THIS week’s picture choice takes us north to Milton Keynes and a quite extraordinary rewilding success story we first featured back in 2018.
Gazing out over a bare field in 1990 it would have been hard to believe that a humble couple of acres of cow pasture could become a veritable wildlife haven.
But Roy and Marie Battell’s transformation of the two acres has been inspiring. Today there are hundreds of trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife.
Over the years the couple’s website depicting life in the nature reserve has developed something an international reputation.
The woods provide a home for all types of birds, insects and mammals with various trail cameras monitoring the movements of visitors ranging from sparrowhawks and kestrels to foxes, badgers and deer.
Dozens of loyal followers sign up for Roy’s weekly newsletter, which chronicles the changing landscape through the seasons, and his carefully chronicled pictures have appeared in a many wildlife textbooks.
His latest weekly selection is a fairly representative snapshot of life with the “Moorhens”, capturing everything from rooks and magpies gathering nesting materials to hungry squirrels, strutting pheasants and hunting owls.
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, while the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep. To sign up for the weekly email, visit their website.
“I CAN barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting,” says Sue Graham.
Last week the Chilterns artist took us to the west coast of Scotland as she reflected on the challenges of a year like no other, and the need to put a remarkable family rewilding adventure on hold because of the pandemic and ongoing hospital treatment for cancer.
But this week’s picture choice takes us to the other end of the country and a hamlet on the edge of Dartmoor called Water.
“Some of my favourite paths wind through it, crunching along stream beds, splashing through rivulets,” says Sue. “And everywhere there’s the music of water, gurgling, burbling, dripping. Such a life-affirming place.
“Parts of the trail are not quite stream, not quite path: my walking boots make a resonant crunching splash. There’s a half-derelict cottage on the edge of the path. It has the best location.”
Closer to home, another location with a story to tell is Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.
“This painting marked a bit of a stylistic turning point for me in that it was my first mixed-media piece: I used spray paint, paint diffuser (that’s like a right-angled straw with a hole that you blow into), acrylic ink and acrylic paint,” says Sue.
Known for her colourful, expressive and atmospheric paintings in acrylics and oils, Sue frequently finds inspiration in natural landscapes and soundscapes.
“There is nothing (other than blackbird song, maybe) that brings me into a state of summery bliss than the screaming sounds of swifts. It’s the sound of childhood summers, of long evenings, of softness in the air, of possibilities as yet undreamed of.
“In this painting I tried to evoke that sense of ethereal joy: to honour the beauty of the bridge at Henley, without being over-literal in its depiction – photographs can do that better. I wanted to convey the the flow of the Thames and capture the sweetness of an early morning in summer, with the human world not yet making its presence felt, just the flow of water below with swifts wheeling overhead.”
IT’S BEEN an extraordinary year in which countless people’s hopes and dreams have been frustrated, shattered or put on hold.
No one knows that better than Chilterns artist Sue Graham, whose family rewilding adventure featured on these pages last spring, when she explained how a series of paintings inspired by her love of the dawn chorus prompted her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
Her painting Argyll Dreaming is our picture choice this week, taking us on a particularly poignant virtual journey back to the beautiful lochside roads that lead from Glasgow to Tayinloan, from where you can catch the 20-minute ferry to the Isle of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides.
It’s the first of two instalments looking at Sue’s most recent work and follows an article in September last year focused on her landscapes from the other end of the country, in Cornwall.
Says Sue: “The painting came to me during Lockdown 2, when (like everybody else) I was longing to get away somewhere. I missed the lochs and the empty spaces of Scotland’s wild west coast.
“When our family planted a native woodland at the croft back in November 2019, we had no idea what challenges lay ahead; for us, for everyone.”
Back in those innocent days the worst of their worries was the possibility of voles damaging the tiny saplings – and competition from grass.
Sue recalls: “We planned a schedule of regular island visits to remove grass, check the vole guards, erect perch poles for birds of prey and keep an eye on our nascent Atlantic rainforest. And then two unexpected things happened: serious health challenges for me and a global pandemic.”
Covid restrictions and cancer treatment through the spring and summer of 2020 made it impossible to travel, although a friend on the island – the local ferryman – reported that the trees were ‘growing well’ – but so was the grass.
“Once the first lockdown eased our two sons, Tom and JP, travelled from Glasgow to Gigha and made a valiant start on the great grass cut-back, sowing grass-parasitic yellow rattle in the hope that this will help keep the grass under control in future years,” Sue explains.
“When Gabriel and I finally got to Gigha in early October 2020 – almost one full year since planting the woodland – the grass was thigh-high in places, with some feisty trees waist-high, and some less rugged species struggling to breathe in vole guards full of grass.”
Despite days of back-breaking work to clear the saplings of grass, the project has been a resounding success, with the young trees enjoying a 95% survival rate to date.
Having added a small orchard and ‘edible hedge’ to the croft, with a view to encouraging pollinators, the family also made two new native tree additions.
