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

Good Zoos: Please don’t let one bad egg tarnish the greats

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Black Rhino at Paignton Zoo. Just one endangered species managed in captivity.

It’s a horrific story. 486 animals had died at South Lakes zoo in the space of over four years, frequently as a result of poor husbandry practices, and sometimes found still decaying in the enclosure. The owner, David Gill (whose attitude has been of concern for the zoo community for a while now), has been refused the licence and it all seems likely the place will, rightly, be closed.

South Lakes is a bad zoo; it is not, however some press opinions have already starting hinting, an example typical of zoos. These articles range from suggesting that live animals on public display is a bygone that should be replaced by virtual reality, to saying that all zoos should be outright banned. Continue reading

Trees are the enemy: Making mountains out of molehills in Scotland

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View of Ben Macdui in 2015 – won’t get trees here.

Tree planting ‘threatening’ Scotland’s grand vistas

 After hearing some good news for once this morning (the fact that Philip Pullman’s writing a follow-up to ‘His Dark Materials’, should you want to know), I was brought back down into a huff by this piece. Take a look, and absorb its content.

Read it? Right, where to begin. How about some key points?

Mountaineering Scotland and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association have jointly written to Scotland’s environment secretary – Doesn’t take a genius to see the vested interests here. Mountaineers want mountains to climb, fair enough. But the highest and best peaks in Scotland, such as Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis, are in the alpine zone where any tree attempting to grow is on a suicide mission. It’s practically a tundra habitat, where the occasional scots pine is no longer high and mighty but resembles a tumbleweed, so the laws of ecology will ensure there will still be plenty of bare peaks. And anyway, surely not all their membership are adverse to trees? It’s not like you can’t hike through them. And of course, the gamekeepers require plenty of heavily managed heather for their bounties of beyond carrying-capacity grouse populations – trees are as welcome as dog faeces (although I bet there are gamekeepers who’d like to see more trees too). But it’s a bit strange to protest because… Continue reading

Nature Diary: A Cornish Wood, 5th February

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Image: George H Higginbotham/BTO

The classic Cornish wooded valley, so steeply sloped that my footsteps slide horizontally into a porridge of treacle-like soil and it’s soaking oak-leaf carpet, the seemingly solid looking ground behaving more like wet snow. It’s one of those bright late-winter days with the first hints of warmth, and in the oaks, hollies and sycamores that root themselves precariously on the near 60-degree hillside, the long-tailed tits, robins and goldcrests are singing jubilantly and, I like to think, with an impatience to get nesting akin to children pleading for dinner to be ready.

These well-drained slopes are the ideal resting spot for a far more mysterious bird. Secretive, nocturnal and enigmatic in its ecology – as a mammal specialist, this instantly puts it near the top of my favourite bird list. There are clusters of bramble here, the kind that jeer threateningly at any humans who might foolishly bluster through them and receive snags in their clothes and cuts on their skin in response. But to the woodcock, this makes them an ideal fort in the day, a place of solitude before it flies to the swampy valley bottom of the wood or the mucky fields beyond at night to feed. Sure enough as I continue my way past these bramble islands, I send up one bird from its haven, and another some way on. Continue reading

Where have all the binmen gone?

This article was written for the University of Exeter’s ‘Field Course Fortnight’ blog. Read the original piece here.

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-12-05-25If you see dead things in Africa, there should be vultures circling above it. A child can tell you that. Even if you’re one of those people who finds vultures to be ghoulish, off-putting and reminiscent of a decrepit old funeral director, you should at least find things odd if carcasses on the savannah are un-touched by the birds.

That’s just what’s happening across much of Kenya, and to witness it is unsettling. We saw two rhino carcasses in the time we spent in the country, yet not a single vulture was seen even investigating the bodies of Africa’s second largest land animal. In fact, over the whole 12 days I was there, I only recall seeing a few birds overhead around Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park, and a roost of Ruppell’s griffon vultures at the latter – down to less than 20 pairs, about a tenth of what it was. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Samburu National Reserve, 16th January

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Vulturine guineafowl

There’s something about the almost-desert that lingers in the mind. Here in Samburu National Reserve, the arid climes of Kenya’s north paint an ecosystem a world away from the un-breached horizon of golden grass seen in more familiar locations such as the Mara, and is so much richer for it.

From a raw and jagged terrain of sandy earth and rock as red as Mars, bony shrubs and ragged acacias spring from the hard ground in remarkable abundance from this seemingly harsh landscape. Doum palm trees twist high to the sky, their fanned heads ungainly topping skinny trunks that branch off on another like a botanical hydra, and the occasional desert rose bush throws spotlights of here otherworldly pinks and scarlets over the orange-brown rockery. Overseen wherever you look by looming hillocks of rock that block out the morning sun from their roots well until midday, it’s a dreamscape that could have escaped the mind of Salvador Dali. 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

Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017

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2016 in a nutshell (Image: Ron Bury)

Whatever you read or hear, the public consensus is that 2016 has been as warmly received as someone redecorating your wallpaper with cat faeces. Of course like all things in life, nothing’s clearly good or evil. On a personal level I had a rather good year, bar some dissertation stress in March/April and a bit of middling near the end, but overall it treated me well, and it’s not what I’m going to go on about here. This is, after all, a nature blog.

And as such, you could argue that nature conservation has been set off to an even more uncertain, divisive start to the new year than has been seen for a long time. The rise of the far-right, driven by the un-predicted victories of Breakfast and Dump (as I think we’ve all heard their venomous names often enough now), has created a world in which these previously blurred ‘your-side, their-side’ divisions are growing clearer.

Unsurprisingly, the conservation sector is not really considered part of the picture in the mainstream. But similar things are going on there. Directly, mistrust ranging from disregard to outright hatred of experts and scientists, fuelled by the new alt-right leaders, has set us off into the much discussed post-truth era, with among others things, climate change going straight to the centre of the dartboard. Wildlife conservation isn’t safe from this either. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 22nd December

romsey-abbey_400x400For a celebration, which in its pagan roots at least, is about banishing the lingering cold and dark and embracing our loved ones in the warmth of our homes, the third day before Christmas this year is remarkably Spring-like. The sky is perfectly blue, the temptation to loosen the zipper on my coat is burgeoning, and while the clacking of sedge warblers and the bubbling of cuckoos is still a long way off, the golden reed beds hardly feel dead.

Reed buntings bounce over and make ungainly landings upon the heads of the sedges, knocking them to and fro like broken jack-in-the-boxes. At least two pairs of stonechat have settled here for the winter, something I’ve certainly never seen on the Meadows before; but they are remarkably unphased as they inspect me closely from the branches of dead poplars like suspicious police officers, and flit about the reeds in satisfying defiance of their Collins bird book description of ‘a bird of heath and scrub’. And the pig-squeals of water rails is raucous, casting one to imagine the birds having their own EastEnders-worthy Christmas drama somewhere deep in the reeds. Unusually, one even breaks it’s cover as I flush it from the path. It’s almost the reverse of your typical bird; it looks perfectly acclimatised to its hidden world as it skulks along the ground, but in flight looks rather like a badly stitched together child’s sculpture, with it’s gangly pencil thin legs straddling clumsily behind it. Continue reading

How To Break Into Wildlife Filmmaking (by making your own luck)

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