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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”
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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 animminent 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!
Bioblitz 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.
In exactly three weeks time I will have arrived in the Romanian province of Transylvania and will be getting to know the rest of the Operation Wallacea team with whom I’m to spend the next month-and-a-half. Its not a country I’ve visited before, or even know much about, except through Bram Stoker and Hammer Horror films, and while immensely entertaining probably not the best introduction to a country which is one of Europe’s largest, with a rich mixture of cultures including ethnic Romanians, Magyars, Germans, Russians, Ukranians, Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgars, Gypsies, Turks and Tatars. As a lover of stories, I think I’m in for a real treat.
I’m going to Romania as a mammal ecologist on the first Operation Wallacea expedition to Tarnava Mare to provide annual data on a series of biodiversity performance and farming criteria that need monitoring on the ground. This data will be used to test the effectiveness in maintaining the traditional farming practices and in protecting the biodiversity in this outstanding area. The work is being completed with ADEPT, a Romanian based NGO and with Oxford University Biodiversity Institute -are responsible for the satellite monitoring of change in habitats and farming practices (eg crops, field size, hedgerow length).
Sighisoara-Târnava Mare is a Site of Conservation Importance declared under the EU Habitats Directive and is one of the most important High Nature Value Farmed Landscapes in Europe. It is characterised by traditionally managed dry grassland habitat type which are threatened in Europe in a mosaic with ancient oak and beech forests. Unspoiled villages centred on fortified churches lie peacefully in the valleys. Traditional farming is carried out in ecological balance with nature. This landscape supports an astonishingly rich wildlife of plants, birds, mammals and insects.
A significant part of the habitats in the project area are either abandoned or overgrazed for economic reasons. Farmers do not get sufficient economic return for managing them traditionally. Overgrazing causes loss of species richness. Abandonment leads to the spread of thorny scrub, and accumulation of dead grassy material. In both cases, loss of habitat condition of grazing land and in hay meadows leads to loss of associated flora and fauna including important bird and butterfly species. These effects are obvious but still easily reversible by re-establishment of traditional management.
Operation Wallacea (OpWall)
runs a series of biological and conservation management research programmes that operate in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind – from identifying areas needing protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programmes. OpWall concentrates large teams of academics with specialisms in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies at the target study sites giving volunteers the opportunity to work on a range of projects. In each country, a long-term agreement is signed with a partner organisation to achieve a survey and management development programme at each of the sites.
ADEPT’s mission is to preserve these Hign Nature Value Farmlands by promoting nature friendly farm management with local involvement and local benefits. They deliver a package of measures aimed at educating local communities in the practices that maintain high biodiversity value landscapes which in turn provide benefits for people (ecosystem services).
I have trained as an ecologist with a special interest in the role that connectivity plays in supporting biodiversity in fragmented landscapes. My current work as the Living Landscape Officer for Surrey Wildlife Trust involves the delivery of a landscape that is rich in opportunities for both people and wildlife. At the heart of my work is the education of local communities to deliver an ecologically coherent landscape rich in wildlife. In this the goals of Surrey Wildlife Trust are very similar to those of ADEPT
This expedition will be a chance for me to learn from my conservation colleagues at ADEPT about the tools that they use to promote biodiversity and engage their community. I hope through my own skills and experiences to enrich their work too. I am very much looking forward to meeting the much richer mammal fauna of the region- probably species like the white toothed shrews (Crocidura spp) , the southern birch mouse Sicista subtilis and the European suslik Spermophilus citellus but perhaps if I am fortunate the Steppe Polecat Mustela eversmannii and if I’m inappropriately unfeasibly jammy a Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Grey Wolf Canis lupus or Brown (Grizzly) Bear Ursus arctos.
I’ll be posting blogs as much as internet connection and charging points allow (I am taking a freeloader for solar charging), so sign up for updates and join me on what I hope will be a thrilling and educational trip.
Fundatia ADEPT http://www.fundatia-adept.org/?content=activities
Tarnava Mare http://www.discovertarnavamare.org/discover/nature/
Surrey Wildlife Trust www.surreywildlifetrust.org