Pest Control

What defines a pest? According to Google, it’s ‘an organism that sickens or annoys humans, hampers human activities, damages crops or food products, harms livestock, or causes damage to buildings’. That includes fleas infesting our houses, foxes eating our chickens, rats burrowing into our grain stores, or simply anything that encroaches on the short, difficult lives of that rare species we call humanity. For indeed, when human populations are declining so rapidly, and it’s all we can do in the western world to find a morsel of food, why should we put up with other creatures taking such liberties?

Perhaps we should look at the facts…

– In the last 20 years, the world population has increased by 30%.
One third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted before it’s eaten.
– A herd of cattle consumes 8 times more energy than they produce in meat.
– Half of Britain’s ancient woodlands have been lost to new roads, electricity pylons, housing and airport expansion in the last 80 years.

It doesn’t take much to realise how wasteful and destructive we are in our food and building industries. Yet we blame rodents, insects and other small mammals for eating our food, simply trying to survive in a rapidly changing environment.

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Why is it that we believe our lives are worth more than others? I don’t just mean in a dog-eat-dog, Hunger Games kind of way; we travel through our comfortable lives, carelessly wasting and consuming everything in our path, and choosing to ignore the consequences of our actions. How many people bother to read about harmful microbeads in their cosmetics, or remember to bring shopping bags to the supermarket?

Why is it that we treat certain species with such disdain, simply because they’ve managed to survive the destruction we’ve unleashed upon nature? My favourite example is the humble pigeon. Pigeon plumage is beautiful; with the pink and green sheen of their feathers and the smooth grey roundness of their bodies, I believe we would value them more if they were a rare species. Yet because they are common and enduring, we cast them aside. While I personally think it’s a good idea to discourage people from feeding them in central London, to seek to destroy them is another matter.

We have a family of grey squirrels living by our bins at work at the moment; the management have decided they are causing too much damage, and are trapping and killing them one by one. It’s all very legal and above board, but I wonder how easy it would have been to simply strengthen the bins? I always find it fascinating how horrified we are when somebody is murdered, yet we find it so easy to snuff out the lives of other creatures, simply trying to survive and feed their young.

I’ve always thought it sadly amusing how blindly we label creatures as ‘pests’, when humanity tramples through life consuming and exploiting everything in its path. I’ll finish this angry little post with a quote:

I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the “lower animals” (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me.
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

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Leopards for Nepal

Like the rest of the world, I was very saddened to hear about the earthquakes that have recently hit Nepal. The number of casualties are still unclear, and it will take a fair while for the country to recover.

While the people there are receiving much-needed support from charities and foreign aid, many animals and livestock are also suffering. I believe animals are entitled to just as much love and support as their human companions, but it’s also crucial to keep livestock healthy if Nepal is going to get back on its feet.

To help support the animals there, I’ve drawn this little doodle of the elusive clouded leopard (neofelis nebulosa) that roams the Himalayan mountains. There are currently fewer than 10,000 mature individuals left in the wild, but the species is believed to form an evolutionary link between big cats and small cats. They are also believed to be the most talented climbers of the cat world, with the ability to climb down vertical tree trunks head first!

I’m selling prints for just £5 on my website, and all profits will go directly to the Humane Society International‘s Disaster Fund, which is helping feed and nurture lost, abandoned and injured animals.

Thanks for your support!

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Thoughts on: ‘Few and Far Between’ by Charlie Elder

My strange obsession with extinction has recently taken me somewhere with a little change in tone. Usually, and quite rightly, the topic of extinction is accompanied by heavy feelings of despair. ‘What’s the point?’ we sigh morosely. ‘We’ve killed off so many species – there’s no hope for humanity!’ While I do understand these gloomy thoughts, to me it seems fairly silly to give up hope on the basis of poor past performance. I believe we need a little positivity, and one morning in April Charlie Elder’s latest book arrived on my doorstep: Few and Far Between: On the Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals.

A1qZa+C2TvLWhilst the book does contain the inevitable news of vanishing species and harmful human interference, there’s a certain freshness that encourages you to look past this and have hope. The pages are filled with intriguing conservation stories; from bats, rats and wild cats to the tiny pool frogs living in a secret location in East Anglia. Yet, more importantly, it’s not just the cute and cuddly creatures he focuses on; the attention he gives to moths, beetles and birds is equally important in a world where we pour millions of pounds into saving the delightful rhino, but spare no love for the bumblebees or hoverflies that pollinate our crops. While I care deeply for the plight of our elephants, rhinos and tigers, there are many species receiving very little financial help that provide greater support for our ecosystems.

