State of Nature 2: Still not in a good state

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Look at that above image – isn’t it exciting? If you’re a conservation NGO in the UK, you’re more than likely to be under the State of Nature partnership. The popular kids like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts rub shoulders with the niche but equally wonderful smaller groups such as the Conchological Society and Froglife. The international students, big hitters like WWF, ZSL and (the legacy of my own particular role model) Durrell contributing to the fight on our doorstep. Not to mention an organisation I sit on the leading committee for, the UK’S youth network A Focus on Nature, is sitting up there. As someone who’s only just started a Master’s and isn’t even working in conservation, that makes me feel rather giddy to know the work we’re doing is represented on such a stage.

It should be the dream team. Like a wildlife Avengers Assemble, the State of Nature network should be spearheading real, direct action to set up new policy and put in more effective practice. Under this umbrella unit, we should be seeing some clarity to Mark Avery’s ‘Tangled Bank’ of NGOs, where the huge array of organisations becomes as confusing to negotiate as the craft ale selection in a pretentious hipster bar.

Sadly, the State of Nature partnership has returned in a sequel that bares about as much optimism as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (nb: if for some reason you aren’t familiar with Star Wars, that means not good.) The State of Nature 2 report was launched today, and only 3 years after the first one. It all seems a bit soon, and might make one think we’ve had an apocalyptic decline of wildlife in that time (surely Brexit didn’t result in all our songbirds dying off as well?). Maybe not quite, but certainly in the last few decades. But then isn’t that what the one in 2013 said? And I definitely remember going to the launch of the ‘Response for Nature’ report last year too. Continue reading

Martian Cats & Living Pinecones: Saving Vietnam’s Pangolins & Carnivores

It’s nearly 3am, and the local crickets and cicadas are probably feeling rather put-off by the fact their regular chorus at this time – a continuous buzz and fizz like a convention of sewing machines and buzz saws gone haywire – is for once being overshadowed by the holler of humans up way past their bedtime. The porch lights at the gates of the centre illuminated a lazy gold-orange glow on proceedings, which was beginning to resemble something like a nature conservationist Dunkirk. The barks of requests for ID, water and a microchip bounce around the warm night air of the Forest, wooden crates lie scattered across the gravel where one by one they are hauled onto a battered old bus waiting in the gateway, and only two or three of the team of 15 or so people seem to stay fixed to one spot.

Though my body was used to being in deep sleep by now, the rush of the moment kept my mind as active as if I had received shots of espresso to my bloodstream. I went from crate to crate with a rapidly decreasing load of water in a plastic bottle, pouring it into cups hooked to the inside of the boxes, and then going back to crates waiting to be loaded to double-check they’d received water in the midst of the rush. Occasionally I’d find myself called over, and sent to delicately lift out the occupants of these boxes for one last health check. In between my hands, a football-like sphere of brown scales that could be mistaken for a giant seed-pod or other earthy product, until from the centre a naked, elongated, almost canine face and a pair of tiny stumpy feet ending in heavy curled claws unravels itself. Tonight, we’re giving 20 Sunda pangolins a second chance.

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A Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) about to undergo a vet check.

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Guest blog for Cornwall Wildlife Trust: The Art of Badger Watching

Read the original piece, as published on Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild blog, here.

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Night falls across Cornwall. As the moon shines over the hedgerows, wooded valleys and cliff-top scrubs, one of our most familiar, yet oft unseen wild neighbours emerge from their deep homes underground, snuffling for worms till day-break.

Badgers are busy indeed at this time of year, and the West Country is their UK strong-hold. A landscape rich in pastoral grazing systems and the rich, pesticide-free soil this provides is brimming with earthworms. These make up a huge part of the badger’s diet, and while they certainly aren’t fussy in regards to what they eat, the humble earthworm has allowed badgers to be a relatively easy mammal to find in the Cornish countryside – if you know where and how to look. Continue reading

What is Rewilding, anyway? Why identity is stalling progress.

Rewilding – everyone with an interest in conservation is talking about it. Even those who aren’t particularly aware or invested in wildlife matters will at least have heard something along the lines of “they want to bring wolves back to Scotland” at some point in their lives.

Is this lynx the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word ‘Rewilding’?

While many are aware of rewilding, actually defining it appears to be a complex puzzle few can solve. Generally, it’s thought to mean returning nature to a largely self-willed state, with the ‘missing links’ restored, and this is about as clear cut as you’ll get. Its meaning has been mashed, contradicted and redefined as much as the ecological landscape of Britain. Are we talking about reintroducing extinct species into forested landscapes with no human influence, or simply putting out some Dexter cattle to graze the reeds on the reserve rather than having volunteers cut it?

