Scouting for squirrels

Last Saturday, 21st January, was Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure, until it was mentioned in passing on Winterwatch, the BBC’s seasonal wildlife programme. I think the presenter referred to it as Red Squirrel Appreciation Day, because – and let’s be brutally honest about this – nobody here gives much thought to grey squirrels. Reds, however, are an iconic species in the UK, universally loved and widely regarded as a national treasure.

Grey squirrels are everywhere, impossible to miss and, for some, difficult to love. Red squirrels, however, are altogether more elusive. Brownsea Island, located in Poole Harbour on the south coast, is one of the few places in England where a sighting of red squirrels is pretty much guaranteed. Also guaranteed, if you visit at the right time, is a sighting of Boy Scouts, a reflection of the island’s special place in the history of the scouting movement.

Background

The origins of Squirrel Appreciation Day lie in the USA. In 2001, wildlife rehabilitation specialist Christy Hargrove founded National Squirrel Appreciation Day in Asheville, North Carolina. Her aim was to encourage positive attitudes towards, and practical support for, her local squirrels. It’s perhaps ironic, therefore, that it is American squirrels that are responsible for the collapse of our own native red squirrel population.

It’s difficult to believe that here in the UK grey squirrels were once regarded as an exotic species. Some wealthy landowners thought it would be a great idea to brighten up their estates with wildlife superstars from across the Atlantic, and grey squirrels seemed like the ideal candidates. Adaptable, resourceful and tougher than the native reds, the greys soon began to out-compete them. Worse still, the greys were carriers of a disease – squirrel pox – which did them no harm, but was lethal to the reds.

The first recorded release of grey squirrels in the UK was in 1876, at Henbury Park in Cheshire. They thrived, as did other greys that were released elsewhere. Before long, the red squirrel population was in steep decline as greys spread rapidly across the country. Today, Brownsea Island, which is protected from a grey invasion by the waters of Poole Harbour, is one of only a couple of places in southern England where red squirrels still run wild.

Brownsea Island

Brownsea Island is tiny, just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide. It consists of around 500 acres (200 ha) of woodland and heathland, and a brackish lagoon. The island is owned by the National Trust, and much of it is actively managed for the benefit of nature. As well as squirrels, the island is home to a wide variety of bird species, including dunlin, kingfishers, common and sandwich terns and oystercatchers. A major conservation project is currently underway to improve habitats for wildlife, focussed on woodland management, heathland restoration and the removal of invasive plant species.

The island is also notable for having played an important part in the development of the International Scouting Movement. In August 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, its founder, held a week-long camp there to test out his ideas. The experiment was deemed a success, and the following year he published his seminal book Scouting for Boys, thereby kick-starting a ground-breaking organisation which thrives to this day.

Boy Scouts and Girl Guides continue to camp on the island, but none were evident when we took a trip out to Brownsea a few years ago. But that didn’t bother us, as the purpose of our visit was to go scouting for squirrels. We were not disappointed. The red squirrels for which Brownsea is justly famous were present in large numbers, and not at all camera-shy…I guess the feeders, well-stocked with tasty and nutritious nuts, probably had a lot to to with that. Mrs P snapped 335 pics of squirrels that day, some of which are featured in this post. Oh, the joys of digital photography!

Over the years we’ve been lucky to watch red squirrels in several parts of the UK where they are still gamely hanging on, but nowhere have we ever had such wonderful views as those we enjoyed that day on Brownsea Island. I think it’s probably time for a return visit!

Art and Nature in harmony: the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden

The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden is a very special, magical place where art and nature exist in perfect harmony. Hidden away in the leafy Surrey countryside, the garden was the brainchild of Dutch journalist-turned-art-curator Hannah Peschar and her New Zealander husband, the landscape artist Anthony Paul. They acquired the property in 1977, and spent over half of their adult lives turning it into a place to enjoy – and maybe even to purchase – some wonderful sculpture.

