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

Kedleston Hall – A walk in the park (no peasants allowed!)

Our county of Derbyshire has many exceptional stately homes, where ordinary folk like me can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the English super-rich before inheritance taxes prompted them to modify their extravagant lifestyles. Kedleston Hall, an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical masterpiece now managed on behalf of us all by the National Trust, isn’t the most famous of these, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.

Rear of Kedleston Hall viewed from the Long Walk, with the C12th All Saints Church to the left. Note also the ha-ha, which is invisible from the Hall and stops wandering sheep getting too close.

Of course, when you’re obscenely rich, conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to end with your palatial mansion – when you’ve spent as much as bad taste will allow on alabaster, marble and gold leaf, you can always throw more of your wealth at the rest of the estate. Kedleston is a case in point. As you wander through the magnificent parkland in which the Hall sits, it’s easy to forget that this is an entirely man-made landscape.

Trees have been selected and positioned to add to the visual appeal of the parkland. The sheep help too!

Kedleston is the ancestral home of the Curzon family, who have lived in the area since the 12th century. Between 1759 and 1775, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) commissioned renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design an opulent new mansion, flanked to the south and west by an elegant formal garden of trees and shrubs. Surrounding the Hall and garden, and separated from them by a ha ha – a sunken wall which was invisible from within and intended to keep livestock out – was a landscape comprising some 800 acres (324 hectares) of rolling, naturalised parkland.

Robert Adam’s fine three-arched bridge, one of the highlights of Kedleston’s parkland

Once there was a small village at the centre of the estate, clustered around the C12th All Saints Church. However in 1759, as was the custom of the time, the villagers were all evicted to ensure that Baron Scarsdale could go about his daily business on the estate without any danger of coming into contact with representatives of ‘the great unwashed.’

An idyllic landscape, now managed on behalf of the nation by the National Trust

The peasantry having been removed, it was time to set about taming the landscape. Adam put the stream that traverses the estate to good use, moving mountains of earth to create a series of scenic lakes and cascades. To cross the stream he built a fine three-arched bridge, and this remains one of Kedleston’s most impressive features. Other structures to adorn the parkland include a bath-house and a fishing pavilion, although several temples and follies proposed by Adam were never completed.

One of the civil engineering works required to create and manage Kedleston’s lakes

Robert Adam wanted his creation to be enjoyed from all angles, and to this end he designed the Long Walk, a winding three mile circuit through the estate, with views of the rear of the Hall and across the parkland.  It was this walk that Mrs P and I embarked upon a few weeks ago.

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, lambs frolicked playfully under the watchful eyes of their mothers, and the vistas offered by the Long Walk were uniformly pleasing. After long months confined to our own modest house and garden by the Covid restrictions it was great to escape its confines and to enjoy the wide open spaces that the Kedleston estate offers.

Aaah, cute!

Robert Adam was without doubt a genius: both the Hall (which I shall write about in a future post) and the parkland lift the spirits enormously. But if you ever visit Kedleston do spare a thought for the local peasantry, who lost their homes so that this magical place could be created as an exclusive pleasure ground for Baron Scarsdale and his idle-rich buddies!

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Where have all the sparrows gone?

Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.

House sparrow

Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.

House sparrow

The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.

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Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.

Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.

In happier times. House sparrow at Platypus Towers

It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!

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In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .”  Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”

Tree sparrow. Note the diagnostic brown crown and black cheek spot

Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

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The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.

While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.

Tree sparrow

It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

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And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words

Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Flies so high and feels no pain

Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

File:Ilamhall.jpg

Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.

The bear facts – watching grizzlies in Yellowstone

Grizzly bears are amongst Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic residents. With our wildlife watching in the UK and beyond currently limited by Covid-19, this post looks back on two grizzly encounters in September 2018.

The power and the glory

Americans have a complicated relationship with bears. On the one hand bears are the big, bad bogie beasts of the woods, creatures to be feared, shunned and if possible shot, stuffed and displayed somewhere prominent. On the other hand, the locals are in love with the power and the glory of these fearless beings, in awe of the magnificent apex predators with which they share the continent.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to see bears. Many – like the Platypus Man and Mrs P – are desperate to witness their undeniable majesty at close quarters. Bears are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species living in the Park.

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the public’s desire to get up close and personal with both grizzly and black bears was fulfilled by allowing park visitors to feed them. While this satisfied the primeval urge for an ursine selfie, it did neither party much good. Bears that are fed quickly become dependent on man, and cease to be truly wild. They are also more likely to become aggressive towards humans if they expect to be fed but aren’t.

Above all, bears that are fed lose all caution in the presence of humans, which could easily become – quite literally – a fatal error for one side or the other. Equally, humans who see bears as reliant on their handouts fail to appreciate their true magnificence.

