Sometimes it all works out

Yesterday was a cold morning but the air was still and so it didn’t feel bitter on my regular walk around Stanwick Lakes.

Great tits, dunnocks, chaffinches and robins were singing in the cold morning air.

The lakes in the ex-gravel pits were partly frozen but most had small open areas of water in which all the waterfowl were concentrated.  Most of these areas were full of coots, tufted ducks, great crested grebes, pochard, wigeon, mallard, gadwall and a few shoveler.  On one of these crowded areas there was a redhead smew – just the type of bird you hope to see on a day like this, in weather like this, at a site like this, on a date like this, but it rarely works out like this.

With much of the water and the ground frozen you also hope to see kingfisher on the few running streams – and I did.  And you think that your chances of a water rail are a bit higher than usual – and I saw one of those too.  Cold days in winter in this wetland also make you think that there might be a bittern about – and I saw one of those too!

The bittern was perched in full view at the top of an alder tree – a fairly distant view but a very good one and a rather unexpected one.

Three goosanders, a snipe, a red kite, some little egrets, six dunlin (quite unusual here) and lots of commoner species made this a lovely walk which delivered, because I have checked my records on Birdtrack, a record February list of 56 species.

But perhaps the most unusual sighting would hardly have been noted by you if you had accompanied me.  There were three hares chasing and boxing in the winter wheat field over the river.  I’ve never seen hares in that field, and not many very close to here, in hundreds of visits to Stanwick – never.

That’s the simple joy of having a local patch that you get to know.  You get a feel for what you might see, and are sometimes, like yesterday, rewarded by seeing it all.  And you also can be surprised and delighted by simple sightings that you know are special for your well-known patch.

And now it’s snowing.

Last weekend I had a great day’s birding on the Norfolk coast with the local RSPB mid-Nene Group.  I’ve put an account of that into the monthly newsblast which is sent out on Wednesday this week.  Sign up, it’s free, if you haven’t already done so.


Have a look at these three short films

26 seconds worth of the Earth heating up

2 minutes of We miss you – I won’t say anything otherwise I might spoil it for you

33 minutes but you get the gist from the first few moments and then it’s up to you whether you stay with it – US farmers talking about local produce, chemical food and organic farming (interesting and not necessarily what you might expect)


Now – tell me, which works best for you and why?


Book review and readers’ offer: Wildlife photographer – a course in creative photography by Chris Gomersall

I think I was put off photography at an early age by my father.  He was a keen photographer, and I remember spending what must have been minutes but seemed like hours, hanging around or reading a book in the car whilst we all waited for the sun to come out or go in, or for someone to move into or out of a view.  To be fair, my father spent a lot of time hanging around or reading a book in the car whilst I waited for a bird to come out and appear in view.

When I see something beautiful then I want to drink it in and it sets my mind working with words.  I don’t want to reach for the camera as that seems to me to put something between me and nature in a way that I don’t really want. But I am very grateful that there are those who capture images of the beauty of nature so that I can see the things where I haven’t been and will never go.

Chris Gomersall is a thinking photographer, and a very good one too.  Formerly the RSPB’s in-house photographer and now an author, teacher of photographic skills and professional image-taker he was the first British photographer to be made European Photographer of the Year (in 2007).

This book is full of beautiful images, and I was tempted just to look at the pictures, but I was drawn into reading much more about photography than I really wanted to do. The chapter headings help with such titles as ‘Order from chaos‘, ‘Finding your voice‘ and ‘Truth, ethics and integrity‘.  The chapter ‘Saving the Earth‘ couldn’t have been written by most photographers.

Each chapter has quotations at its head and, having recently had the task of making such selections for my own next book (watch this space), I found Chris’s choices very stimulating.  I couldn’t help reading more about how to take photographs than I intended.

I enjoyed learning the difference between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ – do you know?  Read the chapter ‘Seizing the moment‘ to find out!

