The Goldcrest Hop

It’s a writing day today, which means I’m cocooned in a large jumper, drinking coffee with Miss Marple on the telly (A Caribbean Mystery to help me dream of warmer climes). Writing days always start off with such great intentions. I settle into the cushions and compose my face into a most serious expression, ready to expose the world to my interesting verbs and pronouns – and then I glance at the window and my productivity simply melts away. My living room overlooks a large sycamore tree and hawthorn hedge, and at this time of year it is completely brimming with garden birds. Robins, blue tits, blackbirds, collared doves, magpies, long tailed tits, sparrows and pigeons transform the tree (rather scraggly at this point in the season) into a metropolis of avian activity, and it is way more entertaining than anything I can find on Netflix.

This morning I was delighted to find two tiny goldcrests hopping among the twigs, buttercup mohicans ablaze. The first time I saw a goldcrest was on a winter fungi walk at Sydenham Hill Wood with the London Wildlife Trust; they are so small that we all needed binoculars to spot them, particularly as they love gathering in the tops of coniferous trees. These two chubs seemed intent on scouring the entire sycamore for insects hidden in mosses and lichens, disturbed only by a great spotted woodpecker alighting nearby.

I’ve finished dillydallying now. Time for fresh coffee and the next section of my book… Milk thistle and hottentot figs!

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The Clean, Green Christmas Machine

Amidst the horrors of Black Friday and Cyber Monday (wtf), this is the time of year that big businesses love to fill our minds with commercialism and plastic crap and all things unsustainable. It’s easy to give into the bargains and slogans, but we should try and remember the best advice posted by Greenpeace this year: It’s not a good deal if you don’t need it. I’m an avid Christmas fan and have already made my sloe gin and slightly charcoaled Christmas cake. Not being religious, I mainly see Christmas as a time of cheese, prosecco and family love, but regardless of your associations with the season it should be a time of goodness and positivity. Contributing to landfill, funding unethical corporations and using unsustainable materials are a miserable way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday/loads of time off work, so here is my tiny guide to making the festive period ethical and SUPER FUN.

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Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

I actually grew up with a fake Christmas tree that is miraculously still going, despite the odd plastic needle falling off. This year is the first time I’ll not be waking up at my parents’ house (so adult) as I now live with my boyfriend Dave in our own flat, so this is the first year I’ll be sourcing my own Christmas tree. Rather than buying fake plastic trees or purchasing one in a car park with dodgy origins, this Saturday I’m going to Farnham Heath for their ‘Pull a Pine’ day! Farnham Heath is an RSPB reserve and a fantastic heathland habitat for wildlife. Pine trees tend to pop up and interfere with this habitat, so each year visitors are encouraged to cut their own pine tree down and take it home FREE as a Christmas tree. What better way to find a locally-sourced, sustainable Christmas tree and help wildlife at the same time? You can find your local ‘Pull a Pine’ day by visiting their website here.

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It’s Christmas, not Palm Sunday!

Ok, it’s undeniably hard to go into supermarkets in December and not want to buy all the Christmas-themed food covered in stars and glitter. Mince pies, stollen, mulled cider… They’re all amazing and I tend to just ignore calories for the whole of December. The problem with these items is that the majority of the time they will be made using palm oil, and the palm oil industry is slowly destroying the wild habitats of places like Malaysia and Indonesia. Rainforests are burnt down to make way for palm plantations, leaving native people and precious wildlife without homes and livelihoods. Even palm oil labelled as ‘sustainable’ is dubious, and like many other people I now try my best to avoid palm oil wherever possible. Fortunately, it mainly crops up in processed foods which I also try to avoid for health reasons. This Christmas, try and make the time to produce your own sweet treats in the kitchen – mince pies, fruit cake and biscuits ALL taste better when baked at home, and you will be reducing demand on the palm oil industry, which is a step closer to making it truly sustainable. For more information visit Say No to Palm Oil.

