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.

Cornwall Beaver Project: Blogs 1 & 2

Recently I’ve been proud to be involved in the online presence of the Cornwall Beaver Project – a fenced beaver trial managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Woodland Valley Farm, that will not only build on existing work in demonstrating the animals’ effect on ecology and hydrology, but showcase them to rural communities and exemplify the benefit they can bring to our landscapes.

You can read my first two blogs for the project here:

More struggles to define rewilding, and a relevant announcement.

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“Why should I join twitter?” Ask a decreasing number of vaguely internet-literate wildlife conservationists. Well, for one you can get involved in rather lively twitter discussions, and nothing’s surer to hit off a reaction like a magnesium-burning demonstration in a school teaching lab then a rewilding debate.

One such event happened this weekend gone, and it was a cracker. It was cracked off with this tweet from Miles King, itself in response to a statement from the Countryside Alliance: Continue reading

Good Zoos: Please don’t let one bad egg tarnish the greats

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Black Rhino at Paignton Zoo. Just one endangered species managed in captivity.

It’s a horrific story. 486 animals had died at South Lakes zoo in the space of over four years, frequently as a result of poor husbandry practices, and sometimes found still decaying in the enclosure. The owner, David Gill (whose attitude has been of concern for the zoo community for a while now), has been refused the licence and it all seems likely the place will, rightly, be closed.

South Lakes is a bad zoo; it is not, however some press opinions have already starting hinting, an example typical of zoos. These articles range from suggesting that live animals on public display is a bygone that should be replaced by virtual reality, to saying that all zoos should be outright banned. Continue reading

Trees are the enemy: Making mountains out of molehills in Scotland

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View of Ben Macdui in 2015 – won’t get trees here.

Tree planting ‘threatening’ Scotland’s grand vistas

 After hearing some good news for once this morning (the fact that Philip Pullman’s writing a follow-up to ‘His Dark Materials’, should you want to know), I was brought back down into a huff by this piece. Take a look, and absorb its content.

Read it? Right, where to begin. How about some key points?

Mountaineering Scotland and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association have jointly written to Scotland’s environment secretary – Doesn’t take a genius to see the vested interests here. Mountaineers want mountains to climb, fair enough. But the highest and best peaks in Scotland, such as Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis, are in the alpine zone where any tree attempting to grow is on a suicide mission. It’s practically a tundra habitat, where the occasional scots pine is no longer high and mighty but resembles a tumbleweed, so the laws of ecology will ensure there will still be plenty of bare peaks. And anyway, surely not all their membership are adverse to trees? It’s not like you can’t hike through them. And of course, the gamekeepers require plenty of heavily managed heather for their bounties of beyond carrying-capacity grouse populations – trees are as welcome as dog faeces (although I bet there are gamekeepers who’d like to see more trees too). But it’s a bit strange to protest because… Continue reading

Where have all the binmen gone?

This article was written for the University of Exeter’s ‘Field Course Fortnight’ blog. Read the original piece here.

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-12-05-25If you see dead things in Africa, there should be vultures circling above it. A child can tell you that. Even if you’re one of those people who finds vultures to be ghoulish, off-putting and reminiscent of a decrepit old funeral director, you should at least find things odd if carcasses on the savannah are un-touched by the birds.

That’s just what’s happening across much of Kenya, and to witness it is unsettling. We saw two rhino carcasses in the time we spent in the country, yet not a single vulture was seen even investigating the bodies of Africa’s second largest land animal. In fact, over the whole 12 days I was there, I only recall seeing a few birds overhead around Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park, and a roost of Ruppell’s griffon vultures at the latter – down to less than 20 pairs, about a tenth of what it was. Continue reading

Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017

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2016 in a nutshell (Image: Ron Bury)

Whatever you read or hear, the public consensus is that 2016 has been as warmly received as someone redecorating your wallpaper with cat faeces. Of course like all things in life, nothing’s clearly good or evil. On a personal level I had a rather good year, bar some dissertation stress in March/April and a bit of middling near the end, but overall it treated me well, and it’s not what I’m going to go on about here. This is, after all, a nature blog.

And as such, you could argue that nature conservation has been set off to an even more uncertain, divisive start to the new year than has been seen for a long time. The rise of the far-right, driven by the un-predicted victories of Breakfast and Dump (as I think we’ve all heard their venomous names often enough now), has created a world in which these previously blurred ‘your-side, their-side’ divisions are growing clearer.

Unsurprisingly, the conservation sector is not really considered part of the picture in the mainstream. But similar things are going on there. Directly, mistrust ranging from disregard to outright hatred of experts and scientists, fuelled by the new alt-right leaders, has set us off into the much discussed post-truth era, with among others things, climate change going straight to the centre of the dartboard. Wildlife conservation isn’t safe from this either. Continue reading

Scottish Beavers are here to stay – and we’re finally showing some ambition in UK conservation.

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Beaver on the River Otter, Devon (Image: Nick Upton)

“What’s this idea you’ve got then?” asked the CEO to his colleague. He raised his eyebrow intently – he’d heard on the grapevine his new assistant conservation director didn’t necessarily follow the rulebook, which was part of the reason they’d been hired in the first place.

 “Well, if we’re to really show some ambition,” said the new assistant director, trying their best to stamp out the nerves that threatened to crush the pitch, “to restore habitat in a way we couldn’t think was possible – and gain public awareness with a charismatic animal to boot – there’s some good research from the continent that suggests we should start seriously considering the reintroduction of the, uh, the reintroduction of the beaver.”

There was silence, followed by laughter, followed by words from the CEO as to how that should never be considered as a serious proposal. That it was make-believe, better suited to over-ambitious undergraduates who romanticise the reality of wildlife conservation. The stakeholders would be aghast, the funding wasn’t there, and anyway: not only was this animal extinct, but so was the Britain it lived in. The beaver would never be a native again.

Thirty years later, Scottish Natural Heritage declared the beaver was officially a native once again, and was here to stay. Continue reading