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.

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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!

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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

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.

* * *

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!

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.