On Wasps & Foxes: Rethinking our Relationship with Animals

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This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post

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The decisions we make as humans have too often thwarted logic. Nothing confirms this more than the last two years of western politics, where democracy has offered us Trump, Brexit, food banks, a crumbling NHS and catastrophic environmental regulations. Last week, Theresa May announced her intention to lift the ban on foxhunting if the Conservatives are re-elected in June, despite 84% of the population opposing the practice. I’m a firm supporter of the ban; foxhunting is barbaric and outdated, and while I appreciate the need to control numbers in certain situations, the idea that hunting with dogs is humane or efficient is laughable.

My disappointment in Theresa May is equal to my disdain for rail replacement buses. As an environmentalist it’s almost inevitable that I wouldn’t like our prime minister, who adores fracking, the badger cull, and closed down the Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2016. But, like a rail replacement bus, I’m not keen to waste energy being angry with her. She’s a bad person, but an excellent politician who knows how to crush society like a moribund banana and still convince voters it will end with warm banana bread. This time around, I’ve been more concerned with how friends and acquaintances have reacted to the latest foxhunting news.

It’s been wonderful to see how many people support the foxhunting ban on social media, particularly Twitter, my favourite forum. Statistics and science galore have illuminated the horrors of such a cruel practice, and plenty of healthy debate has been slowly educating the 16% who might need a little convincing. What bothers me is the use of ‘cute’ photos of foxes circulating among animal welfare groups. Don’t get me wrong – who doesn’t love a photo of a happy fox? Some are sleeping, smiling, looking generally peaceful. These photos are being used to highlight the calm and loveable nature of foxes, to counteract their unfair reputation as sneaky chicken-murderers with top hats and monocles. While these images may serve a purpose in reminding animal lovers that foxes are lovely, they should not be necessary to justify the ban on hunting. They are in danger of undermining the logic, science and decency required to build a strong case against the practice, and can even make compassion look neurotic and infantile.

Beyond this, our relationship with these animals has revealed a more complicated issue to me; why do we cherish some species but vilify others? An important example is the campaign to stop the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China, in which 10,000 dogs are killed and eaten in the name of culture. The festival is, of course, brutal. Few civilised people could approve of such an event and the campaign team are a brilliant group on a mission to finish it forever. Why, then, do we declare ourselves so against the Yulin Festival, but turn away from the millions of pigs, cows and other livestock who suffer every day around the world in order to fill our plates? Pigs bred for bacon in Denmark, among several other countries, are forced to live in abhorrent conditions where they are unable to turn around, socialise, eat properly and stay hydrated, just so we can enjoy cheap meat in Tesco. How is it that we can find ourselves so emotionally attached to the Yulin dogs, yet completely disconnect ourselves from a creature that is equally intelligent?

Similarly, when I worked in a tearoom as a teenager, we used to trap wasps in jam jars to stop them bothering the customers in the garden. We grow up believing that wasps are the devil; they sting and pester us, eating our picnic food and making children cry. Why, then, do we treasure our bees so differently? In the last few decades we have all been educated on the plight of bees, who suffer heavily from intensive farming and pesticide use, but are responsible for so much of our human food production. But did you know that our supposedly malevolent friend the wasp is equally vital to our ecosystem? Aside from their role as general pollinators and pest-controllers, almost 100 species of orchid are solely reliant on the action of wasps for pollination, and a chemical found in the venom of tropical wasps has been shown to selectively destroy cancerous cells. We adore the chubby bumblebee but destroy wasps at first sight, but how are we so assured in our love and contempt for different species?

The last thing I want to do is diminish the love humans have for bees and dogs and foxes. Please keep sharing sentiment and cuddly photos; these creatures need protecting in any way they can and, in all honesty, who would go on Twitter without bear cubs and kittens? What a waste of time. Perhaps, though, it is our relationship with these animals that needs reimagining. I don’t want to feel maternal or condescending to another creature; animals are not there to be symbolically cuddled by humans, but respected within their own right to exist. I should disapprove of foxhunting because I disagree with the idea that a fox should be taunted, chased and ripped apart by dogs, not because they are cuter and smaller than me. Wasps have an amazing existence within their own social webs, interacting with the world around them that is simply astounding; they don’t deserve to be snuffed out simply because they dared to land on your bakewell tart. I stopped eating meat a few years ago for a similar reason. Why should another creature be raised and slaughtered just to feed me a luxury item I don’t need? My relationship with animals is changing every day, and I am certainly guilty of googling dog memes and having a nervous breakdown over a flock of baby ducks. But in order to support the millions of other species we share our planet with, perhaps we should stop treating them like orphaned children that need mothering, and more like other species who just need the space and resources to live healthy (albeit cute) lives.

