Endangered Madagascar

Last week I made a second visit to Endangered Madagascar  in Bath’s new Southgate shopping centre. It’s not your average retail outlet. In fact it’s an exhibition aiming to raise awareness of the plight of many of Madagascar’s unique, but critically endangered wildlife. As well as having items such as Madagascan handicrafts and toys for sale, there are also a selection of animals on show including chameleons and tenrecs.

Madagascar is very close to my heart. I spent three amazing months on an expedition there several years ago. I was fortunate to experience some of the island’s wildlife first hand, in the wildest of wild situations, and the memories will stay with me forever. With that in mind, as you can imagine, I was very excited to hear about the exhibition and got chatting to Adrian Fowler, the man behind it all.

We were discussing the impact the exhibition could have and its importance in raising awareness of conservation issues. For me, excited by what I was seeing, it was easy to remain optimistic, but Adrian raised some worrying concerns that hadn’t entered my mind.

Engages and excites

Alarmingly, despite all the information around the exhibition about conserving these creatures in the wild, they had had a number of people enquiring about where they could buy a panther chameleon or a streaked tenrec. Obviously, such questions were met with dissuading the visitors from supporting the exotic pet trade – a billion dollar ‘industry’ having a major impact on Madagascan wildlife. But sadly these days almost anything can be bought off the internet if you know where to look.

It’s left Adrian asking a lot of questions. He and his team are doing their best to educate people in a way that engages and excites, but if some visitors are missing the point, is it potentially doing harm as well as good? On the other hand, if they were to take the animals out of the equation, would it reduce the interest in the exhibit and range of people that experience it and who do learn from it?

I don’t think there can be a definitive answer. The exhibition, because of its unusual location alone, is undoubtedly reaching an audience who may not otherwise take an interest in such matters. There are always going to be people who miss the point and slip through the net, but with my optimistic hat on, surely if only a small number of people learn from it, walk away thinking about the issues, talking about it with friends, then it’s another step in the right direction for the conservation of the amazing Madagascan wildlife.

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Keeping Britain “tidy”

Litter has to be one of my pet hates. There’s absolutely no need for it, and in my eyes represents disrespect and carelessness. But for me “keep Britain tidy” is a concept purely for humans (and their pets) it’s not something that should be translated to nature. And yet there seem to be people who think it should be.

Our society seems to have become obsessed with keeping everything, including nature, neat and tidy – possibly a result of our health and safety/claim culture. Dead branches need to be disposed of, brambles eradicated, muddy paths replaced with tarmac. But that’s not how nature works, and nor should it.

The last couple of years, I’ve been saddened to see large areas of undergrowth “cleaned” out along the local river footpath, to make it more “pleasing to the eye”. Unbelievably, this usually seems to take place in winter when small birds and mammals are relying on the “unsightly” ivy and brambles for shelter in freezing temperatures. I’m not adverse to managing an area, but in this case, the heart seems to be ripped out of the area, leaving a lot of wildlife no choice but to move somewhere else.

Exposed

The reason for this rant, however, is because of what I witnessed last week. I was walking home from work along the canal and heard the distinctive sound of chicks being fed. I stopped in my tracks and from the corner of my eye saw movement in some ivy on the wall. It was a female black blackbird feeding her brood.

I stood and watched, as she delivered their meal and flew off to hunt for more. The delightful sight of wobbly heads with bulging eyes and large yellow gapes was left behind, and for a moment I was in awe, with a big grin on my face, feeling excited at what I was witnessing.

Then reality struck. I shouldn’t be able to be watching this nest with such ease. I widened my gaze and realized what had happened. Whoever the wall belongs to had obviously decided to tidy it up – clear all the ivy and other creepers off it. In doing so, they’d exposed the nest, leaving it open to the elements and predators – it was less than 6ft off the ground and barely had anything covering it. In fact it was a miracle it was still there at all.

Needless to say, a few days later, when I returned to that spot, the nest was empty.

