Wrapped up in duffle coats and bobble hats, the volunteers were still more than willing
to venture out into the biting cold of mid-January. Having admired my captive harvest mice, pirouetting through the heather stalks of their enclosure with all the grace of Cirque du Soliel acrobats, we took to the frostbitten wetland meadow of the Escot estate in Devon, in search of the abandoned summer nests of their wild cousins.
In the chaotic tussock-jungle of cocks-foot grass, reeds and bramble, we delighted in
finding over a dozen of the exquisite cricket-ball sized structures that still held firm to
the plants the mice had originally woven them into many months ago. Needless to say,
the participants were delighted, and a couple that managed a farm on the edge of
Dartmoor were keen to know how they could promote habitat for them on their land.
In response, I pointed at the untidy nature of the meadow that many would claim as
“Essentially you want that – if you’re going to have to mow, do so in small chunks on a
three to five-year rotation, and ensure that you’re doing it as late as you possibly can.
These guys can be breeding right into autumn, so mid to late September absolute
earliest. Even better if you can do so in October. They absolutely love the rough
tussocks formed by cocks-foot.”
The initial reaction in their faces was as if they had just sipped a coffee they had
accidentally added salt into instead of sugar. “Ah… I mean we’ve always seen cocks-foot
as a weed to get rid of, for starters. And we’d never have thought to cut that late.”
It’s an understandable reaction, when the timing and method for cutting meadows has
been so deeply instated for hundreds of years. Meadows are not an ecosystem in an
original sense – they are a product of low-intensity farming created to provide winter
feed for livestock, that also just happen to be great habitat for a huge suite of plants and
animals, including harvest mice. Traditionally, these were cut in mid-June to July in
order to provide the most nutritious fodder, but with the industrialisation of agriculture
and the advent of silage, we have lost over 97% of these agricultural systems that
happen to benefit a lot of wildlife. Continue reading
This article was written as a guest piece for James Borrell’s excellent blog. You can see it as originally published, and explore the rest of James’ site, here.
There are doubtless many young people who want to go into the world of wildlife filmmaking: whether that is operating the cameras, speaking in front of them, or coming up with the ideas and getting films made in the first place. Given you’re reading this on James’ site – an incredibly useful advice point for aspiring conservationists and biologists – you may well be one of them.
So you may already know, or will soon know, that trying to get your foot in the door in this industry is very hard indeed. If you’re lucky, manage to fend off hundreds of other applicants in a hunger games worthy CV contest, and actually manage to get through the all-hallowed gates of the BBC Natural History Unit in the holy land of Bristol, you’ll more than likely find it’ll be grabbing coffee for the people who’s job you really want. A fair amount of time doing this, and then you may be promoted to researcher. But it’s a long droll, and the number of people who aspire to film snow leopards in the Himalayas compared to those who actually do is disproportionately large.
If you want to improve your chances though, than my simple piece of advice is do something yourself. In this new age of social media, the possibilities are greater than ever before, and one such project undertaken by fellow university students and myself is ‘Naturewatch’. Continue reading
Contains minor plot details for ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016).
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) marvels at a bowtruckle in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (Image: Warner Bros)
Like many people this weekend, I went to see the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last Friday. Unlike many of those people however, the draw wasn’t so much the opportunity to see Harry Potter’s wizarding universe again, but my hope that it would bring the idea of what it means to be a naturalist or conservationist (albeit one of magical creatures) into the mainstream.
And without giving too much away, I think it did a decent job. I would be lying to say I did not relate in some ways to Eddie Redmayne’s ‘magizoologist’ protagonist Newt Scamander: an introverted, eccentric character not quite sure where he stands with people, but a world unto his own among the creatures he loves. And without being too heavy handed, themes of bureaucratic indifference or hostility to nature, and the need to educate others on the wonder of wildlife to preserve it, all raise their head. Regardless of the fact the animals in the film don’t exist, it resonates with reality, and I’m going to be very soppy here and say that a couple of scenes that delve into Newt’s passion for the (super)natural world even bought a tear to my eye.
This showcases what could potentially be a valuable asset in the struggle to promote conservation awareness to the masses – blockbuster cinema. Continue reading
This piece was written as part of the Naturewatch blog, a brilliant web nature series I’ve presented and currently script edit for university. See the original piece here.
