Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Why I want the village green to be green

Some recent comments in my local Parish Council Newsletter bother me. They relate to management of the village green, and suggest that the moles that recently reappeared there need eradicating and that some of the 'thorn trees' may be removed, presumably for aesthetic reasons. There is also, apparently some interest in entering a Best Kept Village contest or similar. 

To my mind controlling moles is not only an unnecessary expense, it is also inappropriate for communal space such as the village green, where they do no harm other than offend notions of bowling green aesthetics. If I showed the children of the local primary school a live mole and asked which of them thinks these amazing creatures should be killed so that the grass looks tidy, what would be the answer, from minds unbefuddled by outdated ideas of what a shared green space should be? Of course residents have the right to an ecologically barren private lawn with neat stripes and a patio of paved perfection unsullied by any uninvited flora. But where the shared space of the green is concerned I think there is a clear duty to do better than that. The green should not only look wonderful, but serve as a natural biodiversity resource.

I’d love to see the village embark on a community project to give the place a makeover – but absolutely not Best Kept Village or Britain in Bloom. There is evidence that efforts to conform to this kind of ideal are damaging biodiversity - as greens are overmowed, borders sealed to hedgehogs, foxes, rabbits and badgers, beds crowded with overbred bedding plants with little or no nectar to offer butterflies, bees and other pollinators and all manner of wildlife deliberately or accidentally excluded or eradicated. What I would like to propose is something far more daring and special. How about national ‘Wild villages’ where birds, pollinators, wildflowers and yes, moles, are welcome in areas where they do no damage to economic interests. Imagine a sign as people drove into a village – ‘Welcome to Wild Wherever – proud to be naturally beautiful’ – would that not be something special? 

I’m not suggesting we let the place go – far from it. Anyone who has visited one of many parks gardens managed for wildlife lately (NT Nunnington Hall is a great example local to me) can see how breathtakingly beautiful a wildlife garden can be. There is no shortage of places to draw inspiration. Let the green grow
– just mow the edges to ensure it looks cared for. That's what happens on our lane and it looks glorious. Recent research in York has come up with some dramatic results - for example not mowing the city walls in summer has boosted bat passes by several orders of magnitude. It's actually very easy to create habitat that looks great but makes room for nature too. Let the wild flowers come, and beneath them the molehills. Plant trees and shrubs for their food and cover value to wildlife as well as their looks. Sign up to community projects and initiatives such as Hedgehog Street, Great Garden Birdwatch, Big Butterfly Count, Get Britain Buzzing, Living with Mammals, Give Nature a Home, Big Bat Map - there are dozens.

Wild shared spaces could  appeal to a wide demographic of residents and perhaps engage some not currently catered for by existing community activities. I think it's worth a try... 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The best time to plant a tree

The best time to plant a tree, say the Woodland Trust, is 20 years ago. The next best time is now.

It's mid November and overcast, breezy but not yet wintry cold. As we wander up an elongated triangle of land adjacent to the B651 between the Hertfordshire villages of Sandridge and Wheathampstead, we're well off any footpath, but far from alone. The air is alive with sound - the clink of steel on stone, the sliding scatter of soil from shovel and the periodic 'whump' of a mattock ripping wedges of earth from the ground. In every direction, muttered conversions, shared laughter, words of encouragement, punctuated by the chime of younger voices speculating on how long 'their' tree might live or exclaiming over unearthed worms and the possibility of buried treasure. The closest we came was a very rusty old coach bolt, presumably from a piece of farm machinery, vintage anyone's guess.

The three generations of our extended family here today are part of an impressive army of 500 volunteers at Britain's largest new native wood, just north of St Albans. Some are here for the day, well wrapped up against the slight chill, and carrying picnic bags as well as garden tools and bundles of bare-rooted saplings. Others appear to be in Sunday best, carefully picking their way to a spot with a symbolic single tree. Every pair of willing hands is welcomed. It's a long time since I've seen a community nature project on this scale, and it's impressive.

