Nature Diary: North Devon, 8th February

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Image: Pete Cooper

Three months into a winter of fieldwork, I’ve become used to the ‘treacle tracks’ now.

A time in which this barely-recognisable footpath along the hedgerow could be walked in clothes that grew sweaty with heat, immersed in the sound of cavorting insects or birdsong, seems so distant as to be a fable. Bar the whispering rushes of the strengthening cold wind, all I can hear is the slop-clop-glop of the mud protesting at each of my footfalls. Liquid enough so that my walk becomes an un-even yoga class of splits, solid enough so that I have to put in some effort to free my boots, the quagmire gurgling pathetically in response.

A cold wind is building strength on the top of the valley, whistling threateningly with growing intent past my ears; grey drizzle moving in on the horizon. Bleak, but certainly not lifeless. Hard to believe, when the hedges look like tangled brown skeletons in their seasonal death, and the only actual animals I have seen are a flock of redwings that took off into an oak from the rushes on the hillside below.

Yet winter is the time to witness life in memory. Not what is dead or slumbering, but of the traces those creatures that still stir leave in the land. Continue reading

What is Rewilding Anyway? Episode 2: Dr Steve Carver

stevec In this month’s episode, I went to the University of Leeds to speak to academic and director of the Wildland Research Institute, Dr Steve Carver.

I have had several prior conversations with Steve on Twitter, and have always been interested to hear his thoughts on what we can really define as wild, how we could intergrate rewilding in Britain, and in particular the idea of rewilding as a ‘spectrum’, as illustrated below.

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The Rewilding Continuum (Steve Carver)

These and more were just some of the topics talked about in the latest podcast in the ‘What is Rewilding Anyway?” series, which you can listen to in the audio file below.

A Sea of Stars: A reflection on 2017

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A selection of 2017 highlights

Like every year of a naturalist, there’s a fair few encounters with wildlife that stick out particularly notably as I look back over 2017 (and of course a fair few personal ones too, but this is a nature blog not a lifestyle column).

There’s returning to Kenya at the very start of the year with my MSc field course, where I met the last Northern white rhinos in existence and discovered the heaven on earth that is Samburu. There was spending the best part of Spring and early summer tramping down the wild river valleys of East Dartmoor, collecting that most noble of treasures for my research project – otter shit.

Certainly up there was being involved in the Cornwall beaver project, a fenced release for which I was present on the day the animals were let out into glorious June sunshine. And 2017 was the year where I finally let go of the university safety blanket, thrown out into the world of work upon finishing my masters this summer. Probably the biggest shift in personal eras since I started higher education (or even education as a whole) in the first place, I’ve been lucky in that I’d managed to secure a winter contract working as probably the first ever ‘Devon Harvest Mouse Project Officer’. Working outside across the county, trudging through meadows and mires in search of the beautifully crafted grass-woven nests of these animals, and training others in the art of nest searching, has been incredibly satisfying. Continue reading

Halfway through the Dark: The Nature of Yule

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(Image: Pete Cooper)

Look behind the pop-up markets of log cabins in high streets, and office party hangovers, the mulling over how to manage your budget alongside the present shopping, and other traditional facets of a 21st century Christmas. There lies a far more ancient instinct as to why we have embraced and sculpted this time of year into the festival it is.

No, I’m not talking about the birth of Christ. Rather, the essence that Christians neatly slotted this narrative around as it stifled the old religions from Europe. It is about our putting up lights in the dark, feasting through the fast, and defiance of the death in nature around us.

The winter festival has gone through as many different guises and traditions as there have been different cultures within this part of the world, but key elements remain the same. It is generally centred on the solstice – when the day is shortest and night longest – and is a time of indulgence contrary to the gloom around us.

In true optimistic spirit, it is though we have found the faintest cry for praise (“Woo-hoo! We’re halfway through the dark!”), and in defiance of winter’s cold grip and barren landscapes, put our arms around one another and, arguably more than at any other time of year, put focus on what really matters in life.

Before I start sounding too much like Hugh Grant at the beginning of Love Actually however, that’s not to say the darkness was ignored. If anything, nature and the great unknown of winter became one with us. We stood up to the nightmare rather than cowered. We light up the dark for sure with billions of watts worth of electric lights, but why do we bring the tree, the holly, the ivy and other reminders of the wild into our homes? I’ve heard the suggestion that by adorning our living rooms with the fir, the tree that endures the winter, we can take some of that spirit with us too.

We cannot run from the dark. And so we accept it as just another friend.

Some ancient Yule traditions seem far more at home during Halloween/Samhain/Autumn equinox for example; take the Mari Lwyd. This demonic looking variation of the Obby Oss goes around the neighbourhood at night demanding entry and song from each house it stops at.

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A Mari-Lwyd on the rounds. Happy Christmas.

And then there’s the 19th century trope of the ghost story at Christmas, undoubtedly championed by the Cambridge academic M. R. James (and as habit, I now try and recite one of his tales on Christmas eve).

Both of these elements acknowledge the darkness and the supernatural potential these cold nights may harbour, but rather than exclude it from our celebrations, it too is embraced.

For regardless of ghosts and demons, it is nature’s hand that we are sub-consciously respecting at Christmas. It is now more than any other time of year that wildlife is at its most vulnerable, when there is no guarantee of survival till the coming of spring, which seems so far away as to be imaginary. For our ancestors, this was also the fate of many, until even relatively recently. To celebrate Christmas is to confront the harshest point of existence that Earth throws at us.

The responses of nature to winter are just as important a part of the festive season for me as any gift-giving or excessive consumption of Baileys. The dancing cloud of a starling murmuration that throws an exuberant beat of life over the still reedbed as the winter sun throws its last orange glows. In quiet contrast, at this same moment the hen harrier on the heath quarters across a boggy mire, its isolation stark in the bleak landscape as the cold bites harder with each fading parcel of light. An ember of life with the last light in the sky.

I’m in the wood that lies beyond our gate. A woodcock catapults from the damp leaf litter. A vixen screams somewhere out in the fields, her cries becoming quieter as she dashes along the hedgerows. As the evening crawls forward, and the only discernible change in the dark smothers grey light to black, I find myself in the midst of the long night. I feel guilty in a sense. Here is a whole web of life, literally on my doorstep, fighting only to see tomorrow. I give a shiver and tighten my jacket, but this briefest meeting with the cold will soon be succeeded by the warmth of home.

Humans may have pulled the lucky trump card when it comes to living with winter, but our species memory when it wasn’t so easy still holds strong in many of our festive customs. So this Christmas, be sure to spend some time out in nature – and, like our ancestors celebrated with such jubilation, remember that we’re just that tiny bit closer to the spring.

Woodland Morning

Image: Pete Cooper

So long, and thanks for all the food: The Insect Apocalypse

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Common Darter (Pete Cooper)

Just over six years ago, I wrote the first entry on this blog at the tender age of 17, entitled ‘Loving the Bug’. Looking back on it is like reading your old pieces of school coursework, one part charmed at the unabashed enthusiasm one part dismayed at my novice blogger’s style!

The key theme of the article holds true though: the need to place greater value on invertebrates within mainstream conservation. All this time later, what was essentially innocent testing-the-waters of the blogging world has a refreshed relevance to recent research that received wide reception in the mainstream press. The 75% decline of insect biomass from German nature reserves in 25 years is, if representative of much of rural Europe, quite simply horrific.

The full scale of massive insect decline is something that is very unpleasant to realise. Once you consider the loss of pollination for vast numbers of plant species, both within the ecological and agricultural context, it all builds up from small beginnings into chaos on par with the butterfly effect (or rather, the lack of butterfly effect). This blog won’t go too heavy into the details of this, as it’s something George Monbiot covered succinctly last month.

