Back to nature – a day at Pensthorpe Natural Park

Finally, after more than two years confined to barracks by the pandemic, we’re back on the road again. Not overseas: the timing still doesn’t seem right, and in any case the burning desire to visit far off foreign parts has cooled a bit. Maybe the passion will return in due course, maybe not, but unless and until our outlook changes there’s plenty to keep us occupied here in the UK.

Created by the gravel extraction industry, the lakes at Pensthorpe are now managed for wildlife. This shot shows only a small section of one of the reserve’s lakes.

The county of Norfolk is one of our favourite English destinations, and it was the obvious place for us to take our first proper UK holiday (that’s “vacation” to you guys in North America!) since summer 2019. And every time we visit Norfolk we make a point of spending a day at the wonderful Pensthorpe Natural Park.

Mandarin ducks are one of the more exotic species found at Pensthorpe

Pensthorpe started out as a large gravel extraction enterprise, with over 1 million tonnes being dug out and carted off to who-knows-where. But instead of becoming a permanent scar on the landscape the site has been sensitively transformed into something of real value to the local community, and to visitors from further afield like Mrs P and I. Today it’s a bit of an oddball mixture, part old-fashioned waterfowl exhibit, part nature reserve, part conservation hub, part sculpture park, part kids’ activity centre. There’s something for just about everyone at Pensthorpe Natural Park.

We were pleased to get good views of this Four Spotted Chaser

The Park is run as a business, which in principle sits a little uncomfortably with me. In practice, however, the owners – Bill and Deb Jordan, top dogs in a family-owned breakfast cereal company – appear genuinely committed to the restoration and protection of the natural world. There’s nothing to suggest they put profit ahead of sound conservation practice, and I’m therefore relaxed in saying that they get my vote.

“Wild Boar” by George Hider (2014), one of the eye-catching sculptural pieces dotted around the Park.

Bill and Deb win further brownie points from me for setting up a charitable trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, to work with their commercial operation. Established in 2003, the Trust aims “to establish a centre of excellence, habitat management and restoration alongside conservation of wetland and farmland bird species through captive breeding programmes in national conservation partnerships.” Corncrakes, cranes, red squirrels and turtle doves are amongst the species currently benefitting from the Trust’s activities.

Pensthorpe is a partner in a captive-breeding conservation project to boost numbers of wild corncrakes

Our return visit to Pensthorpe last month did not disappoint, even though the management has yet to erect a commemorative plaque at the spot where I broke my ankle in a fall on a snowy winter’s day in 2013! The lakes and woods teemed with wildlife, and although there was nothing exceptionally rare to be seen on this occasion it was great to get back into natural world after the miseries of Covid.

Lucky visitors to Pensthorpe may stumble across a muntjac deer

It was also great to bump into a former work colleague, albeit totally unexpected given that we were around 120 miles (nearly 200 km) from the office and had not seen each other since she moved on some eight or nine years ago! Amanda is a lovely lady, passionate about sport, physical fitness and wellbeing, and – as I now discovered – birdwatching too.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, an unexpected Pensthorpe bonus

Amanda explained that she is currently working on the government’s Green Social Prescribing project. The initiative enables doctors to help improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities amongst suitable patients by prescribing “nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.”

Families of Egyptian Geese wander the Park, helping to keep the grass short!

I was previously only vaguely aware of Green Social Prescribing. But hearing Amanda talk about the initiative as we sat together in a bird hide, gazing out over a tranquil lake where ducks, geese, and swans were going about their daily business and squadrons of swallows whizzed happily overhead, it now made perfect sense.

A large walk-through aviary allows visitors to get close to Bearded Tits (aka Bearded Reedlings), birds that are tricky to see in the wild

I felt more at peace on our day at Pensthorpe, and during the visits we made the same week to several other Norfolk nature reserves, than at any time since Covid hit. For me there is no doubt that getting back to nature – close to wildlife and wild places, distant from the stresses and strains of 21st century urban life – revives the spirit and nurtures the soul.

“Stag” by George Hider (2017)

Before our visit last month it had been around three years since our last trip to Pensthorpe. But guess what – we’ll be going back real soon!

So, follow our example and get back to nature, guys. You know it makes sense!

