There’s a moment in The Chronicles of Narnia when Hwin the mare meets the great lion Aslan. “Please,” she said. “You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anybody else.”
I’m always reminded of Hwin when I see a leopard. Particularly when I see a night-hunting leopard in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.
The Valley is a different place by night. The day-shift has clocked off, the night-shift is in full-swing. Creatures you never see in the day are now centre-stage: and you can see them because in the Valley you can check them out in a vehicle with a big spot-light.
Some animals hate it, elephants and hippos especially, so you never shine on them directly. You can influence the outcome of a hunt by dazzling potential prey, and that’s strictly forbidden. But many of the other animals take it in stride.
These include genets, small spotty cat-like creatures, civets, porcupines, hyenas and honey-badgers, which have a glorious reputation for ferocity. It’s another world, and quite as enthralling as the world of daylight. Or perhaps even more enthralling because at night the stars come out.
And brightest star of them all is the leopard. To catch one in the spot-light is to know how Hwin felt. Nothing moves so beautifully as a cat, no cat moves as beautifully as a leopard. They walk as if every joint had been bathed in a vat of oil and when the light hits them they glow as if lit from within.
There is a feeling of astonishment that something so inexplicably beautiful should exist, and that you should be allowed to see it. They are immaculate: though since they have spotted coats they are technically speaking, maculated. Immaculately maculated, then.
Leopards have become for me a kind of confirmation animal. When I get back to the Valley there is always a great sense of joy, a combination of familiarity and the unknown, of comfort and of danger. But when I see a leopard I feel that yes, indeed, this is my spot. This is, indeed, the sacred combe that I have been seeking all my life.
This is a blog piece from Simon Barnes, inspired by his new book The Sacred Combe out January 2016.
Less than a week to go until the feasts of all feasts – Christmas Dinner. Whether it’s Turkey with all the trimmings, or a box of Quality Streets, it is always a treat to look forward to. But let’s not forget our feathered friends in the garden this year! As the nights are drawing in, you will have noticed a flurry of activity at your bird feeder as things get chillier. This is because birds, like us, need a stodgier diet over the winter months to keep warm. Often on the hunt for a hearty meal, they turn to our gardens to find extra sustenance!
So why not share your Christmas dinner this year? Here are some hints on what to feed and what not to feed the birds over Christmas.
What to give:
- Christmas cake and Christmas pudding – packed full of fruit and fat, making them a perfect treat for wildlife.
- Unsalted nuts – High nutritional value
- Mild cheeses such as Cheddar and Wensleydale with high-fat content –
- Leftover roast potatoes – good source of fat and easy to follow
What to avoid:
- Cooked meats and vegetables – can attract vermin to your garden
- Chocolate – contains chemicals which are toxic to birds
- Bread -little nutritional value for birds
- Leftover fat and dripping from your roasting tin -bad for birds
For more information on feeding the birds over Christmas, visit the RSPB page here:
Just over a year since Nigel died suddenly, some great news which would have pleased him immensely. Rivers has won the much coveted ‘Marsh Book of the Year’ 2015, a prize sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust. The British Ecological Society awards the honour annually ‘to the book published in the last two years that has had the greatest influence on the science of ecology or its application’. Nigel may even have done a cartwheel for joy, just like he did in a water meadow by the River Test back in 1994 as we embarked on a series of ‘benchmarking’ visits to the very best rivers in the country (see Chapter 4 in the book).
Over the next 15 years we visited many dozens of top-notch rivers across Britain and Europe, and some of Nigel’s wonderful photographs in the book are from that series of visits. There were usually three or four of us in the team, with botanist Hugh Dawson a regular companion.
The Dawson/Holmes/Raven river survey team in snowy Austria
Each visit had a serious purpose, but there were many memorable moments and adventures along the way. Some of the more bizarre memories included: a bone-chilling overnight stay in the Highlands at Altnaharra – which must have the coldest hotel in Britain; sitting out a snow-storm on the Cairngorms plateau in early June and having to use GPS to navigate downhill safely; a nail-biting landing on the Corran Ferry as a gale battered Loch Linnhe; Mark Everard climbing though a bathroom window at midnight to let us in to our B&B hotel in Ireland; the sudden appearance of armed soldiers from dense undergrowth as we were surveying the River Wissey in East Anglia; and a pre-supper tick-extraction session after a day on Exmoor.
