Yorkshire Wildlife Park: Saving the Warty Pig

Yorkshire Wildlife Park has plenty of iconic critters that are certain to impress visitors. The black rhinos, polar bears and Amur tigers, for example, are guaranteed to provoke appreciative oohs and ahs from delighted punters. But there’s other stuff too, animals that are pretty much unknown to all but the most dedicated wildlife geeks, animals that are maybe a bit more difficult to love. Warty Pigs, for example. I mean, whoever heard of a Warty Pig? And who cares?

I care! It’s true that Visayan Warty Pigs aren’t obviously cute or charismatic, but so what? All living things are intrinsically valuable, worthy of our respect and protection regardless of their looks or lifestyle. And there’s a reason why we’ve never heard of them: they’re all but extinct in the wild, and hail from the Philippines, a little known and unglamorous part of the globe that few of my fellow citizens could locate on a world atlas even if they’ve heard of the place at all.

The Visayan Warty Pig is classified as “critically endangered.” It is endemic to six of the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines, but is believed to be extinct on four of these. Their natural habitat is the rainforest, but between 95% to 98% of it has been lost to commercial forestry and slash-and-burn farming. With their natural food sources severely depleted, the pigs have resorted to raiding cultivated land, and are consequently persecuted as agricultural pests. They are also hunted for bushmeat.

There seems little doubt that, without a major conservation effort and captive breeding, the Visayan Warty Pig is doomed to extinction. Fortunately, there are many programmes, both in the Philippines and in zoos across the world, that are dedicated to saving the species.

And here’s where Yorkshire Wildlife Park is doing its bit. We’ve visited YWP several times over the last couple of years, and have been pleased to see a decent-sized group of adult females and youngsters going about their business in the ample, wooded Warty Pig enclosure. They are feisty, entertaining animals and you can enjoy some of their antics by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

The adult male – which boasts impressive facial warts, as well as a stiff, spiky crest of hair – lives next door to the main family group, replicating behaviour in the wild where males live apart from the females most of the time.

The male plainly knows his stuff, and his managed encounters with the females have produced multiple, humbug-striped piglets. My brief research on the internet confirms that other zoos are having similar breeding success, suggesting that Visayan Warty Pigs can thrive in captivity. Hopefully, one day, some of their descendants can be reintroduced to the wild, where they rightly belong.

A colourful evening at Yorkshire Wildlife Park

We first visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) a few months after I retired, and have returned several times since I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but the place seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. I’ll write more about some of these conservation projects later in the year.

To help raise the money needed to care for its animals YWP is always looking for new ways to encourage visitors. Last year we’d planned to visit the Park’s Light and Lantern Festival held around Christmas, but Covid restrictions got in the way. This year the restrictions have been, well, less restrictive…but the weather was miserable throughout December, so we gave it a miss.

Finally, last week, conditions improved and we made the decision to hot-foot it 45 miles (72km) up the M1 to the outskirts of Doncaster to catch the Festival before it ends in mid-January. It was definitely worth the trip, as Mrs P’s photos show. With the exception of one hyena, which was racing madly around its spacious enclosure like Usain Bolt in his prime, living animals were notable by their absence. I suspect they were all sleeping peacefully in their dens and nests, blissfully unaware of the numerous visitors trekking round the Park, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the spectacular illuminations.

The lanterns celebrate many of the animals living at the Park – including lions, leopards and okapi – and some that don’t. A T-Rex and sundry other dinosaurs paid homage to animals that none of us will ever see in the flesh. Let’s hope that the conservation initiatives supported by YWP, and similar bodies throughout the UK and beyond, mean that the species currently living there won’t suffer a similar fate to that of the dearly departed dinos.

Folk song favourites: The January Man

So, it’s January again. We’ve been here before, right? You know what I mean, January’s the time for new beginnings. It’s out with the old, in with the new. The time to finally do the things we’ve always dreamed of doing, and to stop doing the other stuff, the stuff that no longer fulfils and leaves us instead with that sad, damp feeling of regret. This year, we tell ourselves, things will be different.

