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.

 

Blooming marvellous

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IT’s rhododendron time again at Langley Park, which means a spectacular fireworks display of colour in the Temple Gardens.

From here you can look out over the park towards Windsor Castle – but not before spending a little time wandering along the pathways enjoying the dazzling range of different colours and blooms.

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In mid- to late May it’s a genuinely spectacular sight, and you arrive early enough in the morning or on a weekday, you may have those winding paths pretty much to yourself, apart from the odd jogger or dog walker.

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Reds, pinks, whites, yellows – each time you turn a corner there’s a bush of a different hue or blooms in new dramatic shapes. See the link above for more details about the park, and the council website for opening times and parking charges.

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Family fun on the Thames

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NOW that the Thames Path has finally dried out, it’s the perfect place for an evening stroll – especially with so many feathered families out and about on the water.

On the section from Bourne End to Marlow, the ducks and geese are out in force alongside the walkers, sailors and rowers.

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The hawthorn blossoms are in full bloom, the goslings are learning to swim and, a couple of fields away, the baby bunnies are out playing too as dusk falls.

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Popular circular walking routes here include riverside sections of the Thames between Cookham, Bourne End and Marlow, with the option of letting the train take the strain if you fancy a jar or two in one of the welcoming hostelries along the way, or a restaurant meal in Marlow or Cookham.

The branch line to Marlow is a single-track seven-mile line via Bourne End to Maidenhead, and very picturesque it is too. Passenger services are operated by the Great Western Railway using two-coach diesel multiple unit trains, normally every half hour, but hourly after 9pm.

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Back in steam days the train used to be known as The Marlow Donkey, normally taking the form of a one-coach train powered by a small pannier tank. Although the exact derivation of the term is unclear, a pub near the station in Marlow is named after it.

Raven Alfie rules the roost

IMG_0662MAKING MISCHIEF: Alfie the raven is determined to play

ALFIE the raven is in mischievous mood during our visit to Corvid Dawn in Berkshire.

This is not at all unusual, it transpires – and to be fair we were given plenty of warning to watch out for one of the more colourful characters looked after by Aimee Wallis at her wild bird rescue sanctuary.

The captive-bred raven flies free around their rural retreat and takes a very close interest in our movements. But then this is a bird who flies and trots along when the ‘family’ goes for a walk and enjoys playing games like ‘fetch’ and hide and seek (as long as he gets to make up the rules).

Alfie’s clearly in his element amid the motley assortment of other animals to be found in Aimee’s sanctuary, and as we embark on a guided tour there are soon plenty of curious onlookers in tow – a trio of dogs, a couple of rescue lambs from Wales and the neighbours’ children, for a start.

Cutest of the new arrivals is Missy the baby duckling, a tiny white mallard found by a couple on a canal, either abandoned by her mother or dropped by a predator.

The RSPB warns people only to interfere with fledglings as a last resort, and says: “Seeing ducklings and other young birds on their own is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to be worried. Just because you cannot see the adult doesn’t mean they are not there.”

IMG_0623BALL OF FLUFF: Aimee and partner Dario with Missy the duckling

But the couple who found Missy could find no trace of mum and looked after her for a couple of days before bringing her to Aimee.

“They did so well, did all the right things, she’s a lucky girl. They’re off back to Australia at some point so couldn’t really take her on,” Aimee explains.

Missy will be in good company here. The rescue lambs are taking a close interest in her welfare as she settles into her paddling pool and there’s a lot of curiosity among the corvids too – the crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens who are the main focus of attention at the centre.

IMG_0605MAKING A SPLASH: Missy settles into her paddling pool

Yes, there are hens and turkeys here too, but it’s the corvids that are Aimee’s first love and which prompted her to create the sanctuary in the first place. Before all this she had a career in the beauty industry, though that life seems very distant to her now.

It’s a few years since Aimee’s first encounter with corvids, after she and her mother took an injured blackbird to a bird sanctuary and she became intrigued by the intelligence of the crows and ravens who were kept there.

In fact she ended up working at the centre as a volunteer and the love affair was cemented when she first encountered a blind five-week-old crow called Wonder. But as she began to learn more about the birds she also began to realise that she and the owner had very different ideas about how the rescue centre should be run.

She says: “My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren’t going to be. He didn’t agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”

IMG_0645FUN AND GAMES: playing with Alfie

It’s clear that there are plenty of unhappy memories associated with that period of her life, but Aimee doesn’t shirk from difficult questions and has publicly spoken out in the press about her experiences at the sanctuary, which was raided by police in 2015, after she had left.

“The former volunteers were all devastated by the outcome,” she says. “When I first went there I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn’t a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.”

Aimee started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself and taking ill birds to a local vet, learning a lot about the birds’ welfare in the process. She was allowed to take two birds with her when she left, but dozens of birds were seized in the police raid and a number had to be put down.

The corvid family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaw, jays and magpies – all known for their intelligence – and it was clear to her that she wanted to set up her own rescue centre if at all possible.

