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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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 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.
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!
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 it. Gerard 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:
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.
Winter always drags, but this year’s been worse than ever. Lockdown 3.0 was imposed just after Christmas, meaning that – other than a weekly trip to the supermarket and an occasional stroll around our suburban estate – we’re confined to Platypus Towers. No chance of a swift visit to a bird reserve on a fine day, and thanks to the regular visits of local cat Milky Bar, only birds with suicidal tendencies visit our garden. It’s a pretty miserable existence, and the lousy weather makes things worse.
But after several days of wintry conditions we wake up on 22 January to a dazzling morning, the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky. We sit ourselves down in the garden room – which faces south – intent on making the most of this meteorological anomaly, when to our amazement a butterfly appears. It settles on the window ledge, just a metre away from us on the other side of the double glazing, and soaks up the rays for about 20 minutes before moving on again.
The Peacock is a spectacular and unmistakeable butterfly, and takes its name from the vivid pattern of eyespots that decorate all four wings. It’s one of just a handful of British butterflies that overwinter as dormant adults, hunkering down somewhere sheltered during the darkest months in readiness for an early start to the breeding season when spring arrives. However, as we discover today, even in the depths of winter a relatively warm day may rouse Peacocks and encourage them to take to the wing.
I’ve been interested in butterflies since I was a little kid, but have never spotted any this early in the year. And never have I been more grateful to see one of these magical insects: the last 12 months have been tough, and it’s good to be reminded that the beauty of nature will still be there for us to enjoy when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted.
* * * * *
In 2020 I saw my first butterfly around 6 March, and described it as a “symbol of hope in the darkest of days.” You can read my reflections about the symbolism of butterflies by clicking here.
The Tasmanian Devil is the world’s largest surviving marsupial predator. Once common throughout Australia, for thousands of years these iconic animals have been confined to the island of Tasmania. But even there they are now in big trouble due to a killer cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Conservation groups have been working tirelessly to protect the species, and a few weeks ago news began to circulate of a ground-breaking reintroduction programme in mainland Australia. The Devil is back!
* * *
Exactly four years ago we were at the start of our first and only visit to Australia. At the heart of our adventure was a road trip through Tasmania, where we spent five blissful weeks feasting our eyes on magnificent scenery and feisty wildlife. And the wildlife doesn’t come any feistier than the Tasmanian Devil, the island’s iconic marsupial predator.
We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled. He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window. A light on the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin. We settle down and wait for the action to begin.
And wait … and wait.
At midnight we reluctantly decide to give up. Our quarry isn’t going to show tonight and, disappointed, we stumble off to bed. However we leave the outside light on, and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while laying in bed.
I’m soon asleep, but at 1.15am I wake up with a start. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement glimpse the unmistakeable sight a Devil tucking into chopped up roadkill.
I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil,” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”
She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.
“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.
At last, it sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera.The light outside the cabin isn’t great for taking photos and flash is out of the question, but Mrs P does the best she can:
We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through about 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a light snack.
The window is closed, of course. It’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin, clad only in our nightwear! But we ignore the discomfort, transfixed by the action just outside our window. And as we listen we can clearly hear our diabolical guest crunching ravenously on the bones, which he gobbles down together with the gory lumps of wallaby
The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am … only this time there are two Devils rather than just one. They bicker and snarl at one another, battling over the spoils.
On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.
Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights. They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.
* * *
Devils disappeared from mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago. The reasons are thought to be the introduction of dingoes, as well as other human activity and an increasingly arid climate. However they hung on in Tasmania, where there are no dingoes and the climate is more temperate.
When Europeans arrived in Tasmania they encountered a healthy population of Devils, which they named for their unearthly screams, snarls and growls. But peaceful co-existence between settlers and the Devils quickly proved impossible.
Sheep farming was big business amongst the settlers, and – although scavenging is their preferred way of getting a meal – the Devils were identified as sheep killers. Persecution followed, and Devil numbers plummeted.
Devils became very rare, and were seemingly heading for extinction. But in June 1941 they were given legal protection, and for the next 55 years numbers gradually recovered.
However in 1996 it became evident that the animals were again under threat, this time from Devil Facial Tumour Disease. DFTD is characterised by cancers, generally around the mouth and head. It is invariably fatal, and has resulted in a huge decline in Devil numbers.
In recent years the Tasmanian government has invested heavily in its Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which includes advocacy, annual monitoring, captive breeding and active management of wild, disease-free populations on Maria Island and the Forestier-Tasman Peninsula.
* * *
Meanwhile, back on mainland Australia the conservation organisation Aussie Ark has been building an “insurance population” of Devils. It says
To date, more than 390 devils have been born and raised at Aussie Ark in a way that fosters natural behaviour in the animals, preparing them for release into the wild. Aussie Arks ‘Rewild Australia’ strategy is a key component, alongside Species and habitat recovery, in returning Australia to it pre-European state.
During 2020 Aussie Ark have released 26 Devils into a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) sanctuary at Barrington Tops, around 120 miles north of Sydney in New South Wales. The animals won’t be living a completely wild existence: they will be confined within the boundaries of the sanctuary and receive supplementary feeding. Researchers will monitor them by remote cameras to learn more about how they adjust in their new environment.
However the long-term aim of the programme is to release Devils into targeted, non-protected areas in mainland Australia. Here it’s hoped they will contribute to keeping feral cat and fox populations under control, and thereby help protect native wildlife.
This is a bold, ambitious programme, and has been compared with the project to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Over the past 12 months the wildlife news from Australia has been bleak, dominated by the huge losses that resulted from the devastating bushfires, so it was great to come across this inspiring good news story.
Having been privileged to see Tasmanian Devils in the wild, they will always have a special place in my heart. Let’s hope Aussie Ark’s project is successful, and they quickly make themselves at home on the mainland.
The Hen Harrier is probably the most persecuted bird in the UK. To draw attention to its plight and encourage its conservation, campaigners at the charitable organisation Hen Harrier Action have declared a date in early August to be Hen Harrier Day. The timing is significant: on 12 August each year – the so-called Glorious 12th– the grouse shooting season begins, and it is this so-called “sport” that’s been at the heart of the Hen Harrier’s dreadful decline.
Hen Harriers are ground-nesting birds of upland moors. In winter they relocate further south to coastal areas, heathland and farmland. Males are blue-grey with a white rump, pale underside and black wing tips. Females are brown above and streaky below, with a white rump and a banded tail. The bird is almost identical to the Northern Harrier that’s found widely over the US and Canada – scientists are divided over whether they are essentially the same species, or just very close cousins.
To attract a mate the male Hen Harrier puts on a breath-taking display of aerial gymnastics, soaring, twisting, spiralling and plummeting above heather-clad moorland to catch the attention of the local ladies. It’s called sky-dancing, and is mesmerising to watch.
Later, after mating, the male will seek to strengthen the pair-bond and show off his spectacular agility by passing prey to his mate in mid-air, enabling the much less conspicuous female to return to the nest without attracting the attention of predators. The RSPB have posted a brilliant video on YouTube which perfectly captures both behaviours. It’s nearly five minutes long, but definitely worth a look:
From an international perspective, the Hen Harrier is not endangered: it’s spread very widely across northern Eurasia, and Birdlife International categorises it as a species of “Least Concern.” However, the picture is very different in the UK, where its classification is “Red.” Here, the species is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
The root cause of the Hen Harrier’s problems in the UK is its feeding preferences. Although its diet consists primarily of small mammals, it also takes some birds. It is this, and particularly its appetite for Red Grouse, that has brought it into conflict with gamekeepers.
The role of the gamekeeper is to serve his employers by ensuring that grouse shooters have sufficient quarry available to satisfy their vile blood-lust. Grouse moors are big business: a day spent blasting Red Grouse out of the sky can cost upwards of £1,500 (around $US 2,000), and fewer birds means reduced income for the moors’ owners. For this reason the pressure’s on gamekeepers – implicitly, if not explicitly – to eliminate any natural predators of the quarry species.
Lobbyists for the shooting industry protest their innocence: “it ain’t us guv’nor,” they plead, “we’d never hurt those cute harriers. We love the UK’s conservation laws. Honest!” But evidence to the contrary is overwhelming:
A 2019 government-commissioned study has shown that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed on or next to grouse moors. Hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or near a grouse moor than in any other habitat.
The case for the prosecution is clear, and although the shooting lobby comes up with a wealth of arguments in its defence these arguments are – to quote the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams – a load of dingo’s kidneys. The Hen Harrier Day website provides more details of the disinformation spread by those seeking to defend the status quo: you can read them by clicking here and turning to the section headed “six myths about driven grouse shooting.”
