Still Fighting: Hen Harrier Day 2016

Next weekend I will once again be visiting the delightful RSPB Arne nature reserve in Dorset to take part in Hen Harrier Day South for the second year, organised by Mark Avery and Birders Against Wildlife Crime. There are lots of events happening all around the country, created as spaces to voice our outrage at wildlife crime and raise awareness for the plight of the hen harrier. This year I will be reciting my poem ‘Harrier’ which you can read here, and the lovely Iolo Williams will be joining us to drive the campaign forward.

I recently wrote the following guest post for Mark Avery’s blog about my thoughts as a young naturalist – you can read the original here. Please consider attending your local Hen Harrier Day to learn more about wildlife crime surrounded by conservationists in a beautiful setting – what more could you want! If you can’t make it, then please PLEASE sign Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting here and watch Chris Packham’s new video series detailing why a ban would benefit all of us.

The following was originally posted on Mark Avery’s blog at markavery.info.

I have never seen a hen harrier. I’m twenty four and live in the Hampshire end of the South Downs National Park, ideal territory to find such a bird looping through the midwinter sky like a dusky acrobat. Each day I peer into the ether and see raptors tumbling out of every cloud: mewing buzzards in pairs, hobbies and peregrines squabbling with rooks, tiny kestrels and blazing kites twisting through the ancient forests and farmlands of southern England. Both my ornithological friends and the wise old internet have told me that visiting harriers from Europe like it here, and in the stunning moorlands of northern England there should be 332 pairs of hen harriers nesting each year. So where are they?

Amazingly, in 2015 only six hen harrier nests were successful, with eighteen chicks fledging in total. Harriers love open habitats like heather moorland and agricultural land, and often build their nests on land used for driven grouse shooting, one of our country’s many ludicrous bloodsports that a sliver of society chooses to keep alive like an old, rabid dog. Not only does grouse shooting require intensive habitat management that increases flooding and greenhouse emissions, but it also leads to the illegal persecution of protected birds of prey. As hen harriers spend much of their time around grouse moors, an ignorant minority of gamekeepers believe these isolated birds have an effect on precious grouse numbers and deliberately shoot them or destroy nests. Although the industry itself claims to be against raptor persecution, this minority have caused hen harriers to almost disappear from our landscape.

As a young naturalist, I find it abhorrent that my native countryside is being stripped of wildlife and diluted by the profiteering exploits of landowners that should be protecting the species living on their soil. They will argue that without these profits the countryside would be developed and destroyed – but what are they doing instead? Obliterating local ecology and shooting birds of prey to fill pockets and serve the elite, rather than using their money and influence to stand up for wildlife. This August I will be attending my local Hen Harrier Day in Dorset, and I will fight for the future of our countryside so that my children and grandchildren can grow up in a rich and colourful natural world. There is a quote attributed to Edmund Burke that has come to mind frequently in recent years: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ From EU membership to fracking, I’m tired of watching the country be torn up and trampled by others that will never suffer the consequences of their actions, and I urge other young people to take action and fight for what matters to you.

I have never seen a hen harrier, but my grandchildren certainly will.

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The Wild Voices Project

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by my friend and highly esteemed conservationist Matt Williams for a new podcast project called Wild Voices. It’s a fantastic new concept documenting ‘the voices of the people saving nature’, and to be honest I was thrilled to be asked to take part alongside other naturalists like Melissa Harrison and Kate Bradbury. You can hear us chatting about taxidermy, Farthing Wood and shipwrecked relatives by listening to the podcast on Soundcloud here, and please do keep an eye on the project and listen to all the other amazing conservationists trying to protect the natural world. Enjoy!

A Vision for Nature

I’m not usually one to love Mondays, but today saw the launch of an inspirational new report that’s been the collaborative creation of hundreds of young conservationists across the country. The Vision for Nature report contains the hopes of young people for the future of the natural world, and our ideas on how we can help wildlife to flourish by 2050. I’m really proud to say that I have contributed to its existence, along with many other wonderful friends and acquaintances from the world of wildlife. These include ecologists, activists, artists, writers, teachers and zoologists, as well as the marvellous members of A Focus on Nature (AFON), the UK’s largest young naturalists’ network.

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The AFON gang at the Response for Nature launch, Westminster

It won’t be surprising to hear that a lot of young people feel utterly disillusioned by our government today. It often seems that our voices are not heard because we are simply not influential enough, rich enough or important enough. A survey by CensusWide revealed recently that almost nine out of ten young people want to see more action to protect our natural world, demonstrating that for our generation it is perhaps a much more critical issue than for those before us.

This morning, I emailed the Vision for Nature report to my MP Damian Hinds, to ask him to listen to young people and consider our hopes for the future when making vital decisions in parliament for this country. We will now be sharing this report across social media and with every network of people who want to listen – please read it and share it with friends, family and colleagues. You can also see my pine marten illustration on page 37… Enjoy!

“Most people miss the point when talking about the environment. Protecting nature is not about limiting ourselves to protect some other unrelated entity. It is in fact about enriching ourselves, and having respect for that which allows us life. It is ensuring that our fellow creatures continue to flourish, and about ensuring that future generations will be born into the same lush canvas of natural complexity we have all been so fortunate to enjoy.” VFN, 5

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Dartmoor Days

After two hours of driving and another crawling dutifully past Stonehenge, we pulled the campervan onto a verge strewn with red campions and peeling foxgloves. The night had already cast its shadow and the stars smouldered above us, skies unpolluted by the glow of cities and headlights. We had escaped to Dartmoor. Behind us lay the downs of Hampshire and that background turbulence that exists when you live too close to London. Now we stood alone in the dark, cloaked in the sweet aroma of gorse.

At dawn we awoke to a herd of Friesians peering through the mist; we attempted to befriend them but alas, they were apathetic. Verdant meadows were sprinkled with bluebells clinging onto spring, and as we sipped coffee the fog lifted to reveal acres of moorland quivering with life. A short walk led us to a cluster of stonechats and yellowhammers in the thicket, and two buzzards swept silently across the beech canopies below. The woods of northern Dartmoor are filled with crumbled footpaths and tootling streams, and we soon became delightfully lost.

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By the evening we found ourselves drawn to the coast, and drove to Hope Cove near Salcombe. Beneath the scream of swifts we nestled into the sand with a glass of sparkles and watched the sun sink into the ocean, globules of seaweed around our toes and a pied wagtail lingering around hoping for one of our crisps. The next morning we awoke before the parking restrictions were enforced and jumped into the salty sea. It was really cold.

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On Sunday we meandered back to the moors and spent the afternoon eating rocket lollies and reading novels on the banks of Burrator Reservoir. After stumbling upon a gang of chocolate Dartmoor ponies, the camper was chugged to the hilltop for our final night’s snooze. We brewed another coffee and wrapped ourselves in duvet to gaze at the landscape below. Around us lay dark swathes of heathland beneath a violet sky, and as the stars returned we listened to the kewick of a lone tawny owl, searching for her mate across the desolate moor.

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30 Days Wild

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post lifestyle blog.

I’ve always been drawn to wildness. My infant days were filled with bluebell walks and mangled badger bones kept in jars, while rainy evenings found my little heart caught in the perils of Farthing Wood videos. I distinctly remember being part of a secret club at primary school where we found a bird’s claw and decided to worship it. As David Attenborough once said so soothingly, ‘every child on earth is fascinated by the natural world’, but as life goes on there are other things to distract young minds. The adolescence I experienced was a glorious hurricane of boys, Smirnoff Ice and terrible fashion choices, and while I never forgot my love for nature, it certainly lost its priority for a few years.