Fragment, by Jill Sutton

At the heart of the site stands a 15th century cottage, set in 10 acres (4 hectares) of gardens. These were first landscaped in the 1920s, but had been left unmanaged for around 30 years and were therefore vastly overgrown when the couple moved in. Anthony spent the next five years restoring order to the chaos they had purchased. Hannah, meanwhile, was contemplating how the reclaimed and newly landscaped garden could be put to good use. Her “big idea” was a public sculpture garden, a courageous vision at a time when such ventures were all but unknown in the UK.

The 15th century, Grade II listed cottage where Hannah and Anthony lived from 1977

The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden opened to the public in 1986. Every year around 200 pieces are on display, the work of more than 40 artists from the UK and Europe. The sculptures come in various shapes, sizes and styles, and make use of a range of materials including bronze, stone, wood, wire, glass and ceramics. Most are available to purchase, but only by those with gardens and bank balances that are big enough!

What makes this place particularly appealing is the placement of the pieces. Unlike some similar enterprises, there is no sense here that the curators have crammed in more sculptures than the garden can tastefully absorb. The positioning of each amongst the verdant foliage has clearly been planned with great care, and all are given sufficient space to sit comfortably within their surroundings. Every sculpture has the opportunity to shine, and no doubt this helps with the sales figures, which – let’s face it – is the name of the game.

I would be lying if I claimed to like everything I saw when we visited last October, but overall the collection was a pleasure to view. And to do so in the tranquil surroundings of a beautifully landscaped garden was an absolute delight. Nature and art are in perfect harmony here, each enhanced by its juxtaposition to the other.

Standing Mare, by Stuart Anderson

Sadly, Hannah Peschar passed away in 2021, but Anthony Paul continues to live in the Grade II Listed cottage he and his wife bought nearly half a century ago. The garden that encloses it is a fitting tribute to their enormous vision and creativity, and is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. You’re certain to see something you really like, but do check the prices carefully before reaching for your credit card!

Clockwise from top left: Scylla, by Giles Rayner; Pinnate Leaf, by Peter Clarke; Keeper of the Light, by Jeremy Moulsdale; Interred in Aluminium by Joseph Hillier; Flight of Fancy, by Jilly Sutton, 2022; If, by Guy Stevens; Big Red Flower by Neil Wilkin.

The ambiguity of autumn (All Things Must Pass)

Here in the UK autumn ends today, 30th November. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the notion that the seasons are astronomically determined, in which case you’ll need to wait until around 22nd December for the official start of winter. But as a cold wind whistles around the house and I look out at naked trees, a garden littered with fallen leaves and sullen skies devoid of swooping swallows, I know that autumn’s over. Sigh!

Release“, cast in bronze by sculptor Leonie Gibbs, is flanked here by glorious autumnal foliage. We saw it at The Sculpture Park in Surrey.

After a difficult few months in which we found ourselves mostly confined to the house by wardrobe woes, the horrible heatwave and the Covid blues, autumn’s been a welcome opportunity to spread our wings a bit. When we visited Surrey and Sussex in October, a few trees were just beginning to turn. They made a perfect backdrop for the artworks at two sculpture parks we visited, and also for Arundel Castle and the Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage.

Left: “Release” and reflection in the lake. Top right: Arundel Castle in Sussex, viewed from its grounds. Middle right: Autumn foliage at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden in Surrey. Bottom right: The gardens at Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage in Surrey.

Fungi were also much in evidence, a sure sign of the changing seasons.

In terms of its symbolism, autumn is ambiguous, a season of immense joy and unbearable sadness. On the one hand it is a time of plenty, ripening, harvest, and abundance. And yet, on the other hand, it represents decline, decay, old age, and the imminence of death. The colours of autumn are glorious, a celebration of life, but we know it won’t last. The golden leaves will inevitably fall and perish, and greyness will prevail. Autumn is the ultimate proof that All Things Must Pass.

