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.”


World Pangolin Day, and a little announcement


Did you know it’s World Pangolin day today? Do you even know what a pangolin is? Did you even know it was a Saturday?

If the latter applies to you, I’ll let you off as a cause lost to the world, but the second question is all to frequently answered with an awkward shake of the head. You can start by looking at the photo above: that chap there is just one of eight species of pangolin (four in Africa, four in Asia), remarkable, characterful mammals that look the result of a night of passion between a podgy anteater and an amorous pinecone, bearer of a long dextrous tounge for investigating ant nests and an evolutionary body plan that hasn’t really changed in the last 60 million years or so. Lewis Carroll couldn’t have dreamed it up himself.

If something that fantastic still remains mostly unknown to the world, today’s day of awareness raising makes a lot of sense; but there’s more to it than that. Pangolins are being abducted from their forest homes in Asia at a rate which is difficult to monitor yet sickingly staggering when you consider the seizures that have been made by authorities; a single smuggled cargo of pangolins can carry up to six tonnes of the animals, and those are just the ones that are caught. They are being decimated in the hundreds of thousands, and all to fuel the same market of rich, South-East Asian consumers notorious as the root of more publicised illegal wildlife trades in elephant ivory and rhino horn. Although the pangolin is subject to paper protection in the countries where it is consumed, go to any market or classy restaurant in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and you will find pangolin meat, scales, even foetus soup, on the menu with waiters all to enthusiastic to serve it to you.

The fact so few seem to be aware of this is in my view as disgusting as the trade itself, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to rectify in as much capacity as possible for the last few years. I covered the issue two years ago on the Independent largely as I was trying to reach a much larger and ‘unconverted’ audience as possible than one can achieve with a personal wordpress. But this World Pangolin Day, I’m happy to announce a very exciting project to keep track of over the next two years.

Having gathered a team of seven fellow students from the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus & Falmouth University, this Spring we will be launching ‘Ferae Vietnam’ – an eight week expedition to take place over the Summer of 2016, where our aim will be to survey and study populations of elusive mammals within the Ferae clade (pangolins and carnivores) in conjunction with NGO Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, and at the same time we will be filming a documentary on our research and the terrible plight faced by the pangolin – the aim is then for the film to be marketed as widely as possible to both Western audiences, and those in South-East Asia who may otherwise consume them.

It’s early days, and we will be launching the website and an introductory film within the next month or so. But it’s the start of an exciting journey where I hope to make some kind of difference to the future of these wonderful mammals.

2015’s natural motivator

‘Fssh, fssh, fsssh… fssh, fssh, fssh… fssh, fssh, fssh…’ if you’re a bit confused, which you are, that’s the sound of one of the most amusing and quite simply nicest wildlife moments of last year. A badger was shuffling backwards with a huge heap of dead leaves between it’s back legs and forepaws in a characteristic manoeuvre, resembling a cross between a dog trying to relieve itself of worms and a drunk doing the rowing dance to ‘Oops upside your head’. Once it had descended into its sett to dump this load of fresh bedding, it was back outside to repeat the process continually for at least another hour and a half, providing a constant source of entertainment on this evening’s sett watch in the New Forest. (Which reminds me that I need to send over last season’s data to the badger group by the end of the month – sort that out later)

2014 was yet another year in a trajectory of increasing annual awesomeness that I hope doesn’t stop anytime soon. Another year which has been more eye-opening, full of adventure, new people, knowledge and progression than the last. This has been the case (bar a couple of real dud moments) personally and emotionally, but as this a wildlife blog rather than one on lifestyle, love and instagrammed pictures of meals, it’s what I’ve gained from my natural life’s calling that provided the real fruit of what to write home about.

If there was one thing you notice as a conservationist, it’s that as each year builds up on your understanding of the issues we face as they become more far more prevalent. As a result, you can either become more depressed, or more invigorated to fight harder for it. For most it’s generally a mix of the two, though thankfully with a leaning more towards the latter. These are feelings more thoroughly explored in this post from September, and my new role within the committee for youth conservation movement ‘A Focus on Nature’ certainly put a great emphasis on this throughout the year, all boiling up to our rather splendid gathering of over a hundred young people speaking up for nature in Cambridge on the 9th September.

