Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…

 

Bird lovers flock to support pigeons

PIGEONS have plenty of loyal devotees after all, it seems.

Not only did our recent blog singing their praises attract dozens of visitors to the site – making it the single most popular post since The Beyonder’s launch a year ago – but a coincidental mention of the birds in the Evening Standard echoed our sentiments too.

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Columnist Ellen E Jones was writing in the wake of  story about an RSPCA appeal for information about an unidentified person seen throwing nearly hatched pigeon eggs off the balcony of an Airbnb property in Holloway.

She was quick to throw her hat in the ring in praise of the Trafalgar Square stalwarts, pointing out how clean-living and monogamous they are.

Ellen wasn’t alone in feeling that the much-maligned birds were worthy of some long-overdue recognition.

When Aimee Wallis of Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue posted a link to the article on her Facebook page her supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.

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Not to mention all those wartime achievements, racing feats and Dickin medals, of course.

I may have been a little slow to realise the true talents of these feathered friends, but thanks to all who flocked to their support and proffered a range of supporting arguments about why we should be a lot more forgiving about the pigeons in our lives…

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”

 

Museum reopens for 2019

The Chiltern Open Air Museum reopens for the 2019 season this weekend with a living history event focused around World War I.

On Saturday, the museum marks English Tourism Week by officially opening its completed WWI Nissen hut to the public.

Over the weekend. costumed re-enactors will show the Tommies would relax on the home front and what weapons and kit they used when fighting.

Nurse and chaplain re-enactors will demonstrate how they supported the troops on the front line and back home.

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Visitors can take part in a poppy trail and dress up in WWI officer and nurse costumes.

On Saturday, there will also be the opportunity to chat to the museum team about educational visits, group visits, experience days, weddings and events at the Museum.

The event is part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project to rebuild a WWI Nissen hut on the site to commemorate WWI in the Chilterns and to tell the stories of local war heroes.

The museum is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday and entry this weekend is by donation.

For more detail about the work of the museum see our History In The Making feature or visit the museum’s website.

Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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Big ideas get lost in a small world

THERE’S so much about Alexander Payne’s movie Downsizing (15) that doesn’t quite work that it’s easy to overlook some of the many endearing facets of his ambitious 2017 sci-fi satire.

For a start, it’s not every day you get a film brave enough to play to audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability, but these aren’t subjects ideally suited to comedy so perhaps it’s no surprise that this unlikely fantasy never seems entirely clear what it is trying to achieve.

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It’s a dilemma which clearly confused the writer responsible for the DVD sleeve, because if Downsizing is anything it’s certainly not “hilarious” in any laugh-out-loud way – unless you find a Vietnamese refugee speaking in pidgin English side-splittingly funny, that is.

Yes, there are some witty concepts, intriguing characters and entertaining dialogue, but despite the thoughtful and expansive premise, the film tends to fall between all the available stools – neither arthouse nor mainstream and not scoring a hit with the critics or at the box office, despite the familiar names on the cast list.

By its nature satire tends to cause discomfort and unease and yet there are plenty of life-affirming moments in Downsizing, which perhaps ensures that as dystopias go, this isn’t a journey that leaves us too emotionally exhausted.

Perhaps that’s the central problem – it’s hard to stay upbeat in the face of imminent apocalypse and there are times when we are not sure whether to laugh or cry about the whole experience.

The initial premise is original enough (although it’s worth remembering that Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726). Here the twist is that visionary Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) has uncovered a shrinking formula which provides a potential solution to the world’s population woes.

This raises the prospect that miniaturised people will consume only a fraction of the world’s resources but the utopian project is soon hijacked by American capitalism, paving the way for an explosion of tiny dome-covered communities boasting a lifestyle of ease and opulence marketed with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes the average car salesman look like a rank amateur.

The fundamentally sound qualities of central everyman figure Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) are somewhat offset by his beigeness. But it’s easy to see how our unfulfilled hero might be tempted by the prospect of upward mobility in micro-suburbia, and his new life as someone five inches tall provides plenty of scope for inventive satire as it becomes only too clear that life in the diminutive world of Leisureland is a literal microcosm of the big bad world outside.

