On The Front Cover!

Recently I was very pleasantly surprised to see an email in my inbox from the editor of Pay Our Planet magazine asking me to write a feature for them. I hadn’t heard of them because it was going to be the very first issue. I leapt at the chance and decided to write about red squirrels, which are an animal very close to my heart. During my time at university I was lucky enough to have some very up-close encounters with red squirrels in Lockerbie, and can now spot them quite regularly in the forests near where I live.

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I was particularly taken by how environmentally aware Pay Our Planet is. Studies have shown that mangrove trees store carbon at a rate of four times that of mature tropical forests, so Pay Our Planet have partnered with the Eden Reforestation Project to plant mangrove trees in Madagascar. For every subscriber of the digital magazine, Pay Our Planet plants 15 trees each month. This makes that subscriber carbon positive, meaning their actions remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they put into it.

It’s been such a privilege to share the story of one of Britain’s most well-loved species to an international audience. I’m so grateful to Pay Our Planet for giving me the opportunity to not only write a feature for the magazine but also for putting my photo on the front cover!

Checking in

I arrived in Grantown-on-Spey at night, so couldn’t see much of the Cairngorms wilderness that pressed heavily on both sides of the winding road. I glimpsed darting rabbits and the elegant form of a pair of deer, but there must have been dozens of other creatures concealed by the dense evergreens.

My accommodation, the Grant Arms Hotel, was beautiful; a formidable building of stone and wide sash windows that could easily be the set for an elaborate period drama. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms provides guests with easy access to a range of reserves of all different habitats. When I checked in, a large notice board stood pride of place in the foyer, full of lists of upcoming events, guidance on watching wildlife – including the magnificent capercaillie – and sign-up sheets for the week’s guided walks and field trips. An impressive puzzle adorned with a picturesque nature scene lay finished nearby. On the walls were images of puffins, ospreys, black grouse and, in my room, a beautiful fieldfare. I’d never seen so much wildlife-related decor and I absolutely loved it.

As I unpacked, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation for the week to come. I’d never stopped in the Cairngorms before but only passed through, so I couldn’t wait to sample some of the incredible wildlife. I had my sights set in particular on the pine marten – an elusive and nocturnal member of the mustelid family. If I was going to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution and see one in 2019, the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival was my best chance.

I Need Your Help for Wildlife Blogger of the Year!

If you love wildlife, then I need your help!

I’ve entered the Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 competition, organised by Terra Incognita. The theme is “a favourite wildlife moment of 2018”, and I chose my encounter with a wild grey seal in the Farne Islands, which some of you may remember reading about.

I chose this story because it was an incredibly special experience and a reminder to me that we should not be constantly connected to technology. I had a GoPro with me while I was snorkelling but was so surprised by what happened that I completely forgot to film. At first I was disappointed, but on reflection I am so glad that I stayed in the moment and didn’t miss a single second. I interacted with a wild animal with absolutely no distractions, and it has become one of my most precious memories of time spent in nature. I hope my story reinforces the need to connect with wildlife and shows just how rewarding it can be.

As well as the overall winner of Wildlife Blogger of the Year, picked by a panel of judges, there is the Reader’s Choice winner award, which anyone can vote for. If you enjoy my story, I would be thrilled if you could cast me your vote.

You can read my story and vote for me by following this link. Thank you so much!

Learning to Dive – Part One

The alarm went off at 6am and my stomach began to churn. Today was the start of Open Water weekend, and if all went well, I would earn my first diving certification. Having struggled with some of the skills in the swimming pool, not to mention the fact I was still getting used to all the kit, I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive as I pulled on my warmest clothes. I hastily gobbled a petrol station flapjack, which tasted like cardboard in my dry mouth. Knowing I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious, I tried to shake the nerves and triple-checked I had everything I needed.

Luckily, the site was only a five-minute drive from the hotel, and I arrived in plenty of time. Stoney Cove used to be a stone quarry that was used in the 1960s and 70s to train commercial divers and test underwater equipment used in oil fields. Now, Stoney Cove has conference rooms, shower facilities, a shop and – most importantly after a tiring dive – a pub called Nemo’s. The actual quarry is a multi-level city of shipwrecks and aquatic life, split up into areas of different depths for divers of all abilities. As this was our first open water dive, we stayed safely in the 7m limit, which still contained a submarine and an aircraft cockpit. Although, I was more interested in the crayfish, perch, roach and pike that called Stoney Cove home.

It was a cold but clear day, with sunlight pouring weakly onto the water. No rain at least, though I suppose rain shouldn’t really be a concern for divers. As I stood at the quarry’s edge watching seagulls floating on the surface, I couldn’t quite believe I would soon be diving several metres beneath it.