Only they won’t, will they?

Time is simultaneously both linear and cyclical. My receding hairline and aching joints testify to time’s linear incarnation. They are all in worse shape than they were 12 months ago, and the downward spiral will inevitably continue.

Milky Bar in January, waiting patiently for the return of the insects

But time is also cyclical, Our seasons come and go, predictable and reassuring. I don’t much like winter, but at least I know what to expect. Winters in my part of the UK are cool and dull. Often windy, sometimes foggy-damp, occasionally snowy, invariably miserable. The days are too short, the nights way, way too long. But the best thing about winter is that it doesn’t last forever. Even when conditions are at their bleakest we know for sure that better times are just around the corner, when there will once again be insects for Milky Bar to chase.

Folk music has its origins in the pre-industrial age, when rural populations were closer to the changing of the seasons than most of us are today. The seasons could not be escaped, and had to be respected. Traditional folk singers, and their more contemporary successors, therefore frequently reflected on the seasons in their lyrics.

Which brings me, finally, to The January Man. This contemporary folk song was written in the traditional style by Dave Goulder (b. 1939) who was, coincidentally, born in my home county of Derbyshire. Dave’s song captures perfectly and poignantly the way in which the seasons shape our lives. It is a magnificent piece, and exemplifies the folk music genre at its very best. You can read the lyrics here.

Like all the best folk songs, The January Man has been covered by numerous performers, including Christy Moore, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Rachel Unthank, Siobhan Miller and Mike Harding. You can track them all down on YouTube.

This one is by Steeleye Span, an English folk rock band formed in 1969 and still performing today with a rather different line-up. The link below is to a version recorded on the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2019! Steeleye were an important part of the British folk revival. Their early albums graced the record collections of many wistful, long-haired, wannabe hippies…including the Platypus Man, way back in the days when he still had hair. So, to celebrate the New Year, why not treat yourself to 4 minutes and 47 seconds of magical folk music by clicking on the link below. Happy New Year, everyone!

Postscript

The final paragraphs of this post have been re-drafted following a tip-off a few hours after publication from my blogging buddy Laurie Graves of Notes from the Hinterland. Laurie advised me that the YouTube track to which I was linking does not appear to be available overseas. Hopefully the new link, to the version by Steeleye Span, works a little better. However, I’ve also found an alternative link the version I originally wrote about, an a capella masterpiece by Martin Carthy (b. 1941). Martin is one of the most influential performers of British traditional music, and The January Man shows him at his very best.

Folk song favourites: Wayfaring Stranger

My interest in folk music was inherited from my father. He was no great expert (and no great singer either!), but he knew just what he liked. Two of his favourite performers of folk and traditional songs were Joan Baez and Burl Ives. My last post touched briefly on a memorable track by Baez, so today I’ll say a few words about one of my favourite Burl Ives ballads.

The Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known American folk song, probably dating from the early 19th century. The lyrics were first set down in Joseph Bever’s Christian Songster, published in 1858. They tell the story of a man’s arduous journey through life, and his belief that his lot will improve after death when he will leave his troubles behind him and be reunited with his loved ones.

Folk song lyrics are like the Covid virus, constantly mutating, forever evading capture and control. So what follows isn’t a definitive version, but is nevertheless a reliable guide to The Wayfaring Stranger’s tone and major themes:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan*
I'm only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep

I'm going home to see my mother
And all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

Beautiful, and deeply moving! One day – but not any time soon, I hope – a recording of The Wayfaring Stranger will be played at my funeral, as I embark upon my own final journey.

Burl Ives (1909-95) had a long association with this song. Having stormed out of his Illinois teacher training college in a fit of pique in 1929, Ives became an itinerant singer and musician who travelled across the US scratching a living by performing at small venues and doing odd jobs on the side.

