Isle of Man highlights – (4) The Manx National Glens

Environmentalists are big fans of national parks, areas of land protected by governments for their beautiful countryside, rich wildlife and cultural heritage. All civilised countries have them, wearing them like badges of honour to demonstrate their commitment to conservation.

The word “park” conjures up the idea of great size, implying huge tracts of land stretching as far as the eye can see. But the Isle of Man is tiny, less than a quarter of the area of the Lake District, England’s foremost national park. A Manx national park is out of the question, but not to be outdone the island’s government has opted for National Glens instead.

A glen is a narrow valley, the word being derived from the Gaelic language, and there’s no doubt the glens are amongst the Isle of Man’s best natural features. They are heavily wooded, featuring rushing streams, tumbling waterfalls, fizzing cascades, deep rock pools and lush vegetation. Scattered here and there along them are the remains of watermills, echoes of a bygone age.

I don’t think you’d describe the National Glens as spectacular – the scale is wrong, too small – but definitely attractive and serene. They’re a perfect getaway from the hurly-burly of 21st century living.

The Manx government has designated no fewer than 18 mountain and coastal National Glens. These are preserved and maintained in a semi-natural state by its Forestry, Amenity and Lands Division, and are freely accessible to locals and tourists alike.

Pocket-sized though they are, the National Glens are a real asset to a little island in the middle of the Irish Sea. These compact and picturesque gems give the Isle of Man an unexpected but distinctive charm. Small really is beautiful.

In my book, few things in the natural world beat the sight and sound of running water amid the myriad greens of a secluded, verdant valley. Take a look at my YouTube video for a sense of the peaceful atmosphere in Silverdale Glen, Glen Maye, Ballaglass Glen and Glen Dhoon:

Isle of Man highlights – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

Isle of Man highlights – (2) Wallabies gone walkabout!

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.

Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:

“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”

Paige Havlin, quoted in Lucy Quaggin: Living In The Wild On The Isle Of Man, Huffington Post (Australian edition) 07/03/2017.

A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)

Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.

I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.

The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!

The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.

Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?

Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.

Joey!

The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.

During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.

Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.

As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.

The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.

At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?

I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.

And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

* * *

Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Introducing the Isle of Man

With opportunities to travel drastically curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdown there’s both plenty of time and good reason to look back on happier, more innocent days. Exactly two years ago we were exploring the Isle of Man, enjoying its rugged coastline, rural landscapes, scenic glens and varied wildlife. It’s a great place to visit, but if you live outside the British Isles you most likely know very little about it. Having said that, even most Brits are a bit baffled!

The Isle of Man – or Mann, to give it its other name – lies in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Ireland. At 572 km² it’s less than three quarters the size of New York City, and has a population of around 82,000. Although its inhabitants are British citizens, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom. The Brits are responsible for its defence, but it has its own governing administration and doesn’t have representation in the British parliament. It never formally joined the European Union, meaning that it was spared the turmoil of the Brexit debate.

The Laxey Wheel, the world’s largest waterwheel

Mann is a “crown dependency,” meaning that it technically belongs to the reigning British monarch. This arrangement dates from 1764, when King George III purchased feudal rights to the island from the Lord of Mann. He also bought the title, which passed to his descendants. As a result Queen Elizabeth is the Lord of Mann, even though she’s not a Lord in the way most people would understand the word. First Lady of Mann might be a more accurate description.

Confused? Me too! In my view the best description of Mann is “international oddball.” The Isle of Man is five-star anomaly.

10 more things you (maybe) didn’t know about the Isle of Man

#1 The island was first settled by the Celts, and although the Vikings, Scots and English followed later, their Manx Gaelic language predominated until the 19th century when English began to take over. The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but efforts are underway to revive the language. In a 2015 survey, 1,800 people claimed some knowledge it.

#2 The Isle of Man parliament – the Tynwald – was established by Viking settlers in 979 AD. It claims to be the world’s oldest continuously operating parliament.

The Laxey Wheel, 22 metres in diameter

#3. In 1854 the largest waterwheel in the world was built on Mann. At 22 metres in diameter, the Laxey Wheel was constructed to pump water from the lead mines situated around 350 metres below ground.

#4 The Tynwald struck a blow for gender equality in 1881 when it became the first national parliament to give women the vote, albeit only women who were quite wealthy. New Zealand followed in 1893, and Finland in 1906. To its eternal shame, the UK did not approve (limited) female suffrage until 1918.