After moving back home with her mum for a while she worked in a local pub and was able to keep her birds on land there for a year until the pub got planning permission to expand. By then, word had got around about her rescue work, prompting one farmer she also worked for to offer her the chance of establishing a proper base in the country.

That move in November 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to set up Corvid Dawn as a more spacious sanctuary able to offer a proper rescue and release service.

“We were in desperate need of a new base and the farm is run by a lovely older couple,” says 36-year-old Aimee.

IMG_0603WOOLLY FLOCK: the lambs were too small to thrive on the farm where they were born

It’s a perfect location for her centre and it’s been a busy few months working on new accommodation for the growing family. It’s hard to keep track of exact numbers, though, with new arrivals most weekends. That all adds to a pretty demanding work schedule – not to mention proving a costly exercise, with so many mouths to feed.

The aim, wherever possible, is to rescue and release birds back into the wild, although some of the more badly injured will be longer-term residents, along with cruelty cases who may have been mistreated or neglected.

Eventually, Aimee hopes the centre will also be able to perform an important educational role, introducing school children to the birds through talks and displays at locations like the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.

Her mission is to demonstrate just how intelligent and perceptive birds can be and, by sharing her experiences of rescuing and rearing corvids, promote a better understanding of  British wild birds among pupils.

“They are fantastic judges of character. It’s bizarre – they show jealousy and they have favourite objects,” she chuckles.

IMG_0610SAFE REFUGE: spacious cages provide a home for a variety of rescued birds

Providing sanctuary to her family of animals and birds has involved some rapid cage-building, although one day she would love to have a free-flying flock of rooks.

For now, large cages will have to suffice. But partner Dario, 33, has been a willing worker, even embarking on a carpentry course to hone his woodworking skills.

An Italian with former experience in the military, he came to the UK to improve his English and had a job locally working with horses when they first met.

There are signs of his hard labour everywhere, from the fencing and cage construction to the newly turned over patch which will soon become a vegetable garden.

IMG_0639MENAGERIE MANOR: Dario with the chickens and turkeys

It’s clear that he loves animals too, despite the hard work involved in almost every aspect of their care.

Alfie is looking down from a lofty perch inspecting us as we wander around his territory, a reminder that establishing such a close relationship with him has been no easy task.

Bred in captivity for the pet trade, he was angry and suspicious and it has taken many, many hours of cajoling – and plenty of slashes from his razor-sharp beak – to win his trust and establish the sort of easy rapport that we are able to witness.

IMG_0630RULING THE ROOST: Alfie keeps a beady eye on what’s going on

But despite the tough times – the tales of animal cruelty and the trauma of dealing with ill and injured animals – Aimee finds people’s compassion and kindess a huge compensation.

The weekend after our visit sees an influx of new arrivals: badly injured baby blackbirds mauled by a cat, a jackdaw with an eye infection, an almost paralysed crow hit by a car.

“The saddest was three newborn baby blackbirds that came in,” she posted on the centre’s Facebook page, where some of her 1400 followers are quick to offer their support. “They all died one by one, despite antibiotics and heat.”

Yet almost in the same breath she is posting: “Can I just say what wonderful people I’ve met through these birds this weekend, really kind driving them to meet me or even bringing them here, really touching to see people show such compassion, thank you so much xx”

IMG_0635FEATHERED FRIEND: Aimee with one of the hens

Alfie is far from being the only star of the show, of course – there’s Ratchet the rook grabbing an impossibly large twig for nest building, Dara the one-legged crow recovering from an operation at the vet’s, and a dozen other assorted corvids clamouring for love and attention.

Not to mention the animals too, of course. “We are busy with farm animals – we are suckers for it, to be honest, Aimee admits. “We have two little pigs – that was an emergency thing – and two lambs, and some rescue turkeys. And about 23 birds, mainly corvids.

IMG_0640FEEDING FRENZY: Dario with the pigs

Out here in rural Berkshire, there’s quite a substantial population of wild animals too, including hundreds of rooks, jackdaws and starlings in nearby fields and woods, along with foxes and badgers.

The wild rooks may be a little perplexed by Alfie’s decision not to stray too far from home – but so far the fencing has proved a sufficient deterrent to keep the hens in and the foxes out.

Not that the education process is restricted to children. Many farmers regard crows and pigeons as pests, and dozens of fieldsports videos are dedicated to the merits of different guns and cartridges for disposing of the birds, citing their damage to crops and potential spread of disease as key arguments for pest control.

Aimee doesn’t mind discussing such matters with anyone, as long as they can keep the debate civilised.

IMG_0641HOME FROM HOME: the rescue centre takes shape

“I’m just a normal girl who loves animals,” Aimee insists. Maybe so, but it takes a pretty dedicated individual to lavish this kind of time and attention on such a large and demanding family just for the fun of it.

All the hard work doesn’t go unappreciated, though, judging by the reactions of her feathered friends. And it’s Alfie who has the last word, of course, cackling loudly as we start making moves to leave, and even standing out there on the road to see us off…

For more information about Corvid Dawn, see the centre’s Facebook page.

