographed seem to have disproportionately large distended bellies perhaps blatantly belying a trait of this nature. So, on over-stocked new 'commercial' fisheries which have been fished heavily since their first opening and before natural food levels reached anything like their full potential, and never could, this seems perfectly logical. That other matter of the pointlessness of fishing such venues is surely therefore self-evident and there are other moral issues here which there isn't time to cover nor would I want you to nod off, yet. I digress, a touch, but some of the photographs I have seen of outsize carp clearly display these traits with the increased weight fairly obviously largely attributable to their increased bellies. Conversely some of the fish I have recently seen photographs, displayed in blogs I follow, of smaller carp with a more 'wild' profile appear a much more desirable and laudable target with some attributable natural beauty

Am I wrong or am I simply missing something here?

The above could also apply to stillwater bream and tench but as for river fish, such as chub, what explains their sudden increased size? Are they really so consistently fished for on rivers that such a reason could apply here too? It seems unlikely

Is it possible that the otter is to blame for this too?!

If we could cast our imaginations back to when otters were widespread, many of us will struggle as their steep decline occurred in the 1950's (when habitats were being trashed by tidying-up of water courses, pollution, etc.), they would undoubtedly have been a significant predator of fish over a pound and possibly the main one. I am not sure how significant their impact extends to the subsequent proliferation of stillwaters but if we were to extend this thought a little it would not be beyond possibility that the presence of otters might have controlled the maximum size of river fish before they became legally protected in England in 1979 and found themselves 'near threatened' of global extinction according to the IUCN red list

If river fish sizes have been able to grow with less predator control, other than the constraints of species preying on smaller fish and the latters maximum lifespan, as they have in the recent past, is it inconceivable that the past two decades may prove to be some kind of historical peak, when we look back in future, now that otters are back (in Warwickshire)?

An otter needs to eat around 5lbs of food per day, they are big mammals, with a male holding an extensive territory of up to around 25 miles of water, and not necessarily a single watercourse, with maybe a couple of females and, from time to time, perhaps half a dozen young within that same territory. It is therefore possible that if otters are eating fish of all sizes they would probably find it easier to catch bigger sluggish ones than lively young ones, it is also a more profitable prey. So if they do this they can, by default, control the maximum fish size in a river by thinning out the bigger ones and leaving less of them to grow to record breaking proportions. The chances of a record fish are reduced and, by implication of the above, the average size of those regarded as specimens will be lower too

Tony Miles' 1989 publication with the author holding a predator large enough to take a pound chub

Thinking chub here in the main, I have referred to Tony Miles book 'The Complete Specimen Hunter' before and what is interesting in this context is that the implication of his writing in 1989 is that a 4lb-plus chub is a good size and anything over 5lb a genuine specimen, perhaps comparable with a roach of well over 2lbs, but in 2012 a four pounder hardly warrants a mention and it is clear that many bloggers are looking for at least six pound plus fish to light their respective candles. Not only this but the number of these bigger fish being caught is quite staggering, indeed 12 of the top 20 of the Chub Study Group list have been captured since 2000

Maybe specimen angling on more natural/naturalised waters has experienced an halcyon period without the participants realising it and the otter will now bring that back to a level of normality. We may even need a new record list like sort of 'drug enhanced' and 'clean' athletics world record lists!

Anyway all that is just a theory without much substance other than a bit of common logic but it seems plausible don't you think? My only 'concern' about this, coming at it now as a selfish angler, and whether the above is true or not, we may see otters become slightly more common than their territories can realistically support longer-term for a short period at which point it is likely that fish and other prey species will be over-plundered until the predator experiences 'die-off' to a level of natural equilibrium, a phenomenon known by ecologists as 'overshoot' of the 'carrying capacity' of the habitat. This could be brief but in an animal with such a large individual range one might perhaps assume it could take sometime now that I am lead to believe local rivers are at carrying capacity of male otters

