Monday, 19 June 2017

Curlew Country Visit

It was a bitter-sweet visit to the Curlew Country project in Shropshire on June 12th. It was a baking hot day, and for a couple of hours before lunch Amanda Perkins and Tony Cross from the project, Phil Sheldrake (RSPB), Mike Smart (ace birdwatcher) and myself tried to find three or four chicks that were somewhere in a large hay meadow. They had hatched from a nest that had been surrounded by an electric fence to protect it from predators like foxes and badgers. This is the first year the project has trialled fences and it has undoubtedly increased the survival of eggs.  Whether that success translates into more fledged chicks is yet to be seen. Curlew chicks have wanderlust in their blood and once they find their very large feet are fit for walking, they are off.  If they are not protected by electricity, they have to rely wholly on their parents to warn them of danger.

Mike Smart, Amanda Perkins and Phil Sheldrake

It’s a pretty good system though.  Vigilant, feisty and sneaky, curlews take parenting very seriously. Vigilant in that they can see danger approaching from a long way off, hundreds of metres, and begin yapping and barking in alarm. Feisty because it can be a full-on bombardment of sound, like being attacked with an audial machine gun. And sneaky as the alarming bird may well be quite a distance away from the chicks, leading the dangerous creature down a blind alley. Meanwhile the chicks have either sunk low into a ditch or depression, or they have legged it into impenetrable rushes – which is what they did on the day we visited.

Tony Cross

Trying to find small fluff balls in a vast meadow is not for the weak of spirit. Tony used a radio tracker to narrow down the options, which was a patch of wet rush near to the field boundary. Try as we might we couldn’t find them, and as standing on them is a real possibility, we gave up. I was disappointed in one way, but glad in another. I am relieved they are so hard to locate, because if we couldn’t find them, even armed with technology, then a fox will find it hard too.  Knowing they were there was sweet enough for me. The bleeps on the receiver were heart-lifting – I didn’t have to actually see them to feel delighted and relieved they are still in the wild. Every chick is precious, and three packages of preciousness are still in this hay meadow – or they were on Monday June 12th.

The bitter side of the visit is the knowledge that the chances of these chicks surviving is very slim. For the past two years all the chicks that managed to hatch in the project area were predated before a month was up. Curlew are adapted to high levels of mortality – each pair only needs to raise one chick every other year for a population to remain stable – but even this isn’t being met. Throughout the country, chicks and eggs are either being eaten by predators or killed by their other nemesis - agricultural machines.

Screen grab from Curlew Country curlew camera

In another field, this time a large grass field used for silage, Amanda showed us where at least three chicks were sliced up as silage was cut in early June. As each year a pair of curlews chose to nest was in a field used to provide food for cattle – they dice with death – literally. The eggs were protected by an electric fence, and so survived to hatching, but once the chicks wandered outside they became collateral damage to our farming system.  And this wasn’t the only brood to meet this fate. Out of 22 nests located in the Shropshire project area, 9 chicks were alive on the day we visited.

Looking at the silage field and knowing the fate of the chicks was a sad way to end the day, but it was also a heartening visit too. Curlews continue to come every year to this most beautiful part of Shropshire. Every Spring they try to nest in the same places - their ancestral homes. As long as they come back there is hope we can help them. There is no shortage of goodwill amongst farmers or volunteers, everyone loves curlews. But there is a mismatch between caring about a bird and doing what it takes to save it. Sometimes that mismatch is in a lack of understanding about what is actually needed, and it is surprising how little we know about a bird that was once so common.  Or it can be that money simply takes priority, and losing a silage crop is too expensive when life on a farm is stressed enough. Or maybe it is the dilemma posed by predator control. Some people, understandably, find it hard to accept that foxes and crows may have to die so that curlews can live.  Whatever the reason, curlews continue to decline across the UK at an alarming rate.

