Our gorgeous RSPB Spotlight series of paperbacks introduces readers to Britain’s best-loved animals. This month we’re very excited to add two new titles to our growing list of Spotlight subjects: RSPB Spotlight: Badgers , and RSPB Spotlight: Eagles.
To celebrate, we’ve collected together a few favourite facts gleaned from our RSPB Spotlight books released so far, covering badgers, eagles, robins, foxes, otters and puffins!
We’re also offering you the chance to win the whole series. Simply respond on Twitter @chiffchat telling us which RSPB Spotlight animal is your favourite, and why.
Did You Know…?
Despite their reputation as being ‘the strong and silent type’, Badgers do communicate… through their droppings! Badgers use latrines − which comprise collections of shallow hollows called dung pits − as message boards. Many latrines lie beneath trees, perhaps to protect the contents (and their ‘press release’) from being washed away by rain. Most latrines are located either close to the main sett, along the territory boundary or where Badger paths cross. This indicates that one purpose of poo clues is to emphasise ownership of the territory. Strikingly, however, neighbouring Badgers share latrines along territory borders. This suggests that Badgers use latrines to exchange information about who is in their gang, rather than to simply erect a ‘no entry’ sign.
A flying Golden Eagle can reach speeds of up to 190km/h (118 mph), and when accelerating into a dive can even pick up speeds of 240-320 km/h (150-200mph)! The sudden braking of the bird by spreading its wings at the point of impact can create a tearing sound audible for some distance. ‘Like a thunderbolt it falls’ said Tennyson, and he was not far wrong.
Robins might hold the key to understanding a mysterious ‘sixth sense’ observed in many birds – Magnetoreception, the ability to sense magnetic fields. This skill is down to the presence of crystals of the iron oxide magnetite within receptor cells in the skin of their bills. These cells send messages to a particular part of the brain in response to magnetic fields, but this ‘compass’ system also requires a certain level of light to work properly. The combination of seasonal changes to light levels and the Robin’s ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field, allows it to orient itself correctly for migration.
Foxes have an incredibly varied diet and differing hunting techniques adapted to this. When hunting worms, for example, a fox will grip the slithery morsel in its incisors, but instead of tugging violently, which would break the worm, it pauses until the worm relaxes, then pulls gently and steadily so as to extract the whole animal, unbroken, from the ground. Parents teach their cubs this technique by example.
Have you ever wondered what Otters keep in their pockets? The Sea Otter is one of few mammals that have learned to use tools to access food. It will search for and pick up a rock from the ocean floor, along with hard-shelled sea species such as clams and mussels, and pop these into its pockets- deep rolls of skin that form pouches under each foreleg. On surfacing, the Sea Otter places the rock on its stomach and, holding the hard-shelled morsel between its forepaws, will smash it against the rock until it can get to the soft meat inside. Particularly good rocks are then often put back in its pockets, for use another time!
While the general rule in birds is that smaller birds have a shorter life expectancy, and larger birds longer ones, the Puffin seems to be an exception to this. The oldest puffin ever found in Europe was 41 years old, on the Norwegian Island of RØst. Long-term studies of Puffins in the UK have revealed survivors not far behind the Norwegian bird, with a 39 year-old bird- ringed in 1974- spotted again in 2008. Were it not for the evidence of ringing, it would be impossible to pick out the senior citizens in a Puffin colony as- unlike us humans- Puffins show no outward signs of old age.
By Michael Scott, author of Mountain Flowers
One of the earliest decisions I took in writing my Mountain Flowers book (to be published by Bloomsbury in August) was that I would have to omit Ireland from its scope. This was mostly because I was worried about keeping the length to the required 416 pages with so much ground to cover, but I was also conscious that I had never properly botanised on the island. I was particularly ashamed never to have visited The Burren, one of the most special botanical sites in the whole of the British Isles. What better way, therefore, to celebrate finally sending the book to the printers than to head across to The Burren in early May this year?