Heartwood Forest, as it is rather stirringly named, will soon cover almost 350 hectares of former farmland. Some 300,000 trees have already been planted in five years - mostly by volunteer effort. And if today's turnout is anything to go by, it won't be long until the this ambitious first stage is complete. I overheard someone saying there are 10,000 saplings to go in today. The field is marked with blue dots of spray paint to help us spread the trees out evenly. We collected a bundle of tree-babies - a mixed bunch of hazel, spindle, black-and hawthorn and guelder rose - from a team of well drilled volunteers, and found a patch to populate. This part of the forest won't be a towering cathedral of trees - in fact I'll be surprised if you can get anywhere near 'our' trees in a few years time - they're all shrubby varieties, chosen for the areas close to roads where they will create fabulously productive zone of dense vegetation and a wonderfully secure place for nesting birds. Who knows - one day it night even suit dormice. What's for sure is that this breezy field will soon be forest - a forest made by men, women and children. And it will remain long after we're all gone.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Trust is earned

When you donate to a charity, you're relying on them to make your money work hard, and to use it to really make a difference for whatever the cause happens to be. In the case of the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) that cause is quite plain. They provide funds to carefully vetted research and conservation projects in the UK and all over the world. The grants they award get research done, results published and strategies implemented. They save species. Not only the large, glamorous ones (though big cats and great apes get their share) but also the small, humble and obscure - the noble chafer beetle, the hedgehog, the toad-headed agama, the Danube clouded yellow butterfly, the Indian Ocean humpbacked dolphin (only discovered in 2013).

I've been working with the PTES for (gulp) 13 years now - initially contributing a seasonal column for Mammals UK magazine - for supporters of their special fund for UK mammal conservation research Mammals Trust UK, then as editor for eight years of the same, and for the last three years as editor of the twice yearly Wildlife World magazine. This goes out to some 20,000 supporters, and attempts to cover all the diverse projects and initiatives funded by the Trust in the last six months.

The latest edition sports a new look, in line with the rebranding of the whole charity. PTES themselves haven't made too much fuss or fanfare about this, partly I suspect because such exercises are often subject to criticism about spending resources on PR and corporate image, when actually their raison d'etre is something else entirely. So I understand their caution. But since a branding exercise is also about getting noticed, I'm more than happy to blow some trumpets on their behalf.

The new look (concocted by strategic design company Colourful and graphic designer Phill Southgate) is strikingly different to that of other conservation charities - and rightly sets PTES apart. The ethos of PTES and its small but dedicated staff is different too. PTES is a minnow by international charity standards - but quick on its feet, and with a soundly scientific approach to conservation issues that allows it to punch well above its weight in terms of results. In addition to great field science, they also fund community engagement projects (Hedgehog Street, with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society; the Ruaha Carvivore Project in Tanzania and the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project with the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to name just three of dozens), but always with an emphasis on monitoring, so that the efficacy of any given approach can be measured. Conservation means many things to different people, but for me, any approach that neglects science - and especially the opportunity to report honestly on what works, and what doesn't - is little better than just crossing fingers.

The latest edition of Wildlife World is now available to supporters of PTES, and back issues are available to anyone at 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Eco-nomy: why a 'Vote for Bob' is just the start

Have you noticed that ecology and economy have the same root? Eco is from Oikos, the Greek for ‘home’. Hence ecology is the study of home, and economics is the management of it. The two are inextricably linked. As political parties jostle for pre-election position, I want to know what they’re going to do about the real eco-nomy?

The RSPB recently launched a campaign to push environmental issues up the political agenda, asking us to ‘Vote for Bob’, a chirpy red squirrel. Bob isn’t really a squirrel. Bob is a lapwing. Bob is any native bird you care to mention. Bob is a badger. Bob is habitat. Bob is the planet. Bob wants you to use your vote in 2015 to show you care. By all means, support Bob, because your voice counts. But let’s not pretend that would be job done.

As any campaigner will tell you, nothing gets your view across better than direct communication – be it a letter, an email, or a personal challenge to the candidate on your doorstep. Prospective MPs don’t come to my door – we’re off the beaten track. But this time I’ll be seeking them out. We should all do so, because we all know things they don’t, and understand things they prefer to ignore.

The Infrastructure Bill passing the Lords this summer was ostensibly about planning. But it included other new legislation, some of it highly damaging to conservation, including reassigning any species ‘not ordinarily and naturally resident in or visiting the UK’ as nonnative. These include European beavers, whose controlled reintroduction the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) among others has supported for years, and other extinct natives such as lynx. It also includes re-established and naturalised species on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – red kites, large blue butterflies, capercaillie, common cranes, wild boar, little owls, white-tailed eagles, brown hares, cornflowers and corncockles, choughs, corncrakes – even barn owls. Native vs non-native is a hot topic in conservation circles, but it’s a question as artificial as national borders. Worryingly, a host of ecologically and culturally important species could find themselves unprotected – or even subject to legal eradication efforts. An outrageous prospect.

