Heath comes alive for summer

AS THE July afternoon sun falls across Stoke Common, there are some welcome splashes of colour to grab the eye.

There are times of the year on a drizzly day when this patch of ancient heathland can seem a little bleak and featureless, but it’s surprising how different it can look on a summer’s day.

The butterflies are dancing in the light breeze, the blackberry blossom is blooming and there are splashes of yellow and purple among the gorse and heather.

Many of the plant species recorded at Stoke Common are considered rare, at least in Buckinghamshire, and there are times when it looks more like a Scottish heath than somewhere that’s a stone’s throw from Slough.

Nowadays this is one of the rarest habitats in Britain, but these 200 acres of land represent the largest remnant of ancient heathland that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and land management which includes grazing, it is home to some  very rare plants, animals and insects that are quite different from those of grassland and woodlands and account for its status as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A score of burnished brown Sussex cattle are currently doing their part to protect the heathland and look smooth, velvety and very healthy on their prickly diet.

Nowadays owned and run by the City of London Corporation, with the help of volunteers and supporters like the Friends of Stoke Common, the common is pleasantly quiet for walkers and runners trying to get away from it all.

But is the splash of yellow broom or gorse? What type of heathers grow here, what type of thistles are these – and what are all those other yellow flowers popping up here and there across the heath?

Pocket guidebooks can sometimes seem more confusing than helpful on such matters, offering you more than 20 pages of similar-looking yellow wild flowers to choose from, all with ever more exotic-sounding names, from creeping jenny and tufted loosestrife to yellow archangel and common fleabane.

Broom and gorse should be easy enough to distinguish, even though both are members of the pea family, have bright yellow flowers and tend to grow in the same kind of places. Gorse is the prickly one whose flowers smell of coconut, whereas broom stems are long, flexible and smooth.

Common broom’s old Latin name, planta genista, is said to have lent its name to the Plantagenet kings because they wore sprigs of it in their hats, while the Glasgow songwriter Adam McNaughtan based his song Yellow on the Broom on the hardships of the Scottish travelling community.

The song was inspired by a book of the same name recalling the memories of Perthshire traveller Betsy White, who wrote of her childhood and the feelings of her mother who, accustomed to travelling all year, married a man who wintered in town.

The hostility of the townsfolk towards the travellers and the unkindness of the other children at school towards her own made her long to see the broom start to flower in the spring – a sign that it was time to be back on the road:

I’m weary for the springtime when we tak’ the road aince mair
Tae the plantin’, and the pearlin’ and the berry fields o’ Blair
When we meet up wi’ our kinfolk fae a’ the country roon’
And the gaun-aboot folk tak’ the road when the yellow’s on the broom

If it’s easy to understand how the flowers of the broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller, gorse is not without its fans too.

Pioneering 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus was so taken with it that he tried to grow it in his native Sweden but found the winters there too harsh for it to survive. On a visit to England in 1736 he is said to have wept with joy at the sight of it flowering on London’s Putney Heath.

Anyone who has come into direct accidental contact with gorse is less likely to be so impressed. We have three native gorse species in Britain: common gorse, western gorse and dwarf gorse, the latter restricted to the south and south-east.

Birds like the stonechat and Dartford warbler love this sort of environment, as do lizards and adders, though the reptiles are pretty good at keeping well hidden.

But sitting astride a gorse bush, the stonechat has no such reservations about issuing its distinctive call, which sounds like two pebbles being rubbed together.

Perhaps that confidence stems from the fact that in country folklore this little cousin of the robin, with its blood-red breast, was seen as the devil’s bird and therefore protected, its call representing a constant conversation with the devil, who would break the back of anyone foolish enough to take a stonechat’s eggs.

The abundant flowers of gorse and heather at Stoke Common are valuable sources of nectar and pollen for insects. Pollinated mainly by bumblebees and honey bees, they are valuable both as a food plant and as habitat for many invertebrates including moths and spiders.

But then the same is true of plants we regard as weeds, like thistles and ragwort. Despite its weed status, the spear thistle seeds are attractive to birds like goldfinches and the flowers are a nectar source for butterflies like the small copper.

The much-maligned ragwort (or “stinking willie”) is even more remarkable, providing a home and food source for at least 77 insect species, 30 of which rely on it exclusively for their food source, including the very distinctive cinnabar moth.

These insects are remarkable looking both as moths and caterpillars: the moths have distinctive pinkish-red and black wings, as shown in Charles Sharp’s magnificent photograph on Wikipedia, while newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves, absorbing toxic and bitter tasting substances from the plants, becoming unpalatable themselves.

The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators.

Initially, the larvae are pale yellow, but later develop a jet-black and orange/yellow striped colouring. They can grow up to 30 mm (1.2 in) and are voracious eaters, with large populations able to strip entire patches of ragwort clean.

There is no more controversial and divisive flower around, it seems. Ragwort contains chemicals that are toxic to livestock and has been blamed for deaths of horses and other animals. Yet conservationists say it’s a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects.

