Monday, 14 August 2017

The sound of silence

Bee-eater (John Hawkins)

Returning to Extremadura after several weeks away and I am confronted by Lucifer, the name, I hasten to add, given to this year's Mediterranean blast-from-an-open-oven heatwave. Pleasure is found at dawn, when the air still feels fresh. I slowly walk on the plains, each footstep a crunch of brittle grass, as bundles of Calandra Larks twang across my view just a few feet from the ground. At the same height a male Montagu's Harrier is hunting, seeking signs of movement of possible prey in that narrow window of time before the heat pushes the rodents and small birds into cover. The subtly-changing hues of the landscape as the low sun rolls out have a transitional depth. In just a few hours, the light has flattened and we are left with a bicoloured impression: the remarkably uniform golden blond of the crisp dry herbaceous vegetation, set against the sombre green of the encina holm oaks of the dehesas. And above, an extraordinarily plain Dunnock egg-blue sky, empty of cloud and even bereft of life, until a passing Red-rumped Swallow chortles slowly overhead.

There is a strong sense of stillness at this time of year, silence. There is barely a yelp from a Little Owl at dusk and certainly no calling amphibians, simply subdued crickets at night. And I can stand in the middle of day, under this azure sky, not a breath or a whisper...it must surely be the only time of the year here when everything is so still, so silent. Until a soft"prrt", repeated three times, then more rapidly into a chorus, joyfully, breathlessly, almost adopting a Castillian lisp. The "prrt" becomes slightly slurred "pwwrrt". This sound of silence comes from the empty sky, and despite struggling to do so, I cannot locate its source. But I can tell that these calls come from many birds, a large flock indeed, and it is one of the most easily recognisable of bird calls here: Bee-eaters.

And at this time of the year, almost everywhere I stop, I can pick up this sound. Bee-eaters are amassing in readiness for their migration southwards. Sometimes, I do encounter these groups, especially in the rice fields, perched on cables and darting off in a sally to swoop down over the intense green of the crop. They arch back to perch, with their wings pleasingly uplifted in a salute as they do so, with a dragonfly in their bills. The paddies are seething with millions of Red-veined Darters, a superb resource for these aerial hunters.

Red-veined Darter (Martin Kelsey

The profile of the Bee-eaters over the last few days has risen not merely for these post-nuptial concentrations, their omnipresence. A press release from ASAJA (a national association representing young farmers) on behalf of bee-keepers has described a devastation of the bees by Bee-eaters this year, causing a massive fall in honey production. Honey production is important in Extremadura with about five thousand tonnes produced annually, supporting, according to ASAJA, 1600 families. The Lucifer heatwave, the prolonged hot spell before it, coupled by the severe drought all year, have truncated the flowering season significantly, yet of the reported 60% fall in honey output this year, only 20% is claimed to be due to severe weather conditions and 40% attributed to the Bee-eaters, although no evidence is given to base this assertion. Neither is any mention made of the role of pesticides on bee populations. Furthermore, they describe the Bee-eater as an "invasive" species, a description lazily picked-up by some journalists, despite the fact that far from being invasive,  Bee-eaters are not only native to Spain, but have lived alongside bees in Extremadura for millenia.

I applaud and admire young people who are resisting the temptation to migrate to the cities and instead seek to build livelihoods on the land in Extremadura. The landscape and the wildlife it supports is the outcome of an intricate relationship built up over the centuries with rural communities. Without young people, the small villages here will slowly die (as they are doing in many parts of Spain). It is a tough life and I can empathise with the anxiety and natural reaction of a honey producer in a difficult year seeing a flock of Bee-eaters descend to feed on the bees around the hives. However, scientific research by at least two different universities in Spain shows that the impact of Bee-eaters on bees and honey production is negligable. Sadly,  ASAJA is misleading young farmers and the public by failing to be scientifically credible and accurate. In response to these representations, the government of Extremadura will permit honey producers to use methods to scare Bee-eaters away (including the firing of shotguns), although specific requests detailing methods and time-frame will need to be submitted for approval. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment already has recommendations on techniques which are known to be much more effective and are simple to adopt without causing disturbance to the birds (such as caged protection to hives and providing access to water close to hives where bees can drink in extremely hot weather). Conservation groups are urging that these tried and tested measures are the ones that should be approved.

What is saddest of all is that another opportunity has been lost to build alliances to address the fundamental challenges facing both birds and bees. Positions between the honey sector and conservation have become needlessly entrenched when actually there is massive common interest. The enemy to both is insidious and invisible, but well known: the increasing use of pesticides in the environment.