It’s reckoned that the UK as a whole has habitat to support 2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers, but in the last national survey (2016) there were only 545 territorial pairs. These are mostly in Scotland, where Mrs P and I have enjoyed watching them on numerous occasions swooping over the moors of the Orkney Islands. The views have invariably been at a distance, making successful photography an almost impossible challenge, but it always feels like a privilege simply to watch this rare and spectacular bird going about its business.
Scientists calculate that England alone has the potential to support over 300 pairs of breeding Hen Harriers. However in 2019 there were only 12 successful nests, and the fact that this is a record high for recent years reflects the seriousness of the situation. These dire numbers were the context in which annual Hen Harrier Days began in 2014:
Hen Harrier Days are community days of action, an opportunity for all of us to press for an end to wildlife crime and the wider abuse of our uplands…[They] are fun events for all the family and take many forms: in the countryside, in town, online, celebrity speakers, gigs, walks, picnics and more. Hen Harrier Days are normally organised locally by local people.
Sadly, although unsurprisingly, this year Covid-19 rendered impossible the type of event that had previously taken place. So in 2020 Hen Harrier Day moved online, hosted by popular broadcaster and campaigning naturalist Chris Packham, and up-and-coming young presenter Megan McCubbin. It worked well; key species information and hard-hitting conservation messages being mixed in with a variety of relevant music, art and literature, and the promotion of some fund-raising initiatives that will support Hen Harriers.
To be honest, some of it was difficult to take, particularly when Mark Thomas, head of the RSPB’s Investigations Team, spoke about the persecution of raptors – including Hen Harriers – in the Peak District. It was shocking and heart-breaking to hear details of the carnage taking place there, and as we live just a few miles from the Peak District National Park it feels personal.
Having heard from Mark Thomas and others on the day, it would be easy to give up in despair, to conclude that this is a battle conservationists cannot win. But Mark’s not giving up, and neither should we.
Hen Harrier Day helps raise the profile of the bird, draws attention to the criminal activity perpetrated by those who see the harrier as an obstacle to driven grouse shooting, and builds momentum in the political arena. As the experts pointed out on the day, we can all do something to help the cause, even if it’s just giving a bit of cash to practising conservationists who are working hard on the ground to combat raptor persecution.
Speaking of which, one of the initiatives linked to Hen Harrier Day 2020 has been an art auction run in conjunction with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Derbyshire is our county, and as Mark Thomas has pointed out its Peak District moors are a hotbed of raptor persecution. The Peak District should be home to several pairs of Hen Harriers, but sadly Mrs P and I have never seen one here on our “home turf.”
We are life members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, and Mrs P decided to do her bit by getting creative to support the auction. Using her favourite papercraft technique – iris folding – she designed an image of two Hen Harriers sky-dancing, and sent it off for auction. You can see her creation below:
At the time of writing the bid for Mrs P’s iris-fold picture stands at £60 (around $US 80). In all, total bids for the 73 lots stand at over £3,000 (around US$ 4,000). Isn’t it great to see so many people – both the artists who produced the images for sale, and the bidders who are prepared to stump up some cash for them – getting involved to support the conservation of a bird that needs all the help it can muster?
The battle to save the UK’s population of Hen Harriers is far from lost. Well done to Hen Harrier Action for leading the campaign to protect them, for spreading the message, and for inspiring me to hope that – one day – I may see a Hen Harrier here in Derbyshire.
One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.
Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:
“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”
A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)
Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.
I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.
The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!
The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.
Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?
Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.
The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.
During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.
Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.
As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.
The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.
At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?
I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.
And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?
This blog celebrates its first birthday at the end of May so it felt timely that a couple of weeks ago a fellow blogger, New Zealander Liz Cowburn from the Exploring Colour blog, nominated me for a Liebster Award. Our paths first crossed digitally late last year when she began reading and commenting on my earlier blog about a road trip around New Zealand. I was flattered by her interest, and I’m reet chuffed today that she feels my blogging is worthy of recognition. Thank you, Liz.
Given the title of her blog, it’s no surprise that Liz writes about colour, both in nature and in the human world. Her photos, and those of husband Nigel, complement her words perfectly. Through those words and pictures Liz presents a fascinating – and sometimes quirky – glimpse of life in New Zealand. She also touches on lots more interesting stuff, from the impact of last year’s Australian bushfires and Covid-19 on her homeland, to Irish pubs and the poetry of Rabbie Burns! If you haven’t already done so, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Liz’s excellent blog.