This year however, there was a particular defining moment that summed up exactly what nature could achieve if we just stepped up a bit more for it. It wasn’t a conference, or a discussion, but four weeks of my life carrying out wildlife research in the Tanarva Mare region of Transylvania.


Here was a landscape barely changed since the days it was being battled over by Saxons and Turks – beyond the quaint valley-bottom villages with their playbox farmyard-homesteads, rolling wildflower meadows bloomed with a pyschadelic blossom of innumerable creatively-named flowers and orchids. Wasp spiders wove their webs between these, and every footstep was an arthropod firework of bush crickets and grasshoppers. Rasping calls of red-backed shrike pierced the heat haze of a burning summer afternoon, replaced by the crek of the corncrake come the cool descent of evening. At this time, all kinds of creatures would come a stirring from the slumber from the shadows of the woods above – including the great brown bear, a creature faded into fairytale for us but very much a regular suspect in these foothills.


The key word to sum up the wildlife of this region was ‘plenty’ – but what made this place stand out from other parts of the world I’ve been to, equally bounteous in nature, was how it could well have been Britain not so long ago. Plants and animals we know well and take for granted from our countryside lived plentifully alongside those we now regard as rare or threatened (such as the swallowtail, sand lizard, pine marten and woodlark) to those we’ve completely wiped out back here – stand up bears and boar. Yet this was no civilisation-less wilderness: it was somewhere people were living and working in close commune to nature, be it grazing their family cattle upon the meadows or cutting oak and hornbeam for the homestead in the hill-top woodlands.

My time in Romania showed me what I wanted nature in the UK to be. We don’t have to take this literally and go back to medieval methods of ploughing fields with horse and cart, but if we just take a little less and work out a better balance between wildlife and what we use the land for, we could have fields full of birds, invertebrates and wildflowers again – one day, maybe even woodlands in our uplands, with some of the missing great beasts reinstated, may even make a comeback. My point being that anyone seriously trying to defend the natural history of Britain should at least visit the Tanarva Mare or somewhere similar, for then they will see the physical form of their argument. It’s certainly set me up for 2015 and beyond. Who knows where conservation will take me, or what I’ll have seen by this time next year, but at least I have a vision of what we could aspire to – something I think our wildlife would certainly thank us for if they could.


With the exception of that housekeeping badger. All it wants this year is a clean bed.

For the Birdfair

bill oddie

(Photos courtesy of our awesome team photographer, James Shooter)

“It’s like Glastonbury for birders!” some people say. And entering Birdfair for the first time this year, I can see where they’re coming from. Hoards of people descending from across the country to a small patch of mud-caked farmland, plenty of beer chugging, portaloos and a myriad of tents and stages sounds like any other music festival.


But then factor in that the tents are huge marquees showcasing wildlife NGOs, travel companies, publishers and optics; the stages host the big names in natural history rather than music; and rather than revelling youngsters it’s as if every British naturalist, birdwatcher and their dog has descended on Rutland Water. Stepping inside for the first time was an extraordinary, overwhelming experience. Wildlife watching can often seem a sedate and solitary hobby, but Birdfair completely scratches the record on that.

IMG_1809Although it is a three-day event, the Friday was my only full day to explore the showground like a ‘normal’ visitor before my duties working on one of A Focus of Nature’s two projects here this year begun the next (which, incidentally, we’ll also hear more of later) – yet even in all that time, I’d barely seen all the stands I wanted to see, hear all the talks I wanted to hear or had the chance to eat enough to vaguely pass as lunch. By the time I finally did sit down – at an extremely good talk on what it really means as a person to be a birder – I could’ve gone to bed there and then.

But that definitely wasn’t happening, as immediately after the talk I met with one-half of the AFON creative quartet and good friends, Dr Rob Lambert and Lucy McRobert. We were swiftly caught up in the first-day drinks reception, and it was here that Lucy came into her own. Were networking an olympic sport, she would surely take unbroken gold for Team GB, and Lucy introduced me to personalities at ten-a-minute, snatching them off their conversations to shake my hand with the velocity of a starved spotted flycatcher.