Ives’s success and reputation grew, until in 1942 he was given his own radio show on CBS, playing traditional folk ballads. But the rootless, wandering lifestyle that characterised his early career obviously made a deep impression on the young man, and in memory of those times his show was titled The Wayfaring Stranger. Two years later he released a recording of the song on his album of the same name.

Countless artists have since recorded The Wayfaring Stranger, including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran and Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Jack White, whose character Georgie sings it in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. You can track down all of these covers on YouTube

Perhaps the most surprising interpretation I’ve come across was recorded by a bunch of Norwegians, the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. Scandinavia is not a part of the world that anyone might reasonably expect to spawn a memorable version of a classic American folk ballad, but their recording proves beyond doubt that musical talent is blind to national boundaries.

While Hayde’s rendition balances perfectly Rebekka Nilsson’s plaintive vocals with some superbly atmospheric Appalachian instrumentation, Jos Slovick demonstrates that The Wayfaring Stranger works just as well when sung unaccompanied. His a cappella version, recorded for the 2019 movie 1917 is mournful, and gut-wrenchingly haunting. Definitely one of my favourites.

Great folk songs are capable of endless reinterpretation, each new version adding subtly different dimensions to the core narrative and melody. The Wayfaring Stranger is, in my mind anyway, one of the greatest of them all.

* note: “going over Jordan” = dying and going to heaven / paradise

2021: Making the Best of It

This will probably be my last post of 2021. Planning it, I thought I’d write a retrospective piece, focussing on the highlights of the last 12 months. Well that wouldn’t take long, would it, given that there haven’t been any highlights. It’s true that 2021 hasn’t been quite as bad as 2020, but not by much. On balance it’s another year I’d rather forget. But, thankfully, there have been a few compensations along the way.

Without the company of visiting cats Malteser (above) and Milky Bar, our 2021 would have been a whole lot bleaker

That was the year that was (all jabbed up, with nowhere to go!)

When I left work in 2018 the plan was that we’d do a lot of travelling, see more of the world and the UK too. And for the first 18 months it worked out just fine, with big trips to the USA – centred on Yellowstone National Park – and New Zealand, as well as shorter stays in various corners of our own country. But since Covid struck nearly two years ago we’ve spent just a couple of nights away from home, in the nearby county of Rutland. Retirement wasn’t meant to be like this!

We enjoyed visiting a few historic buildings in Derbyshire and surrounding counties. In the 19th century, Shibden Hall (above) was home to the extraordinary Anne Lister, aka ‘Gentleman Jack’

But at least we’ve had our jabs. Two doses each during the spring, and more recently booster doses to counteract the threat of the omicron variant. We remain healthy and feel safe, but the restrictions and continuing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic have so far deterred us from planning any trips next year. Seems like we’re all jabbed up, with nowhere to go.

A canal-side stroll at Bugsworth Basin allowed us to escape briefly from our everyday suburban existence

So, with our passports gathering dust all year and our UK horizons severely restricted, we’ve had to resort to simple pleasures.

Simple pleasures

One of the few bonuses of Covid has been that, with long distance travel out of the question, we have found ourselves exploring much closer to home. We’ve finally visited some places that have been on our list for years – decades, even – but never made it to the top. And others that we were totally unaware of, even though they’re in our own backyard. So it’s not been a wasted year, but not at all what I would have predicted when I started drawing my pension in 2018.

Yorkshire Wildlife Park is part of a European conservation initiative to protect the endangered Amur Tiger. Early next year I’ll write a post about our multiple visits to the Park during 2021.

The internet has made lockdown life much more tolerable than it would have been had Covid struck before the world went online. During 2021 I’ve spent a lot of time on the web listening to folk music, an interest that dates back to my childhood. We’ve also attended several online gigs on Zoom, and every week I’ve listened to several regional folk music shows via online catch-up radio. We even plucked up the courage to attend one day of the Derby Folk Festival in person, and enjoyed seeing Ninebarrow – a folk duo we discovered online during the first lockdown – perform live.

