Ian Short

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Hobbies at Sandy

On Sunday we took a trip to the RSPB reserve in Sandy (it’s the location of the headquarters of the RSPB). As I collected a ticket for the car (free, as we’re members) a guy in the car next to me complained about the £5 fee because there was nothing to see. Nothing to see! He doesn’t know what to look for. It was raining at first, but the row of lavender by the car park was covered in bees, including several species I didn’t recognise (I only know the common ones). After a while, the sun came out, and there were butterflies and dragonflies aplenty.

The highlight of the day, and of my wildlife-spotting summer, was a family of hobbies, who had just fledged, and who would soon fly off to Africa. Good luck to them. The wardens told us where the hobbies had nested, so we walked round the track, eating blackberries, to look for them. Josie went berserk after a while, and I was carrying her round like a sack of potatoes. I put her down in a lovely spot under an oak tree because I could hear repeated chirping of the screechy kind that you associate with raptors. The others caught up, we sat on a bench, Josie brightened up, and we saw the hobbies in a nearby tree, flying back and forth, catching dragonflies. We watched them for about half an hour then went on our way.

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J had another tantrum on the way home “I WANT MONKEY BACKPACK”. I had to steel myself not to crash the car. But we made it, and we’ll return to Sandy, next time by public transport (which is possible, but takes three to four times as long).

Quest for the chalkhill blue

On a windy Sunday afternoon we set off for Sharpenhoe Clappers (pretty close to where we live, north of Luton) in search of some chalkhill blue butterflies. I had a slim hope that we might spot some small blues too, but the wind and the children made me doubt our chances.

Sharpenhoe Clappers is a ridge of chalk land, with some patches of ancient woodland, and meadows with flowers. In particular, horseshoe vetch is found in abundance, the food of the chalkhill blue caterpiller. Sharpenhoe Clappers is, to my mind, a nicer place than the Dunstable Downs, nearby. Far quieter, at least.

We discovered that it was even windier on the ridge than it was down low. No shock there. The children played for a while on a rope swing hanging from a tree. While resting in some grass, we spotted some blue butterflies being blown around in the wind. They kept their wings closed, unsurprisingly. The undersides of their wings looked to E and I like those of the common blue, however, there was a kind of blue glow towards their bodies. Inconclusive. Round the corner, downhill a little, and in the shelter, we found more, with their wings open. Here’s one.

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Definitely a chalkhill blue! Plenty of horseshoe vetch about too, although not in this photo. I was so pleased that I agreed to carry Isi back to the car on my shoulders. Not so easy these days.

Main butterfly season is coming to a close now. My favourite sighting of the summer was a dark-green fritillary that Ellie spotted on a car in Aston Clinton. Spotting wildlife is all the more pleasurable when you aren’t looking for it.

Feral – by George Monbiot

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written, about rewilding the United Kingdom. It presents convincing arguments about how allowing the countryside to revert to a wild state will increase biodiversity, and these arguments are interspersed with autobiographical stories from the author that show his passion for the subject, which is infectious.

Monbiot  considers rewilding to be the process of ‘permitting ecological processes to resume’ and of ‘resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way’. In the UK, we just can’t leave nature alone; we either graze it by sheep until there’s very little left, chop it down or burn it. As Monbiot says, ‘It is as if conservationists in the Amazon had decided to protect the cattle ranches, rather than the rainforest.’ This principle resonates with me: I visit the Lake District reasonably regularly and I’m struck by the observation that I see less wildlife in the Lake District than I do in Milton Keynes. Actually, I may well see more wildlife on the M6 than I do in the Lake District.

The author also considers rewilding to involve bringing ourselves closer to nature ‘to escape from ecological boredom’. Again, I relate to this idea. My family is trying to lead a wilder life. Maybe we’ll start by leaving the children in the woods for the night – sounds crazy now, but some interrupted nights I would be up for it.

Rewilding is also about bringing back species: beavers, wolves, lynx, wild boar and so on. That’s the most exciting part! I hadn’t realised that elephants and hippos were once found in the UK. Elephants became extinct around 11,000 years ago, hunted by humans. It’s suggested that many of the features of native trees in the UK evolved through interactions with elephants; for example, the capacity of certain trees to regrow so well when they’ve been mangled (hawthorns come to mind). Monbiot gives lots of examples of how large animals give balance to their environment. He says, ‘In some cases they have changed not only the ecosystem but also the nature of the soil, the behaviour of rivers, the chemistry of the oceans and even the composition of the atmosphere.’