Beltain Interview on Radio 4

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Last week we held our annual Beltain festival at Butser Ancient Farm! Beltain is an ancient ritual celebrated by the Iron Age people, to welcome in the summer months and persuade the gods to bless them with a good harvest. At the farm, we build a 30ft wickerman and burn him down at the end of a glorious evening of live music, dancing, storytelling, real ale and cider, Celtic mead, hog roast, metallurgy, woodwork, flintknapping, maypole, astronomy and much more.

On the morning of this year’s Beltain I was interviewed on BBC Radios 4’s Saturday Live. You can find out more information on the festival here!

Garlic Mustard & Wild Swimming

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We fancied a little escape for the Easter weekend, so we took the campervan to Somerset for a spring adventure. It coincided with the start of my training for the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge I’m taking part in this August with James and Sacha; we’re raising money for the BTO’s Curlew Appeal and I needed to start preparing my poor calves! It was also a great opportunity to trial my new Jack Wolfskin North Ridge jacket, which turned out to perform amazingly in the west country weather! We were treated to heavy winds and a sprinkle of rain, but the North Ridge kept me warm and dry all weekend. It’s also the most supreme flamingo colour – what’s not to love?! Find it here.

We spent Saturday hiking around the Cheddar Gorge, sampling cheddar and drinking in the fresh air. The gorge is populated by wild goats chomping on the shrubs that climb up the cliffs, and we also found plenty of butterflies and wildflowers emerging into the warmer weather.

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Loving my new North Ridge jacket from Jack Wolfskin!

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Wild goats in Cheddar Gorge

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Garlic mustard galore

After our hike we drove the camper to Chedzoy, a village in Somerset where we’d heard of a great spot for wild swimming (I highly recommend the book Wild Swimming by Daniel Start). We watched the sunset shrouded in duvet with a cold cider and fell asleep, and in the morning I decided to go for a dip! This took me a fair while as I didn’t really have the balls for it, but eventually I found the courage and swam about for 5-10 minutes accompanied by a startled swan. An awesome experience! Although freezing cold at first, after 3-4 minutes my body adapted and I was able to swim freely.

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Sunset by the river

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Wild swimming on Easter morning

With my combined love for the National Trust, the Romantic poets, cake and gardens, I was delighted to discover we were very close to Coleridge Cottage, a little house in Nether Stowey where Coleridge lived for three years and wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There we treated ourselves to poetry, bluebells and sticky ginger cake, before stretching our legs on a three-hour walk along the Coleridge Way through the Quantocks. This was a wondrous, desolate landscape filled with burnt gorse and twisted trees; we eventually found our way home to the camper and popped a cool bottle of prosecco to celebrate the Easter bun.

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Coleridge’s garden

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Dave in Coleridge’s garden

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Somerset flora

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Coleridge Cottage

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The Coleridge Way

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The Quantocks

Postcards from India

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On Valentine’s Day I got the plane back from a delicious fortnight in Goa, a small state on the west coast of India. The whole trip was a hot, vibrant cocktail of sights and sounds and tastes, but to try and describe it all in words would take another two weeks – so here is a collection of visuals instead. का आनंद लें! (Enjoy!)

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Goa is a paradise for stray dogs, the vast majority of which are friendly and just want love/food. At night they played in the sea as we walked along the beach, and in the day they snoozed on the side of the road, oblivious to the stream of cars and scooters flying past. We only saw one dead dog.

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The cows are almost as plentiful as the dogs. Cows are sacred in Hinduism and Jainism, so they wander the streets with their calfs in search of tasty offerings given out by restaurant staff, either out of kindness or to please the deities. They are all extremely friendly and like their heads being scratched.

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The gardens were filled with big, beautiful butterflies that tended to land frustratingly out of reach on the leaves of coconut trees. I’m terrible at butterfly identification, but the internet has persuaded me this is a rather faded common gull, which was kind enough to pose for a photo when the common lime and swallowtail would not.

During our boat trip along the Mandovi river, we were encouraged to rudely awaken the flock of flying foxes sleeping in a tree. I felt a bit bad about this, but it was very cool to see one fly. They are huge.

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We biked over to the Salim Ali bird sanctuary on the island of Chorão, which is a protected mangrove habitat filled with birds and snakes and all good things. We sat for a while on the stone jetty and watched ospreys and brahminy kites calling overhead, and on the mudflats below us we discovered an amazing community of crabs and mudhoppers.

