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

Scottish Beavers are here to stay – and we’re finally showing some ambition in UK conservation.

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Beaver on the River Otter, Devon (Image: Nick Upton)

“What’s this idea you’ve got then?” asked the CEO to his colleague. He raised his eyebrow intently – he’d heard on the grapevine his new assistant conservation director didn’t necessarily follow the rulebook, which was part of the reason they’d been hired in the first place.

 “Well, if we’re to really show some ambition,” said the new assistant director, trying their best to stamp out the nerves that threatened to crush the pitch, “to restore habitat in a way we couldn’t think was possible – and gain public awareness with a charismatic animal to boot – there’s some good research from the continent that suggests we should start seriously considering the reintroduction of the, uh, the reintroduction of the beaver.”

There was silence, followed by laughter, followed by words from the CEO as to how that should never be considered as a serious proposal. That it was make-believe, better suited to over-ambitious undergraduates who romanticise the reality of wildlife conservation. The stakeholders would be aghast, the funding wasn’t there, and anyway: not only was this animal extinct, but so was the Britain it lived in. The beaver would never be a native again.

Thirty years later, Scottish Natural Heritage declared the beaver was officially a native once again, and was here to stay. Continue reading

Blockbuster Cinema & Nature Conservation: Can they go hand in hand?

Contains minor plot details for ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016).

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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

So long, and thanks for not caring – Extinction in the Modern Age

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Photo: Atlanta Zoo

This article was originally published on the website of The Falmouth Anchor, the student newspaper of University of Exeter Penryn Campus and Falmouth University. Read the original piece here.

Did you know an entire species went extinct just over a month ago? A perfect product of millions of years worth of evolutionary moulding via natural selection, now vanished to the abyss of non-existence never to be seen in the cosmos again? Something far more precious than any great temple or artwork for the simple fact it couldn’t be recreated, no matter how hard we tried?

To be honest, I didn’t until this week. And that’s speaking as a lifelong zoologist who generally has more interest in the affairs of the natural world than anything our species gets up to.

Ecnomiohyla rabborum (or Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog if you want to speak a mouthful in English), we hardly knew ye. Discovered by science in 2005, first described in 2007. At the same time the last one was heard calling in the wild, the entirety of the species was taken into captivity.

It was a safety measure in the face of its isolated distribution and the subsequent apocalyptic threat of chytrid fungus. This fast-spreading organism has already plummeted the numbers of other amphibians; sometimes wiping them out completely. Conservationists hoped this same fate wouldn’t befall the Rabbs, but they showed about as much sexual interest in each other as Celestine monks. By the time the last female of the species died at the hoped-for restoration population at Atlanta Zoo, their fate was sealed.

On the 26th September this year, the last male perished. And barely anyone seemed to know. Continue reading

Otter Magic: Why the Otter should be UK No.1 Mammal

This piece was originally posted on the Royal Society of Biology’s blog, as part of the campaign to find the UK’s favourite mammal during National Mammal Week in October 2016. View the original post here.

otter-picWhy are otters so endearing? This may seem obvious, what with their ‘cute’ charismatic appeal, prevalence in our culture from Wind in the Willows to Tarka and resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch. However one can’t describe the public’s love for them as one of familiarity – say, in the way we grow attached to songbirds by feeding them in the garden.

Otters move invisibly through waterways, a rippling shadow trickling through the dark river as we take to bed; unnoticed by those that have likenesses recreated in watercolours on their walls or soft toys in their beds – these people and many more are unlikely to have seen one in the wild. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal – otters are the great enigma in a landscape we think we know; the mystery of their secret lives is one thing that draws us to them.

Otter obsessives such as I typically have to make do with finding their spraint (dung) deposited on a bridge or rock. This is far more exciting than it sounds for both parties. Spraint is the otter’s form of Facebook, which is why they’re so easy to find in the first place – they want to be discovered. These piles of fish-bone filled faeces communicate status updates such as when lady otters are ready to mate (maybe it’s more like Tinder), ensuring that otter populations maintain a cohesive social network even given their solitary existence. Continue reading

The World of Small Mammals

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.

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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

Buzzing through Autumn

See the original piece, as written for my university’s student newspaper ‘The Falmouth Anchor’ here.

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Photo: Will Hawkes

It’s that divisive time of year again – it may shine bright, clear and golden, but the air that hits your face when you step out of your door is ice-cold and snatches unexpectedly at your now sniffling nose. Some may love the Autumn, relishing in the opportunity to cloak themselves in duffle coats and scarves again like a maddened roof insulator and the childhood nostalgia of kicking dead leaves on a crisp amber afternoon, while others mourn the loss of occasional scorching days and default wearing of single layers, that only seems to have been a couple of weeks before.

But fear not, Summer lovers – if you want an inkling of the feel that the raucous season insinuates in our minds, turn your attention to ivy bees. Unlike many of our native bees, most beginning to turn in for the winter and hide away (how I envy them), the ivy bee Colletes hederae is on the wing right to the end of October. As its name suggests, their devotion to the pollen of ivy, which doesn’t flower until the Autumn, means their presence brings one last reminder of the heady buzzing of bees on a Summer’s day, when much of nature seems to be shutting down. Continue reading