Category Archives: Nature

Wild words

Over the centuries words have a played a special part in shaping and defining our relationship with the natural world from the carefully crafted wildlife notebooks of Gilbert White to the intense beauty of Helen Macdonald. They have given us the tools to find ways of describing the magic of those moments of wonder when we watch a bird of prey hovering as it hunts for prey or taking a walk through a colour-rich haymeadow in the summer.

Importantly these books have also been vital in capturing our changing relationship with nature. As we have moved en mass from the countryside to the towns and cities in the last two hundred years our deep connection with the natural world waned. Whereas generations ago we could have easily identified wildflowers or trees now we’d struggle to reach double figures for different species.

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In the last decade there has been a remarkable explosion in books about nature. This seems to have co-incided with and maybe even been fuelled by the financial crash of 2007 and that basic human need for the comfort blanket of familiarity and the power of nature to provide certainty that all is well in a turbulent world. It’s also been important in us dealing with that sense of loss – both in terms of our connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.

Wander in to any bookshop and it’s likely that you’ll come across a table full of books about nature.  Surging sales of modern nature writing and those wonderfully evocative re-discovered classics are playing an important role in helping us to reignite that love of the natural world and make it part of our everyday lives.

As someone whose love of nature was rekindled through my work and having children the written word played a vital role in helping me to navigate my way through the huge challenges facing the natural world and coming to terms with what it means to me and my family. They gave me the confidence to re-engage with nature and not be afraid by my limited knowledge of birds or butterflies; it was the general appreciation that mattered as much as being able to identify them all. At home I have stacks of well-thumbed books about wildlife and eagerly anticipate the latest release.

Reading the Lorax

Books aimed at kids are a great way to get them into nature

Reading rediscovered classics by Richard Jefferies, wonderful new fiction by Melissa Harrison and the evergreen Lorax by Dr Seuss with my kids, has fired my imagination and created a deeper connection with the wild places where I live. The beauty of new nature writing is that it has found its way into those wild places in the towns and cities as well as the majesty of our ancient woodlands or the pure joy of watching butterflies.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is launching a bid to find the UK’s favourite book about nature, working with a team of researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, as they start a new two-year research project that will focus on the literary, social and cultural impact of writings about the natural world.  The choice of potential nominees is limitless: it could be a novel, piece of non-fiction or a field guide. Crisp, clear and rich writing has that special ability to draw the reader in to the subject matter and bring to life a simple wildlife encounter or help us navigate the huge environmental change that has been happening in our lifetime.

 

Volunteer army gets wild

Across the UK there are conservation organisations, large and small, that depend on an army of volunteers to help look after special habitats and create the right environment for species to flourish.

More than ever the natural world needs us to do our bit. In just a couple of generations wildlife has started to really struggle. Barely a week goes by without a new report about the challenges facing nature in the UK and across the globe.

Getting involved in supporting a wildlife organisation by giving up some of your time is a great way to make a real difference. Armies of volunteers are helping to create the space for nature and also helping us to understand what is happening and why.

Working at the National Trust for more than a decade I got a real insight into the important role that volunteers made. From a postman who had catalogued the number of birds at Malham Tarn in Yorkshire for over forty years to people getting involved in surveying a precious coastal site in Dorset.

Groups of volunteers from companies coming in to help with improving habitats and helping to survey the land is a brilliant way to make a real difference.

If regular volunteering can prove a bit tricky in terms of time commitments there are loads of great citizen science surveys  – including the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, the Woodland Trusts’s nature’s calendar and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. These really matter in terms of helping wildlife experts understand changes that are happening across the UK.

Volunteering is a wonderful way of giving back to your community and doing your bit to keep our green spaces special.

 

 

My wild month

Today is day one of 30 Days Wild, a brilliant Wildlife Trust campaign to get the nation hooked on nature.

Over the course of the next month I’ll be sharing a virtual wildlife diary based on observations and ideas to get us all that little bit closer to the natural world.

The great thing about nature is that its all around us. I was woken by the dawn chorus as the clock slowly ticked towards the alarm call. Though it was early this more natural way of waking me up was a wonderful sonic experience.

On my walk to work in Swindon after being dropped off in my car share, you can see and hear nature in some interesting and different places. Songbirds of all shapes and sizes fill the air with sweet tunes. Plants pop up through cracks in the pavement and occupy space on road side verges. Butterflies flutter by looking for food or a mate.

