What I Did on my Holidays and the Trials of an Ecologist’s Wife.

Nobody really wants to read about my holiday and how amazing it was, do they? Tough. After all the seriousness of last week’s post I’m drifting into levity and inconsequential fluff again. Don’t worry; I’ll keep it brief. Levity and brevity should probably be my blogging watchwords. It would make a change.

Mainly, I’m writing about this is to gloat. Well, OK, it’s to gloat and because I don’t have any better ideas this week. I thought it was exceedingly important that everyone knows that for the last week I’ve been loafing about here:


Yeah, that’s right, it’s a treehouse. Not just that. It’s a treehouse with a hot tub. Which is all fine and dandy until a hornet takes it upon himself to do periodical flybys, sending yours truly damply scurrying back inside with the screaming heebie jeebies. I’m not sure I can accurately estimate its size, but I would say it was at least as big as your average domesticated cat. With wings.


Bluebells in Ashton Wood: Picturesque. And blue.

One can’t spend all of one’s time jumping in and out of hot tubs avoiding oversized Vespidae though. It’s bad for one’s skin and one’s deportment, if nothing else. No matter, there were plenty of scenic villages to meander through, Bredon Hill to climb and Ashton Wood to explore.

It was in the latter that I discovered the largest badger sett I’ve ever seen. It put the ironworks on top of Bredon Hill to shame. Now, a word on my wife here (yes, I really am married): It takes a special kind of woman to nod tolerantly and say ‘oh, that’s nice’ when their lunatic husband yells from the undergrowth ‘Look at the size of this badger latrine!’

Considering her main interactions with nature through the week involved being menaced by an itinerant hornet and recoiling in horror at the mention of a tick on my leg (I lassoed it with a piece of cotton), I have to applaud her stoicism. Although she steadfastly refused to accompany me on a late night test of my shiny new bat detector (Soprano Pips, possible Natterer’s). Maybe next week I’ll write about the trials and tribulations of being bound by law to an ecologist.

So there you go, that was my holiday, interesting, wasn’t it? For now I have returned to the grim urban landscape of Stockwell, with its huge bus station that suspiciously thrums at ungodly hours. They’re building something that goes against man and nature in there, mark my words. Oh to live in a place where Red Kites soar whenever I turn my eyes skyward.


Do We Need to Sell Nature?

It’s the 21st century and it’s high time that environmental organisations (and those out there scrabbling around in the muck like myself) stopped behaving like Luddites and get media savvy. The PR war is one of the areas in which we can truly make inroads into the public conscious. With the amount of time we all spend in front of screens now, we have so many avenues (twitter, ‘viral’ campaigns, targeted advertising etc.) to inveigle ourselves into the nether regions of our audience’s minds. But just because we can, does it mean that we should? Do we risk losing sight of what our ultimate objectives are?

Marketing is playing an ever-increasing part in conservation. Not only for disseminating environmental arguments to layman audiences and gaining support for them, but also for the all important role of bringing in funds. With a shrinking pot of potential resources to draw from and an increasingly competitive green charity market, it is not surprising an obsession with ‘selling’ nature has developed recently.

Gone are the quiet, polite request for funds and the discrete membership links on websites. Pick an environmental charity and you can probably see the subtle hand of PR and marketing departments behind many of their activities.


Some are savvier, or more cynical if you would prefer. The ‘Vote Bob’ campaign has appeared recently, dressing itself up as an independent red squirrel intent on saving our natural world by gaining twitter followers, facebook ‘likes’ and selling fluffy toys. Cute. There’s no big message behind it beyond ‘nature is great, vote for nature’ and no particular issue or project it is supporting. Harmless and well intentioned you might say, but it only takes a little digging to find out that Bob is not such an independent little underdog, he has the whole might of the RSPB behind him. Though they are described as ‘Bob’s biggest supporter’, if you want to buy that fluffy ‘Bob’ toy, then it’s the RSPB shop you link through to.

But yet Bob and the RSPB have kept each other at one remove, though not quite arms length, and it is this dishonesty that one might find unbecoming and perhaps unnecessary. It’s a sign of subtle and stealthy High Street sales tactics seeping into our charities. And the question has to be, do we really want this? Is it beneficial for what we are trying to achieve? Yes, we cannot possibly achieve anything without a solid financial strategy, but we also cannot achieve anything without the support and goodwill of the public and our local communities. Some of the tactics that environmental charities have used risk alienating our traditional supporters. These are likely to provoke questions over just where membership fees and donations are going.