And to make matters worse, in the early days of the Park, waste food and other rubbish from the Park’s hotels was thrown into open garbage dumps. Naturally the bears were attracted to forage at these, and pretty soon watching them do so became a major visitor attraction in the Park. To avoid disappointment the dumps were topped up with tasty goodies, and an armed ranger was posted close to them to sort out any animal that became unacceptably arsey.

In all these ways the National Park was complicit in turning bears into performing animals in an open-air circus. For more on the history of bear feeding in Yellowstone, and some sickening photos, follow this link to the Yellowstone Insider website.

America as a society is built on the philosophy of giving the customer what he or she wants, so it was a brave decision by the National Park authorities exactly fifty years ago – in 1970 – to end the feeding of bears. In addition, more appropriate means of rubbish disposal were introduced, including the now-familiar bear-proof trash can.

With these changes, bears and humans in the Park could at last enter into a more equal relationship with one another. Seeing bears in Yellowstone is more challenging these days than it previously was, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that any bear successfully spotted is living out a natural and dignified life.

Bears remain dangerous, and the Park authorities are happy to remind visitors of this at every opportunity. It’s not, of course, good for business to have your customers mauled by the wildlife, and with this in mind the National Park has a rule that at least 100 yards (91 metres) must separate humans and bears at all times. As well as protecting the tourists, this also protects bears from unnecessary disturbance. Park rangers – bless ‘em all, I say – get very edgy if they see the 100 yards rule being broken, as we are soon to discover.

We’re way too close, but are we bothered?

It’s early morning. We’re driving though a forested area of the Park, pine trees huddled close to the road. We round a bend and see a number of cars stopped at the roadside with hazard lights flashing, and groups of people peering excitedly into the undergrowth. This can only mean one thing: wildlife, and probably something special.

I pull up, and Mrs P asks a guy what’s going on. Grizzlies, he replies breathlessly, grinning like a maniac. We’re out of the car in a flash, so quick that I forget to turn off the engine, something I don’t discover until we go to drive away more than half an hour later.

The road is built on a slight rise, and we go slip-sliding down the slope to join a couple of dozen other watchers spread out amongst the trees. Everyone’s trying to stay safe, crouching low and peering from behind reassuringly sturdy tree trunks to get a decent view.

A little way ahead is a small clearing littered with fallen trees. Rooting around in the grass, digging energetically, is a huge momma bear. Close by is a “teenage” cub, almost as big as her, and back to the right hidden at the edge of the tree-line, is its more nervous sibling.

Momma must know we’re here. Bears don’t have great eyesight but make up for this deficiency with an excellent sense of smell. All these frantic, sweaty bear-watchers must whiff a bit, affronting her super-sensitive nose. But even though we’re well inside the 100 yards exclusion zone, she’s not a bit bothered. She’s focussed completely on digging up her breakfast, although whether this is roots or grubs we can’t be sure .

The first cub also knows we’re here and is plainly a bit anxious, but hunger gets the better of him and he too digs like crazy. Only the second cub remains wary, watching from the safety of the trees, going hungry while momma and brother tuck in ravenously.

This is the best, closest view we’ve ever had of grizzly bears, and Mrs P’s camera is in overdrive, the shutter a blur as she takes shot after shot. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s not going to miss it.

Suddenly there’s a commotion behind us. A ranger has arrived, glowing with self-importance. He does a quick calculation. “The bear is 41 yards from the road, and you’re all even closer to it than that. Therefore, you are all too close. GET BACK at once.”

He’s right of course. I reckon we are maybe 30 yards away from momma, and a number of folk are a bit closer than us. She’s not in the least bit worried, but rules are rules. After a brief pause the assembled bear-watchers start doing what they’ve been ordered to do…but very, very slowly and with as much bad grace as they can muster

By the time we get back to the road there’s a full-scale bear jam in progress, cars parked every which way, people milling around, desperately hoping the ranger will bugger off and annoy someone else instead. He doesn’t, and worse still, reinforcements have arrived, some of them armed with rifles “just in case.”

Another ranger is busily putting cones out on the road, making it abundantly clear that nobody is allowed to park in this vicinity for the foreseeable future. But we’re not bothered – we enjoyed half an hour of uninterrupted bear watching before the ranger rained on our parade, so we return to the car with a spring in our step. You can’t plan for an encounter like this, and it’s been brilliant.

You can enjoy the action highlights by following the link below to my short YouTube video (2 minutes).

A park ranger’s mission

Another day, another bear. Once again, as we’re driving along and minding our own business, we see cars parked where they shouldn’t be. It’s an obvious clue that something interesting is occurring in the neighbourhood.

