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“I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”
– Walt Whitman

On an unseasonably warm and sunny Thanksgiving Weekend (6th October 2017) visitors to the Open Day at Mount Wolfe Farm in Caledon, Ontario were able to take part in a first for the farm, for the town of Caledon, and who knows maybe for Ontario and Canada as well: the planting of a hedgerow with hedgelaying in mind. Volunteers walked down from the Shed past the greenhouse and through a gateway of two black walnut stumps. Here at the bottom of a gentle slope the farm manager Sarah had ploughed a 100m strip ready for planting. Earlier that day I set out the plants that have been kindly donated by Toronto Area Conservation Authority (TRCA) to form two staggered rows of plants. Rows are 40cm apart and each plant will be 30cm apart, a density of five plants a metre. We only had 2 plants every metre but the rest will be delivered in the spring when the hedge will be finished.

The volunteers took to their task energetically and with enthusiasm. I’m used to planting 30-40cm whips which can be slipped in with a T-cut using a spade; these potted plants required a bit more digging to contain the roots before being heeled in. Although the plant species we are using for the Mount Wolfe hedge are different species from those we would plant in the UK, they are broadly similar. We have hazel, albeit the American hazelnut Corylus Americana; Grey Dogwood Cornus racemose; and a Prunus-Chokeberry Prunus virginiana- which although doesn’t look as fierce as Blackthorn Prunus spinosa sounds like it might perform a similar function in the hedge to provide dense, stock-proof growth. We are also planting a couple of Viburnums: NannyBerry Viburnum lentago and Arrowwood V. dentatum, which are similar to the Guelder Rose V.opulus and Wayfaring Tree V. lantana we might plant in a hedge in the UK. This list is topped off by Serviceberry Amelanchier canadensis, Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa and Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatic. A list of potentially suitable hedge species was developed last year when my colleague Nigel Adams visited the TRCA plant nursery with Ralph Toniger (see link below).

These plants have been chosen for their mast-producing qualities, so the hedge fits in with Mount Wolfe Farm’s food producing ethos. The location of the hedge has also been chosen to zone part of the farm which its owners the Crandall Sisters and next generation farm manager Sarah are hoping to designate as an open space, a commons, for the use and benefit of local residents, a novel land-use approach in a landscape of privately-owned properties.

In advance of the hedge planting I delivered a talk on hedgerows in the same Shed that almost one year to the day Nigel Adams, Jef Gielen and I found ourselves delivering talks followed by a hedge laying demonstration as part of the University of Waterloo’s Partnership project Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenebelt. You can read about that trip in 2016 in my earlier blog HERE and an update on the growth of the hedge in my visit in Spring 2017 HERE. It feels fantastic to be part of the first hedge planting event envisaged by that partnership last year. My talk was sandwiched between Professor Stephen Quilley who gave an overview of the aims of the HOG project in developing social resilience and Debbe Crandall of Mount Wolfe who gave a fascinating insight into the development of the Crandall family farm and the importance of the hedgerow project to regional and community planning.

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Two more hedge planting events on different sites with very different aims and visions are planned which, it is hoped, will form case studies to showcase the varied contexts hedgerows can be used in and the different ‘services’ hedges can provide: from the food and zoning focus of the Mount Wolf hedges, to the provision of habitat and landscape connectivity and even to services such as natural flood management, prevention of soil erosion and stock management.

The novelty bought by these hedges is that they are being planted with long-term management in mind. Species are being selected for their shrub-like qualities and their ability to respond with new vigorous growth when coppiced. Hedges may be trimmed on a 2-3 year rotation but all will need to be rejuvenated- cut at the base to encourage new growth- to keep a thick canopy from the ground up.

Hedgelaying has developed throughout Europe as a way of rejuvenating hedgerows but this management technique has been developed locally and hedges now provide a more aesthetic and social component than perhaps the first hedgelayers intended. There are now over 30 hedge-laying styles in Britain alone.

What will an Ontarion Hedgelaying style look like I wonder? We are at the beginning of finding out.

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Check out my YouTube video.