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Create & Reuse

I really love giving presents as Christmas (almost as much as receiving them but obviously not that much because who does that). While I do buy a few of my presents from shops and online, I also try my best to create homemade and unique presents that my friends and fam will love. This year I’ve been having fun with pyrography, using a hot metal pen to burn designs into wooden objects, but I’ve also been knitting and brewing alcohol which always brings delight. I used this recipe from the Beeb to make limoncello with vodka, lemon zest and sugar, and I found tiny gift bottles for £2 in a homeware shop. Last year my sister also gave me a second hand jumper from a Norwegian charity shop, which I loved! Charity shops are amazing places to find cool items – I’m currently on the look out for retro espresso cups…

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Gifts that Go Further

What do you buy for the person who has everything? Just use the occasion as an excuse to donate to a good cause! My favourite ethical gifts this year include:

– Buying a mound of marshmallows for rescued moon bears in China and Vietnam with Animals Asia
Offset some carbon by planting trees with the Woodland Trust
Support a refugee with Oxfam, many of whom have been forced to flee their home due to conflict
– Support women to care for their working horses and donkeys with the Brooke

The best thing is the recipient can’t complain as they’ll just look really mean.

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What do Turkeys like for Christmas? Vegetarians!

Going vegetarian was one of the best things I’ve ever done, but I completely understand that it isn’t within everyone’s will power to do. I get it guys – chorizo is delicious and I pine for it every day. But how about having a vegetarian Christmas? I passed a turkey farm last weekend and, while it’s great that local farmers are providing free range meat for Christmas, I couldn’t escape the fact that all the turkeys I could see would have their little lives ended in just under a month. There’s no escaping the fact that eating meat is bad for the environment, and to many people, unethical. There are a million delicious recipes for a veggie alternative to roast meat – the Vegetarian Society has a great booklet. Or if you really can’t bear the idea of not eating meat, why not read Louise Gray’s book The Ethical Carnivore? She spent a year eating only animals she had killed herself, and discovered a lot of important stuff about where our food comes from.

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Merry Christmas all!

Blackbirds in Bergen

I’ve just returned from my favourite annual trip to Bergen, a Viking city in southern Norway with a history built on salted cod and North Sea oil. My sister moved there two or three years ago after meeting her own Viking called Haakon, and now we visit her every year to explore the mountains, colourful streets and majestic fjords.

Friday night found us drinking gin until 3am, and on Saturday we awoke with slight headaches to devour poached eggs and coffee. To remedy this we decided to climb Stoltzekleiven, a steep stairway carved into Sandvik mountain that rises 1,286ft high and consists of 908 stone steps. It was hellish, but the view from the top stretched out over Bergen and after a few deep inhales it was worth the climb. From here we walked to the next mountain Fløyen, passing cold, dark lakes and forests carpeted with moss. I was amazed at the number of blackbirds living in Bergen, possibly due to the rich harvest of rosehips that still lingered in the shrubs. At the top of the mountain the temperature dropped rapidly and ski gloves passed between pale hands, and by a lake I spotted my first ever dipper, white front blazing as it skimmed across the water like a black pebble.

We spent the rest of the weekend eating pickled herring and wandering through Bryggen, a series of Hanseatic buildings dating back to the 12th century when the city became a thriving trading port. The November air in Bergen is so cold it makes your brain ache, but we warmed ourselves with waffles and breathed in as much as we could to feed our organs with bright, clean oxygen. Bryggen’s walls are painted blood red and Indian yellow, and in the shadow of a doorway next to ‘Jack’s Country Saloon’, a fierce but rather forlorn stuffed polar bear stands with claws unfurled, a reminder of Norway’s Arctic history and the wild north beyond Bergen and Oslo.

