Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Brexit 6000 BC: The lost land between Britain and Europe.


While the separation of The British Isles from mainland Europe is usually measured in miles – twenty of them between the chalk siege-walls of Dover and the sandy beaches of Calais –  our island status is currently dictated by the much smaller value of twenty-six metres. That’s the depth of water south of Dogger Bank, in an area known as the Broad Fourteens because on sea charts it appears as swathe of depth markers all at fourteen fathoms. In oceanic terms, this is barely skin deep. 

Beneath the chop and slosh of the North Sea and the port-to-port beelines of ferries and container vessels, there’s a lost land. A part of Europe that is not Britain, or France, nor Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Demark though it links us all. It’s an area larger than the United Kingdom and it’s known as Doggerland or perhaps more appealingly, 
Northsealand.

The changing coastline of Britain and Doggerland. 

Courtesy of Vince Gaffney

That a submerged realm exists beyond our current coastline has been known for centuries, and evidence isn’t hard to find. The Cornish name for the famous rocky islet of St Michael’s Mount near Penzance is Karrek Loos y'n Koos – or ‘the grey church in the woods’. Those woods are still apparent as preserved stumps that emerge during extreme low tides. Other submerged forests are periodically identified by divers around the British coast or emerge on beaches, for example at Ynyslas on Cardigan Bay or Mawbray on the Solway Firth. Since medieval times these phenomena were interpreted as evidence for a Biblical flood, while more recently, no discussion of the ancient human occupation of Britain or our island flora and fauna is complete without a mention of the erstwhile land bridge connecting us with mainland Europe. 



St Michel's Mount near Marazion, Cornwall is connected 

to the mainland by a causeway at low tide only. 

Picture George Thomas, Flickr.

 This connection has come and gone many times. Sonar evidence from the floor of the English Channel suggest that our peninsula was first separated some 400,000 years ago, when ice covered most of Northern Europe. At the time Britain was connected to the continent by a narrow isthmus of chalk known as the Weald-Artois ridge. North of this rocky umbilicus, in a basin now occupied by the North Sea, lay a gargantuan pro-glacial lake. When the Weald-Artois ridge collapsed, it unleashed a flood of unprecedented magnitude – some estimates put the discharge at 1 million cubic metres per second, or about 100 times that of the Mississippi. This epic event carved the Channel gorge and traces of its unimaginable power are still apparent in the landforms on the sea bed. But the isolation was temporary. More ice ages came and went, and every time the ice advanced, the lower sea levels meant that Britain’s connection to Europe reformed, only to flood again in the melt. 

Deluge and inundation myths are a repeating motif in cultures around the world, not least the legends of Atlantis and the Biblical flood.  Northern Europe has its share. In the Finnish epic Kalevala, a wound in the leg of the god Väinämöinen gushes with blood that floods the entire world. In Wales the lost lands of Cantre'r Gwaelod (The Lowland Hundred) and Llys Helig (Helig’s Court) are reputed to lie beneath Cardigan Bay and the Conwy estuary respectively, from where their bells ring out when danger threatens. Then there’s the fabled Breton city of Ys (or Is), unrivalled in magnificence but inundated in the reign of King Gradlon when his daughter Dahut opened a gate that kept out the sea, bringing a mountain of water on the city. Some versions of the story have it that when Paris floods, Ys will rise again. According to Irish mythology the otherworldly Tír fo Thuinn – ‘Land Under the Wave’, is reached by travelling under water. The mythical kingdom of Lyonesse (or Leoneis), often synonymous with Arthurian legend, is often placed off Cornwall, around the Seven Stones reef, where the Torrey Canyon foundered in 1967. 



Forests submerged by rising seas are a feature
of many coasts. 
While all myths are subject to development and embellishment, it’s far from fanciful to imagine that these stories – different and yet similar – represent a folk memory of actual events. It’s interesting that most of the myths of lost lands under the sea around the British Isles are west coast in origin – the Irish Tír fo Thuinn, the Welsh Cantre'r Gwaelod, the English Lyonesse, when in fact the losses would have been much more apparent on the low-lying east coast. Vince Gaffney suspects this has more to do with subsequent history in which waves of migration (Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman) dominated the east, severing the storylines, while the Celtic strongholds of the north and west remained wilder and more culturally intact.
 
The British coasts still have much to tell us about the lands we have lost. Perhaps most spookily, at Goldcliff on the Severn estuary, low tide reveals the stumps of ancient preserved oaks, and weaving among them the 8000 year old preserved footprints of a variety of creatures – wolves, cranes and people. Meanwhile at Bouldnor on the Isle of Wight underwater archaeologists have identified the cut stumps and worked timbers of Mesolithic oaks. The site, of similar vintage to Goldcliff, has yielded not only large timbers, but also the chips and shavings created as they were worked, and, almost unbelievably, a coil of twisted fibres described as Britain’s oldest piece of string. 

The Bronze Age timbers of 'Seahenge' now on display at Lynn
Museum in Norfolk. Picture Mark Vauran/Flickr.
And at Holme on the Norfolk coast in the late 1990s, coastal erosion exposed a Bronze Age timber monument dubbed 'Seahenge'.  The original purpose of the four thousand year of circle remained mysterious, but it provides clear evidence of rising sea levels. The entire structure was excavated for preservation and can now be seen on display at Lynn Museum. On the other side of the North Sea there is further beguiling evidence of what life was like for the Mesolithic inhabitants of the region. A site at Tybrind Vig, Denmark includes submerged dwellings, textiles, canoes and paddles. The excavations for Rotterdam’s megaport revealed more dwellings, fish traps, canoes, and millions of bones, mostly those of fish, but also beaver and otter and the burials of humans and dogs. At Wismar Bay, on what is now the German Baltic coast, the contents of preserved middens indicate that the fish-heavy diets of local people switched from freshwater to marine species between 8000 and 5500 years ago. 
 
The transition hints at something Jim Leary is keen to emphasise – the adaptability of hunter gathering peoples. ‘In our modern lives, we’re so isolated from the natural world that we tend to regard natural phenomena – be it inclement weather or sea level rise, as something to overcome – a beast to be fought against. But the Mesolithic people were different. They were so constantly engaged with the landscape that they would have seen opportunities as well as disaster.’ Leary suspects the Northsealanders might even have welcomed the sea, as a hunting resource and as a means of travel.  ‘The North Sea would have been a far less daunting barrier to movement than the tumultuous rivers feeding the Channel’ he says, ‘And I can easily imagine a shallow sea dotted with islands and busy with little boats 7000 years ago.’ Certainly there is evidence that Northsealanders were more than au fait with crossing the water. Not only their boats, but also, says Leary, the similarity of artefacts on either side of the water. ‘There’s no real evidence of cultural separation. Regional trends do emerge in the late Mesolithic – for example in the style of flint tools – but the difference within Britain are just as great as those between Britain and Europe.’
 
Northsealand/Doggerland was dominated by water,
even before sea levels rose. Illustration by
Elaine Jamieson, courtesy of Jim Leary.

The idea of a land bridge gives a misleading impression that the connection was nothing more than a causeway between the two landmasses it connected. But Mesolithic Doggerland was very much more than a corridor. In fact during the most recent late glacial period, evidence points to it being a heartland. Beyond doubt it was populated by modern humans – people who hunted, gathered, fished and raised families. People who built houses and canoes, fashioned tools, made music and created art. People who kept dogs and buried them ceremonially alongside their own dead. Possibly they had even stared to farm. The landscape they knew as home is still there, but exploring it presents an extreme challenge – both technically and imaginatively. As archaeologist Dr Jim Leary of Reading University puts it, ‘It’s a landscape than no-one alive today has walked through; it can’t be seen from the window of a train... It doesn’t have a modern town built over it, and it can’t be easily excavated. No-one can claim that they have come from there... No-one is rooted to it in that way.’

And yet, Doggerland is not unknowable. Since trawlers began exploiting the North Sea, remains and artefacts have come to light hinting at lives once lived below. There have been terrestrial bones – of mammoths and men among others, and man-made artefacts of spine-tingling antiquity. Of these the most famous is the Colinda point. In 1931, the crew of the trawler Colinda out of Lowestoft discovered something unusual when sorting a catch raised about 25 miles off the Norfolk coast. It was immediately recognisable as part of a fishing spear, carved out of antler, and preserved so well inside a lump of peat that its barbed points are still serviceably sharp at 14,000 years old. At the time it was made, used, broken and lost, this part of the North Sea was a freshwater marsh. But finds such as this rely on a healthy dose of serendipity. A more scientific appraisal of what Doggerland was actually like has seemed out of reach until now.

An area of the Doggerland landscape mapped using seismic 
reflection data by Vince Gaffney and colleagues. The project 
is ongoing. 
A partnership of archaeologists, geomorphologists and palaeoecologists led by the University of Bradford’s Professor Vince Gaffney are exploring the more recent iteration of Doggerland in unprecedented detail using seismic reflection surveys and pollen and DNA from core samples to map the region and shed light on its changing ecology. While much of the original topography is buried under 7000 years of accumulated sand, silt and organic detritus, other areas have been scoured to the bedrock. But by reanalysing data gathered by the oil and gas industries it’s possible to penetrate the more recent deposits and visualise the underlying landforms. The new 3D maps indicate that Doggerland once comprised a continuum of mostly low-lying forested plain from East Anglia to the Low Countries and north to Jutland. It was a land dominated by freshwater, veined with dynamic rivers that braided and shifted year on year through beds of sand and gravel. The larger watercourses included the Thames, the Rhine and the Meuse, all tributaries of a much larger river, whose delta occupied a vast swathe of southern Northsealand and emptied via the colossal Dover gorge into an estuary now once again submerged beneath the Channel. Further north, the topography of Doggerland was punctuated by rolling hills, with an extensive highland region around what is now Dogger Bank.

The biological samples show there was plenty of forest. The first trees to appear as the last ice retreated were pioneering juniper and willow, which gave way in time to pine, birch and hazel, then temperate deciduous species such as elm, oak, ash, lime and alder carr. Despite the tree coverage, the dynamic hydrology would have ensured large areas remained relatively open, as extensive marshlands, reed beds, and tidal lagoons. The whole region was studded and scored with lakes and gorges, which today’s fishermen know as ‘deeps’ such as Silver Pit, Sole Pit, Coal Pit, Sand Hole and Well Hole. The largest of the deeps, known as the Outer Silver Pit, was once a lake 100km long and 30km wide. Archaeologist Dr Jim Leary of the University of Reading specialises in reconstructing the way Mesolithic Northsealanders are likely to have engaged with this landscape, and draws parallels with the more accessible site at Star Carr in Yorkshire – once the shore of another large lake. Discoveries at  Star Carr include the postholes of numerous wooden structures and extraordinary evidence of a hunter-gathering lifestyle and a rich cultural life – a carved pendant and a series of skull caps made from the craniums of red deer, with the antler bases still attached. One area of the North Sea bed is especially intriguing to Leary. Known now as the Cross Sands Anomaly, it’s a huge chalk slab, the size of a sports stadium. ‘It’s impossible to imagine it not being a feature of significance to people living around it,’ he says ‘This is Northsealand’s Uluru; its Rock of Gibraltar.’ Leary speculates that caves in the rock might have been sites of great significance and admits that possibility of exploring such sites is an almost irresistibly alluring one – but technologically still a fair way off.

What’s clear is that 10,000 years ago Northsealand was resource rich. Wetlands and estuaries are extraordinarily productive habitats all year round, teeming with fish, crustaceans, molluscs and waterfowl. The terrestrial fauna would have included elk, giant deer, aurochs, boar, red and roe deer. There would have been beavers, otters, wolves, bears, lynx and foxes, cranes, waterfowl, and abundant fish. Then there were the fully marine resources, never far way – more fish, crustaceans and molluscs as well as sea birds and eggs, seals and cetaceans, which were hunted or scavenged when they beached. The water would have been used as a means of transport as well as a place to hunt. There were trees and timber nearby for building and burning, reeds for weaving, flints for making blades. In short, it was a great place to live, except that it was disappearing.
The rate of sea level increase 6,000-10,000 years ago is terrifying by modern standards – up to several metres a century, driven by pulses of glacial melt and the release of vast lakes from behind dwindling ice dams. The loss of low-lying coastal areas would not have happened at a steady rate, but in unpredictable fits and starts, with catastrophic events claiming large swathes of land at a stroke. A particularly devastating rise took place in the late Mesolithic, around 6200BC. A series of gargantuan landslides collapsed a 290km section of the continental shelf off Norway. Known as the Storegga Slides (from the Norwegian word for edge) they remain the largest known events of their kind, dislodging three and a half thousand cubic kilometres of rock. The resulting wave may have surged 20 metres high over the Faroes and Shetland, 12 metres on the Norwegian coast, three to five metres up the firth of Forth. Certainly sandy debris forms a telltale layer in otherwise rather uniform bands of clay across much of northern Britain, 4m above current sea levels.

When it comes to coastal encroachment, it’s not just the extent of the rise, but local topography that matters.  ‘Look at Bangladesh,’ says Vince Gaffney. ‘A rise of 20 cm there, the height of a welly boot, means losing thousands of square kilometres of low-lying land’. Leary draws modern parallels too, and cites a TV interview with a displaced Pacific islander, standing on the site of his father’s childhood home knee deep in seawater, as prompting much of his current fascination with inundated landscapes. Like parts of Tuvalu, Fiji, the Maldives and Bangladesh to name a few today, Northsealand was always going to be vulnerable to inundation, and given the extent of Mesolithic sea level rises, doomed.

Like all hunter gatherers, the people who witnessed the inundation of Doggerland must have known the land intimately, their connection with it far exceeding our own. And they had all the intellectual, emotional and imaginative capacities of modern humans and would have used them to explore the world, share knowledge and pass on their understanding of history, albeit by oral tradition rather than in written form. Thus there is no doubt that the loss of familiar acreages, be it under tides that rose slowly year by year or in catastrophes on the scale of Storegga Slides, would have had enormous cultural implications.

The British Peninsula, c 8000BC
The choice we made on June 23rd 2016 was a big one for many reasons, economic, social, historical and environmental. For the record, mine was - still is - to find a way to make the reality of a united Europe live up to the ideal. But in or out, after the bare-knuckle politics of the past months there is no doubt we are changed. We no choice but to adapt to the new landscape we find ourselves in. It’s a prospect the people of Doggerland might have recognised as their homeland disappeared beneath the waves.

Further reading:
Leary, J. The Remembered Land (2015) Bloomsbury
Gaffney, g. Fitch, S. and Smith, D. Europe's Lost World: the rediscovery of Doggerland (2009) Council for British Archaeology 

Monday, 8 June 2015

A life less plastic

It started when we moved house and inherited a milkman. In addition to the pleasant early morning chime of glass on glass I soon noticed that for the first time in years, without the bulk of plastic milk bottles, our recycling box was actually able to contain everything we needed to put in it. Around the same time I saw
this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1j60hs7u0E

If you don't have four minutes to spare,I'll just say it gives you a very clear idea where small items of waste plastic end up - and for me it tipped a switch.

Recycling is important, absolutely, but so much of this stuff needn't be in circulation in the first place. We all know that, surely but its easy to forget how powerful we are as consumers. Products only get made because we buy them. Reducing and reusing does take a little extra effort and thought, but it sends a message that will be heeded if we all start doing it. After my milk bottle moment I started looking for other ways to tackle our waste output – and especially the plastic. The changes had to be simple, convenient and ideally cost neutral - life is busy,
Plastic waste on what should be a
pristine beach in the Shetland Isles
and household budgets are  tight. So we tried something new every few months, with the promise that if it didn’t work, we could go back, and not beat ourselves up about it. But as each change has become routine, I realised that over the years I’d increasingly allowed marketeers and retailers dictate what I buy, fallen for consumer myths, and been mislead by false economies, BOGOF deals and pseudo-convenience. It’s natural to be drawn to convenience, quality, hygiene, food safety, and value for money. But part of the problem is that many goods we’re brainwashed into thinking offer these advantages actually do nothing of the kind. Most of the changes we’ve made in the last five years have not only achieved the original intent of waste reduction, but also brought other advantages. Some also had drawbacks, but these have been minor. On balance we are living better, treading more lightly on the planet and saving money and time. The list below is by no means exhaustive. It’s just some of changes we found have made a difference, in more or less the order we made them.




Use a milkman
And remember to ask for glass bottles. They are heavier than plastic and require energy for washing but on balance they are better for the environment. We also asked our milkman to also supply fruit juice, butter and cream. It costs a bit more but with fewer reasons to visit a supermarket, we save time and avoid impulse buys.
Saved 182 plastic milk bottles a year


Buy laundry products in bulk
About three years ago, an online offer tempted me to buy three 15 litre boxes of Ecover laundry liquid (yes, 45 litres in total). I spent £90 – and yes there were yelps from a husbandly direction when the credit card bill came through. But that supply lasted almost two years. Since then I switched to power – Ecover Zero, still purchased in bulk,which is cheaper and more waste efficient still.
Saved waste (12 laundry liquid bottles per year)

Use soap bars for handwashing, bathing and showering
With help from the manufacturers there is a perception that liquid soaps and shower gels are better for your skin and more hygienic than bars of soap. Well actually, no. Low or neutral pH bars or those with glycerine needn’t dry your skin, and they are just as good at cleaning. Plus you use a lot less of them – especially in the shower, where it’s easy to slop on way more gel than you need. Rinse a soap bar after you’ve used it and use a draining soap dish so it doesn’t go soft. We use Dove bars for showering and bathing, and elsewhere we’re just working our way though the selection of posh soaps received as gifts – and at this rate I’ll probably never have to buy any.
Saved at least 20 hand soap and shower gel bottles and caps
Shampoo and conditioner from the brilliant Lush.co.uk

Use shampoo and conditioner bars
It took me a while to come around to solid hair products, partly because they aren’t as widely available as they should be. But not only do good solid shampoos have minimal packaging, they are indisputably better for the environment, with low impact production methods, and far fewer chemical nasties going down your plughole. The whole family now uses Lush shampoos and conditioner. The conditioner takes a bit of getting used to – you have to rub hard to get it into your hair, and you don’t get that slick slipperiness you might be used to from a regular conditioner. Unlike soap, I find it helps to leave the conditioner block in the shower to soften between uses. The end result is light, soft hair that smells lovely and feels really clean and healthy.
Saved 24 shampoo and conditioner bottles per year

Never buy anything with microbeads
Aaargh, whoever thought for a second this would be a good idea? Body scrubs and facial exfoliators I sort of get, if you’re into your extended skincare routines. But a gentle scrub with a loofah will do just as well on the tougher bits of your body. If you like the idea of a product that does the job there are plenty  of natural ones made with apricot kernels or peach stones, or even better you can make your own with sea salt in olive oil, or an handful of oatmeal. Read the label. Ban the beads.

Buy butter and cheese wrapped in waxed paper rather than in tubs or plastic
This means buying real butter rather than the spreadable varieties. But most better is perfectly spreadable if you don’t keep it in the fridge. You can’t generally buy the ‘healthy’ butter alternatives - those with vegetable oils or cholesterol busting ingredients - in paper because they are too soft. But you can at least reuse the tubs, which aren’t routinely recyclable.
Saved 52 tubs

 Reuse tubs with lids
Takeaway boxes and the tubs used for posh yogurts etc are useful for packed lunches or freezing other foods, storing meal portions or leftovers or organising bits and bobs in the DIY cupboard, garage or garden shed.

Cook and freeze in bulk
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I have less time for it than I did, so recently I started routinely making couple or triple quantities to bung in the freezer, which is now full of soups, stews, cakes, bread, pies, mashed potato portions and sauces. There’s nothing new or revolutionary in this – my mum always did it - but that common sense is easily eroded by the availability of readymade foods in jars, tubs and sachets and buns from the in store bakery.  Cooking from first principles is cheaper, healthier and generates a whole lot less waste.

Make squashes and cordials
Making cordials at home is very easy, and the flavour is infinitely better than shop bought stuff. At the moment I’m making elderflower cordial, last year I used garden strawberries the slugs had nibbled (carefully washed of course), and when I see a good deal on oranges or lemons I make a batch of citrus squash.
Saved about  12 large plastic squash bottles a year

Simple Citrus Squash
10 oranges or lemons,  or a mixture of the two
500mls water
500g sugar
Peel the zest from the fruit (just the coloured part not the pith) and chop it smallish pieces. Put it in a pan with the sugar and water. Stir as you heat to a low boil, then bubble  for about 30 minutes, so that the  volume reduces, and the cordial becomes syrupy. Meanwhile squeeze all the juice from the fruit. Add the juice to the syrupy cordial, and heat once more to the point of boiling. Take off the heat and allow to cool before straining into clean bottles. Keeps up to three months in the fridge.

Fruit and veg delivered by a local Yorkshire
business, theorganicpantry.co.uk

Find alternatives to the supermarket
 Supermarkets package goods to maximise the efficiency of bulk transportation, storage and display, but if you’re buying local produce there’s little need for it. We use markets, farmshops, delis and a delivery scheme where veg comes come in a carboard box and reusable plastic bags. I’ve become a big fan dry goods shops like Scoops of Malton. They sell goods by weight, including branded cereals, baking ingredients, spices, dried fruit, sweets, nuts and a wide range of other groceries. They provide plastic bags to put things into – these are reusable if you transfer everything into tubs and jars at home then rinse and dry the bags, or you can take along your own containers to be filled. You can buy in bulk, or just the quantities you need for a recipe.
I spend less time and less money shopping this way than I did visiting a supermarket three times a week. We waste much less food, and chuck out vastly less packaging. This has been a winner all round.

What’s next?

With summer here, I’m remembering the marvellous machine my parents invested in about 1981, which my sister and I loved for several reasons. It made great fizzy drinks in reusable glass bottles, but also a variety of extraordinary hissing, parping noises. Yep... I’m on the lookout for a second-hand SodaStream.




Thursday, 30 April 2015

Celebrating conservation – the ‘Green Oscars’


The Whitley Fund for Nature is a small charity that claims to punch well above its weight in terms of conservation outcomes. Last night I found out why.

Swanky award ceremonies are not my natural habitat. The mere act of digging out a frock and footwear I can’t run, climb, or ford puddles in is alien. But the Whitley Awards have more than a little red (should that be green) carpet cachet about them and wellies, I sensed, might not be de rigeur. The proceedings were hosted by Kate Humble, presented by HRH The Princess Royal, in the presence of Sir David Attenborough. The eight conservationists from around the world being presented with their awards had certainly scrubbed up, swapping their usual khaki shirts, caps and bush hats for formal attire in their national style, and they looked wonderful.

I’m not accustomed to commenting on fashion - but there is a first time for everything and this event was very much about people. There was talk of wildlife, of course, in particular the species being helped by the diverse projects the prize money will benefit – Philippine eagles, Asian elephants, cotton-top tamarins, Cross River gorillas, great Indian bustards, giant armadillos, Sumatran orangutans and the pollinating insects of Kenya - but for this one night the spotlight shifted from the animals to individual Homo sapiens who devote their lives to saving them. The grant recipients are already used to cajoling, persuading, educating, and campaigning on behalf of wildlife in their own countries and their own tongues – and as part of their week in London they’ve also received further media training. It showed – without exception they were engaging, inspiring and passionate. There is sometimes a gulf between scientists and conservation practitioners and the public they need to engage. Not so here. Language barriers seemed non-existent, which made for great communication but did make me wonder how WFN deal with applications from non-English speakers.

