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.

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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.

swifts pic

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’.

Bluebells 2

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.

Bluebells 4

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.

Bluebells 3

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.

Re-charging the batteries at the coast

Clambering over some awesome rocks, revealed by a low tide, on Crackington Haven in north Cornwall on a breezy winter’s day reminded me that time spent at the coast can be a real tonic. For most Brits a trip to the seaside is a summer activity travelling to crowded coastal towns or packed beaches, full of a real buzz.  But going to the seaside out of season can show you the coastline in a new light.

The beach at Hunts Bay

Listening to the waves is a lovely way to feel calm and relaxed

I have always been a massive fan of the UK’s coast. As a kid I spent many a happy hour pottering around Dawlish Warren in Devon and more recently rock pooling with my son and daughter is probably top of my coastal pops (there is something so relaxing and joyful about staring at a small pool of water to find some crabs lurking in the seaweed or small fish swimming at speed to find cover).

A winter trip to the coastline (and we’re never really that far from it) is a must to keep you topped up with fresh air through the shorter days as the arrival of spring can be almost smelt with the blossoming of nature. It’s also somewhere where you can just do nothing in particular, wandering along sandy beaches, collecting shells or sea glass, or staring out to sea. Yes the British climate can make a day at the seaside an interesting one but kiting yourself out with waterproofs and warm cloths prepares you for almost anything.

Cycling along the Camel Trail to Padstow was a real battery charging experience. The light seemed to change every minute as the tide started to flow in the creeks and upstream and the calls of the wading birds created a wonderful soundscape to the pedalling. My daughter’s rosy cheeks summed up the simple joy of cycling by the seaside.

Spending time at the coast is magical and the unpredictably of the weather adds some spice to those days out. Winter time with the low sun and the thought of a wood burning stove in a local pub after a coastal walk is just as good and probably more atmospheric that a day at the coast in the height of summer.

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.

awa

‘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.