Autumn Notes

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run..’
Keats, To Autumn

How delicious September has been after the monotonous drizzle sponsored by August. Early each morning the South Downs envelope themselves in a misted cloak, the sun glinting sleepily through hazel trees and hedgerows. This year’s lambs have now been moved into the goat paddock for fresh grazing, while the older ewes plod gently up and down the western hill. One of the lambs, Juliet, was hit by flystrike in August and now boasts a strip of short wool regrowing round her belly, the result of blowfly medicine that makes the wool fall off. Perhaps I should knit something to keep her warm..


Last week we foraged hawthorn, sloe, rosehip, elder and blackberries from the hedgerows, and turned them into a ruby-coloured jam which we smothered on buttered toast. I’ve been making sloe gin by plopping fat berries into bottles and topping up with Bombay Sapphire; it’ll be ready just in time for festive merriment..

On Tuesday we found a frog warming itself on the damp timbers of a wood pile, and our garden is still home to a family of hedgehogs fattening up for dark winter nights. We leave them crispy mealworms and clean water to drink; in return, they nibble the slugs off our raspberry plant.


Being a January baby, I look to the cold months with utter glee, but a cocktail of thick jumpers and hot tea makes me accidentally forget the smaller creatures we share the world with. While I settle down inside to endless period dramas, our population of mice, rabbits, foxes, badgers, insects and birds must find food and shelter to survive until spring. They don’t care who inherits Downton Abbey, but they do adore a dry jumble of leaves in which to snooze.


When Wildlife Wins

I’ve recently been finding it difficult to stay motivated in the fight for a healthy environment. Perhaps it’s the thought of four more years under a Conservative government that drains me of zest; four more years of badger culls, neonicotinoids, fracking plans, raptor persecution and de-subsidising renewables. I’m usually an optimistic kind of lady but some days I cannot understand how little society appreciates our planet; and how can we be so ignorant in thinking that our actions will not come back to haunt us?

So I turned to my lovely pals from A Focus on Nature, the young conservationists network where I’ve discovered my greatest nature allies. Of all the positive replies I received to my predicament, one of the most powerful was the reminder to think of how different our landscapes would be without conservationists. From rainforests to marine protection zones, the conservation movement has achieved so much since we started to realise the damage caused by human expansion.

This was just the ticket to jumpstart my eco-passion once more, so here are five British conservation success stories that have helped me remain focused on keeping our planet vibrant and healthy, for the sake of human survival as well as the homeless polar bears..

European Otter (Lutra lutra)


Since nearing extinction in the 1970s due to pesticides and persecution, the happy otter has now returned to every county in England. When conservationists lobbied to change water quality laws and vastly improved freshwater habitats, otters slowly started paddling back to our waterways, and just five days ago a young otter was spotted on a trailcam in the River Rother, very near my home! However, as otters are slow to reproduce and freshwater can be a very changeable habitat, it’s essential that we keep our waters clean and healthy to ensure their continued survival.

Short-Haired Bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus)


This little fuzzball was declared extinct in 2000 – yet it’s one of the most recent examples of how conservation efforts can bring species back from the dead. The short-haired bumblebee was once widespread throughout the UK, but loss of grassland habitats caused a major decline until the last bee was recorded in Dungeness. In 2009, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and other charities launched a reintroduction programme that proved successful in 2013; worker bees have now been found within 5km of the original nesting site.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Red KIte (Milvus milvus) A great shot of a kite in fight, with lots of light in its back, which enhances the rufous colour of its tail feathers, and frames the raptor in a halo of light. Gredos, Avila, Spain

Throughout continental Europe, the UK is the only country in which these magnificent birds of prey are on the increase. Under Stewart and Tudor reign in England, they were accused of scavenging and their persecution encouraged. Unfortunately, this persecution continued until just a handful of pairs remained in south Wales, but with conservation efforts numbers have rapidly increased and can now be found across the country. If you live in the southern half of England there’s a high chance you’ll see kites riding the thermals above rural areas, identifiable by their large size and forked tail. There are now so many pairs that the RSPB cannot survey them all!

Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris)

Water vole feeding

Despite their legal protection in Britain, water voles have suffered a 94% decline over recent years. This is primarily due to predation by the American mink, which was introduced to British waters in 1929 for the fur trade.  With habitat degradation and pollution also playing their parts, this little vole almost disappeared from our rivers before conservationists stepped in. Although they are still endangered, a reintroduction programme by the South Downs National Park has been incredibly successful and water voles can now be found up and down the Meon Valley.

Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)


The great booming bittern has been a reedbed resident for centuries; it is both secretive and silent as it scours wetlands for fish. But the reedbeds on which bitterns depend are disappearing rapidly due to excessive water extraction, and bitterns have suffered a huge decline as a consequence. However, thanks to habitat recreation and careful monitoring, this year saw the highest number of bitterns in England and Wales since the 1900s!

While it’s wonderful to remember every conservation success in recent years, there is still lots of work to be done. Please visit my About page to see which wildlife charities I support, and perhaps consider supporting them too. (You get good magazines.)

Note: Just after I published this, Twitter informed me that pine martens have officially been restored to Wales after a successful recovery scheme. Hoorah!

One Percent

There should probably be a little disclaimer before I continue with this post… I fully support refugees entering other countries and I believe they have the right to settle somewhere safe. Their homes have been devastated by a combination of forces, none of which are their fault; the question of their religion or culture should not even be entertained. I think most European countries are affluent enough to share with those in need, and I fully support the #RefugeesWelcome movement. With regard to long-term strategy, I’m not a politician and I don’t know enough about world affairs to pose a solution.


What prompted me to write this post is a statistic I’ve seen floating around the Twittosphere, mainly by refugee supporters trying to hush the pesky racists. The meme explains how refugees aren’t trying to steal our jobs, incinerate National Trust properties or turn every fish and chip shop into a mosque… Yet this particular little box grated on me slightly. More than slightly.


It’s this 1% stuff that’s bugging me. The idea that only 1% of the British Isles is developed is undeniably misleading. To the average Briton with little knowledge of ecology or geography, that would imply that 1% of the country is concrete jungle; all that remains is rolling hills and woodland as far as the eye can see, birds, butterflies and bunnies cascading out of every shrub.

While it’s true that urban areas do make up around 1% of British land space, that certainly doesn’t mean that the remaining 99% is fresh grassland ready for bulldozing. According to the World Bank, in 2011 the percentage of British land used for agriculture was 70.95%. We may spot a field of Jersey cows or a bright paddock of rapeseed crops, and think we are looking at quintessential British countryside. The truth is that crops, silage and livestock can cause serious deterioration in biodiversity and not provide much healthy wildlife habitat at all. In the last century we have lost 96% of our hay meadows, one of the most important habitats for bees and insects responsible for pollinating our food. How can we think such actions can continue without serious consequences for our world and ourselves?

06 hay meadow

I suppose there’s something fundamentally wrong with the term ‘developed’. Britain is a ‘developing’ country; we are supposedly much better off because we have big buildings and a strong currency. The fact that we call urban areas ‘developed’ is baffling to me. We’ve poured concrete over green spaces and filled the surrounding land with litter, and this is ‘development’? This is progress? And now we’re claiming that there’s plenty of room for more people because we can just concrete over the rest of the country…

I do actually believe that we can provide homes for more people in this country through redeveloping wildlife-poor brownfield sites and preventing the rich buying five homes and leaving four empty. But we have to stop seeing our green spaces as blank canvases for more buildings. We pave over flood meadows, designed to naturally absorb water from streams and rivers, and then we wonder why flooding increases? We disconnect ourselves further and further from nature, and we are confused that mental health problems are on the rise. Healthy seas and woodlands provide vital carbon capture services, and if more farmers follow wildlife-friendly farming, our use for pesticides will decline rapidly; yet we continue to undervalue our natural landscapes and we underestimate the power of nature. As Tony Juniper wrote in The Guardian two years ago:

The longer we continue to disregard the roles played by natural systems and to build our economic castles on foundations of sand, the bigger the costs that will fall to future generations. While we might enjoy some comfort now as we degrade and plunder nature, it is our children and grandchildren who will pay.

I think my main point is not to confuse this 1% statistic with genuinely good reasons to help refugees. It’s been wonderful to see how many lovely people took part in the #RefugeesWelcome march through London today – I believe the number is officially ‘tens of thousands’. But last year I took part in the fantastic Climate March along Embankment, where the turnout was only around ten thousand. While it’s brilliant that citizens march for any kind of social justice, it’s quite amazing to see how our priorities can differ.