All manner of surprises were on offer in the sculpture garden at Burghley House. I’ll share some more of these in 2022.

But more than anything else the thing that has made this year bearable has been the company of our visiting cats, Milky Bar and Malteser. Being at home just about all the time has allowed us to get to know them much better than before, and they’ve repaid us by spending lots of quality time here, sleeping, playing, making mischief and eating any treat we’ve put in front of them. Our Covid experience would have been a whole lot bleaker without those two fabulous felines.

Visayan Pigs (aka Warty Pigs) are another of Yorkshire Wildlife Park’s impressive conservation projects. Post to follow in 2022.

So that’s it, that was the year that was. Of course, it could have been been much, much worse. But I can’t pretend it’s been a bundle of laughs either. Let’s all hope 2022 will be a whole lot better.

Christmas gifts

Christmas is a time for gift giving, and in that spirit I’d like to present you with this link to a recording on YouTube of Benjamin Zephaniah reading his wonderful Christmas poem that invites us all to Be Nice to Your Turkey this Christmas.

Benjamin was born and raised in Birmingham, England, and is a celebrated dub poet whose work “is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’.” Many years ago Mrs P and I were thrilled to attend one of his gigs. It was nowhere near Christmas, but his performance of this poem still brought the house down. If you’re not familiar with his work do click on the link and listen to the man do his stuff – it may well be the best two minutes and eight seconds of your whole Christmas!

My second gift to you is Joan Baez singing The Cherry Tree Carol. I’ve already observed that my interest in folk music dates back to my childhood. My father loved Joan Baez’s singing, and had several vinyl albums of her work. I grew to love them too, and remember playing and re-playing her records on our ancient radiogram (anyone else remember radiograms?) until the grooves were worn away.

Although dating back in some form to the early 15th century, the Cherry Tree Carol as we now know it was collected by Francis James Child (1825-96) during the second half of the 19th century and included in his famous anthology of English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I am not a religious man, but the spirituality of this song moves me deeply. And who can possibly listen to Joan Baez’s fabulous folkie voice without getting a lump in their throat? Listen and enjoy!

And finally …

Thank you for reading my blog, and for sharing your comments with me from time to time. With Covid restrictions curtailing travel opportunities and limiting our social interactions, I’ve really appreciated exchanging ideas and experiences with WordPress pals from across the globe. You’ve helped make a difficult year more bearable.

I wish you all a happy, peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.

The Festival of Christmas Trees in Chesterfield Parish Church helped us get into the festive spirit.

Call of the wild – starlings fly home to roost over our house

I hear them long before they become visible. Starlings are gathering over the hills to the south of the estate where we live. It begins as an avian whisper, barely audible above the ambient sounds of wind and distant traffic. And then it starts to build, unseen birds chattering excitedly with one another, shouting, squawking, screaming joyously. A wall of sound, the call of the wild.

The cacophony echoes all around me. I scan the sky in the direction from which I know they will appear. Still nothing. But it’s only a matter of time. They will be here. At this time of year they fly over our estate every day at around 4pm, heading towards their roosting site. Today will be no different.

At last they start to arrive. First a lone outrider, silent and determined, appears from behind the house at the rear of our garden. It passes over me and disappears into the distance. Then two others, calling to one another as they fly.

Seconds later the main flock arrives, hundreds of birds in close formation. A deafening, spellbinding squadron of starlings, known to science as a murmuration, fills the sky.

Although the birds clearly have a destination in mind, they briefly break off from their journey to swoop and swirl above my head, like a bunch of boastful aviators flaunting their skills at an air show. The murmuration takes on a life of its own, sketching ever more complex and beautiful patterns on the canvas of the evening sky. The noise is louder than ever, drowning out everything else.

And then, as suddenly as they arrived, they take their leave. The flock heads off to who-knows-where, and the sound of their relentless chitter-chatter fades. A few laggards appear from the south, flying swiftly in pursuit of the main flock, keen to catch up with their buddies before they roost for the night.

