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.

A cinematic journey into research

I have to declare an interest – I love documentary film-making. I can’t get enough of them and there has been a steady stream of very influential films in this genre over the last few years. Using film to capture a complex character or deconstruct a meaty issue is such a powerful tool in story-telling.

Documentary films will often tap into those zeitgeist moments or take a more forensic look at the challenges facing the world, such as environmental change or social issues; or the story of a person that captures our imagination. Whether a feature length film or a short they can convey something in moving images and words that the written word sometimes can’t; though there is often a deep link between the two.

The Research in Film Awards, now in its second year, aims to shine a bright spotlight on the craft of film-making as a really good way of sharing the findings and knowledge from research. Making films based on research has been at the heart of film-making since people started producing films in the early 20th century. They provide a rich textual feel to story-telling and tap in to the art of telling stories.

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‘AWA: Zimbabwe’s Rap Queen’, by Max Thurlow, won the Innovation category at the 2016 Research in Film Awards

Hundreds of films were submitted for the Research in Film Awards this year, which is run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The standard was so high and shows how people now see film-making as a great way of communicating research in a way that is accessible, informative and compelling. The winning films covered a wide array of themes from Bronze Age hill-forts in Scotland to a Zimbabwean Rapper whose music is a tool for empowerment.  Each of the films that won had something magical about them in the way that they took you on a cinematic journey of discovery.

All of the films that made it on to the shortlist had taken the time to carefully craft a narrative that left me wanting more. It takes real skill and passion to take research and turn it into a film that people want to watch and provide take away messages that have impact.

The explosion in You Tube and the unremitting rise of vloggers means that the world is awash with video content. There is an important and vital need for film-makers to tell stories based in research that can communicate the rich complexity of life and the important role that the arts and humanities play in telling the story of what it is to be human.

You can watch all of the five winning films from the Research in Film Awards and share your thoughts on twitter at #RIFA2016

 

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.

Swallows and Amazons 2.0

Seeing all of the posters promoting the new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film made me think how much the ability of children to roam free will have changed since the book was published in 1930.

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Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Barely a week goes by without new stats being published about kids spending less time outdoors than ever before and the impact that this will have on their well-being and the skills needed for life. If Arthur Ransome were alive today would his equivalent book be all about a group of kids marooned in their bedroom playing minecraft for weeks on end with little or no connection with the outside world.

You could argue that Ransome’s vision of a ideal summer spent mucking about on an island in a beautiful lake in Cumbria is a Utopian vision that never really existed. However, reams of research shows that children’s connection with the natural world and spent time outdoors has diminished drastically in the last couple of generations.

I spent alot of time outdoors when growing up. Every time I went out to play my Mum would ask me to make sure that I was home by tea time. I disappeared off into the countryside and had amazing adventures with my friends. This was only in the 1980s and yet it feels very different today. There are a plethora of barriers that have led to children becoming almost invisible playing outdoors or in local parks.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t every child have a right to the kinds of experience that the children in Swallows and Amazons had, where ever they live in the UK, and that millions of Britons had when they were growing up? I don’t want to be part of the last really free-range generation.

The brilliant thing is that once kids get a sniff of the outdoors they’re hooked. Children have that deeply natural sense of adventure and thirst for learning (something that seems to be educated out of many people). The boom of the Forest School movement and the rise of campaign’s by charities such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trust is making a difference. Places on den-building days or adventure courses will often sell-out as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

I know from my two children that they love nothing better than wandering through a wood, playing in a stream or hunting for crabs in a rock pool. We need to unleash that inner wild child in every kid and let them discover the simple joy of being outside.

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.

Sounds of our life…

As I type four young swifts have been spending days flying round in circles getting ready for their long trip south. I know this because of the distinctive screeching sound as they fly creating a re-assuring soundtrack to the summer. Its a sound that I love listening too every year and never tire of hearing.

Sounds play such an important part in our lives and yet as we dash from A to B or are plugged into digital devices there is a real risk of us losing that sonic connection with the world around us. Yes there is a lot of white noise out there but if you take the time to listen its amazing what you can hear.

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Hunts Bay on Gower as the waves gently lap against the beach

Last year I was involved with a project called Sounds of our Shores. It was all about recording some of those familiar sounds from the seaside – the lapping waves, walking along a pebble beach or the richness of a Island of seabirds. The one thing that it taught me was to take the time to just stop and listen. Tuning into a day at the seaside means that you’ll see and hear a place anew; noticing things that you’ve never noticed before.

Because most of us live in towns and cities many people would rather tune out of their daily soundtrack – the potential endless noise of daily life. Sometimes it can seem that the only day of quiet is on Christmas Day, if you’re lucky. But if you peel back the layers you can start to listen out for more natural sounds: the wind gently blowing in the wind, rain falling on windows or the sweet melody of a blackbird.

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A tree full of starlings in full voice

When I walk the twenty odd minutes to the station I will always listen out for different sounds. Sometimes a birds song will stop me in my tracks as I try to locate it in a tree. It might be the shouts of joy as kids play football in a park or even the gently hum of a lawn mower.

So where-ever you live why not try and take some time out of your daily routine to listen out for familiar or new sounds. It will enrich your life and help you build up your own soundscape.

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.