The Curlew Country project is inspirational and is doing a vital job in bringing into focus the enormous problems facing our largest wader. Nothing less than the might of UK farming, half a million badgers and foxes and a million crows bear down on them at the most fragile and vulnerable time of their lives. Curlew Country is working with everyone on the ground to find solutions, and until the last curlew calls, there is hope they will succeed in reversing the fortunes of this most wonderful and enigmatic of birds.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Tight Clothes, Nature and Angst

When I worked with the wise and delightful Monty Don on Radio 4’s Shared Planet, I remember him saying someone had asked him the secret to being happy and content. His answer struck me as worth spreading around – wear loose clothes and spend time outside. Now that is sensible. Wearing tight clothes can have the effect of making our brains feel constrained too, I certainly can’t relax or breathe so well when I am aware of edges, buttons, belts – things that inhibit.  I think it is harder to give out to the world when your body feels drawn in.

Monty Don

And going outside – well how much more evidence do we need to show that breathing outside air, feeling soil, smelling the scent from trees, grass and flowers, feeling rain and sun, seeing green and grey and blue – all calm our emotions and help healing.  I only wish major international meetings on war, weapons, refugees, the environment and so on happened outside in a meadow or wild garden, instead of inside constraining rooms.  I think we would come to different decisions.

Some trees are particularly good at helping.  In days gone by German village elders would hold judicial meetings under lime (linden) trees, and that is not a surprise.  Lime trees were said to evoke wise thoughts.  The scent of lime, particularly in the summer, is intoxicating and was said to help cure epilepsy, headaches, insomnia and bad nerves. This poem is by Wilhelm Müller

Der Lindenbaum
By the fountain, near the gate,
There stands a linden tree;
I have dreamt in its shadows
so many sweet dreams.
I carved on its bark
so many loving words;
I was always drawn to it,
whether in joy or in sorrow.
Today again I had to pass it
in the dead of night.
And even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.
Its branches rustled
as if calling to me:
“Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!”
The frigid wind blew
straight in my face,
my hat flew from my head,
I did not turn back.
Now I am many hours
away from that spot
and still I hear the rustling:
“There you would have found peace!”
The Japanese have a word for the sense of peace you get from a woodland walk -  “wood air bathing” shinrin-yoku, breathing in the healing, enriching oils emitted from trees that lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and calms thoughts. Throughout Japan there are shinrin-yoku walks where families have picnics and be together to de-stress.
Last week Iseemed to come across yet more horrible stories of  young children increasingly suffering panicattacks, depression, stress and low self-esteem and many other words for a mind in turmoil.  Teenagers too.  I know of a few young people now who have dropped out of university recently because of depression.  How much of this is related to the increasingly indoor, removed-from-nature life so many of us lead today is unsure, but it is hard not to draw some connections between the two. Children live virtual indoor lives, not real out door ones.

I watch the school kids from the local secondary school walk home each day along our very city-centre street right in the centre of Bristol.  They are bursting with that feeling of wanting to run, shout, mess around, kick balls or whatever.  But in the middle of the city there is nowhere to do that – just cans to kick, and swear and shout and lots of pushing each other around, which annoys middle-aged people who shout at them and complain to the school. I wish they had a big field to go to, somewhere to let off steam, and maybe even find something interesting to look at that for a short while takes the mind to other realms.  But this doesn’t happen, instead all of this youthful energy gets bottled up and who knows where it goes.

So – would a GCSE in Natural History help encourage kids to go outside? Get them to really look, smell, touch, sense the world they live in – even a local park? Would it help give their minds a break to think where swallows come from or how snakes shed their skin and why an egg is the shape and colour it is? And if it taught the connection between well-being and nature – would that help?  And if, through having access to nature-literature, they learned ways of expressing feelings that only natural things evoke  – would that go some way to stemming this awful spread of youthful angst? Concentrating on awe, wonder, joy, beauty, mystery, fear, trepidation, etc.  Those are the feelings that come from knowing the natural world.  Re-engagement with who and what we are on a living, breathing, vibrant planet can only ever be good.  We are a long way from that at the moment - let’s do something to try to change it.  Please sign the petition.