Kate Humble repeatedly referred to the event’s ability to dispel gloom – and undoubtedly the £1.1 million dished out by WFN this year will make a difference. It was nice to enter this bubble of goodwill. But award winner Panut Hadisiswoyo also reminded us that it was a bubble, when he appealed to the entire audience to act to halt the devastation of Indonesia’s remaining forests – which continues at a rate few of us can truly comprehend to meet the insatiable global demand for palm oil. Behind the accolades and the smiles, there is grim desperation. The fate of species and ecosystems depends on our lifestyle choices, our votes, our and our willingness to understand the provenance of the consumables we take for granted. WFN money is helping on the ground, but turning the tide takes more than cash. Here’s hoping that the gift of publicity will be equally well used.

The winners…
Ananda Kumar  - using modern communications including text alerts and mobile operated warning lights as part of an innovative Elephant Information Network in the tea growing regions of India’s Western Ghats. Human-elephant conflict in India costs hundreds of lives (human and elephant) every year in India. Early warning can make a critical difference in the outcome of encounters.

Jayson Ibanez lost his heart to the huge and flamboyant endemic Philippine eagle as a boy. 19 years later he is still striving to save the remaining 400 pairs that remain in the wild, establishing Local Conservation Areas and engaging local people as forest guards and bringing tangible economic and social benefits to communities in which eagle conservation takes place.

Former architect Rosamira Guillen’s career to an abrupt new turn when she met her first cotton-top tamarin – a tiny, endemic, and critically endangered Columbian primate.  Her organisation has already protected 1700ha of habitat and offered local communities education and alternative incomes that reduce pressure on the remaining forest. The cotton-top population is stabilising.

In Nigeria, Inaoyom Imong was once a hunter. Now he is Director of the Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project, working directly with local communities to ensure that the forests of Mbe Mountains are shared sustainably with our great ape cousins.

Medic turned bird conservationist Pramod Patil struck a chord when he addressed Sir David Attenborough ‘Sir David is my favourite human being on this Earth… I love you’. There is also no doubt which is his favourite bird – the great Indian bustard. Pramod is also inspiration in his own right – taking a landscape level approach to the conservation of this critically endangered species in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.

The enigmatic giant armadillo is now recognised as a flagship species for the tropical scrublands of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil – thanks to the passion of Paris-born Arnaud Desbiez. He’ll be using the WFN grant money to conduct vital outreach and education and create more protected areas in the threatened Cerrado landscape.

Panut Hadisiswoyo leads on the development of conservation villages in part of Sumatra known as the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where orang-utan, elephant, tiger and rhino still coexist.

The big prize of the night went to Dino Martins – a previous award winner, who was presented with a Gold Award worth £50,000 to support his ongoing work for pollinators. With it, he'll tackle the import and use of unregistered pesticides in Africa, training  thousands of farmers in sustainable practice, and educating over 200,000 schoolchildren and university students in the importance of pollinators and sustainable agriculture.




Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Small steps

I'm fully in favour of exposing children to nature. I do my best to immerse my three-nearly-four year old son in wildlife experience at every opportunity and I've written about some of the ways it can be done, even if you don't live in a particularly wild spot (for example here). But the more I read about the importance of overturning nature deficit - of schemes to turn every child into a wild thing or a budding Bellamy by the age of eleven and three quarters, the more I'm convinced that each package - my own included, should come with a disclaimer. A warning that sometimes they just don't give a rat's arse.

Yesterday, we went bird watching.

He hadn't been keen from the outset, and we had a standoff in the carpark when he refused to wear his hat, gloves or coat. I eventually added them to the bag of spare clothes, camera, two pairs of binoculars (my old pocket ones are the right size for his face, though he usually prefers to look through the wrong end), waterproofs and a copy of the local wildlife trust magazine containing a reserve map I thought he'd like to follow. He's keen on maps, but today he shows no interest.

Three minutes from the car park, he is already trailing.

'Mummy I've run out of energy.'
'You can't have, you only just had lunch'

I point out blue tits, a wren, a pair of swaggering crows. But his focus remains firmly down as he dawdles from one muddy wheel rut to the next, spending the best part of a minute stamping with both wellies to ensure the ice in each is thoroughly broken before moving on. We inch along the track.

'It's a long way.'

'No it's really not, darling. Come on, there's a hide just round the corner'

'But it's taking a long time.' Of course it is, you're walking at about thirty metres a millennium.

'I need a wee'

Seizing the opportunity, I promise him a really good weeing tree just around the corner. If we get there, he can help the tree grow. We accelerate gratifyingly, managing a good fifty metres around the bend, where a large willow is duly watered, and trousers hitched back up. 'That tree is like a T. rex' he informs me on returning to the track. 'It's made of T. rexes all joined together'. I'm at a loss, but conversation is good, he doesn't notice walking when he's talking.

The hide comes into view - it's a tower, and the prospect of steps to climb captures his interest. We enter and I experience a slight flush of relief that it's empty as his wellies thud up and down the timbers, leaving thick clods of mud on the floor, and smearing the bench seat as he scrambles up to kneel at the window. I dig out his binoculars and open the hatch.

