Borstal Heath Wildlife Blog

Wildlife enthusiasts in the depths of the West Midlands just trying to do the right thing!

Ash Panic November 21, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bhwb @ 10:47 am

Marie Juana in her hay day

Maure Juana is our treasured Borstal Heath hippy – bless her.  She was middle aged in the 60s but is still peddling the peace and love, even though a little hard of hearing (and not quite so eye catching in a mini these days.)  At a recent meeting of the Borstal Heath Wildlife Group Annual Autumn Seance (to contact deceased and much loved BH naturalists) she was very strange, constantly talking about bio-security and draconian measure to stop importing diseases – never seen her so worked up!  And that was despite her munching through quite a few of her delightful cakes she always supplies.  Those cakes!  We all love them and she refuses to give out the recipe but how we giggle!

We got round to discussing what the BH response should be to the terrible threat of as die-back.  Marie Juana was all for putting a cordon around the village and hosing down any passers by with with acid.  “But that is a little harsh,” we said “probably some of the trees will survive and we can all have fun planting new ones!”  “Trees did you say?” said Marie Juana.  “Yes dear, Ash die-back – ash trees!”  The look of relief that came over her face was worth a photograph.  “I thought it was Hash die-back!”  She sobbed with relief.  Strange woman.



Netting October 7, 2012

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Bittern in Borstal Heath


Marg’s fishnet tights

There’s an awful lot of it about at the moment – people stringing nets up all over the place to catch birds and ringing them.  Nothing new to us here in BH.  We have been carrying out a long term ringing project on the rare bittern which inhabits the vast reed beds that surround village pond.  There must be thousands in there.  Each autumn we string nets up, catch them and put marked ring pulls around their chubby legs.  Sadly however this year’s ringing had to come to an abrupt end when Marg C rushed into the reeds and grabbed her fishnet stockings back – she said she needed them for a barn dance in Bileston.  Protest we did as one poor bittern was still stuck in them – but she paid no heed.  I bet the poor thing has a headache after a night on the town trapped in Marg’s hosiery.


Harvestman on stilts! September 27, 2012

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Image                 Image

Now this is fascinating!  That very talented bug lover Paul Richards has discovered a brand new harvestman spider in Barnsley.  Barnsley of all places!  And would you believe it is 6″ across!!!  That would have our very timid Joyce Walduck heading for the nearest stepladder.  6″ is one hell of a leggy critter.

Apparently they are called harvestmen after shepherds in days gone by who used to survey their flocks on stilts.  We here in Borstal Heath have been surveying our flocks of sheep like this for years.  And recently, to save money on dog whistles and Pedigree Chum we have upgraded them from wood to running blades – AKA Olympics style, so we can chase the sheep too.  Marvellous.


Borstal Heath Barnet ID September 24, 2012

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized,Wildlife — bhwb @ 12:09 pm
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Gouldian Finches

Now this is very interesting!  These marvellously clever scientists have found that a bird’s head colour is related to its personality (in Gouldian Finches anyway).  Now really, there was no need to spend all that grant money on looking at finches for years on end – they could have simply come to BH on a Friday night.

The very clever Liverpool researches found that red-headed finches are more aggressive than other colours – I’ll say! Marg C is far more likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviour (biting, head butting etc) if others try to get the attention of Barry the Barman ahead of her than say the mousey coloured Joyce Walduck.


Adam Richman having a starter.

The scientists also found that black headed finches were quicker to come back to a feeding station after being shown a silhouette of a bird of prey than other colours.  Yes indeed!  The other night we had a little joshing joke at poor Beefy Betty’s expense (she of the highly curlered black barnet).  We put a cardboard cut out of  Adam Richman (of the marvellous TV programme Man v Food) carrying a machete and machine gun inside the chip shop and the result was extraordinary.  The cardboard cut out became hampster bedding in seconds – no food monster was going to go near Betty’s trough – no siree!


