Blog Archives: Miscellaneous

Three days of World Heritage in the north….

 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites, those places of recognised cultural or natural importance to the whole world, come in many shapes and sizes. And all too often we run off to find those in far-flung corners of the world – take the Taj Mahal or the Great Barrier Reef, for example – but lose sight of those places and their fascinating stories almost on our doorstep.

So it was that we headed out for a few of days by rail last week (incredible value at less than £70 in total, with railcard and Advance tickets) to two of the British sites that neither of us had visited before, Saltaire and Durham, both cultural sites but from very different eras.

Evening in Saltaire was foggy and intensely atmospheric, the diffuse lights in an industrial landscape seemingly transporting us into the art of Atkinson Grimshaw, and perfect for displaying the street art of their Living Advent Calendar.

  

Next morning, still grey skies but the fog had lifted, to reveal the Victorian ‘model village’ industrial architecture for which this site is inscribed on the UNESCO list. The eponymous Sir Titus Salt consolidated his textile empire and all its processes under one roof, on a greenfield site away from the worst of the pollution from West Yorkshire’s ‘dark, satanic mills’, and then set about consolidating his workforce there too, with purpose-built housing, social and civic facilities, astride the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, a vital artery for trade. While it undoubtedly benefitted his bottom-line, Salt’s philanthropy is remarkable by today’s standards. And the workers must have relished the opportunity to escape from some of the worst Victorian slums in Bradford.

   

Salts Mill itself has had a chequered history, almost falling to the demolishers until taken over in the 1980s by a latter-day philanthropist Jonathan Silver, who recognised its potential for post-industrial uses, including as an art space. Recognised AND realised to a considerable extent, though the site is huge and much still awaits transformation. Good reason to pay a return visit? Certainly if the art on display remains as exciting. David Hockney is a great supporter of the Mill, and we had chance to see a range of his work, including some of his most innovative pieces, including his fax-art from the 80s and the more recent i-pad art. His sequence ‘The Arrival of Spring’ particularly spoke to me, based as it is on Woldgate, near Bridlington, one of my childhood stamping-grounds as a budding naturalist.

Thence to Durham, much more classically historical and ‘chocolate-box’ beautiful, nestling within a tortuous loop of the River Wear. The view of the Cathedral and Castle, familiar to anyone who has travelled the East Coast Mainline, was the original inspiration for this trip when travelling down from Edinburgh in the summer, and as we arrived in the dark, it was suitably, dramatically lit, inviting our exploration.

And then again by day, the Cathedral especially magnificent both outside and especially in. Such a pity that, with the angles and light, ornamentation, stained glass and wall art, all inspirational subjects, no photography is allowed inside…but it was still worth the visit. Then there was so much more, the lanes and street layouts, churches and even more modern, though still classic, architecture like the 1960s concrete bridge of Ove Arup. Another familiar from my past, as an alumnus of UEA, where brutalist concrete set the backdrop for my early twenties.

But perhaps best of all, no doubt in part due to the welcome emergence of the sun, was the setting of the city – castle and cathedral as ever-present sentinels above the riverside walks. And there we could indulge in a little pre-Christmas wildlife watching (so much less stressful than shopping!), with Goosanders on the river and fungi fruiting among the trees, including Judas’ Ear, surprisingly on a Sycamore stump, its usual host being Elder.

 

 

Book Review: The Orphaned Spaces

For me it all began in the mid-1970s with the publication of Richard Mabey’s ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. As a naturalist and proto-conservationist, I had grown up fascinated by wildlife in close proximity to humans, in those places without a name apart from ‘wasteland’; at last there was a suitable, non-pejorative name for the places I inhabited as a child, chasing butterflies, building dens, and generally finding my own space.

My fascination with the unofficial countryside has remained unabated. As a professional conservationist one of my proudest achievements was the safeguarding of Canvey Wick (see blog), and the acceptance of what had now become called brownfield or post-industrial land, as having a legitimate part to play in ’proper’ nature conservation.

