Nice (to live with) Beaver: Adventures in Bavaria

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Disclaimer: This was the closest thing seen to a live beaver over the course of the trip.

For most, Bavaria brings to mind beer. Having visited this region of Germany back in April I can confirm that’s apt. I’ve been well converted to the wheat beer and schnitzel, and after five evenings of sampling half of the region’s output of these goods with my seven companions for the trip, by the end of it all my head felt not unlike it had been on a stag-do.

While Bavaria’s beer is its notable export, something brought into the region – or rather brought back – is in fact more fascinating than the bevvies, and it doesn’t even give you a hangover (I think). They are the industrious, second-largest rodents we all know and love or loathe, depending on your perspective – the beaver.

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Not just about the beer

Following their reintroduction in the 1960s, from a few small areas they have recolonised more or less every watercourse. Bear in mind that the Bavarian landscape is by no means a wild one where big beasts roam free and chase the colours of the wind. It is often flat, and full of intensive agriculture. Essentially it’s Norfolk with Germans. And many of them were not too pleased when de Biber started blocking drainage ditches, felling prize trees and burrowing into the fields, potholing tractors as they did so.

Many called for the beaver to be eradicated, and it could well have gone that way. But there was a concentrated effort to mitigate the beaver’s habits were it became a problem to human interests, while very much allowing the animal to colonise Bavaria. Continue reading

Silent Fields Revisited: Don’t let shifting baselines tell us how much nature we can have

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A rural landscape in mid-Wales, where the reintroduction of pine martens is actively taking place. (Peter Cooper)

Memories are fickle old things. They are the sum of who we are as people. Our best days and worst days, while long gone physically, can stay with us for life and define who we are. They can even be shared between generations, and shape our reality. Yet as those generations pass, those memories become stories. And if they are not documented scientifically, they can blur the lines between fiction and reality.

Here in the UK, our own generational memories of the countryside often determine what we prioritise in wildlife conservation. The trouble with this is that with each successive generation leaving less nature behind than the one before it, our perception of what is healthy becomes skewed over time. It can pre-determine what we value; much attention is currently being given to curlew recovery, with older folk still remembering a time when they were common on farmland. But the once equally numerous corncrake receives nowhere near the same attention, perhaps because the witnesses to its former abundance have effectively died off.

This is the shifting baseline syndrome. The presumption that what we grew up with is the norm. Needless to say this has been written about numerous times but, in short, it is a barrier that can restrict us from realising the fullest possible ecosystem. And one doesn’t have to go far to find written sources that make us realise what we have lost. Continue reading

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.

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Image: Pete Cooper

My Wildife Champions (2/2): Auntie Barbara

This year, the UK youth nature network A Focus on Nature are launching our second major campaign, #NowForNature, celebrating young people acting now for conservation. This was launched with the splendid AFON advent, in which blogs from different members each day in the festive run-up reflected on the heroes that inspired them to do what they are doing.

My first blog on Martin Noble can be read here. The second piece took longer than planned to write, as I realised how difficult it would be to surmise just how great an effect this woman had on my life at a very early age, and the circumstances that later followed. But I owe her so much, and knew I had to get this down in words.

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Barbara and me, circa 1995

There are three knocks on the door; it’s the sound I’ve been waiting for all day. For the next week, this four year-old boy will be temporarily putting his mother’s attention aside for an upgraded model, who’s now stepping through the porch with a battered leather suitcase and an infectious smile. I eagerly accept the plastic tub, a lemon drizzle cake and dozens of beaming gingerbread men inside. But an even greater gift are the stories she brings.

The next morning, I wake to see if the sky contains but the slightest grey hint of daylight in the dawn gloom. If I can clearly distinguish the canopy of the woods that looms over the garden fence from the skyline, it’s good enough. I swim through a throng of soft animal toys, bounce onto the bedroom floor, and pitter-patter along the corridor, down the stairs and across the ground floor to a bedroom directly below my own. I knock twice, and wait. Continue reading

My Wildlife Champions (1/2): Martin Noble

This new year, the UK youth nature network A Focus on Nature are launching our second major campaign, #NowForNature, celebrating young people acting now for conservation. This was launched with the splendid AFON advent, in which blogs from different members each day in the festive run-up reflected on the heroes that inspired them to do what they are doing.

 As a committee member I did not contribute myself, but as I head into an equally uncertain and exciting year for me personally, I felt the need to celebrate those I have known personally that have helped set me on my journey. In two blogs, I will be paying tribute to two different but very important people who have played that role.

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Image: Daily Echo

If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. Nestled in the heart of the New Forest lies a keeper’s cottage, which to me is a place of hope.

I first met the owner of this cottage, Martin Noble, at the open meeting of the Hampshire Mammal Group (of which he is chair) over four years ago. With a driving licence relatively fresh in my wallet, I was using this newfound freedom to get involved with the wider conservation community in my area, and I found Martin’s talk about the work of the New Forest Badger Group (which he also chairs!) fascinating. Here was a chance not only to get out into the Forest to observe and understand badgers in a wild setting, but to contribute data to the Forestry Commission at the same time; just the sort of thing I wanted to be getting involved with. Continue reading

Otter Magic: Why the Otter should be UK No.1 Mammal

This piece was originally posted on the Royal Society of Biology’s blog, as part of the campaign to find the UK’s favourite mammal during National Mammal Week in October 2016. View the original post here.

otter-picWhy are otters so endearing? This may seem obvious, what with their ‘cute’ charismatic appeal, prevalence in our culture from Wind in the Willows to Tarka and resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch. However one can’t describe the public’s love for them as one of familiarity – say, in the way we grow attached to songbirds by feeding them in the garden.

Otters move invisibly through waterways, a rippling shadow trickling through the dark river as we take to bed; unnoticed by those that have likenesses recreated in watercolours on their walls or soft toys in their beds – these people and many more are unlikely to have seen one in the wild. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal – otters are the great enigma in a landscape we think we know; the mystery of their secret lives is one thing that draws us to them.

Otter obsessives such as I typically have to make do with finding their spraint (dung) deposited on a bridge or rock. This is far more exciting than it sounds for both parties. Spraint is the otter’s form of Facebook, which is why they’re so easy to find in the first place – they want to be discovered. These piles of fish-bone filled faeces communicate status updates such as when lady otters are ready to mate (maybe it’s more like Tinder), ensuring that otter populations maintain a cohesive social network even given their solitary existence. Continue reading

Buzzing through Autumn

See the original piece, as written for my university’s student newspaper ‘The Falmouth Anchor’ here.

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Photo: Will Hawkes

It’s that divisive time of year again – it may shine bright, clear and golden, but the air that hits your face when you step out of your door is ice-cold and snatches unexpectedly at your now sniffling nose. Some may love the Autumn, relishing in the opportunity to cloak themselves in duffle coats and scarves again like a maddened roof insulator and the childhood nostalgia of kicking dead leaves on a crisp amber afternoon, while others mourn the loss of occasional scorching days and default wearing of single layers, that only seems to have been a couple of weeks before.

But fear not, Summer lovers – if you want an inkling of the feel that the raucous season insinuates in our minds, turn your attention to ivy bees. Unlike many of our native bees, most beginning to turn in for the winter and hide away (how I envy them), the ivy bee Colletes hederae is on the wing right to the end of October. As its name suggests, their devotion to the pollen of ivy, which doesn’t flower until the Autumn, means their presence brings one last reminder of the heady buzzing of bees on a Summer’s day, when much of nature seems to be shutting down. 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.

Continue reading

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