Before We Had Brains – The Worm That Turned.

As a child I spent many happy hours watching animals, especially the odd ones that other people mostly avoided… and it wasn’t long before it all made perfect sense to me. When I was old enough, I would train as a zoologist.

“What will you do with that?” people would ask.  “Work in a zoo?”  Well, not exactly. Rather stupidly, it had never occurred to me to ask how  zoologists make a living – I’d never met one, but I was certain it wouldn’t be a total waste of time; and when I finally managed to get qualified I was determined not to end up doing anything obvious – like teaching, or hanging on at university to research how best to kill small animals in the name of pest control.

Instead I became a wildlife filmmaker specialising in the kind of animals that just aren’t cuddly – the ones without backbones that even ‘The Natural History Museum’ in London happily describes as ‘creepy crawlies’, More properly they are invertebrates and all get by with nervous systems very much different from our own.

I've always liked the odd looking animals that most people don't like - this ones a mole cricket which is rather beautiful in its own way.
I’ve always liked animals that other people find less appealing – this one is a mole cricket which to me is rather beautiful in its own peculiar way.

Many invertebrates have nerve bundles that act as co-ordinating centres; but it would be a stretch to describe these as brains, although technically they are clearly centres for computation. 

It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you've got past their beautiful wings!
It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you’ve got past their beautiful wings!

When I was at school I wanted to learn more about how such animals worked; and if I came across a dead one, I would pick it up, take it home and delve inside to try and understand how internal structure matched up to external function. My parents were very understanding: they realised that my oddness was based upon science and not just that I was completely weird. Later when I became a zoology student this odd behaviour was suddenly recognised as a skill, and one that it turned out I was good at.

Although dissecting animals didn’t seem that consequential, it did at least provide an opportunity to view the insides all sorts of animals that I would later spend hours observing from the outside. This may not seem important, but the way an animal’s  nervous system is organised is fundamental to the way it behaves.

 Animal behaviour is about how creatures respond to external stimuli, and the way they do this is very much tied to the way their nervous systems have evolved – what works well for one won’t necessarily work for another. It’s all about lifestyle.

A butterfly suddenly gifted with the sensory ability and nervous system of a gorilla wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, even if such a neurological upgrade was possible. In the end, it is the precision and appropriateness of neurological responses to the environment that really counts. As humans, we are steadily losing contact with nature; if we all behaved as appropriately as an ant does in direct response to its surroundings, the World would be in better shape, but our lives of course would be far less interesting.

This kaleidascope of butterflies are all orientating in the same direction and they aren't thinking about it, the behaviour is hard wired into their system. Over millions of years, the butterflies that orientate correctly, either to best camouglage or in this case maintain body temeprature have survived and passed the bahaviour on have survived to produce the next generation of butterflies.
This kaleidoscope of butterflies orientates in the same direction but they don’t need to think about it, the behaviour is hard wired. Over millions of years, previous butterflies that orientated appropriately – either to camouflage themselves, or, as is this case, to maintain body temperature, have survived to pass their genes on to the next generation.
And here are a couple orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky, exhibiting as little surface area as they can to its rays about an hour after mid-day. On a still day, if the temperature was standard one day to another you could tell the time by the angle they adopt. Early in the day the would have their wings open to gain body heat and they don't need complex brains to think it through - they just do it.
Here, a couple of butterflies are orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky; just after mid-day they are presenting as little surface area to its rays as they can. In Settled conditions it might be possible to tell the time by the angle of the butterflies wings throughout  the warmest part of the day. In early morning their orientation is completely different – they have their wings open like solar panels to gain body heat and they don’t need a complex brain to think things through – it occurs automatically.

You might think my regard for invertebrate nervous systems is little more than my brain justify my wasted youth, but a careful analysis of their neural structure can provide a better understanding of our own, even allowing for the obvious differences of compexity.

Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, some invertebrates appear better equipped for longterm survival than do we. Many have displayed very little change for millions of years, which suggests that keeping things simple works really well; evolution clearly follows the general rule, that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins have existed for about 450 million years, although this spiny version is a little more recent and some species can live for a couple of hundred years
Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins for about 450 million, with some individuals, if they manage to escape predation, living for more than a couple of hundred years.

Sea anemones are predators, something that we consider a sign of superiority in more complicated animals, because vertebrate predators in particular have a lot more going on in their brains than do their herbivorous prey – wolves for example are more cunning than sheep – which appear… well, rather more sheepish.

Yep. There's more going on behind these eyes than any sheep.
Yep. There’s certainly more going on behind these eyes than in any sheep.

In comparison lowly creatures such as sea anemones rely entirely upon their prey floating by and are far less selective than the predators we usually notice – generally those with greater complexity. There are many uncomplicated invertebrates managing their lives with simple nerve nets, most of which do not have co-ordinating nerve bundles, and certainly nothing that comes close to anything that resembles a brain.

Nerve nets operate fairly simply – usually the greater the stimulus a jellyfish receives, the greater is its response.

In a nerve net, sensory neurones pick up signals from the environment and transmit information to other neurones that are able to discern certain patterns of activity. In jellyfish these then transmit to motor neurones that will activate muscles dedicated to short distance propulsion.

Animals with neural nets usually have radial symetry - this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.
Animals with nerve nets are usually represented in form by radial symmetry – this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.

It is surprising how much can be achieved with such a simple nervous system and it is one that is fairly easy to analyse due to its obvious lack of complexity. The great thing about sea anemones, sea urchins and jellyfish, is that they are incapable of over thinking a situation, to do so would quite literally take far more nerve than they have… We all know that jellyfish are spineless creatures, which in simple terms, makes them complete no brainers.

Starfish also demonstrate radial symetry when you look down upon them.
Starfish also demonstrate radial symmetry when viewed from above (or below).

Animals that rely upon nerve nets do not, as the term implies, always have their neurones distributed  evenly; sometimes these are denser in areas of greater neural activity and they may even be organised into very simple nerve masses or ganglia.

The simplest animals – such as amoeba, don’t have brains, nerve nets or anything clearly recognisable as a nervous system – essentially these blob like creatures get activated directly by external stimuli such as touch, light and chemicals.

This caterpillar clearly has bilater symmetry.
This caterpillar clearly has bilateral symmetry and even has its own central line.

At the other end of the scale, invertebrates with greater complexity have evolved bilateral symmetry – where the right hand side of the body mirrors the left. This is a successful pattern common to a great many animals and all vertebrates; and species that display this form of symmetry require a system with far greater complexity than a nerve net to operate efficiently.

Worms have it… and unsurprisingly they have evolved with much of their sensory equipment organised at the front end, because this is the first part of the body to experience new information. 

When I was a zoology student my supervisor Dr. Neil Croll introduced me to a nematode worm called Caenorhabitis elegans – this was a pivotal moment in my understanding of animal behaviour, which might sound odd, because C. elegans is only just visible to the naked eye at less than a millimetre in length. Despite its small size this worm has many plus points for study; most importantly it is not an infectious parasite and many millions can be found free living in just a handful of soil.

Caenorhabditis elegans
Caenorhabditis elegans.

One of the reasons C. elegans is useful for scientific study is the presence of a developed nervous system – there is a nerve ring near the front end, with a number of ganglia running through the body, but in many other respects this is an uncomplicated creature.

For animal behaviourists C. elegans is a great place to start because when it receives an appropriate stimulus, it will respond without the inconsistent behaviour so often displayed by animals carrying the expensive burden of a brain. 

C. elegans was the first animal to have all of it’s cells mapped – it is known where each cell starts out and where each one ends up, and all neural connections are understood. How great is that!

It was also the first animal to have its genome mapped. And my favourite fact – it was the only survivor of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle disaster when the spacecraft broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Cenorhabditis elegans has quite a lot going on inside and has some of the organs that we do, there is a gut (which can be seen here - the front end at least the rounded bulb is an oesophagus) and there are other internal organs which isn't bad for an animal that (in the male) only has 1036 cells a number that does not vary - the cells just grow as the worm gets bigger - which is great because that's one variable out the window straight away.
For such a small creature this one has a lot going on inside, with some organs recognisably similar to our own. A digestive system running through the body from front to back is present and other internal organs can be clearly seen.

The internal structure of this worm is impressive for an animal that, in the male, has only 1036 cells, a number that does not vary – the cells simply grow as the worm gets bigger. 

This little creature, has for many years been telling us interesting things about itself and also quite a lot about us, including details on the ageing process. By the time I started making observations in the mid 1970s C. elegans was already considered a key species for scientific investigation, but everything about it was new to me and a complete revelation.

I placed my worm at random on an agar plate in a petri dish, put a measured dollop of food some way off and then recorded the route   left in the medium as it travelled towards its dinner. Essentially the worm made its way up a diffusing food gradient by a very simple mechanism. It travelled straight,  but on sensing food began to turn; and the closer it got to food the more it turned. A food finding behaviour that is delightfully simple.

So I dropped my worm off at A, went away from couple of hours and come back to find it has arrived at the food source B. leaving a lovely trail across the agar plate. My own personal C. elegans making its way up a food gradient by an extraordinary simple process; and If this worm had hands then i he or she might be described as a lefty. I haven't looked at this negative since 1973 and it I still think it's a wonderful thing to see.
I dropped my worm off at A, and waited a while until it arrived at the food source B.  A trail across the agar plate clearly recorded the nematodes progress and it is seen to turn more as it gets closer to the food source (this worm always turned right). I haven’t looked at this negative since 1974 and I still think it a wonderful thing to see.

It is no surprise that the worm model has been such an evolutionary success.

As the front end of any worm progresses, it picks up available information from the environment ahead, and then its nervous system can assess various uncomplicated options: if all is well the worm might progress, but when required it can draw back a little and move off in another direction. What a worm does is simply governed by what it senses as it moves forward, and for the worm and many other uncomplicated creatures, this is a very practical way of approaching the world.

Some years ago I went to North America to film some of the oldest and most important fossils so far discovered; they are in the Burgess Shale located in the Canadian Rockies. I set up to film collections in both The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and was lucky enough to see some of the finest specimens available from this very early period.

Here is something a bit more complicated Canadia spinosa - a swimming worm with long bristles. Almost everything from the Burgess Shale is a pain to photograph because the fossil remains tend to be very shallow and difficult to light.
A fossil of Canadia spinosa – a swimming worm with long bristles preserved in the Burgess Shale which demonstrates that the worm format has been around for a very long time. The remains although shallow and difficult to photograph are remarkably clear.

The shale  includes creatures that look like sea anemones preserved in deposits laid down some 500 million years ago, along with worm like creatures similar to forms we see today; and there are many other extraordinary fossils of animals that are now lost to us, or difficult to identify. Nevertheless, the Burgess Shale is presently one of the best opportunities to look back to the Pre-Cambrian explosion, a period of time when the fundamental ecology of modern marine ecosystems was first laid down. 

The Ragworm

David Barlow's dark field picture clearly shows the ragworm Neries moving forward. Once forward motion has activated in accordance with the sensory input from the front end, firing the nervous system in each segment of the body in orderly progression is a fairly basic neuroligical process.
This dark field picture clearly shows a Nereis or ragworm moving forward and although I have no idea if this creature is closely related to Canadia spinosa from 500 million years ago, the resemblance in body form is clear – demonstrating that for some animals not a lot has changed for a very long time. 

The Earthworm.

I remember seeing the anatomical arrangement (below) way back when I was a zoology student, although I haven’t found it necessary to look inside an earthworm since, because nothing has changed. Clearly a group of nerves run up to the front end where most of the sensory information is received as the worm moves forward.

Diagram of the anterior or front end of an earthworm Lumbricus, showing (in white) the nervous system which runs mostly along the lower or ventral side of the animal.
Diagram of a dissection of the anterior (front end) of an earthworm (Lumbricus) which shows the nervous system (shown in white) running mostly along the lower (ventral side). This is quite the reverse of what we would expect to see when looking inside an early vertebrate where the spinal nerve clearly runs dorsally.

In the above schematic view most of the internal organs have been removed for clarity,  but the front end of the food canal is left in place to show how the nervous system wraps around to form a couple of nerve bundles on the upper side – the closest thing a worm has to a brain. Internally, a main nerve runs down the ventral wall of the body with three nerves coming off on either side in each segment, and these mostly activate muscles for locomotion. Apart from an area dedicated to reproduction, this model repeats itself along the the length of the body and so it is only necessary to display a couple of segments.

It is believed that our ancestors were once worm like creatures and we would need to go back around 600 million years to find a common ancestor. It would seem a mistake though to conclude that we have evolved directly from worm ancestors on the same branch as the worms as we see today where the main nerve runs ventrally. To re-arrange this to the dorsal side in line with how all vertebrates are organised would require a leap of imagination, because evolution can’t retrace its steps and rearrange anatomical features without leaving a trace. Animals are stuck with what they’ve already got and must adapt from there. 

Maybe at some point a worm stood on its tail, and went with Alice through into the Looking Glass World and as it did so, inverted. My student textbook on Invertebrates by A.S. Romer makes a joke about this switch with a diagram that shows a worm/vertebrate flip where the text details for the vertebrate are turned upside down. Romer then goes on to explain that this inversion creates as many problems as it answers as there are several other anatomical changes that must also occur that are difficult to explain. Maybe the Vertebrate plan was laid down far earlier. When I was a student there were various theories, but nobody seemed to know for certain.

In the Burgess Shale a ‘wormlike’ creature has been discovered that appears to have a nerve chord running down the dorsal side.

I photographed a specimen from the Burgess Shale but it didn't show as much as my artists impression of the animal. Nevertheless a nerve chord clearly ran down the dorsal side.
While photographing the Burgess Shale, I was lucky enough to photograph Pikaia gracilens (which is about 5 cms. in length), a specimen that so far, has been found nowhere else. Unfortunately, the fossils I saw didn’t show much clarity, hence my artists impression of this creature which appears to be an early chordate form. It was probably a capable swimmer, but anatomically it doesn’t manage to tick all the boxes as the forerunner of modern chordates. i.e. animals with spines that support and protect a major nerve chord. Pikaia might not be the forerunner of all mammals, but is probably a close relative.

There are now better claimants to the chordate line from the Chengjiang fossil deposits in China where jawless fish have been found that predate specimens from the Burgess Shale by around 17 million years, but as I write from personal experience and haven’t had the good fortune to see these fossils, it would be cheap to make a drawing from somebody else’s photographs.

Ignoring for a minute the fossil records, another approach taken by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published in early 2010, made a comparison of the small molecules that regulate gene expression; these from similar organs in widely different animals. A marine annelid worm Platynereis dumerilii which hasn’t changed much over 600 million years appears to have micro molecules highly specific to certain tissues including the nervous system, and these are shared similarly in the tissue of many vertebrates including ourselves, which suggests a common ancestry.

We can’t be sure if we evolved from exactly the same ancestor as the worms we see today, but go back far enough and at some stage there must have been a common ancestor and whatever it was, it won’t have been pretty.

Amphioxus.

The dubious honour of the most basic animal around today equipped with a spinal chord falls to about 30 species know as a lancelets or amphioxus – a small translucent marine creature that I was also expected to ‘look into’ as a student. Cephalochordates, are a closely related primitive form of Chordate; they display many of the attributes common to Vertebrates and this includes a brain… More truthfully this is just a bump at the head end of the nerve chord – which explains why they are not renowned as great thinkers. 

Amphioxus - is clasified as a Cephalochordata. This section through a specimen that I made when I was a student clearly shows the nerve chord running along the dorsal side.
Amphioxus – is classified in the sub-Phylum Cephalochordata. This drawing of a vertical section through a specimen  made when I was a student clearly shows a nerve chord running along the dorsal side.

Invertebrates remain unloved by most of us, even so they are an important part of ecological systems. Animals that we should perhaps notice more and photograph when we see them to remind us of the many uncared for and unnamed species lost worldwide on a daily basis. Creatures that have been around for more than 500 million years are disappearing with increasing frequency and many are more consequential to our existence than we realise. It is as well to remember that we cannot exist entirely in a world of our own making in which only ‘the pretty things’ survive because we have chosen to protect them. We are part of an ecosystem… not  a zoo.

I know there are many people who would prefer not to think we are closely related to apes let alone worms… and that’s a pity because if we could see ourselves as part of a natural progression that goes back to our invertebrate ancestors, we might have more respect for the many odd looking creatures still with us today.

The Ascent of Man – a good walk spoilt?