I pull off the road where it’s safe, and we make our way down towards a parking lot a few hundred yards away where there’s a throng of people pointing cameras and scopes into an area of fallen logs and dead trees. Someone tells us that a female grizzly bear has been seen in this area over the last two or three days, and judging by all the activity she’s back again.

As we get closer we see that the people are all standing behind a line of traffic cones at the entrance to the parking lot which is, in effect, closed for business.

It’s a park ranger’s mission in life to ensure that no tourist ever gets closer than 100 yards to a bear, and they attack the task with gusto. When some brave soul tries to edge beyond the cones, a stern lady ranger warns him darkly about the dangers of crossing the line. He stays put, probably recognising that this young madam is a lot fiercer than any bear he’s likely to see today.

The rangers are out in force, and while madam is keeping the crowds under control, one of her colleagues is trying to locate the bear with his telescope. This place is a tree graveyard, charred trunks standing as silent witnesses to a forest fire that ripped through here a few years ago. 

Finally, the ranger confirms that he has the grizzly in his sights and tells everyone which tree she’s hiding behind. She’s some distance away, and we never get a really clear view of her. However, we can see she’s in good condition. She has a large hump on her back which, in grizzlies, is the tell-tale sign of a well-fed animal.

Everyone is captivated as she works her way between the burnt and fallen trunks. She’s snuffling around carefully, presumably searching for food, and soon disappears into a gully which totally hides her from view. The show’s over, and the viewers walk happily back to their cars, pick-up trucks and RVs, content that they’ve seen one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

* * *

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, in my 2018 blog describing a 24 days-long return road trip from Denver to Yellowstone National Park in 2018. During our adventure, which also took in – amongst other things – Glacier National Park, Utah’s Antelope State Park and an excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, we saw lots of wonderful wildlife, including our first ever view of wolves. To read about our road trip, follow this link.

To learn a little more about grizzly bear conservation in the Lower 48, click here.

Missing the Birdfair, missing the birds

Last weekend should have been one of the highlights of our year, three whole days at the British Birdwatching Fair. Affectionately known as Birdfair, it’s an annual celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond. I blogged about it last year; you can read my post here. Birdfair is an important milestone in our calendar, marking the passing of another summer, and Mrs P and I were devastated – but not surprised – that Covid-19 played havoc with it in 2020.

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Instead, Birdfair went virtual, with a range of lectures, workshops and other stuff presented online. “Entry” was free, but we were pleased to make a significant donation to support this year’s BirdLife International conservation project, which is to protect Borneo’s spectacular Helmeted Hornbill from the ravages of the illegal wildlife trade.

The virtual Birdfair was a good try, but inevitably lacked some of the magic that happens when thousands of people passionate about wildlife and conservation are physically gathered together. And that vague sense of disappointment just about sums up our 2020 birding year, which – courtesy of Covid-19 – has been a bit short on excitement.

Middleton Hall

Inevitably, therefore, our thoughts have turned to happier, pre-Covid days. The RSPB’s Middleton Lakes reserve lies on the Staffordshire / Warwickshire border, just up the road from historic Middleton Hall, an impressive Grade II listed building dating – in part – from the medieval period.

The reserve is managed as a refuge for wintering wildfowl, breeding wetland birds and passage migrants. Formerly a flourishing hub of the gravel extraction industry, the site covers 160 hectares (395 acres). It was acquired by the RSPB in 2007, and the conservation charity has been working hard ever since to return the ravaged landscape to nature.

When we visited in May 2019 it was the common woodland birds that were most evident, attracted by strategically distributed piles of seeds, nuts and other goodies. Some of the adults were wearing their breeding finery, but others looked bedraggled, worn down by the rigours of parenthood.

Meanwhile scruffy juveniles were doing their best to blend into the background, and yet simultaneously demanding to be fed again and again. Typical fledgling behaviour, of course, and rather endearing unless you happen to be the poor, harassed parent of said fledgling!

At one point a sneaky Grey Squirrel, unobserved by the birds, slipped in and stole food that was intended just for them. He looked in peak condition, and not at all ashamed of his blatant thievery.

As well as the “usual suspects” we encountered a few surprises as we wandered the reserve. In particular we were delighted to hear a cuckoo – so rare these days – and to glimpse a Small Copper butterfly, which is a colourful species we rarely come across. They, and all the more familiar birds and animals we spotted, made the day memorable.

Small Copper

Reserves like Middleton Lakes raise the spirits, demonstrating that if it’s given a chance nature will fight back and reclaim land that has been wrecked by man. When the Covid-19 madness is finally done with we’ll certainly return to see what else it has to offer.

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: