Here For Your Entertainment

On Friday we went on a field trip to The Lake District Wildlife Park. In Alex’s lectures we’ve been studying the behaviour of animals in captivity, so visited the park to see if we could see any of the same signs in the animals they kept there.


It hadn’t been too long since my last visit to a zoo, but maybe it was the presence of four other wildlife students that instilled different feelings in me this time. The small size of the enclosures seemed more obvious and I couldn’t help feeling uneasy as I watched the lynx pace up and down and the raptors attempt to fly off the metal perches they were tied down to. I could photograph the bald, golden and tawny eagles in vivid detail, but I knew deep down it was cheating and the photos I was taking were no different to those of hundreds of other visitors.


The reason I love photography is it captures a moment in time that cannot be exactly replicated ever again. It freezes a memory and provides a very intimate insight into the photographer’s mind. So as I stood in front of a tethered bird that couldn’t escape my camera or my gaze, I soon realised this was not how children should experience wildlife.

Ticking off birds from my wish list was part of the charm that got me interested in wildlife. It was going out, tracking a bird and watching it live its life that gave me a sense of pride. Not only had I had an adventure in the great outdoors, but I’d discovered a species I’d never seen and sometimes got photos to show for it. During my time on the Isle of Carna we attempted to track down golden eagles on a boat trip on Loch Sunart. We were extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the magnificent bird as it perched high up in the tree canopy.

Anyone with £8.95 in their pocket can go to the Lakes Wildlife Park and see a golden eagle, but where’s the fun in that? If the same children who see a captive golden eagle were to see one in the wild, I’m certain that experience would last a lot longer in their memory.


Of course, I’m just talking about British wildlife. None of us in the UK are going to see a wild red panda or lar gibbon no matter how impressive our tracking skills, so in that respect zoos offer children the chance to see what wonderful animals roam our planet. While this is all well and good – and with the rate of extinction as rapid as it is, this may soon be the only way that the next generation can see certain species in the flesh – it’s just not “wild” life. And isn’t that the point? What next, we round up indigenous tribes and keep them in pens for people to stare at? Although some zoos have done wonderful work for conservation and provide a safe place for endangered animals to live unharmed, should it be up to us to decide whether a long, captive life is better than a short, free one?


Getting to Know the Natterjacks

Today was the Wildlife Recorders’ Conference at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, which was a fantastic event that I learnt a lot from. The day consisted of a series of talks from experienced recorders across a range of topics from beetles to upland lakes.

I often believe that I know quite a bit about our British wildlife, but when I attend an event organised by the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre I’m reminded that, compared to the wildlife veterans, I know absolutely nothing. It’s a sobering but also inspiring thought, to think that there is so much still to learn about the natural world.

One talk that particularly stuck with me was from Ruth Popely from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, who told us all about natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita). This was especially interesting because the natterjack toad is a species I know absolutely nothing about, so everything I found out today was fascinating new information.

Natterjacks are typically greeny brown in colour with a distinctive cream stripe down their back, along with knobbly ‘warts’. They are poor swimmers and much prefer to run across even ground. For this reason, their favoured habitat is a barren one, with little protection from the elements. This may seem like a hostile environment that couldn’t possibly be resourceful, but in fact the natterjacks have pulled a clever move. Not only does flat, short ground vegetation provide the perfect runway for efficient mobility, but by living in a habitat that most would turn down, there is much less competition from other amphibians such as common toads.

The natterjacks have a few nifty tricks up their sleeves that help them survive their unforgiving habitat. They don’t drink water, but instead use drink patches on the undersides of their bodies as sponges to soak up water and stay hydrated.

The toads’ ability to burrow allows them to stay sheltered in the colder winter months. When the time to breed arrives in April, the males begin producing rasping noises using their blue vocal sacs, a feature absent in females. Once the collective din reaches the females – sometimes from as far away as a kilometre – they join the party at the water.

Natterjacks breed in shallow, temporary bodies of water, another feature that separates them from common toads who choose deeper, permanent aquatic areas. Therefore, as the tadpoles only have limited water availability, they need to grow rapidly into toadlets. The natterjack has often been regarded as a boom or bust species due to its risky breeding technique. Some years, if the rainfall is infrequent, the tadpoles run the risk of becoming beached or isolated in too small a body of water. However, if conditions are good, they are very successful breeders. To reduce the impact of a bad season, females can spawn more than once in a breeding season, so in a single pond strings of spawn, tadpoles and fully metamorphosed toadlets can all be found on the same day.