Spring Gentian flowers as abundantly on The Burren as anywhere I’ve seen it in the Alps.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
I wasn’t disappointed. The Burren, on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare, is a wonderful site for botanising with an intriguing mix of arctic-alpine species that we would normally expect to find in mountains and southern species more typical of Mediterranean climates. On the limestone pavement at Poulsallagh, I found the vivid blue flowers of Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) more abundantly than I have seen it anywhere else, even in its heartland in the Alps, alongside displays of Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) to rival any I have seen in the Arctic. The pale yellow flowers of Hoary Rockrose (Helianthemum oelandicum), a species I know otherwise only in Upper Teesdale, were everywhere – and much else besides. I’m still glad I excluded The Burren from the book. It would have merited a long chapter to itself, even without the other Irish sites, and what would I have had to omit from my coverage of England, Wales and Scotland to find this space? However, it reminded me again of the resilience and adaptability of the flowering plants we associate with the mountains; the arctic-alpine species in The Burren were telling me this was a mountain, yet I had climbed no higher than 150 metres above sea-level.
Irish Saxifrage in magnificent flower on Inis Oírr (or Inisheer) island.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
There was one plant I especially wanted to see. Irish Saxifrage (Saxifraga rosacea) features briefly in the book, but is a species I had never seen. I searched hard for it at Poulsallagh but failed. There was one more opportunity: I knew it was recorded at the eastern end of Inis Oírr, so we took the ferry across to the island with several hours to explore. We stopped at one scenic spot and noticed white flowers on a grassy bank. I scrambled up to them and immediately recognised how similar the plant looked to the more widespread montane species Mossy Saxifrage (S. hypnoides). However, its flowers had broader petals and its leaves were much more densely tufted, with subtle differences in their shape. It was Irish Saxifrage, and I had almost forgotten the exhilarating thrill of seeing a ‘new’ species for the first time. We continued onto a large expanse of limestone pavement, just beyond, and it seemed to be covered with large tussocks of the saxifrage in wonderfully abundant, showy flower. In fact, it reminded me of flowery plants sold in garden centres as Mossy Saxifrage which I have always dismissed as much too showy to be that species!
Irish Saxifrage in its limestone pavement habitat amidst the distinctive landscape of Inis Oírr.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
The Burren is well known as a site for Irish Saxifrage, which is also found in central Germany, the Jura mountains and elsewhere in central Europe. However, as with so many mountain plants I discuss in the book, there is a mystery about it too. Irish Saxifrage was recorded as growing in Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia in 1796, although it has not been seen there since 1978. There are herbarium specimens of it from elsewhere in Snowdonia too, and one labelled from Glen Dole, presumably Glen Doll in Angus, another classic site that I write about in the book. I always assumed that Irish and Mossy saxifrages were so similar that these records might have arisen from confusion, but the overall ‘jizz’ of the plants I saw on Inis Oírr was very different from the Mossy Saxifrage I know in the British mountains. So does Irish Saxifrage still lurk, unrecognised and overlooked, somewhere in Snowdonia, Angus or elsewhere in the mountains of Britain? That is precisely why I wanted to write my Mountain Flowers book: to encourage more botanists to take to the hills, and more hillwalkers to look at the wild flowers beside their boots, in the hope that we can answer this and many other botanical mysteries that still persist, even in the well-tramped mountains of Britain.
Michael Scott, 18th May 2016
Inspired by Highlands: Scotland’s Wildheart by Stephen Moss. With photography from Laurie Campbell
Scoured by ice and weathered by storms, the Scottish Highlands cover twenty thousand square miles of rugged coastline, lochs and mountains. In the new BBC series narrated by Ewan McGregor, this landmark show gives a beautiful portrait of life in his homeland, following the wildlife and people of Scotland’s Wild Heart.
Later this month, we’re very excited to be publishing the sumptuous tie-in book for the series. Because we hope you’ll love it as much as we do, we have put together this exclusive preview of some of the stunning photography from the book and the wonderful creatures featured in the show- Scottish Wildcats, Ospreys and Red Squirrels.
Scottish Wild Cats
Our rarest and most elusive animal mammal, the Scottish Wildcat, has been driven to the edge of extinction over the past century, thanks to the spread of feral cats, with which it interbreeds.
If you are lucky enough to come across any ‘wildcat’ in the highlands, it is crucial to check the key features of a truly wild animal. It should be very large- up to 1m long- and show a distinctive bushy tail with a blunt tip and thick black rings around it.