Many thanks to Sarah D, Debbe, Sheilagh, Marce and Sarah C for putting me up- and putting up with me-at Mount Wolfe. Thanks also to Prof Quilley and PHD candidate Perin Ruttonsha at The University of Waterloo for continuing to involve me in this fascinating project. This blog is dedicated to Nigel and Jef who couldn’t be with me this time.

Learn more about hedgerows and how they are managed at Hedgelink and the National Hedgelaying Society

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This post is about why my blog is so named and how a connection, in this case with ideas in a book can be life changing.

The first book that opened my eyes to science was Fritjof Capra’s book Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (1996). If I’m honest, sitting here almost 20 years later I don’t remember much of the detail, but it was a bridging point- a profound connection- between a semi- mystical path I had been following exploring the unity and connectivity of living things (I had started to follow the Druidic tradition) and opened my eyes to a life of scientific enquiry. In my head that’s not much of a leap; you could argue druids where really the ecologists of their day, utilising the same observational techniques of the natural world, but based around a different knowledge paradigm.

In the Web of Life, Capra summarises the problems that the world faces- climate change, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation- as integrated and systematic, requiring a totally new approach to thinking about the world. He proposed that a “paradigm shift” is needed similar to that which marked the discoveries of Newton/Einstein and Lamarck/Darwin which permeated every sphere of existence. In the Web of Life he explores the movement to  systems thinking away from the reductionist understanding of components. Systems also have emergent properties that are more than the sum of the parts: simply put, the bicycle is an emergent property of the positioning of pedals, wheels, saddle etc in a prescribed manner to produce a functioning system. Importantly the properties of the whole are not present in the parts, so studying components is unhelpful in understanding the properties of the system. Capra explores how systems thinking has transformed approaches across disciplines including mathematics (chaos theory), cybernetics, gaia hypothesis and autopoiesis (self-organising systems).

Systems thinking has important social science repercussions because it moves thinking away from the separation of humans and nature (a big bugbear of mine as my Web of Life will reveal); it implies integration rather than self-assertion and the triumph of ego; and networks underpin systems rather  than hierarchical structures.

Capra also explores the deep ecology which broadens ecological science into a philosophy of life. More on that in future blogs.

After reading this book while a care worker at a residential home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. I started studying part –time an OU Discovering Science course and read the second of two formative books: Edward O Wilson’s Diversity of Life. It became clear to me that I wanted to study ecology- essentially the science of the distribution and abundance of populations because it encapsulated for me the take home message from Capra – the idea of connectivity and complementarity between parts and the whole. Ecology connects with so many other scientific disciplines and I think can embrace non-scientific world views as well, although many ecologists would disagree I suspect.

While the Web of Life was pivotal in changing my life, like the paradigm shifts mentioned here it crystalised some experiences and thinking that were already present; but now I had a framework of knowledge to build my experiences into and to pose more questions to test that framework. For me, as I am sure for you too, a life without at least some kind of filter through which to pass your experiences is, to use one of my father’s favourite quotes from Macbeth “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

 

Ashol-Pan, Kazakh's first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky

Ashol-Pan, Kazakh’s first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky from

A very dear friend of mine was recently bought a lesson at the Hawk Conservancy for her birthday. She is a big fan of birds of prey, especially the kestrel she sees on her daily walk with the dog, but i think the lesson transformed her. Into what remains to be seen! I could definitely see her working with birds of prey but she need to do the Lantra Award in Bird of Prey Management and Husbandry. I  remind her that I made the leap from Care Worker into the environment sector- although i had formal qualifications it was the volunteering and building up skills slowly that really mattered in breaking through, not the MSc.

This morning i can’t shake an image out of my head and I finally remembered why; a story on the BBC back in April of the first female trainee Eagle Hunter in the Altai Mountains for 2000 years. I looked up the story again and every time I’m blown away by the images.