Seconds later they too have gone and I’m left alone with my thoughts, marvelling at the extraordinary event I have just witnessed.

* * * * *

In some parts of the country murmurations at this time of year can number several hundred thousand birds, occasionally more than a million. By these standards, the aerial display that takes place above our garden every winter’s afternoon is tiny. But to me it is far from insignificant.

What a privilege it is, to stand in our modest back garden on our boring suburban housing estate in the unremarkable, overpopulated East Midlands of England, and experience the call of the wild. It is a moving, mesmerising experience, and the wonder of it fills me with joy. Long may it continue.

The Festival of Christmas Trees at Chesterfield parish church

The Christmas season seems to have been with us forever. Pubs and restaurants have been promoting their festive menus for months. For several weeks shops have been cluttered with seasonal promotions. And Christmas trees are springing up all over the place, in public spaces, shops and windows all over town.

The tree on the far right is sponsored by a bridalwear business: brilliantly inventive!

The link between evergreen plants, including fir trees, and mid-winter festivals pre-dates Christianity. It reflects our ancestors’ conviction that, even on the darkest of days, better times and the green shoots of spring are just around the corner.

The Christmas tradition of bringing fir trees into the home and decorating them appears to have developed in the 16th century, in the area of Europe we now know as Germany. However it didn’t catch on in the UK until the middle of the 19th century.

The sudden rise in the popularity of Christmas trees here was down to the royal family, which had historic links with Germany. These were boosted in 1841 when Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert, who had fond memories of Christmas trees from his childhood.

In the centre a tree decorated by a local mortgage broker featuring “baubles” in the shape of houses, and a silver key (presumably the key to the home you might buy with the help of their services!)

In 1848 the Illustrated London News reported enthusiastically on the Christmas trees Victoria and Albert had put up at Windsor Castle. It also featured on its front cover an illustration of a cluster of happy royals admiring their biggest and best tree. The paper was widely read in well-to-do circles in and around London, and other newspapers also picked up on its story.

It soon became widely known just what the royals were up to, and at a time when it was fashionable amongst the wealthier classes to copy the lifestyle and habits of royalty, Christmas trees became all the rage. But only, of course, amongst those sections of the population with money to acquire them and the space to display them.

Centre left is a tree by a business selling intruder alarms (the “baubles” are actually Passive Infra-Red [PIR] detectors!) The centre right tree is from a local jeweller.

In time the fashion trickled down through the social hierarchy until just about everyone in the country aspired to celebrate Our Lord’s birthday by chopping down a poor, defenceless little fir tree and disfiguring it with gaudily tasteless decorations. Bah, humbug!

* * *

Please forgive the previous paragraph… I jest, of course. In fact, Mrs P and I do rather like Christmas trees, although at Platypus Towers we make do with an artificial one to avoid the carpet being knee-deep in pine needles before Twelfth Night. So to get into the Christmas spirit, a couple of weeks ago we took a trip to the north of our home county of Derbyshire to visit the Festival of Christmas Trees at the parish church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield.

Not all trees are from businesses. Second from the left is a tree presented by BANA (British Acoustic Neuroma Association) and second from the right is one from Chesterfield Panthers Rugby Club.

We discovered that the church was playing host to around 120 Christmas trees donated and decorated by local businesses, community organisations, service providers and sports clubs. Of course, the motivation of those providing the trees wasn’t entirely selfless: promotion of their products, services and causes appeared to be the name of the game in most cases.

But it doesn’t pay to be churlish. Plenty of folk just like us were also wandering happily through the church that Thursday morning, admiring the imagination and inventiveness of the people behind the various Christmas tree creations. It’s been a difficult year for most of us, although perhaps not quite as grim as 2020, and the Festival of Christmas Trees felt like a good attempt to raise community spirits, to bring people together and to encourage everyone to look forward to more cheerful times ahead. I’m pleased we made the effort to attend.