And there are the photos, pictures, images – they are amazing.  For what it’s worth, my favourites include those of snails on a map, summer flowers and a preening crane but there are so many that made me think ‘I wish I had seen that’.  And Chris’s writing made me realise that I had seen many things just as wonderful but hadn’t noticed them – I’ll try to look harder and better in future.  And maybe I’ll get my camera out too.  Certainly, if he were still alive, I would buy my Dad this book, and I think he would love it.


Wildlife photography – a course in creative photography by Chris Gomersall is published by Frances Lincoln Limited at £25.  As a reader of this blog you can receive a 25% discount if you buy the book and to discover how to do that please sign up to my monthly newsblast and next week you will be told the necessary code.


We like it when it’s personal

We cope much better, in a way, when we can identify a villain and deal with them, than we do when a problem has many contributors, particularly if we ourselves are part of the problem.

The furore over Fred Goodwin’s knighthood which has led to him being ‘stripped’ of his ‘Sir’ title is a case in point. I come to bury Sir Fred’s knighthood not to praise it but the evil that men do throughout their lives lives on whether or not they are called ‘Sir’. It seems odd to me that he was once regarded, by committees of our society, as being worthy of an ‘honour’ for services to banking but that when he continued doing his banking job he somehow slipped off the perch on which ‘we’ had put him.  Was the Sir Fred before the banking crisis a much better person than the Mr Fred after the banking crisis?

If you are a person who cares about ‘honours’, and I’m guessing that maybe Mr Fred is, then you must feel as though you have won the lottery of life if you get a ‘Sir’ but it is a gift from a grateful nation and so there must be a question about ‘our’ judgement if we give someone an honour and then deem it appropriate to take it back.  We backed the wrong horse, we look foolish, don’t blame the horse, however awful it was, for our misguided selection.

I don’t feel sorry for, or any affection for, Fred Goodwin, but I assume that the pre-knighthood Fred Goodwin was a very similar person to the post-knighthood Fred Goodwin.

And then there is that Stephen Hester chap at RBS.  He was hounded into giving his bonus back.  Again, it’s difficult to feel very sorry for him, and I don’t, although, actually, maybe I do, just a little. He didn’t get RBS into a mess, he is trying to get it out of a mess.  And although I can’t tell whether he is doing that well or not, everyone seems to say that he is doing a good job.  So why does he have to give up his bonus?

Hester can’t have held a gun to the head of the RBS board to dictate his terms and conditions of employment, he was offered them.  And ‘we’ own more than 80% of that company so surely, again, ‘we’ were at fault not Mr (soon to be Sir?) Hester.

Regular readers of this blog may have picked up the impression that I am not the natural ally of very rich bankers so these two gentleman are not likely ever to become my best mates but it seems to me that a bonus of over £1m and the three letters ‘Sir’ are pretty small beer in the banking system as a whole and how it ought to be reformed.

This week, ‘we’ have made the banking system a personal issue about two men.  We have shown our envy and vindictiveness, which is very human of us, but have we reformed the system? Is a banking system without Stephen Hester getting a£1m bonus a much better one than one where he does? And is a banking system with Mr Fred a former participant a better one than one with Sir Fred in that position?  It’s the system that needs changing.

And, to bring me finally to the type of subject you expect me to write about, it’s almost always the system that needs changing.

When a gamekeeper is convicted of a wildlife offence it is too easy to demonise that single person – and maybe they should indeed be despised depending on the circumstances – but their personal actions are set in the context of their employers’ wishes and the wider context of how Society as a whole regards wildlife.  The system needs changing and many involved in the system need to be motivated to change it rather than us regarding the matter as closed when one miscreant gets his just rewards.