As I write this I recall a conversation with my Father on Christmas Day. I was stunned to hear he had been to see the Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies while visiting my brother before Christmas. Not so strange you might say, but there is history of course. Dad can’t do sci-fi or fantasy that well, so this was a bit of a surprise. Then he recounted the story which I had heard a few times before of the picture he drew as a boy of an eagle standing on a rocky precipice. I reminded him of the picture in my 1974 Tolkien Calendar of Gwaihir the Windlord and Bilbo Baggins and we still haven’t got to the bottom of which came first the picture in the calendar or the memory of the drawing!

Gwaihir and Bilbo

Gwaihir and Bilbo

And of late as I pass below the chalk escarpment of the Surrey Hills near the Mole Gap on my way home to Dorking via Guildford, I’ve regularly spotted two red kites drifting laconically over the fields and hedgerows below The Wotton Hatch. I have seen soiltary birds before down this way but never a pair. I couldn’t be sure if they were mates, but I hope so.

Red Kite (c) ANDALUCIA PLUS IMAGE BANK / ALAMY from

Red Kite (c) ANDALUCIA PLUS IMAGE BANK / ALAMY

I’m sure there’s some psychological resonances going on here: a return to the instinctive, the need to take flight, views from above, ability to see hidden truths, hunting success (which remains an elusive prey). I’m grateful to my friend, ever my muse, and my father for pulling these connections together from the Moria- like mines of my subconscious.

And just before I sign off, my favourite bird of prey, the Marsh Harrier. So reminiscent of good times in East Anglia working for the RSPB.

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

457 Species and counting!

I love Bioblitz!

Not all of my time is spent out and about on Surrey’s rivers or wetlands searching for the illusive otter and water vole, or creeping along my beloved hedgerows for dormice, stoat or orange-spotted elm-lichen. So when the moment arrives when I can spend 24 hours in the field with my colleagues, sharing my craft, trying out new skills and meeting new species, what would normally be a weekend at work becomes a learning experience.

We are  joined in our Natural Geekery by specialists and amateur naturalists who add yet more opportunity to revel in the splendor and complexity of the natural world. Oh and to count stuff! Fox moths, rabbit poo, four spotted chasers, pilot whales (sadly no records yet for Wisley and Ockham), adders, goldfinches, scorpionflies, grey long-eared bats, crane flies and on and on.

Our numbers are finally swelled by throngs of wildlife lovers come for a day out on a wonderful heathland site they may not have visited before, to share with us in the translucent wonder of a newly emerged four spotted chaser’s Libellula quadrimaculata  wing or the cryptic camoflage of a Buff Tip Phalera bucephala. Suddenly we are not lonely denizens of the dark corners of society. Everyone here is captivated by wildlife and the sometimes dramatic (an upland mire), sometimes mundane (a garden pond or bird table) landscape we share.

In my more playful moments I imagine these 24 hours sit somewhere between a sci-fi convention and a group therapy session. We all go home with our eyes open, our lives enriched, our sense of wonder renewed. Our Geek groved.

This is the second time out for Surrey Wildlife Trust after last years event in the sizzling sunshine at Norbury Park, near Dorking. I was in my usual role with Surrey Mammal Group https://www.facebook.com/SurreyMammalGroup conducting mammal surveys with SWT Mammal Officer Dave Williams and our SWT/ Mammal Group colleague/ Chobham Common Ranger Darren Brito. At 7pm on Saturday we put out 80 Longworth traps at locations around Pond Farm with 11 keen volunteers embracing grassland, scrub and wetland habitats. Last year at Norbury Park we had transects through grassland, woodland and along hedgerows and as predicted the hedgerows won the day with much more captures and a higher diversity of species. Hedgerows are ace, and here is a plug for Hedgelink https://www.hedgelink.org.uk 

I was expecting a good haul of field voles Microtus agrestis after a recent visit to Pond Farm on a tip-off that our elusive water voles Arvicola terrestris might be present, revealed a very healthy population of their smaller cousins.