I sometimes wonder if 'The Ascent of Man ' has been an entirely successful journey. So often we do not look after our most prcious asset, our brains and sometimes we don't use  them to our best advantage.
You might wonder if our evolutionary course has been an entirely successful journey. Our brain may have evolved from uncomplicated beginnings, but after all that evolutionary effort we don’t always look after this our most precious asset… neither do we always use our brains to best advantage.

In reality the fossil record is sparse, but today we don’t have to rely upon looking for chance deposits from the distant past to gain an understanding of the natural world around us, all we have to do is look. If back in the mists of time, each strange creature could have been recorded as thoroughly as is possible today, we might have a better understanding of which of those odd looking invertebrates were truly our ancestors.

N.B. A recent paper in ‘Nature’ suggests that a micro-fossil found in China may be our oldest known ancestor. Saccorhytus coronarius was a tiny bag-like creature that probably lived between grains of sand on the sea-bed around 540 million years ago, thought to be a primitive “Deuterostome“. Deuterostomes are a broad category that includes the Vertebrates. (Source: St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Jan 2017). 

With thanks to David Barlow for his Nereis picture. See David Barlow Archive.

Next time: Before We Had Brains Part 2. A look at Arthropods and other creatures with nervous systems so different from our own, they might just as well be aliens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Stream Sides and Woodlands.

The banks of New Forest streams have changed significantly over the years.

Long before I started photographing the New Forest in the 1970s streamsides were steadily being opened up by livestock as they grazed and trampled these fragile areas into blandness, and it is a problem that continues to the present day. 

If managing the open Forest continues to prioritise traditional practices, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea to refer to photographs taken earlier in the 20th Century to gain a better understanding of the changes that have occurred. 

Many New Forest streams are very beautiful, but their banks are often barren and grazed completely free of undergrowth - in the past this certainly wasn't the case.
There was a time within living memory when bramble and other dense growth ran along many waterways which prevented livestock from getting in – consequently stream side banks regenerated without interference and there was less soil erosion, providing better water quality.

Many stream banks were grazed out long before I began taking pictures in the early 1970s, but nevertheless, I have still managed to record many changes over the years, often without the realisation that I was doing so. When I started out, the New Forest was already heavily grazed and I had not expected things to get worse, but generally they have, with very little in the way of critical comment.

The picture below was taken in the Spring of 2016 at the the edge of a heathland that I know very well, this about 100 metres from the pond that I discussed in my previous article, although it is not necessary to have read it to comprehend the changes discussed here. Over grazing has certainly degraded the surrounding heathland, but things get far worse on approaching the tree line.

In the 1970s this was a much different habitat; a stream runs just beyond the trees to the right. There was once a broad band of bramble and clumps of undergrowth running along this side of the trees which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring - the present habitat is no longer suitable for 'any' snake species and now so degraded the environment is rapidly becoming a lawn.
In the 1970s this was a much different habitat than today, with heathland to the left and extensive patches of undergrowth running along the tree line and the stream side just beyond the trees to the right. 

 The broad band of vegetation that ran along this side of the trees was made up largely of grassy clumps of bog myrtle and patches of bramble, which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring. The present habitat is extremely degraded and most of the heather has now disappeared.  All of the low cover that bordered the stream side has been eaten out and is rapidly becoming a lawn that is not well suited to any species of snake.

This location has extensively changed even since the beginning of the new Millennium.

I took this picture on the other side of the stream in January of 2000 because it is unusual to see hoar frost lasting in the Forest when the sun has hit the branches of the trees, but it also srevees a record of the heathland at its most dormant and demonstrates that back then there was plenty of ground cover much of which is now been lost.
I took this picture on the opposite side of the stream in January of 2000 initially to show hoar frost on tree branches on a very cold morning. What the frost also shows, at a time of year when most plants are dormant, is how much good ground cover there was back then. Today, much of this has been grazed out, although it is not as badly affected as the opposite bank where I once regularly filmed adders.

At one time the surrounding heathland provided a variety of habitat types suitable for all three British species of snake. Within an area of about 500 hundred square metres there was mature heathland that ran into heather of various ages, before arriving at a pond and a stream side both of which had banks covered in undergrowth. This is important because there are but a handful of places in Britain now where you can find all three British snake species in close proximity and most of these locations are in the New Forest.

The grass snake, this one photographed here in the mid-1980s has also suffered habitat loss.
A grass snake photographed on the stream bank in the mid-1980s; another species that has suffered habitat loss.

On severaI occasions I was fortunate to film the adder dance in undergrowth along the stream at a time when it was less heavily grazed and I was present when an adult male climbed up through a gorse bush to investigate a dartford warbler’s nest. During spring it was commonplace to see a dozen adders over a one hundred metre stretch here. On returning to the streamside during the spring of 2016 I searched for three mornings in ideal weather conditions but didn’t find a single snake.

This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.
This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.

Trust me, I’ve put in the hours.  

You know how it is if you want to place a bet – say, on who will win the next general election… Past experience tells us that is unwise to rely on pundits or exit polls to make a winning decision. The best option is usually to look at the odds a bookie will give you – because if they keep getting it wrong they’re out of business and clearly there is no shortage of bookies. I won’t claim to be an expert on every plant and animal on the Forest, but when it comes to snakes I am a bit of an adder bookie; if you want to know where they are, then I’m the person to ask – I once spent months of the year finding and filming these beautiful reptiles and how many people can honestly say they’ve paid their mortgage by watching snakes. I won’t go as far as to claim there are no snakes left at my favourite filming location, but even a glance reveals no suitable ground cover for snakes in a place where they were once common, which makes the odds on finding one pretty slim. 

I am using the adder as an indicator that represents a general decline in the numbers and diversity of many other species; everything from rodents through to invertebrates have become more scarce here during my years of observation and once again I am speaking about animals that were once common. The tendency is to dwell on the disappearance of the more showy – butterflies and moths for example, for which the species in decline list is long; but I will chose one species only, and it is a plant rather than an animal. I have noticed that there are now far fewer sundews than there once were at this location. I filmed them many times during the 1980s and 90s, when they were common in boggy areas. This is a species that does well on wet heathlands when grazing is optimal and the decline suggests that grazing levels have become too extreme. 

Damselfly caught on sundew - a carnivorous plant - on boggy heathland sometime in the mid-1980s.
A damselfly caught on sundew – a carnivorous plant of boggy heathland. Photographed at the location described above sometime in the mid-1980s.

Only a short walk away there is another site that also provided an ideal adder habitat.

Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather - this was once an important adder habitats.  A car park has now gone in and the place is busy with dog walkers who are probably pleased not to see an adder, but nevertheless the habitat is totally sterile.
Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather providing a wonderful environment for adders. More recently a car park was put in; the area is now busy with dog walkers and most will be pleased there are no longer any snakes to be found. Whatever your view, it can’t be denied that the habitat has become totally sterile – this picture Spring 2016.

During the 1970s and 80s I regularly filmed adders on this bank, but none can be found here now. The bank, once protected by inclosure, has more recently returned to open Forest and in consequence is heavily grazed. I accept that Forest plantations are not inclosed indefinitely, but those that are fenced will grow deep heather along their borders because of the reduction of grazing pressure. This location is about half a mile from the degraded streamside I have already mentioned, and it is difficult to understand how so much habitat appropriate for snakes, along with many other plants and animals, has been allowed to degrade over such an expansive area. The situation is depressing and it would perhaps be kindest to suggest that this is no more than a case of careless management, because it is difficult to believe that the real priority has been to open up yet more Forest for grazing to the detriment of almost everything else.

Here is the bank as it was during the 1970s

Courting adders in spring, a female, with four males in attendance in the mid-1970s. (The females head is not visible). This picture was taken to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. On a spring day in 2016 -  the heather has gone, entirely replaced by short grass and bare sandy soil.
I frequently filmed adder courtship here during spring through the 1970s and 80s. In this case a female has four males in attendance, although the females head is not visible here. This image was taken just to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. The heather is now clearly gone, replaced entirely by short grass and bare sandy soil and this suffers extensive erosion.

Without the labels in the above picture, you might not notice the snakes at all – their markings disguise them almost perfectly amongst the heather which was once the most dominant plant. Part of the problem is that older heather is especially brittle and when the inclosure fences came down the whole area was trampled by livestock. Herds of cattle will lie down in different places each night and this destroys the heather base and damages the habitat. 

A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour - they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to the female. Lying together increases their body temperatures. A week or so later the males performed the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.
A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour; they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to their potential mate, making little jerky head movements whilst scenting with their tongues as they move slowly over her body.  Lying together will increase their body temperatures in early spring, allowing the snakes to become more active. A week or so later I remember the males performing the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.

And it’s not just the snakes that have disappeared:

the band of heather that once ran along the tree line was, during the 1970s, teeming with invertebrates. I know this because I sweep netted the area regularly to identify the spiders and insects that were present. Heather cover is akin to a miniature forest; different animals live at different levels and many will rise to the top on warm sunny days where their presence will provide food for a variety of other creatures.

A bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.
A ‘true’ bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.

With the destruction of its heather the site has now become barren. Gorse will eventually regenerate, but if the pressure of livestock is not reduced the heather will not be able to. This is a common pattern repeating itself across the open Forest…. There’s something not quite right here – the environment is rapidly becoming sterile and there should be cause for concern.

It isn’t just the act of munching that is a problem, it is also the peripheral activities undertaken to support it. Back in the 1960s as a teenager I witnessed wetlands being drained to increase the availability of grazing and that proved to be a disaster for many wetland species. Some bog areas have more recently been re-instated, so it isn’t all bad news, but burning and scrub clearance to promote a browser friendly habitat continues, which inevitably has an impact. When things all begins to look the same, wildlife diversity always suffers.

Most New Forest woodlands that are not within a fence line are also overgrazed.

The open woodlands, just like the open heathlands are also disappointing – many now display very little ground cover due to heavy grazing and this has had a knock on effect, reducing plant and animal numbers along with species diversity; in particular it has affected the many small animals that rely upon low spreading plants for food and shelter.

New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of  beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey, which has been grazed out by livestock and deer.
The New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey because it has been grazed out by livestock and deer.

The New Forest suffers greatly in terms of the fine details. Almost nothing vegetative survives here unless it remains out of the reach of grazers: much that can be eaten will be eaten – by ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and deer – the munching is relentless.

It is not uncommon to find old beeches barked - in this case by ponies.
Sadly great old beech trees are now more frequently barked – in this case by ponies. This behaviour has become worryingly more prevalent in recent years as ponies run low on other food.

When you have seen old beech trees growing from childhood and they are suddenly damaged in this manner it is difficult not to become despondent. Some of the older pollarded trees on the Forest have been standing for more than three hundred years; it is likely that some trees were planted, but many others will have self-seeded.

Due to a hard grazing  regime, the survival of trees that seed and grow naturally is now almost zero. Dense undergrowth such as bramble which was commonplace in the past allowed native tree seedlings some protection from hungry mouths, but today there is very little undergrowth available to act as nurseries and very few young trees survive the onslaught.

In areas where there are alien conifers, for example along the  Ornamental Drive and in the Boldrewood area unpalatable conifer seedlings are growing well in a beech and oak woodland, but there is not much in the way of regenerating native trees.
In areas where there are mature alien conifers, for example: along the Ornamental Drive and at Boldrewood, conifer seedlings unpalatable to livestock are unfortunately growing very well. This is supposed to be a beech and oak woodland, but there are hardly any regenerating native deciduous trees.
A few non-native conifers soon self seed as is the case in this New Forest woodland.
Even when there are only a few mature non-native conifers, they soon self seed, as is the case in this deciduous New Forest woodland.

I also found time during my Spring visit of 2016 to go to a friend’s privately owned property situated next to the open Forest; it comprises fields, pasture and what interests me most, a fenced off woodland.

I well remember going out on the open Forest during the 1990s to film the fallow deer rutt and on early mornings it was common to find inclosure gates wedged open by pieces of wood to allow livestock in… Not content with destroying the fabric of the Forest, some locals felt that natural undergrowth protected by inclosure was simply a waste of grazing potential.

In the private woodland things couldn’t be more different. The soil type is the same as on the adjacent New Forest, but free from ponies and cattle the understory looks healthier; and any stock animals that do find their way in are soon put back out. 

An off the Forest bluebell wood that hasn't been eaten out or trampled by livestock.
My friend’s private woodland is beautiful. During the spring bluebells were coming into bloom; they are here because the understorey hasn’t been trampled, or eaten out by stock despite the presence of deer. This photo was taken during Spring 2016 one day after the previous three pictures were made on the open Forest.

 There were also quite a lot of other plants in bloom, this to the advantage of a variety of attendant invertebrates, in particular insects feeding on the variety of wild flowers.

Wood spurge growing nicely, and celendines in the foreground along with wood anemones behind starting to come into flower. This kind of ground cover is non-existent on the open areas of the New Forest.
Wood spurge was growing well, along with celendines (in the foreground) and wood anemones (behind), these just coming into flower – the kind of ground cover that  is non-existent on open areas of the New Forest.

It’s spring, so there are also primroses amongst the wood anemones.

Fantastic. In the private forest where there are deer but no livestock the ground cover is good.
In the private woodland despite the presence of deer the ground cover is impressive.

And just in case you aren’t convinced, the next day I was back in the New Forest and the contrast was quite shocking.

Back on the Forest a day after my visit to a neighbouring private wood. I got a chance to photograph a roe deer and he didn't see me, but there' not a lot else to get excited about.
 I got a chance to photograph a roe deer that didn’t see me, but there wasn’t much else to get excited about.

Many other treasures will become evident in the private forest as summer approaches, whilst back on the open Forest there will be little in the way of food plant such as bramble flowers that adult butterflies and other insects need to feed on, and very few plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on which their emergent caterpillars require as a food source. All of the action will be happening in the private wood; and any butterflies seen flying across the New Forest will, most likely, be passing through in search of somewhere more useful, and a good deal more interesting than the convenient dog empying fascility that the Forest has become.

In Victorian times there were descriptions of butterflies rising on New Forest rides in such numbers that it was difficult to see down them. Such radical change over the last 150 years is not unprescendeted elsewhere, and such changes are not entirely due to grazing regimes, but the extremes of change over periods a little too long to notice in a human lifetime is nevertheless disturbing.

A silver-washed fritillary photographed regularly during the summers of the 1970s 80s will be less often seen in the Forest of this new Millennium  because there is little in the way of food plants for them, which is sad.
I photgraphed silver-washed fritillaries regularly during the summers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but they are less often seen in the New Forest of the new Millennium because there is so little in the way of food plant for them to feed upon and that is depressing.

So what’s gone wrong?……..

The answer is complicated – the New Forest came under the auspices of the Forestry Commission in 1924, and commercial forestry did not always sit well with the needs of conservation; sadly, too many native deciduous trees were felled to make way for alien conifer plantations.

In consequence there was a decline in species across the Forest under the new tenure, but there were other factors to consider: rapid urban development was beginning along the New Forest borders; pesticides and herbicides were coming into general use and people began visiting the area in greater numbers. This was a period of considerable change and it would unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of one organisation.

Cattle in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest in the late 1980s.
Cattle under holly in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest – autumn 1999, but it could easily be far earlier because changes in the Forest before the New Millennium were often very subtle and it is interesting to consider that the hunting grounds of Norman kings may well have looked similar to this (without such beefy cattle).

In 1969 the Forest became a National Nature Reserve and the Forestry Commission  began working in unison with the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England), a relationship that was strained at times but in retrospect, relatively successful.

In 1971 conservation measures were undertaked in a more organised  manner as the Forest was declared ‘A Site of Special Scientific Interest’. Nevertheless, how intensely the New Forest should be grazed has for many years been a thorny issue . The subject will always be controversial, because those with grazing rights believe the well being of the Forest relies almost entirely upon them – they are it seems doing us all a favour and views to the contrary are not often well received.

Commoners come together at Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture taken some time in the 1990s.
Commoners come together yearly opposite Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture was taken during the 1990s. Over the centuries the people of the New Forest have had many ups and downs – they are consequently a stoic people; but their interests should not be put above the general well being of the environment that they make their living from.

The British have a long history, and so it is understandable that sometimes they look backwards to earlier times to find solutions for current problems, when perhaps it might be wiser to be looking to the future; and the New Forest is no stranger to this approach.

