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

Full-Power Rewilding: Should we start behind a fence?

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a university field trip to South Africa (yes, they do field trips to Africa now. They’ve got to justify that nine grand somehow.) It was difficult to believe it was all a part of a module that I’ll have to sit an exam for come May. Among the research practicals and assessed discussions, it was an indulgence of abundant and unusual wildlife. On top of the ever-impressive elephants (still a favourite since childhood), black rhinos, lions and buffalo, there were the curious looking bontebok antelope with their gaunt, badger-striped faces; the barking cacophony and merlot-red wing flashes of the Knysna turaco; the most perseverant work efforts I’ve ever seen from an animal in the unique flightless dung beetles; the almost Godzilla like revelation of size when I saw my first giant kingfisher (as big as a crow); and many, many more.

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But beyond the plain childhood excitement of just seeing these animals, the serious conservationist in me was intrigued to get over to this country in order to see their unique way of providing space for a large human population alongside a vast suite of wildlife, that includes numbers of megafauna that would’ve been wiped out thousands of years ago in most parts of the world.

Saying that though, in a depressingly familiar tale, most of South Africa’s large animals were wiped out upon the arrival of the European settlers. You know all about the Serengeti wildebeest migration, but did you know similar numbers of zebra, black wildebeest and bluebuck (now extinct) used to do the same down there? Just one spectacle never to be seen again thanks to Homo sapiens.

Continue reading