Dave had to break off early to lead badger watching, which despite the appearance of our two-tone friends on trap cameras earlier in the week, proved fruitless. I joined the bat walk led by Mike Waite and Nicky Williamson as they picked up some Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, then headed up to check out the Brown Long-Eared Bat roost Plecotus auritus  in Hut Hill Cottage. The bats emerged right on cue, exiting straight out of the rood up into the trees

Walking back through the heathland landscape of Wisley Common I joined a gathering of friends around a moth trap where I stayed till nearly 2pm. The wind was gusting and it was generally not a good night for moths down near Pond Farm, but we managed to attract some wonderful beasties, my favourites being the Lime Hawk Moth Mimas tiliae, Light Emerald Campaea margaritata, Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi, and Flame Shoulder Ochropleura plecta.

I slept very well in my tent (last used in the Peaks two weekends before) despite the constant roar of traffic on the M25. I dozed off wondering if we’ll ever get a green bridge or two built across it. Its a crime they weren’t built into the original plans. I woke at 5am and felt surprisingly ready for the day ahead.

Twenty keen volunteers turned up at 5:30 the next morning to begin checking traps, all bleary eyed and expectant. I usually love the way tiredness turns into excitement as the captures start rolling in, but as empty trap followed empty trap  I realised it wasn’t going to be our year. In April I had organised some trapping at Parsonage Meadow with Alison, Nick and Tony- Guildford Borough Council Wardens who had been on my Mammal Society http://www.mammal.org.uk  Mammal ID course at FSC  Juniper Hall http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/juniperhall.aspx which had turned up 1 wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus in 60 traps!  Laura from The Mammal Society had also been in touch with the news that returns on their Mini Mammal Monitoring scheme were low. In total we caught 3 mammals, but the good news was that they were 3 different species: wood mouse, bank vole Myodes glareolus and yellow- necked mouse Apodemus flavicollis. The latter was a new record for the site, and not as common as the wood mouse, so that was some consolation.

I had just enough time after finishing mammal trapping to grab some food and a coffee before I was due out with Jamel Guenioui and James Herd- both SARG http://www.surrey-arg.org.uk/SARG.asp members- for a reptile survey. I was really looking forward to this because It had been a long time since I’d formally surveyed for reptiles as a consultant ecologist, and during my up-coming trip to Romania I’d be leading groups of students on surveys.

When beginning a survey I always breath in deeply and then make a long exhale. Its an attempt to really focus the mind and the eyes on the task ahead, an exercise in mindfulness http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness. What is important is in front of me now, and thoughts about the past or future are distractions.

It wasn’t long before we had our first slow worm Anguis fragilis, a male, warming beneath one of the refugia James had set up. We caught another, a female this time, together with a grass snake Natrix natrix and a juvenile palmate newt Lissotriton helveticus, almost translucent in his newness. Happily our group had a few dedicated passionate young reptile experts. If it wasn’t for Jeremy (age 12?) we would have missed the adder Vipera berus, which most of us walked past. After the survey I gave him my Reptile Expert badge which he thoroughly deserved for the spot.

There was so much going on when I got back to Base Camp. Heathland plant surveys, dragonfly walks, bird ringing, but I had to lead a mammal tracks and signs walk. This was a novelty for Bioblitz really because its less about ticking off new species and more about taking the first steps in learning to interpret the signs you see. Sort of CSI Bioblitz!

Our first stop was a rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus warren- fairly mundane you might think, but they are an example of a common species that are overlooked in many surveyors’ records. Perhaps more importantly they should represent a source of records for the elusive Mustelidae meso-predators: weasels Mustela nivalis , stoats Mustela erminea and polecats Mustela putorius. I was really disappointed we found no evidence of at least the first two on our walk. I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see evidence of polecats, though they are colonizing from the west and we are keeping an eye out for them.

 Happily the rabbits introduced us to a new concept, coprophagy where rabbits extract excess amount of nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. In short, they eat their own poo! We did find roe deer Caproelus capreolus tracks, and a badger Meles meles latrine and “push” under a fence, with the coarse guard hairs of the badger trapped in a barb on the wire.

It does worry me though, the lack of these small mustelid predators. They are elusive but from anecdotal evidence talking to colleagues. they are rarely seen. I see the problems caused by rabbits preventing coppice regrowth and damaging trees and bemoan the lack of meso-predators and foxes!