By far the most charming aspect of this book is its ability to engage the common man. I tend to read a fair amount of environmental and nature writing, and although it’s usually captivating, it often seems to forget that many potential readers are not scientists or ecologists; they simply want to learn more about the natural world. Charlie Elder writes for experts and part-time naturalists alike; his writing is amusing, and he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his own faults as a nature lover. He misidentifies dragonflies, admits prejudging a few minor species as boring, and is wonderfully honest about the gruelling challenges of nature watching, driving long distances in the early hours to sit on an icy cold beach for the afternoon. This wit and honesty is what makes the book so readable; he reminds us that nature watching isn’t always as easy as it seems on Springwatch, but more importantly that it is worth the wait.

Few and Far Between by Charlie Elder is available now and published by Bloomsbury.

Spring Reads

I’m currently revising for a horrid exam for my Masters, so to distract myself with more pleasant things, I thought I’d gather all the books that I think make excellent springtime reads. A few are from my ‘to read’ pile, while others are much-loved favourites that simply must be enjoyed when everything’s blossoming and nature is raw and green. Best served with a glass of elderflower.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

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My favourite small museum in the world is Gilbert White’s House in Selborne, just south of Alton. Aside from its claim as the home of Britain’s first naturalist, it also holds the Oates Collections, an exhibit focusing on the adventures of two members of the Oates family who were explorers of the natural world. Captain Lawrence Oates was a member of Captain Scott’s infamous Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. When his health started failing on the journey home, he sacrificed himself to allow his comrades to travel onwards, leaving the tent in a terrible blizzard with those immortal words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

My obsession with Arctic and Antarctic landscapes has always drawn me to the story of Captain Scott’s doomed journey, and Cherry-Gerrard’s first-hand narrative is possibly one of the most celebrated, having survived to tell the whole horrific tale. I love stories that remind me of the power of nature, and the foolish assumption that man can overcome it.

Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham

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It seems rather apt to read this with the UK General Election looming. I have been against the badger cull almost since the very beginning; I was open-minded enough to try and understand the reasoning behind it, but it makes absolutely no scientific sense. I personally believe it stems from the Conservatives wanting to appease angry farmers with a quick solution, rather than investing in vaccinations and acknowledging that culls often increase bovine TB rates rather than reduce them. I didn’t think you could find worse than Owen Paterson, but Liz Truss seems to be doing a pretty terrible job in his stead.

Patrick Barkham is a fantastic nature writer, especially his work for The GuardianBadgerlands is an intriguing book about the world of one our most elusive creatures; many of us only see them lying on the side of the road, but at night the countryside is brimming with them. Georgia Locock is particularly skilled at capturing them on camera! This is a great read for anyone interested in living in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

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In my final year of my undergrad degree, I wrote an essay on H G Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Many of my points were based around evolution, and I regularly referred to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the midst of my research, I also skimmed a few pages of Voyage of the Beagle, and realised how underrated it was.

It’s one of man’s greatest historical adventures. Darwin’s journey around the world in the 1840s took him to previously unknown landscapes; from Rio de Janeiro to Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Galapagos, he was sailing to completely unchartered areas in search of nature’s greatest puzzle pieces. It may be that his final theories in Origin of Species are his most celebrated work today, but I love being able to travel back to the 19th century and discover it with him all over again!

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

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As a lover of everything nature-related, I’m ashamed to say I’d never read this classic before now. Published in 1960, it’s an autobiographical account of how Maxwell brought an otter back from Iraq to his house on the west coast of Scotland, and raised it as his own. It’s one of the most beautiful accounts of man’s relationship with the natural world, which is why I find it particularly relevant as we move forward into the 21st century.

After reading Tony Juniper’s What Nature Does for Britain, it’s becoming more apparent to me how we choose to distance ourselves from nature, as if we are not part of it. We foolishly seem to think that it’s us and them, rather than realising that we rely on a healthy ecosystem to survive. Being environmentally aware isn’t just about tree-hugging and vegan cakes; it’s a necessary lifestyle choice that we all must take, or everything will collapse around us. This book is a great motivator to appreciate the complexities of our natural world, as well as being a captivating story.

The Night is Darkening Round Me by Emily Brontë

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‘I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free…’

Nothing illustrates the wildness of human nature more than Emily Brontë’s windswept novel Wuthering Heights. Her poetry is much lesser known, but Penguin have released a collection of 80 ‘Little Black Classics’ to celebrate their 80th anniversary, and this is the one I picked up with glee. It’s only a small selection of her poems, but they are full of the same anguish, passion and raw natural imagery as her novel. Not exactly poetry to read at weddings, but it’s dark, velvety and full of life.

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I’ve been unexpectedly busy recently, and haven’t been drawing or blogging as much as I should! These are two little drawings from this morning, created with a watercolour base and fineliner detailing. I will be having these made into prints to sell at the Meon Springs Country Day in April – see you there!

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Review: ‘What Nature Does for Britain’ by Tony Juniper

Having recently relocated from drizzly London to the countryside, I spent most of my time reading Tony Juniper’s latest book on the train, chugging back and forth between the two. There are few places more suited to reading this text, traversing through a landscape that morphs slowly from green pastures to concrete jungle. London may be one of the greenest cities in the world, but it’s a constant reminder of the war we’ve waged on nature, choosing to exploit it for profit rather than working in harmony with our ecosystems to safeguard our future. What Nature Does for Britain is a manifesto for a green and prosperous Britain, working with our natural resources to protect our wildlife, people and infrastructure sustainably.

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What’s striking about Juniper’s latest book is the underlying optimism. Taking us through the various cycles of soil, water, trees and oceans, we hear of the endless damage we have caused to Britain’s natural systems; agricultural monocultures, groundwater drought and meadow depletion are all serious consequences of our meddling. Yet, not only does the author provide us with reliable, economical solutions to these problems, he shows us how new methods are already changing the landscape of our country, one small step at a time.

These are the sort of success stories that rarely make the headlines. Innovative research on sewage treatment and reservoir systems lack the melodrama of our usual news stories about muslim spiders attacking the NHS. Yet, in the January floods of 2014 we were horrified by the damage, with David Cameron promising to spend every penny on defences. Why are we unable to identify the connection between flooding and our depleted wetlands, forests and rivers?

I once worked as a charity fundraiser for the RSPB, one of the best organisations this country has produced. Travelling around our capital, I spoke to Londoners about the problems facing our wildlife and how they could help. One day I was working in a grotty supermarket in Southwark, and I asked a young girl whether she would like to help our wildlife. ‘Why would I do that?’ she responded unpleasantly. ‘It all deserves to die.’ Where do you even begin with someone like that? In the short time she chose to listen to me, I did manage to squeeze in a brief chat on bumblebees. She had no idea how much of her shopping depended on our fuzzy friends, and she did actually thank me at the end, although I doubt she’ll be going organic any time soon…

When asked which one book I would recommend to everyone I meet, I always say Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. She was an American marine biologist and conservationist who was one of the first people to realise how catastrophically damaging synthetic pesticides are to both natural wildlife and human health. What Nature Does for Britain is a modern alternative to this, being an updated British equivalent that clearly exposes our authority figures as prioritising short term profit over long term ecological health. But while Silent Spring was written in the 1960s, when the modern eco-movement was in its infancy, Juniper’s book provides real solutions to the problems Carson first posed.

Being a member of several green charities and conservation networks, I am reminded every day of the need to respect nature. For those who are unsure, or would like a solid guide to the power and potential of our ecosystems, I can’t recommend this book enough. What Nature Does for Britain is published by Profile Books and will be released on 12th February 2015.

Poem of the Month: February

Having moved home recently, I’ve been trying to carve out a new life in a place I haven’t lived for over four years. While I’m enjoying joining libraries and socialising with old friends, I’ve also been indulging in a bit of nostalgia to reconnect me with pre-university life! Consequently, my daily activities have recently been accompanied by the soothing voice of Stephen Fry, as I’ve been listening to my beloved collection of Harry Potter story tapes.

I’m currently on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pretty dark for one of the earlier stories and full of serpentine mischief. Harry’s just had his arm broken by a rogue bludger, before Lockhart removes all the bones in his arm..

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It prompted me to browse the online abyss for poems involving snakes, as snakes have been used for eternity to symbolise a number of things: cunning, deceit, lust, fertility, etc. It’s always rather fun to see how snakes and worms have been used, especially in phallic poems like Blake’s The Sick Rose.

But seeing as this started with a children’s story, I thought it should finish with a poem by the creator of several children’s classics from the Edwardian era. Edith Nesbit wrote, among others, two of my favourite stories: The Phoenix & the Carpet and The Railway Children.

This poem is more adult-orientated; I thought it was particularly apt as we enter February, the last cold month before spring starts to bloom.

The Kiss by Edith Nesbit

The snow is white on wood and wold,
The wind is in the firs,
So dead my heart is with the cold,
No pulse within it stirs,
Even to see your face, my dear,
Your face that was my sun;
There is no spring this bitter year,
And summer’s dreams are done.

The snakes that lie about my heart
Are in their wintry sleep;
Their fangs no more deal sting and smart,
No more they curl and creep.
Love with the summer ceased to be;
The frost is firm and fast.
God keep the summer far from me,
And let the snakes’ sleep last!

Touch of your hand could not suffice
To waken them once more;
Nor could the sunshine of your eyes
A ruined spring restore.
But ah-your lips! You know the rest:
The snows are summer rain,
My eyes are wet, and in my breast
The snakes’ fangs meet again.

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Owl You Need is Love

In a strange twist of fate, I’ve found myself drawing a multitude of owls recently and I thought I’d share one. Owls seem to be rather popular at the moment, and I was recently fortunate enough to get my hands on a ticket to the Wild Life Drawing class in Haggerston, with live owls to draw!

Although owls are renowned as wise, beautiful, feisty creatures, I like to remember Edward Thomas’ poem when I find myself sentimentalising them. They are wild creatures in a fight for survival, a concept which we often forget in the western world.

I can’t go five minutes without a hot cup of tea, and I’m never truly hungry for anything other than cake. Although Thomas is referring to the suffering of ‘soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice’, I tend to reflect on the lives of wild animals as they fight subzero temperatures, food shortages and predators. It’s amazing to think of the different lives we lead, and how poorly most humans would fare if thrown out in the cold!

The Owl by Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

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100 Days to Go

My sister has recently been jollying in Thailand, and sent me this quote she found whilst reading Tolkien’s The Two Towers. The ancient Treebeard muses on Saruman’s corrupted mind:

‘I think I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.’

It’s a startlingly relevant quote this Monday, with only one hundred days to go until the General Election. This morning, a letter was leaked revealing George Osborne’s plans to help Cuadrilla drill for shale gas in Lancashire, even if the application is rejected by Lancashire County Council. This comes after countless protests and petitions, and after David Cameron said that local councils and committees should have the final say on the development of shale gas wells. Amazingly, Osborne’s new-fangled ideas on ‘democracy’ came to light just as a group of MPs have called to ban fracking completely. The Environmental Audit Committee, consisting of 16 MPs from across the political spectrum, have called for a moratorium on the shale gas industry, on the grounds that it could derail efforts to combat climate change.

You don’t have to read the news much to understand a couple of things: firstly, the vast majority of fossil fuels need to remain buried if we’re to stand any chance of averting the horrific consequences of climate change. Secondly, the poor structure of our electoral system means that those currently in power can only see five years ahead, and rarely care for what follows.

This morning’s fracking revelation is merely the latest in a number of incidents where the health of our landscape, wildlife and natural ecosystems is consistently undermined in favour of profit, privilege and ‘progress’. Hen Harriers now face extinction in the UK after numerous attacks by gamekeepers, employed to protect the red grouse populations that will later be shot by idiots like Ian Botham. Proposals have been put forward to expand Heathrow and Gatwick, uprooting acres of irreplaceable ancient woodland just to put more carbon-pumping planes into the air. These aren’t just problems for tree-huggers and displaced hedgehogs; if we don’t keep our ecosystems diverse and healthy, we are facing food shortages and increasing disease rates. It isn’t a battle between us and the natural world, it is a shared problem – and we will fall the furthest.

Treebeard’s reflections on Saruman could be applied to a wide number of politicians today, all of whom declare their love for our green and pleasant land. David Cameron once famously said he would no more put our Green Belts at risk than his own family, yet, interestingly, he has now decided that building on the Belt is better for our children as – wait for it – it helps them get on the property ladder! Such splendid priorities…

I’m rather excited for the next 100 days, to see what delightful tricks each party will play to manipulate the peasants they rule over. More housing! Less tax! More NHS funding! I have personally lost all faith in the Frankenstein’s monster that is the Labour-Tories (aren’t they the same now?), and the Lib Dems are about as useful as soft cheese in August.

I will be voting Green, because speedy flights to Hong Kong aren’t worth much when there’s nothing to eat.

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

What a sumptuous day for the Big Garden Birdwatch! Perfectly crisp and dazzlingly cold, I wasn’t too distressed that I was required to sit inside with a cup of Lady Grey to watch the birds this afternoon. If you aren’t aware, the Big Garden Birdwatch is an annual event organised by the RSPB, encouraging everyone to watch the birds in their garden for one hour, and send in the results.

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It’s a great way for ornithologists to gain a ‘snapshot’ of British birdlife and population distribution, but the true brilliance lies in the way it gets children and adults to gaze patiently outside and really appreciate the miraculous wildlife tottering around in their patch.

This year was particularly exciting for me as we’ve just moved house! Our old house was a little dry for birdlife, with a few sparrows and pigeons making up the bulk of our backyard bonanza. What a difference we’ve found on the other side of town!

Today, our garden menagerie included: 2 collared doves, 1 woodpigeon, 15 house sparrows, 2 robins, 4 starlings, 2 blackbirds, 2 blue tits, 2 bullfinches and 1 chubby dunnock. I was frustrated that a couple of other guests didn’t show up in the hour, as I know we have long-tailed tits and great tits hobbling around somewhere nearby…

But I was very proud to see my pair of bullfinches, who turned up a few days ago eating our rosehips. I read that they are monogamous, so I have become rather sentimental and declared them married.

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There’s still time to take part in this year’s Birdwatch by registering here! Otherwise, you could take part in the Big Butterfly Count in the summer with the Butterfly Conservation Trust. I wrote about my 2014 count here, where I chased commas across the South Downs!