Osprey’s are one of the most impressive of Scotland’s birds. They are also one of the most distinctive, being brown above and creamy- white below, with a distinctive brown stripe through the eye creating a mask-like appearance, a pale crown and a hooked bill.
Ospreys feed on large fish such as salmon and trout, which they catch by snatching them from the surface of lakes using specially adapted claws. Click here to watch the mesmerising video clip of an Osprey fishing in super-slow motion.
Few animals are so closely associated with the Highland forests as the Red Squirrel, which nests, sleeps and feeds amongst the Scots Pines.
Unfortunately, the more common Grey Squirrels both outcompete their red cousins and carry a disease that, although harmless to Greys, rapidly kills the Reds. Because of this, Red Squirrels in Britain are mostly confined to Northumberland, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland, where roughly three-quarters of the entire UK population now lives.
By Charlie Elder, author of Few and Far Between
There is something about rare wildlife that captivates us. From seahorses to snow leopards, scarcity bestows a certain quality, an undeniable allure. Encounters with seldom-seen species can be among our most treasured memories. And not only do rare animals embody a celebration of the diversity of nature around us, they also highlight the uniqueness of species and the fragility of life on earth. To see them can be both a thrilling and a moving experience.
When I set out to find a selection of Britain’s rarest and most endangered animals, and tell the stories of conservation work to save them, I was relying for the most part on expert help to track down my targets. But there are plenty of scarce and charismatic species that everyone can enjoy, scattered like precious gems across our islands. All it takes is to be in the right place at the right time, narrowing the odds of success in your favour. And if you don’t get lucky, you’re bound to see something else of interest. Nature always rewards those who make an effort to get out and get searching…
So here is a selection of five uncommon delights, including a number of favourite encounters from my travels for Few And Far Between. Some are more elusive than others, but then seeking out rarities wouldn’t be any fun if it was too easy!
Capercaillie – one of Scotland’s most famous birds, this giant grouse is found in the ancient pine forests of the Highlands. In the spring, the glossy black males strut their stuff on the woodland floor to impress females, emitting bizarre clicking and popping sounds. To see one of these scarce and localised birds, head for the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve where early morning ‘Caper-watch’ sessions run during April and May at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. And if you don’t spot one, you can treat yourself to a local osprey sighting instead.
Smooth snake – Britain’s rarest reptile, this secretive heathland species is restricted to a few sites in southern England. It’s a mini-constrictor, grabbing lizards or small mammals and coiling around its prey before swallowing it whole. Greyish-brown and non-venomous, it has a distinctive black heart-shaped mark on the head and subtle but attractive patterning. The RSPB’s Arne Reserve in Dorset runs reptile events during late spring and summer with the chance to see these protected rarities.
Fen raft spider – as British spiders go, they don’t come much larger than this spectacular wetland species, which is capable of catching sticklebacks. It is handsome too, with two cream stripes running down its dark body. Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen reserve has a special ‘spider trail’, which passes pools of still water where the rare semi-aquatic spiders can be spotted lurking amid the reeds at the edges waiting for passing prey.
Pine marten – these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agile arboreal hunters, shaped like supersized stoats and capable of chasing down squirrels, are our rarest carnivores after the Scottish wild cat. Almost entirely found north of the border, they are striking and handsome woodland dwellers. Speyside Wildlife runs guided evening visits to a hide on the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms, where pine martens regularly visit feeding stations.
Natterjack toad – our nosiest amphibian, with a croak that can be heard up to a mile away, this rarity is confined to a few dozen heathland and coastal sites. Mostly active after dark, they run rather than hop, are weak swimmers and have a thin yellow stripe running down the back. Even if you don’t spot one, the males in chorus are well worth hearing as they attempt to lure females to shallow breeding pools with load croaks, amplified by an inflatable vocal sac. Head to Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve where National Trust rangers conduct evening toad walks in spring and early summer.