IMG_0669

Perfect site for red kites

EMMI 3HUNGER PANGS: a red kite drops in for a snack [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

RED KITES have become virtually synonymous with the Chiltern Hills over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.

Once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain, the birds had become virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century after a couple of centuries of human persecution, with perhaps as few as a dozen pairs surviving against all the odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales.

Nowadays the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, thanks to a successful re-introduction project between 1989 and 1994 – and it was that re-emergence of the species which prompted Emmi Birch to set up a Facebook group for people to share photographs of the magnificent birds.

“The group was created in May 2016 to purely enjoy photographs and film of the red kites,” Emmi recalls. “Living in Buckinghamshire, I have had the pleasure of seeing the red kite population grow rapidly.

“Years ago, we would very occasionally see one and everyone would stop what they were doing and rush outside just to get a glimpse. We now have the privilege of seeing these incredible birds every day in the skies above us.”

Indeed the Chilterns Conservation Board nowadays publishes a leaflet about where to see red kites in the Chilterns, where there are now more than 300 breeding pairs.

Emmi is not alone in her appreciation of the birds, it seems. When she set up the group Red Kite Sitings UK she hadn’t anticipated that it would soon have more than 1,000 members.

ALAN EWARTSPLASH LANDING: a Welsh sighting in Ceredigion [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

On the site’s welcome page, she wrote:  “I’m hoping that this group will allow others to post their photographs and film of red kites from around the UK, so that those who aren’t familiar with these magnificent birds can enjoy them and those, like me, who never tire of seeing the kites can just indulge themselves looking at yet more photos and film of these beautiful birds of prey.”

Fellow enthusiasts haven’t been slow to share their pictures of kites soaring on the breeze all over the UK, a reflection of the extraordinary success of this conservation movement, which had its roots in the foresight of some pioneering visionaries in the early 20th century who realised how close the birds were to extinction.

Contributors to the website include Fife-based enthusiast Allan Brown, who has posted a number of stunning pictures of the birds on the wing north of the border.

Allan Brown's stunning shot of a red kite at Argaty, PerthshireON THE WING: a red kite at Argaty in Perthshire [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

Describing himself as an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer, Allan says: “I am interested in all raptors, but I particularly like red kites for their agility, acrobatics and colours.

Another enthusiast who describes himself as “just an amateur with a camera” is Alan Ewart in Wales. He says: “I took up photography less than two years ago and I’m lucky enough to have two feeding stations both within an hour’s drive. Once I’d been once I was hooked on these magnificent birds.”

RED KITEWELSH WONDER: a red kite at Bwlch Nant yr Arian [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The full story of the birds reintroduction is told in detail by Elfyn Pugh in an article for the online birdwatchers’ magazine Birds of Britain.

By the turn of the 20th century the remaining population were clinging on in their Welsh stronghold, having been plagued by unscrupulous egg collectors,  shot for their skins and mounted as stuffed birds in glass cabinets.

EMMI 2PHOTO BOMB: Emmi’s site has contributors from all over the UK [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

A determined group of individuals and landowners were appalled at the continuing destruction and formed the first kite committee in 1903 to start protecting nests, with the RSPB becoming involved a couple of years later.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the red kite identified as a globally threatened species, that the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council got together to discuss reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.

The programme has continued ever since, with colour-coded wing tags identifying the different places of fledging or release, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen and the Black Isle.

Red Kite on he hnt at Glen QuaichMAJESTIC: on the hunt at Glen Quaich [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

But the Chilterns remains a major stronghold and a perfect place to photograph the birds soaring on the thermals above Stokenchurch and Radnage.

Says Emmi: “My interest started around 13 or 14 years ago when I saw my first red kite fly over the garden. I was absolutely amazed by the size of it.”

In Wales the kite is a national symbol of wildlife and was voted the country’s favourite bird in a public poll run by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll and announced by Iolo Williams in the final episode of Iolo’s Welsh Safari.

He said: “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”

red kite 2FEEDING TIME: Bwlch Nant yr Arian visitor centre [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The enthusiasm is not universal – the tabloids do run occasional stories of residents complaining about being dive-bombed by birds of prey, but Emmi’s page followers are sceptical about such lurid claims, pointing out that the birds are natural scavenger, not hunters, and tend to gather to feed on carrion, mainly dead rabbits, mice and pheasant, and animals killed on the road.

An RSPB spokesperson was quoted in one Daily Mail article reassuring people: “They are not the fearsome predators that people in the Victorian era thought them to be and they are not like a sparrowhawk or kestrel, which would go for a live prey.”

EMM1NATURAL SCAVENGER: kites prefer to feed on carrion  [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

Outside the breeding season the kite is a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts, with up to 100 being counted in Britain and some 500 birds being counted in Spain, where large numbers of European kites spend the winter.

As Elfyn Pugh writes in his 2005 article: “It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the red kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.”

That’s a sentiment Emmi and her fellow red kite enthusiasts would endorse. The distinctive whistling call of roosting kites is echoing loud and clear across the Buckinghamshire countryside these days – and long may that continue.