Hidden amongst the autumn trees is “Inca” a one-off sculpture, hand forged from iron by sculptor Nimrod Messeg. We saw it at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden.

But even though All Things Must Pass may sound depressing, it is, for me, a message of hope. Although hard times will soon be upon us, they too shall pass. Nothing is forever, and, in the fulness of time, spring’s awakening will be with us once more.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Musical postscript

Forever Autumn, written by Jeff Wayne, Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass, and sung here by Justin Hayward, is a plaintively beautiful love song in which autumn serves as a metaphor for despair and loss. The song features in Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. Here’s a selection from the lyrics:

The summer sun is fading as the year grows old
And darker days are drawing near
The winter winds will be much colder
Now you're not here
...
Through autumn's gown we used to kick our way
You always loved his time of year
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
...
A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eye
As if to hide a lonely tear
My life will be forever autumn
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here

Listen here, and gently weep for the loves you have lost…

A riot of colour: enjoying azaleas and rhododendrons in Norfolk

Although we’ve been to Norfolk many times we normally go in early spring, before azaleas and rhododendrons come into bloom. This year, however, we delayed our visit by a few weeks and were rewarded with a riot of colour at Stody Lodge and Sheringham Park, two sites famed for their azalea and rhododendron collections.

Over 1,000 species of rhododendrons and azaleas occur naturally across the globe. Most come from eastern Asia and the Himalayan region, but smaller numbers occur elsewhere in North America, Australia and Europe. None are native to the UK.

Sheringham Park boasts an eye-watering array of azaleas and rhododendrons

The first rhododendron to be introduced to Britain was from the Swiss Alps, and is believed to have been brought to England by Huguenot refugees in the 16th century. Other species were introduced from America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, while many Himalayan varieties found their way here courtesy of the botanist Sir Joseph Hooker’s expedition to the region between 1847 and 1851.

Today, most of the species seen here in collections at Sheringham, Stody and similar gardens across the country are hybrids, the creations of man rather than nature. And perhaps because they are the work of humans rather than natural evolution, subtlety is not the name of the game. To be blunt, I think we’re talking gaudy. Sheringham Park, for example, showcases an eye-watering array of bushes clustered amongst the trees and lining the paths, all sporting vividly coloured blossoms that seem to shout “look at me, look at me!”

Stody Lodge Gardens at the height of the season – like an explosion in a paint factory

Sheringham Park is a landscape park and garden surrounding a Hall that bears the same name. While the Hall is privately owned, the Park, which dates from the early 19th century, is run on behalf of us all by the National Trust. A variety of attractive plants can be seen in the grounds , but the undoubted star of the show is the large collection of rhododendrons and azaleas.

The approach to Stody Hall is lined with rhododendrons

As well as horticultural types, Sheringham Park attracts dog walkers, fun runners and lovers of the countryside. It’s open every day from dawn until dusk, and was busy with visitors when we were there. Stody Lodge Garden was even busier, unsurprising given that it’s open just a few days every year, at the height of the rhododendron and azalea season. The people running Stody have identified their main asset, and are exploiting it vigorously.

Stody Lodge Garden has been home to a stunning collection of rhododendrons and azaleas since at least the late 19th century. It belonged to Daily Mail magnate and controversial press baron Harold Sidney Harmsworth (1st Viscount Rothermere, 1868-1940), for most of the 1930s, but unlike Sheringham, it remains in private ownership to this day. We discovered Stody to be a great place to visit during the flowering season, but do remember to take your sunglasses: an explosion in a paint factory would be less colourful!

Stody’s famous water garden

However, all things must pass, so by the time you read this the rhododendron and azalea flowering season will be over, the riot of colours simply a distant memory. No worries, though, they’ll be back next year, as bright, bold and riotous as ever.