Forty years on, and there is a new book, introducing a new name – The Orphaned Spaces – written by MW Bewick and illustrated by Ella Johnston. And a new approach, going behind the science and the evident conservation values, into the personal reflections on how such places help mark the passage of time and of our lives. The poetic prose transports me to every orphaned space I have ever been and conjures up the unpredictable magic of the interface between human decay and natural bounty.

Written in diary format, mostly during the winter months, it also succeeds for me in highlighting the role of such places in guiding us through the low season. I am one of those who lives in the shadow of the winter gloom, from autumn equinox until the advancing daylength of January; the improbable pinpricks of nature which adorn our orphaned spaces are essential signposts to a brighter future. This book thus neatly bridges one Mabey theme – Unofficial Countryside – to another – Nature Cure.

The text may seem sparse, but sometimes just a few words can convey meaning which punches above their weight. Take the entry for 24 July:

Travelling thugs on the banks of the river by the derelict furniture warehouse. Giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam are rough brutes. The sewerage pipe trickles into the murk of almost stagnant water and the banks are littered with human detritus. A muddy trainer. Plastic bottles and old tin cans. A jumper. A half-submerged supermarket trolley. Just who is the invasive species?

…thus taking this book into the sphere of natural philosophy, giving voice to some of the questions which need repeating over and over in the modern world of spurious civilisation.

Of course as a scientist and therefore a nit-picker, I have my quibbles. The failure to observe standard typographic representation of scientific names for example. And the assertion of 1 May that ‘There is unique quality to overlooked spaces. More bio-diverse than an arable field.’ – damning with faint praise, to anyone with an ecological background. But such quibbles miss the point of the book…and the fact that I happily read it in one sitting should speak volumes.

And then there’s the subtitle. ‘The Orphaned Spaces: Waste ground explored’. Yes, maybe we called it wasteground as kids, but the adjectival use of ‘waste’, without even ironic quotation marks, upsets me greatly. And I think to anyone who approaches this book with an enquiring mind, you will find its thoughtful contents give the lie to the subtitle.

The Orphaned Spaces‘ by MW Bewick & Ella Johnston, publisher Dunlin Press, 2018.

Price £9.99 from Dunlin Press Online Shop.

Also available is a made-to-order boxed set, which should be a thing of beauty as well as a stimulating read.

For more on the wonders of our unofficial countryside, see my blogs on Canvey Wick and Gunnersbury Triangle, and for the delights of post-industrial ‘dereliction’ Orfordness and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station

A few days in London…

A largely photographic record of three wonderful autumnal days, albeit feeling more like high summer, exploring the capital, tasting the architectural, artistic and natural riches it has to offer.

Canyons of glass and steel, capturing but not quite taming the sky:

 

Surprising juxtapositions  of old with new, like a choral discord unsettling but thrilling. Churches everywhere, the legacy edifices of Wren and Hawksmoor, each subtly different, both inside and out: some uplifting, others deflating:

     

 

From spiritual to secular, a cathedral to power: Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Victorian engineering predating the practicality of electricity transmission. Now hosting an art gallery, but in reality the rusting fabric is art in itself:

 

Always the River, lifeblood of London and its maritime and mercantile history. Once we oversaw its death, but the Thames is now reborn: we even saw a Seal swimming through Tower Bridge!

  

And for our green needs, not a Royal Park or the wilder stretches of the Thames Path, but this time – and for our first time – the London Wetland Centre. And mightily impressed we were too! Birds from all over the globe, some brought in, others attracted there by its abundant resources: a metaphor for the melting-pot that is London.

Wonderful Wildlife Art at the Mall Galleries: ‘a glimpse of the wild in the heart of London’

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Summer Stonechat by Richard Allen ASWLA

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, we were lucky enough to be able to attend the Private View of this year’s Society of Wildlife Artists’ exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London (another benefit of the welcome flexibility that comes with ‘retirement’!). It was a great opportunity, second only to the Rutland Birdfair, to meet up with old friends and former colleagues, and to be immersed in a dazzling array of wildlife-themed artworks.