You Forgot the Birds

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Take the recent You Forgot the Birds’ furore. If you have not been keeping track, this has been a hatchet job on the RSPB perpetrated by a cabal of hunting and shooting types fronted, bizarrely, by Ian Botham. The campaign is inaccurate, snide and misguided and you could therefore easily dismiss it, as just about everyone connected with the RSPB has. However, it attempts, in a hamfisted fashion, to raise some relevant points about the exactly how donations are spent. It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns just because of the wrapping they are presented in, and one only has to look at a number of the responses from RSPB members on Twitter and in comments sections to see that this has struck a chord.

This speaks of the concern that many within the industry have about the future direction of our environmental charities (and the very use of the word ‘industry’ here rather highlights my point about how we are coming to view ourselves). Is a more business-like model always desirable and what we should be aiming for?

My opinions come mainly from the perspective of one working within environmental charities. There can be real concerns that marketing and PR departments are outgrowing (and usually out earning) the coalface staff that undertake the important activities charities are actually known for. The primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine. There is something about campaigns like #VoteBob that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. Like the otherwise admirable Project Wild Thing, there is the distasteful notion that we need to set about commodifying our wildlife.

It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire. Some of the marketing techniques we use now are focused around the sole purpose of getting people to part with their cash, rather than educating and informing. We are involved in campaigns that have revenue generation at their heart and not much in the way of an environmental message. We risk monetising the process of enjoying and discovering wildlife, and for me that can only be a bad thing.

A Cryptic Message From My Cousin

Today my slightly-less-attractive-yet-nearly-identical, wage-slave cousin sent me a Cryptic Quiz in the form of his project newsletter. I’m not sure what he’s on about, he’s been reading about the Zodiac recently and I think its given him ideas (about cryptography, not the murdery stuff. At least I hope not).

Anyway, there is the usual prize of a free lifetime subscription to Adventures in Conservation to anyone who can help me work out the answer. He claims there are at least 10 clues in there.

(It also might be of interest to anyone working on urban greenspace projects)

Not a Proper Book Review – H for Hawk and Hedge Britannia

Book pileStrewn willy-nilly about my flat is a rather scattershot collection of half-read books on everything from Charles Manson to natural history. I finally managed to tick-off two books in the latter category this week so I thought what better time to start the first in what may or may not be a series of very subjective book reviews. The wind this week has rather put paid to bat, bee and butterfly surveys and election fever is consumed all but the smuttiest corners of the internet* so I’ve had a chance to catch up on H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker.

I began the Award-Winning, Thesaurus-bothering titan that is H is for Hawk with some expectation but perhaps expecting something else (ok, I didn’t exactly read up on its contents beforehand). It has been hugely well received and having finished it, I’m still not entirely sure what I feel about it. There were long stretches of descriptive, showy prose that I skipped over as I often felt these weren’t telling me much. There’s a chance that I just felt stupid and jealous of the obvious talent and literary dexterity on display, and there is also a chance that I’m just an emotionally dead robot.

What to take away from it? Well, the parts about Hawks are great. The rest, and the overly verbose, portentous, pretentious simile-fest style, I am less enamoured with. I’ll admit, I am, on occasion and though I try to deny it, capable of drifting from Green into Purple without bothering to consult any of the intermediary colours, but this is just obscene. For christsake, she even uses the word Palimpsest. Palimpsest!

Maybe my stop/start reading style, ‘reading pile’ method didn’t allow me to pick up the rhythms and themes and stick with them. More than likely I was caught out by the description of H is for Hawk as non-fiction – the tone, structure, lyricism and I would venture even some of the content (come on, no one has dreams quite that crystal-clear and overbearingly symbolic) are deeply indebted to fictitious styles and tropes. I suspect if I had got onboard with that earlier, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.

There were lines I couldn’t really wrap my head around:

(I had) ‘…assumed it was a fear of female emancipation that had made Goshawks so terribly frightening to later falconers.’

And passages that others clearly enjoyed but were a little too florid for me:

‘The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping in the hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea’

 But enough about the style, what about the substance? That is, after all, what I crave. The book clearly has managed to subconsciously inveigle some knowledge of falconry into my brain, particularly some of the rather wonderful words associated with it (yarak being a favourite). I also had a pressing desire to read more TH White.

I clearly have a predilection for the concise and informative over the lyrical and emotive, which is perhaps why I had much more fun with Hedge Britannia. This was an inspired purchase.

Where H is for Hawk strives for the poetic, the noble, the emotive and lyrical, Hedge Britannia aims to inform you about a subject you didn’t know, and could never have imagined, you would be interested in, and all laced with heavy doses of self-deprecation. There are so many random digressions into social history, literature and even at, at one point, anime. There’s also more information on hedging species, techniques and types than you could shake a stick at. Though what you would hope to achieve by doing that, I have no idea.