The Complete Specimen Hunter, Tony Miles (Crowood), 1989
The Angling Trust website
Chub Study Group List of Top 50 Chub
IUCN red list

Monday, 15 October 2012

Boys & fishing

So, back to the fishing then

Today I took Parps for the first time in some time after a disappointment in his short life required some distraction. It was also the first time I'd been since May. He will be eleven in a few days, and thinks he is getting a present. We are toying with telling him his real name

Parps' first fish, five years ago - not then practiced at the trophy shot. It wasn't scared of him

An estate lake was chosen in the hope that the recent rain would've put some colour into the water with the intention of carrying-on the big roach trend from the spring using the lift-bite method and bread flake or crust

As we arrived I suggested to Parps that it might not be a good idea to clump along the bank vibrating the ground and scaring the fish, nor would it be ideal to get too close to the edge. "In case I fall in?", he enquired, "No, because the fish will see you and swim off"..."Oh", he said somewhat disappointed that I had not superficially been more concerned for his welfare

We positioned our boxes close to each other in a comfy pitch without any snags at the water's edge nearby, nor overhanging trees and clear water in front, this seemed logical. The rod we would share, and it was set on rests between us together with various items of tackle on the ground beneath it

The wind in the wider landscape had strengthened in the afternoon but this passed high over the trees surrounding the mirror-like surface of the water with a tinge of colour only serving to limit vision below a depth of around fifteen inches

I got Parps setting-up various pieces of equipment, landing net, keepnet, rod-rests, etc., while I set-up the rod and attached the terminal tackle

A flock of canada geese were present, sharing the lake with a solitary mute swan and some mallards. This presented a tactical challenge. The bait was to be bread, all of these species are avid devourers of it and we felt maybe we needed a plan. Upon plumbing the need for a plan became policy when we realised that an up-ending swan would likely just be able to reach the bait on the bed

Now there have been occasions in my life when outrageous fortune has inexplicably descended on me and impending doom has been averted, one such that immediately comes to mind is when I was heading to a meeting to make a presentation when I would have been standing in front of an audience and the whole sole and heel of my shoe fell off while I was getting dressed. Moments later a boxed pair of new shoes were thrown by the Postman into the hallway while I was having my breakfast after I'd left the door open when fetching the milk! This moment wasn't quite in that league, admittedly, but it transpired that, at regular intervals, parents and children would arrive to feed the whole group of waterbirds in a peg two or three to our right while their view of us was obscured by rushes providing suitably regular opportunities to introduce some mashed bread into the swim and keeping them occupied long enough for it to sink before they meandered back past us to their snoozing area to our left

"Don't use the crust!", said Parps. I thought little of this as it looked quite dry in any event but obviously he was planning an ambush of some kind in his mind

As it happened the intention of avoiding the numerous small roach by fishing large pieces of bread failed due to the unanticipated perseverence of the little sparkly darlings. No lift bites ensued and instead we were treated to the fairly constant towing around of the bait, anchor shot and float by rutiliplankton with just the occasional strike connecting with a fish. In some ways this was good as it was the first time Parps had had to strike into a fish in the time-honoured manner, as previously he had only tried feeder fishing [set-up such that the fish hooked themselves (and he himself a few times)] and pole fishing when he could simply lift into the fish. So this was good practice. "Strike your arm across your chest until you feel the fish, then stop and wind it in", I suggested once, or was it twice? No, in hindsight, I think it was eight or ten times, but there was a distinct tendancy not to be too forceful, we will get there though, I guarantee it!

