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…”

 

Squirrel acrobats in the spotlight

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the timing could not be better given the recent screening of the BBC Nature Watch programme The Super Squirrels, originally broadcast last summer and still available for a week on BBC iPlayer.

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The Nature Watch episode introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

 

 

Swimming against the plastic tide

SOMETIMES it’s hard to get an image out of your mind.

For Daniel Webb, that sight was a litter-strewn Kent beach he encountered on an evening run in 2016.

Daniel Webb [Credit line] Photo_ © Ollie Harrop 2018. Image courtesy of Everyday PlasticRUBBISH MOUNTAIN: Daniel Webb                                             PICTURE: Ollie Harrop 2018

The 36-year-old had moved to Margate that summer, attracted by the sea, creative community and small-town feel.

But his plastic-riddled run along the coast one evening that September set him thinking about his own personal impact on pollution – just how much rubbish does one person living alone produce, and how much of it is actually recycled?

Surprised to be told by his local council that no recycling facilities were available at his block of flats, he set out to discover just how much plastic waste he produced in a year.

The staggering answer, chronicled in painstaking detail by researcher and earth sciences expert Dr Julie Schneider, was more than 4,400 individual items of plastic, categorised, weighed and photographed in the form of a huge mural used to launch his Everyday Plastic project.

The pair’s subsequent report, Everyday Plastic: what we throw away and where it goes, created shockwaves around the world as Daniel’s sponsors and supporters helped to spread the word about his key findings:

  • The UK throws away over ​295 billion​​ pieces of plastic every year
  • 93%​​​​ of Daniel’s collected plastic waste was ​single-use packaging
  • 67%​​​​ of his throwaway plastic was used to ​package, wrap and consume food
  • 70%​​​​ of the plastic he threw away in a year is ​not currently recyclable
  • Only ​4%​​​ of his collection would be ​recycled​​ at UK recycling facilities 

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​Dr Schneider ​​said: “Daniel’s project was a unique opportunity to finally replace vague assumptions with concrete numbers. For instance, we wanted to know how much of our everyday plastic waste is actually recyclable. Plastic bottles can be properly recycled, but what about the plastic film that wraps our vegetables, pasta and sweets? All the plastic packaging stamped with the ‘not currently recycled’ logo? It turns out that 70% of Daniel’s plastic waste is not currently recyclable! This is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

“I wish everybody could have seen the room where we unpacked one year’s worth of Daniel’s plastic waste. In a massive warehouse in Margate, the floor was completely covered with thousands of plastic pots, trays, bags, films, lids and other everyday items. Everyone that entered the room had the same reaction: ‘Wow, that’s just one person’s plastic waste’.”

But what happens now? As Daniel said at the launch of his report: “We can’t just rely on recycling to fix plastic pollution. Most importantly, we need to produce and use much less plastic. Our fast-moving disposable society means that we are using more single-use things than ever, so we need to rethink how we consume.”

The report was released with the support of Surfers Against Sewage, whose CEO Hugo Tagholm said: “The Everyday Plastic report not only exposes the sheer diversity and volume of single-use plastic we all have to navigate daily, but as alarmingly, the inadequacy of current recycling systems, which only return a paltry amount of material back to shop shelves. Reducing the use of pointless plastics is a priority – there is just too much plastic currently being made. Then, all plastics that remain should be fully accounted for, captured and reprocessed by manufacturers. The future health of people and planet depend on drastically curbing plastic emissions.”

But we can all do our little bit to help, Daniel insists. “If I’d have given up plastic bottles, coffee cups, straws, stirrers, cutlery, carrier bags and swapped shower gel for soap, I would’ve thrown away 316 fewer items in 2017. If only half the UK population did the same thing, we could prevent 10 billion pieces from entering the waste system. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that individuals can’t make a difference!”

And what happens now? Last month Daniel hit his crowdfunding target, raising £4,315 to produce hard copies of the report  help set up the Everyday Plastic charity.

“Everyday Plastic has changed my life,” he says. “By doing something weird such as collecting all the plastic I used in a year, I have had the fortunate opportunity to meet, learn from and help hundreds of people. And it’s a journey on which I would love to continue.

“I get to travel up and down the country, sharing my story, my thoughts and learn from amazing people.”

For latest news on how to help the project, see the website and Twitter feed.

 

New year, new beginnings

IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve. 

IMG_0416It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.

More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.

Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.

It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!

A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.

 

 

 

Quarry lake teems with life

THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.

This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.

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The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.

Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.

There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.

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At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank.

Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.

The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.

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The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.

Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.

This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Club on the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.

The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.

Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.

It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.

Thousands rally for wildlife

THOUSANDS of people braved the September drizzle to join Chris Packham on a march to Whitehall calling on the government to take radical action to help reverse the decline of British wildlife.

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Protesters from around the country included families, friends and groups from organisations ranging from Friends of the Earth to local Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust.

As crowds gathered in Hyde Park, TV presenters like Lucy Cooke and Iolo Williams joined Packham and musician Billy Bragg to talk about the need for concerted action to reverse the decline of UK species – and avert their potential extinction.