For as long as I can remember management policy has never been entirely driven by science based evidence directly linked to the New Forest’s flora and fauna, because it has always been difficult to separate the uniqueness of this place from historical tradition – but the world is changing. Ancient Forests have all but disappeared now and it is essential to consider every aspect of their conservation before deciding how best to manage them.

The effects of grazing must be more carefully considered and take precedence over Commoner’s rights, because the Forest isn’t best served by maintaining age old traditions to the exclusion of everything else, and recent additional grazing subsidies will certainly have clouded the issue. Sadly, what is best for the environment is not necessarily decided by logical argument. Politically, it is easier to favour a traditional way of life over nature itself. When you live in a democracy nature doesn’t get to vote.  

An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I'd be in favour.
An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course both dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I’d be in favour.

The intention has always been that tradition and nature should work together, but any argument that puts outmoded ‘rights’ before the realities of the current situation makes no sense and the present lack of an appropriate response is tiresome.

Looking at the British countryside from the air, demonstrates that much of what remains outside of standard agricultural use is grazed by livestock – in particular sheep – thus prohibiting any possibility of a return to wilderness. Indeed, the British National Park mentality sees cropping by domestic herboivores as essential to maintaining ‘a traditional look’. It is as if we are too frightened to allow wilderness to return to Britain. Policy makers seem set against allowing the natural world to make a comeback, which is unfortunate because a little bit of ‘wild’ is good for us and even better for the environment.

A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s. I an animal very fond of these animals, but the many that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called 'Daphne' competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties rather than has happened so often in the past - on a Frenchman's dinner table.
A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s, an animal that I am fond of, but presently many of those that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called ‘Daphne’ competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties, rather than as has happened so often in the past – on a Frenchman’s dinner table.

In the New Forest it certainly isn’t too late to make a change for the better by reducing livestock. In the short term, private landowners will carry the burden of maintaining wildlife diversity on adjoining properties until ‘common sense’ prevails over ‘common rights’, although making changes remains an uphill battle.

Most environmentalists recognise the benefits of grazing as a conservation tool, but it has to operate at an appropriate level. Clearly this isn’t happening in the New Forest. Britain’s most recently designated National Park is increasingly, looking like a badly worn snooker table and it makes sense to be honest about the direness of the situation. At the very least the problem needs to be recognised and those in control politely asked to start making intelligent choices that are long overdue. 

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Heathlands.

Overgrazing the New Forest – a major contribution to species decline.

I wrote recently about ‘The New Forest’ and the obvious truth that it has a litter problem, but there is something more consequential going on that has been bothering me for years – the fabric of the Forest is being eaten away by herbivores more quickly than it can regenerate, and rather like the litter – there is no sign of a change for the better.

New Forest ponies in mixed open habitat. April 2016.
New Forest ponies in a mixed open habitat that is now heavily grazed. Picture: April 2016.

 The New Forest, for those who don’t already know, is a patchwork of habitats ranging from lawns, through open heathlands to forests and all are maintained by grazing. This has been achieved through the centuries by giving local people the ‘right’ to graze livestock on the open Forest and those entitled to exercise their ‘common rights’ are known as ‘commoners’.

Pony an foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.
A pony and foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.

The look that is achieved with this approach to management isn’t exactly wild, but neither does it feel agricultural – it’s somewhere in between and usually happens in areas where the soil is too poor to support more intensive forms of agriculture. If such places were left to their own ends they would eventually return to the wild.

The British have always had an uncomfortable relationship with wilderness, we pretend to like it, but in truth we can’t seem to leave the natural world alone.  Every available space, especially common land has to be useful and any environment that hasn’t already been utilised is just begging to be grazed, rather than allowing them to return to overgrown wastelands – the terror of it! The New Forest is no exception; in ancient times it was often described as a furzey waste. The prevailing view is, that if we can’t make use of such places, then they are no use at all. 

The Furzey waste as it was in late summer of 2000
A view across the ‘furzey waste’ as it was in late summer 2000.

The idea that every bit of land has to be owned by somebody, or at the very least has to be useful in some way is ingrained in us – it’s almost a religion. We believe it because our predecessors believed it – a process that has gone on for generations, with nobody stopping to ask: would the natural world really be such a bad place if we just left it alone? Sadly, this is an errant thought because it’s never going to happen, particularly in the New Forest where local people see grazing livestock as their birthright. So, what exactly does that leave us with?

Apparently something that’s not half bad; semi-natural habitats maintained by the munching of farm animals which benefits a variety of plant and animal species when it is done right.  Ponies, cattle and in some places sheep – these in very low numbers, wander the open Forest all year round. And during autumn, pigs are turned out to feast on fallen acorns that ponies would otherwise fill up on and poison themselves – they are a bit stupid like that. Pigs on the other hand seem able to convert almost anything into bacon.

A presumably happy pig on his way in a search of acorns and anything else he can snuffle up Autumn 1999. Fritham.
A presumably happy pig on his way in search of acorns or anything else he can snuffle up. Autumn 1999. Fritham.

The big question is: how much grazing does the Forest need to maintain healthy eco-systems and when does it become too much? Even to an untrained eye the New Forest is presently going through a prolonged phase of overgrazing – and with all of the other pressures that now exist – probably one of the worst that has occurred during its long history.

When I was filming for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier - that's not to say that there is no mature heather now, but back then it was certainly more extensive and less damaged and in places I deep enough to hide in order to film birds.
When I was filming wildilife for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier – that’s not to say that there’s no mature heather now, but back then it was more extensive and less damaged than it is today and sometimes deep enough to hide in.

In 2010 Natural England designated 16 million pounds to encourage the ancient right of commoning, essentially to promote grazing. In April 2016 under a partly European funded Verderers’ Grazing Scheme the pot was increased to 19 million pounds which allowed a per annum payout for each animal of around 85 pounds for cattle and just short of 70 pounds for each pony. A recent EU-funded ‘Basic Payment Scheme’ was introduced to help farmers in general, which might entitle commoners to a payment just short of 250 pounds for each of their cattle and 269 pounds for each pony, with no cap on the number of animals for which payments can be made. Essentially this has become a licence to print money for anybody living in the Forest exercising their grazing rights, which is an extrordinary deal considering that the land being utilised doesn’t belong to those who are putting stock out. So, everybody and his auntie must have joined in by now because it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know of any commoners who would be ostentatious enough to wallpaper their bedrooms with fifty pound notes, but many will have at least taken the opportunity to update their four wheel drives.

New Forest Pony in beautiful deep heather. Summer 2000.
A New Forest pony in beautiful deep heather back in summer 2000.

Promoting grazing with financial incentives seemed like a good idea around about the time the New Forest became a National Park, because this was a period when putting animals onto the open forest no longer appeared to be giving a good return and for many commoners didn’t seem to be worth the effort; stock numbers were beginning to fall, and with few exceptions wildlife was starting to benefit – because creating the right level of grazing is a difficult balance, but a drop in numbers was clearly proving to be good for the environment. Sadly, there was only a short respite. Throughout my lifetime the trend has been for stock numbers to increase, with pony numbers more than doubling in the last half century to around 5,000 and cattle numbers also increasing significantly in recent years.

Now that grazing is back with a vengeance the New Forest is looking increasingly like a badly worn pitch and putt – or should that be  ‘a badly worn crazy golf course’! – because the traditional furzey waste that has existed for centuries is now in rapid decline.

The intention was, “to attract new, younger commoners to continue the traditions that have contributed to the rich biodiversity of the forest”, perhaps this quote should have stopped at “to continue the traditions” because there are no grounds for suggesting that this is contributing to the rich biodivesity of the Forest. The good news continues with, “to preserve the rich beauty of these acres” which might be nearer the truth because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that takes on a whole new meaning when money is involved. What would really benefit the Forest is for control to be wrestled from the traditionalists and placed in the hands of those who have a better understanding of the ecology of existing habitats.

A New Forest up to it's belly in heather and with long grass in its mouth isn't so often seen as it was back in the summer of 2000 when this picture was taken.
A New Forest pony up to its belly in heather and with long grass in its mouth, which isn’t so often seen today. This picture was taken summer 2000, five years before National Park status.

Most would agree that the open Forest requires grazing because this is a process that creates not only the look of the place but also very specific environments that are seldom seen elsewhere. Overgrazing on the other hand can cause considerable damage and that is the present situation.

There are a handful of wild plants that benefit from a heavy grazing regime, but there are many others that provide food and cover for butterflies and other animals, that are being grazed out of existence. A diversity of plants is necessary for the maintenance of well balanced ecosystems, but this diversity is now being lost – and that’s not an extreme opinion, it’s a matter of fact.

Through summer there is now very little bramble flower to feed butterflies and other insects on the open Forest during summer- this picture taken in July 1979.
 The open Forest now has very little bramble flower for butterflies and other insects to feed upon during the summer. This picture taken in July 1979.

Over the years I’ve spent many thousands of hours observing the New Forest through a camera and have gained some understanding of the ecology, as well as the distribution and behaviour of many of the animals that live there. But it doesn’t matter what I think I know about the place, it is the changes recorded by photography – particularly during the last quarter of the 20th Century, that provides evidence beyond dispute, demonstrating a general degradation of the environment directly linked to overgrazing.

Many say that the New Forest hasn’t changed much over the years, but if you go away for fifteen years and then come back as I have done recently,  you certainly notice a difference.

But let’s go back further…

The date of this picture can't be disputed - this is my young son in a New Forest pond while his mother blows raspberries at him which he seems to enjoy.
Taken on open heathland not far from Beaulieu the date of this picture cannot be disputed – it was early summer 1992. My young son is in a New Forest pond with his mother; she is blowing raspberries at him and he seems to be enjoying it.

This is a fun picture, but it is here for another reason… as a record of the surrounding habitat as it once was.

Behind all the splashing a band of gorse and heather can be clearly seen at one end of the pond.

 

 

Compare this to a picture taken in 2016 two months short of a twenty-four year period, this time looking in the opposite direction across the pond.

This the reverse view shows the gorse burnt, which is normal because crashing it or burning manages the plant and it grows back as it is doing here, but look closely at the ground, there no heather regeneration.
Spring 2016: The reverse view shows the gorse burnt out, which is not unusual, because along with brashing this is a recognised method of management – gorse soon puts out fresh growth as it is doing here, but look more closely at the ground… there is no regenerating heather. In fact there’s not much growing at all.

The reason the place looks so barren is entirely down to the impact of large numbers of herbivores – in this case ponies and cattle – and it isn’t just the munching of fresh growth that has caused the problem, it is also down to trampling, in particular of the heather.

I don’t think anybody can say exactly how many stock animals now graze the Forest, but the steady increase over the years is at odds with maintaining balanced ecosystems. Perhaps as many as 170 species have been lost from the New Forest since I started taking pictures in the late 1960s and there can be no doubt that some have disappeared as a direct result of heavy grazing.

Besides New Forest ponies there are a lot of cattle in the area and their trampling presence is noticeable, especially around the edge of ponds.
This picture of the pond was taken on the same day as the previous picture during Spring 2016. Besides New Forest ponies, a great many cattle are also grazing and their destructive presence is noticeable, especially around the edges of ponds where they turn the banks into mush.

This isn’t to say that ponies and cattle don’t play an important role in managing New Forest ecosystems, just that there are now far too many animals for effective conservation to operate. The question is, why has this been allowed to happen? Some will say that the payment of subsidies and a mis-guided management is to blame, but these are topics that are off limits for discussion.

There have always been deep seated attitudes in favour of grazing which has become the ‘Holy Grail’ of New Forest management – not because it is best for the environment, but because it is ‘a way of life’ for the commoners who live there, and their ‘rights’ always take precedence; and this is something that is unlikely to change.

A common sense approach would be to manage optimally to benefit New Forest ecosystems, using grazing as one of the many tools available to achieve this end rather than as an end in itself. The pretence is that this is already happening, but nothing could be further from the truth… but I’m old enough to realise that arguments based upon facts and logic don’t always win the day.

The same pond in the summer of 1978. A different time of year so it is unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice that back then there was heather and other plant growth around the pond edge and it is not completely trampled.
This is the same pond as discussed above – the cattle from the previous picture would be in the foreground and once again we look back across the pond, but this picture was taken far earlier during the summer of 1978 and because it is a different time of year, it would be unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice, that back then, there was a lot of heather and other plant growth around the edge of the pond and this has now completely disappeared. Back then, I wouldn’t have considered the cover quite enough for optimal diversity, but today, this habitat is quite devastated.

Behind the pond in the above picture is an area of heathland that has, for as long as I can remember, been a good environment for the small and very beautiful silver-studded blue butterfly, an extremely localised species usually confined to heathlands that have been managed to maintain short heather. This can be achieved by controlled burning, a strategy that is not popular with all conservationists because it is so indiscriminate, but done at the correct time of year may be less damaging than an accidental fire during late summer when a burn can go deep into a dry peaty surface, resulting in a recovery time of many years. Whatever the case, the 2016 pictures demonstrate that this heathland has burned recently which should provide nourishment to an otherwise poor soil and aid in the regeneration of heather, but this clearly isn’t happening here.

This habitat is no longer maintained the way it was from the 1970s through to the new Millennium, a period when I filmed the silver-studded blue on many occasions. This heathland environment has changed substantially in recent years and not for the better; today it has almost no heather in places where it once grew profusely and is beginning to turn into a lawn.

Silver studded Blue butterflies prefer short heather and there have been years when for a few short weeks the heath here has been busy with them.
Silver-studded blue butterflies prefer short heather and in a good year for a few short weeks the heathland close by the pond is usually busy with their courtship.
There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all.
There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all and in heathland close by the pond that is the ys things are going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another argument for maintaining areas of short heather is that a  handful of plant species do very well under a closely cropped grazing regime – usually small plants that are easily overwhelmed by other more robust species. However, it is common to find these  mini-botanical wonders in other places where the heather is older and denser; along the edges of well trodden pathways for example, which provides a trampled habitat approriate for their survival.

There are clearly areas where plants that are specialists of short heathland can survive without resorting to heavy grazing. Despite this I am not trying to make a case against putting livestock out altogether – I appreciate that they are an effective means of managing open Forest environments but essentially it is a matter of degree. The process should not be used simply as an excuse to graze stock without due consideration for the Forest as a whole. Sadly, the degredation I have outlined on a heathland I am familiar with can now be seen across much of the open Forest.  

Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica attended by ants on well grazed heath this.
Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica another small plant that does well on well grazed heath is attended here by ants.
Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia - just satiny and lso present today.
Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia is just so tiny and is also commonly found on grazed heathland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The present heavy grazing regime inevitably leads to the formation of lawn areas which the New Forest has no shortage of. Fewer grazers would lead to more balanced habitats with greater variations in heather maturity and the regeneration of many other plant species that have been eaten out.                            

The situation is depressing, because back in the 1960s and 70s environmentalists were already moaning about grazing pressures, and it is difficult to fathom how it is possible for things to have become so much worse. It certainly isn’t true that the Forest can’t survive without ‘commoners’ exercising their grazing rights to the present level, although in some quarters it is controversial to even hint that there is a problem.

Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.
Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.

 An argument that the New Forest pony might become extinct if numbers were reduced is a ridiculous proposition. The possibility that the breed might disappear was far more likely during the Victorian era when efforts were made to improve the ponies by adding new blood – a procedure that very nearly turned the New Forest pony into a completely different animal.

When I was filming on the Forest during the 1990s, there was a concern, that at auction, ponies were less likely to find their way to good homes in this country, and far more likely to end up on the dinner tables of the French; this was accompanied by concerns about how humane it was to transport the poor creatures alive across the English Channel for slaughter in Europe.

Don't get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony and believe that pony welfare is not best served by too many ponies on the Forest.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony, but I believe that the welfare of these animals is best served by not allowing too many out onto the Forest.

It should be remembered, that although some of us are sentimental about New Forest ponies and concerned for their welfare, there are others for whom they are just a business.

The reality is that there’s no longer a need to ride around on a pony as for a century or more most of us have been using alternative transport.  Riding a pony can be a pleasant activity, but few now wish to live in a mythological version of the Middle Ages, although on the Forest there are still those who cherish the idea, just as long as the present grazing subsidies remain intact.

New Forest heathland during the 1970s when heathlands were less heavily grazed. healthier
New Forest heathland during late summer 1988 when heathlands were less heavily grazed and consequently healthier – even back then many people thought there was room for improvement, but as always, how bad things really are is just a matter of where you measure them from.