Fortunately for me it was rekindled while studying for my English degree, and I realised I wanted to write about nature professionally. But for many of my childhood friends with whom I explored forests and nurtured frogspawn, I have watched them drift off to the big cities and think only of tube times and spinning classes. Every day I meet adults and children who rarely visit green spaces, and with the pressures of modern society it is easy to see why. Busy schedules, working lives and the dazzle of gadgets means that outdoor time can be neglected, and in a world where profit and efficiency are valued so highly, it seems to be instilled in us that time spent wandering is time wasted. Consequently, we have lost touch with our primitive roots and our mental and physical health is paying the price.

Launched last year, The Wildlife Trusts’ new #30DaysWild challenge seems to have honed in on this absence of nature. The aim is to do something ‘wild’ every day in June, and to see if you feel the benefits of a little more exposure to nature. I participated in the scheme last summer and encouraged friends and family to do the same, and found my random acts of wildness carried me to places I wouldn’t usually encounter with a wholly different approach to observing the countryside. I watched stoats carrying their kits across the downland, identified a magpie moth, twitched an American shorebird, scattered wildflower seeds, and one rainy afternoon I watched a live osprey nest-cam in Cumbria. Although my lifestyle means I tend to spend lots of time outdoors, I found it motivated me to do something different every day and challenge myself, and it was also extremely fun! There’s nothing more tantalising than trying to guess if your elderflower champagne will explode or not.

The challenge gave me a few useful nuggets to take away, too. If I can find time to get outside or engage with nature at least once a day, my stress levels are massively reduced and I can manage the rest of my day with ease and clarity. As an amateur naturalist, I also found it a fantastic way to identify new species and learn about local ecosystems. I’ll certainly be joining in with the scheme again this year; it’s a wonderful way to get to know the countryside on your doorstep, find contentment in the great outdoors, and nurture the primordial soup in all of us.

To join in with the #30DaysWild challenge visit mywildlife.org.uk/30dayswild

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Cycles

While the tempests of late winter may still linger on darker days, we have finally found ourselves within the raw grasp of spring; for as Charles Dickens notes in Great Expectations, ‘Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.’ We immerse ourselves in the joy of bright dawns and primroses and it’s easy to forget the cyclical connections forged between other seasons. The blackthorn blossom arrived to nourish hungry bees and moths, but by autumn these flowers will have transformed into plump, mauve sloes ready for the gin jug; now the hedge is speckled with hawthorn petals. Roe deer fawns will be emerging into the sunshine of our forests and farmlands, native to British soil since the Stone Age; their mothers have carried them in their bellies like an unbaked cake through the winter months, ready for a warm welcome in May or June. And while the cuckoo toots about in the Hampshire treetops for her three short months away from Africa, the sweet petals of dog rose glow pink in hedgerows, bleaching white in summer and ripening into sanguine rosehips for voles to chomp in September. It feels lovely to acknowledge waves of energy through the year, drawing us away from the cold and closer to balmy midsummer noons.

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Bluebells & Milky Owls

After a rather hearty working week, I spent Monday’s bank holiday embracing sunshine and peppy gales at the Hawk Conservancy in Andover. I’d heard plenty about their conservation work overseas and at home, particularly with the international plight of vultures and their rehabilitation service for injured birds of prey. Despite windy conditions the Test Valley lay in sunshine for most of the morning, replete with dizzying wildflowers all afternoon.

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This dapper bald eagle was one of a number of cool birds trained to dazzle visitors with their flight displays. In the morning we watched the Wings of Africa demonstration under a cerulean sky, featuring Othello the African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Tolkein the milky eagle owl (Bubo lacteus), two white-backed vulture brothers named Cassius and Clay (Gyps africanus), a mob of yellow-billed kites (Milvus aegyptius), four sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) and two white storks (Ciconia ciconia).

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After coffee and a highly viscous cheese toasty, we headed over to the wildflower meadow to watch a display of kites, vultures and eagles. In one moment thirteen black kites (Milvus migrans) floated through the sky like a dark blossomed carousel, only to be joined by a lone red kite (Milvus milvus) gliding in from the wild, all accompanied by the haunting compositions of contemporary musician Ludovico Einaudi.

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Once the awe of watching birds in flight has settled in, there usually lies an array of complicated ecological problems that need resolving through funding or support. I was particularly interested to hear more about vulture conservation abroad; it’s a topic that’s been circulating on Twitter, as vultures face increasing threats from poison, habitat loss and the poaching industry, who don’t like them hovering around their illegal carcasses in case their location is revealed to authorities. You can read more about their International Vulture Programme here.

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The paddocks were home to the fluffiest donkeys that ever walked the earth, and were filled with paths of wildflowers adorned with chubby bees, including a dusky-lilac palette of bluebells and storms of cowslips and ground ivy.

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Most excitingly, we were able to watch the brand new Woodland Owls display in a faux churchyard surrounded by silver birch trees. Barn owls tumbled from the ‘bell tower’ and crept through the air like moths, and Ennis the great grey owl flew through us and swept our cheeks with cobalt primaries. Apparently owls were a favourite creature to transform into when witches were sneaking away from their hunters, although this sadly resulted in heavy barn owl persecution during the witch trial heyday.

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I can’t recommend the Hawk Conservancy highly enough for the chance to encounter magnificent birds of prey in an enchanting setting. Their conservation record has been fantastic and is seriously contributing to the protection of these birds worldwide. Plus the bakewell tart is to die for. Here’s a picture of me hanging out with Troy the tawny owl:

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The Good Life

I was a bit of an odd child when it came to TV choices. At seven or eight there was nothing more delightful to me than settling down with a jam-oozed crumpet to an evening of Ground Force, watching Charlie and Alan transform little gardens with fruit trees and water features. And for delicious Sunday nights, my absolute favourite show was John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s The Good Life, that golden comedy from the seventies starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall. Even as a youngling, I was drawn to their abandonment of conventional life, their happiness and simplicity, and the pure delight of living off the land.

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So I guess it isn’t too bizarre to announce that I now have an allotment of my own! It’s around 32x5m (fairly large) and it’s been completely neglected for quite a while; there are two fruit trees – plum and cooking apple – and a little greenhouse with a broken pane. Aside from that it’s just a big patch of weeds with a heap of broken furniture at one end. Dreamy…

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Fortunately for me, my boyfriend was well up for the challenge. I signed up rather optimistically under the impression that I could sort everything out alone, but being a fool, I didn’t predict how much work it would take just to set it up! He’s provided lots of tools and muscle power and started making the vegetable frames, and I’ve been trying my best to put my feeble arms to use by de-weeding and digging in manure.

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Dave has also built a compost area out of pallets and, after an unsuccessful Gumtree search, he’s going to make us a lovely shed for tools and tea and Gardener’s World magazines. I will helpfully paint it green. I’ve also cleaned out the greenhouse ready to fill with warm seedlings, and we’ve just ordered our first lot of seeds to plant: cauliflower, pea, courgette and scarlet kale. The trees and borders will be filled with flowers for pollinators, part of our plan to make the plot as wildlife-friendly as possible.

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Most excitingly, we’re going to have a little extra life on the plot! After being given a free chicken coop from a family friend, we’re going to adopt some ex-battery chickens from a local farm and give them a happy retirement. I personally think battery farming should be illegal, and I can’t believe people still buy caged eggs when free range is so affordable and so much more delicious. In addition to chickens, we will also hopefully get some bees next year! I’ve just finished a theory course with my local beekeepers association, and I’m planning on gaining lots of summer experience in apiaries so that by next spring we can keep our own hives. Hooray!

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The best thing about having a little slice of the outdoors is that we live in a flat, and desperately miss having a garden; in the summer we can guzzle cool cider in the allotment sun surrounded by bees and aubergines. What’s not to love?

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To the Lighthouse

I am fortunate enough to live on the border of three southern counties – Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey – which means I can zip up to London or down to Dorset in one hour each. This is where I grew up in the South Downs, and although the town in which I live is really quite lovely, I often feel a little wanderlust to explore the countryside further afield. So this weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to venture down to East Sussex for a spring fling by the sea.

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The trip was particularly apt for me to test-drive my new Beachcomber coat from Lighthouse Clothing, a hot, yellow number with a nautical twang perfect for beating away the rain and sea breeze. I wanted something a little more stylish than the usual meagre cagoule, and I’ve been delighted with the tailored fit and amazing colour of this waterproof. The toggles provide a pleasant fisherman’s finish, and the high neck fastening really has protected me against our wonderful English drizzle…

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Our day began with a quick stop in Lewes to raid the bookshops and eat cake. We found an amazing homeware shop called Closet & Botts which sold a vast number of beautiful things that we couldn’t justify buying, like enamel crockery and dreamy soaps. Then we found Lewesiana, a tearoom/florist filled with delicious aromas. Dave had swarthy coffee and oozy brownie; I had scones and Earl Grey with blue mallow flowers.

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We soon trotted off to our next destination. Ever since cycling the South Downs Way a few years ago and tootling past the village of Rodmell, I’ve been desperate to return and visit Monk’s House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and now a National Trust property. Today was the day! The house and gardens were the country residence of Virginia, her husband and many visiting friends from the Bloomsbury Group, and it was where she wrote many of her best works. Winding through the surrounding fields also lies the River Ouse, where she drowned herself with stone-filled pockets in 1941.

Most excitingly, the house is still filled with lots of the art and decoration that the Woolfs chose themselves, including ceramics painted by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell. By the fireplace in the bedroom there are several tiles depicting the lighthouse from Virginia’s 1927 masterpiece To the Lighthouse, and on the hearth you can read the handpainted inscription ‘VW from VB 1930’. We also loved the turquoise colour painted in the living room and echoed throughout the house, which the steward told us was Virginia’s choice and that Farrow & Ball had once reproduced it in paint, named ‘Monk’s House Green’.

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Even in early April, the garden was overflowing with life and colour. Vibrant butterflies skipped across the flowerbeds and we saw a great crested newt in the pond! At two o’clock a lovely man called Larry arranged the visitors in sun-drenched deck chairs on the lawn and read a passage from Between the Acts; I was asked to play a female character and perform some lines in the middle, which was fun! We played bowls on the lawn – something which the Woolfs were very keen on and apparently kept scores on every game they played – and visited the allotments at the back. Later, a blue tit visited us outside the writing room.

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We left Monk’s House mid-afternoon and lunched on homemade tomato and garlic soup from the Thermos, accompanied by Ribena and dried banana. The surrounding countryside looked tempting, very flat, chartreuse pastures encircled by rolling downs. We found the River Ouse and lots of horses grazing, and bought six big duck eggs from a local farm (great with asparagus).

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Just before heading home, we drove to Eastbourne and found ourselves up on the cliffs of Beachy Head, where it was now drizzling heartily. We looked over the edge and found a lighthouse, took a few silly photos and then warmed up in the local inn with a cider. Cheers to Lighthouse Clothing for my amazing Beachcomber, which served me faithfully through a typical day of British weather which started in glorious sunshine and ended in a downpour. Here’s to more adventures!

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A Meeting

‘He peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe
Opening and opening
And kept on and slept and at last
Crashed on the moon awoke and crawled out.’
(Crow, Ted Hughes)

Early this morning on the downland by the woods, I watched the seventh of sixteen lambs born this spring hop to the meadow edge and encounter a crow picking mining bees from the soil. She squeaked a greeting to her corvid acquaintance and in return the crow, who was quite as big, looked bewildered. What should he say? To avoid awkwardness, he shuffled an inch and shook his sable wings. He wondered if the lamb could be moss, but decided moss can’t hop. Crow cocked his head and began to say ‘Ahoy!’, but before he could speak, a rabbit ambled into the rendezvous with some hesitancy. She had a grey face and speckled paws – Apologies, was she interrupting? Crow watched rabbit; rabbit watched lamb; lamb watched crow.

Who knows what secrets I may have overheard that morning? Alas, at that moment a kite looped a circle overhead and our breakfast club departed into the trees.

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