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Industrialisation, urbanisation and over-exploitation were blamed for some of the most dramatic statistics, with changes in farming practices contributing to the loss of flower-rich meadows and millions of farmland birds.

With some walkers dressed as bees, birds, foxes, badgers and hedgehogs, protesters set out to deliver the “People’s manifesto” to Downing Street calling for an end to the “war on wildlife”.

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Describing the statistics as “horrifying, depressing and disastrous” the manifesto made a series of recommendations, including twinning primary schools with farms to help children understand how food is produced, banning driven grouse shooting, making it illegal to dredge for scallops and stopping Scottish seal culling.

“It’s time to wake up,” said Packham. “We are presiding over an ecological apocalypse and precipitating a mass extinction in our own backyard. But – vitally – it is not too late. There is hope we can hold to, and there is action we can take.”

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The People’s Walk departed for Westminster to the tune of digital birdsong reverberating through the streets of London from hundreds of smartphones.

The manifesto booklet includes a series of essays from 18 “ministers” highlighting some of the most critical concerns affecting the British landscape matched with specific proposals of ways which if implemented, would directly benefit the nation’s wildlife.

Contributors include authors, journalists, environmentalists and campaigners like Dr Mark Avery, Patrick Barkham, Kate Bradbury, Dr Robert Macfarlane and George Monbiot.

 

Time to go down to the woods

THERE may be an autumnal chill in the evening air, but sunny September days are still perfect for woodland adventures.

And nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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If the landscape looks familiar, it might because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

We want to hear from some of the amazingly talented photographers out there in the Chilterns who are chronicling the landscape and its wildlife all year round. Drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk or use our contact page.

 

Secret wonders in the woods

BACK in 1990 the bare field next to Roy and Marie Battell’s house didn’t look too promising as a potential nature reserve…

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But anyone sceptical about the couple’s plan to transform around two acres of cow pasture north of Milton Keynes would be amazed to see just what can be achieved when you undertake a labour of love.

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century and today there are around 800 trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife. What’s more, over the years the ‘Moorhens’ website depicting life in the Battells’ nature reserve has developed something of an international reputation.

Moorhens were the first waterbird to adopt the ponds that were dug to encourage wildlife – hence the name chosen for the website.

“They successfully raised one to three broods each year from 1991 to 2011,” Roy explains on the site.  The delight of all that activity earned the shy water birds the URL ‘dedication’ for the website – which since then has attracted more than 94,000 visitors intrigued by different aspects of the project the couple were undertaking.

“Planting, digging and caring for this lot has provided more, and more interesting, exercise than ever before in our lives,” says Roy.

Roy and Marie in front of Round Mound(r+mb Sample@576)

When the couple started to dig out the ponds they vaguely anticipated that this would attract the sort of visitors – ducks, coots and dragonflies – that they had been used to seeing at their previous homes, from Watford to Welwyn Garden City.

A then-and-now picture sequence chronicles the development of the reserve from early 1991 to the summer of 2007 – starting with fencing and hedge-planting and moving on to plant bare-root stock and digging out the ponds.

“The first 10 years were very slow with basically a sea of plastic tree shelters in grass that needed endless mowing,” Roy recalls. “But the trees suddenly took off and have become a dark canopy in summer.”

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The hedging is predominantly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, elderberry and blackberry, but the native hedging of the area includes a lot of elm, which shoots and dies in rotation.

“Of the 50 or so chestnut and hazel trees we planted on the site, the squirrels do not leave us a single nut!” says Roy. “However nothing can decimate the blackberries we hack back each year and Marie makes gorgeous jam from the crop.”

‘The Field’ quickly evolved into an intriguing wooded area providing a surplus of wood for willow wands and similar coppice products, as well as offering home to all types of birds, wildlife and insects, from bluetits and swallows to foxes, badgers and the tiniest insects.

“The sky too is full of interest with breeding by corvids and occasional visits by buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawk and kestrels,” says Roy. “Of course we are delightfully infested by tits, finches, thrushes, robins, sparrows and in recent years tawny, barn and little owls.”

An avid photographer, Roy has not only posted a series of animated sequences showing the landscape and flowers changing through the seasons, but has been systematically chronicling visiting wildlife in a weekly newsletter distributed to dozens of loyal followers

His archive of daily wildlife pictures – including birds and insects in flight – dates from 2005 and has attracted more than 2,500 visitors since 2016.

His latest selection is pretty representative, it seems – from a young magpie with downy feathers to a hungry badger, a little owl, bustling butterflies and dragonflies, clustering rooks and feeding woodpeckers.

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But the event of the week was the repeated appearance over one night of a polecat on the hunt – possibly moving a kit in her mouth and then then carrying two dead rabbits back into her burrow.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, some of whom are in regular contact. The couple also receive numerous requests from around the world for the original pictures.

