Bird Ringing at Woodlands Farm

Checking the wing feathers of a Goldfinch at Woodlands Farm
Checking the wing feathers of a Goldfinch at Woodlands Farm

It was an early start on a clear, cold, crisp, winter Sunday morning when I headed down to Woodlands Farm to see the British Trust for Ornithology’s bird ringing demonstration. The ringers had already been there for a several hours, setting up the mist nets to catch the birds and making a start on the ringing.

Bird ringing is a very skilled job, and practitioners have to undergo extensive training by an experienced ringer and be licensed. As well as being able to recognise different species of birds and decide their gender and age they need to be able to disentangle the birds from the mist nets, handle them without harming them and crimp the rings on to their legs. They also need to be able to withstand pecking assaults by ferocious Blue Tits.

The BTO volunteer and Woodlands Farm Education Officer have been regularly ringing birds at the farm for about a year, though today was the first time it had been open for viewing.

Goldfinch being weighed at Woodlands Farm
The indignity of a Goldfinch being weighed

They can ring as many as 60 or 70 birds in a morning, starting at dawn. While I was there they had a GoldfinchRed Poll, Blue Tits, Great Tits and a Blackbird to ring, or record details from an existing ring.  They also weighed them – dunked head first in a small pot on a tiny weighing machine. Sex and age were decided by looking at the plumage and the detailed colouration, size and wear of wing feathers. The lengths of the birds’ wings are also recorded. I am always amazed at how docile birds are when being handled by experienced ringers (notwithstanding attacks by Blue Tits).

The BTO have over 2,600 trained volunteer ringers in the UK and Ireland, who ring over 900,000 birds each year. This provides information to help understand bird movements and population changes, which contributes to conservation initiatives. They are keen for others to get involved, for example through their Garden Birdwatch or by reporting bird ring details.

Woodlands Farm is part of the Natural England Higher Level Countryside Stewardship Scheme which has a number of environmental aims such as reversing the decline of farmland birds, securing the recovery of UK Biodiversity Action Plan species and improving people’s enjoyment and understanding of the farmed environment. They are taking steps to improve wildlife habitats at the farm, for example by planting new hedgerows and encouraging plants that provide food for birds.

I have seen bird ringing demonstrations before at the British Bird Watching Fair and always find them fascinating. Hopefully Woodlands Farm will be able to let more people share in this activity.

Red Poll being ringed at Woodlands Farm
Red Poll being ringed at Woodlands Farm

aperture Anniversary

aperture poster about the Queen Elizabeth Hospital exhibition
aperture poster about the Queen Elizabeth Hospital exhibition

The aperture Woolwich Photographic Society, which meets in Shrewsbury House, will be celebrating its 120th anniversary next year – it was founded in 1892. To celebrate they have an exhibition of photography in the Elixir Gallery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. To get to the Elixir Gallery you turn left after going in the main entrance of the hospital, along the corridor then up the slope.

Aperture also had a display of their members’ photography at the recent Tarts and Crafts at Shrewsbury House, and more on their flickr page.

The Elixir Gallery is looked after by Verve Arts, which runs arts programmes in South London Healthcare Trust hospitals. They are holding a photographic competition entitled “GREEN CHAIN CAPTURED 2012” and have invited photographers to enter photographs taken along the Green Chain Walk in Greenwich. Details of how to enter are on their website. The best 30 photographs will be exhibited in the Elixir Gallery.

They  are also running three free photographic workshops next February:

FREE photographic workshops

Need some advice on what makes a really great nature photograph? There will be three FREE photographic workshops led by professional photographers on walks along the route as follows:

14th February 3-5pm with Mike Curry, 15th February 2-4pm with Mike Curry; 21st February 3-5pm with Ian Cook.

I’ll add these workshops, and the aperture meeting programme to the blog calendar which automagically shows events’ reminders over to the right.

