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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 13.48.38.png

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.

Meadow (Bluebells) - Chagford, Devon.JPGDSC02105.JPGDSC02129.JPGDSC02149.JPGDSC02153.JPG

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.


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.

Heath (Dartmoor foal) - Dartmoor, Devon.jpegDSC02410.JPG

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



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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: