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

Full-Power Rewilding: Should we start behind a fence?

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a university field trip to South Africa (yes, they do field trips to Africa now. They’ve got to justify that nine grand somehow.) It was difficult to believe it was all a part of a module that I’ll have to sit an exam for come May. Among the research practicals and assessed discussions, it was an indulgence of abundant and unusual wildlife. On top of the ever-impressive elephants (still a favourite since childhood), black rhinos, lions and buffalo, there were the curious looking bontebok antelope with their gaunt, badger-striped faces; the barking cacophony and merlot-red wing flashes of the Knysna turaco; the most perseverant work efforts I’ve ever seen from an animal in the unique flightless dung beetles; the almost Godzilla like revelation of size when I saw my first giant kingfisher (as big as a crow); and many, many more.

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But beyond the plain childhood excitement of just seeing these animals, the serious conservationist in me was intrigued to get over to this country in order to see their unique way of providing space for a large human population alongside a vast suite of wildlife, that includes numbers of megafauna that would’ve been wiped out thousands of years ago in most parts of the world.

Saying that though, in a depressingly familiar tale, most of South Africa’s large animals were wiped out upon the arrival of the European settlers. You know all about the Serengeti wildebeest migration, but did you know similar numbers of zebra, black wildebeest and bluebuck (now extinct) used to do the same down there? Just one spectacle never to be seen again thanks to Homo sapiens.

Continue reading

Falmouth Anchor Column: Nature’s Guardians

My latest nature column as printed in the Falmouth Anchor, Exeter/Falmouth university’s student newspaper.

Whose countryside is it anyway? It’s the ultimate question and has been batted around much of the media recently between two ‘sides’ – the conservation community and the shooting/landowning fraternity – with the attitude we hold towards wildlife and nature as a whole at its core.

Perhaps the most notable incident involved the star of Springwatch, Chris Packham. He provoked the Countryside Alliance to demand the BBC sack him due to him calling on conservation NGOs to increase campaigning pressure against badger culling, fox hunting and illegal hen harrier persecution on grouse moors. This in turn led another columnist, Robin Page, of the Telegraph, to accuse Chris Packham of “knowing nothing” of the countryside.

I wonder how many students at this university have been similarly accused, simply because they love wildlife but don’t necessarily want to shoot  it. As someone born and raised in a landscape of woodland and farmland, who has devoted their studying to conserving wildlife in the field, I find this a highly offensive view. I’m not overly sentimental about nature; I understand the need for culling where necessary, and that wildlife is very much red in tooth and claw.

But, nature needs space too, and that is the point which many fail to recognise: their countryside is an industrial landscape as man-made as the towns they claim to despise. Many also state they are ‘real’ conservationists, yet this generally only seems to be of species that can survive in the conditions that intensive farming creates, and if it can, then make absolutely no impact on their activities.

Cooperation is necessary if we are to improve the future of the UK’s nature. But as long as these attitudes still stand, in many of those who manage a lot of the land where it could best flourish, it will be difficult.

One of the most depressing things about conservation? How Middle-class it all is.

This past weekend saw me attending my third New Networks for Nature event in Stamford – essentially, a ‘relaxed’ conference that’s celebrates both the scientific and cultural aspects of nature in one.

I owe a lot to New Networks, especially given my first one back in 2012 was what launched me into youth network A Focus on Nature for the first time, which I am currently proud to sit on the committee for. But this year, I didn’t come away with the same ‘ooh, that was absolutely fab’ feeling as before. Don’t get me wrong, there were many great points, but others not so much I won’t bother rambling about them here though – bar one.

In the space of one coffee break, three people I’d never spoken to before all happened to approach me, and, as if they were fates sent to dictate the idea of my next blog, each said (more or less) “this is all brilliant, but you can’t help noticing how white and middle-class it all is, can you?”

“Well,” I’d reply, “you could pretty much say the same for the entirety of the conservation movement in the UK.” Continue reading

Guest Blog for Mark Avery: A change for wildlife in our farmland

Being a conservationist is a bipolar affair. On the one hand engaging with nature fills us with joy, yet on the other, humanity’s relentless assault on the natural world, and the seeming inability of those who care to get the big business-folk and politicians to listen, can leave you thinking all the efforts of conservationists are ultimately futile…

Nature Diary: A Cornish Wood, 10th May

I often bemoan the fact that despite being fantastic in pretty much every other way and a place I am proud to call my other home, Cornwall is lacking in ‘proper’ woods. As a woodlander in spirit, raised crashing through bracken, climbing trees and dined upon by ticks in the great ancient woodlands around Romsey and in the New Forest, the offering here is more limited. The coastal, blustery nature of this peninsular county makes it difficult for any tree higher than a Shetland pony’s shoulder to grow, and any spots of woodland that may have managed to survive this and the chop-chop attitude of Neolithic farmers are battered and have a distinct ‘will that do?’ quality to them. The wild and rugged setting may suit Ross Poldark getting his shirt off and smouldering out to sea, but it’s bloody irritating if you’re an oak tree.
  