A local timber merchant celebrates the crooked spire of St Mary and All Saints church

Andy Warhol, the Devil and unexpected virgins: the story of Chesterfield’s crooked spire

Andy Warhol is said to have observed that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become well-known for something, albeit in most cases something rather insignificant. Chesterfield, for example, is famous for the crooked spire that graces its medieval church, but for little else.

Chesterfield, for the uninitiated, is a town in the north of my home county of Derbyshire. Home to around 100,000 people, for the most part it’s pleasant though unremarkable place. The coal industry that once dominated the landscape and economy of this part of Derbyshire is all gone now, and today Chesterfield’s role is primarily as a service centre for the surrounding area.

Bizarrely, just as I was about to start writing this post, a news report popped up in my inbox declaring that, according to a recent survey, Chesterfield is the happiest place to live in the whole of the English East Midlands. Really? I worked there for a couple of years in the late 1980s and don’t recall it being unusually joyful. But maybe the outbreak of local happiness coincided with my departure? Sounds plausible!

Reading the newspaper report more closely, I see that even some of the local residents query the accuracy of this accolade. Objectively, I suspect most unbiased observers would regard Chesterfield as memorably unmemorable, were it not for the iconic architectural imperfection otherwise known as the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.

Completed around the year 1360, St Mary’s and All Saints is Derbyshire’s largest church. It’s famed for its unusual crooked spire, which leans 9 feet 5 inches (nearly 3 metres) from true.  To be clear, this is not an eccentrically flamboyant design statement…the spire is meant to point straight up, like every other church spire in the known universe.

So what went wrong? The traditional explanation is that it was built with green, unseasoned timbers, which warped over time. But that can’t be it. Builders in the Middle Ages were accustomed to using used green timber, and would have made allowances to cope with it.

A more convincing explanation is that the spire’s 32 tonnes of lead tiles were simply too heavy. According to this theory the sheer weight of the tiles, combined with the failure to use cross-bracing, caused the spire to twist and lean alarmingly.

The omission of cross-bracing has been blamed on the Black Death, a plague that swept through the country between 1348 and 1350. If the experienced craftsmen working on the new Chesterfield church were killed by the disease, the spire may have been finished by unskilled builders to whom the concept of cross-bracing was totally unknown.

Accurate though this explanation may be, it’s disappointingly boring. Unsurprisingly, local folklore offers some more entertaining possibilities. One of these tells that the Devil was resting on the spire, where he was able to keep his balance only by wrapping his tail around it. However the smell of holy incense from inside the church offended him so much that he sneezed violently, jerking his tail in the process and causing the spire to twist.

A second explanation also blames the Devil. Old Nick was resting up on the church spire, his tail tightly wrapped around it while planning mischief and mayhem. In fear for the souls of his fellow townsfolk, one brave man rushed to the church, determined to warn everyone by ringing the church bells. The din was cacophonous. Taken totally by surprise, a shocked Devil lost his balance and toppled from the spire, twisting it as he plunged to the ground.

A third local legend once again points the finger of suspicion at the Devil According to this story, Satan was resting on the spire, tail wrapped round it in the now familiar manner. Looking below, he noticed a wedding about to take place in the church. On closer inspection he realised that the bride was a virgin, an occurrence so surprising in Chesterfield that he fainted from shock. As the unconscious Devil hurtled towards the ground his tail, still wrapped around the spire, twisted it into its current shape.

The fourth theory lets the Devil off the hook, and instead puts the blame squarely on the healthy sexual appetite of Chesterfield residents. According to this version, a virgin got married in St Mary’s, and the church itself was so surprised that its spire turned around to get a better look at such a rare specimen. The legend continues that if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. Don’t hold your breath, folks!

Further explanations for the origin of Chesterfield’s crooked spire are available if you care to look, most of them involving the Devil or unexpected virgins. A definitive, agreed version, doesn’t seem likely to emerge any time soon. However, one thing is beyond dispute: the locals have taken this quirky architectural blunder to their hearts.