Now you may be wondering just what the ‘Liebster’ (German for ‘favourite’ or ‘dearest’) Award is. It’s a means to allow readers to discover new blogs and by the recipients nominating more blogs, lots of bloggers have a chance to be found. (A sort of bloggers-helping-other-bloggers chain letter!)
Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
Answer the 11 questions given to you
Share 11 facts about yourself
Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
Ask your nominees 11 questions
Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post
Having explained what I’m up to I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to tackling Liz’s questions. Then, next week, I’ll move on to the “Big Reveal,” when I will declare 11 facts about the Platypus Man to an expectant blogosphere, before nominating a few folk to answer some cunning questions of my own devising!
Liz’s questions and my replies
1. What connection (if any) do you feel that you have with New Zealand? 🙂
Prior to our trip there in 2019 my knowledge of New Zealand was fairly limited, and could best be summarised thus: “a country that is a bloody long way from anywhere else, very good at rugby but not so clever at cricket, a home to flightless birds facing extinction and lots of sheep.”
Our visit opened my eyes, and allowed me to glimpse briefly a place far more interesting and beautiful than I had imagined. What a great country, what lovely people, albeit people whose vowel sounds – to English ears anyway – are seriously weird! In various ways NZ feels quite British, much more so than Oz or Canada, but the elements of Māori culture give it a unique Pacific spin. Definitely one of my favourite places.
2. What place in this world do you most love?
The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, are remote, beautiful and scattered with relics and reminders of their Neolithic and Viking past. There are more sheep than people, and more birds than sheep, which makes it my kind of place! Without family commitments I think Mrs P and I would have made a life there, but instead we must make do with visits every couple of years. We were due to go again in September, but we’ve had to cancel due to Covid-19. Next year, maybe?
3. Your favourite colour(s) are what? –and what do you associate with the colour?
I guess these days I would single out the colour of autumn. You know what I mean, that distinctive but elusive golden amber hue suffused with shadowy hints of blood, rust and decay, that subtle tone which is a beautiful but poignant reminder of time’s passing. All things must pass.
4. What connection do you feel/experience with Nature?
Nature – wildlife, countryside, open spaces – makes life worth living. I’ve always been into it, but I find my interest grows with the passing of the years. All 5 of my blogs have focused heavily on aspects of nature. For example, I’ve enjoyed writing about close encounters with devils in Tasmania and whales in Newfoundland, with grizzlies in Yellowstone and penguins in New Zealand. We are part of Nature, not separate from it, and my life is made infinitely richer by time spent alongside creatures great and small.
5. Your favourite ‘active’ recreational activity …?
I played cricket in my teenage years, but retired due to gross incompetence. These days “active recreation” equates to a gentle stroll around a nature reserve or bird sanctuary, binoculars and video camera slung from my neck. My bad back, knackered knees and passion for chocolate cake prohibit strenuous physical activity … well, anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
6. Your favourite ‘quiet’ hobby/interest?
Mrs P and I started taking a serious interest in birds during a visit to Scotland in the early 1990s, when we carelessly mistook buzzards for golden eagles! Since then our passion for birdwatching, and for watching other wildlife too, has just grown and grown. This shared activity is fundamental to who we are, individually and as a couple.
7. Is there something you enjoy ‘having a go at’ regardless of skill?
I was going to answer “no” on the basis that life’s too short to waste time on stuff one is bad at. But on reflection, I do enjoy singing in the bath, and Mrs P will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am the most tone-deaf person who ever walked on god’s green earth.
8. What was (or is) your favourite children’s book?
My parents told me that when I was young I used to love Alice in Wonderland. I still appreciate it now, not least because it contains one of my all time favourite literary quotes. I’ve had cause to trot out these wise words at various stressful moments over the years, for example when our rental car broke down on a remote gravel road in an out-of-the-way corner of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Tasmania, and we couldn’t get a signal on our cell phone! Lewis Carrol’s insight goes like this:
“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” [said the Cheshire Cat]
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
More recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an extraordinary work of literature. The movie and television adaptations completely fail to do justice to an outstanding piece of imaginative writing which, although notionally aimed at the teenage market, transcends all attempts at categorisation.
Other children’s volumes that grace the groaning bookshelves at Platypus Towers include Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), Holes (Louis Sachar), The Machine Gunners (Robert Westall), The Milkman’s on His Way (David Rees), the Tripods trilogy (John Christopher), Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Margorian), The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (Gene Kemp) and Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). The best writing for children is brilliant, and should never be dismissed as “childish” or “just for kids.” Some of the greatest writers out there are writing books aimed, in the first instance at least, at a young audience.
9. Your current or past ‘occupation’ ie. work / study / keeping busy is …what?
Before retiring at the end of March 2018 I spent the best part of 40 years working in the UK public library sector, the last 15 running a city library service serving a quarter of a million people. I made this career choice because I knew that libraries can change lives. My father left school at a young age and did menial jobs throughout his life, yet thanks to the local library he was one of the wisest, best educated people I’ve ever known. Libraries made him, and in a slightly different way they’ve made me too.
10. What’s your favourite creative activity.. what do you have a passion for?
I enjoy cooking, particularly experimenting with Indian, Chinese and Thai-inspired dishes. I also relish writing, pulling together stuff that interests or amuses me, rather than the endless boring reports that my employers had me churning out for decades. I do it for my own amusement, and blogging is my outlet. If other people enjoy reading it that’s great, but the whole point is that I enjoy writing it!
11. Is there something you can share about a challenge you face, or have faced?
Interesting question. Like anyone of my age I’ve had my fair share of setbacks and heartache, but nothing out of the ordinary. I guess I’ve been very lucky. I found university challenging, not academically but in terms of my self-confidence and sense of belonging. If I had my time again I’d cope better and make more of the opportunity that uni offered me. I blogged about my experience of Cambridge University last year.
What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?
Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.
And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!
So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.
The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.
In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.
During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.
It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.
Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.
Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.
On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!
Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.
Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.
Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.
Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.
Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.
The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.
New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.
Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.
The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.
The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!
Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.
At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.
Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!
Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”
Yesterday – 21 April – was World Curlew Day! It probably passed you by: let’s face it, the news media are concentrating pretty much all their attention on one topic right now, understandably focussing on Coronavirus rather than curlews. Environmental issues aren’t perceived as a priority today, but while we follow the life and death struggle of fellow citizens coping with the Covid-19 virus, this magnificent bird is engaged in a battle of its own. Curlews are in big trouble.
Curlews overwinter on tidal mudflats and saltmarshes, and this is where Mrs P and I mostly see them, during our winter birding breaks. They used to breed widely both in upland and lowland Britain, but changes in farming practices have massively reduced lowland breeding success.
There are reckoned to be around 65,000 breeding pairs of Eurasian Curlews in Britain. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it, until you realise that this is a reduction of about 65% since 1970. And given that Britain accounts for around a quarter of the world breeding population of these birds, the decline here is bad news for the species as a whole.
Ours is not the only species of curlew under threat. A century ago the world boasted eight species of these large, long-lived waders. Today there are only six, of which three are on the Red List. As a group, they are claimed to be among the most threatened migratory birds on Earth. In response to their plight the first World Curlew Day was announced in 2018.
World Curlew Day has been described as “a grassroots initiative supported by environmental organizations such as BirdLife International and Wetlands International. It is a one-day global event aiming to raise awareness about the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.” This blog post is my own modest contribution to the World Curlew Day initiative.
The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) website summarises what is believed to be behind the decline of the Eurasian Curlew, noting that “the evidence to date suggests declines are largely due to poor breeding success alongside the loss of breeding grounds.” It continues:
“Like many wading birds, curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground – known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further four weeks, until fledging
Studies from across Europe have found that in most cases breeding pairs are failing to raise enough young to maintain stable populations.
Egg predation by mammals and birds has emerged as a key factor behind poor breeding success. However, this abundance of predation is in itself associated with changes in land-use and management.
Farming is essential to maintain the mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats curlews need, but large-scale grassland improvement ultimately leads to the degradation and eventual loss of breeding habitat. Changes in grazing pressure can also have a more direct impact in the form of nest trampling by livestock.”
Having identified the problem, the RSPB is now urgently seeking a solution. Its Curlew Recovery Programme is undertaking research to better understand the management practices required to reverse the decline in Eurasian Curlew numbers. At the heart of the programme is a Trial Management Project.
The Trial Management Project is carrying out work at sites across the four countries of the UK, looking at a range of possible interventions including habitat management and targeted predator control. Baseline monitoring at the six sites in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland was undertaken during the 2015 breeding season, and research to identify and develop appropriate “curlew-friendly” land management strategies is continuing.
In a separate project, the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) started work last year on a project to protect curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales.
“The plan is to throw everything we’ve got at the problem in the vale. Curlew protection will be driven by farmers, that’s the logical reality. If we can work with them to turn things around here, that’s a great start. But we also want the vale to be a test ground for ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere and, ultimately, incorporated into new government agri-environment policy, so that farmers can effectively be paid for curlew-friendly management.”
SOURCE: GEOFF HILTON, WWT’s Head of Conservation Evidence, quoted in Waterlife: The WWT Magazine, April/June 2020, page 36
When a curlew nest is located within the study area, the WWT researchers must weigh up carefully the risks and benefits of intervention. Approaching the nest may alert predators to its existence, or may disturb parent birds and cause them to abandon it. However if the risks of predation are high, the project team may decide that, on balance, the interest of the birds is best served by approaching to erect an electric fence around the nest in an effort to keep foxes and badgers at bay.
The scientists are also keen to collect data that will give them a better understanding of the challenges to be overcome in halting the decline in curlew numbers. To this end researchers may visit the nest briefly to weigh the eggs and deploy a temperature logging device; the data collected can provide valuable insights into laying and hatching dates, and incubation patterns. The nest may also be visited again, just before the chicks fledge, to ring and radio-tag the birds so that further information on their progress may be collected at a later date.
The WWT’s most drastic intervention of all is “headstarting,” where vulnerable eggs and chicks are removed from the wild to be raised in captivity, before being released in a more favourable location. The recent article in Waterlife magazine describes the removal of 50 curlew eggs from airfields in East Anglia, where they would have been destroyed to prevent airstrikes. After being hatched and raised by the WWT, the young birds were released in the safer surroundings of its Slimbridge Reserve. A good news story, if ever there was one!
In doing my research for this post I’ve been shocked at the plight of the curlew, which is worse than I’d realised. It’s a bird I love to watch, and the prospect of its becoming extinct is heart-breaking. However the levels of work currently underway to better understand the problems it faces, and to find appropriate solutions, give me cautious grounds for optimism. I wish the researchers every success in their endeavours.
February was foul. It was the wettest February the UK has ever seen, and the fifth wettest UK month, of any month on record, ever. Large areas of the country experienced unprecedented floods, and although Platypus Towers escaped this particular fate – living halfway up a hill helps! – it was pretty damned miserable. But as George Harrison famously reminded us, all things must pass, and around 6 March the sun finally shows up, giving it large in a dazzling, clear blue sky.
To celebrate our change in fortunes, I decide to treat Attila the Bun to an enormous carrot. I’m standing at the door to his hutch, fondling his ears while he tucks in greedily, and out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of my first butterfly of the year.
The symbolism isn’t lost on me. The transformation of caterpillar into butterfly is one of Nature’s most dazzling tricks. It speaks of redemption, the possibility of change, and the enormous potential that lies within the most unpromising of subjects. Nothing is so ugly that it cannot re-fashion itself into a thing of beauty, nothing is so damaged that it cannot be made whole again, nothing is so stained that metamorphosis cannot restore it to purity.
The butterfly in question is a Small Tortoiseshell. She sits atop some pure white heather blossom, sucking up the nectar, soaking up the rays. Intent upon her business, she allows me to approach and stand so close I could reach out and touch her. The predominant colour of her wings is a foxy reddish-orange, decorated with a scatter of black and yellow splodges and an edging of tiny, bright blue spots. She is so delicate, so beautiful.
My butterfly has overwintered as an adult, hunkered down somewhere sheltered, perhaps a garden shed or a farm outbuilding. For months her metabolism has barely ticked over, but today she’s awake and has a job to do. Now is her time, and with temperatures rising and the days growing longer she must find a mate, and a patch of stinging nettles on which to lay her eggs.
Her children will take to the wing in June and July, and they in turn will produce another generation in late summer. It is that generation, the grandkids of the butterfly before me, that will emulate her by seeking out a sheltered hiding place in which to hibernate through the winter.
As with pretty much every species of butterfly in the UK, Small Tortoiseshells have declined massively in recent decades. Growing up in suburban London half a century ago I used to see them in abundance, and although not rare these days I wouldn’t describe them as plentiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this early in the year so today’s sighting is definitely a bonus, as well as being a welcome indication that spring is waking from its slumber at last.
Eventually, my butterfly decides it’s time to share her ethereal beauty with another lucky soul. Sorrowfully I watch her leave, and wish her well on her journey. I will miss her. Butterflies are a symbol of hope, and god knows we need hope in these, the darkest of days.