There was, however, method in her madness – not only in widening my personal contact list with those working directly in the field of natural history and conservation, but to ‘enrol souls’ for that AFON project I mentioned. The project in question was the new promotional video for Birdfair, based around the theme ‘What does Birdfair mean to me?’ Celebrities, professional conservationists and the general public were to hold up a blackboard in mug-shot style with a word or phrase illustrating the above question, with additional sound-bytes from some of the more familiar personalities.

Playing 'Bird Brain'

Playing ‘Bird Brain’

Lucy had assigned me as team leader for this film, which essentially meant making sure everyone knew what they were doing, gather willing participants to be filmed and report back to ‘HQ’ (ie. Lucy). The film crew consisted of four brilliant, talented young naturalists within AFON’s ‘youth’ demographic (16 to 30). On filming duties were Rebecca Hart and Hamza Yassin, two of the most level-headed and competent wildlife filmmakers you could meet. Meanwhile, stills and additional footage was captured by James Shooter and Alex Berryman, both AFON members and both undoubtedly two of the UK’s top young wildlife photographers. All four of these people have photographed and filmed wildlife to exceedingly exceptional level at home and abroad, so the film was in more than capable hands.

Day two, and time for work to officially begin on the video – but before the team met at 11, I had just enough time for a chat with my AFON mentor, Mark Avery. As both Britain’s premiere nature blogger and former conservation director of the RSPB, he’s one of the big apples of the UK wildlife scene. It was a pleasure to be able to spend an hour or so chatting away about the intense challenges conservation faces today and how you go about solving it, particularly within context to what I plan to achieve in my career.

In conservation, without guidance from those who came before you may as well not bother. The mentor has been a staple of all the great naturalists, and AFON’s own scheme is certainly one of it’s most valuable aspects.

Wishing Mark well till our next meeting (which was only a few hours later), it was time for the crew to assemble. Finally gathered after days of virtual text and facebook discussion, it was as we dotted ‘need-to-film’ points on the site map and check-listed all our potential interviewees in a vast hit-list of the country’s top naturalists, that it dawned even a 3 to 5 minute film was going to keep us more than busy enough over the weekend. (All this casually going on while Charlie Hamilton-James sipped a coffee on the other side of the table, so star-struckness wasn’t likely to be a potential concern.)

So from the word ‘Allons Y’, it was on to scour out the celebrities, conservationists and birdfair crew to provide soundbytes. It was very much a case of catch n’ grab, much like Lucy’s own tactics at the previous day’s drink reception. “Stephen Moss ahead, get Stephen!” “We’ve got Kane from WWT, have we got the people we need from RSPB and BTO yet?” “Filming Mark Avery at the foodcourt at half 2, but we need to grab Derek Moore first…” – you get the picture. Lucy once again proved instrumental in snaring some of the more elusive yet hugely popular personalities, switching twitching from ticking rare birds to rare celebrities instead. I’ll never forget the moment we were finishing up our lunch, when Lucy suddenly dragged a rather bemused Bill Oddie out of the VIP tent, offering him to us for a soundbyte like a birder saleswoman.

I’m happy to say however that all the people we interviewed that day, Bill included, were very happy to oblige, coming up with words on Birdfair that were variably enlivening, inspiring and occasionally downright hilarious – I’ll think I’ll let you wait and see what Bill Oddie and ‘urban birder’ David Lindo wrote on their blackboards till the video’s release.

With a huge quota filled, yet with a few more people to track down the next day – and that’s not even mentioning pick-up filming and including some of the general public – it was time to pack up and get a well earned Birdfair bitter (or was it the osprey ale?) The beer provided the perfect opportunity for all of Birdfair’s AFON representatives to finally meet in person.

Here, amongst the sea of old timers in beards and anoraks that seemed to proliferate the showground, was a group of young people which could just as easily be a gaggle of ‘yoofs’ at a music festival or student bar, but all on the same conservation-navigated boat. Jokes and anecdotes of uni life interspersed with serious discussion on wildlife issues. I suppose a key goal of AFON is to fuel a whole new youth movement for nature – that gathering in the food-court has already sown the first seeds.