Before us on the flooded ings is a blanket of wigeon, and a dozen or so rafts of black-headed gulls in winter plumage. The air to the right bubbles with wader calls - we'd probably get a good view of lapwing from the next hide, but I'm already resigned to the fact we won't make it that far. But at last, he's using his binoculars. 'Look at those smart racing cars!' he shouts, as a pair of Mini Coopers track along a distant farm road.

After five minutes, we're back outside. I spot a burdock laden with sticky pompoms, and pick a few, attaching them to his fleece, his trousers and his fingers, and showing him the tiny hooks that make them snag. He is momentarily impressed. A wren shouts at us from the scrub to our left and another echoes the effrontery from the other side of the path. We manage to spot both of them, and a blood red bracket fungus growing on a stump before he's back on the puddles. This time the oozy mud gets the better of him and he slides into it, coating one trouser leg and one sleeve liberally. Now it really is time to head home, before the mud freezes. I don't fancy changing him here, and he's still refusing the coat so I decide to press on. I'm faintly losing the will to live myself.

I thrust the map into his hands so he can see where we are and how to get back to the car. He rolls it up and pretends it's a rocket. The zooming noises drown out further bird calls, but at least he's walking. I wander on, occupied by my own thoughts for a minute, then realise I'm way ahead again. I can't see him, so I retrace my steps back around the bend a little and spot him in another puddle. This one has claimed one of his wellies. He's leaning sideways trying to pull it out. It's like watching a tree in the moment after it's cut but before it begins to topple. He pulls. The welly plops free. Down he goes, muddying the other flank.

Twenty minutes of  incremental and increasingly grumpy progress later we're almost back at the car. I've resorted to bribery to keep him moving - there's a bag of crisps in the glove box, and chips for tea if he'll just keep going. I cross the last bridge and rummage for the keys. He's behind again. I turn to call for the thousandth time, aware that any serious birders on the reserve (fortunately we've hardly seen anyone) are probably sick of my yelling.

He's standing on the bridge in fading light, gazing skyward. I look up. Squadrons of gulls are coming in - I can see at least a dozen flocks of a 20 to 50 birds, and more keep materialising - heading for the ings in V formation.

'Look Mummy. They're flying in a shape like a rocket. That means they're all in their own slipstream'

I kiss his frozen cheek, change his sodden mud-caked clothes and buckle him into his carseat. He's asleep within two minutes, We drive home under a pinkening sky, drifts of birds straggling overhead like half-hearted signatures.

Disclaimer
Be warned: Introducing a child to nature is a long-term investment that may not pay out every time or make a quick return. A child's interest in wildlife may go down as well as up. Your patience and self belief are at risk if you do not accept that gains are sometimes negligible.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Why I want the village green to be green

Some recent comments in my local Parish Council Newsletter bother me. They relate to management of the village green, and suggest that the moles that recently reappeared there need eradicating and that some of the 'thorn trees' may be removed, presumably for aesthetic reasons. There is also, apparently some interest in entering a Best Kept Village contest or similar. 

To my mind controlling moles is not only an unnecessary expense, it is also inappropriate for communal space such as the village green, where they do no harm other than offend notions of bowling green aesthetics. If I showed the children of the local primary school a live mole and asked which of them thinks these amazing creatures should be killed so that the grass looks tidy, what would be the answer, from minds unbefuddled by outdated ideas of what a shared green space should be? Of course residents have the right to an ecologically barren private lawn with neat stripes and a patio of paved perfection unsullied by any uninvited flora. But where the shared space of the green is concerned I think there is a clear duty to do better than that. The green should not only look wonderful, but serve as a natural biodiversity resource.

I’d love to see the village embark on a community project to give the place a makeover – but absolutely not Best Kept Village or Britain in Bloom. There is evidence that efforts to conform to this kind of ideal are damaging biodiversity - as greens are overmowed, borders sealed to hedgehogs, foxes, rabbits and badgers, beds crowded with overbred bedding plants with little or no nectar to offer butterflies, bees and other pollinators and all manner of wildlife deliberately or accidentally excluded or eradicated. What I would like to propose is something far more daring and special. How about national ‘Wild villages’ where birds, pollinators, wildflowers and yes, moles, are welcome in areas where they do no damage to economic interests. Imagine a sign as people drove into a village – ‘Welcome to Wild Wherever – proud to be naturally beautiful’ – would that not be something special? 

I’m not suggesting we let the place go – far from it. Anyone who has visited one of many parks gardens managed for wildlife lately (NT Nunnington Hall is a great example local to me) can see how breathtakingly beautiful a wildlife garden can be. There is no shortage of places to draw inspiration. Let the green grow
– just mow the edges to ensure it looks cared for. That's what happens on our lane and it looks glorious. Recent research in York has come up with some dramatic results - for example not mowing the city walls in summer has boosted bat passes by several orders of magnitude. It's actually very easy to create habitat that looks great but makes room for nature too. Let the wild flowers come, and beneath them the molehills. Plant trees and shrubs for their food and cover value to wildlife as well as their looks. Sign up to community projects and initiatives such as Hedgehog Street, Great Garden Birdwatch, Big Butterfly Count, Get Britain Buzzing, Living with Mammals, Give Nature a Home, Big Bat Map - there are dozens.