Back to nature – a day at Pensthorpe Natural Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky visitors to Pensthorpe may stumble across a muntjac deer

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

Great Spotted Woodpecker, an unexpected Pensthorpe bonus

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

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

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

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

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

“Stag” by George Hider (2017)

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

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

Caldon Canal – Short on length, big on history!

It’s easy to underestimate the impact canals had on the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Today, if they are not drained of water or choked by vegetation, they’re mostly used for leisure purposes only. It is hard to believe that, 200 years ago, they were central to the industrial miracle that transformed society beyond all recognition.

Smart, colourful barges show that the canal is now used for recreational purposes. But hidden amongst the trees to the far left of this shot are remains of limekilns, a legacy from the canal’s industrial past.

The Caldon Canal is a mere 18 miles (29km) long, and runs from Froghall in Staffordshire to Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, where it joins the much larger Trent and Mersey Canal. Completed in 1779 it was built primarily to transport limestone, so it comes as no surprise that abandoned limekilns can still be found along its route.

Closer view of the remains of limekilns at Consall Forge

The kilns at Consall Forge, which stand 10m high and 50m long, are now clothed in vegetation. Back in the day, however, the view would have been very different. Raw limestone, quarried nearby, would be loaded at the top of the limekilns. Furnaces heated the rock and converted it into quicklime, an essential resource in the steelmaking process. The quicklime would then be removed at the bottom of the kiln and loaded onto barges for onward transportation to where it would be used.

“Bridge #50” across the Caldon Canal at Consall Forge, in the picturesque Churnet Valley. Built c1779.

The remains of more limekilns can still be seen at Froghall Wharf, and here too the serene surroundings make it difficult to fully appreciate how the place must have bustled with activity in its heyday. Froghall also boasts a handsome 19th century warehouse. This has been tastefully repurposed as a café catering for 21st century visitors who like nothing more than to replenish the calories they’ve burned off during their canal-side strolls with a hot drink and an enormous slab of cake!

Former canal-side warehouse at Froghall Wharf, now serving coffee and cake!

One of the undoubted highlights of the Caldon Canal, and perhaps more unexpected, is the Cheddleton Flint Mill Museum. There was a watermill on the site in 1253, and by the 1500s there were two, one to wash woollen cloth in a process known as fulling, and one to mill corn. When the canal was driven past the mills in late 18th century it opened up the possibility of new uses.

Limekilns at Froghall Wharf

The Caldon Canal passes through Etruria, which was – from 1769 – the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s ground-breaking pottery business. One of his highly successful products was “creamware”, which used ground, calcined flint to help achieve its distinctive light-coloured appearance. The mills at Cheddleton were converted to grind the flint Wedgwood needed, and the canal enabled its easy transportation to the potter’s Etruria factory.

Canal view next to Cheddleton Flint Mill

Now owned and run by the Cheddleton Flint Mill Preservation Trust, the site offers fascinating insights into a flint milling process that I was completely unaware of before our visit. It also preserves the miller’s cottage, which dates from the 1800s, shining light on a lifestyle so very different from our own.

Cheddleton Flint Mill

The cottage is dressed as a piece of living history. Recently washed laundry (sparkling white!) hangs drying in front of the range, which serves both as the cottage’s source of heat and a stove for cooking meals. Along the walls two dressers display cherished pieces of tableware, and the table in the middle of the room is laid ready for tea. The exhibit is totally convincing, and it’s easy to believe that the miller and his wife have just popped put for a few minutes, and will soon be back to carry on with their lives.

The miller’s cottage at Cheddleton Flint Mill

Cheddleton Flint Mill is just one of many fascinating points of interest along the 18 miles of the Caldon Canal which, although clearly short on length, is undoubtedly big on history. A visit (or two, or maybe even three) can be strongly recommended if you’re ever in the area!