It is several years since my last visit to this annual exhibition, and it seems that the trend has been towards the kind of wildlife art I enjoy. In the past, I felt it was overly dominated by highly representational, almost photo-realistic pieces. All demonstrating incredible talent, but in this era of a multitude of actual photographic images of increasingly good quality, artworks depicting the same view of the world left me rather unmoved.

Not so this year however: a great range of more abstract works, or with strong graphic design elements, now seem to be in the majority. Pictures which capture the feel of the subject and its surroundings, which suggest rather than spoon-feed – that for me is what makes art such a powerful form of communication. Images that simplify reality to its essential elements, maybe introduce new colours or textures that challenge the way I see the natural world, and in the process help me appreciate and understand all the more the wonders of nature, and bolster my resolve to continue to fight for its protection.

So I would strongly recommend anyone who values the natural world and appreciates attempts to capture its essence on canvas or through sculpture to try and make time for an hour or two at the Mall Galleries: the exhibition runs until 6th November. Or at least look at the selected online gallery of images http://www.mallgalleries.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/natural-eye-2016#block-views-exhibition-content-block-2

The only downside was the unseasonal, almost tropical temperature with everyone crowded in. But even that bore fruit: in a desperate quest for cool, fresh air (insofar as London’s air can be described as fresh), we ventured outside for a few minutes, and came upon a beastie we have been searching for without success for a couple of years: the red-and-black lygaeid bug Arocatus longiceps, climbing up the exterior wall of the gallery, just a few metres from the nearest specimen of its host food plant, London Plane…

arocatus-longiceps

Apologies for the poor quality of the photo: taken on my mobile, as I made the classic mistake of leaving my camera at home. One day I will learn!

Thanks to Richard Allen for inviting us to the Private View, and to Andy Clements for extending that invitation to the BTO evening reception.

The Curate’s Egg: my reflections on leaving Natural England, part 2

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In the first part of this blog, I touched on an issue for Natural England which has become apparent as I have left their employment, that of a feeling amongst staff of disenfranchisement. Now that I have found my voice, this second (and probably final) part nails my colours to the mast and explains my personal views on some of the key issues of our time.

I realise that my views could be dismissed as the rants of a disillusioned staff member who has been ‘let go’ early, being surplus to requirements. But that’s not the case. I am still proud of the work of NE and its predecessors, and my departure was a positive choice on my part. However, it is certainly not the case that I agree with everything it has done.

Take for example the licensing of Badger culling in an attempt to control Bovine TB. I disagree with that. Although I am not an expert on the matter,  I trust and respect those often eminent scientific experts,  contrary the ‘anti-expertise’ dogma which is sweeping the world, who maintain that the efficacy of such an approach is highly questionable, and indeed may even be counter-productive. I recognise that NE is in a difficult place, caught between its much vaunted evidence-based decision making and having to deliver Defra policy. But with all due respect, I think there is a considerable difference between the evidence coming from the scientific community and the ‘evidence’ coming from politicians (whose expertise, such as it is, is only around how to manage the diverse expectations of their constituents and lobby groups). Or indeed the ‘evidence’ coming from dairy farmers, caught at the sharp end of BTB, and understandably wanting something to blame, to see some action.

Worryingly, the licensing of badger culling for BTB control may be opening a can of worms, by creating an assumed precedent. Badgers in sea walls in Lincolnshire? Public calls to cull them! Not, as would have been the case in the past, to translocate them. While it is not likely that such calls to cull would ever be licensed, the conceptual genie is out of the bottle, and it may not be possible to contain it.

And then there’s the question of licensing the lethal control of Buzzards, to support Pheasant-rearing businesses. Again I disagree, maybe more from a moral perspective – to kill a protected raptor because of its predation upon an alien bird, arguably a pest, which is reared, released and shot in its millions. But again there are external influences which impact upon NE’s decision – in this case a High Court judgement. But have all alternative solutions been explored? And are there really no grounds to challenge the legal ruling? And if not, why not? Shouldn’t the wildlife licensing system have at its heart protection of the species, one that is awe-inspiring and a considerable success story, rather than ‘de-protecting’ it to facilitate economic returns… If NE really is caught in between the proverbial rock and the legal hard place, should it not be out there seeking changes in the law to reflect the views of the majority, who value and are inspired by the majesty of large raptors flying free, rather than the few who make a living from shooting or get their fulfilment through killing?

