Letters to the Editors
News from RASP (and that planning application)
Reach and Swaffham Prior Community Broadband is alive and well, serving some 60 homes and businesses in the two villages and Upware (and various points in between). The basic setup remains unchanged - an entirely self-funded organisation, run by volunteers and reliant on the good will and generosity of present and former members and donors of equipment. We provide the only available service to Upware, which would otherwise be a 'NotSpot' for broadband. RASP was set up in the days before the BT service became available, using an internet connection provided by a company in Reach, which had fibre optic cables laid in by BT specifically for their purposes. The company has gone, but the fibres remain, and we still have access to them - but, of course, we have to pay for the service we get. A small building behind Vine House in Reach is therefore the hub of our activities; from there we distribute the service to users in Reach, and connect to Swaffham Prior and Upware using specialist point-to point radio links.
That's where the Planning Committee get involved; the radio links we use need line-of sight (even the odd tree can have a significant effect), so the antennas have to be at a certain minimum height. An earlier simple pole had to be replaced when we needed to add antennas for the Upware service, and we needed something substantial enough to put a ladder up to, for maintenance purposes. For simple financial reasons, this had to be DIY job, which ended up as the structure that is now clearly visible from certain parts of Reach. It serves the purpose very well, and it's ugly. However, the planning authorities have now approved a retrospective application, for a period of four years, on the condition that we come up with some way of making it look less obvious (all ideas gratefully received).
They approved it because it is providing an important service - essential in the case of Upware - that is very much in tune with current government thinking ('every house should have 2Mb'), but well ahead of the game. The time limit was suggested in our application, because we believe that technology, and/or the providers of it, are likely to make it redundant in its present form by then. We would be very pleased to be made redundant - the RASP team could then spend their evenings and weekends doing something else; but until other organisations can provide an equivalent service with the same technology benefits over ADSL , and at a reasonable price, we will carry on and improve the system wherever we can. We are gradually moving parts of the infrastructure and some clients away from the increasingly-congested 2.4 GHz band to 5.8, but encountering some interesting technical problems on the way - so a few of our clients are currently getting an intermittent service (sorry!), but we are doing our best to fix it. Meanwhile we never hear a word from the other 90+%... .
RASP provides a service that is in many respects superior to that available from BT, at the same price (except that we don't do introductory discounts), and with local support. With more clients we can afford better technology and more bandwidth - and show the government how it's done. Maybe they could give us a grant... . but somehow I don't think it works like that.
Magpies are Still Guilty
Love and respect y'all though I do, your note at the end of my June letter needs correcting. My RSPB book of birds (yes, the RSPB ) identifies the magpie as a predator of other birds' nests, and another reference book which of some considerable years'standing (upon my bookshelf) must predate the influence of the wicked heir of Holkham Hall, the principle (sic) trustee/spokesman of the just as wicked Songbird Survival Trust - whose motto we can guess would be along the lines of 'we need 'em alive, how else can we shoot the buggers'- plus his scheming gamekeeper, poisoning anything not worth shooting.
Against the magpie entry it reads: Food: insects, small mammals, nestling birds, eggs, snails, slugs, other invertebrates, corn, seed, fruit, berries, nuts. As a fan of the delights of Melodrama, I am sorry these folk are unlikely to be plying their evil trade when I'm up there next week (or by the time you read this, last week). Perhaps I'll get the chance to encourage them to found the Holkham Melodramatic reenactment society, all black cloaks under which are secreted poison bottles and shotguns, and wicked moustaches on their villainous faces, glinty eyes and bad teeth.
But enough of that.
I'd very much like to see the RSPB research cited but not referenced, as I simply don't believe it says the RSPB found the magpie a " prudent predator" living in benign harmony with its victims. It may well say that in a time of decline it cannot measure the effect the magpie exerts on small bird depletion against other contributory factors: in other words, lots of things are hammering our bird population and you can't separate out the magpie's tally of kills as it contributes to the whole and say whether/to what extent it's reducing numbers more than they would decline anyway. But a bit of basic Darwinian observation can only conclude that the rise of one species impacts accordingly on those it preys upon, and the RSPB are not so pre-darwinian as to be in denial about that. Which is why I said if you want to try to keep the increasing numbers of magpies feeling less inclined to kill smaller wildlife, go out and provide easier food by generating as many road kills as you can. Or maybe a smaller number of larger ones - hang around on the stretch of road between Burwell and Fordham and you might get one of the muntjacs I keep seeing in the fields there. No-one cares about them and a single one could keep a family of magpies out of the birdie nests for days. They kill birds small birds and the more of them there are the more they will kill. They won't get together and agree quotas (if they could, they could do a lot to help ecology worldwide). And as small birds decline, (this is the phase we are in) so they will modify their menu requirements. You try measuring that.
I go on my own observations, and I've watched birds since I was a boy. There is so much less small bird activity now that militating for the predators is worse than missing the silent warning.
Oh no they're not!
The reference Mark requires is http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/magpie/effect_on_songbirds.asp : "The Effect of Magpies on Songbirds ...the RSPB commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to analyse its 35 years of bird monitoring records. It found no evidence that increased numbers of magpies have caused declines in songbirds and confirms that populations of prey species are not determined by the numbers of their predators. It is the availability of food and suitable places in which to nest that decide the population.
Having discounted predation as a possible factor, the RSPB continues to study the loss of food and habitats caused by intensive farming. The change from spring to autumn sowing and the increase in the use of agricultural chemicals have reduced the amount of insects and weed seeds available for songbirds to eat. These changes, and others, including the removal of hedgerows which are used for nesting, roosting and feeding sites by some birds, have probably played a part in the severe declines in many of our farmland species." There are also similar observations on sparrowhawks and other birds of prey.
Mark may well be right that that it is feeding magpies that best stops them raiding nests (http://www.againstcorvidtraps.co.uk/magpies.html, the alternative extermination option needing to be nigh on exactly that), but it seems that the magpie only consumes the "spares" , the great many extra young that resources can't support, so maximising the utilisation of what is available to the prey on his territory and avoiding diminished returns for himself, not the least since a diminished population of songbirds would have their pick of those prime difficult-to-raid nesting sites- ivy and prickly bushes, if readers are keen to improve their gardens. By no means all predator-prey relationships maintain prey at their "carrying capacity" (the number there'd be without predation) like this, but a great many do and maybe this is why. Certainly a similar situation can be seen for "carrying capacity" prey needing to forage more riskily for limited food: they make the easier target for the predator.
How such crafty "prudence" might evolve (the prudent predator was a term coined by US ecologist Lawrence Slobodkin in 1961), which appears to be considerably more successful than Gordon Brown's in preventing "boom and bust" , is definitely a tricky question! The gentlemanly disputations between opposing camps have rivalled even certain Crier Letters passim. But creatures evolve together, and for a long-lived territorial bird such as the Magpie, whose territory will most likely be inherited by the most successful of his offspring (whence his genes), it would appear that any "success" that degrades the territory is no success at all. It is those plundering pillaging mess-up-and-move-on nomadic types that would be the problem, and we all know about that. They also pinch eggs! (see Editorial) Perhaps the "prudent" genetic trait is no more than a profound disinclination to over-exert oneself, as might readily be seen in the family cat, and readers will be glad to know that the RSPB has entirely similar comments to make on this four-legged raider. So the next time he/she comes clattering through the cat flap with a mangled baby-bluetit just as the local twitcher is settling down to his tea and cakes, do not hang your head in shame. Instead, look him squarely in the eye and say:
"My cat is an example of Slobodkin's prudent predator, without which we'd all look a bit sick. More tea?"