The second, action-packed day at Birdfair subsequently ended on Ceri Levy’s ‘birthday bash’ to celebrate 25 years of the event. With extraordinary footage of voice choirs singing like wrens and pheasants (seriously look it up – Marcus Oates’ ‘Dawn Chorus’), the beautifully moving bird-inspired folk songs by Jackie Oates and nostalgic films dating back to that very first gathering of birders on Rutland Water in ’89, it was a charming look at the cosy and very close-knit community of birding, both scientifically and culturally.

The enchanting folk singer, Jackie Oates

The enchanting folk singer, Jackie Oates

As the third and final day dawned on Rutland Water, it was operation do-as-much-as-you-can-without-stopping for the film crew, and we were gathered before the gates even opened. As we had a lot on our plates, we split up – James continued to take stills across the showground, Alex did additional filming of the event, whilst Hamza & Rebecca caught any remaining personalities for soundbytes.

Initially spending the morning with these two, where we managed to get a very poignant word to end the film with on Simon King’s blackboard, footage of bird ringing in action and panoramas of the reserve from the rather splendid observation tower, I reconvened with Alex for the remainder of the afternoon for perhaps the greatest challenge yet – asking the general public what Birdfair meant to them.

While media personalities can work with cameras like they were they’re best friends since childhood, asking elderly couples sitting in the sun whether they would like to be in the birdfair promo film is a different story. I had horrible imaginings of every person we asked recoiling in horror at the idea, but thankfully, after a polite ask for permission and explaining as to what it was for and what they had to do, nearly everyone we asked was as willing and co-operative as Johnny Kingdom. That said, trying to sum up Birdfair in one word or phrase on the blackboard did prove a little tricky for most – trying to say ‘no pressure, take your time’ when there’s a camera eyeing you up, ready to roll does make you feel a little guilty sometimes!

With a variety of the great attendees of Birdfair recorded on film, it was a panorama of the que for the ice cream van that ended me and Alex’s expedition that afternoon, and with Rebecca and Hamza wrapping up very soon after, it was with a sigh of relief that we could say we had a film in the can. And so, as the completed and dazzling kid’s mural was packed up behind us, it was with hugs and bittersweetness that team AFON gathered for the last time at Birdfair 2013.

But what we’d done was far more than just the film. Birdfair is the ultimate way of showing that being a nature obsessive is far from an isolated interest, the sort of place where birders from all corners of the globe enthuse over the little egrets by the optics tent together, where you could talk to Nick Baker about harvest mouse surveys and the strange make of your binoculars as casually as you would with another naturalists on your local patch – everyone’s in the same boat at Rutland Water.

And of course, it really showed how A Focus on Nature, a project started only last year yet already with huge scope, is so important. Here’s to Birdfair 2013, and hope to see you next year – but keep an eye out for us AFON lot. This year you’ll have seen the mural, and soon see our film to prove our cred. I’ve gotta feeling we’ll be even louder in 2014…

STOP PRESS: It’s finished! Watch the final product here.

The First Dark Day

So it’s come to this.

On this day, June 1st 2013, licences are to be handed out that allow farmers and landowners to cull badgers. Initially in two cull zones within Gloucestershire and Somerset, but almost undoubtedly to other parts of the country in the future.

But this is just one of so many dark days for Britain’s wildlife if such policy-making continues as it is. Unable to see anything in reality without some financial value to it and greedy with the power of control, the people supposedly looking after our environment and ecosystems as written on paper are perpetuating its ongoing decline.

There’s the indirect methods – intensive agriculture, mismanagement of forest and marine ecosystems, urban development into sensitive areas – such things, driven by our government’s ongoing drive with nothing but money on the mind (generally for themselves and their chums) pushes huge declines in over 60% of our wildlife, as the staggeringly bleak State of Nature (and read the whole paper, not just the summary) reports.