You didn’t need to travel deep into the countryside to get a daily dose of nature. Its surprising how much wildlife lives in our back gardens, local parks and alongside footpaths. So this month why not set off from home or work a little bit earlier to soak up your local world of wildlife and tune out of your smartphone.

June is a great month to try this out as things are naturally busy with so much more to see and hear. Hopefully this will be the start of a lifelong love affair with nature.

Swift times

Every year I wait for their return. As the days pass my longing for their return grows stronger. With their impending arrival comes the promise of summer and those warm barmy evenings that feel as though they’ll last for ever.

And then the sightings start popping up on social media. Swifts have made it back to the mainland. Slowly they move like a wave northwards across the country, sweeping back to the places that they have returned for countless summers. And then they’re here; the date marked in the diary.

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My connection with these tiny and amazing birds seems to get stronger every year. That longing for theses charismatic dare devils of the sky is linked to the passing of time. I feel that I notice them more and more as though the ticking of my biological clock is intrinsically linked to their arrival.

Their return home gives me that deep sense of hope that the turning of the natural world is ok. The seasons pass and the swifts come and go. I know that nature is under pressure like never before but these little symbols of summer (like butterflies) bring joy to everyone who notices  and watches them.

Watching the swifts is one of those simple pleasures in life. I can guarantee that they’ll be more drama watching swifts for half an hour than tuning into the latest turns and twists of Eastenders. The aerial gymnastics of these tiny birds is astonishing as they rise and fall out of the sky, as they weave in and out of buildings.

Standing in my back garden I can just watch them. Individuals flapping furiously as they look to join a gang, taking those extra risks to join in. Or groups of swifts flittering through the air at high speed, buzzing just above ground level and then climbing high into the sky until they’re just little dots.

For me nature is a tonic. I love spending time wandering or watching wildlife. And the show that swifts put on year after year is one of the highlights of nature’s calendar.

Bluebell heaven

I’m stood in the middle of a bluebell wood.  All around me is a carpet of blue. This is the most astonishing display of these much loved spring-time plants that I have ever seen. I feel like I need to rub my eyes to make sure that this is real and not some daydream. The only word that comes into my head is ‘wow’.

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I look around and as far as the eye can see is bluebells. The overcast nature of the day and the lush green of the emerging leaves amplifies the colour. I’ve seen countless images of bluebell woods: it’s a staple of photo stories in the nationals and social media channels such as Instagram  in late April and early May. But I have never seen anything to compare with this. The stresses of the day begin to ebb away the longer I stand in the woods, showing the power of nature to add a real calmness to our daily lives. We all need our patch of natural heaven to refresh us.

This magical Bluebell wood is called Hagbourne Copse. It’s carefully managed by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. For years I have passed this place on the way to and from work in Swindon. Finally after years of anticipation I made it into the woods. But this first visit exceeded any expectations that I had and I hadn’t fully anticipated the natural treat that was in store for me.

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The most remarkable thing about this Bluebell wood is its location. This woodland, roughly the size of a few football pitches, is surrounded by roads and an industrial estate. Its minutes away from Junction 16 on the M4 and is next to the main route, used by tens of thousands of people every day, on their way to and from work in Swindon.

It seems remarkable to think that so many people will pass this special place every day totally oblivious to its beauty.  Many people have written about the so-called edgelands: marginal and often non-descript places on the edge of our towns and cities. These are places where nature moves in when people move out; or places where nature gradually takes over the forgotten strips of land or abandoned brownfield sites.

Hagbourne Copse is a classic example of the need for us all to look closer to home for nature. It can be found in the most surprising places. Near to where I work in Swindon is a footpath that negotiates it’s way between the railway and a car-park: and yet this short green corridor is awash with natural treats.

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Little did I think that my favourite ever Bluebell wood would be in a place like this. For me it shows the ability of nature to thrive where-ever it’s found. This copse will have been here long before the warehouses, car showrooms and hotels. It’s a place that transports us deep into the heart of nature and connects us to why wildlife has the ability to provide a sense of awe that few other things can compete with.