Any  rational person might consider that lowering the present level of livestock grazing on the New Forest is fundamental to the conservation of species diversity in what is without doubt a unique combination of habitats; but despite evidence to the contrary, there is enormous opposition to any reduction of grazers and the unhindered continuance of what has become an environmentally unsound ‘right’.

Now is the time for a more balanced view and this needs to come from an independent source, in particular from people whose judgement is not clouded by the lure of subsidies and who essentially can more clearly differentiate a ‘right’ from a ‘wrong. 

With thanks to Jen for being the inside of a New Forest pony and the New Forest Visitors Centre for loaning the outside.

Next: The Overgrazing of Streamsides and Woodlands.

Elephants: Out of Africa and Out of Luck.

As a teenager I played cricket – 

that was in the 1960s. For generations during an English summer it was impossible to avoid the game, especially at school where it was considered character building to have a hard ball hit or thrown at you with sometimes lethal force.

New Zealand v England Test Match. 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out the centre the players are constantly testing the limits of what others find acceptable.
New Zealand v England Test Match 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out in the centre, players are constantly testing the limits.

Way back then, on a sunny sports enforced schoolday afternoon, I was fielding in one of those ‘dangerous’ too close to the  batsman positions that intelligent people avoid, and perhaps realising this, my sports master shouted, ‘Wake up Bolwell… pay attention!’ which was  a surprise… because I thought that I was.

Then something interesting happened – which sounds odd, because  I’m talking about cricket… Anyway, the very next delivery, the ball came hurtling down the pitch at a ferocious speed, took an outside edge off the bat and came flying in my direction at considerable speed. My natural reaction was to get out of the way, but the ‘pay attention’ comment had irritated me, and I suddenly found myself diving low to my left and somehow, managed to make the catch.  I got up from the ground with minimal fuss, and casually returned the ball to the bowler – surprisingly, I had no pain or broken fingers.

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As the batsman made his way back to the pavilion, this extraordinary dismissal received a spontaneous round of applause from all who witnessed it, and a mildly obscene expletive from my sports master who could hardly believe his eyes. The odd thing was, none of this had anything to do with me – my finest sporting moment was a reflex action – simply a case of being in the right place at the right time… which usually, I am not. Disturbingly though, when it comes to rare mass extinction events, I, along with the rest of my generation, appear to be right in the middle of one, although recently it was decided that this new period kicked off around 1950, close to the time when I was born; I’d like to think it had nothing to do with me and would prefer to push it back a little further – to the industrial revolution perhaps, or maybe even earlier, to the time when humans first began eliminating big mammals, decimating forests and pushing carbon into the atmosphere, because that’s when it really started, but go that far back, and the period already has a name. So, it has been decided we are kicking off the Anthropocene around about now –  the point at which we are destroying the Planet’s natural systems quicker than they can bounce back from our careless behaviour, and this is a far bigger game than most of us are ready to play… we can dive in any direction we like, but so far, we’ve made very little ‘difference’ to all the ‘differences’ we are making.

P1210521.FIX.©.SMALLMy initial contribution was to promote awareness by filming wildlife documentaries, but did that make any difference?… None whatsoever – other than to fool people into thinking that there are plenty of animals left and nothing to worry about. Heck, there’s still plenty of optimism out there – the sort that rats have when they are swimming for their lives in a water filled barrel, rather than face a certain future of drowning.

 Fast forward ten years from my catch of a lifetime and I’m with a film crew driving across one of the remotest parts of the Serengeti and one of our group is about to have a light hearted go at my behaviour, providing me with an opportunity to top my greatest sporting moment by being a little too smart for my own good. 

The other members of the party in Northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellet and Hugh Maynard.
The rest of the party in northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellew and Hugh Maynard.

For a week or more the four of us had been driving across this huge plain looking for wildlife to film; but this was no conventional safari along well worn tracks; we were miles from anywhere crossing a huge open expanse of dry grass, mostly just hoping to ‘not break down’. The land ran flat in every direction until it reached the sky at which point the Earth’s curvature was discernible; and when the vehicle was stationary and the engine stopped ticking, I was certain I could hear my heart beating.

P1210490.SMALLBut we’re not standing still, instead we are moving as fast as the old Land Rover will go. I’m on the back seat, reading a book, and the cameraman who is sitting up front, looks over his shoulder and says. “If you’re going to see anything, you’ll need to pay attention”. And just as with the cricket match… I thought that I was, because in this environment it is easy to read a book and regularly scan an outside world where so little is going on. Then, after my verbal shake down,  everybody went quiet, and I said very casually, ‘There’s a dead elephant on my side of the vehicle’.

Now they’ve got their binoculars going out the window and they can’t see anything… finally they decide I must be joking and we drive on. A minute or two later without looking up I say, ‘The dead elephant’s about half a mile directly to the left now’… and still they don’t see it and I’m beginning to wonder, ‘Is there really is a dead elephant out there?’ but I continue to read my very bad book whilst giving directions. Then somebody says, ‘It’s just a mound of earth’.

“It’s a dead elephant”. I persist. “if it was just dirt, it’s too spread out for a termite mound… and I don’t see any dumper trucks.” I’m really pushing my luck now, because everybody is irritated by my attitude… and the detour – so I really need a dead elephant out there somewhere because nobody likes a smart Alec.

Eventually we arrive at this spread of huge bones – they’ve been stripped clean by scavengers, but otherwise are only a little more spread out from the time when the elephant died. Robin Pellew our science advisor is an expert on giraffes, but has spent enough time on the Serengeti to know that here lie the remains of a male elephant of about 40 years of age, with no clear indication as to cause of death.

This elephant skeleton discovery occurred on the afternoon of 12th November 1979 and was not due to any personal skill on my part – I was born with good eyesight and that’s not something you can practice. Today though, imagine how remote you would have to be to stumble across a dead elephant that had been laying around undisturbed long enough for it’s bones to be stripped clean… Well, maybe not so long when you consider the size and number of scavengers on the Serengeti, but it was extraordinary to find an elephant’s skull still intact with both tusks in place, propping up the front end like some well balanced sculpture.

Apart from a few scavengers the elephant skeleton remained, more or less, in the same position as when the animal died.
Apart from scavengers moving bones, the skeleton remained more or less in the same position as when the elephant died.

I’d like to say we took some pictures and drove respectfully away, but we didn’t do that. We took some pictures and then set about smashing the front of the skull with a tyre lever to remove the tusks, which we then tied to the roof of our vehicle so that they might be delivered to Serengeti Park Headquarters, rather than left for others to find and sell into the ivory trade. The tusks were over five and a half feet long, and it’s not until you’ve tried to separate tusks from an elephant’s head that you realise just how much lies embedded in the skull – about a third – and by the time I’d finished my share of skull bashing to get them free, I didn’t feel quite as smart as I had done before we started out on the task.

Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future of the African elephants.
Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future for the African elephant.

By the end of 1979, at the time when we brought back the ivory, the African elephant’s heyday was already over; we’d been looking to film elephants during a period of heavy poaching and it is important to realise that all of us are somewhere on a timeline, and more often than not, few of us get to see the beginning or the end of a great many processes. Elephants were heavily poached from the beginning of the 1970s, and by the end of the 1980s things were much worse. Often there simply wasn’t the man power to deal with the increasing problem, and invariably the conservers were outgunned. Well organized Somalian poachers with automatic weapons began dropping down into Tanzanian parks and when they met opposition, it was poorly paid wardens attempting to protect both the elephants and themselves with old Lee Enfield rifles left over from the First and Second World Wars.

African elephants are the largest land mammals still living today, but the savannahs they inhabit are extensive, and so protecting every herd let alone every individual has proven impossible, especially taking into account the corruption that has plagued so many parts of Africa over the years, enabling the illegal killing of animals to continue despite the best efforts of conservationists.

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The message did seem to be getting through for a while and the situation for African elephants improved during the 1990s when their numbers began to rise, but this is now recognised as a blip on what has otherwise been a rapidly descending curve.

The most comprehensive aerial survey of elephants ever undertaken has recently been completed; this essential project was largely bankrolled by the philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul G Allen, and the results have provided some sobering figures that show a serious decline in the number of elephants on African savannahs. The losses are mostly down to poaching, which has become increasingly problematic in East, West and Central Africa.

A summary of elephant status over the years: http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/background-on-conservation/

Elephant populations on the savannahs of Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Elephant populations across Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Presently, there are estimated to be a little over 350,000 elephants wandering across the savannahs. But before Europeans arrived on the continent there were probably more than 25 million, and you can’t help but think how destructive our species is, when elephant populations have been so thoroughly decimated in just a few hundred years.

The Survey:  https://peerj.com/articles/2354/

When I was a small child in the 1950s it is thought that around 250 elephants were killed in Africa every day, notably at a time when African nations were gaining independence. But that’s not to imply that Africans are responsible all of the killing; for a century or more hunters have arrived from outside of the continent and paid huge sums of money for the pleasure of shooting one of nature’s greatest wonders.

P1210528.FIX.©.SMALLAs the human population of Africa increases, more land will be taken from the natural world – in particular for agricultural use. Increasingly this is a matter of life and death for elephants, because their presence is not easily tolerated close to people. By any terms elephants are destructive, and unless they have space to do their own thing, they will increasingly make regular contact with humans and come off second best. This is not a new story, elephants have always been a nuisance to people, especially when they destroy crops, and the frustration of farmers is understandable.

Unfortunately, domestic stock animals are an additional problem for conservationists, they are driven into many natural areas to graze and this presents a threat to wildlife either through direct competition, or by spreading diseases across huge areas of what was once recognised as elephant country; and even national parks seem incapable of keeping essential conservation areas free from the intrusion.

 In the developed world we destroyed most of the large mammals that competed with us centuries ago and it is a pattern that continues to repeat itself elsewhere. The process started when man became a successful co-operative hunter, took readily to  barbequeing and then agriculture. From a slow unsteady start the human population began to grow exponentially and this continues to the present day. Our population expansion is beyond natural control which has proven devastating to many other species.

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Never before has human population growth been so consequential, with many countries on the continent having a doubling time of between 35 to 50 years. Which means that if poaching stopped tomorrow, we might be asking where in any case would there be enough space, even in a place the size of Africa, to fit in the next generation of hungry elephants alongside a competing, and more likely to succeed, rapidly increasing population of Homo sapiens.

But even ignoring all of that, the biggest problem that African elephants currently face is their habit of wandering around with thousands of dollars of comparatively easy money growing out of the sides of their mouths. For millions of years, having a couple of really useful big teeth was advantageous and made elephants the biological equivalent of bulldozers with a forklift truck attachment at their front ends, but of course these front ends were never meant to be detached. Over a few tens of years really useful tusks have suddenly become a serious liability, and with a long lived slow reproducing species evolution doesn’t have any short term answers. There are no other serious predators to adult elephants, their continued survival is quite simply down to us.

A young elephant with tusks too small to attract the poachers interest - but it is only a matter of time.
Although poaching may be indiscriminate, this young elephant’s tusks shouldn’t attract too much attention – but it is only a matter of time.

It would not of course be such a problem if ivory was less desirable and so much in demand in certain key places in the world – mostly Asia. Not so long ago the Japanese found ivory invaluable for making seals  as personal signatures. In Europe ivory carvings were imported from the Far East, which is the home of traditional ivory carving. This material has also been a popular inlay and widely used to embellish instruments, most  famously piano keys – in Britain piano players were once said to be ‘tickling the ivories’. Today however the market is centred in China, and Vietnam where skilled craftsmen still carve ivory to supply both the home and world markets, and it remains available on the black market even in countries where the sale of ivory is now illegal.

Even carved elephants - these coming out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s carry ivory tusks, although in many cases bone is substituted for tusks.
Even carved elephants – these came out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s, carried ivory tusks, although in many cases carved animal bone was substituted.

Culturally it has been easier to persuade the Western world that they don’t need ivory than is the case in the East where the problems elephants face has been slow to be recognized. There are few places in Europe where people remain unaware that poaching ivory is bad news for elephants – and really… how long does it take to come to that conclusion? A partial ban on ivory has existed in the U.S.A. since June 1989, but it was not until June 2016 that an almost total ban came into law – better late than never I suppose.

Once upon a time ivory was a status symbol in Europe and North America, but attitudes are changing, and increasingly the general ownership of ivory is considered to be in bad taste. It has over the years simply been a matter of education to persuade people that the best place for ivory is at the front end of an elephant on either side of its trunk.

The old and the new generation - hopefully going somewhere.
The old and the new generation – hopefully going somewhere.

 In China the carving of African elephant ivory and rhino horn along with its use in Chinese medicine are still ‘culturally significant’; and it takes time to eliminate anything that comes under that heading. The horrors that have been committed in the name  of God and the ‘culturally significant’, are, sadly, too numerous to mention.

Chinese authorities have recently been campaigning against the use of ivory. Even Jackie Chan has spoken out on the subject of ivory poaching and he’s probably made a difference. I was never sure why I liked Jackie Chan, but now there is a very good reason. 

Back in 2014 WildAid surveyed China’s three largest cities to gauge changes in attitude towards poaching and the ivory trade, making comparisons with a previous 2012 survey. In 2014 just over 70% of participants thought that elephant poaching was a problem; well up on the ‘a little over’ 45% figure from 2012. An increase of over 50% for the enlightened view, which at least offers encouragement that attitudes can change.

For more details of the survey: http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/resources/Print_Ivory%20Report_Final_v3.pdf

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An online survey also found that 95% of respondents supported an ivory ban, but the key word here is ‘respondents’ – I wonder if those who responded were more likely to do so because of their positive view. I also wonder about the sample size, 1500 people – 500 hundred from each city, doesn’t seem a very big sample considering the millions of people living in these centres of high population.  Whatever the surveys are telling us to sweeten the pill, there is still a significant amount of ivory being traded, and elephant numbers continue to plummet. Time is running out. Personally I don’t get too excited about surveys, preferring instead to put emphasis on results. The answer might be to just stop trading with any country where people continue to deal in endangered animal parts as a matter of course, even if in the mistaken belief that such items have medicinal value, when scientific evidence demonstrates that they do not.

Presently, there are many people trading in endangered animals and body parts with impunity, and the rarer an animal becomes the higher the price gets, which only adds to its appeal. Education is one thing, but taking on ‘the money’ is never considered a realistic option and all too often ends up in the ‘too hard basket'; but now it really is far too late in the day to dither, because  if nothing changes in the near future, we will all soon be saying ‘goodnight Jumbo’.

The obvious answer is a two pronged attack, education across all social groups whilst also taking out those who trade at the top end of the market where the profit margins are the highest  – but of course those involved in taking the largest profits don’t like that idea at all, and won’t be going without considerable resistance.

African elephants are kept species, when they pass an acacia seed in their droppings or push over a tree to get at the leaves, they are instrumental in creating the environment they and a great many other animals live in.
African elephants are a key species, whether passing out acacia seeds in their droppings or pushing over a tree to get at the leaves – they are instrumental in shaping an environment for both themselves and many other animals.

At the end of the day the obvious problem remains – until African elephants are worth more to people living in Africa alive than they are dead, the decline will continue, because the corruption that maintains the present situation is going to be a juggernaut to stop.

2016-09-03-0015.FIX2.SMALLWithout doubt – the answer lies in persuading people that paying good money for ivory is stupid, and if that idea could be wedged into peoples brains then the ivory trade would be finished. The solution, if there is one, isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Or should that be ‘a stroll across the Serengeti’… I’ve  tried that, and it’s not so easy. I’ve also done my fair share of filming and photography – it has made very little difference.

We know how wonderful elephants are – but nothing that we are presently doing is  saving them. Perhaps if I was still living in England I’d say that the continued persecution of elephants ‘just isn’t cricket’ – but a sense of fair play isn’t going to get us anywhere in the face of almost insurmountable greed and mind blowing ignorance, and as always… more than a fair share of plain stupidity.

Hummingbirds – They’re Almost as ‘Big’ as Africa!

I was out in the garden yesterday

trying to convince plants to grow when I was buzzed by a drone – an exceedingly stealthy one. I didn’t see it, but certainly I heard it, hovering behind my head before making off at speed.