If you would like to help with either the Climate Crisis or the Refugee Crisis, here are a few useful links:

Calais Action
Médecins Sans Frontières
Refugee Council 

Wildlife Trusts
Friends of the Earth 

Hedgehog Street

This week I signed up to be a Hedgehog Champion as part of the Hedgehog Street campaign! It’s a new scheme coordinated by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The aim is to ensure our humble hedgehog remains a familiar face in British gardens as shockingly, we’ve lost a third of our hogs in the last ten years, mainly because they are losing potential habitat and are often forced onto busy roads.

By registering as a Hedgehog Champion, I have pledged to make my garden into a hedgehog haven, encouraging them to find a home amongst our shrubs and flowers. We have already discovered a whole family of hogs snuffling around our garden after borrowing a trail camera!

To help our hedgehogs further, I downloaded some material from the Hedgehog Street website and sent round a few leaflets to my neighbours. The key is to get lots of gardens to join up by cutting tiny holes in the fences, so hedgehogs have a long corridor to travel through in their search for food and friends. All my neighbours were happy to help, but most had no idea we even had a hedgehog population in our road as they are so elusive.


It’s particularly important to help our hedgehogs at this time of year as they are trying to fatten up in time for winter hibernation. Please consider signing up to be a Hedgehog Champion and help our little hogs; the safer we make our gardens, the less time they’ll spend on the roads and the more hoglets they’ll make! Hopefully we can halt the terrible decline in British hedgehog numbers and make them a common sight once again.

You can register to be a Hedgehog Champion here and learn more about hedgehogging your garden here. Thank you!

IMG_5656 (1)

Fighting for Harriers

This weekend, I’ll be surrounded by violet heathland and gnarled oak trees at the RSPB Arne nature reserve in Dorset with my pal Olly. I’m attending one of several events across the country to raise awareness for our critically endangered hen harrier population, an initiative organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime, the RSPB, Mark Avery and Chris Packham. Hen Harrier Day was created to stop the incessant persecution these fabulous birds of prey endure every year. Despite Natural England’s bizarre insistence that 2015’s breeding season has been the ‘most successful in five years’, a number of gamekeepers involved in the shooting industry have continued to illegally shoot and poison harriers to protect red grouse populations. In 2013, for the first time since records began, no hen harriers fledged young in England.

There are events happening across the country this weekend, and it’s a great opportunity to join other wildlife-lovers to voice our outrage at the disgusting crimes that are still committed against our native birds. Please take a look at the website here to find out more about how you can help. Unless we continue to fight for our harriers, they will almost certainly become extinct – all in the name of profit and bloodsports.

If you can’t make one of the events, you could pop into your local Lush and buy their new Skydancer bathbomb! You can also give directly to the RSPB Hen Harrier Appeal or buy Mark Avery’s new book Inglorious about problems between wildlife and the grouse industry. Please also sign this petition to ban driven grouse shooting forever – bloodsports have no place in modern society, especially when they drive our native species to extinction.

The whole thing has really enraged me, so I channelled it into a poem:


Sun creeps over thistled moor
and stains the dawn cold,
sanguine gold.

A gangling hare begins
her voyage atop the heather sea,
through bilberry waves and
sphagnum froth she totters and hops,
and stops.

There lies a shadow on the earth.

Look up! Our hare a harrier spies,
bisecting the skies
with aureate eyes
and feathers of darkening cobalt.

Hare retreats; grouse awakens.
Auburn plume and crimson brow,
grouse is wanted by the world.

Hen harrier craves soft flesh
to nourish fragile young,
nestled low in wildling sprigs
exposed to wind and badger bite.
Portly man wants portly fowl
to shoot with steel gun;
a fattened carcass stuffed
betwixt the lips of Dionysus.

Ten thousand moons have
grouse and harrier flown
the heath together.

But man can find profit in Elysium;
he drains life with poison
and powder;
turns wilderness to revenue.
He has thrown our hawks into darkness.

Bright bird of Arcadia
lost upon the moor;
come back.

Poem: Ants


The news declares
a man in mask
open fire
four dead.
Tears, tears,
midnight song.
Remember those
who have ceased
to exist.

drying eyes we
trot outside with
electric kettle,
and drown
an anthill
in burning

How many deaths –
five hundred and three?
(with the water left over
from our cup of tea)

Cecil the Lion: Turning Anger into Action

Like the rest of the sane world, I was sad and angry to hear about the death of Cecil the Lion, an iconic male cat living in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Cecil was shot by trophy hunter Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minneapolis who paid $50,000 for the privilege, a sum which undoubtedly could have saved a lot of aggro and just paid for penis enlargement. Canned hunting itself is a tragic hobby where wealthy white men pay gamekeepers to bring an animal into range while they lay poised with a rifle. A hearty challenge for all brave hunters, undoubtedly, yet Cecil’s kill was particularly well-deserved.

As he was in a protected national park, he was legally unable to be killed for conservation purposes (spoil sports). Palmer and his assistant therefore tied a hunk of meat to their vehicle and lured Cecil to an area half a kilometre away from the park boundary, before shooting him with a bow and arrow (romantic). Alas, the shot was not sharp and it took a further forty hours for Cecil to die, wandering wounded across the plains before Palmer’s gang tracked him down and shot him dead with a gun. He was then skinned and beheaded, his remains abandoned on the park border.

5200I’m not going to waste space talking about how abhorrent this man is (who has previous convictions of illegal hunting), plus hundreds of others like him and the entire industry of canned hunting. While many argue it funds conservation efforts and helps overpopulated parks, the fact is that lions are classed as IUCN ‘Vulnerable’, their numbers decreased by 50% over the last thirty years. Why have we reached the point where we are culling wild lions and elephants in national parks, but populations are diminishing throughout the rest of Africa?

It’s a relief to see how much anger this killing has generated across social media; it shows that people care about our wild creatures, and do not believe the plebs and the wealthy should follow different rules. However, writing a Facebook status or smashing out an angry tweet is fairly pointless. Yes, it’s important for this story to spread across the globe and get people’s attention, but when the initial wrath it stirs has died down – what then? Many people will forget the story, their newsfeeds taken over by a new calamity that deserves another 140 characters of fury.

If you care about the death of this lion and you want to stop it from happening again, there’s something much more productive you can do. I’m a member of the Born Free Foundation, a fantastic organisation dedicated to protecting wildlife in their natural habitats. Yesterday they released this update on Cecil’s killing, and what they are trying to do about it. They have been campaigning to list the African lion as ‘Endangered’ under the US Endangered Species Act, which would stop trophy hunters like Walter Palmer bringing his carcasses back home, and would hopefully discourage them from doing it. Why hunt a lion if you can’t snigger at it with your chums over a cigar?

So what can we do?

1. The US branch of Born Free are urging people to write to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lion as endangered and stop all trophy imports.

2. You can also donate to their Big Cat campaign here, which will directly help towards cage rescues, sanctuary upkeep, major conservation projects and fighting trophy hunting.

3. Adopt a lion for your child, sibling or friend, or join Born Free as a member. Time and again people claim they can’t afford £2.50 a month; it’s the cost of a pint, a magazine or a coffee.

4. Know your facts so you can fight ignorance with knowledge. This report shows that trophy hunting makes a minimal contribution to national incomes, reinforcing the call for photographic safaris and ecotourism that make a greater contribution to the African economy without killing lions.

If everybody channeled as much energy into charities as they did social media, we wouldn’t need to worry about millionaires and corrupt authorities destroying our precious wildlife. Please take action & let’s hope Cecil’s death won’t be in vain.

article-2601593-030841190000044D-712_634x426Born Free founders Virginia McKenna & Bill Travers

Jurassic Park & Temporal Existence

August has almost dawned upon us, and I can already sense September looming ominously on the horizon. With the cooler weather I will begin the final year of my Masters course, and I must bid a sad farewell to pleasure reading for the next twelve months. I have therefore been devouring books rather ferociously before being forced to return to French modernism and other monstrosities, and consequently, I have just finished Michael Crichton’s 1990 masterpiece Jurassic Park.


I think we all know the tale. A wealthy, old man decides to create a dinosaur themed park to entertain the masses. Then there’s a cocktail of strange DNA, egotistical scientists and poor security measures, it all ends up really chaotic and everyone gets digested.

Aside from the death, adventure and exoticism, the story is actually a fascinating exploration of man’s ever-growing need to play God; man does not create the dinosaurs for any reason other than because he can. I recently went to watch Jurassic World at the cinema (amaze), the plot of which is based around a brand new dinosaur called Indominus Rex created because ‘normal’ dinosaurs have become too boring for the modern consumer. This new dino is Frankenstein’s monster in theropod form, made with a hastily assembled mixture of genes that inevitably deems it impossible to control.


Why is it that so much of mankind’s history is based on doing things because we can, rather than acknowledging our species’ abilities without the need to prove them? We have the ability to kill any living creature on earth, but why must we prove this by needlessly shooting wild creatures for sport? (Phallically-challenged individuals obviously exempt, poor things.) Developers with crumpled dollars oozing from their pockets gaze at a rainforest they have already ripped apart for profit, but they don’t stop; they simply rip it apart further, because they can.