Finding the true meaning of rewilding is so difficult in fact, that it was the subject of an entire paper. Published a few months back in Current Biology, ‘Rewilding is the new Pandora’s Box in Conservation’ by David Nogués-Bravo et al [1] could be summed up with one word – ‘caution’. Confusion over how we define rewilding may have consequences beyond a simple etymological puzzle – it could affect the outcome of conservation projects, and have wider consequences if things are done incorrectly or oversimplified. Continue reading

The Dalmatian Pelican’s Triumphant Return to Britain

“It’s the first one ever seen in Britain!” Such was the response to a rather special visitor to my university-home county of Cornwall over the past fortnight. If you didn’t know, a Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus realised it had a significant amount of trust fund money after fledging the nest, and rather than settle down with the rest of its kind in the Danube delta, decided to travel the world. This spiritual journey inevitably lead it to Cornwall, where it has been no doubt thrilling the local gulls with its stories of ‘mad nights’ vaping with crows in Poland and why every bird deserves the soul reawakening that can only be found by fishing solo in Germany. Maybe.

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The Cornish bird itself, as photographed by my friend Ben Porter.

It arrived very conveniently in the middle of my university finals, and I almost defied my agnostic-atheist views to pray that it stayed a little longer. To my joy, it did hang on, and at time of writing is still gallivanting around the Land’s End area. I went to see it myself twice last week. The first time we were lucky to be treated to a brief fly-by within seconds of arriving at the spot: like a great white biplane, it soared effortlessly regally among the gulls, drifting South-West towards the coast. A day later, it had set up shop at a local RSPB reserve, and this time we were treated to wonderful views of it sat squat in the centre of an estuary, occasionally preening itself or waddling through the mud like a portly drunkard trying and failing to walk in a straight line for the police. Our best views were obtained from a train station platform, which I’m eternally grateful for the porter granting us permission to use. “Five minutes, then yer’ off before the train gets in” he informed us, with a considerable mustering of authority. By the time we were done however, he was so fascinated we were kept back a good deal longer as we explained the situation to him.

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Definitely the pelican, as we saw it from the station platform. Photograph by Billy Heaney.

Regardless of its origins or reasons for being here, the bird that is quite happily settled in Cornwall, oblivious to the hordes of cooing twitchers, is far from the first Dalmatian pelican in Britain. In fact, you might call it something of a homecoming. Surprising as it may seem, the Dalmatian pelican is an extinct British native. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 19th April

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I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t recognise the call of the cuckoo. Perhaps with the exception of the most urbanised of people living within city centres, even if you’ve never actually heard it yourself it’s so ingrained in popular culture that from an early age it’s unmistakeable. Not that many people on the whole have actually seen it, probably making it one of the few (if not only) animals that more people can recognise by sound rather than sight.

However, seeing the cuckoo was far from difficult today. At Fishlake Meadows, the Spring choruses are rousing like an anarchic orchestra, with both the residents and the recent migrant returnees putting 110% into their effort to establish territories and seek mates as quickly as possible. Chiffchaffs speed up their repetitive two-beats with increased frenetic, Cetti’s warblers explode into scattered song from their concealment in the brambles, and the sedge warblers drown out the rest in an improvised staccato ramble even the most creative jazz musician would be proud of.

But old cuckoo chimes superiorly over them all. Flying across the reed beds from the old poplars, his flight is unmistakable – cutting wings dart him precisely through the air remarkably sparrowhawk-like, a deliberate move on evolution’s part to fool potential nest hosts to desert their brood, thus allowing the wily cuckoo to swoop in and deposit it’s own egg in a process of natural cunning. Equally admired and despised, depending on the observer. Today, he perches in the bows of a weeping willow, and through my binoculars he is absolutely resplendent. Continue reading

Are Badgers over-protected?

IMG_5615“We asked some the other farms round here what to do about these badgers.” The estate keeper told me as I secured the camera trap to a post, in a thick ‘Hampshire-hog’ accent. “But they just tell us to gas the setts, or shoot ‘em as they come out into the fields and dump the bodies on the road.” He paused to take a puff on his cigarette, smoke melding indistinctly with his condensed breath on this crisp January morning. “But we don’t want to work like that. I mean it’s illegal and all, but the badgers have got just as much right to be here as we have. Just gotta work round ‘em .”

That was just over three years ago, when I had been called out to assist in a badger problem at a local fishing estate back home. Each night, the animals had been visiting the picturesque front lawn of the house, and in their quest for caddis fly larvae, had created a scene that could quite comfortably win an Oscar for set-design of the Somme. Even I thought it was feral pigs or boar at first, until I noted the tell-tale kidney shaped prints among the destruction. So it was a surprisingly refreshing stay-of-execution to hear from the keeper, despite the trouble. He was one that some would describe as ‘true country folk’ (not that I am fond of the phrase) – worked on the land since his teens, fingers hardened and earthy from decades of practical jobs in all weathers, and certainly not a glad sufferer of fools. Yet he lacked one trait I have found extremely common in this demographic, which is the desire to kill badgers. Continue reading