Stripes v Spikes?

Today’s post concerns the interesting nuggets of thought to chew on that was raised by Micheal McCarthy in his most recent edition of ‘Nature Studies’ in the Independent, entitled ‘More badgers and fewer hedgehogs. Coincidence? I don’t think so’.  Before I go on, I’d just like to mention that Nature Studies is one of the best natural history columns out there, not surprising considering that McCarthy is a fantastic environmental journalist; I’ve only just started reading his book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, and already I would heartily recommend it to others just from the first chapters.

And like all good journalists, a topic that needs a longer than average musing should be brought up from time to time. In this case, it’s the suggestion that perhaps increasing badger populations across the UK are partly to blame for the hedgehog’s worryingly dramatic decline over the last 30 or so years. It could potentially be in the Chris ‘I’d happily eat the last panda’ Packham spectrum of controversies, and as McCarthy points out, with the first cull trials imminent (something I heartily disagree with based on the scientific evidence, but that’s another story) our monochrome mustelid friends don’t really need anymore cause for concern on their reputation. Continue reading

Kenya After-Image: Part 2

Of all the reserves in Kenya, the Masai Mara is undoubtedly the best known, and the vast numbers of both wildlife and tourists present during my visit lived up to its reputation. Despite moments relating to the latter where it sometimes felt I had momentarily returned to the Western world (the details of which I’ll go into in my third and final entry of the after-image), staring at a vista of golden savannah that appears to disappear over the edge of the horizon with no trace of civilization, or witnessing the swarms of migrating wildebeest of wildlife documentary fame drift pass lazing lionesses, were enough to make you feel as if you had crossed the veil to an otherworld.

The diversity of the bird species seen throughout our trip, as you can imagine, was fantastic. From flamingo flocks in their hundreds on Nakuru, to delicate Sunbirds feeding from flowers just by our dining table in the Swara Plains camp, the rich variety of avian life we saw was brilliant; but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be these guys:

Secretary Birds, this pair on the Mara strolling placidly through the savannah grass only a few yards away from us. Unique to the raptors (so much so it’s the only genus of its family, Sagitarridae), these incredible birds have given up hunting from above for a literal down-to-earth approach, stalking the grasses on stilt-like legs while keeping a sharp eye out for prey. This can include hares, tortoises and even venomous snakes, which it can dispatch with a well-aimed kick.

Also up there on my top Kenyan birds would have to be this handsome specimen, a Kori Bustard. While our own native bustards are making a steady recovery from reintroductions on Salisbury Plain, on the African Plains these guys are far more numerous, strutting and foraging through the grass much like the secretary birds. As it is potentially the heaviest bird capable of flight, it probably sticks to the ground for good reason!

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Adders and our Problem with ‘Speciesm’

Detracting away from the next Kenya entry for a moment, I just wanted to say a few words on an ugly issue I’ve noticed over the past week. The animal concerned is mainly the Northern Adder, Vipera berus; though it could really apply to any animal that is venomous/has less or more than four limbs/is not a mammal or bird etc., delete as applicable. This whole thing was brought to my attention on Tuesday from Habitat Aid’s blog entry on the public response to a Daily Mail article. Unusually for such a hate-filled paper, the article itself was not the problem, which was about the conservation issues currently surrounding our only venomous snake.

Many of the comments however were something else, and only proved that many of us are still incredibly self-centered in our views towards nature. The comments and their context was explored in greater detail in Habitat Aid’s blog I’ve linked above, but I felt inclined to write this after seeing the reaction from previously reasonably-respected columnist Alexander Chancellor in today’s Guardian. Only a couple of paragraphs you can read here at the bottom of the article; it was still enough to show he was no better than those Daily Mail readers. Commenting on the same issue of the adder’s plight in the UK, Chancellor opens this remark with:

“I’m all for preserving wildlife, but adders? Adders are not nice. They are small and mean and poisonous.”

This is typical of an uninformed view of someone who ‘selects’ which wildlife deserves to live from his own sugar-coated perspective of the natural world. This widely persistent view proves incredibly challenging to conservationists trying to gain public support for saving species that aren’t tigers, whales and the like. Taking his argument apart piece by piece: “they are small”: So what? Let’s just let everything that stands higher than our knees be the only thing allowed to live for own enjoyment then. If it wasn’t for ‘small’ animals, there would be no big ones, simple as that: “and mean” . Nope. Sounds like his research, if any, has been taken from folklore and his own anthropomorphic characteristics he’s put on something that looks ‘mean’. Adders are incredibly timid in reality, and will slither away in a flash of scales if they hear our feet galumphing past their basking spot like an earthquake. Never do they purposely seek us out to spear their fangs into our ankles. And anyway, there’s no such thing as a ‘mean’ animal (except for us, and perhaps chimps, though that is debatable). Every animal works on basic instinct to survive, and will not risk injury or waste energy  to attack something it doesn’t need to. Continue reading

Kenya After-Image: Part 1

The first two weeks of August 2011 were undoubtedly two of the best of my life. A trip to Kenya may be a fairly average holiday for world-hopping tourists, and a part of that was indeed seen through the luxurious yet ‘processed’ lodgings of a typical Westerner on their summer break. Most of the trip however showed me and a group of 15 other students from my college the real deal when it comes to Kenya, seeing the different aspects to preserving wildlife in a country where pressures on the natural world tighten every year and living with a remote rural community miles from the tourist track to experience a completely different way of living without nearly every aspect of a Western life we so obliviously take for granted. Two weeks later, and the UK I returned just felt like it had something missing in a weird feeling I can’t quite describe, but I’m sure those who have had a similar experience will be able to relate to in some way. I had just been to another world, and it’s influence was there with me forever.

This post, as you can see by the title, is divided into three halves. The first two being photo-logs of the amazing wildlife the country is famous for, with the third a more in-depth look at the people, issues and conservation within the country.  Now you’ve had that disclaimer, we can begin…

The picture you can see above is of Lake Naivasha at sunset, the bank of which was the location of our first lodge. A short stroll from there to watch hippos emerging as the evening proved fruitless in regard to these mega-herbivores, but the bird life around us more than made up for it. Among grey herons and coots that provided familiar tastes of home, ibises, hammerkop and martins were abundant that evening. Perhaps the most spectacular for me were the Pied Kingfishers. These guys are big compared to ol’ Halcyon of the UK waterways, about the size of a blackbird, and dramatic feeders too, rising to a height of nearly 20 feet it seemed before plunging after it’s fish prey.

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Loving the Bug

For my first proper post, I thought I’d start on something memorable. A post on a group of animals that have wowed millions in their array of diversity, that have inspired naturalists since humanity decided wildlife was good for something other than eating, and if we lost them we too would be doomed to extinction…

Yep, I’m talking about the wonderful world of invertebrates.

Yet for all their worth, the array of arthropods, molluscs, annelids and the like that populate our planet, they slip under the radar much of the time due to the human perception of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s a world we don’t really see or understand, and emotive nature finds few ways to relate to them in the same way we do to big, ‘sexy’ mammalian species such as tigers, orangutans and whales: you would never find a global, celebrity-backed conservation campaign entitled ‘Save the Partula Snail’ or ‘Fregate Island Beetle Time Now’.

Which is understandable, for those flagship species are undoubtedly awesome and their popularity is a key to finding the way to preserve them for years to come. And there are certainly some inverts that are very handy at grabbing the public’s attention due to our own definitions of a ‘beautiful’ animal. Butterflies instantly come to mind, with appreciation of their beauty thankfully turning from pinning specimens to a board for a ‘stamp collection’ to managing habitat such as chalk downland largely for the benefit of rare species of butterfly. They are probably the most photogenic of the arthropods too, as the photo to the right shows: I was lying in a Cornish field for about half an hour snapping shots of these obliging common blues (much to the bemusement of passers by) this Summer. Dragon & damselflies are another group that could be classed as ‘romantic’ insects, the sight of them buzzing along a peaceful brook in a sunny spring afternoon bringing in more deserving public respect. Continue reading