Friday, 7 April 2017

GCSE in Natural History - reply to Chris Baker

Chris Baker is a teacher and wildlife lover.  He recently wrote a blog criticising the idea of a GCSE in Natural History. This is the point of the petition, to get a debate going, so here is my reply.

The first point: It’s an interesting idea and one that has good intentions. But I do not think it is good idea. For selfish reasons I would love to teach natural history as a subject on its own. The joy! But to how many students?  Would it benefit them? And would it positively affect the effort to conserve the curlew – The campaign (and a worthy cause I might add) that seems to have led to the creation of this petition?

I personally think the uptake would be good, but that must be part of the development process. There is a great hunger for nature that is more buried, but is certainly still there.  More young people watched Planet Earth 2 than the X-Factor which was screened on the other side. Tapping into this interest in life on earth is a no-brainer.  I'm not sure where the curlew link came from.  I came up with the idea for this GCSE in 2011, but didn't start the curlew work until 2016 - although I think it would help, not least by introducing more children to the fact curlews exist -but the campaigns are not related.

Second point: The second sentence of the petition reads ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife’. I take issue with the word need here. I believe that young people can benefit greatly from learning these skills but they do not need them. They need to perform arithmetic so they can check energy bills, read competently and problem solve. Speaking as a science specialist, I would also argue that young people, in a time when internet memes and click-bait links are regarded by some as a valid sources of information on issues as serious as health and disease, need the ability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience. But they don’t need to know how wildlife is recorded. To some children, learning how to do so would be irrelevant and a waste of time. We can’t let our own passions and interests dictate what children must know.

This is where I fundamentally part company with Chris Baker. I think it is vital we know the world around us, that we can name what is in our lives everyday, know the seasons and the movements of life on earth.  Young people increasingly live in an indoor world of ideas, not an outdoor world of senses.  The visceral, earthy world is more remote than ever.  We are mammals with senses attuned to taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing - all of those are brought into play when studying nature, but used for screens?  Surely we must have an education system that fits who we are?  If you can record wildlife, plot the data, work out trends - then I bet you can cope with an energy bill.  A GCSE in natural history brings together maths, english, geography, biology, history - merging them into a subject of fascination and relevance to life. It is not some quirky subject that only a few geeks will like - that simply isn't true.  Nature has inspired some of the greatest thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, poets and scientists - why sideline it and treat it as an irrelevance? Let's celebrate our unique heritage, teach it and encourage the next cohort of inspirational naturalists.

The rest of the blog argues that the content of a GCSE in Natural History is present in other subjects anyway - so it is already being taught.  If that is true, then they are failing.  My son is doing triple science at the moment, including biology.  I can't see any natural history in his work - he doesn't have to have any of the skills I outline in the proposal.  He does some academic work on extinctions etc, but that is not what I am talking about.  Of course biology is a fundamental subject - but to say natural history is simply a part of it is like saying geology is just part of geography. Neither is natural history the same as environmental science - it is a subject in its own right.

Studying nature is rich and rewarding - and the skills gained are increasingly being lost.  We cannot be complacent about nature today and assume all is fine because we teach biology . The system as it is is not working for wildlife.  Britain was highlighted as one of the most nature depleted countries on earth in the 2016 State of Nature report, we are losing our natural heritage and there is no time to waste. Young people think this quiet, threadbare tapestry of nature is normal - it isn't normal, it is slipping away under our noses - we cannot and must not be complacent. Britain has a truly wonderful history of nature recording, writing, art and music and so on - now is the time to regain that and produce future naturalists who will fight for the natural world, not just through conservation work but through inspirational creativity.  Nothing that Chris Baker highlights in his blog has changed my opinion.