My wife sitting in a nearby lounger was able to make a more realistic observation – I was standing on the flight path of a rufous hummingbird, a creature weighing no more than a spoonful of sugar… it was attempting to visit a bee balm flower. Not quite a drone then, but even the most technically advanced machinery can’t come close to the manouvreability of a hummingbird - this the only bird that can fly backwards due to some fairly unique muscle structures that control the wings… wings that can quickly carry them from a standing start to a top speed of 30 m.p.h.. Right now the brain of a tiny bird easily outstrips anything human technology can achieve, but who knows, maybe one day?

The odd thing about rufous hummingbirds is just how noisy they can be as they fly past you, their wing feathers thrumming loudly as air rushes through them and usually the first indication that the birds are around. They can also be quite vociferous with their repetitive vocal clicking – usually directed at other birds but also sometimes at me, when I’m standing in the wrong place! 

The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila - hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you'd still be thinking 'wow'!
The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila – hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you’d still be thinking ‘wow’!

My most recent hummingbird encounter is one of many; thinking back to earlier wildlife filming trips when I first started coming out to the Americas,  there was hardly a visit when I didn’t see one. Living as I now do in the Vancouver area doesn’t provide a huge hummingbird species count, but I’m just happy to be seeing them right through the year. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, only Africa would get a higher rating, and yes, I do get how odd it is to make a comparison between a large continent and a small bird.

Hummingbirds are a New World species that most likely originated in South America; these ever resourceful birds can now be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

A native Zuni hummingbird on yucca flower - New Mexico. Their is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbird are bringers of water and a stoppers of time and if you've ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, that's how it seemss - for a moment time is standing still - the bird stationary in flight with only the wings a blur.
A native Zuni hummingbird on a yucca flower – New Mexico. There is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbirds are bringers of water and stoppers of time and if you’ve ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, there are moments when time appears to stand still – the bird stationary with wings ablur.

When my family and I first arrived in Canada we had only a balcony to attract wildlife and so we put up a bird feeder – a big cedar provided an agreeable background which like so many trees in Canadian gardens was attempting to take over the whole plot. My bird photography was going well, then one day to my surprise a hummingbird showed up and started licking at the peanuts and we responded by putting a hummingbird feeder in place. Soon after a family of Anna’s hummingbirds were regular visitors – there was an adult male, a female and three youngsters… each sibling completely intolerant of the others, aggressively buzzing their brothers or sisters whenever they started to feed. They seemed to have a real attitude problem, but that’s a very human response – all they are really doing is ‘grabbing’ at their best chance of survival.

A young Anna's hummingbird making use of the feeder.
A young Anna’s hummingbird making use of our feeder with red Christmas ribbon getting a second outing tied around the feeder as a visual cue for the birds.

The next year, I’m guessing it was the same pair of adults that showed up again and things went much the same way as they had done the previous year. The fall came and the rufous hummingbirds I had seen feeding in the park moved on, but I left the feeder out for stragglers… and then something interesting happened, the Anna’s hummingbird just kept coming and continued to do so right through the winter and this surprised me.

An immature male Anna's Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.
An immature male Anna’s Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.

This never got old -

you’d be washing up on another desperately miserable day, and this beautiful bird would suddenly appear and hover just a few feet infront of your face – eliciting a feel good factor much appreciated in the middle of winter – these seemingly delicate creatures just the other side of a kitchen window in conditions that a human would not so easily deal with if they gave up on the chores and walked out of the back door.

A more recent picture of a female Anna's hummingbird on our garden feeder on 4th. February 2017 when around 14  inches of snow had fallen.
A recent picture of a female Anna’s hummingbird on our garden feeder on the 4th. February 2017 when around 14 inches of snow had fallen.

Early one frosty morning I noticed a hummingbird working the nectar feeder at a really odd angle, and I soon realized that it was cold enough (at about -7ºC) for the sugar water in the container to freeze and make feeding a problem. From then on I would check every morning before doing anything else and thaw out the enegy drink whenever it was necessary. We were soon to move house and my first thought was that we couldn’t leave during the winter because the local hummingbirds had become reliant on the high energy food we were providing.

A wet cold winters day and two hummers shelter under the eave of the roof.
On our balcony the Anna’s hummingbirds that hung out with us through winter would perch under the eaves on and old seed block container to sit out a downpour.

Our winter feeding Anna’s hummingbirds would get a jump start on  potential nesting sites when they moved further north the following spring, and some might travel as far north as Alaska – a neighbour told me that it was proven that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese, although I’m not quite sure which nursery rhyme she got that one from! 

A rufous hummingbird.
The record distance travelled by a hummer during migration is presently held by a rufous hummingbird at a little over 3,500 miles. 

Living on the Edge.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.

It was a surprise to see hummingbirds waiting out winter in difficult conditions at the back of our house and I began to wonder how these little birds managed to survive so many cold nights when it was clear their feathers provided very little insulation.

The answer to this question sounds more like science fiction than science fact: each cold night the birds endure a near death experience; an evolutionary adaptation of their metabolic system which provides them with an extreme solution to an almost insurmountable problem.

They are able to survive falling temperatures by going into a form of suspended animation which parallels the Zuni claim that hummingbirds can slow down time. For the birds it is as if life is standing still; their existence hanging on a thread as they become hypothermic and go into torpor, with body temperatures dropping well below their active daytime body temperatures which are usually maintained at over 100˚ F.

After a cold night, it takes a while for hummingbirds to come back from the dead, and  they do so by vibrating muscles in a similar manner to a moth or bumblebee generating heat before taking off from a cold start. Then it’s a race to find food; there are no lazy hummingbirds, individuals get busy as soon as their flight muscles will allow and quickly begin searching for food just to stay alive. 

Spectacular in hovering flight a rufous hummingbird.
A rufous hummingbird – spectacular in hovering flight.

Small warm blooded animals have a large surface area in relation to their body mass, which means they lose heat far more quickly than do larger animals; in consequence hummingbirds are continually seeking out  food, living fast food lifestyles without the downside of obesity.  

Hummingbirds are exceptional in many ways:

they can achieve the highest heartbeat of any animal when fully active – at about 500 beats per second; and have the ability to convert sugar into energy far more quickly than any other warm blooded animal with adaptations to the digestive system that allow for rapid absorption of liquid sugars. The gizzard/stomach is comparatively large in relation to the bird’s size and the solution can pass quickly into the hummingbird’s intestine facilitating the generation of energy in a very short space of time. Hummingbirds however cannot survive entirely on the sugary juices provided by flowers and bird feeders, they require proteins gained from searching out invertebrates such as insects and spiders; this is necessary for growth and essential metabolic functions, and especially important during the rearing of offspring.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.
Hummingbirds can metabolise sugars very quickly converting an early morning intake of nectar into useful energy within about 20 minutes which is essential for their survival.

A Bit Flash

The skin, hair and feathers of most animals are usually made up of pigmented surfaces that absorb some light wavelengths and reflect others which we see as colour.  Hummingbirds also have the advantage of irridescent plumage which is made all the more noticeable with sudden flashes of bright colour. 

At a particular angle or in poor light the irridescent throat of this male Anna's hummingbird is not clearly differentiated.
At a particular angle, or in poor light, the irridescent throat of this male Anna’s hummingbird is not so clearly differentiated.

Irridescent feathers have a different structure from non-iridescent feathers which allows light to be refracted rather than reflected back; the process occurs at different levels in the feather and the light combination results in irridescence – some wavelengths combine and cancel one another out, while others combine and intensify the colours we see. The angle that light hits the feathers and our view point results in us seeing bright flashes of intense colour as the bird moves.

At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat which most likely attacts the attention of their partner or a potential mate.
At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat that might attact the attention of a partner, or confuse a potential predator.

The great thing about hummingbirds is that you don’t have to go far to see them.

In the summer of 2014 I spent a week photographing rufous hummingbirds coming to feed on bee balm flowers in our local public gardens not far from the house. It was clear that when we had a garden of our own we might easily plant appropriate flowers to attract the birds in, and anybody living in the Americas can do the same.  I noticed the birds had feeding patterns – early in the morning was best if the light was good, because they were eager to get started and the flowers were brimming with nectar. Young birds had recently come off the nest and I had to be quick to get shots of them because the siblings were very competitive over this small patch of food scrapping and chasing one another relentlessly. 

A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee-balm flowers.
A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee balm flowers during the spring of 2014.

Hummingbirds do well feeding in small gardens, but sadly they have to run the gauntlet of urban cats. This isn’t a favourite subject for some cat owners who are in denial about what their cats really get up to once out of doors. Domestic cats kill more hummingbirds in North America than any other predator, and by a large margin so it makes sense for those who wish to attract wild birds into their gardens not to keep one.

Flying between low flowering plants presents a danger to hummingbirds from predators such as cats which are out of all proportion to predator numbers in a natural environment.
Flying between low flowering garden plants, hummingbirds are in danger of predation by cats and they are killed in numbers out of all proportion to predators in a natural environment.

Going South

When we lived in New Zealand I created a native wildlife garden from scratch and it didn’t take long to realise that the key to success in attracting native birds was improved pest control, available nesting sites, and the provision of appropriate food plants. Coming from Europe, nectar feeding birds were a novelty and so we were especially keen to attract in the honeyeaters – these members of the Meliphagidae family which includes tuis and bellbirds, species that were almost non-existent in our garden when we arrived in 2002, but prolific by the time we left in 2010.

This feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009. Only a few years earlier this had been sheep pasture.
Young tuis feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009 on what only a few years earlier had been sheep pasture.
Tuis are nectar feeders, great birds, but they don't quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.
Nectar feeding tuis are  great birds, but they don’t quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.

Today, our New Zealand neighbours are woken by a dawn chorus of native birds, something that would have been unthinkable on our bird silent property when we arrived. The native garden not only provides an important energy source in the form of nectar for birds, it also feeds many insects which provide the honeyeaters with their essential proteins – and the same is true for hummingbirds in the Americas.

Planting a rich nectar source in a garden is a no brainer, but it must be done withouth the use of toxic insecticides, which in any case shouldn’t be necessary if a garden is busy with insectivorous birds.

See ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep.’

Mexico

Getting going in the morning isn't such a problem if you live in Mexico!
Getting going in the morning isn’t such a problem if you live in a tropical region of Mexico!

 A recent trip to Mexico provided us with a chance to see a variety of hummingbirds that we never get in Canada, and at the start of the rainy season there was no shortage of opportunities to observe them. With that intention we spent several days in Vallarta Botanical Gardens, a place so packed with flowers, it fulfils an important secondary purpose supplying energy to nectar feeders.

A cinnamon Hummingbird getting angry about someting or other.
A cinnamon hummingbird getting angry with just about anything that came close to him.

Outside of the gardens in the surrounding environment it was possible to see the occasional hummingbird, but in the gardens where there was a super-source of food, there were dozens to be observed through the course of a day with very little effort.

Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.
Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.

 If the loss of natural habitats continues at the present rate, gardens and reserves may provide the best chance of survival for many species of plants and small animals. Certainly hummingbird nesting habitat is rapidly disappearing and although a great garden surrounded by protected woodland and scrub isn’t a longterm solution, until we wake up to the problems of habitat loss and instigate a more harmonious relationship with nature, it is the sort of place that will help and, in the end, may prove essential. 

Vallarta Botanical Gardens - seldom have I felt more comfortable - it was the the beginning of the rainy season busy with my favourite birds - this a broad-billed hummingbird Cynanthus latirostris.
A broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris feeding. 

Seldom have I felt more comfortable than in Vallarta Botanical Gardens at the beginning of the rainy season when it is busy hummingbirds.

A restaurant on the top floor of the visitors centre provides great margaritas and fine Mexican food; it also offers stunning views, not just over the river and surrounding forest, but closer to the balcony rail there are hummingbird feeders that are constantly busy.

One of the hummingbird feeders that never seemed to be short of visitors.
One of the Vallarta Botanical Garden busy hummingbird feeders – this one with perches for lazy hummers – but why fly if you can sit!?
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder gets refilled with 'liquid energy'.
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder is being refilled with ‘liquid energy’.

One thing I saw in the garden I’d never seen before was hummingbirds feeding on bromeliads. the botanic garden has an extensive collection and it is difficult to know which plant will be getting the next visit. My wife Jen acted as a spotter, which is very considerate with afternoon temperatures pushing past 100ºF.

A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the garden.
A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the botanic garden.

On returning to B.C. we quickly discover that there is little change in our local weather since we left, but despite less than ideal conditions, hummingbirds were still visiting our garden flowers.

We moved to our new house in the spring of 2015 and almost before I did anything else I was putting in  plants with flowers attractive to the hummers and it didn’t taken long for rufous hummingbirds to find them – this year the flower count is higher and the rufous are now here feeding on a daily basis. Maybe we will get to stage where we don’t stop whatever we are doing to marvel at their extrordinary beauty and stunning aerial ability… but so far, there seems to be no chance of that happening.

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I will continue to take pictures of hummingbirds wherever I see them. If you have local birds that are easily captured on camera then please do the same – keeping a pictorial record of species whenever possible is essential because we can never be certain how much longer they will be with us; even if it were true that every time a hummingbird arrives – time stands still.

With thanks to Vallarta Botanical Gardens. www.vbgardens.org

Wildlife Photography in 20 Cubic Metres of Mexico.

The patch of forest I’m about to take pictures in is about an hours drive south of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico in the Bay of Banderas.

Selecting a site to take nature pictures isn’t always easy, especially in tropical and sub-tropical forests where lush plant growth limits the chances of a clear view; there is nothing quite so infuriating as hearing a bird close by and not being able to see it. The second problem with dense leaf cover is the limitation on light, which can inhibit making good exposures adding yet another layer of complexity to working in the woods.

When the canopy gets dense there is less light. On the walk I am about to take I will see interesting birds like this golden-cheeked woodpecker showing off his punk hairdo. Light is coming in from above, but very little is reflected back onto the subject - there is consequently a lot of backlight to deal with, but here it works nicely, demonstrrating that it isn't always necessary to take the obvious route of frontal flashlight photography. Some say, that if you do it properly, you don't notice?  But of course,  if you're really looking... you do, but In our own minds we can believe anything we want.
 On the walk I am about to take I will see interesting birds like this golden-cheeked woodpecker as he shows off his punk hairdo. When the canopy is dense, less light gets in and it comes from above and very little is reflected back onto the subject and from the ground most will be backlight, but here the effect works nicely, demonstrating that it isn’t always necessary to be so obvious as to resort to flash photography. Some say, that if you do it right, nobody will notice -but of course you do if you are really looking. It goes without saying, that in our own minds we can believe whatever we want to.

It is now only about three and a half hours before my wife and I will take a taxi to the airport and reluctantly fly out of Mexico, which means I need to optimise my chances of getting a handful of wildife pictures in the limited time available, and this is how I’ve chosen to do it.

I’m walking to a site that is approximately half an hour from our hotel, which is a little further out from the ones that most tourists stay in, centred as they are on the main beach resorts which don’t usually have such ready access into the forest as the one we are staying in.

The local forest isn't pristine wilderness, but the further you walk up the hill away from agriculture and the local village, the more natural things become.
Most habitats that are close to humans are  no longer pristine, but the further I walk up the hill away from the local village and its agriculture, the more natural things begin to look. This is tropical dry forest, but during the rainy season the distinction isn’t quite so apparent.

It is now after 10.00 a.m., but I’m not overly concerned by a late start because an overnight rainstorm has continued into the morning, and earlier, the light was poor. The suggestion that you have to be up and out before the crack of dawn to see wildlife is a myth as it very much depends on where you are and what you are hoping to see. 

On open plains early morning and evening are key times for animal activity.
On the flat open East African plains early morning and evening  are ideal times to observe and photograph wildlife.

In flat open places getting out early makes sense; the light can be dramatic and provide more interesting photos, but in forest, there is sometimes an advantage to moving out a little later; you may not see as many birds as you would have earlier in the day, but then you probably wouldn’t have had enough light to photograph them anyway. All is not lost by waiting until after breakfast when sun dependent species such as reptiles and butterflies are usually more frequently seen, and I’m hoping to photograph some of these today before heading back to eat, shower and make our pre 4.00 p.m. departure time.

I follow a dirt road along the river, heading into the hills and stop close by a swimming hole, where the forest opens out. There is seldom anybody here before mid-day during the week, and at the edge of the forest good light is available. The river is only about 20 meteres down a rocky slope – this proximity to water ups the species count and overnight rain has freshened everything up.