The nature poet John Clare was firmly in the positive camp. In 1832 he wrote:

THE RAGWORT

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare — the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest’s plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Who would have thought a poisonous weed would become the stuff of poetry? But then, as they say, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder…

What to spot by the waterside

WILDLIFE lovers who live near water can pick up a free spotter’s guide to birds, insects and animals they might look out for on a waterside wander.

The Canal and River Trust has put together a free family nature guide to what walkers might find on, in and by the water.

The trust encourages families to take a trip to their nearest waterway and see how many different species they can spot.

The guide complements an online introduction to more than two dozen species that can be found by water, from bees and dragonflies to owls and kingfishers, newts and water voles.

The charity safeguards some 2,000 miles of wildlife-rich waterways which form a “green-blue ribbon” between hundreds of wildlife habitats, and looks after hundreds of bridges and aqueducts to ensure boats can move freely around the network.

For more information about the work of the trust, or how to volunteer with them, see their website. Apply for the free nature guide using the link above.

Happy hunting ground at Langley

WANDERING around Langley Park, it’s not hard to imagine a medieval monarch mustering a royal hunting party here.

But then there was a deer park  at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Langley is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim.  In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.

It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.

Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.

The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build  Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.

The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.

The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.

Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.

Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures.

The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.

Relearning a lost language

IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?

It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.

And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.

We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.

Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.

For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).

We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.

It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:

I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.

Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor the scent of the earth after it has rained to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.

But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.

Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?

Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.

During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.

And the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.

When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.

Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.

Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.

But of course there’s no shortage of expertise to be found on the internet, from Butterfly Conservation or Woodland Trust to the British Beekeepers Association or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?

You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature. 

Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.

But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.

That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.

For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones was published in February 2020.

Life, but not as we know it

FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.

Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

From the locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of the few.

The epidemic is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship with nature and the world around us.

New York trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?

The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.

Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design and architecture magazine Dezeen.

The woman named by Time magazine in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.

With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.

“Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”

It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.

But if it offers the prospect of resetting the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it will come with a heavy price tag.

As well as potentially millions of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.

Going cold turkey in changing our shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the negatives.

Of course, there’s little room for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already struggling families.

Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.

Yet clearly the shutdown will also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”

We are not at that stage yet. But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the selfish stockpiling of the greedy.

For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.

For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.

Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?

We’ve suffered pandemics before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on population figures).  

How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.

Fifty fantastic family adventures

FROM stately homes to steam railways and spooky caves, from wildlife sanctuaries to woodland walks, The Beyonder’s What’s On pages have been updated to include more than 50 of the Chilterns’ top attractions.

The at-a-glance array of picture buttons offers ideas for days out that range from free museums and rural rambles to palaces and zoos across four counties.

The buttons link directly to the websites and Facebook pages run by various organisations from the National Trust to town museums.

Attractions for animal lovers range from the Living Rainforest or Beale Park in Berkshire to Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire.

If rescued hedgehogs are of more interest than lions and tigers, there’s always the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hsopital in Haddenham, and youngsters wanting to get up close and personal with lambs and baby goats can visit Odds Farm or even foxes and ferrets at the Green Dragon Eco Farm.

History lovers aren’t forgotten, either – from stately homes like those at Stonor Park, Waddesdon or Hughenden, not to mention the majestic delights of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.

Museums include those in Amersham, Stevenage, St Albans, Tring and High Wycombe, while those preferring a steam trip can venture out to Chinnor or the Bucks Railway Centre at Quainton Road.

If youngsters need to escape from their smartphones and get the wind in their hair, they can always connect with nature at one of the country parks scattered across the region – or blow away the cobwebs with a walk in Wendover Woods, Penn or Burnham Beeches.

For something that little bit different, there’s always the model village at Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, the gloriumptious Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden, the mysterious Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe or the exotic attractions of Kew Gardens.

Or what about stepping back in time at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, finding out more about science at the Look Out Discovery Centre or discovering more about the lives of writers like John Milton or CS Lewis by visiting their homes in Chalfont St Giles and Headington, Oxford.

Many of the websites featured offer a regular programme of special one-off events, displays and attractions too, so there’s always more to discover – with further buttons linking to the National Trust, English Heritage, Wildlife Trusts, Chiltern Society and National Garden Scheme for more ideas about places to visit and things to do.

With a host of additional events listed in the monthly What’s On pages too, there’s something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. For more information, click on What’s On whenever you need a little inspiration about how to make the most of your free time.

The website has also launched a “Where to go” section on its Further afield pages, which in the past have featured attractions which might involve Chilterns readers driving just a little further afield, to London, Surrey and Sussex.

The first half-dozen attractions listed include Winston Churchill’s family home at Chartwell, nearby Hever Castle in Kent which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and the steam railway centre at Didcot, much loved by railway enthusiasts.

Feeling left out? If we have inadvertently missed an attraction out of our listings, get in touch.

Settle down for a good read

THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.

The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.

Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?

Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.

The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?

Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.

The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.

Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.

From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.

Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.

Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.

Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.

For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.

Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.