Badger Cullers Beware! September 22, 2012

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized,Wildlife — bhwb @ 1:47 pm
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observant local badgerImage

We here in Borstal Heath are prepared.  Not since WW2 have the defences been manned so effectively.  No badger cull type person will be safe within a mile of the BH badger set, which is now concealed behind a heavy fortress in our local woodland.  There are trenches, man traps and trip wires, as well as Marg Crutchley and Burt Winterbottom on site poised to fire poisoned darts.  In order to make the defences even more effective our own wild animal trainer (and technical guru) Techy Terry has been training the local badgers to look out for possible government officials and to fire on them, just in case they get past the first line of anti culling paraphanalia.  Inspired by nature TV programmes on meercats he has taught the baders to take turns to act as sentries.

As you can see from the 2 photos, it is working very well.

We have had one slight mishap however, when our local MP heard about our activities and went to inspect what we had installed the badger above saw his government brief case and, as trained, opened fire.  The vacancy for MP for Borstal Heath will be announced imminently.

Badger cullers – beware!


Borstal Heath Brownfield Beetles September 11, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized,Wildlife — bhwb @ 11:45 am
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The ever enthusiastic bugman Richard Jones (we all read you avidly Richard!) opened our eyes to a treasure we have here in Borstal Heath.  The ruins of the fishnet stocking factory are a sad eyesore for us all.  Where once a magnificent monument to commerce and good nights out proudly stood, is now nothing but a sad ruin. Tumble weed blows across the cracked concrete and disaffected youth from the Bull Ring drink 7-Ups leaning against the once ornate pillars, supporting nothing but  sheets of asbestos flapping in the cold wind.  But Richard, bless him, helped us realise that this is not a wasteland but a wildlife rich brown field site – a veritable safari park of treasures.  The various Borstal Heath Wildlife Groups set off to uncover no end of goodies hiding in cracks.

It was particularly exciting to find a rather lovely beetle we hadn’t noticed before.  I wonder if Richard or others could help us identify it?


Anyway, there are thousands of them and we plan to use them in the annual Borstal Heath Blast-a-Beetle competition.  We collect various little critters and assemble a pile each.  The person who can shoot a beetle the furthest distance gets a prize.  Last year Marg Crutchley managed to fire a stag beetle into Farmer Stan’s Port and Lemon – and he was 3 fields away milking a bull.  Fine pair of lungs that woman has.

Off now to start collecting them…do come along and join in and have a go yourselves, you’ll have a fun afternoon I guarantee!


The Corncrake has Croaked September 10, 2012

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized,Wildlife — bhwb @ 11:03 am
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A Corncrake, once so common around Borstal Heath

Many hundreds of people have asked us – including our own dear Jackdancinginthegreen in Fiji (see first post comment) – what on earth happened to the Borstal Heath corncrake chorus that used to ring out across the land?  They are obviously sorely missed and so we feel we should own up to what is a terrible tale of misjudgement.   We take heart from Woody Allen who said: “if you’re not failing every now and again, its a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” That may well be true but in our case our innovation didn’t help the dear corncrake.

The Borstal Heath Wildlife Group, normally so dedicated to the preservation of wildlife, on this occasion failed these charming little birds. They no longer croak delightfully in our fields and we have no one to blame but ourselves – and most particularly Ethel.  She may look like a cross between Miss Marple and Widow Twankey but don’t be fooled – behind those round glasses are fiercely sharp eyes on the look out for any money making venture and behind that fulsome bosom is a heart of steel.  Her pin up is Alan Sugar.

Ethel has had a long held ambition which her meagre pension has never allowed her to fulfil.  Before she dies she says she wants to follow the Chippendales around the globe.  How sweet we thought – exhibiting this fine collection of furniture throughout the world.  A little further investigation however revealed that it was a different sort of Chippendale that attracted her attention – but I move on.  Suffice to say when Ethel has a goal NOTHING will get in the way, not even the sweet corncrake.

After working day and night Ethel, now known as Enterprising Ethel, came up with a marvellous idea – or so we thought at the time.  Back then corncrakes croaked away in the lush pastures around BH throughout the summer months.  At times the sound was deafening there were so many.  Some find the sound harsh and tuneless and I must say they are quite persistent – on many occasions I have mistaken the corncrake chorus for choir practice at our local church.  People would flock from miles away to see listen.  It was remarkably like Glyndebourne, families would spread picnic blankets and couples would open champagne and oysters and we would all lie in the warm sunshine and marvel at the croaking resonating through the air.  (Sometimes it actually was choir practice everyone was listening to but no one seemed to notice!)