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A lake on Sandvik
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Bergen forests
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The top of Stoltzekleiven  
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Sandvik
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Hollie & Dave
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Dipper lake
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Sandvik 
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Dave of the woods
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Hidden Bryggen
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Found in an abandoned shop window in Bryggen 

A Torrent of Darkness

Oof. Trump. A real kick in the teeth this morning. Is education a thing of the past or it just simpler to believe in fear rather than rational thinking? Either way, Brexit doesn’t seem quite so catastrophic today, but the outside world did seem to echo the election results as I stood at the window with a hot mug of tea. Peering out into the storm I was quietly reminded of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes: ‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. / The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’ While it may seem the western world is writhing around at rock bottom, there are two things that ensure I stay positive. First, Dave noted rather wisely that ‘the night is darkest just before the dawn.’ This may be attributed to Batman but was actually first spoken by a seventeenth century theologian, and is a gentle reminder that once we reach the bottom of a cesspit, the only way is up. Secondly, my sister says that politics is all about action and reaction. Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of right wing politics has been a hideous surprise, but it will be counteracted in equal measure by the people of my generation. For now, the autumn weather is vibrant and the landscape is full of energy; today is all about fresh air, fresh thinking and biscuits.

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Dark Nights

I love Halloween. What’s not to love about sexy skeletons and candlelit vegetables? We’ve been celebrating throughout October by watching all the horror films we can on Netflix: Child’s PlayHalloweenThe Witch, Friday 13thCabin in the Woods… I’m not really one for horrors but I’ve created a scare filter by knitting mittens through every film. The jumps aren’t as jumpy but sadly I may miss crucial plot points.

Last year we fed kitchen scraps to the massive pigs at the farm and they passed lots of vegetable seeds through, so that this year we’ve found several random pumpkin plants sprouting up in their old paddock. I used one to make a spiced pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing and ate four slices in a row. We also grew our first ever pumpkin on the allotment! It’s hardly the ‘gigantic’ variety promised on the packet, and it’s sort of completely anaemic, but it’s OURS (along with a stray beetroot, three marrows and two squashes I discovered while clearing the beds).

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By this time of year we are all expecting colder weather and frosts, but the temperature today will reach 16°C and it’s extremely pleasant outside. Last week the mornings were thick with mist and the pylons across the field were eradicated, drawing the farm back from modern chaos. Aside from Halloween, I always enjoy seeing photos and messages celebrating Diwali at this time of year. I remember being in primary school and learning all about the festival of lights – we were allowed full crayola access to design a vibrant greetings card, and each given a little candle to light at home.

I always wonder with big celebrations like Halloween and Diwali whether there is some historical connection or seasonal change that links them together. Halloween originates from the pagan festival of Samhain, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead was at its thinnest, and naughty ghosts slipped through. But beyond the spookiness, it also marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of darker days, a concept shared with Diwali. The Hindu festival traditionally dates back to ancient India, and takes place after the summer harvest in the Hindu calendar month of Kartika, on the darkest night barely lit by a new moon. Much like our harvest festival, everyone prepares a sumptuous feast and welcomes in the winter season; it is one of the happiest events in the Hindu year, and candles burn all over the world to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness.

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We light candles every evening in our extremely cosy flat to warm up our souls against the drizzle outside, but I love looking for colourful beacons in the countryside that refuse to give into the greyness of winter. While hunting around for fallen chestnuts the squirrels have missed, I found a purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) with radiant mauve petals. Apparently it’s originally from Italy, so I imagine it’s a little disappointed with our mediocre climate. Soz.

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But my favourite thing about this time of year is not spider-themed chocolates or zombie cocktails, although these are great triumphs of humanity. Each autumn we are subject to the barking opera of a stag attempting to woo his hareem. He wanders hither and thither trying to look as handsome as possible, and the other day I caught him trotting across a neighbouring field and managed to capture a blurry photo. Look at those antlers!

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A Winter Anthology

Exciting news! I’ve been published in the nature anthology Winter, the last in a collection of four books celebrating the British seasons. My piece is about Sydenham Hill Wood, a nature reserve in south London where I used to volunteer. The wood was once home to a nineteenth century railway that carried wealthy visitors to the Crystal Palace, a glass building that housed the Great Exhibition in 1851. Over time the railway disintegrated and the wood has now been taken over by a range of wild and wonderful species.

Thanks to publishers Elliot & Thompson, the Wildlife Trusts and editor Melissa Harrison for selecting my piece! You can buy the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter anthologies online here.