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The identification of such crabs is miles beyond my capability as a naturalist, but their shells were decorated in all kinds of colours and patterns. My favourite was this bright blue one, which reminded me of those scarab beetle souvenirs you find in museums. As the crabs were wary of strangers and prone to scuttling away, Dave only managed to take this photo from an aerial view after I sat on his legs to anchor him down.

The crabs seemed to be making holes in the mud, scraping out large piles of soil and searching for something in the ground. I presumed they were eating or finding somewhere to sleep, but my knowledge of crustaceans is minimal so we just enjoyed watching them scurry back and forth.

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A fishing boat lay in the sand at Baga Creek, filled with salty specimens drying in the sun. As a vegetarian I don’t usually eat much fish, but the dishes were so tantalising in Goa that I did permit myself the odd kingfish curry. My favourite food discovery was the paneer masala dhosa, which is basically a crepe filled with melted cheese and spices. Supreme stuff.

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I’d never ridden a scooter before but thought hey, India has such a great reputation for road safety, why not start here? On the scoot up to Fort Aguada I got pulled over by a policeman who tried to fine us £20 for not carrying a proper bike license, but I suspected it might be a little scam so we managed to talk our way out of it. After the first day I decided I’d risked my life enough and rode pillion on Dave’s bike for the rest of the trip.

The roads in India are even more mental than you think. There are literally no rules except that everyone just accelerates when they think it’s their turn. I decided to film our scoot from Baga beach to Candolim, complete with bikes, cars, trucks, dogs, cows, potholes and pedestrians.

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A fisherman on the Mandovi river during our boat trip to watch crocodiles. This photo was taken during a short break, when we anchored under a mangrove tree with samosas and cold beer in the sun. The journey was speckled with kingfishers of all colours and sizes.

In the end we saw five wild crocodiles on the banks of the Mandovi. They lay deadly still in the sun, camouflaged in khaki against the mud, and without our lovely guide we would have missed them all. I’m not particularly frightened of crocodiles, but did retreat slightly when we watched one climb effortlessly over a four foot wall.

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While the rest of India was being manhandled by the British Raj, Goa was colonised by the Portuguese and, hidden away by the peaks of the Western Ghats, consequently developed a different culture to the rest of the country. We visited the capital Panjim, which is filled with Portuguese architecture and prints.

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I loved the colourful patterns splashed against walls, a reminder of a colonial past that is now slipping away. Despite the country’s European history, we were greeted with warm delight everywhere we went, particularly me as I am so tall and pale. I was often asked to have a selfie taken with Indians on holiday in Goa, which was bizarre but not at all unpleasant.

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Another boat trip in the Arabian Sea, waiting to spot humpback dolphins in the Goan bay. Along the coast we saw an abandoned prison that lay in dusty ruins alongside a few luxurious houses looking out to sea.

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There were lots of dolphins in the bay, who obliged us with a few sightings of their fins above the water. Humpback dolphins are not as well researched as other species, but they live along coastlines and don’t seem to mind boats full of ogling tourists.

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Despite the amazing naans, dogs, piña coladas, spices, birds and coconuts, my favourite memory was our daily swim in the Arabian Sea. Jumping in the waves for hours at a time, we felt tiny fish nibbling our arms and watched an osprey circling above us, waiting for the sun to set and another cocktail to be swiftly ordered. Delicious.

Hiking for Curlews

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Exciting news! I’ve just signed up to hike the Yorkshire ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ in August with my friends Sacha and James, to raise lots of dollar for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Curlew Appeal. The money raised will go towards the continued monitoring of this iconic wading bird and, ultimately, contribute to the continued conservation of the curlew in the years to come.

The curlew is one of Britain’s fastest declining bird species, with a 46% decline in numbers between 1994 and 2010 alone. The causes of this worrying trend remain unclear, but with Britain holding around 28% of Europe’s curlew population, it is vital that something is done now to protect the species.

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The Yorkshire ‘Three Peaks’ takes on the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, and comprises around 40km of hiking over challenging terrain. It will be a test of our energy and stamina, and something that will require lots of training in the coming months.

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A few friends have already been super generous and my fundraising total has already reached £60 in the first 24 hours! I’ll be posting updates over the next few months as I start to train and prepare for the challenge, so watch this space. And if you would like to donate, that would be wonderful! You can find my JustGiving fundraising page by clicking here. Please help me reach my £500 target!

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On the pill

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Note: I’m not trying to be pushy or didactic in this post, telling others how they should look after their body. It’s purely an account of my own experiences and how they have led to my own decisions.

The subject of women’s contraception has always been rather taboo, mainly because you have to say words like period in a hushed tone as if we still live in the 1950s. Ladies – keep these matters to yourselves, please. Men don’t want to hear about such things and their comfort should be top priority (for once).