The volunteer-run narrow gauge railway is popular with tourists

#5 With its low rate of taxes the Isle of Man has long been regarded as a tax haven, where the idle rich can hide their wealth from the acquisitive eyes of their own governments. In recent years its administration has tried to shake off this reputation by signing tax information exchange deals with a number of countries. However the offshore financial sector remains the most important part of the island’s economy, while tourism also makes a significant contribution.

#6 The island is world famous for its population of cats with no tails. In fact, there are two varieties of Manx cat; the ‘rumpy’ has no tail at all, whilst the ‘stumpy’ has a very small tail.

Traditional house, with Manx cat in the foreground (looks like a “rumpy!”)

#7 Every summer the island’s roads play host to one of the world’s most dangerous and exciting motorcycle races. Between 1907 and 2019 the TT Races have resulted in 151 fatalities during races and official practices.

#8  According to local superstition the word “rat” is unlucky and should never be uttered on the Isle of Man. When necessary, locals refer to “longtails”. 

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes tourists to the 620m high summit

#9 Mann’s highest mountain is Snaefell. Tourists are saved the discomfort of trekking to its 620m high summit by the narrow gauge Snaefell Mountain Railway. On reaching the end of the line you can see England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But as this is only possible on clear days, most visitors to the island don’t manage it (including us!) 

#10 Despite being over 15,000 km from Australia, the Isle of Man has a healthy, self-sustaining population of wild wallabies! I’ll tell you more about them, and some of my other Manx highlights, in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

When the cloud clears, the bleak peak of Snaefell dominates views of the island

A Red Kite comes calling

One of the inevitable consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we’ve spent pretty much every moment of the last three months at home. Planned visits to Cornwall (2 weeks), Norfolk (10 days) and Liverpool (5 days) have all been abandoned, while day trips we would have done to places closer to Platypus Towers have also been impossible. Our horizons have been severely limited by the crisis.

However, it’s not all bad news. Spending more time chez nous has enabled us to better appreciate the wildlife that visits our garden.

We live deep in a suburban housing estate, and our private outdoor space isn’t big – just 90 square metres. Nevertheless, ten species of butterfly have passed through in recent weeks, and despite the best efforts of visiting cats Milky Bar and Malteser to have them for dinner, various birds have also dropped in, tempted by a well-stocked birdtable. A few months ago I wrote in this blog that birds don’t come here anymore, so the return of our feathered friends has been very welcome.

But the very best garden wildlife encounter has been courtesy of a Red Kite, swooping so low over us that it almost seemed we could reach up and touch it. It didn’t stay long, probably no more than 30 seconds, so no chance for photos or video, but the encounter is etched indelibly into the memory. We have been in this house since the mid-1980s, and if anyone had suggested then that one day we’d experience a fly-past by a Red Kite we’d have assumed they were completely out to lunch.

Amongst our collection of books about birding we have a field guide published in the year we moved into this house. It describes the Red Kite as uncommon, with fewer than 45 breeding pairs in the country. The distribution map shows the species confined to the mountains of mid-Wales, around 150 miles (240 km) from Platypus Towers.

But fortune has looked kindly upon the Red Kite over the last 30 years, thanks primarily to a spectacularly successful reintroduction programme.

Red Kites were once found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, both in traditional countryside haunts and in urban settings. They were so common that William Shakespeare described London as a “city of kites and crows.” Kites were welcome visitors to towns, where they scavenged waste discarded by the inhabitants, and this avian garbage disposal service was so highly valued that the birds found themselves protected by an English Royal Charter in the 15th century!

But times changed, and these impressive raptors were transformed from heroes into villains, being seen as a threat to food supplies and to game shooting interests. Intense persecution followed, and around 150 to 200 years ago Red Kites became extinct in England and Scotland, clinging on only in remote, mountainous areas of mid-Wales. Remarkably, genetic fingerprinting tells us that the entire relict Welsh population were descendants of a single female, an indication of how close the bird came to extinction in Wales too.

Numbers of Red Kites stabilised in Wales, but although the bird was given legal protection and some nests were protected from egg collectors it seemed unlikely that the growth in numbers would ever be sufficient to allow successful recolonisation beyond its borders. Further intervention was required if England and Scotland were to re-establish their own populations, and eventually the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) stepped up to the plate.

