Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

Local artists open their doors

ART lovers in Buckinghamshire who enjoyed this year’s open studios events should make a note in their diaries for June 2020.

Once again, hundreds of local artists and makers across the county will be throwing open their doors for a fortnight next summer to showcase their work.

TWO WRENS, SINGINGSOUNDS OF NATURE: Two Wrens, Singing by Sue Graham

The Bucks Arts Weeks project – which follows similar events across Oxfordshire in May – allows the public a unique opportunity to hear artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewellery makers talk about their work and see them in action.

The open studios scheme has been running in Buckinghamshire since 1985 and all the events are free to the public – including exhibitions, pop-up displays and dozens of working studios.

From calligraphy to ceramics and sculpture to digital art, the skills on display include printmaking, jewellery, drawing and painting, metalwork and photography.

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights include many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape.

SUE GRAHAMOPEN STUDIOS: artist Sue Graham at work

Geographically the open studios and exhibitions stretch from Milton Keynes and Buckingham in the north to Aylesbury, Chesham, High Wycombe, Chorleywood, Henley and Maidenhead, on the southern edge of the county.

Some towns like Princes Risborough, Amersham and Chesham have their own trail maps and exhibitors are grouped geographically to make it possible to visit a number at a time.

In 2020 the programme takes place from June 6 to June 21, incorporating three weekends.

Past highlights have included striking works by local artists like Sue Graham which have graphically illustrated the loss of birdsong from woods and gardens.

going-going-gone-birds-etc.-600x450MISSING VOICES: Going, Going, Gone by Sue Graham

To the north of the county, the striking fine art photographs of David Quinn have reflected landscapes from the Outer Hebrides to Vietnam, while Katy Quinn has also found inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Scandinavia for her jewellery and glass art.

Pop-up exhibitions suddenly appear in churches and village halls across the county, but visitors have to slip into Bedfordshire to see the striking landscapes of Graham Pellow, who works in a variety of mediums and has found inspiration in his local surroundings since moving to Leighton Buzzard.

Another artist inspired by local landscapes is Alexandra Buckle, many of whose linocuts are woodland themed, reflecting her love of walking her dog in the woods. Her proximity to National Trust properties like Stowe, Waddesdon and Claydon also allows easy access to locations which can provide watery reflections and scenes with interesting combinations of colours or dramatic light.

AN-EPISODE-OF-SPARROWS-websiteSENSE OF HISTORY: An Epsiode of Sparrows by Julie Rumsey

Further south in the Chalfonts, working from her gorgeous garden studio in Chalfont St Giles, Julie Rumsey has branched out into mixed media work using acrylic as well as her eye-catching collagraphs, many of which have been inspired by ancient naïve artefacts.

She haa exhibited alongside contemporary fine artist E J England, who often uses damaged vintage books as a canvas and whose works are inspired by the landscapes, cityscapes, flora and fauna of the British Isles.

Animals, flowers and the natural world also provide inspiration for the work of Jay Nolan-Latchford,whose eclectic body of art and home decor ranges from watercolour illustrations with embellishments through to large mixed media canvases.

JAY NOLAN-LATCHFORDINTO THE NIGHT: Jay Nolan-Latchford creates a mystical mood

Sally Bassett is another artist inspired by the Chiltern countryside, as well as the wild sea coasts of the west country. Her work explores and celebrates the seasons of the year, her paintings dynamic, bold and full of colour, energy and movement.

Similar themes are echoed by artist and tutor Susan Gray, who runs workshops and painting days from her studio in Wendover and exhibits in Cornwall and London, as well as in Buckinghamshire.

Also drawing inspiration from the beauty of the Chilterns countryside is Christine Bass, whose vivid tropical colour schemes betray her Trinidadian roots and feature extraordinary scenes across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty from Ivinghoe Beacon to Bledlow Ridge.

She is one of a number of artists and craft workers who have shown their work in the atmospheric surroundings of St Dunstan’s Church in Monks Risborough.

Track beneath Ivinghoe BeaconFAVOURITE WALK: a track beneath Ivinghoe Beacon

During the fortnight of displays and demonstrations, visitors can buy or commission work – or even try their hand at some of the skills or sign up for classes. Prices range from postcards and small gifts costing a few pounds to major pieces of original artwork or sculpture costing hundreds.

Any artist or maker interested in taking part next year should contact the organisers on admin@bucksartweeks.org.uk.

Hundreds of artists are featured at venues across Buckinghamshire from June 6 until June 21. Free hard copy directories are available from May from art galleries, libraries, tourist information centres and participating venues.

It’s high time to build an Ark

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.

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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 website and 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.”

Peter brings the Wild Wood to life

WRITER and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones doesn’t need much encouragement to start singing the praises of the great British countryside.

That ensures the maverick Church of England vicar is in his element exploring the landscapes, history and wildlife of the New Forest, one of the UK’s most important ancient woodlands, for his latest documentary outing.

The Big Wave film follows a similar BBC4 walkabout last summer which saw the author donning his familiar hat to wander around his beloved South Downs, where he has his parish.

The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood, screened on January 9 on BBC4, provides a similarly personal portrait of a landscape shaped by man since Neolithic times.

Presented in collaboration with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority, the film follows a year in the life of the forest meeting many of the people who work to preserve and protect it.

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Although that gives the documentary a slightly promotional feel, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the reverend’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscape, with its gnarled ancient woodland, purple heathland and boggy mires, and his particular empathy towards the role of the “commoners” whose lives have been inextricably intertwined with the landscape for centuries.

Opinions about Owen-Jones are divided, with some finding the intensity of his presenting style a little irksome at times; others find his approach much more charismatic and endearing, with online threads on mumsnet divided over the relative merits of his unkempt ‘wonderfully ravaged’ appearance and resonant public-school enunciation.

Whatever your response to his asides to camera, there’s no doubting his total enjoyment in the majestic sights around him – from a goshawk jinking through the trees in search of prey to a stag bellowing amid the autumnal foliage.

A national park since 2005, this is a timeless place with few fences where ponies, cattle and pigs are allowed to roam free. It covers 566 square kilometres and stretches from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog down to the open sea.

The heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And some of the trees in these ancient woods were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.

As the backdrop changes with the seasons, the Sunday Times’ walking correspondent strives to find out more about the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals which date back to medieval times.

From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he reveals a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.

He discovers how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush the Commoners in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today.

The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat as the cost of property spirals and rents increase beyond the reach of a new generation wanting to continue the ancient traditions.

“This has been an incredible year. I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It’s what shapes and defines this extraordinary place,” says Owen-Jones.

A passionate author and environmentalist, he started working life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive and gave up the London lifestyle to become a vicar, moving with his wife Jacs to Cambridgeshire, where the couple brought up their four children on a fraction of their earnings in London.

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Described in a Telegraph interview in 2001 as a “sort of Worzel Gummidge in cowboy boots”, Owen-Jones soon began to become a regular face on TV when he was commissioned to present a series on atheism.

Since then he has presented a number of BBC programmes, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths, as well as How to Live a Simple Life, a three-part 2010 series in which he turned his back on consumerism

Having served as a rector of three parishes just outside Cambridge, he is now a house-for-duty part-time vicar on the Sussex Downs.

Recent books include Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul.

Pathways is an anthology of walks, part travelogue, part celebration of the secret paths and bridleways that criss-cross rural Britain. It’s also a reminder of the importance of walking as part of the meditative process and very much part of Owen-Jones’ own spiritual journey – which includes a daily hike up Firle Beacon where he says his prayers and, he insists, where every morning is new and different.

Perhaps it’s that meditative power that makes Owen-Jones such a natural choice for this sort of documentary – and, along with his thoughtful appreciation of the natural world, which makes him a perfect companion to introduce us to such an unusual landscape and a unique way of life.

Originally screened on BBC4, The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood is available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.

Liz faces the terrors of the deep

THERE’S something truly extraordinary about being hundreds of metres down in the depths of the ocean in a tiny submersible, surrounded by sharks.

But add to that the fact that you are hundreds of miles from civilisation and that the swell is suddenly threatening to smash you against the rocks, and things suddenly get a whole lot scarier.   

It sounds like a scene from Jules Verne, but this is a modern-day voyage of discovery with natural history presenter Liz Bonnin following in the footsteps of Darwin in the remote Galapagos islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

LIZ 2UNDERSEA WORLD: Liz Bonnin survives an underwater scare [PICTURE: BBC]

Well, not quite footsteps because Darwin never got this far under the waves. But the three-part BBC documentary series Galapagos had access to the most sophisticated underwater technology, permitting the sort of undersea adventure that Verne could only have dreamed of back in 1870 when his classic sci-fi adventure novel was published.

Not that the cutting-edge technology makes this in any way an easy excursion for celebrity biologist Bonnin, the French-born, Irish-educated presenter tagging along on a pioneering scientific expedition hoping to assess the survival prospects of some of the hundreds of unique species which populate the chain of 13 islands.

Two centuries on from the historic voyage of HMS Beagle, the aim is to explore the ocean depths, journey into volcanic craters and probe ancient forests in search of clues that could unlock the mysteries of these islands and their unique wildlife.

Like Attenborough’s Blue Planet, this is an adventure on a grand scale, as indicated by the portentous and cliché-driven two-minute introduction, which makes much of the fact that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the ocean depths and pulls in plenty of predictable lines about diving into the unknown on a voyage of discovery.

But if the intro feels a little overblown, we can forgive the documentary makers that self-indulgence once we have actually seen what’s in store for our intrepid heroine.

It’s easy to shrug off talk of dormant volcanoes and life-threatening currents when you’re sitting safely on your sofa at home, but although cheery Liz doesn’t dwell too much on what could possibly go wrong, in the second episode we share in her horror first hand when things start to get fraught under the waves.

We have already met upbeat and experienced submersible pilot Mark “Buck” Taylor earlier in the series and had our first taste of the amazing underwater world that can be accessed in his formidable eight-ton Triton submarine during the Blue Planet series.

LIZ 4DANGEROUS WATERS: exploring the reef beside Darwin’s Arch [PICTURE: BBC]

Buck himself has spoken in the past about his awe for the Triton’s abilities: not only can it undertake dives of up to 12 hours on occasion and reach depths of 1000 metres, but it can film a crab the size of your thumbnail in extraordinary detail.

It’s a machine which has been deployed in numerous scientific expeditions over the years, capturing the first ever footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat in 2013 and being used in a landmark series about the Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough in 2015, as well as Blue Planet II, which became the most watched UK series of 2017.

It’s clearly an honour to be one of the two passengers joining Buck on his descent into the deep and he does have that reassuring seen-it-all-before nonchalance of the expert which helps to put you at your ease.

But whereas last time we saw Liz’s unbridled joy over starfish, seahorses and coral winning out over sheer terror, this time the threat of impending doom is a lot more imminent and real: perhaps not quite what the Countrywise host envisaged when she embarked on the mission.

It’s all very well plunging into murky ocean depths that have never before been studied by science, posing wonderful questions about why hammerhead sharks school in masses and what sun fish actually do when they are underneath the ocean’s surface.

But when the ebullient Buck stops talking, you lose communication with the ship above and the currents start driving you towards the rock wall, you know it’s time to start worrying.

“I’ve had a few wildlife experiences where you get a sobering reminder of the power of the planet,” Liz said of the incident later in an interview for the Irish Examiner.

“There was this massive wall of soupy, opaque dark green water heading straight for us, and we were trying not to crash into the other submersible. The two of us were just spinning around in these currents like we were in a washing machine.”

Back on dry land, Liz sets off in search of rare pink iguanas and giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and scaly marine iguanas.

LIZ 1FOOTSTEPS OF DARWIN: Liz explores the Galapagos islands [PICTURE: BBC]

The aim is to find out more about the spectacular creatures which inhabit these volcanic islands and find out just how vulnerable they are in our rapidly changing world.

Although much of the environment here appears pristine, we know it is not immune to the effects of global warming and one of the mission tasks is to find out more about the impact of El Niño events on the islands.

In her three weeks on board the research vessel Alucia, Liz finds out more about what different scientists are doing to protect endangered species.

And as well as marvelling at the world’s largest gathering of scalloped hammerhead sharks partaking in a “complex mating ritual”, she takes to the water herself in one of the world’s most dangerous dive locations, Darwin’s Arch, hanging on for dear life to the reef as the currents threaten to sweep her away into the Pacific.

From swimming with boisterous sealions to having her mask pecked by a flightless cormorant, Liz is happy to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. Having studied biochemistry and wild animal biology, and with Charles Darwin as one of her “absolute heroes”, it is abundantly clear that this programme represents a dream come true for her.

But as well as serving up plenty of entertaining TV moments, there is also a sense that this mission is actively contributing to science through its ground-breaking findings, something that Liz, who has been appointed an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, hopes will be a feature of her work in the future.

“It’s our duty to help communicate what we believe is the most important thing — to understand the wonders of this planet and do everything in our power to protect it,” she says.

Produced by the award-winning independent company Atlantic Productions for BBC Earth in a co-production with Alucia Productions and distributed globally by BBC Worldwide, Galapagos is available for the next three weeks on BBC iPlayer.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Never too late to change

greg-rakozy-53292-unsplashBIG PICTURE: pondering our place in the universe  [PICTURE: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash]

THE MOST startling thing about Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline (Seen and Heard – Books) is just how much of it sounds as if it were written yesterday.

And yet his round England journey was undertaken well over a decade or so ago. Which begs the question – why didn’t we all spot what was happening at the time?

Well, of course we did: we all had those bleak conversations echoing the book’s central message – moaning about those idiosyncratic pubs and cafes and shops being swept away amid the violent regeneration of our town and city centres.

And of course it wasn’t all bad, by any means. Many of those awful greasy spoons and appalling backstreet boozers were the very epitome of what was wrong with England. Those famous publicans who took pleasure in being rude to their customers, for example. Those village pubs empty on a Saturday night long before the smoking ban or the soaring cost of a pint had made a real impact on trade.

But as the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and in fact the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi would make a pretty good soundtrack to Kingsnorth’s expose of a country which seems to have lost its way.

matthew-henry-49707-unsplashPRICE OF PROGRESS: high-rise city centre offices [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]

What resonates most about his book is the cumulative effect of all this so-called progress – of its dehumanising effect on us, creating a culture of dependency on the consumer machine created by the apparently unstoppable march of global capitalism.

“We expect. We demand. We are like children. Everything must be instant and, if it isn’t, somebody must pay,” he writes.

This is the real tragedy and it’s a growing selfishness that we see around us every day, in impatient queues at the till or blaring horns in traffic queues, the careless dropping of litter or the way tempers flare up so quickly over the most minor disputes.

The problem is that we have lost our ability to relate to other people, to empathise with their plight, share their concerns. Instead, we are living in a world of artificial reality, fuelled by our self-absorbtion, our narcissistic Instagram uploads and Facebook selfies.

We tap our feet in the supermarket when the person in front of us has the temerity to chat to the check-out assistant. We thump on the horn if someone takes a micro-second too long to spot the traffic light has turned green. We are patronising and sarcastic or downright aggressive when hard-pressed rail staff or shop assistants struggle to cope with problems beyond their control.

And all the time we are taking pictures of our food or the concert or the view and telling our friends how cool and happy and chic and contented we are.

victor-xok-615429-unsplashCONSUMER  CULTURE: global brands dominate our lives [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]

And it’s this disconnect from any local community that poses the biggest danger to our wellbeing, not our reliance on global brands. It’s how we choose to use new technology that is the problem, not the fact that new technology exists.

And that’s nothing new. Joni Mitchell recognised the problem back in 1970 and we are far better informed today about the practical impact of our actions on the environment, as well of ways of starting to turn back the tide.

But if there is a more important message to be drawn from such a dystopian vision, it’s that there IS something we can do about it. As individuals, we can make choices. And as individuals working together we can be powerful.

That philosophy lies at the heart of what The Beyonder is about. At one level it’s about families exploring and enjoying the great outdoors so that it doesn’t feel as if we have totally lost touch with the landscape – or as if nature has just been contained and fenced in for our enjoyment (“They took all the trees / Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em”).

It’s about youngsters feeling as carefree building a den in the woods or a sandcastle on the beach as they do battling dark forces in the latest computer game. It’s about having the patience to keep listening to the old boy in the pub rattling on about the way things were. And it’s about sharing our enjoyment for some of the simplest things in life – the new ducklings on the lake, the screech of an owl at night in the woods, the glimpse of a hare or badger disappearing into the undergrowth.

cropped-IMG_0792.jpgSIMPLE PLEASURES: taking delight in the natural world [PICTURE: Olivia Beyonder]

Kingsnorth recognised that if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in rediscovering the essence of the place itself, not just the field and stream, but the town and village too.

Human beings are social animals and enjoy being part of a community. We feel more anxious when we feel isolated, remote, separate from our environment, so it makes sense at every level to know our place and the other people who inhabit it.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand, turn off the news and live in a bubble, pretending the problems of the world don’t exist. But we can take a moment to share our appreciation of the natural world, our joy of living and our recognition that thousands – millions – of other people feel the same way.

Just as a sneak theft or random verbal attack by a stranger can spoil our mood and our day, so a random act of kindness can bring not just a smile to our face but a deeper inner joy.

There may be plenty wrong with the world, but there are other people out there who care just as much about what’s gone wrong – and who are working out the best way to put it right, one little personal step at a time.

Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99

ryan-jacques-465-unsplashBACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]