Occupational Hazards – A Morbid Look at Reserve Management

As we slide into the post-referendum, post-EU, post-species protection, agri-centric subsidy future, here’s something to cheer you up: today, the police asked me to search one of my sites for someone at high risk of suicide. Fantastic. But not unexpected. There’s things they don’t tell you about when you settle on (or have settled upon you) a career in conservation. It’s not all larking about counting newts and frolicking in meadows, y’know. There is always the possibility that you might find something deeply unpleasant lurking in the nether regions of your woodlands.

Suicides in woodland, reserves or parks are relatively common. Somewhere I previously worked warned me that if I stayed longer than three years, the odds on me finding a dead body became favourable (I left at two years three months and the only thing I saw die in that time was enthusiasm for community outreach).

I have zero insight into the mind of the suicidal, but I suspect the search for some solace and some calm is what leads people to these places, and as much as it is unpleasant for those of us who do the discovering, it’s hard for me to begrudge them that.


‘Oh Ernest, look at the ruddy mess you’ve made of the walls’ (yes I was struggling to find something suitable in my image library)

It’s not just suicides though. I’ve had colleagues who have told me stories…things I can’t in all good conscience repeat here. Gory things, horrid things. Accidents and incidents with the public. Everyday activities that have gone south at the drop of a hat. And then there’s the other things you might come across – a multitude of dead dogs, cats, badgers and foxes; more couples having sex than you can shake a stick at (and shaking a stick at them is usually a good way to scare them off, for future reference); weapons stashes (I once found a handgun while working with a group of young offenders. That was an interesting day. I do not miss Dagenham); angry dogs; angry dog walkers; people angry with angry dogs and angry dog walkers. The list goes on.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I suppose this post is aimed at two very small subsets of my already small readership. For those thinking of moving into the environmental sector to become a warden, ranger or site manager, this is a forewarning. Because it’s something people rarely tell you about. Predominantly suicides take place at home, but many that take place outdoors are often in quite, secluded, beautiful spots (and no, I am not just trying to scare off future competition). And for any of you out there who were thinking of doing yourselves in at a particularly scenic location, don’t. For one, the admin is a right sod.


The Power of a Strongly Worded Sign

Glory be. Miracle of miracles (and I’m not talking about plucky Arsenal finishing 2nd in the Premier League against all odds yesterday). My goldfish problem seems to have miraculously resolved itslef overnight. To recap, last week I discovered that someone had illegally dumped about 150 goldfish of varying size into one of the ponds on one of the reserves – a pond that had a good recorded Great Crested Newt population.

So last week I pinned a robustly worded poster up by the pond. No swears, but still, very precisely and thoughtfully worded to strike terror into the hearts of any passing fly-tipper. And what do you know? This week they’re gone. All gone. Just vanished. Had the goldfish dumper had a change of heart? It is entirely possible that they did not know what they were doing was wrong and were stung with remorse by my chastising letter. It is also entirely possible the pond was visited by a passing flock of a hundred hungry heron over the weekend.


My original poster may have been a little too intense

A Kestrel Over Bloomsbury

We live in danger of eventually becoming the thing we hate.

There’s nothing like a ludicrously portentous opening sentence to give a rather inconsequential blog post a bit of snap, is there? Hate is rather a strong word for it, after all. But after a decade of bimbling through the streets of London, I have come to be wary of the Emergency Stop Pedestrian. This behaviour seems to be much more prevalent in tourist-heavy areas – or ‘Red Zones’ as I’ve started calling them – snazzy new mobile phones, too, have a lot to answer for. I don’t normally have to be wary of roving ecologists, though.

But today, I finally became that person. Walking through the Brunswick Centre, a sound suddenly brought me up short, causing the unfortunate lady behind me to collide with my rucksack. She said something that sounded an awful lot like ‘flanker’ and I can only assume this was a reference to my broad, manly shoulders. I wasn’t paying any attention though, as right there, above the sound of people spewing out of the Picadilly line, was an incongruous high kee-kee-kee bird call.