Ethel began on a small scale, catching just a few buckets of corncrakes on the quiet and making them into tasty snacks for our visitors.  They quickly became known as the delicious Crunchy Cut Corncrakes.  People didn’t realise they were actually made from corncrakes, they thought we were having a bit of a joshing joke and that they were actually made from pig fat!  They were wonderful snacks – each bite burst with bucolic flavour, it was like crunching into a pastoral symphony.  Lightly salted or sour cream flavour, they evoked in one’s taste buds all that is sumptuous about rural England.  Church bells, wafting meadows, tinkling brooks – in one crunchy morsel.

Ethel’s new found snack was a resounding success and people queued as far up as the M6 to buy packets.  Beefy Betty could down 4 family sized cartons in one siting.  The price rose but the queues never got shorter, in fact orders started coming in from all over the world!  Even from as far away as Fiji! (Just a minute – isn’t that where Jack …)

The entire village was brought in to keep the supply of corncrakes piling into Ethel’s kitchen and her enormous chip pan.  We had to use the agricultural equivalent of trawl nets to keep up with demand.

When our local RSPB rep found out he was incandescent!  I have never seen fury like it!  When he could speak without spluttering he told us that this amount of exploitation could not be sustained.  But what about local tradition and indigenous rights we cried!  But by then it was too late.  The supply of corncrakes quickly dwindled, the crowds thinned and the croaking chorus gradually declined to a single rasp.  It was all over.

Oh how foolish we were!  Blinded by greed and the thrill of enterprise we caused the demise of the croaker in the fields.

So let this be a lesson to you all.  “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness,” says Keats.  I am sure that on still summer evenings when the bustle of BH has died down and we take our rest, I can still hear the faint croak of a corncrake somewhere on the wisp of the wind.  It does make one’s mouth water…


Whale of a Time September 9, 2012

Filed under: Science,Wildlife — bhwb @ 9:31 am
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Cattle Prod

We are very upset here in BH to hear about S Korea’s plans to start whaling.  I wonder if we can help?  The Borstal Heath WhaSp (Whale Spearing) Group really does understand the basic human desire to hunt large prey, bring them down and revel in bloodlust – its only natural!  But being committed to the preservation of wildlife we have come up with a community friendly way of doing all those things and not harming any cetaceans in the process. Perhaps if the whaling nations had a go at our activities then the problem could be solved?

This is what we do.  At a given secret signal (which I am afraid must remain secret for reasons which will become obvious as you read on) the WhaSps gather on a dark night when there is no moon in Burt “The Only Gay in the Village”  Winterbottom’s shed.  We dress in black and wear slippers so that we can creep along the silent streets undetected.  Burt then works out the exact time for an evening of hunting. It is based on a complex formula taking into account the state of the moon, the constellation of Leo and the tide times in Prestatyn.  Why Prestatyn?  Well BH, as you know, is landlocked and we have no tides of our own, however most of us spend our summer holidays in this rather lovely N Wales town, so it seems like a good a place as any.

When the time has been fixed we all select our weapons (cattle prods) and rather like the Three Musketeers we form a circle, hold them upright with the tips touching and chant our motto “All for one, one for all, may the blubber rise and fall!”

The night itself is very exciting.  It is usually a Friday or Saturday when the BH chip shop is packed.  We WhaSps position ourselves behind recycling bins and lamp posts and wait.  Our signal is a war cry from Burt and as all the blubber buckets of BH waddle out of the chip shop we race towards them, prodding like mad and whooping in delight.  My you should see the mayhem!  Burt may proudly hold the title “The Only Gay in the Village” – though to be honest I doubt this is true – but boy  is he fierce with a cattle prod.  He is the founding member of the BH Embroidery Group but is ruthless. It is  most stimulating to watch these vast mammals floundering helplessly on the pavement.  In one particularly ugly scene last whaling night Beefy Betty crashed down onto poor old Beryl’s ginger pussy.  That would have satisfied the bloodlust of any hardened whaler.