Eaglesfield Trim Trail Cancelled

I hear that Greenwich Council have decided not to proceed with creating the Trim Trail that was proposed for Eaglesfield Park following the consultation. Nearly 90% of members of the Friends of Eaglesfield Park who voted were opposed to the outdoor gym.

Personally I think this is good news – my observation of such outdoor exercise facilities in other parks is that they don’t get serious use, and as an (occasional) gym user they seem crude compared to modern training equipment.

The friends are asking for park  improvement suggestions to be sent to them by tomorrow, 13th December 2011, for submission to the council. Some good suggestions have been made already:

  • Providing a home for the Blackheath donkeys when they have to move to make way for the Equestrian Centre, possibly in the lower field;
  • Improvements to the playground facilities;
  • Replacement of the Mulberry tree near the pond.

A home for the donkeys would be really cool – though I guess the practicalities might get in the way. They would need a shelter for when the weather is bad, and the fencing along Eaglesfield Road would need to be replaced, though it would be a good idea to improve this fencing anyway; it looks in need of some tlc. Improvement to the playground facilities would be very popular with parents – it was built in 1994 and terrifies some parents with its sheer drops.

Wildflower Meadow at Peckham Rye Park
Wildflower Meadow at Peckham Rye Park

As you might guess, I’m very much in favour of replacing the Mulberry tree, and maybe also planting some more trees, possibly fruit trees. We could have a small community orchard!

I also liked the idea in the original plan for the pond of creating new wildlife habitats, and this could be taken further by planting areas of wildflower meadow, as they have done in Peckham Rye Park. Their meadow areas include wildflowers which are becoming rare due to the effects of modern agriculture, such as Wild Basil, Lady’s Bedstraw, Creeping Red Fescue, Teasel, Evening Primrose and Corn Cockle. These areas form part of a collaboration with the RSPB London House Sparrow project to monitor bird species.

The creation of new wildlife habitats could be extended to include bird and bat boxes.

Another suggestion would be to have some kind of marker of the highest point of Shooters Hill – perhaps a small stone pillar with the height marked on top, with the distance and direction of places of interest, like the Ypres milestone in the grounds of Christ Church.

The Friends of Eaglesfield Park have a poster at the entrance to the park describing the work they have completed so far on the pond, and also announcing that the new pond will be launched with a community event in May 2012. I’ll look forward to that.

Friends of Eaglesfield Park Poster announcing Pond Launch in May 2012
Friends of Eaglesfield Park Poster about the Pond Progress

Tough Times

Demonstration outside Woolwich Centre about public sector pensions
Demonstration outside Woolwich Centre about public sector pensions

The well-stocked  Amnesty International Blackheath and Greenwich Book Sale gives me a feeling of reassurance that my obsession with books is not as bad as it might be. Other bibliophiles have it much worse than I do; they are already in the queue for the sale when I arrive at the Church of the Ascension about ten minutes before it opens, and they bring along suitcases and cardboard boxes to cram full of their purchases. In the last couple of sales I’ve, fortuitously, come away with books that seems appropriate to Amnesty International’s mission. At the sale a few weeks ago I bought a slim, 119-year-old, battered blue-brown covered hardback copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. With its yellowed, sometimes stained pages, that so clearly express such powerful ideas, I feel it is a truly beautiful object. OK, so maybe my book obsession is as bad as I suspected.

In his Introductory Mill writes of the need to protect the weaker members of the community from the “vultures” and “minor harpies” of the governing tribe or caste. Of course that should not be necessary now we elect our rulers, and we don’t have a governing caste …. or do we?

The members of the unions representing public sector workers who came out on strike last week, some of whom are pictured above demonstrating in front of the new Woolwich Centre, certainly feel under attack. As well as the proposed changes in their pension contributions and retirement age they also have to cope with the effects of a new forecast total of 710,000 public sector job losses and an extended pay freeze. Leaving aside the economics and the politics of public sector pensions, the public sector workers are undoubtedly experiencing tough times, an experience that is perhaps exacerbated by the perception that not all parts of society are experiencing their share of the toughness of the times.