After rain, the varied greens of the forest are often intensified.
After rain, the varied greens of leaf growth intensify in sunlight, but futher up in the hills the forest remains hidden beneath a steaming mist.

Because time is limited I will remain in one place, moving no more than 20 metres in any direction and for most of the time I’ll be standing still, hoping to photograph anything that passes through. Looking up into the canopy visibility is limited and this combined with my self imposed range esentially confines any activity to an approximate 20 cubic metres.

This is secondary forest and sometimes what appears to be natural… isn’t. There is a well established mango tree close by, but this isn’t a species native to Mexico. Mango arrived during the early 19th Century by a circuitous route from its native land of South Asia, and the ancestors of this tree probably started out in Burma or eastern India.

The river next to my chosen 20 metre cube is beautiful.
The river next to my chosen site of activity is quite beautiful.

For several hundred years it has been difficult to guarantee that what you see in a forest really belongs there because we have a tendancy to transport plants with agreeable fruits from one place to another, and we move many other plants that can be utilised for other purposes e.g. trees for timber and rubber plants for rubber, along with a wide range of plants that we just find visually pleasing.

A great many species have been moved to where we think they will grow best and a lot have colonised their new surroundings as successful plants tend to do. I’d prefer to photograph a native animal feeding on a native tree, but if an interesting bird shows up and starts ripping into the fruit above me, I won’t be ignoring it. 

Trees at the edge of the forest are sometimes interlopers especially in agricultural areas.
Trees at the edge of the forest are sometimes interlopers, especially in agricultural areas.

I have visited this location three times over the past week, and have a fair idea of what shows up. Yesterday evening I noticed some fruit had been dropping – a ripening that can be attractive to many birds and insects – one fallen fruit has been cleanly sliced, possibly by a beak, and I suspect parrots have been feeding here recently. There is very little sign of bird droppings, but as the fruit is only just ripening, visits may have only just started. Where rivers cut through the forest we’ve seen noisey flocks of parrots flying along the corridors they create, but I’ve not yet managed to photograph any birds, and it is perhaps a little hopeful to think that I might do so in the limited time left to me, but nevertheless, it is one of the reasons I’ve returned to this spot.

In most cases standing in one place on the off chance that something might pass through is a waste of time – waiting requires logic and reasoning, unless of course you think this is going to be your lucky day; with a limited number of heartbeats available to each of us it is perhaps better to make decisions based on observation rather than gamble time away.

Fruits and seeds on the forest floor are often a good indication that interesting might visit the canopy above.
Fruits and seeds on the forest floor are often a good indication that interesting visitors might be coming into the canopy above.

Ripe fruit and seeds are powerful attractors, but to photograph nectar feeders and pollinators it is necessary to seek out flowers.

Hummingbirds in particular utilise flowers colour.
Hummingbirds rely on recognizing a flower’s colour.

It is not essential to know what species they are – anything with bright colours is good, although many insects utilize ultra-violet and don’t see colours the way we do.

A strong scent is another indication that flowers are attempting to attract pollinators and there is nothing to be gained by waiting beside a plant that is wind pollinated – such flowers can be plentiful but are often small with muted colours, however very few wind-pollinated plants will show up in the lower section of a forest where still conditions make the process impractictical.

 

There is no magic to being in the right place at the right time; the signs are usually obvious; it is just a question of clocking up the plus points to optimise the chances of seeing an interesting animal. Careful observation also opens up the opportunity of learning something new, and in tropical forests there’s a real chance of photographing a species that hasn’t been recorded before.

Almost in paradise!
Almost in paradise!

In a previous post I mentioned that Mexico has a litter problem, but for the most part I’ll conveniently ignore the rubbish pile that is increasing by the day about 10 metres to my right in what in all other respects is paradise. Instead, I’ll do what I’ve done so often before when filming wildlife – point the camera in a direction of whatever accentuates the positive and minimises the negative. Positivity is generally highly regarded – our brains like that sort of thing – but there is a time and a place for everything, and if we continue to ignore the terrible state of many natural environments, we must do so at our peril: our negligence has now reached epidemic proportions. T.V. wildilfe documentaries in particular continue to lull us into a false sense of security – buoying  us up on a tide of beautiful pictures, until we pretty much believe that everything is going to be alright, when the truth is… it really isn’t.

Whether this edge of the forest will remain intact for another ten years is open to question because development for tourism is rampant and almost everything is up for grabs if the money is right.

I said that I would avoid litter, but once you are taking pictures on the ground it can be difficult.
It is impossible to avoid the ‘L’ word once down in the leaf litter because alien litter is everywhere. 

When taking photographs I am often a lone Englishman amongst local people. Presently, there are very few tourists around because it is the start of the rainy season – a discouraging period for sun seekers, but there are also those too frightened to come out of the resorts into Mexico proper because news reports back home suggest that they might be kidnapped and held for ransom. In most out of the way places here nothing could be further from the truth. Mexicans are a friendly and courteous people and it is safer walking out in this location than it is in many parts of the U.K.. You might feel especially safe visiting the Isle of Wight in the South of England, but if you cross Southampton water and wander along the sea wall in the old town of Portsmouth on a hot summers afternoon when the local lads have been drinking it might be another story. And then of course there’s Syria…Everything is relative.

A couple of days ago, I saw and photgraphed a  pair of basilisk lizards basking on rocks only a few feet from where I am presently standing, the sun was intense and I didn’t manage any really good pictures, so I’m on the look out for the lizards again.  There was one here yesterday evening sat on a rock in the river and he did a really good job of avoiding having his picture taken.

This pair of basilisks remained together for some time, largely ignoring me as I didn't get too close and went only when their chosen sight went into shadow. rock.
This pair of basilisk lizards largely ignored me because I didn’t get too close. I photographed them on a tripod using a 400mm lens with a long exposure at f32 to optimise depth of field, and made the best of things by focusing on a point between the two, which has worked. The slow exposure wasn’t a problem because they might just as well have been one of the rolling statue exhibits on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – they remained completely still and only moved when their chosen basking site went into shadow.

Today, there is a sizeable iguana close by the rock where the baselisks were playing at statues a couple of days ago and is keeping a warey eye on me. I get close enough for a  picture on the 400 mm without causing any disturbance and get lucky with some fairly even light – I wait for a cloud to partially obscure the sun – the exposure still looks like a full sun exposure but really it isn’t – the contrast has just dropped enough not to blast out the highlights on the rock (our brains are better at compensating for extremes of light than a camera and so we make images in photography work to fit that, and  this situation might encourage some to even things out by using flash, but I never do that, although I will admit to sometimes bouncing light back onto a subject using a reflector, but not today – this is as near to our brains reality as a photograph can get.

I've seen this iguana before, the last time he was more cautious, observing me by poking his head up from behind a rock.
I’ve seen this iguana before, but the last time out he was more cautious, observing me in peek a boo fashion, poking his head up over the rocks.

There are now several butterflies taking turns to sit out on twigs and leaves right infront of me – they do so one at a time, until a sitter takes flight to interact with another flying over and then returns to land indicating that these are probably territorial males. I take loads of pictures, few of which are any good as these butterflies don’t remain in place for very long. I’m never going to capture a shot of an individual with its wings open, as might have been possible earlier in the day (so much for a late start being no problem!). It is now well over a hundred degrees F and all sit with their wings closed, orientating to minimise their surface areas to the sun which aids in the regulation of their body temperatures.

I managed only one decent picture of this butterfly - but one is all you need. I have no idea why so many of the others failed, but then digital images come cheap and its worth taking more than I might have done if I were still using expensive film, especially as I live thousands of miles away and am unlikely to be passing by this way anytime soon.
I managed only one decent picture of this butterfly a simple checkerspot. Chlosyne h. hippodrome – but one is all you need. I have no idea why so many other pictures have failed, but digital images come cheap and its worth taking more than I might have done back when I was using expensive film, especially as I live thousands of miles away and am unlikely to be passing by this way anytime soon.

While I’ve been absorbed in butterfly behaviour a bird I’ve never seen before lands on a branch straight ahead of me and it would be difficult not to have noticed the flash of lemon that signals the upfront arrival of this bird. Usually I am careful to move slowly so as not to frighten a twitchy bird and sometimes it is a toss up between not missing the shot and not moving too fast, but I know by this birds confident posture that it isn’t likely to leave anytime soon; it moves its head from side to side, holds each pose for a time to provide full opportunity for a variety of shots, and I begin to wonder if it has shown up with the expectation of being fed.

A great kisadee shows up and sits right infont of me. This is not a rare bird, but none the less startlingly impressive - probably because I've never seen one before.
A great kisadee sits right infont of me. This is not a rare bird, but none the less it is startlingly impressive – probably because I’ve never seen one before.

 Then I hear the parrots, a large flock have just crashed into the tree above me and I know they are feeding on the fruit, because all sorts of stuff is dropping out of the tree. Their noise is raucous and continuous as they bash about in the upper branches, but I can’t see a single bird – it’s very frustrating. I move about a little in order to get a view of at least one, but the leaf cover is dense and I see absolutely nothing. After a few minutes the flock moves forward into an adjacent tree and now I get a glimpse of this tumbling sprawl of birds, with one group flying a few feet and then landing, followed by another, then another, until the first group moves forwards again… and so on.

I move with them fearing that they will keep going beyond my range, but then I get lucky, they land and settle in a tree  – the forest looks natural but for some reason a wire fence runs down between me and the tree ending about 25 metres before the river leaving a walkway through at the top of the rocks wide enough for me to walk through with the gear. The parrots are now settled and preening and are going to be there for some time – if they hadn’t moved I’d have shot everything within 10 cubic metres, but they’ve doubled my range. I’m ducking this way and that trying to get a clear view of one or other of the preening groups. I settle on three that are squashed close together and watch as one or other offers a head for a group head preen; now the one in the centre is swinging under the bough and nibbling at another’s claw – the other two are engaged in preening themselves and frequently bury their heads so deeply ito their wing feathers that they appear headless – it is difficult enough getting shots through the branches, without two of the birds appearing decapitate for 80% of the time.

It's the Marx Brothers after Zeppo the one who wan't funny no longer appeared on screen, and now they are in full colour.
It’s the Marx Brothers after Zeppo (the one who wasn’t funny) left the group. Now their act is in glorious colour.

Add to this the lack of light and my rapid uprating of the ASA and I am dubious about the grain on the pictures I am taking, but there are now several groups of birds partially clear of the foliage, and so I just keep taking pictures until I run out of memory on my card and then replace it with one which is also part filled and soon I have to take a third card from another camera in order to keep going, I know I should take some flash pictures but resist the temptation. I don’t have a top of the range camera, and it can be slow and I don’t want to have wait for it to load up as well as recharge for the flash. I just keep taking pictures as quickly as I can -other than being in the right place, there is no skill required to do any of this.

These are orange-fronted parakeets, despite their name they look more parrot than parakeet.
These are orange-fronted parakeets; despite their name they look more like parrots to me than the long tailed parakeets I have become used to seeing over the years… But then what do I know?

I once rescued a parrot from a pet shop that looked a bit like these, although his head and wing markings were slightly different. Wally was, I think, a white-fronted Amazon, but he probably never saw the river because most likely he was captive bred. This was a bird pining for his owner – an older gentleman who had recently died; he wasn’t eating and pretty soon he would become ‘a late parrot'; so, for a time I took him everywhere with me, even allowing him to sit on my shoulder as I drove the car… don’t try that though, it’s probably illegal and certainly a distraction to other drivers. Slowly Wally came out of his depression and began eating again; once he was feeling better it was as if he’d suddenly remembered that he was at the centre of the Universe. Key words would set him off and he’d start raucously screaching a repeat of things you said whilst bobbing about madly; when you laughed, he laughed. It was cyclical hilarity and often became hysterical. Then one day he met my father and it was love at first sight, he would do little dances turning this way and that, and then flash his wings to impress him…  and soon they moved in together and Wally would become very bad tempered when they were seperated – perhaps my father reminded him of his previous owner. I don’t advocate keeping parrots, but completely understand why people want to do it.

I see another pair of parrots in good light and start taking shots of them… then a single parrot is wandering about in even better light and grab a picture as he walks along a branch.

A single parrot moves into the light, and I get a picture before it dissolves into branches and leaves.
A single parrot moves into the light, and I get a quick picture before he dissolves once more into branches and leaves – in both senses of the word.

The parrots hang around for about twenty minutes before they start moving on. The three break up and then there are two, now too far apart to frame together comfortably. I take this as a sign to give up and get on back down the road to eat by the pool with my wife and take a shower while she organises a taxi which she manages before I’ve cleared the room of luggage. Once again it’s about heartbeats and we aren’t wasting any of them.

Within the hour we are in an air-conditioned airport which seems a million miles from the green encompassing humidity of the morning where wringing wet I could hardly see for the salt in my eyes as I strained my head back and I manoeuvred my tripod to keep a small group of parrots in frame. Parrots that were completely indifferent to my presence, and if it weren’t for the pictures I’d be tempted to think I’d simply dreamt the whole thing up. It was fabulous. There is something agreeable about not being part of it – I was there, but for all the difference it made, it was as if I hadn’t been there at all. In twenty years time it might be interesting to return and see how much of paradise remains, by then it might be neck deep in litter or a hotel complex with the name ‘The orange-fronted Parakeet’ although of course there will be no sign of anything resembling a parrot apart from a relief picture on the wall because ironically, we have a habit of destroying the very things that we think we care most about.

With thanks to my friend Dr Mathew Cock for confirming and identifying my Mexican butterfly pictures without whose help some of my images might well have been misidentified. 

 

The New Forest – Living in the Past With Lots of Litter.

For most of my life I lived close by the New Forest in Hampshire and have always considered it special, because although busy with visitors during summer, it has remained an important haven for wildlife as the surrounding countryside has steadily urbanised.

The New Forest looks natural, but in reality it is heavily managed, and with increasing pressures from both inside and out, some say that it is no longer the place that it once was – but people have been saying that for generations. A more considered analysis suggests, that it is just a question of how far back you want to go before you start moaning about what you think has changed.

In many ways this is a notoriously conservative area, stuck architecturally somewhere between the Middle Ages and the early 20th Century. The Forest certainly isn’t noted for its modern energy saving buildings and panoramic views across the heath, because few such places exist.

It is difficult to make the case for modernity, when there are cottages as beautiful as this one near Lyndhurst. I am guessing it was named Bee Hive Cottage because of the similarity of the thatch over the door to a traditional straw beehive.
New Forest cottages are often small utilitarian buildings and not many are as beautiful as this one close to the main town of Lyndhurst. Its name Beehive Cottage might have something to do with the thatch over the door which is not dissimilar to a traditional straw beehive.

There has been very little movement beyond Edwardian  times, apart that is, from the traffic – almost everything else appears to have stalled around 1910, and ‘being there’ sometimes feels more like a museum or theme park experience than any modern reality… and this is unlikely to change now that the New Forest has become a National Park because Britain’s National Parks seem habitually locked into some imaginary idyl of the past. But then that’s essentially what us Brits do best – don’t you know?  We look back fondly and say, ‘things were better back then’ – which of course is little more than delightful delusion. 

The creation of the New Forest landscape is down to management with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock but its scenic beauty is not in question.
The creation of the New Forest landscape is very much down to management, with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock, not that this detracts from its scenic beauty.

I once considered buying a house in the Forest, but was put off by the crumbling mud wall of an outbuilding that had to remain exactly as it was for historical reasons, along with a rusting tin roof that on no account could be replaced by something more appropriate; such exacting attention to detail can only have heighten my appreciation that the Forest is at least genuinely old.

A Brief History of The New Forest.

In the past the Forest was often referred to as ‘a furzey waste’ (meaning gorse covered) a term that goes back well before 1079 – the year the New Forest was designated a royal hunting ground, primarily to provide Norman kings with somewhere to pursue and kill deer which appears to have been their favoured leisure activity. Having fun was often unsophisticated and violent; and back then, the notion of ‘fun’ didn’t feature in many people’s lives. If for example you were a peasant trying to make a meagre living off of the Forest, and got caught killing a deer to feed your family, the penalty could be the loss of a hand, and in a worse case scenario, an unpleasant hanging.

Even kings didn’t have it all their own way. On 22nd of August 1100 King William (Rufus) – the son of William Conqueror – was hit in the chest by an arrow and killed outright. There is a stone to commemorate the event, although even the briefest of research indicates that this was no more than an 18th Century vanity project, and the original site remains to this day, uncertain.