Their ambitious reintroduction programme began in 1989, with birds taken from Sweden – and later, Spain – released at sites in southern England (Buckinghamshire) and northern Scotland (the Black Isle). Other release sites came on stream later in the project, which lasted more than two decades, creating extra hubs from which the rest of the country could be recolonised.

By any standard, the Red Kite reintroduction programme has been a spectacular success. Under the heading “a triumph for conservation,” the RSPB website reports that there are now around 46,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The birds still face threats, in particular “illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables,” but the Red Kite’s situation has improved out of all recognition since the reintroduction programme began.

Although we were lucky to get good views of a Red Kite flying over Platypus Towers a few weeks ago, I imagine it will be some time before they become a regular sight here: recolonisation is a gradual process. However there are places in the UK where sightings are pretty much guaranteed, particularly in Wales, which is home to around 50% of the entire UK breeding population.

Indeed, Red Kites have become a tourist attraction in Wales, with one enterprising farmer turning them into a major business opportunity. Gigrin Farm’s website says:

We are a 200 acre family-run working farm, now famous for our Red Kite Feeding Centre. Hundreds of Red Kites feed here every day. It is a truly breathtaking spectacle which we hope you will come along and witness for yourself.

SOURCE: Gigrin Farm website, retrieved 12/06/2020

They do not exaggerate. I’m pleased to report that Gigrin Farm offers spectacular, close-up views of an extraordinary number of Red Kites, as well as a glimpse of the rare white-morph Red Kite and sundry other birds including buzzards, ravens and rooks. The photographs illustrating this post were taken by Mrs P when we spent an afternoon at Gigrin in November 2018.

Although the farm is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds continue to be fed. When regulations allow I would happily recommend anyone with a passion for Red Kites to visit Gigrin Farm…you won’t be disappointed! Meanwhile, click on the link below to see the YouTube video I made during our visit.

My video of feeding time at the Gigrin Farm Red Kite Centre

Liebster Award (part 2)

Last week’s post featured my replies to eleven questions posed by New Zealander Liz Cowburn of the Exploring Colour blog, who had nominated me for a Liebster Award. This week I complete the Liebster process by revealing 11 things about me which readers may – or may not – find vaguely interesting or amusing, before moving on to ask 11 questions of my own and nominating a few bloggers to answer them.

11 things about me

1. I was born and raised in west London, under the Heathrow Airport flightpath. I left London at the age of 18 to go to Cambridge University, and never lived there again. I don’t miss it at all, but when I go back and mix with the locals my London accent returns within minutes!

2. In my childhood our garden backed on to a small river – well, more of a stream really – and my happiest days were spent on the riverbank, chasing butterflies, searching for slow-worms and wielding my fishing net in pursuit of sticklebacks. My love of nature and wildlife was born right there. More than any other place on Earth, that riverbank and what I found there made me what I am today.

Red Admiral – one of my favourite childhood butterflies

3. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to one of London’s top schools, an hour’s journey by bus and tube train from my suburban home. It was a Direct Grant Grammar School. These don’t exist any more, but back in the day they were a noble attempt to promote social mobility and greater equality. Most parents had to pay to send their children to these A-list academic establishments, but a few places were reserved, free-of-charge, for children of the “deserving poor.” I was fortunate to win one of those free places, and the quality of education I received as a result was brilliant. It was life changing.

The experience of being a child from a family with a modest income surrounded by youngsters from much wealthier backgrounds helped shape my political outlook. At the time several contemporaries suggested that a career in politics beckoned, but luckily I grew up!

4. Early on I had ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, but at secondary school it became clear that I wasn’t good enough at science to achieve this. However I also discovered an interest in, and talent for, the study of history. I carried that interest through to my university studies, where I also got into archaeology. History remains one of my passions.

5. During my mid and late teens I became a fervent supporter of Brentford F.C., a local soccer club playing in the (then) Fourth Division of the English Football League. My new best pal Pete introduced me to dubious pleasures of league soccer, and having quickly caught the bug I probably didn’t miss more than half a dozen home matches over a period of six or seven years. To be honest, as well as being the least fashionable team in London, Brentford were rubbish most of the time. Supporting them therefore taught me important life lessons, particularly with regard to managing my expectations and coping with disappointment!

white and blue soccer ball on ground inside goal

IMAGE CREDIT: Brandi Ibrao via Unsplash

6 On leaving university I spent 6 months in Bristol training to be an accountant. However the experience of spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing was profoundly depressing, so I gave it up and opted instead for a career in public service.