Another group feeling under attack at the moment are disabled people and those unable to work due to medical conditions. The way in which the current Work Capability Assessments are being carried out has led some vulnerable, psychologically fragile claimants to despair , depression and thoughts of suicide.  Private Eye recently reported claims that these assessments had been cited as factors at 16 suicide inquests; these include Scottish writer and poet Paul Reekie.  Amidst reports that staff at Atos, the company contracted to carry out the assessments, have expressed very disparaging opinions about disabled claimants, the campaign group Black Triangle have called for a boycott of the Paralympic Games because of Atos’ involvement. I’m amazed that there hasn’t been more of an outcry about this failure to protect some of the weaker members of the community. Vultures and minor harpies indeed!

The FareShare Million Meal Appeal leaflet which was handed out to Sainsburys' shoppers on 26th November
FareShare Million Meal Appeal leaflet

The generosity of people in Woolwich, Greenwich and across the country in supporting the FareShare 1 Million Meal Appeal provides a cheering and striking contrast to these attitudes.  FareShare is a charity that is working to relieve food poverty. This is mainly achieved by redistributing quality food that food retailers are unable to sell and would otherwise throw away. The food is distributed through a network of some 700 organisations in the UK, such as church groups, hostels, women’s refuges  and school breakfast clubs. It  feeds about 35,500 people a day, up 20% from 29,000 last year, rescuing 3,600 tonnes of surplus food in the process.

The 1 Million Meal Appeal, a collaboration with Sainsburys, aimed to collect 1 million meals worth of food items that FareShare do not usually get because it is long shelf-life, such as rice, pasta and tinned food. They recruited hundreds of volunteers to hand out a shopping list of such items, shown above, at Sainsburys’ stores across the country and ask shoppers to donate. When I went in to the Sainsburys in Greenwich to do our weekly shop at around lunch time last week the volunteers’ sign said that shoppers had already donated 5 shopping trolleys full of food, and there was another full trolley on the way out. Across the country shoppers gave enough food for 600,000 meals, which was matched by Sainsburys to make 1.2 million meals in total. FareShare will provide food for about 250,000 Christmas lunches and dinners, so this is good timing.

Tough times, for sure. What would John Stuart Mill have thought about it? I think that one of his other books, Utilitarianism, puts him firmly on the side of the 99%.

Christmas Holiday Activities at Woodlands Farm

Winter at Woodlands Farm
Woodlands Farm poster about their winter activities

Woodlands Farm were in touch with details of  their activities for young people over the Christmas break. Their e-mail said:

Tuesday 20 December: Winter Woodlands
Take a trip into our woodlands to learn how to get by in the cold. Shelter-building, fire-making and cooking are just some of the activities which will be taking place.

FREE (donations welcome); no booking necessary, drop in between 10am and 2.30pm. Ages 6+.
Will take place whatever the conditions, so do wear appropriate clothes and footwear for the weather.

Wednesday 21 December: Making cards and gifts
Yet to sort out a card and present for your nearest and dearest? No worries, the farm offers a one-stop shop for both, with a chance to make Christmas cards and photo frames from natural and re-used items. Saves you money and is kind to the environment!
FREE (donations welcome); no booking necessary, drop in between 10am and 3pm. All ages.

Thursday 22 December: Toddler Club
It’s Christmas at Toddler Club!   £2 per adult; children FREE; no booking necessary, drop in between 10am and 12pm. For more information, see our website or contact David Hunter on

The Woodlands Farm Trust
(registered charity no. 1051680)
331 Shooters Hill
Welling, Kent
DA16 3RP
Telephone & Fax: 020 8319 8900
Nearest tube: North Greenwich
Nearest BR: Welling
Buses: 486 & 89

Park Pond Finally Full

The Lilly Pond, Eaglesfield Park December 2011
The Lilly Pond December 2011

I noticed yesterdayday that the work on the Lilly Pond in Eaglesfield Park has passed a significant milestone –  the pond has been filled with water. In addition, as you can see in the photograph above a pond dipping platform has been constructed, the railings have been replaced with brand new ones,  most of the paths have been re-tarmaced and planting around the edges has been completed. Well done Friends of Eaglesfield Park!