Respect

I totally appreciate that people want, and need, to manage areas, but so often it seems to be for people and not for wildlife. Just a little forethought is all that’s needed. If they’d just left it for another few weeks, the chances of there being an active nest there would have been reduced, and no harm would have come of it.

I suppose the chicks could have survived, and you could argue that if they were taken by predators, well “that’s just nature”. But nature wasn’t alone, it didn’t expose the nest, people did. When will we ever learn that we don’t own this planet, nature does, and it’s about time we all started to give it the respect it deserves.

(End of rant. And relax…)

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Putting names to faces

There are people that we see everyday who we recognise by sight but haven’t got a clue of their name – whether it’s someone on the train to work, or the person at the check out in the local shop. I realised the other week that, for me, the same goes for wild flowers and trees, so I’ve decided to swat up.

My first outing with my new guide to wild flowers was walking home from work last Friday – taking the scenic route back along the canal. The first stretch can’t be much more than half a mile, and yet within that distance, I saw about twelve different species.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find so many – these flowers are all familiar to me as I see them everyday, but previously I hadn’t given them the recognition they deserve. As with so many things in life, it’s easy to take them for granted.

If I identified it correctly, I think my favourite find was the dove’s foot cranesbill – not only a lovely flower, but also a great name. I also (I think) saw meadow cranesbill, common mallow, herb robert, woody nightshade, tufted vetch and hedge woundwort, to name a few. Not bad for a first attempt. As always, I forgot to take my camera, but will try to get it out this week, and put a few pictures up.

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Cyprus delights

I’ve just returned from a week in Paphos, where we attended our friends’ wedding. It was our third time there, having previously gone to visit family and attend another wedding. On both visits, apart from the odd lizard we saw little wildlife – hardly surprising as much of our time was spent in the tourist towns – so I wasn’t holding out much hope for anything too exciting this time either.

Again we were in Paphos and had little time to explore outside the town – but our luck was in. We found ourselves in a hotel which was not only housing tourists, but also numerous house martins. I’ve never been fortunate enough to enjoy these enigmatic birds before in such close proximity.

Each day it was a real treat to walk under immaculate nests and see little faces poking out, waiting for their next feed. Even lying by the pool we were treated to aerial displays – with the birds effortlessly navigating the venetian-like layout, like something out of Star Wars, as they swooped down to take a drink.

Aerial displays

The martins weren’t all that was on offer. “Cultural” trips to local archeological sites, largely resulted in me paying little attention to mosaics and tombs, but rather keeping my eyes peeled for any interesting creatures. Almost every step seemed to be accompanied by the rustle of a lizard, and we also saw several swallowtail butterflies, a gecko and crested larks.

But my favourite spot of the week was a bee-eater. Bee-eaters are one of those birds that I’ve always looked at in bird books and hoped to see one day – so I was excited, to say the least, to finally see one. Having only seen pictures before, I had no idea how acrobatic they are and watched in wonder as several of these beautiful birds performed their aerial displays – what a treat.

I have to say, I never thought I’d want to return to the country, but the little glimpses of what it has to offer away from the hustle and bustle of Brits abroad, has made me think again. Maybe one day.

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Little pleasures

I wouldn’t normally describe hanging out the washing as an enjoyable activity, but today it produced some unexpected delights. Despite me standing in the middle of the garden with billowing towels around me, the birds seemed unperturbed, and were intent on continuing their mid-morning forage.

I put an old apple out a little earlier, which the blackbirds, and occasionally, the dunnock, were tucking into, and the great and blue tits were singing loudly in the lilac tree. With the flurry of activity around me, I decided to sit out there for a while to see who else was about.

The blackbirds continued to feast on the apple, and to my surprise, a third blackbird joined them – a fledging. At first glance, I thought it was another female, but soon caught a glimpse of its large, wide, yellow bill which it presented to its parents together with an excited flutter of the wings. After having a large quantity of apple stuffed into its bill it hopped up into a nearby bush to await more.