“Our pictures are in about 10 wildlife textbooks,” he reveals. The couple are also in regular contact with the Bucks RSPB and other local enthusiasts and supply images to a variety of non-profit organisations and for use in museum displays and educational spreads. There is usually no charge, although those making commercial use of the images are asked to donate to the RSPB or Woodland Trust.

Vegans since 1972, the couple used to grow much of their own food in an allotment area: Marie is a painter who is also mad about gardening – as well as “collecting scruffy old books about the world before it was shrunk by modern communications”.

In recent years that became a little too much to maintain with all the rest of the maintenance and photographic work, and a third of the area has become a little apple orchard using 100 unwanted trees rescued and replanted from a nearby farm.

“We have a little salad bed near the house that used to be a huge cage for a golden
pheasant and his girls (that we inherited with the house 27 years ago),” says Roy. “We enjoyed their company for a couple of years before a fox tunnelled in and killed them.”

The Battells’ website is a modest one, but the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the natural world around them – and an inspiring pictorial backdrop to the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep.

 

 

Wake up with a smile

JAMIE ROSS WINNING BANNER PICTURE OFR THE DISCOVER BRITISH NATURE GROUPLEAP OF JOY: Jamie Ross’s winning banner picture for the Discover British Nature Group

WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.

Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.

With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.

Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.

That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?

In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.

So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.

Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.

So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…

ssandy laneCREAM OF THE CROP: Sandy Lane Farm in Oxfordshire

For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.

This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.

Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.

KIDDERMINSTERKEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers in Kidderminster

There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.

On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.

Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.

A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.

Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.

Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.

ALAN BAILEY GROUP HEADERFROZEN IN FLIGHT: Alan Bailey’s spectacular group header for Nature Watch

It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.

Another delight is The British Wildlife Photography Group, whose 21,000 members share very similar interests – and an equally stunning selection of photographs.

Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.

In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.

Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.

There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.

So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.

We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.

 

Artists open their doors

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BLUEBELLS: Brian Robinson’s watercolours in Hastoe

HUNDREDS of local artists and makers across Buckinghamshire throw open their doors this month to showcase their work.

Rebranded this year as Bucks Art Weeks – to tie in with similar events across Oxfordshire in May – the Bucks Open Studios event offers the public a unique opportunity to meet artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewelry makers to talk about their work and see them in action.

The annual June event is run by the Visual Images Group, an alliance of artists and makers living and working in the county who open their studios or hold exhibitions and events showcasing and demonstrating their work.

Many of the works on show have natural and wildlife themes, from the watercolours of Brian Robinson inspired by local landscapes to paintings and photographs depicting animals and scenery from every corner of the world.

Brian’s Out & About collection is on show alongside work from seven other artists in the historic Hastoe Village Hall near Tring, where visitors can also sample cream teas and watch demonstrations.

Just over the Buckinghamshire border into South Northamptonshire, Louise M Thomas in Potterspury is a painter of representational and abstract works depicting water and landscape subjects in a variety of media, while in Quainton, Andrew Stock’s paintings and etchings of the natural world take visitors on a journey from the Antarctic to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

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RISING TIDE: Andrew Stock is inspired by nature

A past president of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA), Andrew is an artist inspired by the natural world who likes to work in the field wherever possible. Wildlife, especially birds, as well as land and seascapes feature prominently in his exhibition of oil paintings, watercolours and etchings.

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SUNSET: Sue Gosney’s work is on show in Rowsham

Sue Gosney also gains inspiration from the places she visits, both in the UK and abroad, working from ‘real life’ landscapes or seascapes whenever possible. She will be exhibiting with four other artists at Sunneyhill Barn in Rowsham, where visitors can also enjoy workshops, live music and home-made refreshments.

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SPRINGTIME: Karin Frieldi at College Lake

Another painter inspired by the beauty of nature is Karin Friedli of the College Lake Artists group, whose expressive style tries to capture the intensity of the light at different times of the day and explore the mood and energy of the landscape in varying weather patterns and changing seasons. She is one of a number of artists exhibiting at the College Lake Nature Reserve near Tring.

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VIBRANT: Sally Bassett’s grazing sheep

Another of the artists on show at Hastoe Village Hall is Sally Bassett,  whose vibrant paintings follow from sketches made in her small sketch book, this year capturing the wild sea coasts of the West Country and the changing seasons, from snow and ice to blossoming orchards and wild flower meadows.

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SEASCAPES: Susan Langford in Weston Turville

Meanwhile, over at Weston Turville, Susan Langford finds inspiration for her landscapes and seascapes from bisits to Devon, Cornwall and Northumberland, as well as her local area.

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JURASSIC COAST: Danny Ewers is based in Aylesbury

Aylesbury photographer Danny Ewers also turns to coastal landscapes for inspiration, working with filters and long exposure techniques around the Jurassic Coast, which runs from East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset. Wildlife photography is an equal passion, with a favourite subject in recent years being the red squirrels of Brownsea Island.

More than 500 artists are featured at venues across Buckinghamshire. Free hard copy directories are available from art galleries, libraries, tourist information centres and participating venues. The event runs until June 24.