Examining a patch of bare land, stripped of all vegetation till it resembles a passable replica of Mars’ surface, is not the most pleasant way to begin a morning at one of your patches. It was once one of the top breeding sites for nightingale in Hampshire, and surely once host to a myriad of invertebrate life in its extinct tangled banks. The site’s owner, with sick cunning, evicted these residents by force, hoping to make a few extra bob if he had the permission for a few houses. And that was before he invited the ecological consultants down.
I was meeting up with Andy Lester, a good friend of mine whom I do much of my conservation work at Fishlake in conjunction with, for the first time since April. The purpose was for a combination of catch-up, wildlife watching and discussion over the future work of the site. So it was unfortunate we had to witness this bombshell first. What this landowner had done was a literal microcosm of what wildlife across the country is facing every day.
Both me and Andy had been at keystone events in conservation last week, set to try to odd the stakes in favour of the conservationist in the future, hopefully to prevent occurrences such as these on a national scale. Andy had spoken at the RSPB’s conference in response to the State of Nature (Andy is also the UK conservation director of A Rocha), while I took part in the first strike of the UK’s youth conservation movement, Vision for Nature (more on that in the next blog).
Both events had been lively and often controversial in their subject matter. Both had been full of passionate conservationists trying their upmost to do the best they could to save nature. Both were burdened with the weight of bad decision-making in the past, but included big plans of hope for the future.
All three points were also true in relation to me and Andy that morning and what we were discussing, albeit on the scale of Fishlake Meadows’ future. After years of political red-tape, the site had finally been donated to the borough council this summer to be maintained as a nature reserve. Our chatter that day was full of grand ideas and plans to set in motion – the sort of things that are exciting when you mention them, give you a terrified slowly-breaking headache of ‘how am I going to do that?’ when you get back home to think about them, but ultimately turn out wonderfully provided you stick to your guns.
The only trouble with this is that it can sometimes appear to form a vague gulf in your head between the naturalist and conservationist self when you dwell too much on them. Of course there was plenty of common or garden naturalist behaviour during our meet-up – I showed Andy the field vole nests that had been woven like ornate, miniature wicker baskets beneath my refuge mats, and we were lucky enough to see one of the occupants pop his head out from within their tunnels, with the most disgruntled look their beautiful inky beads of eyes can manage. Equally, much time was spent scanning (unsuccessfully) for the passage ospreys, which have been uncharacteristically absent for this time of year.
Yet for all the good things to talk about, the less than pleasant discussion topics – from simply trying to deduce awkward planning logistics of a bioblitz, to the continued lack of mass appeal nature presents to the mainstream public – meant that the lapwings in our binoculars seemed pushed to the side and dissonant. Suddenly it doesn’t feel like a naturalist ramble.
It’s what I term ‘conference fever’. Although it’s a necessary evil to actually get anything done, it’s a condition that pulls you away from the wonders of nature and strands you somewhere in a middle ground between that and the boring reality we humans we create for ourselves of business, money and promotion. So named because of its particular virulence at conferences about nature, and often the ones that say they’re going to do something about it – but never do. In their haze of suits, powerpoints and networking, they often feel like the furthest thing from sitting in a wood watching badgers (though I hasten to add that Vision for Nature was an exception to this).
Already you’re probably thinking that this isn’t really much of a ‘nature diary’. It’s how I was feeling at times that day too. We may be talking about nature, indeed how to save it – but the essence of the naturalist, of the nature writer, is being at its level and not above it. It’s about pushing aside the everyday and entering a real-life Narnia. The best kind of stress exclusion.
So why is conference fever so terrible? For me and so many others, things often get most stressful when you have to face the music as to what our wildlife is up against.
With my mind back in the same state as it would be before a particularly venomous exam, I knew it needed to be put to rest soon. Thankfully, I had an advantage over this condition not often found at many conferences – I was already within nature.
Walking back along the Western tributary that skirts the meadows, the unmistakable motions of something literally alive within the seemingly alive rushing water caught my eye. A very handsome carp was the beholder of the beauty. Contrary to the sinister motionlessness of the pike, or the paranoid flash-mobs of rudd, two species I regularly see at Fishlake, the carp had all the cool, effortless manoeuvres of a wealthy host patrolling his party calmly while the world roars around him, a matte of green and honey-gold scales in place of a tuxedo.
A little further ahead, and I descended a couple of steps from the boardwalk leading back towards the meadows. Gleaming like the crown jewels on that last step, only much more precious and excitement, was a neat plop of otter spraint. I leapt down to my knees, and with great delicacy picked it up between my thumb and forefinger. It was still damp, with an ooze that stretched out like toffee as I lifted it – probably deposited within the last 24 hours – and it smelt as sweet, if not sweeter, as a combination cut grass and fruit tea.
It was too good a specimen to leave, so grabbing a collection pot from my bag’s front compartment I stuffed it inside. With another sample ready for my amateur spraint analysis study back home, I reflected on the greater world that can be opened up by a simple bit of otter poo.
For the naturalist, it allows a remarkable insight into the very secret life of the otter – what it’s been eating, where it’s territorial boundaries lie, and, to an extent, the local freshwater fish community, which is perhaps even more mysterious except to the angler. These animals our difficult to observe and don’t even have their own NGO, so I feel there is as much potential in monitoring them through spraint analysis as there is through the study of small mammals by dissecting barn owl pellets.
To the conservationist, the spraint is the symbol of one of Britain’s greatest conservation comebacks. Fewer and fewer of these were being found alongside our rivers by the mid 20th century, and would’ve been one of the first indications to many that something was seriously wrong with our otters. It was a call to arms to clean our rivers, and for individuals like Philip Wayre to inspire and recruit others to the cause before one of our most loved mammals went extinct over here. So the chemicals were banned -government policy influenced by passion – and the spraint started being discovered again. Three years ago, naturalists in Kent found spraint there for the first time in years, and we then knew the otter was back in every county.
And that was all I needed. I know I want to be a conservationist. I know half of it’s going to be bloody difficult, full of mind-numbing funding, legislation and battles with bureaucracy. It’s going to be challenging no matter what.
But mine, and Andy Lester’s, and thousands or even millions more greatest weapon, is that we are naturalists. Our love for nature will not be stopped by the same barriers most business models face, because we are not dealing with business. It’s everybody and everything’s home, it’s been here for millions of years and hopefully will be for millions more, and our protection over it is born out of love. Yes, we immerse ourselves within it to escape things like conference fever. But so long as we don’t lose the naturalist, we’ll deal with it, and will not give up.
“Anyone who has got any pleasure at all from living should try to put something back. Life is like a superlative meal and the world is the maître d’hôtel. What I am doing is the equivalent of leaving a reasonable tip… I’m glad to be giving something back because I’ve been so extraordinarily lucky and had such great pleasure from it.”
– GERALD DURRELL