Keeping it wild in winter

Millions of us will be tuning into Winterwatch this week as our TV screens are filled with natural winter treats. There is always a slight misconception that nature shuts down during the shorter days and as the temperature hovers around freezing. Yet there is still plenty to see and do; and its a great time to get planning as we move towards Spring. So in true list style here are five things to keep you occupied on the nature front.

  1. Visit a local nature reserve. You’re never that far from a natural wonder, where-ever you live. Organisations such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have some great places to explore and the winter time is no exception. You’ll see them in a raw state as they start to come alive with the turning of the wild clocks to warmer days. Repeat the visit during the different season and you will develop a special connection.
  2. Read a nature book. In the last decade writing about nature has boomed. And there is a treasure chest of classics that have been re-issued by publishers such as Little Toller. So pop to a local bookshop, library or browse online and pick a book or some poetry to transport you into the magic of nature.
  3. Get volunteering. Green places, such as City Farms, need people to help out. Spending some time helping to make these wonderful places beacons for wildlife is really rewarding and you can get to know some great local charities. There is always plenty to do what-ever the time of year. Or you can taker part in survey’s such as the RSPB Big Garden Watch at the end of January. Many conservation organisations run similar citizen science projects throughout the year.
  4. Watch the birdies. We all know about the wonder that is the Dawn Chorus; a sound that captures the heart and lifts the soul. But the winter can be a fab time to tune into local songbirds, whether the Dawn or Dusk Chorus. And with few leaves on the trees you can actually see them too.
  5. Go for a wander. If you take the time to look you can find nature in many surprising places. Take the time to go for a wander, either from where you live or in to the local countryside. There are plenty of great walking books or plot a route on an OS Map or online. As you walk look, listen and absorb. You’ll spot things that you would have never thought would be there and you’ll get so much out of it.

So if you love Winterwatch (and the BBC Watches more generally) use it as a way to get up off of the sofa and out into the outdoors. You won’t regret it.

Autumn

I love autumn. In fact I love all of the seasons. Seasonal change is a wonderful thing that I never really tire of and there is always something new to see or hear.

To me autumn means the changing of the guard as the crunchy and colour soaked leaves fall to the ground. It’s about spending many happy hours collecting conkers, throwing sticks up in to the tree and collecting the bounty as they land on the ground.

Autumn is also the season of harvesting apples and blackberries and that wonderful taste of a warm crumble with melting ice-cream.

The arrival of the darker mornings can be a challenge to the body clock but the richness of a warm afternoon autumn glow can compensate for those bleary eyed starts to the day. Mists will fill the landscape creating a mellowness and the smoky smell of bonfires create a real atmosphere.

Sometimes the seasons seem to blur into one but if you do get a year of distinctness between spring, summer, autumn and winter you really notice it. Tuning into the seasons is such an important way of keeping connected to nature: something that I think really matters and is such an essential part of our lives.

I love the fact that the architecture of our landscapes and cityscapes change so dramatically in a matter of weeks. Nature is getting ready for the long dark winter months. Butterflies might still be on the wing, birds start to migrate south and fungi can be found dotted through the nation’s woodland. You also get the cranking up of the dusk chorus, a musical treat as the evenings draw in.

In my home city of Bath the buildings are lit by the richness of the autumnal sunshine. The cityscape changes colour as the leaves turn gold, red, orange and yellow and then tumble to the ground. And in the meadows outside of the city the mist hangs poetically in the morning light.

Watching the seasons change keeps us rooted in the world around us. Every season has something to offer.

Park life

I’m sat in a park, well more of a square, in central Leeds, on the hottest day of the year. Its full of life…people chatting, reading books or just chilling, kids play with the sent of roses filling the air. This small green space in the centre of one of the great northern cities shows why parks matter: it’s a place where you get a real sense of community.
It might be a well worn phrase but parks are our green lungs. We have the Victorians to thanks for the rise of public parks. They quickly became hugely popular as places to promenade and get away, on high days and holidays, from the intensity of a six day week.
Personally I can’t imagine a world with out parks. For me they are great democratic spaces where the full spectrum of life gathers regardless of income or status. In urban Britain with its squished in houses they matter for countless millions. People spill out into parks during the working week to get some green space time.
A weekend in our family rarely goes by without a trip to our local park. Children really value them as places to roam free and meet new friends. The concept of the park is so simple and yet is under threat.
Cuts to Local Authority budgets means that in the cold light of squeezed finances it is becoming a case of park life vs social services. As park budgets shrink we are in danger of being the generation that oversaw the end of parks as we know them.
Parks are so much more than a green space and we need to defend the important role that they play as glue bringing communities together. They are places to meet, places to dream, places to switch off and places to play. We need to stand up for parks before its too late and look at ways of keeping them open for everyone.

