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.

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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!

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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:

Harrier

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

Ants

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mulberries

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.

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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!

30 Days Wild: Week Three

I’m still loving this challenge set by the Wildlife Trust – to get everyone doing something wild every day throughout June.

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Fifteen
We were sitting in the garden on Monday evening and happened to see these tiny spider babies chilling out on a sun-drenched leaf. Although I am mortally terrified of house spiders, I find little garden spiders alright. These little babes looked very happy to join the ecosystem.

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Sixteen
The farm where I work is always full of wonderful wildlife, from birds of prey and woodpeckers to adders and fallow deer. On Tuesday morning, we were just chatting on the grass when someone spotted this! A little stoat was carrying its kits from one den to another, just like on Springwatch this year! It scurried underground and brought out one baby at a time, all curled up in bundle, and scooted it across the grass to the new den.

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Seventeen
Whilst waiting for the kettle to boil on Wednesday morning, I had a wander around the staff room and found this little chap. I soon discovered he was a small magpie moth, and as he later disappeared I hope he once again made it out into the wide world. Such beautiful markings! I am absolutely hopeless with butterfly and moth identification; this is probably the first moth I’ve ever learnt the name of!

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Eighteen
After the excitement of last week’s elderflower wine and fritters, I thought I’d make use of the last flowers before they disappear again. On Thursday I made elderflower cordial, which was really quite delicious! The only problem with making these delicious beverages is the ungodly amount of zest grating required…

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Nineteen
I decided to visit my little lamb Juliet today, who I’ve been bottlefeeding since she was born. I’ve weaned her off the milk now and she happily grazes with the other adult ewes, but I miss spending time with her every day! I needed to pick dandelions for one of the education activities we do with the visiting schoolchildren, so I used it as an excuse to spend some time in the sheep paddock. She liked the dandelions.

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Twenty
This year I’ve started volunteering for the Bat Conservation Trust on their Out of Hours Helpline! I applied for it last winter, and in April we went for training at their head office in Vauxhall. Once or twice a month, I take up a shift of bat calls when the office is closed. This means that if anyone finds an injured bat or roost and they call the BCT helpline, the call is sent through to me and I talk them through the situation, help them release the bat or find a local carer if it’s injured. It’s so much fun to do, and really rewarding!

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Twenty One
This afternoon we went to the classic car show at the Deer Hut in Liphook. I’m not a huuuuge fan of cars, but they had a fantastic bookstall raising money for the local scouts, and I found this big, beautiful book about the British isles. My mum also bought me a book about a family in WWII that rescued injured wildlife, so I can’t wait to read that either!

Lost Forever: Mankind’s War on Wildlife

This article was also published on The News Hub, where I write about science and the environment.

We’re half way through the sixteenth year of the 21st century, and the latest casualty in mankind’s war on wildlife has just hit the news. With a 90% decline since the 1980s, the yellow-breasted bunting has almost disappeared from eastern Europe, Japan and Russia. Once abundant in China, the lemon-feathered bird has been zealously pursued by hunters to be sold on the black market, despite the government enforcing a hunting ban to protect the species in 1997. Conservationists are urging citizens to educate themselves on the importance of local wildlife and choose their groceries from sustainable sources, but while many residents appreciate the plight of the bunting, demand is still high. Could the little songbird join this list of recent avian extinctions from the last century?

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Atitlán Grebe, 1989
The decline of this Guatemalan water bird was documented for 25 years by American ecologist Anne LaBastille. When an invasive bass species was released into their habitat at Lake Atitlán, they reduced the population of crabs and other fish that the grebes were feeding on. After a devastating decline LaBastille brought them back from the brink through a conservation programme, but in 1976 an earthquake fractured the lake bed and it leaked. Unable to cope with the reduced water level, the last surviving birds have not been seen since 1989.

Turquoise-Throated Puffleg, 1976
This Latin American hummingbird was so named for the white puffballs of downy feather around each leg, but has not been spotted since an unconfirmed sighting in 1976. A victim of deforestation, it is presumed that all original habitat has now been destroyed in the agricultural village of Guayllabamba in Ecuador. Based on the few known specimens, it was just 10cm long.