Next to make a surprise appearance was a goldfinch who sat on the bench at the top of the garden, before hopping down to pick off some seeds. It was then joined by another and they systematically moved around the garden. This is the first time I’ve seen goldfinches in our garden, and to be able to watch them for so long was a real treat.

To finish it all off, I finally saw the great tit pop into the hole in the wall. A couple of weeks ago we saw them go in and out a couple of times, but having not seen them again, guessed they’d found a better nesting site. Looking forward to seeing the chicks when they emerge.

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Musings on subsong

My knowledge of British birds is reasonable, but I’m certainly no expert when it comes to the finer details. Recently I decided to start swatting up on my birds, and in particular, on bird song. It was then that I learned about subsong. No doubt I’d heard it in the past, but didn’t know what it was.

Subsong definition: “birdsong that is softer and less well defined than the usual territorial song, sometimes heard only at close quarters as a quiet warbling.”

I love the idea of subsong – birds quietly singing to themselves, practicing before the breeding season gets into full swing. When I hear it now, it conjures up images of a teenager self-consciously practicing what he’s going to say before his first date, or a budding singer rehearsing in front of the mirror with hairbrush in hand, fearful that someone will hear before the performance is perfect.

There’s a blackbird that’s often singing to himself in a local pub car park by the river. I’ve heard him there a few times, but concealed within the dark foliage of an evergreen, it would be easy to miss if there’s the slightest bit of noise around. I think it’s every bit as delightful as the full song, and stop to listen – despite looking decidedly odd, standing quietly, staring into a bush.

As a lover of spring, it’s exciting to think that the birds are practicing, and warming up their vocal chords in preparation for the warmer and lighter days ahead. Together with snowdrops and lambs’ tails, subsong is another beautiful sign that spring is well and truly on its way.

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Country bumpkin

I’ve just finished a fantastic two week work placement at BBC’s Autumnwatch, and now it’s back to reality. I have to find a job.

This weekend I was putting together a film as part of an application for a job with the National Trust. The post is a roaming reporter for their newly launched campaign Outdoor Nation – exploring the idea that we, as a nation, are losing touch with the outdoors. (You can see their launch video here).

The film had to include my thoughts on what I’d like to ask people about the outdoors, and this really got me thinking about my own relationship with the countryside – why I love being outdoors. I’m not sure there’s one definitive answer, and it’s actually really quite difficult to put into words.

Sense of space

Fundamentally, I think it must come back to my childhood. We’re an outdoor family – mum and dad are both keen gardeners and got me interested in wildlife early on. We’ve always had at least one dog and so going for country walks has always been a part of everyday life. And at the age of about three or four I was given a few chickens – which is still ranked as one of my best birthday presents ever.

I’m a country girl at heart and feel myself tensing up as soon as I step foot in a city. For me, being out in the countryside is automatically relaxing. The fresh air, nature’s soundtrack and a great sense of space all play their part. It feels like home – where I belong.

Healthy addiction

I wonder how my relationship with the outdoors would be different if I’d grown up in a city – whether I’d still have had the opportunities to experience the great outdoors. I guess that’s when, more often than not, it comes down to family influences. Even if we’d lived in central London I’m sure I would have been taken to a park at the weekend to feed the ducks, or driven out of town on an excursion. If mum and dad hadn’t been so keen, maybe I’d have turned out differently.

Interestingly my brother isn’t so outdoor-minded – or at least, not to the same extent that I am. So maybe I would’ve have turned out like this whatever the circumstances. What I do know is that I’d struggle to function without my regular fix of the countryside. I to think of it as a healthy addiction.

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Foraging for fungi

I like to think that my general knowledge of British wildlife isn’t too bad, but one thing I’m definitely not hot on is fungi.

“Fun-gee”, “Fun-guy”, “Fundguy” – you say potato… (according to the pronunciation dictionary they’re all acceptable). However you say it, we’re still talking about the same thing, and with over 6,000 different species in the UK alone, how to pronounce the collective term is the least of my worries.

