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.

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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

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

Britain’s hidden wildlife spectacle: Wood Pigeons

woodpigeons_master_tcm9-18492‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ goes the old and slightly clichéd saying. Unfortunately, this applies to many wild animals who are neither elusive, an occasional migrant or threatened with extinction, yet don’t seem to have an appearance or demeanour that woos themselves poetically to humans seeking to find a connection with nature.

If you wish to see a prime example of this, pity the poor wood pigeon. Taking away any prior knowledge or prejudices, you would have thought with their dumpy frame, beady eyes that give it a permanent glaze of bemused curiosity, and the smattering of iridescent indigo in the collar suggesting of hidden beauty, it should at least gain a lot more public sympathy.

Instead, by being so numerous it is either ignored completely or derided indignantly. We should be admiring it’s success for actually coping so well with our intensive-farming patterns, an achievement any animal deserves a medal for; but does their ubiquity simply remind us of the failures we have seen in most other farmland bird populations? And when some go the next level and call them ‘rats-with-wings’, are they simply thinking more along the lines of their urban cousins, the rock dove or ‘feral pigeon’, and the perceived waste nuisances they cause on our streets? Continue reading

The Mammal Life of Fishlake Meadows: Hampshire’s next big nature reserve

Originally published in the Spring 2015 newsletter of the Hampshire Mammal Group. I’m currently running my third season of mammal surveys at the site to be compiled in a three-year report.

Immediately north of Romsey lies 200 acres of land beautifully reclaimed by nature. Fishlake Meadows has a complex history – originally just drained farmland, when the pumps were switched off in the 1980s the site was swamped into a myriad of pools, ditches, reedbeds and wet grassland. Its various owners never knew what to do with it – one of them, a certain Kevin Keegan, even threatening to convert it into a golf course – till the current landowner decided to sell it off to Test Valley borough council in July, who are set to develop an ecological management plan and create a new nature reserve for Romsey.

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