The Continental trips had several special moments as well. The spectacular limestone gorges in the Cevennes (south-east France) and Picos de Europa (northern Spain); midnight sunshine illuminating the Arctic tundra; and the seasonal rivers of southern Portugal.
A nice surprise: Lady’s slipper orchid in fine fettle
Finding Lady’s-slipper orchid (orchids were another of Nigel’s passions) in the Austrian Alps; seeing beaver dams as we canoed down the Bierbrza and Drava Rivers in Poland; fresh bear footprints and poo as we surveyed mountain streams in Slovakia. Skinny-dipping in the freezing cold Baltic after a traditional birch thrashing in a Finnish sauna; being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Lapland (midges did the same in west Scotland); some rather disturbing murals on the bedroom walls of our hostel accommodation in Bavaria; a white knuckle ride to Lyon airport after we’d badly misjudged the time it would take to get there; getting hideously lost in the Austrian Alps after I’d famously said that the hotel was ‘just around the corner’; Nigel capsizing a canoe in Slovenia and then diving down to retrieve some very wet cameras and notes. There’s a book full of stories about the fantastic scenery we saw – in all weathers – the adventures we had and the people we encountered. Nigel’s photographic record of the trips appear in the European benchmark reports available as free pdfs downloads on website riverhabitatsurvey.org.
From this you’ll probably see why Nigel’s infectious enthusiasm, practical mindset and consummate skill with a camera shine through ‘Rivers’. And how my more prosaic, academic perspective (and fascination with historical documentary records) were a perfect match for writing what we both wanted – a book that had plenty of new perspectives for all those interested in British rivers. We also had a speedy way of drafting the book. Nigel was a famously early riser, whilst I work best in the evening. I could email a draft chapter to Nigel at midnight, knowing that his comments would be waiting in the in-box at 9am the next morning. The Marsh Award is a great honour and I’m privileged to have been asked by Nigel to write the book with him.
To celebrate winning the award, British Wildlife Publishing are offering signed copies of Rivers at the special discounted price of £25 (RRP £35) – call the office on 01865 811 316 to order.
More information at www.britishwildlife.com
Are owls, bats, spiders and creepy crawlies really as spooky as we make them out to be? Bloomsbury investigates our biggest wildlife phobias…
Many creatures in the animal kingdom are associated with fear, loathing and in some cases sheer terror. Bats, spiders and owls are often seen as the biggest offenders. But why do these animals frighten us? Are there reasons for this or are our fears completely unfounded? This month we’ve been investigating the myths and legends behind these creatures – why they started and why they continue to trigger fears and phobias.
Owls, nocturnal and mysterious, have long been associated with magical goings-on. In times of old, they were believed to be messengers for magical folk – a tradition recently re-popularised by a famous Boy Wizard! Nowadays we recognise owls as valuable assets to our ecosystems, perfectly adapted to be nature’s best pest controllers.
Bats and vampires go together like witches and broomsticks – to the extent that the anti-coagulant saliva of vampire bats was named draculin after Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula – and it seems we can’t picture one without the other. True, the two do share some characteristics, both being nocturnal, fanged, flying things, but it is worth noting that very few bat species feed on the blood of other animals, and none of those species are native to the UK. In fact, British bats are harmless, mostly very tiny and, well, rather cute really. This is the perfect time of year to spot pipistrelle bats swooping around at dusk.
It’s perhaps not surprising that spiders are a symbol of Halloween when it is estimated arachnophobia affects 30 per cent of the world’s population. Spiders have been the focus of fears and embedded in the mythologies of many cultures for centuries, and no witch would be without one when it comes time to add some toil and trouble to their cauldron’s bubble. They also notoriously build their spectacular webs in dark, dusty places, like abandoned or ‘haunted’ houses – perfect venues for Halloween trickery. Yet witnessing spiders’ extraordinary web-building abilities and seeing their amazing spider senses in action is likely to leave non-arachnophobes spellbound. With the notorious ‘spider season’ upon us what better time to dispel some of the spookier spider myths and take a closer look at the many species we share our homes with.
Happy Happy Halloween!
From Bloomsbury Wildlife
This month, we’re celebrating one of nature’s real unsugn heroes – the Herring.
Scots like to smoke or salt them. The Dutch love them raw. Swedes look on with relish as they open bulging, foul-smelling cans to find them curdling within. Jamaicans prefer them with a dash of chilli pepper. Germans and the English enjoy their taste best when accompanied by pickle’s bite and brine.
