The British Wildlife Centre (BWC) is a little pocket of countryside that combines wetland, woodland and marsh to create the ideal natural environment for around forty species native to the UK. The centre is home to birds, mammals and reptiles, some of which have been rehabilitated because of permanent injury or too much contact with humans. They range in size from harvest mice to red deer with all sorts in between. It’s a particular treat to be able to see animals native to Scotland such as the pine marten and the Scottish wildcat, the latter of which is now critically endangered.
Five years ago, I attended one of the BWC’s photography days, which was a fantastic opportunity to practise using my new telephoto lens and get to grips with wildlife photography. Taking part in the photography day enables guests to visit the centre out of hours and get even closer to the animals. Recently I decided to return to the BWC and see what I could capture.
A lot of wildlife writers I know don’t post about captive wildlife. I can understand why – regardless of the facility it is the concept of animals in cages that they don’t agree with. However, the BWC isn’t cramming elephants into its enclosures. Conservation of British wildlife is at the forefront of their objectives and this is done primarily through education. When the centre is closed to the public, the BWC welcomes school groups and those in higher education to provide “a real natural history experience”. What I love most about the BWC is that it aims to promote greater involvement in British wildlife by giving children and students an opportunity to study native wildlife in a natural setting.
A particular favourite of mine was Flo the red fox. She rested with her eyelids drooping, her fur glistening fiery orange in the bright sun. She is one of the animals that has become too habituated with humans to be released, so she enjoys unlimited cuddles from the keepers. I sat down beside the fence and she got to her feet, stepping through the grass to lie down close to me. I took the chance to admire the stunning brush tail that swept around her back legs, her wet black nose and long whiskers. It was impossible to see how anyone could hate such a stunning animal. I sat with Flo for a while, the two of us basking in unnaturally hot November weather until a family with children approached and she trotted over to say hello.
Recently I travelled up to Northumberland to visit friends from university. They are two of the busiest people I know, so I was pleased to be able to steal a few days in October to catch up and visit their local patch.
The first thing I experienced was severe house envy. Wildlife art adorned every wall; the sort of beautiful paintings and drawings that I planned to splash all over my own home some day. However, it was the bookshelf that really caught my attention. Sprawled across an entire wall and almost reaching the ceiling, it was crammed with every book on natural history you could want. Not just modern paperbacks but antiquarian hardbacks with leather bound covers and swirling gold titles. In front of every row of books was an envious selection of treasures: pinecones, gannet eggshells, roe deer antlers, pin badges, lino prints, Wade Whimsies, fossils, gemstones, lichens, miniature animal wood carvings and a beautifully preserved badger skull with its lower jaw intact. I spent ages studying everything in turn, gravitating first to the roe antlers. I have a roe buck skull of my own – one of my most prized possessions – but I still long to find dropped antlers too. It was an impressive collection of everything nature, framed by dozens of books from my wish list.
I stayed with my friends for a long weekend and managed to cram quite a lot into those few days. Heather and I visited a fantastic patch of woodland, which was home to not only red squirrels but also pine martens! I knew we probably wouldn’t catch a glimpse of one during the day, but it was still exciting to walk among trees that might be housing a sleeping marten. It was so peaceful and quiet with only faint birdsong punctuating the air. As we searched for fungi to photograph, I found a gorgeous caterpillar making its way along the fence. Later, we discovered it was a buff tip moth caterpillar.
The next day I helped Heather with a “Mini Wildlife Adventure” that she was running for a child’s birthday party. The boy was intrigued by nature and so he and his friends spent the morning pond dipping, searching for bugs, finding badger prints and birdwatching in a hide. It was such a fantastic idea for a birthday party, and it was particularly refreshing to see that the boys had good wildlife knowledge and were genuinely excited by what they saw. Educating children about nature at a young age is the key to ensuring they continue to care about it when they grow up. Those boys would have spent hours pond dipping if we’d had the time, and it was so lovely to see.
That evening Heather, Cain and I spent a peaceful last evening watching Sherlock with the fire cracking and snapping in the grate. It had been a pretty jam-packed weekend but as always, I felt inspired with a rejuvenated love for nature that always comes after a trip to northern England or Scotland. I sometimes struggle to feel that same passion at home in the south, where there are more people and noise and far fewer pine martens. I love escaping to the wilder parts of the UK and look forward to another wildlife adventure very soon.
Giraffe have always been special to me. Even with long, gangly limbs, they move with unhurried poise and confidence, but still look endearing with their huge eyes and long eyelashes.