There are plenty of surprises awaiting Paul when he starts to scratch the surface of the miniature community, starting with the potentially alluring lifestyle of his new neighbour, the larger-than-life Serb black marketeer Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz.

But if the disarmingly roguish Dusan seems cartoonish, how are we supposed to react to his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese illegal immigrant who was shrunk against her will while imprisoned as a dissident.

In some ways it’s only Hong Chau’s bravura performance that enables her to overcome the extraordinary list of clichés and stereotypes she has been saddled with, her staccato broken English troubling more politically correct audiences, although most were won over by her irrepressible energy and Payne assures us she was created and brought to life with a lot of tenderness.

Paul manages to resist the hedonistic attractions of party boy Dusan’s existence and is drawn instead into the darker world of Ngoc Lan’s life in the dirt-poor ghetto where she lives outside Leisureland’s walls.

So far, so good – after all, Payne has an excellent track record in exploring the anguish of humdrum middle-aged American men and the special effects are used cleverly to immerse us in the small world in such a way that the absurdist humour never allows us to become distracted by hi-tech gimmickry.

But if it’s a pleasant change to exchange Bond-style supermen for a “real” hero, Damon is sometimes not the most entertaining of companions and his relationship with Ngoc Lan feels a little cartoonish at times too as he blankly takes in the harsh realities of life for the disabled activist who has become part of Leisureland’s exploited underclass.

On the one hand we are being bombarded with bold reminders of humankind’s fundamental flaws, but many of the avenues are left unexplored and questions unanswered, despite the film feeling a little rambling and overlong.

Love may conquer all, but it may well do so in a somewhat bland and suburban way, despite the off-stage collapse of the world as we know it.

And if it feels like a very fitting message for our times to explore the lengths people will go to escape global overcrowding and the dangers of climate change, Damon is sometimes less than compelling company on the journey to enlightment and a little too passive to win our hearts, never mind the sharp-voiced and sharper-brained Ngoc Lan’s.

We understand the need to escape from the prison of materialism, and the spectre of a new kind of migration crisis lends a sense of urgency to the closing third of the film, but the loose ends rankle and ultimately Paul’s road to redemption feels a little too muddled to leave audiences feeling truly moved.

Downsizing gives us pause for thought and raises some intriguing questions about the world we live in, but never quite becomes the miniature masterpiece Payne’s fans might have hoped for.

 

 

Pupils call for climate change action

THOUSANDS of pupils took to the streets across the UK yesterday in a national protest calling for action on climate change.

Defying criticism from head teachers and the prime minister, schoolchildren in more than 60 towns and cities took part in marches calling on the government to declare a climate emergency and take active steps to tackle the problem.

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Organisers Youth Strike 4 Climate said protests took place in more than 60 towns and cities, with an estimated 15,000 taking part.

Meetings took place outside town halls from Truro to Inverness and from Norwich to Ullapool, with the largest crowds converging on parliament in Westminster, at one point blocking Westminster Bridge.

The action was part of a wider global movement, Schools 4 Climate Action, which began when 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg skipped classes to sit outside government buildings, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement.

The climate activist, who has Asperger’s. quickly became a global phenomenon, being invited to speak at the UN and the World Economic Forum at Davos, where she told world leaders: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day – and then I want you to act.”

With more than 182,000 followers on Twitter Greta, now 16, has inspired thousands of other young people across the world to carry out similar protests, many of them with placards bearing slogans such as “There is no planet B”.

Students participating in yesterday’s day of protest in the UK demanded that the Government communicate the severity of the ecological crisis to the public and reform the curriculum to make it an educational priority.

Anna Taylor, 17, of UK Student Climate Network, said: “We’re running out of time for meaningful change, and that’s why we’re seeing young people around the world rising up to hold their governments to account on their dismal climate records.

“Unless we take positive action, the future’s looking bleak for those of us that have grown up in an era defined by climate change.”

In a TV interview she said: “I feel very disappointed that 15,000 students had to walk out of school today. We feel deeply betrayed by past generations and past governments.”