Now it seems that the country sportsmen ‘in charge’ of nature are bringing their hobby to policy, covering the ears against the protests of scientists, conservationists, a large majority of the Commons and the public under a smokescreen of out-of-the-hat reasonings that a ten year old could question. The protests aren’t just hippy tree-hugging for the sake of it. I, and most other people with an interest and knowledge in nature, accept that in some though often rare circumstances culling can be the only option, deer being the obvious example. But there is no excuse here. Culling badgers reduces Btb in cattle at a best outcome by only 16%, leaving farmers with huge numbers of their stock still falling to the disease, and vast losses of badgers will only be joining their vast losses of money. If they had just topped up the biosecurity, cleaning water troughs regularly and isolating sick individuals from the herds, it may have just ticked over nicely for a few years whilst a vaccine for cattle was developed.

But DEFRA head Owen Paterson ignored all the scientifically-backed advice given to him, and the result is the first licences given out today. Wildlife doesn’t just fall to planning and land policies now as un-targeted casualties. The Badger has become the first official ‘wild scapegoat’, a way for Paterson to get around his own department’s failings and blame it on something outside societal influence (as illustrated superbly in Lucy McRobert’s article), as well as going towards getting some of those pesky wildlife protection laws out of the way so his ‘real countrymen’ have something new to shoot.

Because with every new wild scapegoat, they’ll be far more losses outside any cull’s legal parameter. Already, illegal destruction of badgers and their setts are on the rise. It’s scary just how commonplace it is. When I was investigating the nocturnal rootings of badgers in the lawns of a local stately home, the land-keeping staff of the estate, hardened country-folk who had seen so much of the natural environment change in their time, were completely casual about what they’d been told by contemporaries elsewhere on how to deal with badger problems. “They just say gas ’em out or stick poison down, then just dump it on the road when you find it dead and no one’ll even bother to notice.” Thankfully, the ones at this particular estate would have none of it, opting for tighter security to keep badgers away from the ornamental lawns. They accepted badgers as part of the countryside they loved.

But elsewhere it is a different story, and the cull will make many feel it far more acceptable to kill badgers. Wildlife crime is hard to monitor, the police keep it low priority and the wildlife crime unit is badly underfunded. The illegal activities mentioned by the keepers on the estate that are already going on are taking an increase as the cull brings them one step closer to being able to get away with it. I monitor over a half a dozen setts in the New Forest, noting down the state of them and the activity of it’s inhabitants for the local badger group. But a serious part of our work now and other groups across the country is ensuring the setts are intact, and watching out for suspicious activity. You’re not just a naturalist but a security guard, the pleasure of watching badgers mixed with apprehension as I never know if the next time I visit, there will be none to see.

Badgers, and potentially many more wild scapegoats – buzzards seem next – are likely to go under disturbing extermination programmes, official ones then spiralling off into the ‘DIY’ attempts elsewhere. As I write this, protesters will be marching to Westminster, but it has come too late. Wild scapegoats are becoming just another brick taken out of the unstable wall of our natural heritage.

It’s up to us – those who aren’t in charge, but know about how things work, and crucially actually care for nature – to try and stop it.


2012: A Reflection on a Really Wild Year

The end of another year; the last of the turkey leftovers are being digested, the last-minute panics of where to go for new years grabs everyone’s attention, and the papers are full of review-of-the-years and look-aheads to the next. These have certainly been true in my case (though I think the second one is just about sorted now), and so it is that I embrace the latter and look back fondly on what has been one of the best years of my life so far. A really wild year it has indeed been, with the wildlife experiences I have had being among my most spectacular.

So without further ado, a quick rundown of some of 2012’s natural highlights.

‘Lifers’ Galore – Particularly with birds, since this was the year where I gave them a bit more ‘attention’ (always been more of a mammal & herptile guy). Water Rail at Winnall Moors in February, and Nightjar and Woodcock were both ticked off on the night of June 12th. A plethora of firsts from Fishlake Meadows, my local wetland site which is now much easier to access after passing my driving test this year: the 12th May alone had my first visual sighting of a Cuckoo with four Hobby then catching dragonflies above my head. The cream of the crop there came in September, when I saw my first Osprey and Bittern within a week of each other at the site. Wetland birds just kept on coming during my visits to Cley Marshes and Hickling Broad in Norfolk at the end of August, providing firsts of Common & Green Sandpiper, Marsh Harrier and CraneFinally, my first ever Waxwings in Hedge End rounded it all off in December.