Soon it was time to start kitting up. We assembled in buddy pairs and helped each other don scuba kits just like every week at the pool. This time, however, we also had hoods, gloves, compasses and a dive computer. We made our way down to the ramp, where several divers were already in the water. For dive one all we had to do to enter the water was stand on the edge and sit gently back, floating out into the quarry.

Ungainly as always with my cylinder and weights, I felt like a tortoise on its back as I tried to strap on my fins. Eventually I was ready, and made my way hesitantly to the edge of the ramp. I turned, squatted and leaned back. The shock of freezing cold water rushing into my wetsuit wasn’t exactly comfortable, but in a strange way it was exhilarating. This was it, time to dive.

Once everyone was in the water, we began our first descent. As more of my body became submerged, I soon grew numb to the cold and instead focussed on the underwater world we were entering into. I descended to the bottom, making sure to equalise my ears to the increasing pressure, and looked around. The visibility wasn’t superb and the only features I could make out were other divers, but the murkiness only added to the suspense. It still felt strange not to have to work to stay down in the water, instead floating effortlessly.

The instructors led us on a swim, past the Nautilus submarine to a wooden platform where we would perform our skills. An underwater classroom surrounded by shipwrecks and fish; it was quite extraordinary.

After each taking turns to carry out the skills, we started our ascent. For the first time on the dive I looked up, and the sight was breathtaking. Sunlight streamed through the water in slanted shards that lit up our bubbles as they cascaded upwards. I still hadn’t got my head around being able to breathe underwater. It had been a dream of mine as a child, pretending to be a dolphin in the local pool. I wasn’t quite a dolphin yet, but I was closer to the underwater world than ever before.

Coming soon: day two of Open Water weekend!

Meet the Neighbours

After a busy week getting to grips with my new routine in Florida and getting stuck into all sorts of exciting work at the SEZARC lab, I was invited onto a tour of the White Oak site. Having only had glimpses up until now – mainly the white rhinos whose enclosure runs alongside the road to the lab – I was eager to see all of the animals that live at White Oak.

Our first stop was the greater one-horned rhino, and I was thrilled to see one of the females had a calf. The clue to the most immediate difference between these individuals and white rhinos was in the name; white rhinos, from Africa, have one more horn than the greater one horned, and they’re typically larger. To compensate for a shorter horn, these rhinos – from India and Nepal – have very long lower incisors that are used during fights and can grow up to 8cm long in males.


The armour-like skin gives these rhinos the appearance of a prehistoric creature. It is deeply folded to increase the surface area for water absorption, and especially thick around the neck to protect this vulnerable area. Greater one-horned rhinos have a prehensile lip that they use to forage in scrub and foliage.


White rhinos, on the other hand, are known as square-lipped rhinos and shed grass like a lawnmower. As we watched them graze we saw they were surrounded by cattle egrets, a common sight at White Oak. These white, gangly birds follow large mammals around their enclosures, as their weighty footsteps disturb insects hidden in the ground below, which the egrets take full advantage of.


Next we headed off to find the Somali wild ass, a species I had never heard of but fell completely in love with. Found in East Africa, Somali wild ass are the smallest and also the rarest wild horses (equids) in the world, with fewer than 2000 left in the wild. They have a beautiful grey coat that almost appears purple in a certain light. Reminiscent of their relative the zebra, these wild ass have characteristically striped legs. Due to competition with domestic farm animals for grass and water, these animals have become critically endangered. In response, White Oak obtained a herd in 2008, and since then have raised twenty foals.


Nearby to the Somali wild ass was another species I hadn’t come across before: the gerenuk, meaning “giraffe-necked” in Somali. These slender antelope are golden in colour with extraordinarily large necks, ears and eyes. Interestingly, these antelope rear up onto their hind legs to get to even higher places.


One of the final stops on our tour was an unforgettable moment for me: the giraffes. I’ve always had a soft spot for giraffes, and today I had the extraordinary surprise of being told I could hand-feed one. His name was Griffin, and as soon as the bus stopped he came striding over, keenly peering in through the window. One by one, we took a piece of browse and lifted it high, and Griffin gently took it. It was such a treat and a moment I will treasure for a long time.

As we got back onto the bus and made our bumpy way back to the car park, I felt honoured to have seen first-hand what an amazing place White Oak is for conserving and protecting wildlife. While I commend many zoos for their conservation work, I was so pleased with how much space these animals had, giving them the freedom to behave as naturally as possible. It made me so excited to continue my internship and I looked forward to getting even more involved as the weeks progress.