Environmental lawmaking should be about ecology, not economics. At its most asinine, the law can protect badgers with one arm, and shoot them (badly, as it turns out) with the other. It can flip the status of the common pheasant from non-native livestock at hatching to wild (read ‘native’ for purposes of the Infrastructure Bill) so that it can be set free with millions of others into specially managed woodland and, come 1st October, shot. If sheep broke into your garden and wrecked it, the farmer would be liable. If pheasants do the same, well sorry, they are ‘wild’ animals. However once dead, they deftly metamorphose into livestock again to smooth the sale and export pathways
for their meat. Those that escape the guns are also reclassified, just in time to be rounded up for breeding. This legal shapeshifting has nothing to do with ecology, and everything to do with stakeholder interests. Policy is powerful. It can, and will reassign the value placed on our wildlife – unless we make our informed opinions clear.

I’m not na├»ve enough to suggest politics hasn’t always been rife with vested interest. On the plus side, we have freedom to point this out, and social media gives us a previously unimaginable power to challenge. A government of any colour should also be green – so it’s not about who is elected, it’s about ensuring they all pay heed. I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how to vote. But I do dream about ordinary people like me confronting policymakers with the evidence and insisting they act on it. I dream that we really are a nation of animal lovers and I dream that educated common sense will prevail in the future eco-nomics of our island home. 

This article is published as a Frontline feature in the October 2014 edition of Wildlife World magazine, published by the People's Trust for Endangered Species

Find out how you can support Bob here

Thursday, 23 October 2014

How to become a natural history writer

It's nice to be asked for advice, because it presupposes that the person asking thinks you might offer something worth knowing. This month I was invited to contribute to an online careers advice series by BBC Wildlife magazine - in my case they wanted to know 'How to become a natural history writer'. 

My first reaction was... I have no idea! Although I always wanted to study biology, and share my passion for the natural world in some way or another, I can't say I planned or followed an optimal career path. Fortunately the magazine provided a list of questions to guide my response. 

I love my 'job' (sometimes it doesn't feel like work). It's not what I'd call a secure occupation, and certainly not stress free - being self employed seldom is. But it is flexible, it keeps me learning and gives me unlimited opportunity to be inspired, beguiled, outraged and astounded on a daily basis. And it (just about) pays the bills.

You can read the Q&A here:

Planning my next outing! Photo copyright Dave Willis.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Autumn leaf spotting

It looks as though summer might finally have sloped off somewhere for a well-earned rest. We can't complain it didn't deliver this year, but even so, the arrival of autumn heralded by the wet, slapping tail of hurricane Gonzalo has been a bit of a shock. I've failed in my annual resolution not to put the heating on until November.

But it's not all bad - I love this time of year, and the rewards for wrapping up and heading out even on the wildest days are too many to count. There is nothing like experiencing the incremental changes of the passing seasons first hand on a daily basis to make them whizz by (or am I just getting old?). Even the supposed 'longest winter' of 2012-13 ticked briskly by when I was out every day. The not-quite winter of 13-14 was gone before it even arrived.

If you need a reason however, how about a spot of leisurely leaf-watching? A lot of our oak, ash and hazel is still almost fully green, so there's plenty of time to hone your ID skills and marvel at the gradual undressing of our deciduous trees. I've written a short but sweet guide to autumn leaves for the November edition of BBC Wildlife magazine (see link below). How many can you tick off this month?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Nottinghamshire dormouse reintroduction

Dormice are close to my heart – I've been smitten since the early 90’s when as an undergrad student at Royal Holloway University of London I was introduced to the species by Pat Morris and Paul Bright, and subsequently spent many hours inputting data collected for the National Dormouse Monitoring Scheme. The NDMS, managed by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is now the longest running study of its kind for small mammals anywhere in the world, with a massive 25 year data set. After moving to North Yorkshire, I helped coordinate a reintroduction to woodlands near Ripon, which I've been helping monitor ever since. My latest feature for BBC Wildlife magazine focuses on another reintroduction, this time in Nottinghamshire, where 40 captive bred dormice were safely installed in June this year, and I’m delighted to say they've settled well and began breeding immediately.

And, for the first time, the article is accompanied by a video. So you can see my first foray into a bit of low-tech
wildlife film-making on the magazine website here!