I’ve been on the contraceptive pill for seven years, and today, after much thought and research, I have decided to stop taking it.

In October, the Guardian published an article about new research proving the contraceptive pill has a strong link to depression in women, particularly teenage girls. Before this, the side-effects of the pill have always formed a long and tiresome list: mood swings, breast pain, cystitis, migraines, nausea, stomach problems, irregular bleeding, acne, hair loss, weight gain, changes in blood pressure and a reduced libido, as well as a higher risk of breast cancer, thrombosis and blood clots. I have always resented pumping my body with unnatural levels of hormones in order to prevent pregnancy, and I don’t even suffer from depression or many of the above effects.

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Obviously the contraceptive pill has its brilliance. It’s in the name – I’ve gone seven years without a single pregnancy scare, and I’ve been able to control my menstrual cycle and fertility. The world would be a terrible place without the variety of contraceptives on offer, and I know if I’d fallen pregnant in my earlier years I would have had terrible decisions to make, one way or the other.

When I first started taking it I was on the mini-pill, also known as  progestogen-only or POP. This is the kind that you take every day and is generally very well known for making your periods practically disappear without too many hormones involved. Sounds perfect? Not for my ‘brilliant’ body. Not only did my periods not disappear, they lost all calculability and started popping up on random days with no warning. I managed to persist with this for four years before it drove me completely insane, and I switched to the combined pill. The combined pill (progestogen and oestrogen) made my periods wonderfully clockwork again, and for a while I felt great. I suffered no noticeable side-effects and my womb was under total control.

Then, after two years, I noticed my skin was developing more spots than usual. I’ve always had the odd one or two, but for the entirety of 2016 I have gained more and more until now – when I look about 12 years old. I’m writing a book, people! I want to look like an adult, not like I’m hanging out in parks drinking WKD. I went to see the doctor and consider my options, and she basically told me the following:

  1. No matter what happens, I have to come off the pill within 1-2 years to reduce my risk of getting breast cancer.
  2. The coil (a hormone-free option) won’t be suitable for me until after I’ve had children.
  3. My only option was to go back to mental POP pills and have more periods than breakfasts, or to simply go back to ‘the old-fashioned way’, as my Twitter pal Charlotte brilliantly phrased it.

So what’s a lady to do? I thought about it, and I realised that I’d rather take the risk of getting pregnant without the pill, than risk getting cancer with it. And now that I’ve digested my own decision, I feel over the moon.

I’ve always been very aware of what kind of crap I’m putting into my body. I don’t eat meat or processed foods (much) and I try to buy organic food wherever I can, because so many of the things available to buy in supermarkets are full of grim things that only just pass government safety regulations. Anyone who has read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson will share my opinions on pesticide use in food – so why should I willingly tamper so much with a very delicate hormonal system that my body has evolved over millions of years? Yes, it would have been terrible to get pregnant in the last seven years, but to be honest if I fell pregnant now, it really wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact it would be quite a cool tree-loving baby.

Theoretically, my spots should go away and my body will return to its normal fertility. I’ll have to be super ‘careful’ and learn to be more vigilant again, but I’m feeling completely brilliant about my decision and can’t wait to have clear skin in 2017 – no more excessive Instagram filtering! My other half is fully supportive too and was the first to suggest I give it a rest, which makes it all the more positive! Love love love.

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Oaken hall where the barn owl flies

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This post was originally published in the Guardian Country Diary column.

At the highest and darkest point of the South Downs escarpment, an Anglo-Saxon hall stands beefy and lumbering under a black sky dusted with stars. Built with hand-hewn oak timbers and hazel spars, it is the latest addition to the educational farm on Butser Hill where I work as a creative developer, feeding goats and designing guide books.

The farm is an outdoor archaeological laboratory, and recreates ancient buildings from the neolithic period onwards. Inside the hall a log fire releases sparks like doves at a wedding, burning through the daylight hours to amuse wandering visitors searching for a taste of history.

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This hall was built using archaeological footprints from a Saxon settlement in Chalton, a tiny village sleeping one mile away. It is warm and woody; in the centre lies a large feasting table laden with deer skins and tankards. Fourteen centuries ago such a table would have swayed with honey mead and platters of hot wild boar.

No man lives here now – yet it is inhabited. On winter nights a barn owl visits, to consume her own feast of mangled voles and frogs. The thatch provides shelter from iced winds, and in the morning we find a carpet of shining black pellets brimming with skulls and rubbery tails.