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Passenger Pigeon, 1914
A species of historical significance, passenger pigeons were once one of the most abundant birds in north America, flying across the land in enormous, mile-long flocks. They were so numerous that they accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in north America, but their numbers soon dwindled through habitat loss and mass hunting for cheap pigeon meat, which was used to feed slaves in the 19th century. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died alone in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914.

Sulu Bleeding-Heart, 1891
With a tangerine patch blossoming on its breast, nobody knows whether the Sulu bleeding-heart still survives. Any living population is likely to be small, and would be continuously threatened by uncontrolled logging and unregulated hunting. The Sulu Archipelago is a chain of beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean, but there are unfortunately no protected areas to ensure the survival of its wildlife. Other than two initiatives in the 1990s, any remaining population of Sulu bleeding-hearts has been left to survive alone.

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Paradise Parrot, 1927
Native to the woodlands of eastern Australia, the paradise parrot was a bright, colourful bird which had become increasingly rare by the end of the 19th century. Its decline was abrupt, and could have been due to overgrazing, land clearing, hunting by bird collectors and predation from cats and dogs. Famed for extravagant plumage, its colouring was vibrant even by parrot standards, with a mixture of turquoise, scarlet, black, brown and blue. A small number of individuals were discovered after searches in the 1920s, but the last confirmed sighting was in 1927.

Laughing Owl, 1914
Just 69 years after a scientific description of the laughing owl was published, it was deemed completely extinct in its native New Zealand. Known for its intriguing vocals, calls have been described as loud, dismal and frequently repeated. Others described it as ‘like the barking of a young dog’ or ‘a melancholy hooting note’, but bird-lovers today could not hope to hear it for themselves. Although abundant when European settlers arrived, theories claim that predation was the likely cause of this species’ decline due to its unwary and gentle nature.

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Eskimo Curlew, 1963
Once one of the most common shorebirds in the north American tundra, this slender-billed species was known as a ‘New World’ bird, one of the those discovered on Captain Cook’s second voyage in 1772. By the end of the 19th century millions were being killed each year, until the last confirmed sighting was recorded in Barbados in 1963. The plight of this species was the subject of Fred Bodsworth’s 1954 novel Last of the Curlews, which follows the bird through its migration to South America.

White-Eyed River Martin, 1980
Although its habitat at the Bueng Boraphet lake in Thailand has been declared a non-hunting area, surveys to find this bird have been unsuccessful. Other factors in the martin’s decline include the disturbance of sand bars and the construction of dams in the river, as well as deforestation and intensive agriculture. Despite its absence, the bird has attracted sufficient interest in Thai culture to be featured on both a postage stamp and gold coin.

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Imperial Woodpecker, 1956
The world’s largest woodpecker species, the decline of this Mexican bird is a truly grim tale. In the 1950s, logging companies convinced local people that imperial woodpeckers were destroying valuable timber, and encouraged them to kill the birds by smearing poison on the trees. Their numbers plummeted dramatically, and it is not known whether any populations still exist. With sad irony the loggers’ efforts were for nothing, as imperial woodpeckers did not forage on, nest in or damage live trees.

Black-Lored Waxbill, 1950
A small, dun-coloured finch, nobody really knows what the wild black-lored waxbill sounds like. Most of the population was known to reside in the Upemba National Park in Congo, but as with much of the wildlife in this area, it is unknown whether it is protected in any way. This is due to the fact that the park is continuously threatened by poachers, pollution and the militia. While the bird has not been spotted since 1950 the species could still exist, although it remains too dangerous for conservationists to carry out any surveys in depth.

Poem: Luna Tumida

Written during the last eclipse.

Luna Tumida

When I was seven years,
We all went to the garden
To gaze up at the sun because
The milky moon had swallowed it,
Like a whole edam set alight;
Rusted round the edges.

They gave us plastic glasses
to stop us getting eye tumours.
I put mine on the dog,
Who had a golden face
And glistening nose,
And was simply more important.