Of course no harm is done.  Later that night, when we have finished collecting the last few “whales” from casualty, we WhaSps and whales all meet at the Dog and Fiddle for a bonding pint and all is forgiven.  How we laugh!  Even the poor puss recovered, although she seems a little bent if looked at from certain angles.

And isn’t WhaSps a good name – we really are rather a nuisance!

Actually the BH WhaSps Group will be going to the 2 day WhaleFest on the weekend of Sat 27th and Sun 28th October in Brighton.  30 years on from the start of Save the Whale this should be quite an event and well worth celebrating.   We have been invited to showcase our alternative whaling activities there, so do come along and have a go yourselves – no charge.  Beefy Betty and Mike the Mountain have offered their services, which is jolly sporting of them.  They will trott around a room and “whalers” will line the walls and try to prod them to the ground.  Not as easy as you might think!  They are surprisingly nifty.

And by the way, if any whaling nations would like to discuss with us how to adapt wonderful event to their own cultures (not everywhere has chip shops I’m told) then please do get in touch, we can use BabelFish for translation.  Happy Whale Free Hunting!


Ant Antics September 8, 2012

Filed under: Science,Wildlife — bhwb @ 6:25 am
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Annie Ant in training

We were very excited to read recently about the proposed experiment at York University which hopes to attach small radio receivers (well they wouldn’t be big would they!) to the back of wood ants to find our more about their secret lives.  I wonder if they got the idea from us – the “Borstal Heath Ant Group (BHAG).  Locals joshingly call us the Old BHAGS – they do tease!  So how come a prestigious university could be inspired by a humble wildlife group in the remotest corner of the West Midlands?  That I cannot answer but  the York project bears a striking resemblance to an experiment we carried out last year.

Many a long winter’s evenings has flown by as old BHAGs mused on the life of Lasius niger, or the common garden ant.  We were very keen to know about their lives under the patio – it was time to find out for sure!  Our very own geeky wildlife lover “Techy Terry” set about the task and spent hours devising a unique method of attaching a GoPro camera to the back of Lasius niger.

Terry personally trained one ant he called Annie to come back to his house after a day carrying the camera.  Not easy as you can imagine – ants are very single-minded creatures – but Terry has winning ways with many animals.  (Teaching Beefy Beryl’s ginger pussy to leap through a ring of fire was one of his many triumphs.  Although it was more black than ginger by the end of a training afternoon).

You can imagine how excited we all were when the great experiment began for real.  At dawn Terry whistled down the garden path and within seconds Annie appeared. If an ant can pant with expectation then I am sure that is what Annie was doing!  Terry gently placed the GoPro on Annie’s back with a special “ant mount”and we all strewed rose petals on the path towards the garden gate.  “God speed dear friend!” we shouted and Annie set off.

It was a surprise to see that Annie didn’t disappear down a crack but headed resolutely off to scout for new food supplies for her colony – common behaviour for Lasius niger in the early summer months when the Queen is madly laying eggs.  How exciting! we thought, where can she be going and what new scientific information will be revealed?  We sat back to wait.

Later that afternoon we gathered in Terry’s kitchen ready to hook the GoPro to the computer.  We were almost overcome with emotion.  Annie did re-appear, a little late, and proceeded to collapse on the living room floor and expire from exhaustion.  The mood of delight dissipated immediately.  What on earth had happened to our dear friend?  There was only one way to find out.

Terry flicked Annie into the bin and we attached the camera – the sight that met our eyes was  – well – shocking.  Annie had innocently found her way into Marg Crutchley’s kitchen in search of vitals and inadvertently recorded on film her entertaining a visitor.  Modesty and discretion prohibit us from showing the footage – suffice to say for someone who has had two hip replacements she is remarkably flexible. Some of the BHAGs think her companion is Dodgy Dave, our new vicar, but the image is indistinct and blurred– and surely not!

The most terrifying part however is when Marg suddenly spies Annie and my goodness does that woman have a temper!  Howling with fury she proceeds to chase the poor beast around the kitchen – how that little ant managed to race out of the kitchen door and into the garden before Marg’s large Doc Martin boot splattered her into oblivion we’ll never know.  No wonder she died of stress.