The original Friends’ leaflet about the proposed work included the following list of improvement work:

  1. Construct a pond dipping platform;
  2. Turn the lawn area adjacent to the pond into a wildlife garden, providing habitats outside as well as inside the water. (wild flower; native shrub; loggeries; deadwood; sawdust; grass cuttings; bare ground; sand);
  3. Create an outdoor study area with seating and a hard surface for local school/youth groups to contribute to plans for an improved environment in London;
  4. Improve the signage including directions and information signs;
  5. Repair the railings around the pond;
  6. Improve access, specifically from the southern entrance;
  7. Establish a management plan;

Points 1, 5 and 6 appear to be complete, though not the others. I wonder if this is still the plan, or if it has been changed to allow for the proposed outdoor gym? Maybe they’ll even replace the Mulberry tree!

Incidentally many documents seem to have disappeared in the re-design of the Greenwich Council web site, including the draft Eaglesfield Park Management Plan, which breaks some links in earlier posts. The entry on Eaglesfield Park doesn’t mention the Friends, but instead has an incorrect reference to the Friends of Plumstead Gardens. Teething problems, I guess?

Here is the sequence of photographs showing the work on the pond progressing, including the two from my earlier post.

Lilly Pond, Eaglesfield Park October 2011
The Lilly Pond October 2011
Lilly Pond, Eaglesfield Park November 2011
The Lilly Pond early November 2011
The Lilly Pond, Eaglesfield Park end November 2011
The Lilly Pond end November 2011
The Lilly Pond, Eaglesfield Park December 2011
The Lilly Pond December 2011

Seven Centuries of Signalling

Lambarde's Carde of the Beacons of Kent
Lambarde's Carde of the Beacons of Kent. Shooters Hill is top left

The number of communications masts around the summit of Shooters Hill are a testament to the hill’s appeal as a communication centre. However the hill’s height and prominence, which make it attractive for modern wireless communication, coupled with its position guarding the route from London to the coast, have made it appealing to communicators for centuries.

The marvellous Colonel A.H.  Bagnold CB CMG tells a vivid and dramatic story of the hill’s role in message transmission before the advent of wireless communications. He places the start of its role as a Beacon Hill before the reign of Edward III (1312 – 1377), so about seven centuries ago. The complexity of the beacon system in Kent at the time of the Spanish Armada was plotted, on the map (or carde) shown above, by William Lambarde, who also founded the Queen Elizabeth College almshouse in Greenwich. Lambarde published the map in his book The Perambulation of Kent, credited as the first English county history, describing the reason it was drawn and how it could be used to decide the direction in which danger had been detected:

AS in warre, celeritie availeth no lesse, than force it selfe: So the Right honorable Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham, and Lorde Chamberlaine of hir Majesties houshold (who hath been sole Lieutenant of this shire, since the first of hir Majesties Raigne) foreseeing how necessarie it was to have the forces of the countrie speedily draw togither, for the encounter of any hostilitie: and finding, that upon the fiering of the Beacons (which are erected for that service) not only the common sort, but even men of place and honour, were ignorant which way to direct their course, & therby (through amasednesse) as likely to run from the place affected, as to make to the succour of it: caused the true places of the Beacons to be plotted in Carde, with directorie lines, so many sundrie waies, as any of them did respect the other: By which, any man, with little labour may be assured, where the danger is, and thereof informe his neighbours. For example: suppose our first Beacon, standing on Shooters hill, to be light: he that will go thither may know by the watchmen from whence they received their light, which must be either from the West neare London, or Hamstede: or else from the East, by warrant of the fiered Beacon at Stone neare Dartford, or of that which is neare to Gravesende. The like of the rest: and so much for use.