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On the Equinox

I’ve fallen behind a little on writing recently, mainly because I finished my Masters on the first of September and since then I’ve fallen into a slight siesta. I go to work every day as usual, but the evenings and weekends have been filled with all the things I wanted to do that were deprioritised by twelve thousand words on the novels of Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer who, despite his fascist tendencies, wrote some rather beautiful stories about man and nature. These activities have mainly consisted of making jam and reading Harry Potter, but I feel it’s finally time to crack back on with the true passion of my life: writing.

It’s six o’clock on a Thursday evening, and I’m staying late at work to co-ordinate one of the archaeological lectures I’ve been organising all year. This one is entitled ‘Who are the Britons?’, and will explore the history of British people throughout the last few thousand years. Today is also the Autumn Equinox, when the planet tips slightly and the nights begin to lengthen. To the ancient people of the world, these seasonal changes were hugely influential to their agricultural systems and spiritual beliefs. For me, it means the evening sky starts changing to muted apricot and those dangly flying spiders begin their annual invasion.

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Sheep friend

Autumn has always been my favourite season. Spring is a glorious second with its bright mornings and globules of dew, and winter is a time of cold walks and mince pies. I’ve never been too bothered by summer; the early warmth is great but I’m pale as a ghost and rapidly overheat if I can’t find shelter under a shrub. But autumn is the season for hot tea and elderberries, jumpers that aren’t yet Mitchelin-man thick, and the indescribable swathe of colour that transforms treetops into burning effigies to the gods.

The farm has been wriggling with creatures preparing for the long snooze over winter. The chubbiest robin I’ve ever known has made its territory by the feed shed, and every day I sprinkle a few pellets of cereal to fatten him more. There’s been a surge in green woodpeckers, wrens, buzzards and goldfinches over the last few weeks, the latter hastily consuming all the remaining teasel seeds they can find. On a sadder note, we’ve found eight rabbits in the last week suffering from myxomatosis, and have had to either drown them quickly in a very uncouth bucket, or watch as they hop off to become a fox’s breakfast. I mentioned this to the Mammal Society but they didn’t seem to have any other reports of local mass infections, so hopefully it will disappear quickly.

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Empty poppy heads

I’ll spend the next few days foraging anything that remains on the hedgerows and making more jams and alcoholic beverages to warm me through the frosty months. For now, there’s a buzzard on the fence and I want a closer look.

Rainstorm

It’s raining again. Leaden clouds ink themselves across the sky in great swathes and all at once, mid-morning has erupted into an occidental monsoon. Plump droplets crash through leaves and catkins and wild poppies, forcing all but the most gargantuan slugs into hiding. In the downs of Hampshire these pockets of drizzle are not uncommon, and on an educational farm like this the rain always arrives when it’s least wanted. But the wet and warm temperatures of early summer have been like rocket fuel for the wildflowers that carpet the earth nearby; a cluster of ground ivy petals glow like lost amethysts in the clover.

In the corner rests a pyramid of sweet chestnut trees, sustainably chopped from a local woodland to be shaped into fence posts and firewood. On days like these I enjoy a ramble through the farm to greet the worms and ooze around in the mud for a while, and the log pile is always my first port of call. I arrive and stand rather tragically in the rain, gazing into the pile while Zeus throws all he has at my poor cagoule. A little time passes by. Perhaps there’ll be nothing today.

There! The copper-coloured face I’ve been searching for has popped out of a mossy crevice, before disappearing again into the warm darkness. This log pile is home to a small clan of stoats; two adults and four kits spend their mornings tumbling about, bored children on a rainy day. As soon as I see one leap to the ground like a dropped russet glove, she disappears from sight, leaving nothing but a little tail dipped in soot. Eventually they realise they have an observer and lie still, beady eyes peering quietly out of the darkness. I turn away and head back for coffee and a dry jumper.

The rain continues to pour. For today, these chestnut logs are a haven for small mammals, but I can’t help wondering how this arboreal empire governs itself, when I have seen adders, rabbits, toads and stoats all seeking solace in its dark corners together.

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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!