‘Blaaahdy hell, I think I’m lost’

It’s a weird thing sometimes, being an ecologist. A few flashes of colour in the right pattern, or notes in the correct arrangement can send you questing through the plashy fen or staring moronically up into the sky like some kind of loon. I’m not even particularly good at bird sounds, but a faint yet shrill call in an unexpected context is apparently all it takes for me to cause an obstruction to a public thoroughfare.

I eventually tracked the Kestrel, wind-hovering over the Russell Hotel, and stood to watch it for a few minutes, all the time thinking to myself ‘you’ll not have much luck up there’. It didn’t hang around long but I was surprised no one else followed my gaze.

assyrian lion

The Assyrians: No word on whether Ashurbanipal moonlighted as a dentist

Perhaps people are always staring up at the sky in Russell Square. Perhaps I just look like the type. Maybe I am beginning to take on a decidedly incoherent appearance in my old age. It was enough to break up a little of the Christmas shopping drudgery for me. Between the Kestrel and the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum, I’ve had quite a day.

* * *

As you may have noticed, it’s not just the Emergency-Stop-pavement-walking I’ve been guilty of today. I’ve also just splurged onto the page a screed of nature writing produced merely for its own sake. A paean that does nothing to inform or provoke discussion. This clearly goes against my own ethos of nature writing. I should probably be horse-whipped.

Well, if one will go about having opinions and writing them all over the internet, one will inevitably get called out for a hypocrite sooner or later. The thing is to brazen it out, I find.

And who cares? I saw a Kestrel over Russell Square today and it was brilliant.

Swans: Pure White Veneer Masks the Dark Heart of a Monster

It seems swans are out to get me this week. On Monday, my train was delayed by one loafing about the tracks somewhere around Peterborough (I did not at any point mutter ‘just run the bloody thing over, it’ll shift if it knows what’s good for it’) and for the past few days I’ve been bombarded with phone calls about the blasted things.

The popularity of swans is something of a mystery to me. Presumably it’s because they’re big, white, hard to miss and easy to identify. They can look quite serene from a distance, but a good deal less so if you get too up close and personal with them. I was surprised to see it as low as 7th in the Vote for Britain’s National Bird (the public showing only marginally more imagination by opting for the Robin). There’s something about swans that seem to attract an inordinate amount of affection. Are we all just closet royalists? Everywhere I have worked to date, the calls regarding swans outstrip that of every other species combined. I used to laugh about it until recently I had to field these calls.


Swan: Indignant at its low score for the American Smooth

Bizarrely I had a string of calls this week about a particular swan that was ‘stuck’ the wrong side of some fencing, separating it from the pond and the rest of it’s kin. I wouldn’t have minded so much but the fence was about ankle height (this was put into context when an acquaintance of mine who shall remain nameless admitted that they didn’t know swans could actually fly).

Some of these calls have, of course, been loaded with subtext. On some occasions calling it subtext is a little kind. I have been told outright on more than one instance that we need to keep a better eye on our swans because of ‘the Poles’. I have always wondered exactly what swan tastes like. I’ve even been tempted…but no, of course I’d never do that. What would Her Maj say?

But like geese, the growing population of swans, particularly on urban ponds and lakes, can be a problem. A pair on one of my local water bodies has raised 8 cygnets to adulthood. 8! Propped up, no doubt, by the huge volume of bread that gets shufted their way almost every day. That’s a huge amount of eutrophication going on, with its knock-on effects to the general biodiversity of these sites. Though I’m all for using as many means as possible to encourage public engagement with greenspace, we need to do this responsibly.

Then there’s the other thing about swans…the thing we were all told about in reverential tones by wary parents: They break arms. A quick internet search as flagged up absolutely 0 examples of this bone-cracking ability and I am beginning to wonder if this is just another one of those big wind-ups parents play on their kids, like Santa Claus, or the one about a benevolent loving world that rewards hard work.

Take the pair on my local common. They continue to cause much confusion. Once again they have failed to build a nest or partake in any of the other couple-based activities one might expect. This has provoked some salacious and uncharitable mutterings from the local Egyptian Geese. The swans have responded by ceremoniously drowning each and every gosling they produce. Indeed, as part of my project my volunteers have gradually monitored the arrival and subsequent demise of broods of Canada Geese, coots, moorhens and tufted ducks as part of the Wetland Bird Survey. Is it spite? Jealousy? Are they just evil minded? Probably not. Although on the other hand, take Hannibal the swan, who sounds like a right sod:

‘After each attack, Hannibal would bring his son to view the aftermath while holding his wings up in celebration.’

canada goose


I think that’s what has always slightly befuddled me about the popularity of swans. Of all waterfowl, I have to say I find them the least sympathetic. Take coots – plucky, aggressive, brash little buggers. Or moorhens – secretive and cunning pacifists. Or, good grief, Canada Geese – big, dumb, honking moron jocks of the amenity space pond-world. Even they have some kind of stupid, lumbering Lennie-esque charm. But swans? For me, there’s always been something about that pure white appearance that masks the cold, hard mind of a psychopath.

Camley Street – A Revisit

Don’t look back. You can never look back”

Don Henley

1- camley

Me loitering outside my previous place of work before the restraining order

If you ever find yourself in London, baffled, as I am, by the sheer vibrant greyness of it all (no that is not an oxymoron), then it’s worth reminding yourself that in amongst all that grim, concrete hustle and bustle, London is one of the greenest capital cities on the planet. Indeed, if you’re rolling straight off the Eurostar at St Pancras then right there, a short stroll from the platform, is one of the best examples of the tiny little green nooks and crannies that exist throughout the frequently overbearing behemoth of England’s capital – Camley Street Natural Park.

I apologies that this post my have begun with all the tepidly verbose prose of a Lonely Planet review. No, I have not taken to heart all the frequent pleas from readers to be ‘less curmudgeonly’. But I do think Camley Street is something worth shouting about.

A brief admission of self-interest here: Camley Street is somewhere close to my own heart, just as it is close to the very heart of London (oh good grief man, listen to yourself would you?). A lot of my formative experiences in urban conservation and outreach occurred there. I volunteered and later worked at the site. My Logan’s Run themed 30th birthday was held there (I did, indeed, ‘renew‘). It is a great example of what I’d phrase ‘shop-front conservation.’ There’s some interesting bits of natural habitat, even the odd notable species, but it is a site most definitely managed with public engagement at its core. This is no bad thing. In fact it is an ideal use of the space. But now, it’s becoming something different.

I recently revisited the site and realised all was not quite as I remembered it. The hills were higher when you were young, and all that. Perhaps it was because I worked and volunteered there with some great people who are no longer there (I’m sure the new volunteers and staff are great, but they are mostly strangers to me), but it seemed less alive and full of possibilities. I found myself ambling around the site pointing at things and saying to myself ‘I made that’ and then picking out the inadequacies in my own handiwork.

It’s possible memories and subsequent experiences have slightly detracted from the place for me, it’s possible I object to the artistic viewing platform that’s been installed at the southern end, it’s possible I’m royally peeved that my kingfisher bank has been flattened a year before it would have finally offered a suitable habitat for the occasional visitors that make it even to this darkened corner of the Regent’s Canal. It’s possible I’m annoyed that there isn’t yet a blue plaque with my name over the gate.

There’s been a major development going on in the old warehouses the opposite side of the canal. The area has well and truly shaken off its rather dubious reputation. Very soon, a footbridge will link the new development to the north of Camley Street. A new visitor centre will replace the ‘charming’ and somewhat ramshackle old cricket pavilion that currently performs the role. Will Camley Street keep its character? No doubt the levels of footfall will increase immeasurably. More people will through-route from the London School of Arts buildings to the railway stations. More people will discover this wonderful sight and the wonderful work the London Wildlife Trust do there. But it will never be the Camley Street I remember. That’s the nature of urban reserves like this and I should be glad.