As with the Badgers, this decision is turning into a precedent, with several other similar applications under consideration. Where will it end? And more worryingly, how can we accept that the terms of the licence (numbers killed etc) will be adhered to? What happens if someone exercising a legal right to kill a Buzzard ‘accidentally’ misidentifies a passing Hen Harrier? Many unpleasant and illegal acts of persecution have taken place under a cloak of secrecy, out of the public gaze, on shooting estates: how can we be assured that nominally legalized Buzzard control will not go beyond the bounds and be added to the litany of illegal persecutions of protected birds?

While I recognise the need for NE to satisfy its political masters (oh for the days when we were an independent watchdog!) and remain within the bounds of law, I cannot help but feel that this has been at the expense of respect from and credibility with the wider conservation community. And when the time comes that NE itself is deemed to be ‘surplus to requirements’, as surely it will, it will need to turn to that community for its very survival. And to return to my earlier theme in Part 1 – NE should unlock the passion in its workforce, and win friends and supporters for the future.

Of course, NE does many things well, and with which I am proud to have been associated. None more so that the creation (now almost complete) of a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MCZs, SPAs and SACs). And all delivered with relatively little adverse comment and reaction: were we to have embarked on such a programme on the land at the same time and in the same political and economic climate, there would have been uproar, particularly from vested interests set on making money by turning countryside into suburbia.

Out at sea there are few developers. And most of those that there are (especially offshore wind companies) have a long history of working with us to reach genuinely sustainable development solutions. Likewise there are few regulatory authorities, unlike on land where the multitude of quasi-independent authorities provides ample opportunity for perversion of the democratic process (sorry that should read ‘lobbying’), forcing compromise when compromise is inappropriate, and means the loss of an irreplaceable part of our common natural heritage. All in the pursuit of Government priorities ie housing, jobs and economic growth.

Other things NE can be proud of, I believe, include:

  • Being a key player in visionary landscape-scale restoration schemes: Great Fen, Avalon Marshes, and numerous coastal managed realignments
  • Finding sustainable solutions to a wide range of development cases, and (largely) staying on the right side of compromise
  • Simply staying alive in a highly challenging political and economic climate
  • Making the right decision regarding the reintroduction of Beavers. Will Lynx be next? Having been involved with that project, and maintaining the requisite professional neutrality hitherto, I can now say ‘I hope so’. Better that the upland economies are supported by big cat ecotourism, than by unsustainable practices associated with driven grouse shooting and the like.

So to my final perspective: Natural England is that proverbial Curates Egg – good in parts. I can only hope that when viewed through the lens of hindsight, its achievements for the natural environment are seen to outweigh the follies.

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Sorry for the length of these postings, and thank you to anyone who read this far: I had a lot to get off my chest! Future postings will be shorter – and more illustrated! Next stop for me – Menorca and its autumn wildlife…

And finally, my metaphorical ‘golden watch’. My parting gifts included this wonderful original painting of Swifts over the church I can see from our flat, the work of my friend and outstanding local artist Richard Allen. Little did they know how much I have coveted this image since it first appeared in British Birds. And how it symbolizes the feelings I have right now – wild spirits flying free above Wivenhoe.

wivswifts

 

The Curate’s Egg: my reflections on leaving Natural England, part 1

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At the end of September, I took early severance from Natural England. NE and its predecessors have been my only permanent employer over a career of some 31 years, so it is a momentous moment for me, and time for a little reflection.

Although not encouraged to do so, I sent this email to all staff in my final week, hopefully to encourage them in their fight for nature:

I realise you may see several such emails in the near future, so if you don’t know me, or wish you hadn’t known me, or are simply too busy, please feel free to delete… 

I have worked with so many teams and individuals over the years that I have been unable to say goodbye to everyone. So please allow me the luxury of being an ‘old lag’, and let me reflect on the past and its relevance to now and the future. 