Saving Heage windmill

Back in the early 19th century around 10,000 windmills graced this green and pleasant land. These days they’re pretty thin on the ground, but luckily my home county of Derbyshire boasts one fine example: Heage Windmill. Just a couple of miles up the road from Platypus Towers, it is a sturdy, reassuring presence in the local landscape, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Sadly, however, looks can be deceiving, and not for the first time the mill is currently in danger. Major repairs are urgently needed, so it’s all hands on deck to raise the money needed to get it fixed.

* * * * *

The village of Heage (pronounced heej) lies 13 miles (21km) north of Derby. The name is a corruption of ‘High Edge’ and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. It’s therefore an ideal spot to locate a windmill, a fact that did not go unnoticed by an enterprising businessman in the late 18th century.

Reports in the Derby Mercury imply that construction of Heage Windmill began in 1791, and was completed by 1797. It had four sails, and as such differed little from a host of other windmills scattered throughout Derbyshire at the time. The local population was expanding rapidly in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and with it the demand for flour. In the circumstances it seemed certain that the new mill would enjoy a long and busy working life.

But any structure that is deliberately located to catch the wind is inevitably vulnerable to being wrecked by it, so it should come as no surprise that in February 1894 the cap and four sails were blown off in a violent storm. Repairs were soon underway and Heage Windmill was reborn with its now familiar six sails, which would have provided more power to the millstones than the standard four sail configuration.

The repairs were doubtless well made, but the wind kept on blowing and in 1919 Heage Windmill was once again severely damaged by a howling gale. This time there were no repairs: the country was in a financial mess as it sought to recover from the horrors of World War 1, and wind power was in any case regarded as outdated technology.

The mill languished, unloved and unlovely, for some 15 years before being sold for £25 (USD 33). However, its milling days seemed to be over for good: the tower was used only for storage and fell into ever greater disrepair, a situation made even worse in 1961 when it was struck by lightning.

Heage Windmill’s fortunes began to change in 1966, when a legally-binding Building Preservation Order was placed on it. Two years later Derbyshire County Council stepped in to buy it for the princely sum of £350 (USD 456). Although this meant the mill was now in public ownership, finding the money to restore it to working order was – inevitably, I suppose – beyond the Council’s capabilities. The sails would only turn again a generation later, when the local community and a motley band of mill enthusiasts took up the challenge.

In 1996, with the Council’s support, the mill’s supporters formed a charitable trust with the aim of getting it going.  Hope at last! But just a year later, as Heage Windmill Society was finalising its plans, lightning struck the tower once more. The mill’s supporters were devastated, their dreams seemingly in tatters.

Luckily this time the damage done by the lightning strike was not serious, and work to restore the mill soon recommenced. It was an expensive project, but the Society rose heroically to the challenge, raising nearly £450,000 (USD 588,000) from various sources. Their efforts, together with the hard work of countless volunteers, prevailed and Heage Windmill finally opened to the public on 1 June, 2002.

Job well done, you might think. And it was, but of course nothing lasts forever. In 2015/16 severe rot set in, and a major fund-raising effort was needed to sort it. The money poured in and Heage Windmill was saved again. I guess the Society thought it could finally relax, but it was not to be. Earlier this year further structural defects were identified, and they need rectifying urgently. It feels like we’ve been here before!

* * * * *

Heage Windmill officially opened for the 2022 season just a few days ago, and there was a good turn out to see local television personality and celebrity auctioneer Charles Hanson cut the ribbon. But although the weather was uncharacteristically balmy and a fine time was had by all, everyone “in the know” probably had just one thing on their mind: how do we, once again, raise a vast sum of money to save our precious windmill?

It sounds daunting, but this is no time to be downhearted. Like Lazarus, Heage Windmill has a track record of rising from the grave. It’s an iconic landmark hereabouts, and as the only working six-sailed stone tower windmill in England it is also a building of national significance. Losing it is unthinkable. This iconic mill has survived countless misfortunes in its 225 years of existence, and given the scale of support that was evident at the official opening I’m confident it will be saved again.

The goose that never was

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

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

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

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

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

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

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