We had 'our' moments; winding the open-faced reel backwards, standing on the tackle box, putting the bung out of the landing net pole into the net, etc., but not one tangle and no strong words, in fact all but the perfect introduction to another type of fishing for him and a good few lessons learnt, including an unreasonable level of respect for the prized accumulated gear, especially that in our own boxes and a desire to improve on it to be 'like yours'

A kingfisher drew our attention briefly, and then again as it sought out suitable fishing perches in the fallen branches. We had discussed this possibility on the way and hoped to hear the 'plop' of one after a tiddler or two, but we had to content ourselves with the topping of roach and the twice seen streak of blue and orange

At this time the outstanding highlight of the day, for a ten year old, was reached. Soup time. This was where the crust came in, so it was more of a pea and ham-bush as it turned-out. I discovered it wasn't fish-food it was boy-bait and (boy) did it sound good, so good in fact that later, when the soup well had run dry, it was used as coffee crutons...they were still there at the end however, and somewhat scummy on top

We have a tradition we engage in after days out, holidays - any kind of event, in that on the trip home we discuss what each of us thought the best bit to have been

For me it was just being our there again after a few months' interlude (to quote my own, as it happened, inadvertently prophetic previous post title) but I said it was the kingfisher. I don't recall what my little chatterbox companion said as I had drifted into a world which I perceived as his mental state and came up with my own ten-item list in fairly precise order of importance:
  • The soup
  • The bread
  • Feeding the bread to the assembled feathered masses at the end
  • The fish we put back early because it had an injured fin
  • The banter
  • The strength of the rod
  • Looking at a fly I accidentally knocked into the water
  • The 'really good' reel
  • The stuff in my tackle box
  • The fish we caught (note: not 'he' caught, but 'we' caught). Tenth on the list.

Items 1 and 2
 It's fascinating that my earliest strong recollection of fishing with my Dad (The Old Duffer) is actually a smell. The smell of dried breadcrumbs in his faded red tackle box. I also remember how skilful he was (still is I might add), compared to me as a complete novice, and how I could never possibly get to be that good as he cast over to the rushes and caught bream after bream in those unending sunlit summer days. Nowadays it seems one is supposed to catch carp in the rain, I don't geddit. Of course it wasn't always sunny it's just that we didn't go if it rained...we watched Grandstand instead, and ate homemade apple pie

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Highlands and back

A Dreadful Scene...but one we endured - with reluctance
Five months away should suffice, and anyway, that chill in the early morning air has roused the autumnal hunting urge

The spring and summer were not totally wasted, I might add, three weeks sunlit bliss in the West Highlands of Scotland were some of best times we've ever had, and that while the Midlands were doused in the wettest summer we could have imagined...or wetter

Filming a white-tailed eagle and orca were firsts, and underwater filming in the clear clean shallow sea was a real eye opener, as was rock-pooling in remote locations, with every other species uncovered having to be looked-up on our frugal holiday book shelf given the lack of web access

Male orca blowing off the isle of Canna
 When we first arrived for a week in early June, knowing that to be the historical peak for good (dry) weather, it hadn't rained since March. Then when we returned for two weeks in August (usually a significant risk weather-wise) it hadn't rained! "Too good to be true", we thought as we anticipated two weeks of torrentials to follow, but, follow it did not

The August list was not as long as previous years, nor did it extend to many more lines than the preceding May list. The breeding birds had dispersed by then and, most noticeably, there wasn't a common sandpiper to be seen, whereas in spring it was difficult to avoid them

Twite were quite numerous in various places, with one even spotted in the garden where we stayed, together with a regularly seen adult common lizard on spare roof tiles which we had spread around in the hope of seeing an adder basking on them early morning but what I find most surprising about our regular visit to this part of the world is that the books and distribution maps of various (particularly bird) species suggest that some of our encounters don't actually exist there. A number of these are what we in England might consider relatively common species, such as yellowhammer; there is one specific location in the West Highlands where these buntings can be guaranteed and a handful of pairs appear to breed quite happily and yet finding any suggestion of them in the text books is another matter. There seems to be a missing link between observers records and the available written word

 This flags up an issue with distribution maps. The ranges of various mobile species, be they birds, mammals, insects, etc., are changing so rapidly that is is impossible to produce up-to-date maps covering, sometimes, any more than a one or two year period. Global warming or not, this is nothing new as species spread and contract their ranges in response to whatever triggers apply