Monbiot lays a lot blame for the poor state of our countryside on sheep. Basically, they munch all the plants to the ground, so there is little room for wildlife, apart from a very  few species. The sheep are supported by massive farm subsidies: we pay to ruin our countryside as part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which is destroying countryside all over Europe. The UK does worst out of it though; tree cover in the UK is about 12% compared to 35% overall in Europe.

There is also a chapter on rewilding the sea. I’ve often had the following thoughts about the sea. Humans have had significant impact on the natural world on land for hundreds, thousands of years: chopping, burning, building, eating, and so on. But until a few hundred years ago, we couldn’t impact on the sea in nearly the same way. We could fish, build dams on rivers, poor pollution into it, but not nearly on the same scale with which we could damage the land – after all, we can’t easily get to the bottom of oceans, and we can’t easily build on it. However, the situation has changed in recent times as fishing has developed and pollution increased. Now, these days, we are able to massacre the ocean. Our underwater crimes are far more disguised than our land crimes. We can drag trawlers over the sea bed annihilating life for the sake of catching some fish. We wouldn’t do quite the same over a forest. And many of the fish we eat are critically endangered.

Monbiot quotes someone who wrote in 1776 that the arrival of a typical body of herring in the UK ‘divided into distinct columns, of five or six miles in length, and three or four broad; while the water before them curls up, as if forced out of its bed… the whole water seems alive; and is seen so black with them to a great distance, that the number seems inexhaustible’. In Monbiot’s words, the 1776 author observed that ‘these shoals were harried by swarms of dolphins, sharks, fin and sperm whales, in British waters, within sight of the shore. The herring were followed by bluefin and longfin tuna, blue, porbeagle, thresher, mako and occasional great white sharks, as well as innumerable cod, spurdog, tope and smoothhound. On some parts of the seabed the eggs of the herring lay six feet deep.’  It is accounts such as this that make me realise how pitiful our wildlife now is in comparison. The rewilding project aims to reverse this decline.

There are some positive rewilding projects out there. Trees for Life in Scotland are attempting to establish a massive network of forests based around the Caledonian Forest. Ellie and I joined one of their volunteering projects before we had children. There is also the charity Rewilding Britain.

 

 

Green Party

My family and I recently joined the Green Party. Our principal reason for doing so was to help promote environmental issues on the political agenda. Policies of the Green Party include phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear power, nationalisation of public services, removal of tuition fees, higher taxes for the wealthy, a higher minimum wage, improve public transport, improve cycle networks, and work towards a zero-carbon sustainable economy. Broadly speaking, their policies are designed to encourage a fairer and more environmentally-sound society.

We support various other environmental groups too.

Friends of the Earth. Campaign on a wide range of environmental issues.

World Land Trust.  Buy up rainforest.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Campaign to protect birds and other species, mostly in the UK. They own a large number of nature reserves.

Wildlife Trust. Umbrella term for the collection of local Wildlife Trusts that divide up the country. We’re a member of BBOWT –Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

Butterfly Conservation. Campaign for butterfly conservation in the UK.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Protect bees.

National Trust. Historically, the NT has been very important for the UK because they’ve bought up land that may otherwise have been developed for housing or industry. Sometimes I dislike the way the land is managed, but they are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues, it seems. A lot of the membership fee goes on preserving old buildings. I like buildings, but I’m more interested in nature; however, we figure we might as well be members as we’d have to pay an equivalent amount of money in car park fees were we to break off.

Next up we’re thinking of joining Rewilding Britain and Greenpeace.

 

Environmental action

Recently I’ve been musing on the UK referendum vote to leave the EU. The exit campaign used a simple, catchy message, which was highly effective. It went something like, “We pay the EU vast sums  of money to dictate our laws for us and allow immigrants to come here, claim benefits, and take our jobs. Let’s exit the EU and take control of our borders.” They identified a (perceived) problem, and offered a straightforward solution. I’ve been pondering whether the environmental movement, which is strong on identifying problems, should try to match these problems with solutions. In the sense that, say, a bulletin about the likely destruction of an ancient forest by the hosts of a Winter Olympics should be followed by recommendations about how you can prevent the disaster happening.

I tend to write about environmental problems rather than solutions, but here I’ll buck that trend and describe a number of measures that a person living a comfortable life me in the privileged world can take to reduce her or his environmental impact.

Don’t fly. The environmental impact of flying is devastating. Not only do aeroplanes emit copious quantities of carbon dioxide, they also release other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide. Furthermore, water droplets that result from flights form vapour trails and clouds, which also contribute significantly to global warming. And on top of that, they create a massive amount of noise pollution.

Avoid driving. It’s not just the traffic and fuel consumption that is damaging, also road networks spoil the countryside, and car noise ruins fills our lives with stress. I can hear the M1 from my bedroom at night, and I live a couple of miles away. I think of all the wildlife (outside) that has to live with that constant noise. Cycle instead! Or walk.

Become vegan. The carbon footprint of meat, particularly red meat, is massive. As a rough guide, a kilogram of British hill farm beef or lamb protein produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a passenger flying from London to New York. Free-range farming is the worst offender for carbon dioxide because the animals roam around burning calories, producing methane, and devouring the countryside. The carbon footprint of high-density farming is better, although still high, however, such farming is often inhumane, and we tolerate it only by choosing to ignore it.

Buy organically grown produce. Organically grown produce is managed in an ecologically balanced way to promote sustainability, soil health and biodiversity. It uses less environmentally damaging herbicides and pesticides than other farming methods. Organic production tends to increase yields.

Buy local produce, or grow your own. For fewer transportation miles! And to support your local community in working in the local community (rather than commuting to London, or wherever).

Don’t eat fish. This is covered by becoming vegan, but I thought I’d mention fish separately as so many are critically endangered and yet we eat them anyway. If you do eat fish, then only eat fish approved by the Marine Conservation Society, or even better, fish approved by Greenpeace.

Support and volunteer for environmental charities. Such as, in the UK, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, World Land Trust, Rewilding Britain, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, British Dragonfly Society, World Wide Fund for Nature.

Campaign for the environment. Contact your MP about environmental issues. Chain yourself to a nuclear missile.

Switch to a renewable energy supplier. We use Good Energy. You could also try Ecotricity, and there are others too. We  have a ground-source heat pump that supplies us with energy, and we don’t use gas.

Consume less. Less of everything: clothes, plastic packaging, computers, electricity, water.

Buy second hand. And donate to charity shops: don’t hoard things you no longer use.

Insulate your house. Loft insulation, double glazing, cavity wall insulation, led light bulbs, thick curtains, draft excluders, floor insulation, and so on.

Holiday closer to home. For us that means Bletchley, Luton  or Northampton.

An omission from this list is having children. I’ll steer away from this issue because it’s not so straightforward. Problems of climate change are exasperated by increasing populations, but it’s unclear to me how individuals should respond to this – it depends on their circumstances. Certainly adopting children is a thoroughly admirable thing to do, and I have great respect for those who have the generosity to do it!

 

 

Île de Ré

We’ve just returned from the most wonderful holiday in Ile de Re, which is an island off the coast of France, by La Rochelle. The island has a large working salt marsh, and there are cycle paths that go through the marsh and all over the island. We spent our days cycling, having picnics, and playing on the beach and in the sea.

Ile de Re is rich in birdlife: half of Europe’s bird species are found there (many at only certain times of year, migrating). What struck me was how certain species that are rare in the UK are common in Ile de Re. First and foremost, turtle doves were all over the place (they have suffered massive declines in the UK). Also, serins were in abundance. Quite possibly these two species are common throughout southern France,  I don’t know.

We weren’t particularly looking out for wildlife, but cycling around you inevitably see a lot. There were huge numbers of linnets, and many redstarts. On the marsh we saw black-winged stilts. They were my favourites – they looked almost exotic when they flew; E said they reminded her of dragonflies. We also saw avocets – lovely – and marsh harriers swooping about over the marsh. There were black kites around too.

The most exciting spectacle was of a kestrel plunging  into the grass to grab a yellow wagtail chick. The rest of the wagtail family, about four of them, were scattered around the scene, a few metres away. The parents were cheeping wildly and the other young ones were keeping quiet. I’ve never seen so many kestrels as I did in Ile de Re.

The island is also great for butterflies. We didn’t know what many of them were – many weren’t UK species – but I was pleased to see clouded yellows, which are beautiful. I also saw (what I think was) a short-eared owl one evening (not a butterfly). We used to see them in Parkgate by the Dee Estuary, but never so close up.

Despite all this, Ile de Re is not a wild place; it’s built up, with lots of small towns, and houses sprinkled around the peninsula. The conservationists say they have to battle with developers, the usual problem.

Here I am carrying Josi back from the beach.

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Quest for the Duke of Burgundy

On Sunday we took a trip to the Dunstable Downs, hoping to spot a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. We parked at Bison Hill near Whipsnade zoo and walked slowly north along the ridge. The usual suspects were around, such as small tortoiseshells, including the one below. A silver-washed fritillary (I think) sailed past us. No duke of burgundys.

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We arrived at the visitor centre before too long. The large grassy patch around it was heaving with picnicers and kite flyers. I asked a National Trust girl where the duke of burgundys are found and she directed us to a lower part of the downs.

Ela and Isi raced down the hill and Josi and toddled behind them, past young couples lying together, looking at their phones. We had to stop because Josi had a wiggly worm in her shoe. I emptied it out – it was a stone. Two seconds later she had another one. Fearing a plague of wiggly worms, I put Josi on my shoulders and set off after the other two, who were at the bottom, among much richer vegetation, which was teaming with butterflies.

A little blue butterfly fizzed past me, which may have been a silver-studded blue; I wasn’t in a position to give chase. There were loads of common blues, including the female below.

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We made our way slowly back to Bison Hill in the sunshine, but the girls were getting hot and tired, and angry. Luckily Ela was there with patience, as otherwise I may have left them behind in the cowslip to be devoured by butterflies.

We settled down under a couple of oak trees for a rest in the shade. Nearby was the prime duke of burgundy spot, so I went off in search of them. I knew I had the right place because  a guy with a huge camera was lurking about. I browsed around for a couple of minutes and then stumbled upon one, which I filmed with my camera. Here’s a still.

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I returned to the others and then Ellie went off to search. She went straight to huge-camera guy and he showed her the one he was photographing.

All in all it was a lovely day; however, I won’t return to the Dunstable Downs in a hurry. Apparently its an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – I can’t see it myself – more like an area of Outstanding Noise. It’s surrounded by roads and there’s an airfield next to it in constant use (gliders). The place is heaving with people (on a hot spring day).

Here’s Isi showing off a daisy she found.

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Marston Vale Country Park

For my 37th birthday, I took I and J to Marston Vale Country Park. J was ill – lots of discharge from eyes and nose – but it didn’t seem to affect her. We caught the train from Worburn Sands to Stewartby.

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We walked to Stewartby Lake and had lunch.

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Willow warblers sang in the trees around us. A cuckoo could be heard in the distance. Common terns were feeding each other on the lake.

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This female holly blue landed close by. She opened her wings briefly for a photo.

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I and J gathered twigs to build a nest for bugs, so they told me. We left the lake and made for the nature reserve. J slept in the pram while we walked round it – until I woke her up by dropping my jumper on her after failing to use it as a sun screen over the pram.

The girls then played in the park. Here’s I, high up. I helped her get there. She clung to the log and told other children playing on the log climbing frame that her daddy had put her there.

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Eventually we made for Milbrook station, to catch the 5 o’clock train. The girls regarded the bench carefully before climbing on.

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The three of us sat together on the bench in the sun listening to the birds, remembering other times when we had sat on the bench in the freezing cold. It had been the most wonderful of birthday trips.

 

 

Roman Krznaric ‘Empathy’

Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.

Empathy relates to sympathy and compassion, but it doesn’t have the same meaning as these words because they don’t involve attempting to understand emotions from someone else’s point of view. Opposites to empathy are introspection and narcissism – looking inward rather than outward. Krznaric calls the twentieth century the Age of Introspection, driven by self interest, justified by slogans such as survival of the fittest and what’s in it for me?, and demonstrated on a large scale by the free market economy. He asks for this century to be the Age of Outrospection, where we spend less effort analysing ourselves and instead try to empathise with others.

The book is about examples and scientific evidence to show that we are naturally empathic, and that by practising empathy we can improve the well-being of ourselves and others, promote peace, encourage cooperation, prevent tragedies, and generally make the world a better place. One of my favourite parts of the book was a short passage on how to empathise with hedgehogs, which was communicated by the British ecologist Hugh Warwick.

It is impossible to know exactly what it feels like to be a hedgehog. But what I ask people to do is to change their perspective. Literally. Get down at hedgehog level, get nose-to-nose with a hedgehog and then look at the world from this position. This will give you an insight into the complications we have thrown in the path of hedgehogs. Whether it is the cars on the road that not only threaten extinction, but also fragment the environment by preventing movement, to the litter that collars and kills hedgehogs, to the gardens given over to car-ports, decking and patios, and the borders cleansed of life with agro-toxins – we get to see those anthropogenic threats all the more clearly. But for me the most important thing is the contact of the eyes – looking at a hedgehog looking at me – eyes meeting and there being this almost intangible spark of wildness. Gaze at a hedgehog and let yourself fall in love with nature.