Naturally, there are threats to the natterjacks’ welfare. Land management has reduced both their aquatic and terrestrial habitats. This in turn leads to a loss of connectivity and increased isolation. Additional detrimental impacts include disease, predation and competition from other amphibians.

Natterjacks are rare in Britain, with a stronger hold in parts of Western Europe. Hopefully, if more people like me find out just how fascinating these little amphibians are they’ll get some well deserved attention and be around long into the future.

Nick Baker at Birdfair

Two weeks ago, Birdfair was held at Rutland Water Nature Reserve from Friday to Sunday. As we were on holiday in Scotland, we could only make the third and final day, but I am so glad we managed to experience this fantastic event.

Upon arrival we were greeted by an explosion of colour and noise. I bought a map and discovered I was in one of eight marquees lined on both sides with stalls and things to buy. A lot of them were selling wildlife holidays, so I couldn’t help but enter a few competitions, as well as buy some wildlife art.

One talk we attended was ‘Building a Naturalist’ by Nick Baker, a naturalist I’ve admired for many years. His topic of discussion was getting more children interested in the natural world. In a way, he was preaching to the converted by delivering his speech to an audience of wildlife enthusiasts, but it appears as if the responsibility of making nature a focus for children lies with us, the people who understand its importance.

What I love about Baker is his heart-warming enthusiasm for wildlife. He described his first white plume moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla) sighting as “like looking at fairies at the bottom of the garden”. He learnt a great deal about newts by collecting them and watching them in tanks – he made a point of saying that this was long before the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 when the handling of British newts became illegal – and read up on them to broaden his knowledge.

“Experience is everything,” he explained, and I agree entirely. The only way to understand the natural world is to be out in it. As much as it pains me to say, reading books will only get a naturalist so far; by spending hours searching the coast or wandering through the forest, they can become a part of the world they’re passionate about.

Baker shared some alarming statistics. In a study of 8-15 year-olds, 53% had never seen a flock of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in the UK. Baker described this as “extinction of experience”. Our mentors are becoming an endangered species; with less interest in nature, where are the passionate naturalists who will teach and inspire the next generation? Baker’s mentor was his dad, without whom he may not have had the experiences that brought about his interest in wildlife. For me, my mentor was my mum, and for her it was my grandad. There must be a link between each generation to keep the passion alive.

There will come a time when I get to show my children how incredible the natural world is. I will buy them all the books I can afford and take them on walks through woodland and meadows. We will sit silently in hides and lay on our fronts watching aquatic life in ponds. All this brings such joy to my life, and to the lives of many others. Unfortunately, we are the rare few. It means a great deal to me to watch and study wildlife, but I am no longer the youngest generation. Children are walking sponges and will soak up everything around them; it’s up to us nature folk to ignite their imaginations with trees and birds, as well as TVs and computers.

“It’s innate in all of us. We are born curious… all it takes is a spark of curiosity.” Nick Baker

Taking the Plunge (and taking a while to resurface)

Tomorrow begins my fourth week at university. I did it; I passed my A levels and at the end of September found myself on the long road from Hertfordshire to Cumbria. Now I’ve settled in to my new life in Carlisle, where I’ve begun studying Wildlife Media, my dream course.

I’m ashamed that it’s been so long since my last post. I have no worthy excuses; the days seemed to have slipped away without my knowing and before I knew it, it was October and I realised I hadn’t blogged since April.

To the loyal readers I once had, I’m sorry. If you continue to read my posts after such a long break, I truly thank you. If not, I don’t blame you for abandoning such a sloppy blogger.

We’ve had our lengthy interval. Now, I shall proceed into the second act. In some ways this is apt, seeing as I’ve just turned a major corner in my life and begun my degree nearly three hundred miles from home. Already I’m changing. I’m relying completely on myself, and even going so far as to introduce myself to a cookbook.

So here’s to the next act. If I have any audience left, I hope you enjoy.