The campaign has also received celebrity backing.

On Twitter, TV presenter Chris Packham wrote: “Across the planet we have elected a confederacy of idiots obsessed with short term greed.

“Well today a bunch of children and young people are going to show them up. Bloody marvellous isn’t it!”

Theresa May was attacked by Labour politicians after saying that those taking part in the strike were “wasting lesson time”. And activist Greta Thurnberg responded on Twitter: “That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

Other young activists promoting the strike included 17-year-old wildlife ambassador Bella Lack and 14-year-old Dara McAnulty from Northern Ireland, an autistic naturalist and conservationist who demanded that governments declared our time “an ecological emergency”.

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The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that while it supported the rights of young people to express themselves, it did not condone students being out of the classroom to take action.

But writing in the Huffington Post, Caroline Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion and former leader and co-leader of The Green Party, said: “Our children recognise that they are living through a climate emergency. They are striking today because they know we cannot carry on as normal.

“There have been some who have questioned today’s strike – asking if climate change is enough of an ‘exceptional circumstance’ for children to miss lessons. But if the threat of civilisational collapse and the possibility of the end of life on Earth as we know it is not an exceptional circumstance, then I don’t know what it is.

“We’re already feeling the effects of climate breakdown. Nature and wildlife populations are at tipping points. Wildfires and droughts are becoming increasingly common.

“And in October last year, the United Nations warned that we have only 12 years left to transform our global economy and prevent catastrophe.”

She said young people were issuing a wake-up call and showing “courage and leadership where the adults in charge show none”.

Her message was echoed after the protest by Chris Packham, who Tweeted: “Day 1 – superb . And authority responded predictably – from headmasters to government . Never trust – always question them, be peaceful but forceful, rational and informed . The future is yours not theirs. Seize it.”

And energy minister Claire Perry said she was “incredibly proud” of young people’s passion and concern.

She told the BBC: “I suspect if this was happening 40 years ago, I would be out there too.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said schoolchildren were “right to feel let down by the generation before them” and said it was “inspiring” to see them making their voice heard.

 

 

 

Fog lifts on a different landscape

AFTER the snow, the fog – a murky, swirling affair worthy of a night on the Kent marshes or a Whitechapel back street.

But aside from conjuring up images of Magwitch and London pea-soupers, this latest twist in the February weather story also manages to banish the hard crusting of ice and snow that has been resolutely frosting the local landscape.

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And as the fog subsides, to be replaced by a steady drizzle, that’s great news for all those early flowers tempted into bloom by the mild January air and buried by last week’s wintry downfall.

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Candlemas day is past and the snowdrops are out, but the chill in the air still makes it feel as if spring is a long way off.

Nonetheless there’s a definite sense of anticipation in the air as the natural world starts to sense warmer times to come, and the bare branches and withered vegetation provide a drab backdrop against which to watch the countryside starting to stir.

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Certainly there’s a jauntiness to the dawn chorus this morning and the bare branches of the laburnum outside our bedroom window make it easier to spot the miniature army of blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits which have been frequenting our bird feeders.

The variety here is a little less dramatic than the visitors chronicled in this week’s newsletter from The Moorhens – alias Roy and Marie Battell, whose small nature reserve near Milton Keynes has been frequented by badgers, muntjac deer, red foxes and partridges, along with pheasants and woodpeckers.

But there have been a few less familiar visitors to our patch too, with one stray pheasant, a lone goldfinch and a cheeky lesser spotted woodpecker popping in for a quick bite.

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Not that these colourful guests have displaced the regulars in our affections. As well as the robins, blackbirds, magpies and dunnocks, one of our firm favourites remains the baby moorhen who has become a regular saunter round the feeders looking for scraps the smaller birds have dropped on the ground –  and whose distinctive tracks in the snow were a dead giveaway of her movements last week too.

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Natural boost for our mental health

IT SOUNDS pretty obvious that time spent outdoors can be good for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.

But a variety of different bodies have been quick to promote the wonders of the natural world to mark the start of the fifth year of Children’s Mental Health Week.