The goose that never was

Here’s a question that I know has been on your mind for ages: when is a goose not a goose? The answer is, quite simply, “When it’s an Egyptian Goose.” Despite its name and goose-like appearance this bird is actually a type of duck, most closely related to the Shelducks. And to complicate matters even further it’s not strictly Egyptian either, being native to large swathes of Africa and not just the land of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Goose is plainly a bird suffering a full-scale identity crisis!

This non-goose species appears to have got the first part of its name because it featured in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred. It was first brought to the UK in the late 17th century, when its pale brown and grey plumage, with distinctive dark brown eye-patches, made a striking addition to ornamental wildfowl collections.  Some of the captive birds soon made an understandable bid for freedom, and the escapees established a small feral population in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England.

Numbers remained tiny for centuries, the British climate proving to be a bit of a challenge for a species that is native to sub-tropical regions and habitually breeds in January. The bird remained stubbornly confined to Norfolk, so when we encountered one at Rutland Water – just 50 miles (80km) from Platypus Towers – around 20 years ago I refused to believe that the creature in front of us could possibly be an Egyptian Goose. Mrs P stuck to her guns, however, and was eventually proved correct, something I am never allowed to forget!

Indeed, this sighting was a sign of things to come. After being static for so long, numbers of Egyptian Geese in the UK have expanded rapidly in the last three or four decades. The reason for this sudden change is uncertain, although the finger of suspicion inevitably points at climate change.

While Norfolk remains the Egyptian Goose’s UK stronghold, it has now spread widely – and is breeding successfully – across eastern and southern England. We regularly see them at the nearby Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire, and have encountered them at several other wetland habitats in our region. The RSPB tells us there are now around 1,100 breeding pairs in the UK, with an overwintering population of around 3,400 birds.

Plainly, the Egyptian Goose – the goose that never was – is here to stay.

Year of the (Amur) Tiger

According to the Chinese calendar, a few days ago the world transited from the Year of the Ox to the Year of the Tiger. At Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP), however, it’s always the year of the tiger. Or, to be more precise, the year of the Amur Tiger, three of which currently call the Park home.

The Amur Tiger, also known as the Siberian Tiger, is one of six tiger sub-species, and is the largest big cat in the world. Adult males may weigh up to an impressive 200kg (440lb). These are majestic, iconic animals, and YWP visitors can often be seen gazing in awe at Vladimir, Sayan and Tschuna as they prowl around their ample enclosure.

Our consciences may be troubled at seeing such magnificent beasts living behind a fence, but the sad truth is that those tigers are lucky to be alive at all. In the 1940s the Amur Tiger was teetering on the edge of extinction. Fewer than 50 individuals remained in the wild at that time, after decades of political instability that had seen Russia bloodily reborn as part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had a wretched reputation in the latter half of the 20th century. Those of us who lived through the Cold War, wondering anxiously when the Kremlin’s missiles might come a-calling, don’t have particularly fond memories of the Soviets. On the face of it, theirs was not a regime that would be expected to place much emphasis on wildlife conservation.

But when it came to saving the Amur Tiger, the Soviet Union certainly stepped up to the plate. In 1947 they gave full protection to the tigers living within their borders, the first country in the world ever to do so. Killing tigers was outlawed and hunting of their main prey species, boar and deer, was restricted.

Government intervention came just in time and numbers have recovered, albeit very slowly. By 2005, the population of wild Amur Tigers had reached 330, and according to a recent report in the Moscow Times is now estimated at over 600.

So successful has the recovery been in Russia that a few Amur Tigers have now crossed the border into north-east China. The Chinese government is encouraging the process through the creation of two new nature reserves, one of which (the Tiger and Leopard National Park, or TLNP) is 50% larger than the USA’s wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Meanwhile zoos throughout Europe, including Yorkshire Wildlife Park, are participating in a European Breeding Programme which acts as an insurance policy potentially supporting numbers and genetic diversity in the wild population.

In 2015 one of YWP’s females (Tschuna) gave birth to three cubs called Harley, Hector and Hope. The youngsters are now grown up, and have been dispersed to zoos in other parts of the world as part of the ongoing species breeding programme. This all happened some time before I retired from work and so, sadly, Mrs P and I never got see them. But we’re regular visitors to Yorkshire Wildlife Park these days, and are hoping for another similarly “happy event” very soon.