Throughout the long centuries men have fished around their coastlines and beyond, the herring has done much to shape both human taste and history. Men have co-operated and come into conflict over its shoals, setting out in boats to catch them, straying, too, from their home ports to bring full nets to shore. Women have also often been at the centre of the industry, gutting and salting the catch when the annual harvest had taken place, knitting, too, the garments fishermen wore to protect them from the ocean’s chill.
In his book, Herring Tales, Donald S. Murray has stitched together tales of the fish that was of central importance to the lives of our ancestors, noting how both it – and those involved in their capture – were celebrated in the art, literature, craft, music and folklore of life in northern Europe.
Donald contemplates the possibility of restoring the silver darlings of legend to these shores. And to help spark some imagination, he provides some engenious examples of how we can make them live on via the box they arrive in!
A Wheel Barrow
A Baby Cot
A Dog Carrier
A Milk Box
Celebrate the Herring this month with Herring Tales – and join Donald on his campaign to restore this versatile little creature back to former glory!
Phoenix – arise from the ashes
Taken in the rubble of a bombed house in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra this photo, which appeared on Facebook, was immediately tweeted throughout the world, including by Frank Gardner, a keen birdwatcher.
The Facebook message from the Syrian birdwatcher who owned the book:
‘What is very precious to us, is totally worthless to others.’
Plans are now well underway for an Arabic version of the second edition of Birds of the Middle East and the exciting cover has just been unveiled. This book is a joint venture between Bloomsbury, BirdLife International and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. I hope the Bloomsbury’s ‘Helm Imprint’ Arabic logo catches on. I love it, especially as it translates into ‘Dream Field Guides!’ The plans are for a launch in Arabia next year.
Apps are now the new book and rapidly becoming the way of the world. Books, of course, will always be important and have their place, but sending them to remote places or where mail is not reliable can be a problem. With this in mind a new App has been developed for the remote mountain range of Peremagroon in Iraqi Kurdistan – internationally important for its fantastic wildlife.
One young Iraqi has just written, saying:
‘I loved it, now I know what bird I was seeing everyday in my faculty, thanks for the app its very useful. just one thing if possible put the Arabic and Kurdish name, if that is possible.’
Not only will this be done, but the whole app will be translated into Kurdish and Arabic.This App is just one part of a conservation education programme in Kurdistan between Nature Iraq, BirdLife International and the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants under UK’s Darwin Initiative. Read the story about some of its achievements:
It has been great to have Bloomsbury’s support for this.
Over the past eight years or so, working in collaboration with Donald S. Murray has taken me, and my work on a series of wild, wet and often wind-blown journeys, both real and imaginary! The journey for Donald’s forthcoming book, Herring Tales, began with a discussion on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, relaxing after a busy reading of The Guga Stone at the National Library of Scotland.
Talk turned to the new book, and particularly to Donald’s correspondence with renowned neuroscientist, Oliver Sacks. Sacks had included a copy of an article he had written for the New Yorker, Fish Tales – Clupeophilia, in which he describes a lifelong association with the humble herring.
Subconsciously influenced by Sacks’ title, this was to be the start of Donald, and myself, through the drawings, becoming clupeophiles, and in particular a fascination with the herrings of the northeast seaboard of Europe and the wider North Atlantic. Donald had discussed with me the basic structure of how the book was going to work, and I began to plan how I could add images to visually enhance the story of how the silver darlings’ shaped the human tastes and history of northern Europe.
A few ideas floated around, but it wasn’t until Donald decided he was going name each chapter after a well-known song title that the plan was firmly on the hook. I would create a series of chapter title images, in the form of an old-style vinyl record label (younger readers, ask your parents!), with the subject relating to the chapter’s text.
The result was fourteen drawings, with a wide range of themes: from kippers and gulls, to fishing fleets and gansey patterns, the odd recipe and many more. As always with Donald’s writing, this book was a gift to me, and I immediately could see images as I read the text. We have always had an empathy with each other’s work, and over the years this has developed into a strong friendship and working relationship.
Each image was developed through discussions with Donald and created to fit the record label format. Author and publisher were delighted with the ideas and the drawings carried on apace. Through weeks of research and sketchbook notes the drawings took shape, some chapters easy to work with, others not so, but finally it all came together beautifully with a mixture of serious and not-so- serious results. As with previous book images for Donald’s writing, I’ve used pencil as my medium for the work as I think it has a certain subtlety that you can’t get with ink.