From a non-bird viewpoint, the best was definitely the ridiculous numbers of Smooth Snakes seen during the ARC friends day walk on a Dorset heath in September, alongside all the other UK reptile species bar the adder.

Macro Madness – My 18th birthday not only gave me my first legal pint and clubbing night, but also my first macro lens. I’d always loved being able to get right down to the ground with my old bridge camera, crawling through meadows to capture wildflowers and grasshoppers at their own level, so naturally I wanted to continue this with my new SLR.

So below are my top three macro shots of the year; the frisky February frogs of my garden ponds giving their best ever profiles, a gorgeous Brimstone feeding on the nectar of the Summer wildflower boom, and a Common Darter ceasing it’s erratic flight to rest on a branch. At least till the next fly dinner comes its way…

Springwatch Otters – Without a doubt my best British wildlife encounter so far. I’d known of a famous otter family in Dorset that emerged not only during the day in the town centre’s river, but in complete oblivion of people, for some time. If you saw the last series of Springwatch, they were the family followed by Charlie Hamilton-James. And now I had a driving licence. So, one fine June day, I made a carefully-planned slot between my A-Level revision I made the 45 minute journey to the otter’s haunt.

From the moment I had parked behind the Tesco, gathered my camera, tripod and binoculars and headed out to the first stretch of river, there was already one local standing by with bins asking “come to find the otters then?” And so began a hectic 20 minutes or so of rushing up the river, each time told by a photographer or dog walker “they were here about five minutes ago, then swum up that way”. As I progressed away from the town into a more wooded stretch of riverbank, I was beginning to lose hope. Until my heart jumped at the sight of a tail dipping in the water below.

A few steps further, and the trees parted to give a clear view of the river. And within this view, the mother otter and her two mature cubs stayed for what may have been 15 minutes but seemed like hours, in an experience where you feel shifted from your own world, gone through the looking glass and into theirs. The three would dive for fish independently, disappearing in a stream of bubbles only to reemerge gnawing on a fish with huge satisfaction. After doing this every couple of minutes, they would regroup and swim together in a paralell trio, then dive simultaneously and begin again. As they progressed further upstream till they were black bobs in the distance, I just wanted to dive in and follow them.


Madagascar – With A Levels finally over, there was only one way to celebrate and kick off the gap year: A two-and-a-half week expedition to one of the world’s official biodiversity hotspots with some of the most fantastic, unique and rare wildlife around, Madagascar. My time of the Island was a field course arranged by my college, managed by Operation Wallacea, a fantastic research organisation that utilises student aid among top academics in conservation research. We spent time doing both forest surveys in the Western dry forests of Mahavamo, and reef ecology in those off the island of Nosy Be: Both have had little assessment of their biological value, but both are also being destroyed to the oblivion of the local people who simultaneously depend on them for survival. The forests the victim of intense slash-and-burn agriculture, and the reefs pollution from agricultural run-off.

img_4872OpWall’s research into the biodiversity of the sites and the carbon storage capacities could be the only way these places are saved for both wildlife and people, so this wasn’t just any old sightseeing trip. Our survey walks to look for lemurs, birds and reptiles (not to mention mist netting bats and small mammal traps) were all crucial parts of the equation, and gave us a real chance to live out in the wild. Camping out in the forest is one thing, but even if a rice-and-bean diet and long-drop toilets aren’t immediately appealing, the satisfaction of switching to back-to-basics mode really does restore the soul!

To have seen the leaps and cries of Coquerel’s Sifakas, the Malagasy dawn chorus of a like that sounds alien to our ears, held the remarkable chameleons and leaf-tailed geckos in my own hands, witness the appearance of a shrew tenrec from a longworth trap and even aid the discovery of a new species of snake are memories that will stay with me forever from this magical island. I will return, but I suspect it will not be in the near future. I can only hope that just as much natural wonder is still around then.