So ended the Borstal Heath Ant Group’s first attempt at ant tracking.  We plan to re-do the experiment next year when we have fitted a large, ant-defying barrier into Marg Crutchley’s kitchen.  Terry is already training a new recruit – Adam – because we are adamant that this time all will be well.  (Get it adamant Adam ant – gosh there’s life in the old BHAGs yet!).  If any of the York University group would like to contact us to find out about Terry’s marvellous techniques we’d be delighted to share our experiences (but not the video!)


Our “Farewell Festival” September 7, 2012

Filed under: Wildlife — bhwb @ 5:24 pm
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Swallow eating Fly Pie

Swallows Travel To and Fro  – by Robert Louis Steveson

Swallows travel to and fro,
And the great winds come and go,
And the steady breezes blow,
Bearing perfume, bearing love.
Breezes hasten, swallows fly,
Towered clouds forever ply,
And at noonday, you and I
See the same sunshine above.

The beginning of September is tinged with both joy and sadness here in BH.  Sadness as swallows gather on the telephone wires before heading south for their winter roost.  An icon of summer is leaving the blue skies over the West Midlands, and as they depart, the colour drains to a dishwater grey.  Winter is approaching.  However sadness is replaced by joy at the prospect of the annual “Borstal Heath Farewell Festival.”  If you have never joined us for this one, do take a detour off the M6 sometime – it really is worth it.

The day starts at dawn with Marg Crutchley calling us all to gather in the nearby fields.  She does so by walking the streets banging a dustbin lid with the leg of her cat.  It makes quite a sound! I must point out that the cat is deceased of course!  She had Tiddles embalmed by a passing Traveller a few years ago, but sadly he was no expert and the stuffed moggie quickly fell into bit parts.  Still, always resourceful is our Marg.

Gathering together as daylight strengthens we BH locals are overcome with grief at the thought of departing swallows, leaving us yet again to the rigours of winter.  The crowd is convulsed by a collective outpouring of despair, and quiet sobbing is gradually replaced by outright wailing and howling.  It is certainly therapeutic! Some joshingly say we can be heard as far away as the Bull Ring in Birmingham!

The local RSPB rep says he is touched by our obvious love of summer migrants but he does have some reservations about phase 2 of the Farewell Festival.  He is quite vociferous in his view that the “Fly Pie Fly-By” must cease.  A complete over-reaction I say!  What harm is there in taking lumps of “fly pie” and catapulting them towards the sitting swallows in a gesture of wanton abandon.  “Go – fly if you must, and may a fair wind speed your journey!” we cry. Just a spot of harmless fun to brighten a mournful morning – and maybe the flies provide a spot of extra nourishment – if the swallows catch them…

Alan Sproggit is our local provider of said marvellous “Fly Pies.”  The pies are made of real flies – bluebottles in fact – collected by us all over the summer, fished off cow pats and jam sandwiches, and stored in a large jar.  He then bakes them in a delicious dense pudding which is cut into bite sized portions especially for this great event.

It takes skill honed over years to aim at a small swallow on a long thin wire 30 feet in the air I can tell you.  And we hope the lumps of black will tempt the travellers to have a last nibble before their long, arduous journey over deserts and oceans.  Some do seem to enjoy it – see photo above.  However, we are a bit naughty in that a prize is awarded to the person who manages to knock the most swallows off the wires!  Modesty prohibits me from dwelling too much on my unbroken record last year of 11 in half and hour!

Mr RSPB is adamant this must stop, and doesn’t seem swayed by our argument that most birds (and a few locals!) recover consciousness in 10 minutes and fly off in rather wobbly fashion, so no harm is done.  It is most amusing!  He is threatening to bring the police this year to confiscate the pies.  He’ll have to contend with the wrath of Alan if he does.  Alan may only weigh 7 stone and is 4 foot 10 in his platform shoes but he can pack a punch if his expertise is not appreciated.

The lumps that fall to the ground after catapulting can be eaten by competitors, but NO sneaking a nibble before they have been hurled at the wires.  Anyone found guzzling before hurling is immediately disqualified.  Ask Beef Betty.

So, this year’s “Farewell Festival” could be quite exciting as Alan squares up to Mr RSPB and many locals are determined to break my record of 11 swallows.  Do come along – what fun!


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