When I started to write about birds’ eggs I wondered whether anyone had established which of the different shapes was most common. Obviously when we talk about something being egg shaped we are usually thinking of a hen’s egg, which is ‘oval’, but with an obvious blunt and pointed end and whose greatest width lies closer to the blunt end. To my surprise nobody seems to have quantified egg shape across all families of birds. Part of the difficulty, of course, is coming up with a simple index of shape. Researchers have devised several complicated ways of describing egg designs but there is no single number that captures the full range of shapes. For this reason most books dealing with egg shape simply show – as I do here – a set of outlines or silhouettes illustrating the different types that exist.
One thing we do know is that as well as being characteristic for a particular species, shape is also fairly characteristic for particular families of birds, too. Owls, for example, typically lay spherical eggs;
Different shapes of birds’ eggs. From left to right: Ross’s turaco (spherical), ruff (pyriform), hummingbird (oblong oval or elliptical), crowned sandgrouse (oblong oval or elliptical), African thrush (oval), Slavonian grebe (bi-conical or long subelliptical), alpine swift (ellipitical ovate or long oval). Redrawn from Thomson, 1964.
waders (shorebirds) lay pyriform eggs; sandgrouse produce oval or elliptical eggs; and grebes produce biconical eggs. As a biologist, two questions come to mind. How are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? The first question is about the mechanics of making an egg; the second concerns the adaptive significance of different egg shapes.
Thinking about how a female bird produces eggs of a particular shape, my natural inclination was to imagine that the shape was determined by the shell: shape and shell created together. The truth is more bizarre. The contours of a bird’s egg are governed by its membranes, the parchment-like layer inside the shell – as my eggin- vinegar experiment suggested – rather than by the shell itself. Once you know that the membrane determines the shape it isn’t too difficult to imagine the process.
In an ingenious X-ray study of egg formation conducted in the late 1940s, John Bradfield could see that the shape of the hen’s egg was determined before the shell had even started to form, prior to entering the shell gland. Instead, he could see that the egg’s shape was established in the isthmus, the region of the oviduct immediately anterior to the shell gland, where the shell membrane around the egg is created. He noticed, too, that the part of the isthmus adjacent to the shell gland is ‘more contractile and more like a sphincter’ than the other end adjacent to the magnum, suggesting that: ‘Since the egg greatly distends the narrow isthmus [region of the oviduct], it is to be expected that the caudal [tail] end of the egg, situated in the more contractile part of the isthmus, will become more pointed than the cranial [head] end.’ He adds, however, that this suggestion is far from proved ‘and the problem remains without a clear-cut solution.
At the end of the egg-shape spectrum opposite to the guillemot are certain owls, tinamous and bustards that lay almost spherical eggs. How is that done? Does the isthmus in these birds lack the sphincter that Bradfield saw in the hen? Or does the egg turn continuously as the membrane is laid down so that the sphincter applies a uniform pressure all over the egg? We don’t know.
In humans the maximum size of a baby at birth is determined by the size of the ‘birth canal – that is, the internal diameter of the pelvic girdle. Our present ability to perform caesarian operations removes this constraint, but prior to the twentieth century and the routine use of caesarian section, babies who were too big – or whose heads were too big – failed to be delivered successfully, got stuck and died, usually along with the mother. Strong selection indeed. Because the bones that form the human cranium are still not fused at birth there is some flexibility (literally), permitting the skull to adopt a different shape during birth and allowing some relatively big-headed babies to be born.
Read more in Tim Birkehad’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg
With Easter holidays coming up, we’re looking at creative ways of getting the family away from the screen and in to the green! Our author, Hattie Garlick, has come up with hundreds of ideas in her book, Born to be Wild. Given the season, we’re sharing her tips on ‘how to make an Easter tree’. And it goes, roughly and messily, like this:
- Go out, and hunt down some fallen sticks and twigs.
- Put the sticks and twigs in a vase or empty jar at home to make the basis of
your tree and hang decorations from.
- Sprigs found intact can be added to the vase whole, sticks can be painted in
- Next, hunt for blossom.
- Remove petals from any blossom that’s been bashed about.
- Glue the petals to paper shapes (stars, or whatever shapes you fancy).
Some of the shapes can then be painted, beautifully or otherwise.