Wild Norfolk – A few days in Norfolk following my brother’s spectacular wedding in August was a chance to see some of the equally spectacular wildlife this county has to offer. Seals by boat at Blakely Point, followed by Marsh Harriers and Spoonbills only ten feet from the hide at Cley Marshes; and don’t get me started on the wonderful wildfowl, Swallowtail Butterflies, Peregrine Falcons and Cranes at Hickling Broad. On par with Scotland I think for the UK’s top wildlife destination.

Work Experience at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary – To get to know an animal is one of the greatest privileges around; and by the end of my two week placement I was already wishing I stayed longer as it was amazing just how much I did. There were the grumpy but obliging old grey seal bulls Flipper & Yulelogs, the labrador-like bouncy fur seals Chaff & Andy, and the sneaky short-clawed otters Starsky & Hutch. Stan the sheep too, who convinced me that sheep actually have some of the liveliest personalities in the animal kingdom. And probably the saddest to say goodbye to was the Sija the common seal. Not only was she incredibly intelligent, trained to wave and touch the end of your boot with her nose, but the most mischevious of her more ‘chillaxed’ companions, Luna and Babyface.

Checking the flippers of Yulelogs

Checking the flippers of Yulelogs

Those were just some of the many characters from my short time at the Sanctuary, and that’s not getting started on the rescued seal pups in the hospital ward. But since I’ll be living only 25 minutes down the road next year when I’m at uni, I’ll be sure to return to say hello.

Interviewing Sir David Attenborough – Need I say anymore? My first article for the Independent’s blog site was to speak to the god on his upcoming 3D motion picture, and I can clearly remember my simultaneous awe and shakiness upon going in to meet him in a backroom of a Fulham cinema. “First off, I just want to say your my all-time hero, so I might be a bit shaky to start” was my fumbled disclaimer to him as I hastily tried to get my dictaphone working. “My pleasure” with a smile was his humble reply, and as soon as my questions started and the answers followed, it was like being back in my living room with Sunday tea aged 4 watching ‘Life on Earth’ all over again.

Afterwards, I managed to get a quick chat about Durrell, The Diversity of Life and a signing of my nature diary. “Wow… even at your age, I was never quite this concise!” he mused as he flicked through the pages.


Nature Matters – As I woke up on the day of this event, run by ‘New Networks for Nature’ in Stamford, I had no idea just how overwhelming it would be. A genius idea of a celebration of nature in all it’s forms; science, literature, art, music, with all the appropriate speakers; that alone was worth the train fare and ticket price. But I didn’t expect to get to meet and know so many fantastic people. After making a point during the ‘Question Time’ panel on young naturalists, my ‘cover was blown’, and soon enough I was thrown into the world of the naturalist community. It’s an event I look forward to attending next year, and I hope you can too – it’s going to get big.

2012. What a year. Here’s to one that’ll be even better!

Creature of the Week #12: Radiated Tortoise


Everyone’s heard of the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, and global recognition was given to the sad passing of Lonesome George earlier this year, the last of the Pinta Island subspecies. But there’s another unique group of island tortoises even more endangered than the giants of Galapagos, many of which are starting to recover. The four species of tortoise on Madagascar are all threatened with extinction, completely obliviously to most of the wider world. Among them is this week’s creature, the Radiated Tortoise Astrochelys radiata.

Before man’s arrival on Madagascar several thousand years ago, Madagascar’s tortoises included giant individuals akin to those on Galapagos, filling the niche of large, grazing mammals in the Island’s unique ecosystem. Nowadays, smaller species survive in tiny fragments of what natural habitat is left, and in the Radiated’s case these are the spiny scrub forests at the Southern tip of Madagascar. There, they’re tiny, constricted populations are vulnerable to exploitation by local people. Not only they are a very tasty prospect for the pot, but good money can be earned by exporting them illegally for the pet trade. As one of the poorest countries in the world, this would be an enticing offer for any poor Malagasy person trying to get a bit more by to feed their family.

These photos were taken in the garden of a hostel I stayed at one night in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. It seems very likely they would have come from this illegal trade, so whilst it was fascinating to get so close to them, I feel more guilty looking back on it. However, a monitoring programme is being developed that will provide local people with an alternative income, protecting rather than trading in the tortoises, whilst organisations such as Durrell and the Wildlife Preservation Society maintain insurance populations bred in captivity.