7. I have lived in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands of England, for over 40 years. Derbyshire has several claims to fame, including the UK’s first National Park (the Peak District), the world’s first industrial cotton mills established along the Derwent Valley in the late 18th century, several notable stately homes including Chatsworth, Kedleston, Haddon and Sudbury Halls, and the production of world-class ceramics at the Royal Crown Derby factory.

Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, built between 1660 and 1680

8. In Prague a few years ago I found myself falsely accused of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic! We were wandering in some sort of wooded parkland on a hill overlooking the city centre and, it seems, innocently blundered into an area frequented by ne’er-do-wells. Suddenly two plain-clothed officers leapt out from behind a bush and confronted me, saying that since I was in this place I must be smuggling Albanians, or failing that drugs or foreign currency, into their Mother Country.

When I protested my innocence the goons said only “Is OK, is control, is control, is OK.” I did not find this reassuring. However, having subjected me to a thorough body search and found no illicit drugs, illegal currency or unwelcome Albanians secreted about my person they let me go with a cheery wave. Bizarre, but true.

9. Mrs P and I have visited all 50 states of the USA. The “project” took around 18 years, but could have been completed a lot sooner had we not returned time and again to the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

10. Over the last few years I have rediscovered my love of folk music, particularly English and Celtic traditional folk. The best folk music is earthy and authentic, echoing a simpler world with fewer frivolous distractions (you know what I mean, stuff like Facebook, the X-Factor and endless selfies,) and more connected with nature, the land and the seasons.

When I was studying history I came across The World We Have Lost, a book by Peter Laslett about English social history before the Industrial Revolution. For me, much of English folk music is a reminder of the lost world that Laslett writes about. This song, sung by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith about the rhythm of the seasons in an agrarian landscape, is a case in point:

I have no musical talent whatsoever, but wish more than ever that I could sing in tune or maybe knock out a few notes on a fiddle, guitar or mandolin, so that I could be more than just a passive consumer of the folk music genre.

11. My favourite bird is the humble oystercatcher. Although I’ve watched birds on 6 continents and seen many rare and beautiful species, the oystercatcher gets my vote because it’s a bit of a Jack-the-Lad: loud, feisty and unapologetically full of itself, always strutting around to show off its good looks and screaming abuse at anyone or anything encroaching on its turf. In human form these characteristics would be a nightmare, but in a bird they’re strangely endearing … to me, anyway.

Eurasian Oystercatcher, an avian Jack-the-Lad

11 Questions for my nominees

  1. Why do you write your blog?
  2. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
  3. What do you usually eat for breakfast? And what would be your dream breakfast, prepared free-of-charge by a top chef?
  4. Dogs or cats?
  5. Which four historical figures (2m, 2f) would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
  6. Where is your favourite place to visit?
  7. How important is Nature in your life, and how do you get close to it?
  8. If you were reincarnated, what animal or bird would you like to be?
  9. Do you have a favourite book, one that you return to time and again? Why is so special to you?
  10. Your house is burning down. All the other people and their pets have got out safely but you only have time to save one personal possession. What will you save?
  11. We all know about the terrible impact of Covid-19 on individuals and communities, but is there an upside? Has the crisis had any positive impact on you and your life?
Newfoundland, Dark Tickle, 2017 (7)

Dogs or cats?

My nominations for a Liebster Award

This has been difficult. Some of the blogs I would have nominated have declared themselves award-free, while others have recently been so-honoured (Liz, Ann, Mike, this means you!) So my list comprises a few blogs that have kept me entertained, diverted or informed during the Covid-19 lockdown. If you’re not listed here but fancy having a go, please do so with my best wishes.

If, however, you appear on the list but don’t want to take part that’s OK too. There’s no obligation whatsoever, and I won’t be offended. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and had fun doing it, but I know it won’t suit everyone. The choice is yours.

My nominations, in no particular order, are

  1. National Parks with T
  2. Living in Nature
  3. Still Normal
  4. Butterflies to Dragsters
  5. Back Yard Biology
  6. Anyone else who wants a go!