I thought I’d begin with a trip to some woods reported to be good for fungus spotting. We went to one of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves just down the road – Green Lane Wood. There were lots of different fungi there – I have no idea what any of them were, but it was great just to forage and discover a huge range of different species within a relatively small area.

Inspired by our outing, the next day we decided to join fungi expert Michael Jordan on a “Fungi Foray” through the woods adjoining Montacute house.

Under threat

It was a fascinating couple of hours, and you couldn’t help but be impressed by his knowledge. The group found at least thirty different species, and we only walked about half a mile.

I’m still not sure I’m capable of identifying any species of fungi correctly, but I did learn a few things…

1) To identify a fungus you have to look at the top and bottom
2) You can touch them all you like – just don’t eat them
3) There’s a fungus that makes you violently ill if you eat it when you have alcohol in your system
4) (random fact) Someone died after eating a rabbit that had eaten a poisonous fungus
5) Fungi in the UK are under threat due to habitat loss, over picking and changes in land management
6) It will take a very long time to be able to identify more than a handful of species correctly

The over picking thing is really important. Although after yesterday’s walk I was quite inspired to go out and learn more about fungi, I don’t want to add to their demise, so for now I’m going to either stick to just admiring them in their rightful place, or let the experts decide whether or not to pick them.

Lots more information on British fungi and local groups can be found here.

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October already?!

So much for keeping the blog up to date.

Well the film is finally finished, and the MA complete.

The editing process started out as a bit of a nightmare. I had so much footage it was hard to know where to start and how to put the piece together. I ended up transcribing most of the interviews and from there identified the recurring themes which helped to form a basic structure for the piece.

Once I’d worked out the structure it all started to fall into place and I really enjoyed the editing process. Taking into consideration the limitations I had – relatively basic equipment (in particular, no zoom lens) and no real budget, I’m pretty pleased with the end result.  I just hope it can help me get a job!

Here it is: Rewilding Scotland. Constructive comments will be gratefully received.

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Filming – Day 8, the end of the road

Monday. Our final day. Just one interview and journey home to complete.

We allowed ourselves a leisurely start to the day, so we could be refreshed for the day ahead. We set off with only a few things in mind – to get to Ross Montague of the Scottish Countryside Alliance for the final interview, and to get some shots of a red squirrel.

Loch Garten - the only still of the filming process

To break up the journey and tick the red squirrel box we took a detour to Loch Garten. Although best known as one of the best places to see Ospreys, we were also tipped off that there was a feeder in the car park that attracted our little furry friends.

Our timing was perfect. We arrived to find a red squirrel handing off the feeder and despite the onslaught of midges managed to get some footage. It felt slightly sacrilegious not to continue on to look for ospreys but we simply couldn’t afford the time.

Torrential

We were back on the road for another few hours before we reached our final stop on our journey. We found Ross Montague, the director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, trying to reverse a large trailer into his farmyard.

The interview wasn’t technically the best. It was torrential rain, and the only place we could film was in one of the barns. It had a corrugated roof so it was pretty noisy, plus the noise of passing tractors, but I hope that some it will be useable.

And again, it was a similar story that he had to tell – an overriding concern that the livelihoods of rural folk would be put at risk should large-scale rewilding and reintroductions be carried out, and the need for the rural voice to be heard in the early stages of discussions.

Exhausting

And that was it. The final interview completed. Then just the long journey home. Before we left Scotland we managed to sneak in a final shot of a rainbow against a dark grey sky.

About six or seven hours ( I lost track) and about 1800 miles later we arrived home. The carbon footprint and the credit card balance have grown unpleasantly large, but it has been an amazing, if exhausting week.

The people have been brilliant and the country itself, just stunning. We can’t wait to go back with time to be able to soak it all up and enjoy its beauty. Now just the small task of editing hours of footage down to twenty minutes. Hm…

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