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Barn owls were historically able to catch rats inside barns and outhouses, but the decline of such buildings has seen owl populations plummet, with many birds dying of starvation. An increase in manmade nest boxes since the 1990s has helped numbers recover, but, according to the Barn Owl Trust, in May 2013 there were fewer barn owls in Britain than at any time since records began.

Fortunately, our owl, thawed in her shawl of ivory feathers, has found shelter within the thick beams of this hall, as she would have done in its Saxon original before rat poison, habitat loss and motorcars began to threaten her species. She arrives and departs silently within this modern agricultural landscape of rapeseed and ammonium phosphate, and dissolves into the darkness before dawn can begin.

Why every child should watch Fantastic Beasts

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The other day I went to fill myself with pizza and watch Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them at the local cinema. The pizza was a rich and tasty experience, full of flavour and salty joy. But the film was a true delight – an adventure into the dark roaring twenties, sparkling with magical creatures, well-dressed protagonists and tremendous special effects. Being a definitive ‘Harry Potter child’, I once knew every word to Stephen Fry’s story tapes, and while I’m not quite so attached as I was then, I love seeing today’s kids buying stickers and reading about quaffles. I’m delighted that the new Fantastic Beasts film will allow us all to delve into a different corner of what is clearly a growing magical universe. But while the original Harry Potter stories provided a magnificent framework in which to teach children about love, war and morality, Fantastic Beasts seems to have opened up a whole new can of delicious worms that I think can only be a positive influence on the minds of young people.

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Once I’d accepted Ezra Miller was not Kevin Khatchadourian, and once I was again immersed in the fantasy of the wizarding world, I started seeing elements of the storyline that were refreshing in a film primarily targeted at children. I find this genre frequently patronising and simplistic, frightened to reveal too much of the adult world in which children will inevitably have to find their place. And for little girls, a female protagonist is often ridiculously beautiful or passive; even modern heroines like Elsa and Anna have bizarrely distorted faces, and Disney’s live action remake of Cinderella was picture perfect with the age old damsel-in-distress routine. That’s not to say that fairytale princesses don’t have a place in children’s fiction, but they certainly don’t have one in the wizarding world, because when push comes to shove, Voldemort doesn’t give a damn if you have nice eyes. Fantastic Beast‘s female protagonist Tina Goldstein is an auror with practical boots and choppy hair, intent on fighting dark forces with intelligence alone. She is everything I would want my children to admire: brave, clever, caring and flawed, just as real heroines should be.

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Beyond this, there were undercurrents through the film of modern issues that wreak havoc on the minds of adults, let alone those of children. Newt Scamander remarks that the American wizarding community have distorted ideas on living in nomaj (muggle) New York, noting how terrible it is that Americans are forbidden from marrying non-magic people. You’d have to be fairly blind not to see parallels with racial prejudice in the western world, both historically and in the present. For Newt to highlight this flawed way of living is a brilliant way to expose the utter foolishness of racism, or simply fearing someone different to you. After all, children aren’t born hating others.

Ezra Miller’s character Credence epitomises a darkness in the film that allows a young audience to understand the importance of its message. Suppressing his wizarding powers in a cruel and superstitious household, his self-suffocation transforms him into an Obscurial, a parasitic force that will inevitably burst out in destructive fury. In many ways this is similar to Elsa in Frozen who, rather than harness and control her powers, allows her fear to take over. It’s a simple allegory aimed at all young people who are afraid of being who they are. You should always be yourself or you may never be happy. Or someone may die!

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Ultimately, the message that resonates most deeply in this story is that of ecological conscience. Many of the enchanting animals living within Newt’s suitcase sanctuary have been rescued from trafficking or misuse, and we soon discover that the American wizarding authority MACUSA have even banned the breeding of any magical creatures as they are deemed too dangerous. The titular fantastic beasts are constantly feared and persecuted, simply because they are not understood or needed for human use. How often do we hear the same rhetoric in our muggle world? Animals are either pests to be controlled or put on earth to create profit for humans, whether in agriculture, the fur trade, poaching, badger culling or horse racing. Many children now are not encouraged to watch Planet Earth or play outside, and they may grow up fearing the wild rather than endeavouring to protect it.

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I haven’t got an A Level in film so I have nothing to contribute to this review on the theme of photography or plot stamina. But as a Harry Potter child who longed for the Hogwarts acceptance letter that never came, this film filled me with glittering joy. JK Rowling has a history of making life brighter for so many kids, from founding a children’s charity to writing stories that have mesmerised millions of people across the globe. For me, Fantastic Beasts is a triumph in a world of darkness, a world that is currently in desperate need of a little light.

The Goldcrest Hop

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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

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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!