The exception to this rule can be found in the river valleys, and a quick scan of a satellite map will reveal these perusing across the agricultural green quilt like moss-green blood vessels towards the sea. These woodlands were pointless to deforest and cultivate given the steep-sidedness of the slopes, and the shelter from the cold and wind creates warm and humid microclimates, leading to temperate rainforests distinct enough to be classed as ‘Atlantic Oakwoods’. As their name suggests, these climes are exploding with life and colour in comparison to the relatively barren pastoral fields around them, and yet they frequently remain conspicuous and unassuming on the outside. It’s a bit like stumbling upon a psychedelic music festival in the middle of greyest, bleakest Birmingham*.

One such wood is my own ‘secret’ location. I initially found it some three years ago while staying in a B&B nearby, and later returned there after moving to Cornwall for university. Accessed from a standard Cornish country lane narrow as a tractor, the wood isn’t public access and I suspect I’m probably trespassing, but that just makes it even better. I’ve never stumbled across another soul while out here; this is the closest I feel to entering a world devoid of civilisation in this Western corner of the country. Continue reading

Nature Diary: College & Argal Lakes, 10th March

Copyright RSPB

Copyright RSPB

I’ve witnessed the slow coming of Spring 21 times now, yet the passage of time, of which a large part of it seems to have been spent in a perpetual waiting-room gloom of winter, makes it seem as fresh as if it were the first. I’ll probably keep writing about it each year too, and you can add ‘groan at Pete’s unoriginality’ to seasonal staples like Christmas, Eurovision and a new series of Game of Thrones. But as it is in my view the most wonderful and obvious illustration of the shapeshifting face of nature, it’s a tradition I’m happy to keep up, as each year seems to bring a new perspective to it.

No sooner have I crossed the terrifying B-road of death and gone through the gate into College Reservoir nature reserve, that I am welcomed by the twittering of songbirds, like the sudden wall of chatter one encounters the moment they enter a pub. A curious robin peered and bobbed around me methodically from branch to branch, perhaps in expectation of a mealworm or two to be launched from my pocket. To it’s left, more delicate ‘seeps’ and flashes of black, white and rusty pink could only mean the presence of long-tailed tits.

Fixing my binoculars on one of the pair proved difficult – the birds seem to resemble feathery ping-pong balls not only in shape, but also locomotion. Once they stayed still for long enough however, I could see how dashing the increasingly brighter sunlight of Spring cast them, and on a less poetic note, inspect they’re legs to see if they were ringed – many of the songbirds in this area have been mist-netted and subsequently adorned by academics at my university. While this was not the case, I noticed tiny pieces of lichen in their beaks. To my delight, I watched as each bird in turn flew into the crux of a gorse bush, where bit by bit a very comfortable looking nest was being constructed.

At this point it was similar in size and shape to half of a large orange, made out of particularly fuzzy mosses and lined attractively with the lichens being gathered. As one tit returned with new material, it was locked and stitched in with the precise care of someone brushing out the folds in a newly laid bed-sheet, and it would then turn around and vigorously shift up the moss with its backside. Eventually this nest will form a neat, rounded dome to form what is perhaps one of the most charming of all bird nests. Although I could not see any myself, long-tailed tits are famous for lining their homes with spider webs, the strong and sticky silk providing ideal natural foundations.

After checking the stream below for otter spraint (none today) and a quick scan of College Lake (couple of grey herons, groups of teal, coot and canada goose), I made my way back through the woods towards Argal Reservoir. Both College and Argal are man-made lakes built to fulfil a functional purpose in water supply, and standing on top of the dam wall that gives you the best panoramic view of the latter gives you a humbling sense of the engineering ingenuity that has created this, water tumbling over a 50 foot drop from the sluices beneath your feet.

Despite the dam initially appearing like another triumph of utilitarianism, the reservoir has created ideal habitat for waterbirds. Scanning the horizon with my binoculars, what appear to be model viking longboats from a distance reveal themselves to be great crested grebes, their swooning necks and handsomely feather-crowned heads occasionally disappearing below the water line on foraging dives for weeds. At this time of year pairs will be courting with their famous, synchronised dance. I kept my eyes fixed on the birds, but of the four in view, none seemed interested in ‘setting a date’. Continue reading

A Sunday Thought

On this Sunday afternoon, staring out the window of Beerwolf Books as I procrastinate off doing uni work, odd thoughts drift in an out. For some reason, one of those is life after death.

I’ve never really been overly concerned with the concept since I was very young – ironically, it was perhaps when Auntie Barbara, one of my earliest mentors in introducing me to the wonders of wildlife, died when I was 12 years old that I was happy to accept death was death, and it was what someone achieved in a life that mattered. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, and equally I don’t believe in nothing. I just accept we don’t know, and it’s best to worry about the here and now, like whether we could see pine martens translocated into English woodlands by the end of the year and whether to drink tea or coffee depending on the time of the day.

But our mind is a door any thought can walk into, and so life after death did today. To which I was reminded of one of the most fascinating passages I’ve read on the idea, in one of my favourite books about my favourite conservationist. The excerpt I was pleased to discover is copied word for word on wikiquote, which to spare you the search I will post here. It relates to the experience of the author of Gerald Durrell’s biography, Douglas Blotting, who while researching the book several years after Durrell’s death in 1995 witnessed something very curious indeed. Make of it what you will.

I returned to Corfu, staying with friends at the small coastal village of Kaminaki, not far from Kalami, while I researched the life and times, haunts and homes of the young Gerald and his family on the island. The season of the festival of the fireflies – that fantastic insect spectacle so vividly described in My Family and Other Animals – was long over. What happened at Kaminaki one stifling moonless night was therefore doubly odd.
I had been dining at the taverna on the beach with my friends, and stayed on after they left, engaged in a desultory conversation with strangers. By the time I started for home it was pitch-black, and I could not find the gap at the head of the beach that led to the ancient paved track to the house. As I wandered up and down, uncertain where to go, a tiny winking light, a curious, incessant, electric neon flash, suddenly appeared at chest height about three feet in front of me. I took a step towards it, and it backed away by the same distance, then hovered, winking steadily.
It was a firefly, I knew. But it was odd that it was around so late in the year, and so alone; and odder still that it should appear to be relating, or at least reacting, to a human being in this uncharacteristic way. I moved towards it again, and again it backed away by the same distance. And so we proceeded, the firefly always at chest height and three feet in front of me. I realised I had been led through the gap in the beach that I could not find, and that we were at the foot of the ancient track. Guided by the firefly I walked slowly up the invisible path, step by step in the total darkness.
Halfway up, the firefly stopped and hovered, winking vigorously, until I was almost abreast of it. Then it made a sharp turn of ninety degrees to the left and proceeded up another, shorter but steeper path, with me trustingly trudging behind. It stopped again, and I realised I was at the garden gate of the house where I was staying. The firefly went over the gate, and I followed it across the unlit patio. The kitchen door was somewhere there in the dark, and the firefly flickered unerringly towards it. As I reached for the doorknob the firefly fluttered up and settled on the back of my hand, winking the while. I was home.
Was this normal? I asked myself. Were fireflies known to behave in this way towards people? I lifted my hand up to my face and peered closely at the wildly signalling minuscule organism. As I did so, I heard the voice of one of my friends, who, sitting silently in the dark, had witnessed everything: “Good … God!” I blew gently on the firefly, and it rose, turned once in a flickering circle, flew off into the tops of the overhanging olive trees and vanished into the night.
“You realise what that was, don’t you?” my friend said. He was a distinguished political journalist, and an eminently sane and sensible man. “Gerald Durrell keeping an eye on you, lending a hand, helping you home. No question about it. I think I’d better have another Metaxa after that!”
Every Corfiot Greek I told the story to nodded dryly and said matter-of-factly, without a hint of surprise, “Gerald Durrell.”
Gerald always believed that if he survived in a life after death it would be in some form of animal reincarnation. He had hoped it would be something fun – a soaring eagle, or a leaping dolphin – but perhaps a firefly would do at a pinch.
Make of this visitation what you will, there is no doubt that Gerald Durrell’s spirit does live on in one way or another – in his books, in his zoo, in his ongoing mission, in the natural world he has left behind.”