On TV this week there was a repeat of an episode in Attenborough’s Natural World series: Africa’s Gentle Giants. The story centred on Dr Julian Fennessy, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Fennessy has been working to conserve giraffe for more than 20 years, and is a true pioneer in research on this secretive and surprisingly little-known animal.
Many people, including myself until very recently, are naïve to the true situation that wild giraffe currently face. Among other African species such as elephants, gorillas and leopards, for some reason giraffe have taken a backseat in the public eye. While words like “beautiful” and “majestic” always spring to mind when we talk about giraffe, how many of us could confidently say how many there were? I was shocked to discover how wrong I was when giraffe statistics were presented alongside those of another African giant. Currently, there are around 500,000 African elephants left, but only 90,000 giraffe. For the first time ever, I doubted what David Attenborough was telling me. How could that be possible? I began to look online, but of course it was true. There are nearly five times as many African elephants than giraffe left on the planet. It’s a statistic that astounded me.
Giraffe are not only unmistakable symbols of Africa and the tallest animal on Earth, but they are important to the ecosystem. Like bees, giraffe are excellent pollinators, and pass pollen from tree to tree as they graze. They also spread seeds in their dung, another vital part of maintaining a diverse and sustainable landscape. Conserving giraffe protects not only the animal but its environment, ultimately affecting so many other species that call Africa home.
In two decades, giraffe numbers have fallen by 40% and they have become extinct in seven countries. They are hunted for meat and their habitats are slowly disappearing. One of the most vulnerable populations – a group of less than a thousand Rothschild’s giraffe – lives in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. These animals are walking on a literal time bomb; beneath their feet lies 75% of Uganda’s discovered oil, and Fennessy knew that plans to drill would spell disaster for these endangered animals. His ambitious and dangerous mission was to relocate twenty giraffe from one side of the River Nile to the other, where it was hoped that these pioneering individuals would start a new population in a safer location.
As I watched the team of dedicated vets, rangers and scientists attempt to move one-ton animals whose kick could decapitate a man, I was filled with such admiration and respect. It is all very commendable to donate money to charity, but these people were out in conflict areas risking their lives for giraffe. As the mission progressed, I got quite emotional, not just because the threats these beautiful animals face are so unnecessary and unjust, but because I was completely unaware. What little chance these animals have if even wildlife enthusiasts like me don’t know their situation.
It wasn’t just the numbers of giraffe that I was unaware of; so much of their behaviour remains unseen to even experts like Fennessy who have studied them for a vast proportion of their lives. By the Hoanib River in northwest Namibia, he took a sensitive camera out to film giraffe at night. As he watched, a giraffe curled up on the exposed ground and fell asleep. It was something Fennessy had never witnessed before.
“In zoos they study it,” he explained, “Basically when their neck is down it’s REM sleep, so maybe these giraffe are dreaming. I’ve never seen that in the wild.”
The fact that we don’t know how wild giraffe sleep says a lot about how overlooked they are. It seems there is the assumption that because we don’t hear about a particular animal as much, it must be doing fine. However, in the case of the giraffe this couldn’t be further from the truth. So why do we know so little about these animals? Perhaps it is because they are only listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. An article published two years ago, at the time that this episode was first released, hopes that the work Fennessy is doing will help change the status of giraffe to “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered” and therefore encourage greater conservation efforts. Unfortunately, as 2018 draws to a close, the giraffe is still listed as “Vulnerable”. I can only hope that this change in status does come into effect to raise awareness of this silent and rapid extinction that is passing so many of us by, or soon it may be too late.
*Natural World “Giraffe: Africa’s Gentle Giants.” (2016) BBC. 23rd June.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind! I have now completely moved out of Carlisle and come back home in Hertfordshire to spend time with my family and Cockapoo puppy, who at five years old is finally starting to calm down.
I’ve been back for a fourth visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour of Harry Potter, and was throughly impressed by the new Forbidden Forest, not to mention the Butterbeer ice cream. I won’t give away too many spoilers as it’s an incredible place that you need to see to truly believe. I’ve been a Harry Potter fanatic for a million years and always get teary-eyed when I go. Even my Uncle Rod who was indifferent to Harry Potter ended up taking dozens of photos.
I’ve also had my final results from university and was thrilled to discover I achieved first class honours, though I have to wait until November until graduation! It seems as though I shall need the cap and gown to keep me warm after spending the summer in the much hotter south.
But I barely had time to celebrate my results before I managed to secure an internship at an animal sanctuary in Florida! I will be working for SEZARC (South East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation) and I’ll be getting involved with a lot of lab work. One of SEZARC’s main lines of work is carrying out health studies to try and resolve reproductive issues that rare and endangered animals face when breeding.
It’s such an exciting and important area of conservation and something I’ve never had the chance to get involved with. I’m so excited to begin, but I’ll need to wait a little longer yet. I fly out at the start of August and work for two months before returning at the end of September. Just yesterday I booked all my flights as well as an international driving licence. Driving in America is quite a daunting prospect but seeing as there is no public transport in that part of Florida, I don’t have much choice! I’m quite nervous about going so far alone but I know I’ll love it once I get into the swing of things.
Now I have all of July to continue preparations for my extraordinary expedition! I dread to think how long my packing list will be…
In 2017, 40-year-old author Gail Honeyman entered a story about a lonely and damaged young girl into a writing competition. Now winner of the Costa First Novel Award and scheduled to become Reese Witherspoon’s next film project, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become a triumph for modern literature.
Our heroine, Eleanor, is evidently not at all fine. She often goes home from work on Friday and doesn’t speak to another person until she arrives at work on Monday morning. She is a source of amusement amongst her colleagues, and many modern advances are completely lost on her. “D’you like a smoky eye?” The makeup assistant at Bobbi Brown asks, to which Eleanor replies, “I don’t like anything to do with smoking.”
At the background of it all, her manipulative mother is an ominous presence looming at the end of the phone, hinting at a darkness in Eleanor’s past that may be the explanation for her isolation and uniqueness.
When Eleanor and Raymond, an IT consultant in her office, witness an elderly man falling unconscious in the street, an unlikely friendship begins to form between them. Somewhat hesitantly, Eleanor opens up to the possibility that people genuinely want to spend time with her, and with Raymond’s friendship comes a growing sense of self-assurance.
As we are introduced to Eleanor’s quirky persona, she initially appears very hostile to strangers and speaks her mind with seemingly no understanding of the consequences: “You’ll die years earlier than you would have otherwise, probably from cancer…you’ve already got the smoker’s characteristically dull, prematurely lined skin.” However, as we spend more time with Eleanor it becomes very clear that she has had nobody to help her align with societal norms – she was a confused child passed from carer to carer until university at seventeen. How can anybody blame her for reacting how many of us would were it not for our awareness of social politeness? Not only that, but being surrounded by unkindness and ridicule, it must be a natural reaction to close up and use that barrier of separation as a form of protection.
While Eleanor’s confidently naïve observations of the world can be enormously funny, the humour is threaded with heartbreak. At seeing her reflection after a new haircut she thanks the stylist for “making her shiny”. Having been surrounded by damaging and neglectful people all her life, becoming introduced to kind individuals is a foreign but welcomed concept for her.
Honeyman has created a character that is somehow completely fresh and new among literary heroines, and yet can be related to in countless ways. It has been commented that chronic loneliness is a very real problem for elderly people, but it never seems to be addressed among younger generations. Why must age be a contributing factor to a feeling of isolation? Eleanor has had a very troubled childhood and adolescence, but even those of us with caring families are capable of feeling lonely. In fact, according to a 2018 report by the Office for National Statistics, almost 10% of people aged 16-24 said they “always or often” felt lonely. This statistic was over three times higher than for those aged 65 or more.
This novel undoubtedly speaks to many young people, including myself. I have struggled with loneliness in the past – a desire for new friends coupled with fierce insecurity in social situations has made meeting new people a real challenge, and it is something I continue to struggle with. Loneliness can be incredibly upsetting, and is often hard to recognise in someone experiencing it. Honeyman has succeeded in raising awareness of the issue with her original and deeply moving novel, outlining the importance of kindness and compassion.
Zahrah and I only managed to attend the third and final day of Birdfair 2016. This year, we were set on squeezing everything we could out of this incredible event. Kerr decided to join us too, so last Thursday the three of us set off for Rutland Water Nature Reserve.
Due to a slight train mishap from Zahrah, it was nearly dark by the time we arrived at the campsite. We met the very charismatic steward and his wife, who cruised around the site on a rather fetching golf buggy and led us to our pitch. Perhaps ashamedly, I’d only been camping twice before, once ten years ago and once last month, so I was excited to get the tent up and spend our first night in the reserve.
In the morning I woke from a genuinely good tent’s sleep. After eating pots of porridge around the stove we headed over to the fair. As usual, I was overwhelmed by just how much there was to see: eight long marquees, three lecture theatres, the main events marquee and a large cluster of food stalls, merchandise stands and of course, the reserve itself.
After a scan of the programme, we threaded our way through the first marquee. We met a lovely lady from the West Cumbria Swift Group, and I soon realised how little I knew about swifts. Due to house renovations, swifts are losing their nesting sites and should now be red-listed. The fastest bird in level flight, swifts shut down half their brain at a time to enable them to sleep on the wing and endure such long journeys overseas.
In the afternoon I attended a talk on the successes and challenges of conservation. As I listened to comeback stories of black-winged stilts, spoonbills and Manx shearwaters, it struck me how much we all dwell on the ‘doom and gloom’ of wildlife. Of course, it’s appalling how many of our planet’s species are now threatened, but invaluable work is being carried out all over the world and it should be celebrated. The talk inspired me to concentrate on conservation success, not failure, and it’s something I reckon I’ll be turning into a third year project.
Day two of Birdfair began with some more networking in the marquees. I chatted to lots of lovely people, from the BBC Wildlife team to photographers to those offering amazing wildlife holidays (I lost count how many competitions I entered – bring on the promotional emails). After a delicious pulled pork roll with applesauce, my ultimate favourite, Zahrah and I caught Simon King’s talk. He really is a great speaker. Although it’s often the case at these events that the speakers are merely preaching to the choir, it’s always so good to be reminded just how important nature is. He included a quote from Anaïs Nin that drove his message home: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Mankind has done extraordinary things, some of them terrible, and it’s important not to lose focus on what really matters: preserving this planet. It’s a message I really hope can endure the test of time.
I was a little sad to wake up on Sunday and realise Birdfair was nearly over. Zahrah and I anticipated long queues for Steve Backshall so we hurried to the fair earlier than usual. The marquee was filled to capacity, with people lining the walls and stuffing themselves into every space. I suppose it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think Steve Backshall is an inspiration. Deadly 60 was perfect, combining boisterous adventure with important messages about wildlife to capture every child’s imagination. In his talk, Steve showed various images of shark species, to which the children sat cross-legged at the front shouted out the names of without a moment’s hesitation. It gave me a fuzzy feeling: these kids absolutely loved wildlife. It’s true that engaging younger generations is undoubtedly the long-term solution for the natural world, and Steve Backshall was doing just that. I couldn’t help but put my hand up for a question. I asked him what species was next on his wish list, to which he replied the snow leopard.
Before long it was time to go. Kerr had bought the Sony camera he’d been eyeing up for months and at a considerably lower price, so he was happy as Larry. I treated myself to a poster of the ‘Orders and Families of Birds of the World’, which is now hanging proudly alongside my others. Birdfair is one of those rare events where us wildies gather in our thousands to celebrate not only birds, but all wildlife. I know from previous experience that an interest in nature is not a common one, so to meet people from all over the world with the same passions as me is something really quite special. I’m already looking forward to next year.
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?
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
After reading an article in BBC Wildlife Magazine, I was extremely saddened to realise that so many young people in my generation have no idea how to identify even the most common of wildlife species. As Chris Packham explained, there is simply not enough in the curriculum which focuses on species identification. Nowadays, in a world of screens, so many children would rather sit glued to the television instead of wonder at the natural beauty that lies just beyond their front door. I remember in great detail how my mum took me out on walks as a child, just as her father had done for her. It is thanks to an early introduction to wildlife that I now know so many species of bird and wildflower. Undoubtedly, it is my inherited exposure to wildlife that has made me so passionate about it. The same cannot be said for those children who have been deprived of this, and know no better than to sit on the Xbox until called for dinner.
There are so many ways that natural history can be taught in schools, and yet it fails to be important for so many people. I currently study A2 level Biology, and when we reached the Ecology section in the syllabus, a series of groans echoed around the room. Young people are simply not interested in nature.
I don’t think people understand the importance of future generations taking an interest in natural history. Without their input, how can what is left of the natural world be protected when the current generation of avid naturalists are long gone? Information needs to be passed on if struggling species are to claw their way back from the brink. I think that for many, the welfare of our planet’s flora and fauna simply isn’t important. Why care for animals when so many humans are suffering? This is of course a valid argument, and I appreciate that if I were a starving child living on the streets I may think differently. However, in such drastic times sacrifices need to be made. There are more than seven billion people on planet Earth, and a mere three thousand tigers. It may sound harsh, but for me the emphasis should be on protecting the minority species, and I don’t believe that will ever be mankind.