For example the local professional soccer team, Chesterfield Town FC, are known to fans as the Spireites, while over the years various local businesses have referred to the crooked spire in their branding and promotions. And who can blame them? Chesterfield’s crooked spire is a spectacular sight, and ensures that an otherwise rather unexceptional town enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol would be impressed.

A remarkable woman, Little Egrets and birth of the RSPB

Our birdwatching has been limited this year, as a result of the Covid restrictions and our continuing caution in the face of this frightening pandemic. We’ve seen no rarities during our occasional birding forays, but one bird we have been pleased to meet up with is the Little Egret. When we started birdwatching over three decades ago these elegant members of the heron family were almost entirely absent from the UK, but they can now routinely be seen in many parts of the country. Their return is a conservation success story.

* * *

Little Egrets were once present here in large numbers, but were wiped out by mankind’s greed. In 1465, for example, 1,000 egrets were served up at a banquet held to celebrate the enthronement of a new Archbishop of York. A century later they were becoming scarce and by the 19th century they’d all but disappeared.

Egrets in continental Europe fared little better, although here it was fashion rather than food that drove the decline. They had been a major component of the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century demand exploded for feathers, and other bird parts, to decorate the hats of wealthy upper- and middle-class women. We know, for example, that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins.

Seen from a modern perspective the wanton slaughter of any species to feed the vanity of shallow fashionistas is appalling. Fortunately, however, it also appalled some of the women at whom the plume trade was notionally directed, initiating a chain of events that led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Today the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.

One of the women determined to stop the slaughter was Emily Williamson (1855-1936). At first she appealed to the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union to take a stand, but when they ignored her letters she realised this was a problem that women themselves could solve.

In 1889 Emily invited a group of like-minded women to her home in Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, to discuss how to the stop the vile plumage trade. The meeting established the Plumage League. Its rules were simple, and to the point:

  • ‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’
  •  ‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food.

Two years later, in 1891, the Plumage League joined forces with the Fur and Feather League. This was also an all-female group and had been set up in the south of England by Eliza Phillips (1823-1916), who shared Emily’s values and aspirations.

Their new organisation was called the Society for the Protection Birds. Led by Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon (1860-1953), and with the Duchess of Portland Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck (1863-1954) as president, the Society grew rapidly. By 1893 it boasted 10,000 members. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

One hundred years ago, on 1 July 1921, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by the Society, Parliament finally passed the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. The Act banned the importation of exotic feathers, and thereby helped save many species from extinction.

Since then the RSPB has gone from strength to strength, campaigning to protect habitats and species both in the UK and across the globe. The RSPB’s nature reserves are also a valued resource for British birdwatchers, and Mrs P and I are proud supporters (Life Fellows, in fact) of this brilliant conservation organisation.

From small acorns do might oak trees grow, and Emily Williamson can never have imagined that her humble initiative in a Manchester suburb would have such profound consequences. She and her fellow founders of the Society were remarkable individuals, all the more so when we reflect on the degree to which women were marginalised in Victorian society.

Thankfully, Emily Williamson is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves. In April 2023 a statue of Emily will be unveiled in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, close to her former home.

* * *

Needless to say, Emily Williamson was not at the forefront of our minds when we spotted our Little Egrets a few weeks ago. I’m sure, however, that she would have been thrilled to see them back in the UK and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

Little Egrets first returned to the UK in significant numbers in 1989. They arrived here naturally, following an expansion of their range into western and northern France during the previous decades. They first bred in 1996, in Dorset, and continue to thrive. There are now thought to be around 700 breeding pairs in the UK, while the over-wintering population is around 4,500 birds.

Little Egrets are handsome birds, and a welcome addition to any wetland habitat. It’s great to have them back here, where they belong.

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Postscript: This essay on The History Press website provides further details on women’s role in the foundation of the RSPB

It’s a cat’s life! It’s a wonderful life!