One day, maybe, such captive breeding programmes will be unnecessary, and the encouraging news emerging from Russia and China offers some cause for optimism on this count. In the meantime, however, it’s good to know that places like Yorkshire Wildlife Park are doing their bit to protect the future of this magnificent species of big cat.

You can enjoy some film of YWP’s tigers by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

The third Monday of January is known to some in the UK as Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The theory was first espoused in 2005 by a “life coach,” which immediately raises a vitally important question: what the hell is a life coach? Stage coaches – definitely! Football coaches – maybe. But a life coach – really? Surely life’s complicated enough already without total strangers waltzing up to tell us how to do it better. Dear god, why do we insist on doing stuff like this to ourselves?

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

But I digress! According to believers in Blue Monday, on this particular day we’re likely to be regretting the impact of Christmas excesses on waistline and wallet, and will already have miserably failed to stick to our New Year Resolutions. Daylight hours will be short, the weather inclement and television schedules probably packed with unwatchable rubbish and unwanted repeats. And Mondays are, of course, loathed by anyone with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work pattern.

“Most of the usual suspects were there, including…Mute Swans”

It’s nonsense, of course, total bunkum. Even the guy who first came up with the notion is reported to have subsequently disavowed it, describing Blue Monday as a self-fulfilling prophecy that “is not particularly helpful”. But, just to be on the safe side, this year Mrs P and I decided to banish the Blue Monday blues from our lives by doing a spot of birdwatching.

The weather, as it turned out, was perfect, one of those crisp, cold and gloriously sunny midwinter days that make you feel glad to be alive. So we quickly got togged up in our thermals, grabbed cameras and binoculars, and headed off up the M1 to Hardwick ponds.

A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of our home county’s most significant stately homes, and its impressive parkland includes several large bodies of water that are a haven for a variety of wildfowl. We try to visit Hardwick ponds several times each year, and are never disappointed.

On this occasion both of the larger ponds were partially frozen. Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice contemplating this unexpected turn of events. The ducks and geese, however, were having none of it and instead sought out those areas of the ponds that remained ice-free.

Female goosanders are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wings

Most of the usual suspects were there, including Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe. A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain. Nothing remarkable in any of this, of course, but what really caught our eye was a gang of good-looking Goosanders.

Goosanders are streamlined diving ducks, fish-eaters that use their long, serrated bills to catch and hold on to their slippery prey. They are members of the sawbill family, which also includes the similar-looking Red-Breasted Merganser. To add to the confusion Goosanders can also be seen in the USA, but there they are known as Common Mergansers!

Male goosanders have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. They have a black back, and a grey rump and tail.

Whereas the Red-Breasted Merganser is most commonly seen around the UK’s coastline in winter, Goosanders favour freshwater. Their summer habitat is the fast-flowing upland rivers of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, where they nest in holes in riverbank trees. In winter they move to gravel pits and reservoirs, as well as lakes or large ponds such as those at Hardwick.

In common with most species of duck, the Goosander displays a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Adult males have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. The have a black back, and a grey rump and tail. Females are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wing.

A graphic lesson in sexual dimorphism: male on the left, female on the right, but both the same species!

The Goosander is a relatively new arrival in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Its numbers slowly built up there for a century, until in 1970 the species crossed the border to begin colonising England and Wales. There are now thought to be close to 4,000 breeding pairs across the UK as a whole, with the wintering population numbering around 12,000 birds.

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

At least a dozen members of that wintering population were present at Hardwick ponds on 15 January, many more than we’ve ever encountered before at a single viewing. It was a delight to see them, and all the other birds that were strutting their stuff that morning. You can catch a glimpse of the Goosanders – and some of Hardwick’s other avian residents too – by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Blue Monday may have come calling for us last week, but I’m pleased to report that we were very much not at home!

“Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice”. See also one female and two male Goosanders in the open water to the rear of the gulls.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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

After a gap of 800 years…there are beavers in Derbyshire again!

The UK has one of the worst records of any country in the world for protecting its historic biodiversity. This should come as no surprise to those of us who live on this crazy, crowded island where caring for the natural world has traditionally played second fiddle to making a quick buck. But the tide is beginning to turn: up and down the country many of us are fighting back, seeking to look after what we still have and, where possible, to reintroduce what we have lost. Which brings me to the inspiring story of Derbyshire’s beavers.