Beauileu Road pony sales some time during the 1990s, but that doesn't really matter - not a lot has changed over the years apart from ladies hairstyles. It was just such a local named Purkis that found and hauled the kings body to Winchester. Purchase is a local name and until fairly recently there was a butchers shop run under that name in Brockenhurst.
Beauileu Road pony sales during the 1990s, the exact date doesn’t really matter because other than women’s hairstyles not a lot else has changed over the years. For generations locals have been coming here on a yearly basis to sell their ponies. Around 900 years ago it would have been just such a local who found and hauled William Rufus’s body to Winchester; we know his name was Purkis, a common surname in the Forest, and until fairly recently there was a Purkis  butchers shop in Brockenhurst.

So, a peasant called Purkis slung the king’s body onto a cart and transported it to nearby Winchester  – those were the days! The Normans reigned through a time when history was really happening in the area, much of it of their own making. To have a king shot more or less on your doorstep must have been quite something, but when all the excitement died down, the Forest subsided back into its usual state of Snoozeville and nothing much else happened over the centuries until the arrival of the M27. However, if you had been a biologist back at the time when the New Forest was founded (admittedly long before biologists existed) and could magically have lived for a thousand years, you’d certainly have noticed a great many changes in the formation of the landscape we see today.

'Forest' might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, but there is a timeless quality here. This might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but sadly bak then there were no cameras to show exactly how it looked.
‘Forest’ might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, and despite its man made origin there is a timeless quality to the landscape. This picture might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but back then of course, there were no cameras to show exactly how it might have looked.

When I was a child this agreeable place was crown-land managed by the Forestry Commission and that’s the way things would remain until 1st March 2005 when the Forest transitioned into the smallest National Park in the country, a status initially unpopular with many locals, but under different management livestock grazing became a priority (not that it was’t a major consideration before); this would be of great benefit to the commoners (the locals who live here) who for centuries have exercised their right to graze stock on the open forest.

When kings began to find more interesting things to do than take pot shots at deer, forestry quickly became the key activity and the woodlands would soon provide an important source of timber – in particular the provision of oak trees for the building of naval ships. Enclosure (usually referred to as Inclosure) of wooded areas to protect trees from grazers, started under the reign of Elizabeth I, a procedure that became more rigorous during the 1700s and was further refined as time passed. Over the years there have been periods when trees have been the priority and periods when they have not – and the same might also be said of the grazing of livestock and the management of deer.

Besides livestock, a great many deer graze within the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced by the Romans and they remain very successful.
Along with commoners animals, there are  a great many deer grazing upon the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans and remain consequential modellers of the landscape.

In the early 1850s there was an attempt to get rid of the deer altogether with the passing of  ‘The Deer Removal Act’ – no doubt the Norman kings must have been turning in their graves; but clearly the policy didn’t achieve its longterm aim, although it did herald the modern period of silviculture that the Forestry Commission has carried through to the present day.

Clearly The Forest has seen a rollercoaster of changes, but from our modern viewpoint of rapid economic growth, this interesting mix of woodland, heaths and open lawns seems to have hardly changed at all, and from a layman’s point of view it is an ancient place that has been standing still for centuries.

Classic New Forest Heathland during summer as it was at the end of the 1990s as ponies come to a lone holly tree to seek shelter.
Ponies seek out a lone holly tree for shade on a hot sunmer’s day towards the end of the 20th Century.

There have always been many different opinions as to how the New Forest should be run and the resulting issues are wide ranging: is there too much grazing or too little (sadly, I’ve never witnessed too little!). Other considerations include commoners rights, shooting, horse riding, bike trails, heather management  (burn it or cut it, and then how frequently), deer culling, tourism, nature conservation… the list goes on; and with so many interested parties, co-ordinating management is a nightmare, especially when the pressures on the Forest are ever increasing.

In total, the New Forest covers about 25 square miles, and considering all that is expected of it, this is is not a very extensive area.  Its borders now end abruptly, which wasn’t the case when I was a child. Rapid urbanisation and population growth to the east and west have squeezed it, and this is one of the reasons the New Forest is now such an important recreational area. Add to this how accessible the Forest has become in the last fifty years. The M27 (developed during the 1970s) ripped through its heart as devastatingly as the arrow that ripped through Rufus, with its ‘straight as an arrow’ functionality in stark contrast to the narrow backroads that meander through other regions of the Forest, many of which haven’t changed for years.

During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies - but it is wet and cold rather than dry and cold that really gets to them.
During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies – but it is continuous wet weather rather than cold weather that really gets them down.

Changes.

I returned for a visit the New Forest a few weeks ago; living as I do on the west coast of North America I haven’t spent much time in the area since leaving Britain in 2002, which has been rather useful, because it is easier to notice changes that I might otherwise have missed had I continued to wander the Forest on a daily basis.

Prior to leaving Britain I was frequently out there filming wildlife films for television, along with videos of the area. Sometimes I would just wander through for pleasure, but I rarely did so without a camera, which over the years has resulted in the taking of thousands of photographs, in particular during the last quarter of the 20th Century – this period became the subject of a book – but more importantly it is pictures that have provided a reliable method of making comparisons of change.

The Landcacpes of The New Forest. A look at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century.
The Landscapes of The New Forest looked back at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century (first edition only and now out of print).

 Since my childhood I’ve observed visitor numbers steadily rise on the open forest, and this is especially noticeable during holiday periods, but in general I’ve avoided photographing this aspect of life – even I am locked into my own interpretation of how the Forest should be – essentially devoid of people. People will occasionally get in the way of a decent photograph, but few wander very far from the car parks and their presence is easy to ignore, although of course there is a bigger picture to consider – one that involves increasing pressures upon the landscape. 

An Image used for one of  videos and a DVD's on the New Forest.
An image used for the cover of one of my videos/DVDs – ‘An English Forest’ which was available around the Millennium.

So, is it an increase in visitor numbers that has caused the Forest to become so blighted by litter? The very first scene I filmed for the B.B.C was a seemingly timeless view across a pond, but when I viewed the result, there was a Coke can bobbing in the lower left hand corner of the frame which meant I had to go back and film the scene again. This was embarrassing, because even an exceptional liar would find it difficult to deny the presence of something once it has been recorded on film or video; but the fact is, having litter in your frame of view was a far less common event back in the mid-1970s than it is today.

I never made this mistake again, and since then, havealways carefully checked the frame of view before making a picture. Increasing New Forest litter isn’t then a matter of opinion, or a false memory of better times; it is a judgement that can be empirically measured by the time it takes to clean up before going all happy snappy with the camera. Thirty years ago, clearing up litter before taking a photograph wasn’t a prime consideration… and now it is.

A certain percentage of the population will always be morons - and when visitor numbers goes up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discard bottle is green, so should this be a little less disturbed - I don't think so.
A certain percentage of the population will always be morons, and when visitor numbers go up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discarded bottle is green.  Should this then be a little less disturbing?…  I don’t think so.
A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures that once in cannot escape.
A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures – once they have found their way in, many cannot get out and the process of dying is often prolonged and unpleasant.

On the 29th April 2016 I parked my car in a New Forest car park ignoring the obvious litter in the immediate vicinity and walked along the roadside noting the spread of rubbish to as far as about five metres from the carriageway. There was clearly no shortage of the stuff, but it dropped off as I moved towards the heathland, which suggested that most of it was flung from moving cars, but even at a distance way past the range of an Olympic javelin thrower there was still plenty of rubbish to be found strewn across the open heath.

It is great to see such variety, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular groups - when it comes to a drinking there seems to be something out there for every taste. All of these were photographed within about 20 minutes of walking plus a whole lot else, which suggests that there is a problem.
It is just great to see such a variety of taste, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular sections of society – when it comes to drinking there is something here for everybody. All of these beverage containers were photographed during a 20 minute walk and there was a whole lot else thrown down as well, which indicates that there is a real problem.

One of the reasons that I wanted to leave Britain was litter, because it was almost impossible to ignore, as was the response of foul language and abuse that I usually received when I politely asked people to pick up what they had discarded  – this most noticeably from children… which was depressing.

When my family and I moved to New Zealand in 2002, one of the best things about the change was that litter was less a feature of the N.Z. landscape than it was in Britain, and you might reasonably consider this to be down to a lower population… but it was more than that; in New Zealand there was a different attitude – people were actively searching out bins to put their rubbish in, and throwing rubbish onto the ground didn’t come naturally to that many people. The one time I did ask a child to pick up his discarded rubbish when walking along a street in the small town of Te Awamutu he did so at once, if rather sheepishly, and then apologised – which really stuck in my mind because this had never happened before. Living on the opposite side of the world away from what I considered a cultured society, I suddenly discover that what I might initially have considered to be the back end of nowhere was altogether more civilized than what I had become used to in Britain, and this was a real culture shock.

Back on the Forest I'm still finding litter. Fast food packaging forms a major part go it, and judging by how washed out these containers are some have been out on the open heath for some time.
Back on the Forest I’m still finding litter and fast food packaging forms a major part of it. Judging by how washed out these containers are it is clear they have been out on the open heath for some time.

I’ve lived in Canada now for about six years, and it would be crazy to suggest that Canadians don’t litter, but they don’t do it to anything like the degree that some people do in the U.K.. The writer and humorist David Sedaris has written and talked about littering in Britain and believes heavy fines would make a difference. By his own admission Mr Sedaris is disturbed by this oddly British problem, and some might say he is a little obsessive judging by the amount of time he is prepared to spend picking it up. He is a native of the U.S.A. but has lived elsewhere and travelled extensively – he clearly knows what he is talking about and Britain is lucky to have him.

When I lived in the U.K. I used to walk to the letterbox at the end of the road and I’d pick up all the litter on one side of the road going down and pick up the rest on the opposite side coming back. My neighbours thought I was barking mad, but to me it just seemed the responsible thing to do. If I was now living close to the Forest I’d take a bin liner out with me once a week and pick up as much as I could during my walk.

There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The only bramble I saw where once it was extensive - maybe the aroma puts the grazers off.
There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The freshener was attached to the only bramble I saw where once it was extensive – maybe the aroma puts grazing livestock off.

Fining people isn’t going to solve the problem in out of the way places where they are unlikely to be watched . Littering is a mind set in Britain and many won’t readily change their behaviour with good grace, and so sadly, it falls to the rest of us to clean up if local authorities are not going to do it, because littering will only get worse if we decline to rise to the challenge.

When I was regularly using the New Forest as a subject for my photographs I had no trouble clearing up litter when I saw it – and I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that if you walk your dog on the Forest then you should consider doing the same. Anybody who walks on the open forest regularly should be  prepared to occasionally take a bag out and pick stuff up.

I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I owned dogs myself and they often accompanied me... when I wasn't filming deer!
I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I had dogs myself and they often accompanied me on photgraphic outings. If people are happy to pick up their dogs faeces, picking up a bit of  litter really shouldn’t be too much of an ask.

 There are people who expect to find a bin wherever they go – even in the natural world – and when they don’t, they find it acceptable to discard their rubbish wherever they are. I have no idea what must be going through their pea sized brains… but I suspect very little.

The discarding of rubbish when the bins run out isn’t a problem restricted entirely to Britain. I am presently in Mexico photographing parrots in what I consider a remote place, but of course it isn’t remote to the locals who live here. Today I’ve walked along a gravel road and it is this which allows easy access by vehicle to a swimming hole on a river that runs parallel to it and it is close to there that I am taking pictures.

I am having trouble photographing orange fronted parakeets in the gloom of the canopy above me.
Looking up into the gloom of the canopy above, I am attempting to photograph orange fronted parakeets preening.
The locals say they live in paradise, but at ground level almost directly beneath were the parrots are preening it is a different story.
But look down and things are very different. This is an area that even local people call paradise. Less that twenty metres to my left there is a pile of rubbish steadily building day by day. There is no bin here because other than a parking area this is essentially a natural setting.

Rather than take their litter home, people are steadily adding to the pile – its very presence seems to have validated this as a place to dump. The rubbish might at some stage be cleared by a local authority, but in the meantime it will take only one windy day to redistribute this junk into the river and surrounding forest and that is depressing, because in every other respects this is paradise.

Look carefully on the other side of the rocks the redistribution of litter is already happening along the river.
Just over the rocks is the river and if you look carefully you will notice the redistribution of junk has already started in particular light polystyrene.
In another location walking out of the beautiful coastal town of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the track, but litter reappears by the riverside once into the countryside where the collection bags run out.
In an entirely different location walking out of the beautiful coastal village of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the trackway and the area remains very clean, but further on, once out into the coutryside, the collection bags run out, and litter soon begins to appear along the riverbank.

I hate to be critical of Mexico because it is such a wonderful place, but it does have a litter problem, although of course I’m selecting by recent experience. The truth is, that with just a few exceptions, littering is a worldwide problem.

It seems that no matter where we are, when the bins run out, so does our restraint. To see piles of rubbish elsewhere in the world certainly puts the New Forest problem into perspective, but the pertinent question remains, in a place where there is no shortage of wealth and education… should we be seeing litter there at all?

 

On the Verge of Something Interesting.

I recently left the West Coast of Canada to visit my father in the U.K. and was surprised at how beautiful ‘the old country’ still is, despite over the last ten years, having Europe’s most rapidly growing population, essentially because more people are arriving than are leaving.

I left in 2002 and if I thought the roads were busy then, it is nothing to the way they are now – driving anywhere during rush hour is inadvisable, because more often than not, it takes ages to move only a short distance – but the biggest surprise is what is growing either side of the traffic which you have plenty of time to observe when you are barely moving. It is springtime and on the  verges a great many flowers are opening and turning the roadside into a place of beauty, or at least that was the way it was for most of the journey as I drove on backroads across West Sussex and East Hampshire to the edge of the New Forest. 

Leaving London Gatwick and driving West on the backroads travelling towards the New Forest in Hampshire the roadside verges spill spring flowers down to the roadside.
Leaving Gatwick Airport I drove west across country towards the New Forest and for most of the way the verges were spilling spring flowers down to the roadside.

When you fly north-east out from Vancouver, the landscape below is very different -

as you rise into the clouds what you see is a winter wilderness of snow-clad mountains even though it is near the end of April.

 As you fly north east out of Vancouver, it isn't long before you are over wilderness
As you rise above the mountains close to Vancouver, it isn’t long before you are flying over wilderness.

Nine hours later, at the other end of the journey, flying into London Gatwick Airport what comes into view is an irregular man-made field system, certainly this isn’t wilderness but in its own way is still very agreeable.  

London isn't so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem oddly from an earlier time and I imagine the shadows of spitfires ghosting defiantly across them.
London isn’t so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem as if from an earlier time – I imagine the shadow of a spitfire ghosting defiantly across this patchwork of green rather than that of an Airbus A330 .

There is no mistaking that the landscape below is far from wilderness which Britain doesn’t do on a grand scale. Although a couple of hundred years ago the Lakeland poets and a flurry of writers and painters set the tone with their representations of the great British outdoors, but this was an interpretation rather different from reality. Admittedly the Romanticists didn’t restrict themselves to rural roadside verges, preferring instead the ruggedness of largely uninhabited upland areas, but essentially their analysis was flawed – what they mostly saw were man made environments conveniently labelled as natural, and this mythology has carried through even to the present day. 

For generations, most of Britain has been heavily managed, and if somebody can get their sheep up onto the higher slopes during summer then they will do so, with the result that a great deal of Britain’s countryside is grazed far beyond anything that is natural – something that the majority of us conveniently fail to notice. The British interpretation of ‘wild’ is a construct, a romantic interpretation of the way we think nature should be after we’ve utilised it for our own ends, and that’s a far more positive approach than admitting that perhaps we’ve rather messed things up.

This is Scotand and the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness - so, I've been a little unfair... the foreground however is grazed by red deer without the intervention of large predators - other than of course men with guns, who will  predomonentlyt be hunting trophy animals which is not a very nature process. I am not moaning, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is - a place to grow food and hunt animals, although most of us think it is just a place to walk the dog.
This is Scotland – the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness, the foreground however is grazed by red deer that have for centuries remained untroubled by large predators  – all long ago eliminated by man. The deer of course are now taken out by humans with guns, and predominantly their populations are managed by trophy hunting – a process that is far from  natural. This is not a criticism, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is – a place to grow food and hunt animals, although of course, most of us mistakenly think that it is just a place to empty the dog.