Bagnold also describes the 1747 experiment in telegraphy using static electricity conducted on Shooters Hill by Dr Watson, bishop of Llandaff. The “observers” of the transmission stood on (insulating) amber while holding an earthed iron bar in one hand and the end of the two-mile long transmission wire in the other. A gun was fired when the transmission started and the observer timed the difference between when they heard the gun and when they received an electric shock!

Semaphore Station - the Murray Shutter telegraph
Semaphore Station - the Murray Shutter telegraph

Shooters Hill was a link in the next advance in communications as well – the Semaphore line. This used a set of rectangular frames containing six 5 foot high shutters to transmit messages between London and the coast. The first to be completed was between London and Deal in January 1796, with the following chain of stations: Admiralty (London), West Square Southwark, New Cross, Shooter’s Hill, Swanscombe, Gad’s Hill, Callum Hill, Beacon Hill (Faversham, branch point), Shottenden, Barham Downs, Betteshanger, Deal. The New Cross station was situated on Telegraph Hill – the Telegraph Hill Society’s web page includes a copy of a water colour sketch of the telegraph station, with the Shooters Hill station just visible in the distance.  As can be seen in Pocock’s wood-cut below,  the Shooters Hill station was on the ridge of the hill in an area known as Telegraph Field, which is now the site of the Memorial Hospital.  (You may recognise the top of this picture because it used to form the banner picture for this blog). At its best this line could send a signal from London to Deal and back in two minutes. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the Disc World Clacks system which featured in various of Terry Pratchett’s books, such as the magical “Going Postal”, though the Ankh-Morpork system seems to have been considerably quicker than the UK Admiralty’s!

R Pocock of Gravesend's woodcut of the Shooters Hill Gibbet  showing the Admiralty telegraph in the background (circled)
R Pocock of Gravesend's woodcut of the Shooters Hill Gibbet showing the Admiralty telegraph in the background (circled)

In the present day, as can be seen from the Ofcom mobile phone base station database, many of the communications masts on Shooters Hill are mobile phone or emergency service communication masts, including the Eaglesfield Road mast by the old fire station that was opposed by local residents led by SHAM.  There are even mobile phone antennae attached to

Water Tower and Oxleas Wood Mast
Shooters Hill Water Tower and the Oxleas Wood Mast

the windows  of the Victorian Water Tower at the crest of the hill – also opposed by local residents. However not all the masts are for mobile telecommunications. Some are thought to be communications systems for taxis or the ambulance service. The mast that can be seen behind the dairy in Foxcroft Road has been identified as a transmission mast for FM and DAB radio, for example the Digital One multiplex which carries a number of DAB channels including Talksport, Absolute Radio and Classic FM.

The Port of London Authority, who worryingly are advertising on their web site the availability of mast sites on Shooters Hill to telecommunications companies, have a mast just off Shooters Hill Road. This mast is a base station for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) which is used to identify and locate ships around the world, for example as shown in the map below from the Marine Traffic web site. The PLA mast also has a direct microwave link to a PLA Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) radar station at Blackwall Stairs, just across the river from the O2 dome.

Ham Radio enthusiasts also take advantage of Shooters Hill’s prominence, for example the Cray Valley Radio Society 2010 Summit was held in the highest pub in South London, the Bull at 416.7ft. The Society will be holding a Christmas Social Evening in the Bull in a couple of weeks time on Thursday 15th December 2011.

What next for communications in Shooters Hill? Well the 4G, or Long Term Evolution (LTE), technology is being trialled already – one trial by O2 includes the area around the Dome and Canary Wharf as well as central London. Live networks aren’t expected until 2014 beacause the frequencies won’t become available until analogue TV is switched off next year, but we can expect masts  to be upgraded beforehand. And after that …. who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Shooters Hill was still a communications centre.

Marine Traffic map of waters around South-east UK showing ship locations
Ship locations in the Thames and round the Kent coast