A reminder of the rules for nominees

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Variable Oystercatcher, a Jack-the-Lad seen in New Zealand, November 2019

Reflections on World Penguin Day

What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?

Penguins: cultural icons, and very tasty chocolate-covered biscuits! P..P..Pick up a Penguin!

Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.

And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!

So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.

The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.

In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.

Galapagos Penguin: 48 cm tall, weight around 5.5lbs

During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.

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It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.

Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.

Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.

On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!

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Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin makes landfall!

Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.

Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin returns to the ocean, grubby from its overland journey

Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.

Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.

The Fiordland Crested Penguin walks with a distinctive stooped posture

The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.

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New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.

Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.

A Yellow-eyed Penguin emerges from the sea, dripping like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie

The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.

The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!

Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.

While the sealion is distracted, this Yellow-eyed Penguin follows a fence-line to return to its chick

At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.

Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!

Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”

World Curlew Day

Yesterday – 21 April – was World Curlew Day! It probably passed you by: let’s face it, the news media are concentrating pretty much all their attention on one topic right now, understandably focussing on Coronavirus rather than curlews. Environmental issues aren’t perceived as a priority today, but while we follow the life and death struggle of fellow citizens coping with the COVID-19 virus, this magnificent bird is engaged in a battle of its own. Curlews are in big trouble.

The curlew is the largest of all European waders, an unmistakable bird with a brown body, long legs and a diagnostic downward-curving bill. And then there’s its liquid, evocative and haunting call.

Curlews overwinter on tidal mudflats and saltmarshes, and this is where Mrs P and I mostly see them, during our winter birding breaks. They used to breed widely both in upland and lowland Britain, but changes in farming practices have massively reduced lowland breeding success.

There are reckoned to be around 65,000 breeding pairs of Eurasian Curlews in Britain. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it, until you realise that this is a reduction of about 65% since 1970. And given that Britain accounts for around a quarter of the world breeding population of these birds, the decline here is bad news for the species as a whole.

In 2008, Eurasian Curlews were added to the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of birds deemed to be of global conservation concern, becoming officially classified as “Near Threatened.”

Ours is not the only species of curlew under threat. A century ago the world boasted eight species of these large, long-lived waders. Today there are only six, of which three are on the Red List. As a group, they are claimed to be among the most threatened migratory birds on Earth. In response to their plight the first World Curlew Day was announced in 2018.

World Curlew Day has been described as “a grassroots initiative supported by environmental organizations such as BirdLife International and Wetlands International. It is a one-day global event aiming to raise awareness about the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.” This blog post is my own modest contribution to the World Curlew Day initiative.

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The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) website summarises what is believed to be behind the decline of the Eurasian Curlew, noting that “the evidence to date suggests declines are largely due to poor breeding success alongside the loss of breeding grounds.” It continues:

“Like many wading birds, curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground – known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further four weeks, until fledging

Studies from across Europe have found that in most cases breeding pairs are failing to raise enough young to maintain stable populations.
 
Egg predation by mammals and birds has emerged as a key factor behind poor breeding success. However, this abundance of predation is in itself associated with changes in land-use and management.
 
Farming is essential to maintain the mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats curlews need, but large-scale grassland improvement ultimately leads to the degradation and eventual loss of breeding habitat. Changes in grazing pressure can also have a more direct impact in the form of nest trampling by livestock.”

SOURCE: RSPB WEBSITE, retrieved 18 April 2020

Having identified the problem, the RSPB is now urgently seeking a solution. Its Curlew Recovery Programme is undertaking research to better understand the management practices required to reverse the decline in Eurasian Curlew numbers. At the heart of the programme is a Trial Management Project.

The Trial Management Project is carrying out work at sites across the four countries of the UK, looking at a range of possible interventions including habitat management and targeted predator control. Baseline monitoring at the six sites in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland was undertaken during the 2015 breeding season, and research to identify and develop appropriate “curlew-friendly” land management strategies is continuing.

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In a separate project, the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) started work last year on a project to protect curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales.

“The plan is to throw everything we’ve got at the problem in the vale. Curlew protection will be driven by farmers, that’s the logical reality. If we can work with them to turn things around here, that’s a great start. But we also want the vale to be a test ground for ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere and, ultimately, incorporated into new government agri-environment policy, so that farmers can effectively be paid for curlew-friendly management.”