And if farmers went out and shot skylarks in their fields then we would find it easy to do something about the millions that have been lost from our lives over the years.  But because it is the system of agriculture that drives wildlife from our fields, and we are all part of that system because the subsidies are given by governments that we elect and the produce is bought through supermarkets that we patronise, then it is much more difficult to save the skylark and other wildlife. A single rich farmer shooting 20 skylarks would be a publicity gift, and no doubt that farmer would be pilloried publicly, but because that isn’t how we have lost millions of skylarks it is much more difficult to shift the system.  We are all arms-length skylark killers so we don’t solve the problem.

And the solution to all this is to act to change the system.  Be radical and be active.  You don’t have to man the barricades or throw a petrol bomb but why not become more politically active and be an active consumer? Changing the system takes a lot of people and probably a lot of time.  We need banking systems, farming systems, political systems, energy systems, fisheries systems and education systems that make the world a fairer and more ecologically sustainable place to live.  For that I would happily let Mr Fred stay Sir Fred and rich Mr Hester stay even richer.



Guest blog – Mark Infield – Feeling for nature

Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.

As a child I grew up exploring the fields and woodlands, ponds and streams where I lived.  This was the starting point for a life-long engagement with nature and its conservation.  My interest in nature and commitment to its conservation is not driven by financial considerations, economic analyses or even by scientific interest.  It is emotional and personal.  I imagine many of you reading this feel similarly.

The modern conservation started in the 19th century based on such emotions, values and feelings; they are largely absent from conservation today.  Arguments for conserving nature are couched in economic terms, and, outside of fundraising appeals aimed at the general public, feelings for nature are rarely mentioned or reflected in policies and practices.  Yet we all know that connections to nature and place are profound and can have real influence on how people think and behave toward the natural world.

I am concerned about depending on economic arguments for conservation.  They are, in my experience, hard to demonstrate in practice, especially on the ground amongst communities whose support we need.  And they are a double edged sword that can equally create arguments against conservation.

Emphasising economic arguments undermines other values people hold in nature linked to historical associations with place and use, local knowledge, and to the culture and institutions of communities.

Ironically, conservation often weakens people’s connections to nature. If we need the support of people, and that seems to be one of the few things that conservationists agree on, when economic arguments don’t add up, bridges built on culture and values can be strong, stronger indeed than often over-blown financial benefits.

By reminding ourselves of what we, as individuals, value in nature, we can engage with people based on their connections to nature.  These may be very different from our own, but powerful nonetheless.  We can begin to exploring conservation through a cultural lens and look for ways to integrate the values of others into conservation initiatives.

We have worked hard to engage with communities but have rarely asked them what is important to them culturally in the land they call their own.

The irony of this dawned on me when, after several years explaining to the Bahima, a pastoralist people of Uganda, why Lake Mburo National Park was important, I learned that their name for their homeland was ‘The Beautiful Land.’  And in The Beautiful Land, they grazed Beautiful Cows, bred over centuries to be beautiful.  These cows provide a powerful connection between the Bahima and the land and define what it means to be Bahima.  But the park excluded these values.

Since 2005 FFI and the Uganda Wildlife Authority have been working to develop a cultural values approach to managing the park and integrate the Bahima’s values into the park through the Culture, Values and Conservation Project.

Economics drivers are important to our behaviour, but once basic needs are met, cultural values become equally important.  The idea that only economics matters to people these day is given the lie by the fact that over 80% of the world’s people hold that religion is important in their daily lives.   Whatever we may think about religion, this definitely suggests that beliefs and values continue to be important in how people think and behave.

During the Victorian era, with the industrial revolution at its zenith, Oscar Wilde famously described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.  In this period of market dominated thinking, I wonder whether we have slipped into cynicism and now see nature only as something to be bought and sold.

The conservation endeavour is not succeeding under current management.  There are victories; species clawed back from the brink of extinction; special places saved from the roar of engines spelling the end for somebody’s or some species’ home.   But nature is in retreat, as much in the UK, where official figures show a quarter of species identified as conservation priorities are declining, as elsewhere.  Market approaches are not working.  We need to be true to ourselves as conservationists, remember our beginnings, and bring feelings back to the conservation endeavour.

Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.