Says Sue: “Gabriel and JP joined the Woodland Trust back in 2016 and were sent a native tree each: an oak and a rowan, all of 25cm tall when they came in the post. Now 7ft tall and repeatedly outgrowing their pots, it was high time for them to move north.
“So while they were dormant we packed them up, just about fitting them in the car (though the rowan was stroking our cheeks as we drove).
Rowans have a long tradition in European folklore – especially for warding off witches. An islander suggested we plant one so it seemed the perfect fit to situate this lovely young tree near the mill leat at the entrance to the croft. No witch infestation here!”
Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year.
Working from the top of their home in Long Crendon near Thame, she has missed exhibiting during the pandemic and her ongoing cancer treatment has posed its own challenges.
But those happy thoughts of the west coast of Scotland have provided one source of inspiration and comfort.
“We’ll get back to Gigha to check on everything as soon as we can,” she says. “We can’t wait to see the trees in leaf and see how much they grow this year.
“Whatever considerable difficulties have come our way recently there is an overwhelming positive sense that we are leaving something potentially beautiful behind for the future in this extraordinary place, a good feeling that we’re trying to give something back to the earth.”
Next week: Sue “escapes” to Dartmoor and Henley-on-Thames
IT WAS disappearing birdsong which was to change the life of Chilterns artist Sue Graham and her family.
Many of her paintings are inspired by the local landscape and a series of her oil paintings which she started more than 10 years ago reflected her love of the dawn chorus.
But the painter could hardly have foreseen quite how that project would ultimately lead her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
“When I started doing the Dawn Chorus paintings around 2008, there was a piercing resonance to the sounds I heard in my garden at four in the morning,” Sue recalls. “But even in the short time we have lived here there are fewer birds singing. That’s happening all over the place.”
What was obvious to Sue in her garden at Prestwood near Great Missenden was soon hitting the national headlines.
A survey in 2013 showed that in some cases the decline was dramatic and worrying. The sounds of the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are enshrined in British folklore, yet populations of both summer migrants and many resident species have dropped in recent years.
The scale of the problem had soon become apparent after the family moved back from America in 2002. “We always enjoyed the outdoors, but if you go out walking there’s always something missing,” she says. “None of the ground-nesting birds are there any more.”
The missing songbirds featured in a vivid series of paintings, but aside from inspiring her art, environmental worries were beginning to play a bigger part in the lives of the artist and her research scientist husband Gabriel Waksman – a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology whose work had taken them to New York and Missouri.
By 2016, with the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it seemed as if things were coming to a head.
Husband Gabriel was only too well aware that in almost 30 years as an academic and scientist, he had clocked up thousands of air miles travelling to international conferences, seminars and lectures at foreign institutions.
Many scientists and academics are increasingly worried about the environmental cost of such international travel – but Gabriel wanted to do something practical about it.
If travelling to conferences must remain part of a scientist’s life, what might be the best way to offset the carbon that will inevitably be released? The answer, it seemed to him, was to find a way that scientists, academics and others worried about the environment could offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in groves.
In 2016, he teamed up with a couple of friends and the charity All Things Small and Green was born.
Writing in Nature magazine in February 2020, he explained: “Governmental action will be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, but individual responsibility has a major part to play.”
His charity allows air travellers to calculate their carbon emissions and work out how many native trees they need to plant to offset those, using a simple formula. The trees can then be planted in groves set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands.
With more than 40 planting sites, the charity has overseen the planting of almost two million trees, growing thousands in its tree nursery and creating acres of new forest.
“I was especially drawn to native tree planting,” says Gabriel. “Carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I liked the idea of coupling carbon fixing with reconnecting to a wonder of nature such as a native woodland.”
Companies and universities can ask for groves to be set up for them – and he has also been in touch with partners in Spain and France to explore ways of allowing localised groves to be planted in other European locations.
The latest project is a grove which will allow French scientists, academics, and researchers to offset their carbon emissions by planting native trees closer to home.
“It is important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we work with are native,” he explains. “Native afforestation and reforestation increase biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems. By contrast, monoculture conifer plantations — wrongly favoured by some governments — destroy biodiversity and damage natural ecosystems.”
The tree planting mission didn’t stop with the charity though. Sue found herself equally inspired by the need to do something more for the planet – particularly as the mother to two sons in their 20s.
“It was time to think about the legacy of what we leave and the only thing that would make us feel slightly better about putting two extra people on the planet,” she says.
The outcome was their dramatic decision to purchase a croft on the remote Scottish island of Gigha, with the aim of launching their own family rewilding project.
The 13-acre croft was once home to an old oat mill, although that is not habitable at the moment.
With their two sons working in Scotland, it might not have seemed so crazy to look at buying land in the area – but by any standards the croft is remote, Sue admits, although the location is picturesque too, looking out of the nearby island of Jura.
The island – with a population of under 200 – lies west of Glasgow off the coast of the Kintyre peninsula, accessed by ferry from Tayinloan, a small village about midway between Tarbert and Campbeltown.
“You think, ‘How much time have I got left?’ and of course it was always a project we should have started 20 years ago,” Sue admits.
But that didn’t stop them going ahead with the plan – and in November 2019 the first phase of their mission involved planting some 1300 trees on a three-acre site on the island.
“Planting trees is the best thing we can do for the future,” Sue insists. “I know it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon capture, but I needed to sleep better at night.”
It’s an enthusiasm her husband shares – although the project is separate from his charity activities: “Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy,” he says.
“This is also one of the most selfless activities I have taken part in. A native woodland takes decades to come to maturity, so the results of my tree planting will hopefully be enjoyed by people much younger than me.”
The tiny saplings were selected with the help of the Woodland Trust to ensure they were best suited to the island’s soil and climate – a mixture of hazel, willow, birch, alder, oak and rowan.
“It gives us the opportunity in a very beautiful location to do something for the planet that we need to do for our psychological well-being,” says Sue, a self-taught artist with a degree in modern languages from Oxford University who loves walking, gardening, wildlife and cooking, as well as painting.
“I can barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting. I have had various other ‘real’ jobs but somehow my heart was never in them,” she says. “Somebody once asked me to reflect on why it is that I paint: the question has sat with me for years but I think the answer is this: to communicate feelings and ideas and to be accepted for who I am.”
Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks which have forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year while she undergoes cancer treatment.
But she remains unfailingly optimistic and determined about the island project and the prospects for their thousands of saplings, planted with such enthusiasm by the five-strong family team with two staff members and volunteers from the Woodland Trust.
With fertile soil and good climate – and friends on the islands keeping an eye on things – there’s every reason to hope the project will boost local biodiversity over the next couple of years.
Says Sue: “I was more afraid of looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking that we couldn’t do it.”
It’s also a welcome escape from health concerns and the challenges posed by chemotherapy.
“It’s going to be really interesting – and it’s nice to be able to think about something positive and lovely,” she says.
PAUL Kingsnorth has chilled out a lot since the days when he was chaining himself to bulldozers and saw direct action as the best way of changing the world.
We saw this very clearly in the recent documentary by the Dutch TV channel VPRO, which visited him at home in Ireland for a few days to make a film themed around his essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.
But that doesn’t mean the writer and environmentalist has given up fighting for what he believes in – as a recent post from his Facebook page shows. And since it speaks for itself, here is Paul’s post in full, complete with links to his own websiteand that of Mary Reynolds, whose project he is discussing.
It’s by no means an isolated project, and the theme has been repeatedly reflected in other Beyonder stories and Tweets, as well as on the most recent series of BBC’s Springwatch. But that doesn’t make the story any less important, so over to Paul:
“Here is something entirely unrelated to my books, etc, which I want to tell everyone about, because I think you should all hear of it.
People often ask me ‘what can I/we do?’ about the ongoing grinding-down of life on Earth by industrial humanity. My twin answer is: nothing. And also everything. My other answer is: action, not ‘activism.’
What I mean by this is: future climate change is inevitable, and we are unable at this point to halt the momentum of the industrial machine, which needs ‘growth’ in order to sustain itself. ‘Growth’ in this context translates as ‘mass destruction of life.’ The human industrial economy is like cancer: literally. It metastasises, it must grow in order to survive, and it grows by consuming its host.
At some stage, this thing will collapse; I would say this is already happening. This creates despair in many people – as does the inability of ‘activism’, argument, campaigning, rational alternatives presented in nice books by well-meaning people, etc, to make any dent in the greed, destruction and momentum of this thing we all live within.
So far, so depressing. And yet, on the human scale, and on the non-human scale too, everyone reading this has the power of rescue. Everything I have just written is, to some degree, an abstraction. Reality is what you live with, and live within: grass and trees, hedgehogs and tractors, people and pavements. Reality is land, and how it is used. The planetary crisis is a crisis of land use. We are using it disastrously, as if it were a ‘resource’, not a living web. We think we own it, and can control it. The Earth is in the process of showing us just how wrong we are.
The alternative is to do the opposite: to build an ark, in which life can thrive. Or rather: a series of arks, all over the country, and the world. Here is a new initiative, set up and run by an Irish woman, Mary Reynolds, who calls herself a ‘reformed landscape designer.’
It is beautifully simple – home-made, very local, accessible to everyone. Its aim: not to ‘save the planet’, but to build small ‘arks’ in our own places – and then to tell people about them. To spread the word, and the idea. Whether you have a field or a window box, this is possible and inspiring and entirely doable. It is real action, and it has real, deeply valuable results. Best of all, it mostly involves doing nothing: just leaving things alone. Which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best way to ‘save the planet’ in the end.
I’d encourage you all to look at Mary’s website, and to ask yourself how you can build your own ark – and tell the world it exists.”