SOURCE: GEOFF HILTON, WWT’s Head of Conservation Evidence, quoted in Waterlife: The WWT Magazine, April/June 2020, page 36

When a curlew nest is located within the study area, the WWT researchers must weigh up carefully the risks and benefits of intervention. Approaching the nest may alert predators to its existence, or may disturb parent birds and cause them to abandon it. However if the risks of predation are high, the project team may decide that, on balance, the interest of the birds is best served by approaching to erect an electric fence around the nest in an effort to keep foxes and badgers at bay.

The scientists are also keen to collect data that will give them a better understanding of the challenges to be overcome in halting the decline in curlew numbers. To this end researchers may visit the nest briefly to weigh the eggs and deploy a temperature logging device; the data collected can provide valuable insights into laying and hatching dates, and incubation patterns. The nest may also be visited again, just before the chicks fledge, to ring and radio-tag the birds so that further information on their progress may be collected at a later date.

The WWT’s most drastic intervention of all is “headstarting,” where vulnerable eggs and chicks are removed from the wild to be raised in captivity, before being released in a more favourable location. The recent article in Waterlife magazine describes the removal of 50 curlew eggs from airfields in East Anglia, where they would have been destroyed to prevent airstrikes. After being hatched and raised by the WWT, the young birds were released in the safer surroundings of its Slimbridge Reserve. A good news story, if ever there was one!

In doing my research for this post I’ve been shocked at the plight of the curlew, which is worse than I’d realised. It’s a bird I love to watch, and the prospect of its becoming extinct is heart-breaking. However the levels of work currently underway to better understand the problems it faces, and to find appropriate solutions, give me cautious grounds for optimism. I wish the researchers every success in their endeavours.

The butterfly, symbol of hope in the darkest of days

February was foul. It was the wettest February the UK has ever seen, and the fifth wettest UK month, of any month on record, ever. Large areas of the country experienced unprecedented floods, and although Platypus Towers escaped this particular fate – living halfway up a hill helps! – it was pretty damned miserable. But as George Harrison famously reminded us, all things must pass, and around 6 March the sun finally shows up, giving it large in a dazzling, clear blue sky.

To celebrate our change in fortunes, I decide to treat Attila the Bun to an enormous carrot. I’m standing at the door to his hutch, fondling his ears while he tucks in greedily, and out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of my first butterfly of the year.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me. The transformation of caterpillar into butterfly is one of Nature’s most dazzling tricks. It speaks of redemption, the possibility of change, and the enormous potential that lies within the most unpromising of subjects. Nothing is so ugly that it cannot re-fashion itself into a thing of beauty, nothing is so damaged that it cannot be made whole again, nothing is so stained that metamorphosis cannot restore it to purity.

The butterfly in question is a Small Tortoiseshell. She sits atop some pure white heather blossom, sucking up the nectar, soaking up the rays. Intent upon her business, she allows me to approach and stand so close I could reach out and touch her. The predominant colour of her wings is a foxy reddish-orange, decorated with a scatter of black and yellow splodges and an edging of tiny, bright blue spots. She is so delicate, so beautiful.

My butterfly has overwintered as an adult, hunkered down somewhere sheltered, perhaps a garden shed or a farm outbuilding. For months her metabolism has barely ticked over, but today she’s awake and has a job to do. Now is her time, and with temperatures rising and the days growing longer she must find a mate, and a patch of stinging nettles on which to lay her eggs.

Her children will take to the wing in June and July, and they in turn will produce another generation in late summer. It is that generation, the grandkids of the butterfly before me, that will emulate her by seeking out a sheltered hiding place in which to hibernate through the winter.

As with pretty much every species of butterfly in the UK, Small Tortoiseshells have declined massively in recent decades. Growing up in suburban London half a century ago I used to see them in abundance, and although not rare these days I wouldn’t describe them as plentiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this early in the year so today’s sighting is definitely a bonus, as well as being a welcome indication that spring is waking from its slumber at last.

Eventually, my butterfly decides it’s time to share her ethereal beauty with another lucky soul. Sorrowfully I watch her leave, and wish her well on her journey. I will miss her. Butterflies are a symbol of hope, and god knows we need hope in these, the darkest of days.