Time for a great British meadow revival

If you were a time lord and could travel back in time to say the 1950s the British countryside would be awash with a mosaic of meadows. They were a staple of the farming system which was full of wild life.

In the last six decades things have changed pretty drastically. Haymeadows have declined by around 90%; a common yet sad stat for many of our fragile habitats. The green revolution in farming (ie more intensive farming) and other changes in land use created the perfect conditions for a slow long decline.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a gradual, very British, revolution taking place. Conservation organisations like the National Trust, Plantlife and the Wildlife Trusts (supported by lottery funding and public support), are at the forefront of introducing a change in the way that land is managed to re-introduce haymeadows. They clearly see the value of a habitat that creates a place for wildflowers and insects to flourish.

Visiting a haymeadow in the summer when its just about to peak is a wonderful experience. The plethora of grasses gently sway in the summer breeze, wildflowers add a splash of colour like a Monet painting and butterflies bask in the sunshine. Its one of those experiences that just captivates you.

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A local meadow in Bath, helping to create rich habitats for local wildlife

This slow change in the way that we see the land has also arrived in our towns and cities. At a time of challenging budgets for local authorities creating a network of meadows makes financial sense and enriches the local green spaces. In Bath over the last couple of years mini-meadow projects have been popping up across the city.

These wild places are great for people living in urban areas to reconnect with the natural world. Often small patches of green, they add a vibrancy, and a sense of why nature is so important as a tonic for our busy screen based lives.

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At Bath City Farm, thanks to funding from Natural England, a haymeadow is being re-created on a steep sided hill. When you wander around the nature trail, you will in June, come across a field full of buttercups and with this new meadow project the diversity of flowers will only grow.

Meadows can have a slightly romantic feel to them; those sun-kissed days full of dappled light and the lush warm colours. And yet they provide a really important place for nature to call home. Its time that the Great British Meadow revival really took hold so that they once again become a common sight across our wonderful landscapes.

Corridors of wild power

When we think of places where we connect with nature our minds often turn to open fields, deep forests, mountain ranges or the rugged coastline.  Its a natural instinct in-built through thousands of years of tending the land that we associate nature with rural places. After all our diet of wildlife telly beamed into our living rooms or devoured on smartphones has a particular countryside bias.

And yet for most of us its the everyday experience of urban living where we can potentially connect with the natural world. However, in our busy, fast-paced and hard-pressed lives, we often miss the obvious signs of wildlife right in front of our eyes or beneath our feet.

The nature of our towns and cities means that wild oases can be found in the most unusual places. You just need the time and patience to look in the right places.

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Not far from where I work in Swindon there is a lane sandwiched between the mainline railway and an office car park. Its no more than a few hundred metres long and about 5-10 metres wide; and connects one of the station car parks and path into the centre of town. In reality its one of those non-descript places that people pass through in a hurry, either on their way to work or heading home.

This slightly unloved grey/green corridor, however, is full of wild life. Stroll along the footpath on a sunny day and the noise of the trains and hum of urban life drains away as the birds sing in full throttle, the bees buzz past in a real hurry and butterflies rest on nettles to soak up the sun.

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Over the last few weeks the foilage of the trees and hedgerows has come alive with hawthorn bursting into brilliant white and the mini meadows filling up with buttercups, dandelions and forget-me-nots. Blackbirds and robins have been getting busy building nests for the breeding season and the lane has come alive with cabbage white and orange tip butterflies.

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Throughout the rest of Spring and into Summer this will become a place where I go to get my fix of nature, to daydream and let the troubles of the world disappear.

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For me its these edgelands, these arteries of urban life, that can re-awaken people’s interest in nature. We can all find them near to where we work or live. Just take the time in a lunch break or on the way to home to linger and tune into the intensity of nature or just watch as insects fly this way and that.  It doesn’t matter whether you can identify the species you see; the act of just connecting with the wild place where you live will enrich your life.