That truly great ornithologist James Fisher produced a series of bird recognition books back in the 1940's the maps from which would make your hair curl, nay fall out!, if you were to compare them with the distribution of certain species today. Okay, one is inclined to question the validity of mapping from so long ago when one presumes less birders might have actively been pursuing the pastime with the level of commitment and detail demonstrated by the likes of the BTO and it's members today but nevertheless there must be some truth it

So what are we to make of that? Well, going to an apparently different extreme for a moment, we do know that 99%+ of the species ever to exist on earth are now extinct and that there have been five great extinction events since life first appeared. There is also a strong suggestion that we might now be in the throes of a further extinction event and that this one might be caused by man, although that is another matter; whether the extinctions occurring these days are caused by man or not it is clearly perfectly normal for them to occur
And how is that related to distribution maps? For those of us who try to rely on them and credit them with some kind of certainty we have to understand that this is not actually possible for many species. Obviously we can easily say that the carrion crow, for instance, will be widespread and present year-round in the Midlands but the less stable species, for those which ebb and flow in terms of population and number, tree sparrow is a good example, it is simply too much to ask to be able to view accurate mapping from one year, or even decade, to the next

Spring sunset over The Small Isles. West Highlands of Scotland

The point of all this has only recent fully dawned on me...I've always been one to be keen to check out an area I am visiting before I leave so that I know what to expect but available information is only a guide and often the greatest source of information will be local knowledge and discussion with recent visitors. We are too keen these days to view things over too short a period when fuelling our concerns about an array of subjects, be they a certain declining animal or, so called, austerity measures in recession. In the same way that I can post this piece with the touch of an icon we expect instant results and fall into perceived crises with equal speed

When I was younger I would target 30 fish in an evening competition on the Oxford Canal knowing that anything over a pound of fish would put me close to a framing place on the night if one or two of them were, as we used to say, 'netters'. But some bright spark had decided to introduce, what is now considered, an invasive species into the Great Ouse Relief Channel and the rest is history...but it doesn't have to be bad's just different, and we have to get used to change and deal with it, take advantage of it and learn new skills in the same way in which it would, frankly, be a miracle to catch 30 small fish from those same venues these days, you could catch three or four cracking fish by contrast. Both scenarios were/are perfectly enjoyable in their own way but we could choose to moan about it if we analyse it too closely or close our eyes to change

To conclude, it isn't lost on me that there are numerous situations demanding our urgent concern, the currently obvious one being the state of the turtle dove population in these islands (one could extend this to cover any species maybe having to survive the extensive batteries of explosive hardware in the Mediterranean at migration time!) but there are some gains to set-against the losses through global warming, again an obvious one is the little egret which has recently started to colonise from the south coast. As for those species which man is wiping-out more directly, and possibly more quickly, than via CO2 emissions and the like, well, yes, they need help if we value them, but do enough of us appreciate this value? We might, but how many people you know have even heard of the majority of them...then multiply that worldwide and into some less enlightened zones...the consensus is against us. So I for one will be enjoying the change and looking forward to an increased likelihood of being able to view species, which maybe we haven't even seen here yet, before my days are up; and catching bigger fish; and seeing wild polecats...if I am lucky...and hopefully The Dog and Parps will get to see even more in their long lifetimes ahead, assuming it is still possible to walk on the ground without asbestos shoes

It may be the beginning of the end, who really knows?, but we can try to enjoy it!

[15.10.12 Update: Oblique Jimmy Saville reference removed after a severe ear-bending from The Lady Burton. "It's too soon", she said. "Not for those it allegedly happened to it isn't", came the reply. Anyway I'm sure she's right, she usually is]

Hostile Habitats, Scotland's Mountain Environment, Scottish Mountaineering Trust (2006)
Bird Recognition - 3/4 Volumes, James Fisher, Pelican (circa 1947)
The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin, Doubleday (1995)
British Trust for Ornithology,