For both of these books I suspect my enjoyment depended a lot on my own mood and circumstances at the time, and it’s because of that subjectivity I’ve titled this very definitely not a book review. I suspect I’m being a little unfair on H is for Hawk, but then if you read it sat on the 319 overlooking bus-stops strewn with desiccated goat-legs, you might struggle to enjoy the expansive descriptions of glorious landscapes and rolling countryside.

*I’m presuming no one is really reading a niche wildlife blog right now

The (Anti) Raptor Alliance

It’s happening again. After the nonsense of ‘You Forgot the Birds’ last year, there’s a new joker on the scene – The Raptor Alliance. Don’t let the name fool you – this is neither a collaboration of sparrowhawks angry at social injustice, a scene from Jurassic World or even a group attempting to save the decimated Hen Harrier. Quite the opposite, this is an alliance of pigeon fanciers intent on clearing the skies of any potential threat to the enjoyment of their little hobby.raptor alliance

I’m not going to make any snarky remarks about how anyone could possibly enjoy pigeon racing, but surely the removal of raptors only sanitizes it. Like modern F11 (again, baffled), where’s the excitement in knowing that they’re all going to make it back safely? Surely the addition of a potential sparrowhawk-wildcard adds to the thrill and anticipation. Surely a little thinning by raptors leads to the evolution of quicker, smarter pigeons2.

The recent petition put forward to members of Pigeon Racing unions (who knew, right?) is asking racing pigeons to be designated as livestock. With this designation it will then be legal (the Royal Pigeon Racing Association states) for pigeon racers to shoot birds of prey ‘around their loft’. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about the idea of any group blasting away into the sky, presumably in a residential area, particularly when I think about the rather woolly concept of ‘around their loft’. How many pigeon lofts are not in the vicinity of another property? Are they sure they can discharge a weapon without firing beyond their premises (as per Firearms Act)? So straight off the bat, I am not convinced by the legality of this unless said loft is in the middle of a field (yes, some of them will be). Might there be the potential for a little stretching of that ‘around the loft’ phrase?

But that’s mere nuts and bolts, protocol, procedure. From the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ debacle, we all know the real fun starts when you dive into the PR and reasoning behind it all. So lets head straight into the world of twitter, where we can rest assured that these types of movement will invariably make a boob and receive the mauling they deserve:

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Ah, here we go. Protection of ‘assets’. A Racing Pigeon owned by someone inherently has more value than a wild falcon. Because someone has paid good, hard cash for it. I’d rather not stroll too far down this path of monetising wildlife, and I’d also rather not turn this into some form of Bird Top Trumps (now there’s an idea), but if we must….

‘60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations’

Just picking the RSPB as they’re the most relevant environmental charity here: 1 million+ members, a great deal of them probably spending a large amount of money to view and protect birds. Some of the most popular birds to spot are likely to be raptors (and probably not pigeons, if we’re honest)…if we’re going to play ‘my bird’s worth more than your bird’, I know whom my, a-hem, money is on.

Such nice chaps, and therefore we should totally support them. People who give money to charity should always get their way.

I already said I wasn’t going to play ‘which bird is better’, but…oh go on then, if we must judge wildlife by their interaction with man: Falconry wins by a good 1780 years.

I’m never entirely convinced about bravery awards for animals, but this doesn’t make pigeons particularly special: Falcons were also used to bring down these messages.

I know, I know, all rather childish of me to pick out these random tweets, but there is an inherent undercurrent in everything the Raptor Alliance says that racing pigeons in so many ways have more ‘worth’ than raptors. This is even more dispiriting when in previous releases RPRA gave relatively reasonable advice on how to discourage birds of prey around ones pigeon loft.

This leap towards blasting them out of the sky all harks back to the rather perfidious notion I encountered growing up in the countryside that raptors need to be ‘controlled’. This was sold to me as essential for protecting songbird populations, but even then I could not understand the logic. Apex predator control doesn’t work ‘backwards’ like this. The only natural control on their numbers was prey numbers, and I couldn’t see the need for the introduction of a third agency. With this petition, attempting to directly pit raptors against ‘livestock’, it shows exactly where the real conflict lies.

1I am not disparaging recent changes to F1 or the lack of high-speed, potentially fatal crashes. I am completely ambivalent towards F1. Although the crashes were the best part.

2Smart, self-aware pigeons is one of my nightmare scenarios. That and squirrels intent on world domination.