In our latest episode of Naturewatch, we were joined by Nick Baker of Really Wild Show and Springwatch fame, a genuinely amicable and knowledgeable bloke, who certainly inspired me from a young age when his book of the wildlife year became my holy bible. But Nick, Liz and myself were upstaged by fellow mammals far smaller than ourselves, in the form of the co-stars we waxed lyrical over during our piece.
The Naturewatch team with Nick Baker (Photo: Russell Barnett)
The mice, voles and shrews that scurry, burrow and snuffle through the vegetation are Cornwall’s, and the rest of Britain’s, most numerous group of mammals. Despite this, they remain elusive and unseen while we clumsy humans stampede past like walking tractors – even when we do see them, they are frequently quick and unlikely to hang around for long, as our Naturewatch camera crew found out to much frustration! To get a really good up-close view of these animals (and contribute to good science too), your best bet is to go small mammal trapping. Continue reading
It’s only a theory; but when it comes down to the basics of why people often fall in love with the wildlife around them, I feel there’s two basic attributes of the natural world that hold the appeal in different ways. Its familiarity and simultaneously, its mystery.
The familiarity includes the aspects that we all know and love about nature. The things we can observe simply by stepping into the garden, walking down the street or strolling through the woods. These are the Winter garden birds around the feeders and the robin singing in the frost; the swathes of bluebells and croaking of frogs in Spring; the aerial dances of swallows and the harvesting of blackberries in Summer; followed by the spectacular scarlet shades of leaves in our Autumnal woods, sheltering the explosion of fungi below. They’re constant presence in our lives enriches our own lifestyle, creating strong personal attachments that leave us with a warm feeling of privilege to have such beauty as an everyday feature. It’s why the tragic stories of fewer cuckoos, declines in hedgehog numbers and ash die-back receive such prominence in the press compared to the plights of sand lizards, freshwater pearl mussels and the like. It’s as if our lives, not just their’s, are falling apart.
And then there is the mystery. If anything this is the larger driving force behind people’s interest in nature: The familiarity aspect is rooted in the privilege of being able to the know the mystery just a bit better. We are a part of nature, and yet we are so distant from it since we abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyles. It’s ‘laws’ if you can call them that contradict anything human society has come up with, to the point where words like ‘wild’ and ‘animalistic’ describe anarchistic behaviours within our culture. Like a herd of elephants within an ecosystem of a room, it sits behind our ‘civilised’ lives acting out the same basic life processes it has done for 2 billion years since the first bacteria and algae started kicking about the primordial soup, through the dominions of fish, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals. Only one species Homo sapiens has been selfish enough to distance itself from all this in the last few millennia, and in doing so have turned our birthplace into an alien world. Continue reading
I must admit, if I walk into a hide at a nature reserve, the majority, if not the only, people I see are generally bearded and bespectacled men over the age of 50 with expensive telescopes and camera lenses. As a gangly 18 year old with unfaded ginger hair walking inside the hide often feels like the cliche scene of the outsider appearing in the saloon bar of a Spaghetti Western, as the crowd of regulars turn round bemused at this alien.
That said (bar the odd old grumbler), the naturalists, wildlife photographers and birders I’ve met, whilst engaging in our shared hobby of observing the natural world, have been far more welcoming and enthusiastic than movie cowboys, with a common remark I’ve heard been along the lines of “your very keen for your age”, “it’s so good to see young people like you still into this sort of thing” and so on. And these are fair comments. While things like birdwatching and pond dipping, or even just been able to play in the woods, were once typical childhood pursuits that subsequently founded a passion for nature in adulthood, such pastimes are now so rare that the children who do develop a love and knowledge of wildlife are described as unusual, sometimes even ‘weird’ among their peers.
The decline of new naturalist blood has not gone unnoticed by more official bodies; the National Trust published their Natural Childhood Inquiry recently to dissect the circumstances behind this phenomenon, which has already been dubbed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder‘ by others. And on the day I write this, both David Attenborough and Chris Packham have voiced their concerns over the disconnection of today’s youth from nature. Continue reading