As the day drew towards its close I bumped into my nephew and neice Tarn (4) and Nova (7) with their Dad (its okay Nick I won’t tell), who had been enjoying the day while I was busy on surveys. They helped me release some of the inverts from the pond dipping. Tarn asked me “Why do you have to look after wildlife” and “I replied I don’t have to, I want to”.

Great Crested Newt embryo

There are of course so many answers to that question, not least “Somebody has to!” but a short one was best in the afternoon sun and with an imminent ride on the horse drawn cart. It seemed to satisfy him for a while, hopefully he’ll come back to me with more questions soon!

DSCN1956Bioblitz 2013 ended in a warm glow of sunshine that fitted perfectly with my sense of satisfaction. There was also only a week to go before I departed on a 7 week Bioblitz in Transylvania with Operation Wallacea.There is an incredible amount of effort that goes into Bioblitz and we have mostly the organisational prowess of Katy Gower, SWT Events Manager, to thank for it. I’m looking forward already to Bioblitz 2014, but I suspect Katy will need time to recover first before we start planning, 

Where on Earth will it be? Somewhere in wildlife -rich Surrey no doubt!

Today I’ve been lucky to have two very different yet related experiences of Surrey Rivers and has underlined for again the importance of a vibrant and varied landscape for our wellbeing.

This morning and into the early afternoon I’ve been walking the River Mole with the second batch of 13 RiverSearch volunteers teaching them how to undertake walkovers to assess the status of a river for Water Framework Directive issues such as diffuse pollution and barriers to fish movement. We set up RiverSearch recently on behalf of the Wey Landscape Project to offer volunteers a way to become more connected with their local river and at the same time meet the need for more information about the status of rivers and the wildlife using them.

We started the day with talks at the Juniper Hall Field Studies Centre where staff are always friendly and helpful despite the fact they are themselves very busy with school groups most of the time. Then we moved over to Norbury Park and followed a stretch of the Mole into Leatherhead, recording the pathways for siltation and pollution, barriers to fish passage and the presence of non-native species like Himalyan Balsam. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the river was alive with Banded Demoiselles, chubb, trout and even a kingfisher. All the volunteers seemed happy with the day and are looking forward to taking on their own stretch of river to survey.

This evening I was down on the River Wey where I was challenged to change my view of the river, almost swapping over the half of my brain I was using! University of Surrey Theatre Studies students are holding performances of their piece called One Of Number as part of their Footprints festival from 5-7 June. Starting at the Britannia Pub near Millmead I walked up the River towards Godalming
with 15 others and was treated by 11 performances writen and acted by students which together explored the nature of experience and meaning as we our flow through our lives. We were welcomed to the Wey by a traveller who followed the rivers from her home in Wales ( I now have a stone from her home river). We were tracked from the opposite bank – i felt almost hunted-by the performers themselves-living storiesif you like-who were in a mixture of tatty linen and cordury with a victorian cut and seemingly washed in the silty water of the river. They shared stories about an attempt to save a drowning man; the lives of walkers who had cut their names into the bridge beneath St Catherines Hill; a King whose grip on power was as precarious and as doomed as his position on the hillside above as the golden sands shifted beneath his feet even as we listened; we met a woman paralysed by indecision over the choice to wait for the lover she abandoned or go and find him, paralysed by the fear she had lost him forever. Throughout the walk the river connected these disparate yet linked experiences; the river sperated lives of others experienced on the other bank and our own experiences forged by the impression of our own two feet in the sandy soils, recalling for me that old celtic adage:

“where is the centre of the world?”
“Between your own two feet”

Life can only be lived in the present after all, but its experiences can be told and retold, and each time we might find something new.

Its reminded me the importance of storytelling in my own work to protect our natural spaces. Not everyone is in tune with wildlife and the natural world in a direct way, but in each of the stories i heard this evening, a sense of place, a sense that all our lives are interactions with the landscape around us emphasises the importance of a rich and varied environment to stimulate our minds and enrich our lives.

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