At the end of this week I shall be leaving NE, after nearly 31 years with NCC, EN and NE. In that time, I have been proud to work for the statutory nature conservation body, and am equally proud of what I have achieved. For example, some of the highlights include: 

  • putting Essex on the wildlife map;
  • being there at the ‘invention’ and subsequent roll-out of managed realignment;
  • securing developments that go beyond sustainability, like the expansion of Abberton Reservoir;
  • building strong and largely positive, productive relationships with the ports industry;
  • the safeguarding of Canvey Wick, and its subsequent rise to prominence as a major brownfield invertebrate reserve;
  • helping to get the Wildlife Gardening Forum up and running as an independent entity; and most recently
  • ensuring the sustainable deployment of offshore wind installations, making a huge contribution to our energy needs.

Of course, I could have done none of these things on my own – all have depended on the efforts of colleagues and partners. I have been especially privileged to have worked through much of the existence of the Habitats and Birds Directives, and to have used that elegant legislation positively to secure environmental protection and enhancement. 

We are now set on a very different course, as a result of Brexit, and the perversion of a ‘democratic’ process, informed by smoke and mirrors, half-truths and lies (at last I will be able to speak my mind!). Your job will be challenging, but please have faith and keep on fighting for all we believe in. None of us know the shape of wildlife protection in the future: although we can and will strive for equivalent or better protection for the natural world in the future, my fear is that it will be less favourable than the legislative environment we have enjoyed, albeit in an increasingly challenging way, over the past few years. I just hope that the independence of the Judiciary will survive attempts to exert political control over it – and that y(our) organisation will have the strength to use domestic judicial process (in place of the European processes) to support conservation efforts. 

My approach to our work has always been focussed around solutions and outcomes, an approach now explicitly central to the way we operate. And rightly so. But this is not without risks: there is a fine practical line between ‘solutions/outcomes’ and ‘compromise’. Whereas the first can be characterised and welcomed as ‘win-win’, the second is ‘lose-lose’, and something to be avoided if we are ever to start addressing effectively the attrition of our natural environment so apparent in last week’s ‘State of Nature’ report. So please resist the temptation to take an easy way out, and remember that compromise is (usually) a dirty word.  

I will be still fighting, albeit from a different position. The inner activist in me has grown immensely over past months, and I hope to be able to agitate positively to help attack the dark forces of neoliberalism, deregulation, intolerance and isolationism. Quite apart from that, I will be devoting time to enjoying being newly married, writing (several books in the pipeline), speaking, photography, and wildlife tours (mostly with Honeyguide and Naturetrek – I would love to see any of you on my tours). Doing what I do best, enthusing others about that which means so much to me – the natural world – and has given me employment, enjoyment and a reason to continue what seems at times a dispiriting fight. 

So goodbye for now, and good luck with your future efforts. Hopefully you will not have heard the last from me.

Thank you Natural England. It has (largely) been a pleasure…

This went out to some 2000 staff, and I was overwhelmed by the response – hundreds took the time to say goodbye and many reflected on my reflections. Perhaps significantly only one of these came from the upper echelons of senior management. In only one or two cases were those reflections anything other than positive. But what struck me was the number of folk saying how they wished they felt free to express their passionately held views, how they hoped the release of a new cohort of often experienced staff into the wild is going to make a difference. Others tell me they can only realise and release their passion by subterfuge, through the cloak of anonymity of social media accounts which make no link to their work for NE.

A few sample quotes:

I am glad to hear that there are a number of people who will be able to feel that they can speak freely soon and are willing to do so …

Thank you for being so honest and open – contrary to the current climate within NE

Thank you for voicing the thoughts of many (older?) colleagues about the direction that NE is taking, under the steer of our political masters

And if truth be known, I would have felt the same until now… perhaps senior managers in NE need to wake up to this simmering frustration and feeling of impotence which could and should be channelled into a passionate, articulate advocacy (evidence-based of course!) for the natural world and its protection and enhancement. To deny or discourage such free expression is plainly wrong; rather it should be nurtured, valued and brought forward to start to reassert the authoritative, informed, engaging voice we once had in EN and NCC. If I could include contributing to such a culture change within my legacy, I would be a very proud man…

To be continued…