- Thread a needle and pierce each shape near the top, drawing the thread
- Tie each thread into a loop, so the decorations can be hung
- Hang the decorations on your twig tree
- Have a piece of cake
Toddlers: When little ones are involved the paper can be precut into easy, nonfiddly
shapes, and the blossom applied with an abstract abandon (think Jackson
Pollock in petals).
Older children can get more ambitious. They could cut the paper into the shape
of a chick, for instance, and try recreating the texture of feathers with the petals,
or cut the paper into a basic rectabgle and use petals of different shades to create the contours and colours of the image itself
Blog post by Mark Carwardine, author of the best known and best-selling guide to Whale-watching in Britain and Europe
No one ever says ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. Over the past 34 years, I’ve spent countless thousands of hours watching whales (and dolphins and porpoises – by ‘whale’ I am talking about all cetaceans), yet I still remember my first encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day commercial trip from Long Beach, California, when a Grey Whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye I can see this great leviathan leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible.
Worldwide, whale watching has grown from humble beginnings in the mid-1950s, when people first began to take an interest in Grey Whales migrating up and down the coast of California, to today’s US$2.1 billion industry involving 119 countries and overseas territories. There are an estimated 3,300 whale-watch operators around the world, and no fewer than 13 million people now join their trips every year. The industry plays a valuable role in local economies, because museums, science centres, bookshops, gift shops, bus companies, hotels and guesthouses, restaurants and cafes, taxi companies and many other businesses can all benefit from the tremendous influx of visitors. That, in turn, encourages everyone to care for the whales that the whale watchers come to see.
Europe may not be as well known for its whales, dolphins and porpoises as, say, the United States, New Zealand and South Africa, but it is rapidly gaining a well-deserved reputation as a top-class whale-watching destination. Europe’s first commercial trips took place in Gibraltar, in 1969, when an ex-pilot began taking people to see three species of local dolphin. Today, no fewer than 24 European countries and territories, and nearly 200 communities, are involved in whale and dolphin watching of one kind or another. From the Azores and Croatia to Greece and Greenland, they attract millions of whale watchers every year.
Nearly half of all the cetacean species known to science have been recorded in the region at one time or another. Some, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale and Grey Whale, were once abundant in Europe but have now virtually disappeared. There are a few Right Whales left, which are seen occasionally; and on 8 May 2010, a single Grey Whale unexpectedly appeared in the Mediterranean Sea, near Tel Aviv, off the coast of Israel, and then again, 22 days later, off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It was the first sighting of a Grey Whale in Europe (or indeed, anywhere in the North Atlantic) for more than three centuries. It is uncertain whether a previously undetected, small remnant population survives or, more likely, if this individual broke all migration records and swam from the North Pacific via the Northwest Passage.
Other species have been recorded just once or a handful of times, or occur in Europe at the extreme edge of their range. For example, a lone Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin – a species not uncommon in the Red Sea but otherwise unknown in Europe – apparently entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. But many are residents or regular visitors, and are surprisingly easy to see if you go to the right places at the right times of year.
It is even possible to choose how to watch them – from the shore, or from a host of different vessels, including yachts, rubber inflatables, motor cruisers, research boats, kayaks and huge, ocean-going ships. Moreover, there are tours to suit every taste, from comfortable one-hour, half-day or full-day excursions, to adventurous two- or three-week expeditions.
Some of the most unlikely (and rewarding) whale watching takes place from passenger ferries sailing across the Bay of Biscay, between the UK and Spain. At least nine species are seen regularly from the observation decks, while beaked whales and a number of other more unusual cetaceans are sometimes recorded as well. At the other extreme, a single Bottlenose Dolphin called Fungie has been attracting as many as 200,000 people every year to his adopted home off the coast of Dingle, in the Republic of Ireland, since he arrived there suddenly and unexpectedly in 1984. In between, you can spend a day watching Blue Whales in the golden light of the midnight sun in Iceland, follow a family of Orcas against a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains in Norway, catch a glimpse of an elusive Cuvier’s Beaked Whale in the Canary Islands, be surrounded by playful Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in the Azores, or spot a male Narwhal lift its tusk above the water in a remote Arctic fjord – and so much more. So get out there – and good luck!
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