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From the Woodland Trust to local wildlife trusts, forest schools and activity weeks, the message has been simple – that climbing trees, building dens and playing in the woods can all help youngsters learn valuable life skills, as well as reconnecting with nature.

On Sunday it was worrying to read in The Observer that emergency talks were being held over the future of children’s adventure playgrounds amid concerns that funding cuts are making some popular sites too dangerous to insure.

“Too many children are living a ‘battery hen’ existence, spending more and more time sitting in front of screens and less time outside playing. I want to see more playgrounds across the country, not fewer,” said England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, who has championed play as a weapon against child obesity and poor mental health.

Mental health and the natural world was also under the spotlight last week in an emotional interview on Winterwatch between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harness.

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Viewers were quick to phone, Tweet and email with their thoughts on the subject, pointing out how much pleasure even the housebound could obtain from watching garden birds at their kitchen window.

Certainly our own garden guests have been giving us great joy during the recent snowfall, with the tits, robins, blackbirds and pigeons being joined by curious moorhens, affable ducks and boisterous squirrels.

In America, a survey of managers of assisted living and nursing home institutions all agreed that watching garden birds had a positive effect on their residents’ morale, and that feeding and watching birds gives housebound residents a connection with the outside world and reduces isolation and depression.

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Braving the wintry weather has allowed eagle-eyed youngsters to pick out the tracks of some of the more unfamiliar guests, while budding photographers have also been out and about, discovering that finding beauty in nature can help to ease the February blues.

Laura Howard, digital producer for The Watches, points out: “During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky the world seems to slow right down. A sleepy darkness creeps in and colours often mute to greys.

“However if conditions are right, this season can also show nature at its most inspiring as precious winter light illuminates the world. Due to its low profile on the horizon and its distance from the earth, winter sun has a quality all of its own as evidenced by these terrific photos.”

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It’s got to make sense – and on recent trips to Black Park, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park, it has been a delight to see people of all ages braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the most of the natural world in all its winter glory.

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Icy venue gets a warm welcome

MORE than 2.5m tuned into the first night of BBC2’s four-part Winterwatch series this week, the best viewing figures for a couple of years.

And although some continued to lament the absence of Martin Hughes-Games, the move to the Cairngorms appeared to prove a big hit with presenters and viewers alike.

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Veteran TV buddies Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan were joined by the affable Welsh naturalist Iolo Williams, 56, as well as biologist Gillian Burke, 42, who has been a regular presenter on the show for the past two years.

While some critics took to social media to say how much they missed Hughes-Games, with some arguing the show should have honoured his departure officially, the stunning snow-covered venue won plenty of praise.

Highlights included sleepy pine martens, superbly camouflaged ptarmigans and a moving interview between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harkness about the mental health benefits of bird-watching.

The Cairngorms National Park is  the new, year-round home for The Watches, with this week’s show exploring how local wildlife adapts to get through the tough winter.

The presenters will then return to their new base  throughout the year to cover the changing seasons, keep up with some of the key year-round residents and meet the seasonal arrivals as they flock to the wild landscape in spring and summer.

Home base is at the Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 sitting on the edge of the Abernethy Caledonian pine forest and perfectly placed to link viewers to the whole of the Cairngorms.

From here, the team can showcase the whole region, seeking out the wildlife that thrives in this challenging habitat and looking at the people and projects working to conserve it, including the UK’s largest landscape-scale conservation project, Cairngorms Connect.

As ever, the programme reflects wildlife issues and spectacles across the UK in a series of pre-recorded films showcasing the diversity of habitats and species that make this group of islands a truly unique place for wildlife.

All the presenters spoke of their enthusiasm for the new base before the show and have taken to social media regularly to sing its praises.

Michaela Strachan said: “The Highlands have a wonderful diversity of wildlife and habitats. It’s one of those places in the UK where you can really connect with the natural environment.”

Scotland’s national tourist organisation, Visit Scotland, and RSPB Scotland have both been delighted by way the programme has highlighted the scenic and wildlife attractions of the Cairngorms, with some local papers predicting the show will prompt a tourism boost.

The Watches are produced by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.