Wild shared spaces could  appeal to a wide demographic of residents and perhaps engage some not currently catered for by existing community activities. I think it's worth a try... 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The best time to plant a tree

The best time to plant a tree, say the Woodland Trust, is 20 years ago. The next best time is now.


It's mid November and overcast, breezy but not yet wintry cold. As we wander up an elongated triangle of land adjacent to the B651 between the Hertfordshire villages of Sandridge and Wheathampstead, we're well off any footpath, but far from alone. The air is alive with sound - the clink of steel on stone, the sliding scatter of soil from shovel and the periodic 'whump' of a mattock ripping wedges of earth from the ground. In every direction, muttered conversions, shared laughter, words of encouragement, punctuated by the chime of younger voices speculating on how long 'their' tree might live or exclaiming over unearthed worms and the possibility of buried treasure. The closest we came was a very rusty old coach bolt, presumably from a piece of farm machinery, vintage anyone's guess.


The three generations of our extended family here today are part of an impressive army of 500 volunteers at Britain's largest new native wood, just north of St Albans. Some are here for the day, well wrapped up against the slight chill, and carrying picnic bags as well as garden tools and bundles of bare-rooted saplings. Others appear to be in Sunday best, carefully picking their way to a spot with a symbolic single tree. Every pair of willing hands is welcomed. It's a long time since I've seen a community nature project on this scale, and it's impressive.



Heartwood Forest, as it is rather stirringly named, will soon cover almost 350 hectares of former farmland. Some 300,000 trees have already been planted in five years - mostly by volunteer effort. And if today's turnout is anything to go by, it won't be long until the this ambitious first stage is complete. I overheard someone saying there are 10,000 saplings to go in today. The field is marked with blue dots of spray paint to help us spread the trees out evenly. We collected a bundle of tree-babies - a mixed bunch of hazel, spindle, black-and hawthorn and guelder rose - from a team of well drilled volunteers, and found a patch to populate. This part of the forest won't be a towering cathedral of trees - in fact I'll be surprised if you can get anywhere near 'our' trees in a few years time - they're all shrubby varieties, chosen for the areas close to roads where they will create fabulously productive zone of dense vegetation and a wonderfully secure place for nesting birds. Who knows - one day it night even suit dormice. What's for sure is that this breezy field will soon be forest - a forest made by men, women and children. And it will remain long after we're all gone.


http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/wood-information/heartwood-forest/

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Trust is earned

When you donate to a charity, you're relying on them to make your money work hard, and to use it to really make a difference for whatever the cause happens to be. In the case of the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) that cause is quite plain. They provide funds to carefully vetted research and conservation projects in the UK and all over the world. The grants they award get research done, results published and strategies implemented. They save species. Not only the large, glamorous ones (though big cats and great apes get their share) but also the small, humble and obscure - the noble chafer beetle, the hedgehog, the toad-headed agama, the Danube clouded yellow butterfly, the Indian Ocean humpbacked dolphin (only discovered in 2013).

I've been working with the PTES for (gulp) 13 years now - initially contributing a seasonal column for Mammals UK magazine - for supporters of their special fund for UK mammal conservation research Mammals Trust UK, then as editor for eight years of the same, and for the last three years as editor of the twice yearly Wildlife World magazine. This goes out to some 20,000 supporters, and attempts to cover all the diverse projects and initiatives funded by the Trust in the last six months.

The latest edition sports a new look, in line with the rebranding of the whole charity. PTES themselves haven't made too much fuss or fanfare about this, partly I suspect because such exercises are often subject to criticism about spending resources on PR and corporate image, when actually their raison d'etre is something else entirely. So I understand their caution. But since a branding exercise is also about getting noticed, I'm more than happy to blow some trumpets on their behalf.

The new look (concocted by strategic design company Colourful and graphic designer Phill Southgate) is strikingly different to that of other conservation charities - and rightly sets PTES apart. The ethos of PTES and its small but dedicated staff is different too. PTES is a minnow by international charity standards - but quick on its feet, and with a soundly scientific approach to conservation issues that allows it to punch well above its weight in terms of results. In addition to great field science, they also fund community engagement projects (Hedgehog Street, with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society; the Ruaha Carvivore Project in Tanzania and the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project with the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to name just three of dozens), but always with an emphasis on monitoring, so that the efficacy of any given approach can be measured. Conservation means many things to different people, but for me, any approach that neglects science - and especially the opportunity to report honestly on what works, and what doesn't - is little better than just crossing fingers.

The latest edition of Wildlife World is now available to supporters of PTES, and back issues are available to anyone at http://ptes.org/get-informed/publications/magazines/