A Day in the Fells

As we turned into the car park at Honister Pass, the clouds were grumbling. Geoff Cox appeared and shook my hand in greeting, with the same kindliness he might offer to his closest friend. Having roamed the fells since childhood, the bracing chill and spattering rain are all too familiar to him. A gust of wind blew me sideways as I struggled to catch the flyaway sleeve of my coat and hastily zip it up. Pulling a hat firmly down on my head, I gazed up at the fells. The day was bleak, and an ominous mist obscured the tops of the hills, which would provide a dramatic background for filming.

Today marked the penultimate day of shooting for the second documentary about Geoff’s experiences as a fell runner. During his sixtieth year he attempted to run three notorious Lake District endurance-running rounds: in the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge and Gerry Charnley he was successful, but the Bob Graham round defeated him. The film we’d be shooting today was a reflection of this unsuccessful round, and how Geoff found redemption to complete the Charnley. Geoff wrote poems about each round to process these challenging ordeals, and approached filmmaker Richard Berry to transform his words into films. Today, I was joining them to see what happened behind the scenes.

We set off, following Geoff and the other endurance runners up the first incline. Before long it became evident just how comfortable they were on this terrain; while I took my time negotiating uneven and slippy rocks, the rest of the group hiked with confidence and admirable swiftness. As we climbed higher, I was told that the views up here were usually breathtaking, but the fog hung over the entire horizon like an impenetrable curtain. We were completely enclosed, walking along a single clear track with white walls on all sides. “Drifting in the Skiddaw mist”, Geoff wrote in his poem; how apt this line was today.

Now 62, Geoff has been fell running for decades, and can’t remember a specific time when this habit became a continuous routine in his life. “Work and family pressures meant I needed a sport I could focus on which didn’t need other people,” Geoff explained, “With running I could drop everything and go anytime, day or night.”

Fell running in the wilderness of the Lake District is a lonely and secluded past time, something Geoff often welcomes. “I needed a place where I could have a bit of ‘me time’. Society seems to look upon somebody who needs these extended periods of time in isolation as strange and even a bit weird. Long days running in the hills gave me what I needed; something about the independence and self-sufficiency was very appealing.”

In a few hours we reached the right place to begin the day’s filming. Director Richard and camera operator Kerr McNicoll set up and before long shooting was in full swing. Agile as mountain goats, the runners cascaded down the rocky slopes with impressive assertiveness. Surrounded by the silent fells, the only sounds were the cracking of the colliding rocks and soft squelch of mud as feet drove through. Puffs of breath spilled into the sky, and as the runners headed further off, the mist soon swallowed them.

“And again!” Richard shouted, the echo of his words bouncing for miles. After a few moments, the group appeared again. From this distance they looked like small dashes of coloured paint on a white page – the only distinguishable features of the landscape. They looped around a small lake, reflections bouncing on the water. After several takes of this shot it was time for cake – a delicious fruitcake made by Jim, one of the runners. This burst of energy was welcomed with open arms, and once Richard had filmed Geoff scaling a large rocky outcrop on his gimbal, we began to snake back through the fells, gathering footage on the way and constantly referring to Geoff’s poems to capture the essence of his experiences and narrative.

Writing poetry has helped Geoff to process the challenges and obstacles associated with endurance running. “I started writing poetry as a way of processing the mental and emotional garbage floating around in my head, or ‘mental detritus’ as I call it. Prose didn’t work because it has the wrong rhythm. Poetry allowed me to talk about what I’m thinking and meant that I could introduce the pace and metre that matched my memories.”

One of these memories took the form of white theatrical masks, worn by three of the runners looking over their shoulders at Geoff while he hung back, exhausted and near defeat. It was an intriguing idea and as we walked back through the fells I asked Geoff why he decided to include masks in the film. “They’re a symbol of how small doubts kick in and grow more insistent as the run goes on” he explained, “So we made them progressively more obvious throughout. ” This feeling of doubt was linked to people coming out to support Geoff while he competes and the pressure of not letting them down, a burden that can hang heavy on a runner under such physical and emotional strain.

I was astonished to hear that the masks were also a representation of hallucinations that Geoff said will be very familiar to long distance fell runners out on the hills for 24 hours or more. This “sleep monster” phenomenon is a result of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. “My particular version seems to be that I find myself running across strips of beautifully patterned Axminster carpet” Geoff told me, “All the time I’m thinking ‘It’s amazing that somebody has been up here and laid this carpet across these mountains!’”

Fell running in the Lake District is not for the faint-hearted. Unpredictable weather, unforgiving terrain, and a vast secluded landscape, and all with a burning in your legs. Even today, after walking seven miles, I returned to the warm café with aching knees. Geoff has proven that age is no match for will and determination, and is continuously training for new rounds to run. For him, fell running is more than exercise but a way of managing stress and even inspiring poetry. Spending time with him and the other runners opened my eyes to a life spent high above the ground, where so few people think to look.