Needless to say, it’s bad for us. And just as bad for wildlife. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Lizard Point, October 2017

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Photo: Ben Porter

I remember as a child always being fascinated yet somehow let down by those beautifully painted dioramas; the ones that adorned double-page spreads in my nature books, and even the laminated mats my parents slapped below my plastic dinner plate to spare the table from baked-bean stains. A snapshot of a beautiful piece of British countryside, with animals spilling across the scene. They gave the impression that stepping outside would result in spotting hoards of wildlife while barely having to crane your neck.

Of course, reality is never as simple. But this day on the Lizard Peninsula, Britain’s most southerly point comes pretty damn close. Against a summer’s sky that has snuck into October and the churning Atlantic below, the movement of wildlife on this panorama of blue cavorts through the frame like the emboldened cast at the finale of a West-End musical. For once I am witnessing something close to a dinner-mat diorama of a British west coast cliff-top.

The black-headed gulls and jackdaws form the bulk of the chorus, riding the wind, chacking and wooping. In the grassy bank beside me on the coast path, the field grasshoppers and grey bush-crickets complement this by extending their summer prom, stridulating their one-beat rhythms in a glorious pool of heat where the sun has fixed its light. Continue reading

What is Rewilding anyway? Episode 1: Derek Gow

Welcome to the first installment of a new podcast series, What is Rewilding anyway? While much discussion and early stages of practice of the concept now abounds, the key to settle on a definition perhaps holds a lot of its potential back.

This podcast will speak with not only practicioners on the ground, but proponents and critics of the idea from different walks of life. All to talk through the complexities and source what their definition of rewilding may be.

In this first epiosode, I interview Derek Gow – a reintroductions specialist who I’ve known and worked for over the last few years. Recently I also shared his ambitous advice to young conservationists on his behalf here.

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Some of Derek’s white storks – coming soon to a countryside near you?

Rewilding the River: Bring nature back to our floodplains

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The rush of air over my head is just about audible as the scythe-like shape of a hobby snatches its dragonfly target some six feet above ground before arcing, swift as an arrow, upwards and effortlessly transferring the prey from talon to beak mid-flight.

In the distance, wedding bells meld into the high-pitched chorus of gulls and lapwings down on the lagoons, and the sight of the Norman church tower is just visible over the tangle of willows and rustling reeds.

This is Fishlake Meadows, a roughly 270-acre expanse of wetland just north of my hometown of Romsey in Hampshire. Continue reading

How to reintroduce carnivores and alienate people: A word of caution

European lynx, this one a captive animal at the New Forest Wildlife Park.

It’s become a regular occurrence: a press release from the UK Lynx Trust (UKLT) about how reintroduction of this animal is imminent in Britain, and they’ll be getting a licence through very soon. The ironic reality is that with each successive news story, their progress behind-the-scenes in Kielder becomes increasingly battered in terms of local reception, while those on the outside duly share and retweet – keeping them going, almost entirely, on PR alone.

I wrote about the impractical route they have gone through of media first community consultation later, two years ago, but things definitely haven’t got better since.

From a meeting at the village hall turning into a scene that would make a House of Commons debate look mature in comparison, to last week’s news that most of the people behind UKLT have jumped ship because of their somewhat cold reception, it’s not been a model of sound conservation management.

With their chief Paul O’Donoghue still closing his ears and saying they’ll be applying for a license in two months, this leaves a team you could probably all fit in my Peugeot 107. So what went wrong? Continue reading

Cornwall Beaver Project Blogs – Part 2

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) stands, captive, Devon.

Photo: Nick Upton

Well the beavers are out now, and so comes the conclusion of my short blog series for Cornwall Wildlife Trust. Blogs are likely to be a bit quiet for a few weeks while my Masters project takes priority, so why not while away the time with the complete ‘box-set’:

Return of the Lostledan: Time for the Beaver to come home to Cornwall

An introduction to the Cornwall Beaver Project’s aims.

Working together for Cornish beavers

How partnerships between farming and wildlife conservation pave the way for this animal’s return.

A look into how beavers in Cornwall could reduce the impact of local flooding.

A whimsical piece of nature writing.

The Day the Beavers Returned to Cornwall

An even more whimsical piece of nature writing.