In reading Jurassic Park, I was immediately made aware of just how fragile life is. Dinosaurs once ruled the earth – now they are all gone. As H G Wells depicted at the end of The Time Machine, the entire human race and everything we ‘achieved’ will one day be reduced to a layer of sediment. This doesn’t sadden me – it will not effect me or the life of my future children, and I am quite happy to imagine a universe where humanity ceases to exist and exploit.

But it has awoken in me a desire to enjoy life in all its simplicity. I used to be obsessed with being the ‘Best (insert occupation here) Ever’, desperately wanting to leave a legacy behind to ensure the memory of me would live on after death. What a load of balls. I’ll continue to work hard and have ambitions, but the most important thing for me will be to enjoy the life I have, treat people well and do things I like. Every morning I look out of the window at work and see rolling Hampshire hills dotted with buzzards, filling the air with the scent of rapeseed and manure and wildflowers. I earn less than other graduate friends and spend a lot of time in close proximity to sheep poo, but it’s the best job ever because I am completely in touch with nature.

I’ve always loved Jurassic Park (that theme tune arghhh) but since I was little, the overall emotion it has evoked in me is sadness. Their extinction is sad; their re-creation is sad; their exploitation is sad. I’d like to do my best to stop the first and last of these happening to the remaining creatures we share our planet with; the rest of the time I’ll spend eating cake.


Poem: Mulberries

This poem was written about Sydenham Hill Wood in south London, managed by the London Wildlife Trust. When the Great Exhibition of 1851 was eventually taken down in Hyde Park, it was rebuilt in the place that is now Crystal Palace. They built a railway line through the wood so that Victorians could access the palace, and although it later burnt down and the railway was dismantled, the wood still holds traces of Victorian life. The mulberry tree is all that remains of an abandoned garden in the centre of the woodland.


The mulberry tree
stands alone in the clearing;
it is abandoned.

A starched gardener
placed it there a hundred years before,
when the world came to London
for the great parade.
An elephant stood here, and
over there the Koh-i-Noor
was laid before the gilded eyes
of the rich.

People came and went,
bored by old treasures;

the crystal palace burnt down.

The garden was forgotten,
and the tree grew alone
within woodland shades.
The forest is alive now;
crumbling folly and rusted tracks
all that remain of the Empire,
buried beneath soft earth.

The tree is half black;
dying mulberries eaten
by the nuthatch thief.

Walking with Nightjars

Being the unruly twenty-something that I am, I spent last Saturday night creeping around the gorsey heathlands of Iping Common, just west of Midhurst in Sussex. We were on the hunt for the European nightjar, one of Britain’s most elusive species, best detected by listening for its churring song at dusk. While the bird itself is beautifully marked, it also looks like a mouldering pile of leaves; this means that it’s almost impossible to spot unless flying above the tree line, silhouetted against the evening sky.


Nightjars are insectivorous, ground-nesting birds, but their crepuscular habits mean they have historically found themselves the subject of old myths and legends. Their Latin name caprimulgus europaeus refers to the idea that nightjars were thought to steal milk from goats’ udders, causing them to dry up or go blind. Yet artists have long considered the nightjar a harbinger of warm summers and ethereal evenings, as celebrated in the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas:

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

Our walk was organised by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and our guide Jane Willmott was absolutely brimming with information on local wildlife, history and archaeology. Iping Common is home to a number of Bronze Age burial mounds, crowned with bracken in an amaranthine sea of heather. Straining to catch the nightjar’s call, we followed a twisting path through the reserve, passing a chorus of yellowhammers, song thrushes and blackbirds warbling goodnight. The night also brought us pipistrelle bats and the distant kee-wit of a tawny owl, while an eerie glowworm shimmered in the grass like The Great Gatsby’s viridian harbour light.

IMG_5414After some time, the nightjars finally revealed themselves. A low rumbling trill began to echo across the heathland, and as we edged closer, another voice replied across the heather. The purpose of the nightjar call is to warn others of territorial boundaries, and we were soon exposed to a stereophonic churring display all around us. To my great pleasure as a tick-minded birder, one individual also showed himself to us against the night sky, his slim silhouette appearing momentarily above the birch trees for us to admire.

Despite their red status as globally threatened, the hard work of volunteers is ensuring these birds have one more safe haven at Iping Common. Thanks to the Sussex Wildlife Trust for a fantastic evening!