Our next-door neighbour Jim sadly died at the start of the year. Jim was a great guy, always up for a chat and a joke. He loved gardening, and you could often see him weeding, pruning and primping his immaculate little plot. But with a love of gardening came a loathing of cats, because of the unspeakable things he claimed they did to his flowerbeds. Milky Bar was always persona non grata at Jim’s.

Milky Bar: the sleeping beauty

Since Jim passed, his property has remained unoccupied, and Milky Bar has taken full advantage. A few days ago we spotted him curled up on the roof of Jim’s shed, lapping up the weak November sunshine. While Jim was alive such behaviour would have been unthinkable. Our lovely neighbour would have been up and at him, cursing colourfully and swiftly driving the unwelcome intruder away. Now, however, different rules apply, and Milky Bar has claimed squatters’ rights.

Viewed from one of our upstairs windows, Milky Bar laps up the November sunshine on Jim’s shed roof

Of course, Milky Bar has claimed squatters’ rights in our own garden for several years, although “snoozers’ rights” might be a more accurate description. Every corner of our little garden has been explored, and most of them have been slept in.

Collapsed on the patio

Now, I’m not saying that Milky Bar is lazy. He will sometimes chase an insect and may even stalk the occasional pigeon, but his ambition seems to be to spend as much of his life as possible dozing peacefully, wherever the fancy takes him. Recently we’ve noticed he’s putting on a bit of weight, and is looking quite stout around the middle. I can only assume this is a consequence of his personal fitness regime, which involves countless hours of horizontal, eyes-closed “exercise”.

Nesting on the “pagoda rockery,” shaded by bushes and a Japanese-style stone lantern.

Milky Bar is very good at dozing, and plainly likes to dedicate his days to a hobby at which he excels. If dozing were a sport in the feline Olympics, Milky Bar would be up on the podium, gold medal dangling proudly round his neck. But he’d be fast asleep, naturally.

Tightly curled up on the arbour, protected from rain, wind and sunstroke!

Milky Bar isn’t unique amongst cats in his love of sleep, although he is a particularly fine practitioner of the art. Here’s what American writer, critic, and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) wrote on the matter:

Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many different ailments, but I have never heard of one who suffered from insomnia.

Sweet dreams are made of this

If you suspect I’m exaggerating and may be maligning our four-footed friend, I would draw you attention to the photographic evidence accompanying this post. Mrs P always keeps her camera handy, just in case some rare bird or butterfly alights in our garden to say hi. This never happens, of course, but her photographic skills are engaged almost daily as she documents Milky Bar’s activities. Or maybe that should be his “lack of activities”?

A wooden bridge crosses the narrowest part of our pond, and is a great place to sleep. Note the net, which I had to attach to the bridge to prevent Milky Bar fishing from it!

What amuses me most of all is Milky Bar’s sense of entitlement. He clearly believes it is his right to sleep wherever he likes, whenever he likes and for just as long as he likes. But I suppose this should come as no great surprise, for as the late Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) – one of the wittiest writers ever to grace the English language – delighted in pointing out…

In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.

Asleep on top of the wall that separates our garden from that of our other neighbour

But to be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Milky Bar’s sense of entitlement. He’s welcome to spend time in our garden whenever he wishes. The last 18 months have been very difficult, courtesy of Covid-19 and the measures needed to help mitigate its effects. But a visit from Milky Bar has always raised our spirits, even on the darkest of days.

I have an old dustbin (trash-can) behind the shed. It’s great for storing odds and ends, and also makes a perfect cat bed.

It matters not one bit to me that, for most of the time he spends in our presence, the little fellow is fast asleep. It’s plainly very exhausting being Milky Bar, and the best way of recuperating is to snooze the day away. And who can blame our brave little soldier for taking care of himself in this manner? After all, it’s a cat’s life. It’s a wonderful life.

And finally…is nothing sacred? Here’s Milky Bar, nearly 2 metres off the ground, dozing on the bird table. Unsurprisingly, we saw no birds that day!