Over the next two months, leading up to the publication date of the book, I shall be displaying the drawings on my website blog, The Net Mender, with descriptions of the work and sketchbook notes on how the ideas were created through our collaboration of words and images.
The Net Mender, named after a long lost photograph of my herring fisherman great-grandfather, has featured my collaborations, exhibitions and studio notes since 2007, including many with Donald S. Murray. One of the earliest posts, from November that year features a poem written by Donald after one of our first workshops together on Shetland.
Herring Tales by Donald Murray
Out September 10th 2015
Today the robin was crowned Britain’s National bird and author David Lindo a.k.a the Urban Birder has been fronting the campaign.
A nationwide ballot saw more than 200,000 people elect the robin as Britain’s national bird, after it swooped away with 34 per cent of the vote. It beat competition from the barn owl, which came second with 12 per cent, and the blackbird in third with 11 per cent.
It’s time now to give our national feathered friend it’s time to bask in the limelight. This month, we launch the next in our Spotlight series – which just so happens to be all about Robins! RSPB Spotlight: Robins gives us an insight in to their secret lives…
Our most iconic bird, the Robin, is one of the most characterful and familiar of all our garden visitors. Their melodious voices, bright red breasts and cheeky attitudes always endear them to us, but how much do we really know about them?
Despite their cute appearance, Robins are aggressively territorial and hold their territories all year. Their year-round presence has helped them become a beloved and instantly recognisable species. Now, in this delightful new book, Marianne Taylor provides a revealing account of their life cycle, behaviour and breeding, what they eat and how they hold their territories, and she looks into the many cultural representations of these much-loved little birds.
David Lindo said: “The robin is Britain’s most familiar bird so it’s perhaps fitting that it has been chosen by the nation to be our national bird. The Vote National Bird campaign is in fact a victory for all our British birds… It has reminded the British people how much they love the nature around us.”
David said he would speak to the Government once the public had voted to see if the winner can be awarded the title officially – all part of his greater plan to get more of us walking around in the cities to stop, close our eyes and #lookup. You can hear more on David’s musings in his new book Tales from Concrete Jungles out this week.
It’s not often one enjoys a refreshing saltwater facial courtesy of an eight-metre long shark – but that’s what happens if you sneak up and try to rub its back.
There are few creatures in our oceans quite as awesome as the basking shark, and a close encounter was one of the highlights of a year I spent travelling around Britain in search of our rarest and most endangered animals for my book
Few And Far Between.
I was fortunate in being able to join licensed researchers from Manx Basking Shark Watch who were collecting DNA samples from feeding sharks that cruise the bays around the Isle of Man in the summer. This involves steering a small boat up behind them and deftly rubbing the slime-covered dorsal fin with a pad on an extendable pole.
Drawing alongside the world’s second largest fish, and being showered with cold seawater as they headed off with a flick of an immense tail, was an unforgettable experience.
I had set myself the daunting challenge of tracking down 25 of the UK’s scarcest species, ranging from the surreal spiny seahorse and elusive Scottish wildcat to the striking golden oriole and noisy natterjack toad.
During my travels I enjoyed sightings of a number of species that very few people have been lucky enough to come across in Britain. These included the ice age vendace fish which lives in the depths of a few glacial lakes; the streaked bombardier beetle that ejects a boiling mixture of toxic chemicals to deter predators; the heavyweight wart-biter cricket once used to remove warts; and black rats living on an uninhabited Hebridean island – the last stable refuge in Britain of this one-time plague-carrier.
Some animals had the ‘ahhh’ factor, like the dormouse, and others a touch of the ‘yikes!’ (a nippy smooth snake among them), but without doubt the most breathtaking was the basking shark. It was the biggest on my target list (scooped on size, however, by a chance encounter with a sperm whale off Scotland).
Shark slime is pretty dark and smelly, but the Manx Basking Shark Watch team I accompanied got enough of the stuff to help build up genetic profiles of a dozen sharks during the day, and tagged a male with a satellite transmitter, which tracked its travels to north-west Scotland. The information will help efforts to prevent this once-abundant species, whose size spawned numerous tales of sea monsters over the centuries, from following its own legends into the history books.
Harvested around the world for their oil-rich livers, for shark fin soup and the Far East medicine trade, numbers of threatened basking sharks have been seriously depleted. Thankfully they are protected in our waters – the seas would certainly feel a lot emptier without them.
Charlie Elder’s travels in search of Britain’s rarest animals are described in his book Few And Far Between, published by Bloomsbury and available at book stores and online.