One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.

Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.

A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.

With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.

Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.

Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.

Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.

Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.

As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.

Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.

From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.

Nature lovers needed now

NATURE enthusiasts across the Chilterns are being invited to help monitor and protect local species on their patch.

A four-year citizen science project has started to recruit volunteers who can study how birds, butterflies and plants across the area are coping with climate and habitat changes.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?: a Duke Of Burgundy butterfly and cowslip PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The Tracking The Impact project is part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.

The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.

To deliver the project the CCC has teamed up with Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Plantlife, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre.

Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.

BIRD IN THE HAND: a corn bunting PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.

Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.

The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.

To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at nmarriner@chilternsaonb.org.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.

Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.

Kids just love to go wild

WHEREVER you live in the Chilterns, kids love to get outside and let off steam whatever the weather.

That’s why we will be including more free events in our What’s On pages, starting with a monthly reminder about the plethora of woodland walks on the doorstep.

LETTING OFF STEAM: take the family on a woodland walk PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

Or between now and July, why not make a really early start, pack a picnic and go out to discover the beauty of the dawn chorus?

In the winter months it’s only too easy to stay glued to the TV, computer or smartphone on dull days where the threat of rain is heavy in the air.

But it’s surprising how quickly the clouds lift when you get outdoors and get the wind in your hair. Youngsters love to get their wellies and bobble hats on for a good old stamp around in the puddles.

BUG HUNT: hunting for insects PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

There’s always plenty to see and do, but in case you are short of inspiration, the local BBOWT wildlife trusts have produced a great downloadable Go Wild Guide for the kids to add an element of adventure to the outing.

The free guide includes a scavenger hunt, puzzles, advice on how to make your own bird feeder or insect hotel and an I-Spy Challenge with two dozen birds and insects to look out for in a local park or on the way to school.

National Trust members are spoilt for choice with a wide array of historic estates on the doorstep, including Cliveden, Hughenden and Waddesdon.

SPOILT FOR CHOICE: a spring walk at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

But the country parks are all worth a visit too, from the tree-lined pathways of Black Park to the sprawling deer park at Langley – and free to enter apart from the cost of parking.

Why not plan a walk in the Colne Valley Regional Park or a longer trail to explore the River Colne and the Grand Union Canal towpath, stopping off for a coffee or bite to eat, enjoying a mix of wildlife, industrial buildings and narrowboats, depending on your route.

Across the Chilterns from Dunstable Downs and Ivinghoe Beacon to Wendover Woods, Winter Hill and the Thames, there’s no shortage of places for that perfect ramble, come wind, rain or shine.

And a number of organisations offer special events and trails to coincide with half-term and other school holidays, including local councils, the National Trust, widllife trusts and museums – check out our What’s On pages month by month for the latest organised events for young people.

Going nuts about squirrels

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

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

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

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

But the true extent of squirrels’ talents was revealed in a 2018 BBC Natural World documentary The Super Squirrels, which introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

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SOUNDS 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.

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OPEN 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.

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MISSING 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.

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SENSE 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.

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INTO 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.

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FAVOURITE 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.

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UNDERSEA 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.

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DANGEROUS 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.

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FOOTSTEPS 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.”

NOV 2007

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.

ROOK

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

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LEAP 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…

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CREAM 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.

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KEEPING 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.

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FROZEN 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

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BIG 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.

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PRICE 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.

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CONSUMER  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.

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SIMPLE 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

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BACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]

Campaign has ‘killer’ warning

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ANTI-LITTER campaigners Clean Up Britain have published a hard-hitting second video in their drive to spell out the danger posed to animals by discarded plastics, cans, cigarette butts and chewing gum.

Launched as part of Now or Never, a ground-breaking year-long behavioural change project in Leamington Spa, the four-minute Litter Kills video graphically spells out the impact of discarded litter on wildlife and pets.

Clean Up Britain founder John Read said: “We understand the images are upsetting – that’s the point. We need to give people a reason to react strongly to seeing others litter and make those who do think twice. We have to shift attitudes and behaviour.”

The video provides more detail about the type of problems encountered by the RSPCA, which receives 5,000 calls a year about animals injured by litter. It explains how bones from discarded takeaways can kill – and how chemicals in chewing gum and cigarette ends can be poisonous for animals.

Even onions can be toxic to cats and dogs, which can also be made ill by mouldy food or choke on balloons released to mark a celebration. Likewise, wild birds can be killed or injured by plastic rings and  the sharp edges of discarded cans.

The video is part of a year-long campaign in the Warwickshire town designed to change people’s attitudes towards litter.

The campaign includes an educational pack for schools designed for 8- to 11-year-olds designed to teach them why dropping litter is bad for the environment, wildlife and communities.

It comes on a day when the UN revealed 50 nations are now taking action to reduce plastic pollution.

The UN report reveals that the Galapagos will ban single-use plastics, Sri Lanka will ban styrofoam and China is insisting on biodegradable bags.

But the authors warn that far more needs to be done to reduce the vast flow of plastic into rivers and oceans.