If the experts are to be believed, beavers were wiped out in my home county around 800 years ago. Now I’m not sure quite how they know that, I can’t quite believe that one of the local lords recorded the event for posterity in his diary, writing something like “Great news, just exterminated the last beaver in Derbyshire, so now our trees will be safe forever…until, that is, we want to chop them down for firewood, or to make floorboards or beer barrels or whatever.

To be honest, the exact date doesn’t really matter. The incontestable fact is that, following the end of the last Ice Age, beavers were common hereabouts for many thousand of years, before becoming extinct in the Middle Ages.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Film of the first beaver being released at Willington Wetland Nature Reserve on a blustery day in late September 2021

On one level, the extinction of the beaver can be seen simply as the regrettable loss of one of this island’s few cuddly mammals, a mammal guaranteed to elicit sighs of “Ah, so cute” from ordinary folk encountering them going about their daily business in the wild. But there’s more to it than that. Beavers are landscape engineers, a keystone species that shapes environmental conditions in a manner beneficial to countless other species.

By digging canal systems and damming water courses, beavers create diverse wetland areas, places where fish can safely spawn and other animals such as otters, water voles and water shrews can make their homes. Insects thrive in the waterways constructed and maintained by beavers, and these in turn nourish a range of bird species. In creating suitable habitats for themselves, therefore, beavers help create robust ecosystems in which a whole range of species can flourish.

But it’s not just wildlife that benefits from these hefty rodents beavering away in the countryside – there’s a payoff for humans too. It is argued that beaver dams improve water-quality by acting as filters which trap soil and other pollutants washed into rivers from surrounding farmland.  The ponds created by beaver dams also impact on the flow of rivers, and can help mitigate downstream flooding after periods of heavy rain.

VIDEO CREDIT: (c) Helen Birkinshaw via Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. On Friday 8th October, the day after the second pair of beavers were released, the male was spotted swimming near the release site

Given these credentials it’s no surprise that environmental organisations have long been keen to see beavers reintroduced to the UK. Scotland led the way, and there are spots there where animals reintroduced from continental Europe are already thriving. In England the first major reintroduction initiative was in Devon, led by Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with a range of other interested parties.

Having watched for several years the success of beaver reintroductions in other parts of the country, Mrs P and I were thrilled when our local conservation organisation – Derbyshire Wildlife Trust – announced its own plans for a project at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve in the south of the county. When the Trust appealed for donations to help fund the initiative we were pleased to help.

Progress stalled for a while due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. But at last, a few weeks ago, we got an email from the Trust inviting us to sign up to attend an online event at which a pair of beavers would be released into their new Derbyshire home. The animals had been captured on the River Tay in Scotland, where the species is now doing very well. After a period of quarantine and some health checks the beavers were transported to Derbyshire in special wooden crates on the back of a pick up truck.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Camera trap footage of one of the beavers snacking on a branch. Plainly the beavers have already begun to modify the local landscape!

The release of the two animals went perfectly. We’d feared they would dash for the water the second the doors of their crates were opened, and immediately dive to disappear from view. Instead they took their time, seemingly untroubled by the stress of their long road journey, and put on a bit of a show for their adoring online fans. Huddled around our laptop at home, it was a privilege to watch the images of history being made just a few short miles away. At last, after an absence of some 800 years, beavers were back in Derbyshire!

A couple of weeks later the Trust released a second pair of beavers into their enclosure at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve, The enclosure is surrounded by a specially designed beaver-proof fence and large enough at 40 hectares, or just shy of 100 acres, to allow the animals to live entirely natural lives. The brook flowing through the enclosure guarantees a suitable wetland habitat, and a wide range of native plants and trees will offer the beavers all the food they need to live long and happy lives.

With a bit of luck, next year we will be celebrating the first beavers to be born in Derbyshire since the Middle Ages!

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. More camera trap footage. The Willington Reserve’s newest residents seem relaxed, and are making themselves at home!

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For further information on the reintroduction of beavers in the UK see the following links

Swan Lake lives up to its name

Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.

Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.

There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.

Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.

Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)

In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.

Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks.  Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.

Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.

By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked. 

Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!