More Pointless Fox Hyperbole

Foxes = hyperbole. If I’ve learned anything from my ‘career’ in the sector, it is that there is very little as divisive. So when a story appears in the papers about a marauding fox’ penning some ‘terrified’ punters in a pub, I pretty much know what reactions to expect. Calls for culling, the counter ‘ode to the joys of the urban fox’; it’s all a little predictable.

chumsWhat I think has always baffled me though is the sheer number of people who just point blank seemed to have refused that this has happened. Why the self-deception? Why can they not countenance the idea that a fox, a wild predator, could possibly act aggressively towards humans? There is any number of reasons why it might – cubs, food, perceived threat or familiarity – but there is a steadfast refusal to accept. And so stories like this are treated with incredulity and ridicule. I have even heard people claiming today that all previous incidences of fox attacks on humans have later been proven to be dogs. I have also seen that damn statistic about dog attacks vs fox attacks trotted out everywhere despite its total irrelevance. One thing I do know from experience is that when it comes to foxes, you have to pick a side.

I can understand it to an extent – people see foxes as the victim, as persecuted, and are therefore more prone to emphasise their innocence and fluffiness. But why do they think it is necessary to overplay it? The peculiar thing is that today in the Guardian a piece also appeared by lovable hunk Steve Backshall (even I swoon) about the nefarious media practice of creating seasonal bio-panic, be it jellyfish, spiders, hornets or, yes, foxes. And I completely agree with every single word of it. So what am I even trying to say?

I think we need to admit to ourselves that there’s the odd thing out there that might, just occasionally, cause you a scratch, a

They'll be the death of me

They’ll be the death of me

sting, and abrasion, heavens even a cut. I think we have to embrace that. Grasp on to the last tiny semblance of danger in our rather mild-mannered ecosystems (this is all very well me saying this until I am mauled to death by badgers, of course). The truth is that kids, for one, are much more fascinated by teeth and stings and danger than they are by soft fur and a placid demeanour.

So the next time there is a story about a fox biting a bin man, an exotic spider secreted in a bunch of bananas causing mild swelling or reports of a super-deadly Asian Hornet (clue – it’s probably just a regular hornet! Seriously, those things are terrifyingly large) I hope our reaction is neither to run for the hills and stock up on canned goods or to put on our green armour and say ‘oh don’t be silly, it could never happen’. I hope our reaction is to shrug our shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Or even better, ‘cool’. Animals do what animals do and they’re pretty cool as they are, why feel the need to exaggerate or deny?

A Short Word About Ivy, Murderer of Trees

Last week I fielded for the umpteenth time one of those queries that if you’re working in urban green space, you’ve probably been asked a thousand times. No, it’s not the one about the Swans, it’s the one about Ivy, the one that goes ‘what are you going to do about the Ivy? It’s killing the trees! Why aren’t you doing anything? You people don’t know what you’re doing…’etc. etc. and so forth.

ivy tree

Hedera helix – Arborocidal Maniac

It’s a common complaint – the notion that Ivy in someway ‘strangles’ trees. I can even recall a time when, as a volunteer, I was instructed to cut sections through some thick Ivy climbers for this reason. Where does the ‘myth’ come from? I have a theory on this – trees covered in Ivy are probably better structurally supported when they die. Therefore Ivy bound standing deadwood is more likely to remain where other, none Ivy bound deadwood may fall. Does this, therefore, give a false impression to the casual viewer? Ivy is also evergreen, which may in winter further exacerbate the miscomprehension. It is not a parasitic species, but will also thrive better on trees that are already ‘on the way out.’ There is a definite confusion over cause and effect when it comes to Ivy, demonstrated nowhere better than the comments under this piece.

In short, Ivy can cause problems, but ‘choking’ trees isn’t generally one of them. They do swamp borders, and perhaps the mental trauma this has caused many a gardener is part of the reason it can be so divisive, but thought about logically, how could they even ‘choke’ a tree? Perhaps some people did not pay enough attention in biology at school.

What Ivy in trees does do, is provide refugia and habitat for a whole host of invertebrates, nest sites for birds and even roost sites for bats. Berries also provide essential food in winter for some species and may be of benefit to Pine Martens. It may become overly dominant in a woodland, but that is where effective and thought-through management comes in to ensure that diversity and mix of species and ages. There is also an aesthetic argument (apparently), and this may be of more relevance to formalised parks than wild wood, but I for one do not think questions of aesthetics should come into wildlife management. So if you’re about to chop-out sections of your ivy climbers, consider this – which is better from both an aesthetic and bioviersity perspective, a dead tree covered in live ivy, or a barely-live tree covered in dead ivy?