 

John Fowles ‘The Tree’

John Fowles, in case you didn’t know, is a celebrated British author who died ten years ago. He wrote a number of fiction books – none of which I’ve read – and some of which were made into films – none of which I’ve seen. The only book of Fowles’ that I’ve read is a short, partly autobiographical text he wrote in 1979 called The Tree. It was given to me as a gift some years ago, and I write about it now after reading it for the second and last time before I pass it on to someone else (I prefer not to keep books unless I am likely to use them repeatedly).

I read The Tree with pleasure that there was someone out there who had similar feelings to my own, and who was able to express them beautifully. Fowles writes about nature: trees in particular. He compares the orderly garden of his childhood with the wild garden he owned as an adult. He says of his adult garden that he leaves it largely alone, in effect to my co-tenants, its wild birds and beasts, its plants and insects. He writes of two tawny owlets fresh out of the nest, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stockings and ogling down at this intruder into their garden. The gardens of Milton Keynes wouldn’t recognise this description as something to admire. Milton Keynes gardens like to have rectangles of uniform green grass growing vertically upwards, of equal length. They are bordered by bark chippings, also set in rectangular patches, or perhaps in circles, with carefully-pruned rose bushes spaced equally about. In fact, the order in the gardens reflects the order in the houses; the lawns are like outside carpets. There is little room for wildlife in such gardens. Especially when insecticides and fertilizer are used – and they are, in abundance. What’s more, the roses are growing on peat, dug up from a peat bog in Scotland; the effect of these gardens is to destroy, not help, wildlife. To me, they reflect a narrow vision of what nature should look like – simple shapes, managed, neat – they show little appreciation of biodiversity and wildness, which is a pity, because the countryside is shrinking, and gardens play an important role in housing and feeding animals, insects and plants.

Away from my rant, and back to the book, which is a beautiful piece about the author’s relationship with nature. He writes about how the randomness and diversity of nature, the multiple paths one can take in exploring woodland, inspire his work. I appreciate this; it’s accepted by many that interacting with nature is healthy and can be stimulating. I did, however, find myself in conflict with the author at one point. Now let me stress from the start that this might partly be because I failed to fully understand what he was talking about. I sometimes became lost in his poetic language; I’m a bit thick with this kind of thing. I struggle to understand Shakespeare’s plays and the more poetic parts of the Bible (I’m impressed when the words are explained to me though – impressed that people manage to cram so much in to sentences).

The part that I disagreed with was Fowles’ view of the relationship between science and nature. He says

Our approach to art, as to nature, has become increasingly scientized (and dreadfully serious) during the last century. It sometimes seems now as if it is principally there not for itself but to provide material for labelling, classifying, analysing – specimens for ‘setting’, as used to set moths and butterflies.

I’ve read on from this passage, and there’s a lot more to his view than this. I can’t summarise it neatly though. The first thing I object to is the suggestion that science is about labelling, classifying and analysing. I think it’s about understanding; certainly some labelling and classifying helps with understanding, but they aren’t the focus. There are some wonderful BBC interviews with the American physicist Richard Feynman available on-line in which, at one point, he talks about conversations he has had with arty friends. They say to him that in looking at plants (or whatever) scientifically he misses their true beauty. His response was that understanding how a plant works, how the atoms inside the plant interact, how water is drawn up the stem, and so forth, only increase your appreciation of the plant, they don’t decrease it. And I agree. If you appreciate the biodiversity of a woodland, how the species interact, the butterflies that appear at certain times of year, what they eat, the migrating birds that come and go, the fungi growing in trees, and so on, then you love the woodland all the more. It’s for this reason that I think educating young people – all people – about nature is so important; if they understand it, they care for it more. I agree that classifying all the plants and naming their parts can be a distraction from appreciating their beauty, but I don’t think science is about naming things.

I doubt that my differences with Fowles are deep, and like I said, they probably stem from my misunderstanding his words, or differences in what we believe constitutes science. He gives an example, which I recognise from my own life.

I came on my first Soldier Orchid, a species I had long wanted to encounter, but hitherto never seen outside a book. I fell on my knees before it in a way all botanists will know… I measured, I photographed, I worked out where I was on the map, for future reference… Yet five minutes after my wife had finally torn me away, I suffered a strange feeling. I realized I had not actually seen the three plants in the little colony we found. Despite all the identifying, measuring, photographing, I had managed to set the experience in a kind of present past, a having-looked, even as I was temporally and physically still looking.

I certainly fall into this kind of trap. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the kind of busy life I lead; I’ve spotted something, take note, and move on. E and I are trying to slow ourselves down, and spend time with the children in peace. (The peace doesn’t usually work out.)

 

 

 

 

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