It is certainly not unreasonable to assert that there is more ‘wild’ in Britain’s hedgerows and roadside verges during spring than can be  found in many upland areas. That seems a very odd thing to say, because roadside verges are hardly natural, but the plants that flower along them during spring are growing exactly the way they would have done in the ancient past, at a time before many environments were taken over by the formalities of agriculture.

Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.
Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.

The evolutionary imperative of spring flowers to show early in the year and reproduce before they are cast into shadow by leaf cover was a predominant feature across most of England before the first forests were cleared for timber and agriculture. Many of the plants that flower during spring, have evolved for millions of years alongside, or more correctly, ‘under’ deciduous trees. The fact that their best hope is now roadside management is neither here nor there. Later in the year the verges will be cut, and this will prohibit engulfment by a scrubland that would otherwise eventually progress towards forest.

My favourites are primroses.
My favourites are primroses….
Until the bluebells are underway!
….until the bluebells are underway!

It isn’t practical to have our roadsides totally engulfed by overhanging scrub and trees, and so it is by management that a suitable habitat is preserved for low cover spring  plants to thrive and spread. For obvious reasons grazing by deer is less intense along roadsides than it is in the forest, and rabbits at low density will often feed preferentially on the grass between clumps of flowers, which is all to the good.

Cutting later in the year rather than grazing is an accepted method of management and the result, during spring, along Britain’s winding country roads is a spectacular floral display that most of us appreciate.

 In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically for nature; but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has come specifically to roadside verges to gorge on spring dandelions – a non-native weed and high energy snack that is favoured by bears recently emerged from hibernation.

In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically to nature, but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has specifically come to the roadside verge to gorge on spring dandelions - a non-native weed that is favoured by bears not so long out of hibernation something you don't see very often in West Sussex.
Roadside bears are something that you don’t see very often in West Sussex, although a few hundred years ago they would have been present.

From the 1930s farming in Europe began to developed on an industrial scale and the control of pests, such as weeds, insect and rodents was beginning to be achieved by the use of chemicals, many of them toxic to the native flora and fauna. The loss of nature as a result of this intensive agricultural process has in recent times resulted in subsidies to encourage farmers to protect verges and hedgerows; in some cases broad areas of land are left uncultivated along the sides of fields to minimise the passage of sprayed herbicides and insecticides that might otherwise carry across these fallow conservation areas.

Along my meandering route on the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land can be clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the road - a haven for wild plants and animals.
Along my meandering route across the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land is clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the roadside which provides a haven for many wild plants and animals.

This expanse of uncultivated land provides not only a wildlife habitat, but also an interconnected corridor for many plant and animal species to move along. There are farmers keen to provide such environmentally friendly areas, but for many, a restriction of land use carries an economic penalty, and in consequence European farmers are paid large subsidies to farm in a progressive and environmentally sensitive manner, although the exact cost of doing this isn’t so easy to ascertain, but the total is self-evidently substantial.  

A recent report from ISARA Lyon however concludes that the uptake of agroecological practices has so far been low, and there has been no clear EU strategy for agroecological practices and sustainable agriculture, while the political will to move things forward remains marginal, and although the Common Agricultural Policy for 2014 – 2020 includes further elements, in addition to existing measures, which are orientated towards some agroecological practices, a broad strategy to deal with the situation is still missing.

Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.
Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.

This all sounds rather disappointing, and from a personal viewpoint it would be difficult not to have noticed a decrease in both populations and the diversity of Britain’s flora and fauna over recent years – butterflies are a good example because we tend to notice them above other insects, and consequently they have become indictors as to the health of natural environments. Their decline during my lifetime has been substantial and this can be linked to more intensive methods of agriculture, which have become increasingly reliant upon man made chemicals, in particular the use of indiscriminate pesticides.

I have only witnessed changes since the 1950s and I wouldn’t want to imply that as a child I was capable of passing value judgements on my early recollections of the countryside; but people who have lived out of town since the 1930s tell me that they have seen changes on a completely different scale, over a period that co-incides almost exactly with the advent of farming as an intensive activity, and the increasing reliance on artificial fertilisers and synthetic pesticides to improve productivity.

Celandines growing by the roadside.
Celandines growing by the side of a country lane.

97% of all wildflower-rich grassland has been lost in the U.K. since the Second World War.  Worldwide one fifth of all vascular plants are threatened with extinction – these figures are disturbing, but at least there have been small improvements in recent years: in some areas hedgerows have been replanted, and roadside verges are in many cases better managed than they have been for many years, and such improvements should be appreciated as minor steps forward.

However, many people still advocate poisoning to prohibit natural growth along Britain’s roadsides; increasingly this has become an outmoded way of thinking, with most of the changes that have so far occurred brought about by a combination of education, forward thinking councils, and European subsidies. As individuals we need to get our heads around our interpretation of what is untidy and what is natural, and until we do this, environmental problems will be a perpetual feature of our World.

When roadside  spring flowers are combined with woodland trees  - in this case oaks - the result is a reminder of how much of Britain must have looked before modern agricultural transformed Britain, although the roadway is a bit of a give away.
When roadside spring flowers are combined with woodland trees, especially oaks – the result is a reminder of how Britain must have looked before modern agriculture transformed the landscape, although the roadway is of course a bit of a give away.

If Britain decides to leave the European community it will be of interest to see how much difference a reduction, or even an elimination of subsidies makes to  the countryside, and that includes roadside verges. Certainly it is worth having a camera ready to record the changes that might occur in the years ahead, and to note whether the political will to do the right thing gathers strength or weakens.

In the end it may come down to what Governments decide they can afford to do – and often that turns out to be the bare minimum they think they can get away with. So, go ahead… take a picture and save the planet. The will to make changes is in the end down to us, and that’s not always easy unless we bear witness to exactly what is going on. 

 

 

There’s More to a Raccoon Than a Davey Crockett Hat.

A Scottish wildlife organisation recently took a picture that might help save the planet – well, the Highlands of Scotland at least. It was on one of those automatic cameras used to monitor animals – and triggered on 17th March 2016 by a Procyon lotor – that’s a raccoon for those of us who don’t have the Latin – standing on it’s hind feet it looked as if it was feeding on some form of bait attached to a post: www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-35942952     The image is technically limited and in contrasty black and white, but there is no doubting this is a raccoon. Baiting certainly works when it comes to attracting raccoons to cameras, but this shouldn’t be possible in the U.K. where they are not supposed to be, and catching one on camera is a real surprise when what you’re really expecting to see is a badger.

If you've seen a raccoon in the U.K. and don't get a picture... they'll tell you it is one of these...
If you seen a raccoon in the U.K. and you don’t get a picture… they’ll tell you that you saw one of these.

Failing a deliberate release, this Highland raccoon must have escaped from captivity, but that’s not exactly an environmental disaster, providing it’s not a pregnant female, or has the opportunity to meet up with a raccoon of the opposite sex… And what are the chances of that? Well, surprisingly good it seems, because a week earlier, on the 11th March, a raccoon was recorded on video just thirty miles away. The same raccoon perhaps? Well possibly, but that’s a bit of a hike for a raccoon in just a week; although when food is in short supply a healthy animal might range that distance, especially if it is a recent roaming escapee that has not yet found a favourable place to set up home. If it turns out there are two raccoons however, this could be the start of a much bigger problem.

A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.
A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.

I saw my first raccoon as a child – it was perched upon Davey Crockett’s head in a mid 1950s movie that made the most famous backwoodsman of all time a huge box office success in Britain – there was also a popular song that kept ‘The King of the Wild Frontier’ popular for a time – although I’m not sure how long – when you’re small things seem to go on forever. It lasted until the Lone Ranger and Tonto showed up on our T.V. screens to replace him. And surprisingly the Lone Ranger would continue with Crockett’s raccoon theme. More than half a century separated the two characters (and quite bit of fiction);  the raccoon hat had been replaced by a white stetson, with the raccoon identity slipping down onto the rangers face in the form of a raccoon mask – this along with an outfit rather too tight for general ‘lone ranging’ comfort, made the character somewhat laughable even to a child. It seemed that back in the old days whether, ‘way down South’ or out there in ‘the wild west’ you were never far from a raccoon, or at least a reference to one, and today this remains pretty much the case right across North America and there is a suggestion that in some states there are more raccoons around today than there were during the 19th Century when fur trapping was hugely consequential.

A raccoon in natural habitat on the North East Coast of North America.
A wild raccoon in its natural habitat somewhere south of Boston.

Raccoons are generalists: if they can find food, they will usually adapt to their surroundings and live almost anywhere. In their native land they avoid only the extreme cold of the frozen north and have managed to become one of the most successful mammals ever to have lived on the continent. In urban situations they have become equally successful, and often considered pests because of their habit of competing with humans.

I must admit, I don’t feel too much competition from the large individual that walks the fence-line around our garden. My family and I live in the Vancouver area of British Columbia where raccoons are commonplace – and not only is this individual a real beauty, it is also one of the largest racoons I have ever seen. Certainly in the northwest racoons can grow to about as big as this species will get. Further south where winters are warmer and summers hotter – in Florida and Mexico for example – a large body mass isn’t so important for retaining body heat and individuals are usually smaller.

Raccoons are mostly active during the night and our local animals will occasionally dig up the garden for grubs, but I don’t mind that. My habit of leaving the garage door open will have to stop though.  I accidentally shut a domestic cat into my garage one night when living in the U.K. – the cat wasn’t bothered, and apart from a slight smell of cat the garage was fine, the same thing happened with an owl when living in New Zealand – again no problem – although the cat smell was replaced by a pile of poo under the roost were the bird had chosen to spend the night. All well and good, but if I accidentally shut a raccoon into my garage overnight in Canada, I might just as well opened up the place up to a marauding bear.

Not the best of pictures - taken by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot. This was probably my first attempt at filming raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of small bits and pieces in my camera case they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had almost no recollection of this event until I discovered the old picture, obviously my subconcious had blotted out this wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter.
Maybe not the best of pictures – taken many years ago by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot as I wrestled with a couple of raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of the small bits and pieces in my camera case, they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had no recollection of the event until I recently re-discovered this photo –  obviously my subconscious had blotted out my first and most wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter, somewhere in Vermont.

I loved the suggestion from a spokesman for the attempted capture of the photogenic Scottish raccoon, that, if it could be achieved without personal risk, it would be great if somebody simply contained the creature in a shed or outbuilding. Now, containing a raccoon is  a novel idea – but the last shed I walked through that might adequately ‘contain’ a raccoon was on the island of Alcatraz – maybe Scottish sheds are a cut above the sheds I got used to when living in the South of England as a child; back then you had to turf the wildlife out before you could put the garden tools away; and the door was always left open during the summer months because robins were busy rearing young in an old teapot on a shelf at the back.

A spokesman also said that their organisation had set a humane trap to catch the Highland raccoon…  but there had been no sign of it yet, and that’s not a huge surprise. All too frequently raccoons are caught and held by unpleasant limb holding traps, but getting a raccoon secure in an humane alternative isn’t quite so easy: if you don’t capture your raccoon first time around you may not get a second chance – raccoons clearly didn’t spread across a whole continent because they were stupid.

A recent digital image - and an impossible shot to make successfully on film in very low light conditions. How can you resist these critters, trying to bat one another off a low branch - just for fun!
A digital image taken recently. This is a difficult shot to make successfully on film because it was taken in very low light. How can you resist these little critters? Trying to bat one another off of a low branch just for fun! Their rotund body shape belying an extraordinary ability to balance.

Over the years I’ve photographed, filmed and videod raccoons in many different situations, both captive and wild and there was rarely a moment when they weren’t attempting the impossible.

When filming cheetahs, you can spend days sitting around waiting for them to move, and you’re thinking ‘Just do something interesting… Something I can film… Anything other than just gazing into the far distance!’. Then after a couple of days they will get up and go for a mobile lunch and you can hardly keep up, even in a Land Rover. Raccoons on the other hand are the exact opposite, when they are awake, they never stop moving – sure they rest up, but if a raccoon isn’t hidden away having a kip, it will usually be ambling along doing something interesting, and providing you aren’t hassling the creature, you can usually keep pace on foot.

With cheetahs - there's a lot of sitting around waiting.
Cheetahs are just about my favourite animal – they are beautiful, but there’s a lot of sitting around waiting, and to be honest… they can sometimes be rather dull.

A raccoon is an inquisitive creature – brighter than a rat, a cat, or a dog, they have a never say die attitude that provides an easy fit for those who think they’re a little bit like us… and in some ways, perhaps they are. It doesn’t make sense zoologically, but it’s fun to think of the raccoon species as evolving along a different route to create a creature that ostensibly does things the way we do, but without the advantage of starting from a primate.

Their little paws are superficially hand-like and with great sensitivity   can manipulate objects – in particular food, and their alert little brains will get them into just about everything, which helps them survive in all manner of circumstances. It all sounds familiar – especially the little brains!… We can anthropomorphise them to our hearts content and that’s certainly the reason they make such good cartoon characters… we relate to them, and their little bandit masks in particular trigger our imaginations. They appear to us as devilish little bandits behaving without restraint, which is exactly the mindset of any raccoon worth its salt – as anybody who has ever tried to keep one will tell you. 

Another raccoon in a natural situation in Canada.
Raccoons in a natural situations do not shy away from water – this one is Canadian.

If you’re thinking that keeping a raccoon should be on your bucket list… forget it! It takes a very forgiving nature to become a raccoon’s best buddy. There are however people – like Dorcas MacClintock, who have managed to do so successfully, and on numerous occasions. In the mid-1980s Dorcas became my mentor in all things raccoon related; somehow she managed to bridge the gap between art and science; as both an award winning sculptor, and a respected mammalogist she had moved beyond the simplistic recording and analysis of racoons as living organisms to see the bigger picture. Dorcas also has a sense of humour which is not only helpful, but an absolute necessity when dealing with raccoons. David Niven once said of his friend Errol Flynn, that you always knew where you were with Flynn because he would always let you down – and that’s more or less the way it is with raccoons – you can’t  just turn your back and expect them to sit quietly – they’re going to get into mischief.

I had to empty the bookcase for my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book (left) 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out. I had to empty the bookcase to find my own impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book is to the left; her 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out to learn more about this interesting creature.
I had to empty the bookcase to find my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock’s book is to the left: ‘A Natural History of Raccoons’  and is well worth searching out if you want to learn more about these interesting creatures.

Dorcas taught me how best to understand what a raccoon will do next, which is essential when trying to film them. I learnt how to second guess their behaviour and anything Dorcas had forgotten to tell me, she had already written down in a book which she gave me. I learnt for example that you don’t try to stop raccoons from doing just about anything they want, instead you divert their attention with something more interesting and usually, that something is food.

A wild raccoon in a not quite so wild urban setting in the U.S.A.. The only part of the set up is extra lighting and  extra food, although dumped food is not exactly unusual in any unrban situation.
A wild raccoon in a not so wild urban setting somewhere in the U.S.A.. The only part that is set up is extra lighting plus a little extra food, although finding dumped food is not exactly unusual in today’s urban landscape.

The truth is, I usually leave the captive raccoon diverting to somebody else because it’s a full time job and I just do my best to record the action. Working with a wild raccoon is pretty much the same – you grab what you can, because if a raccoon is doing anything, it’s most definitely worth running the camera.

With a racoon in the wild there is no doubting that the setting is natural, but with a captive animal, which parts of the process touch base with reality? Well, whatever a raccoon does is his or her own reality… because they will never do anything that they don’t want to, or anything that doesn’t come naturally. So, if the intention is to demonstrate some aspect of behaviour, I don’t think filming a captive raccoon is a major deceit, but if you are supposedly telling the life story of a wild animal and filming most of it on a set, essentially what you have is a soap opera, which is fine, but of no particular interest to me.

This is a raccoon on an open outdoor set, his name was Wille and he's been given water and appropriate food - so that I can film him dabbling - searching with his front paws and then washing his food.
This raccoon was cared for by Dorcas and his name was Willie. He was filmed on an open outdoor set with an artificial pool and given appropriate food so that he could dabble – that’s essentially searching for food in water using the front paws. There is some question as to whether this continues through to actually washing a potential meal – but that’s certainly the way it looks to us. Interestingly, Willie isn’t looking down too much, instead  he relies on his sensitive paws to feel what he is doing and appears entirely absorbed in his food gathering activity – but with his head up, he remains aware of his surroundings – even if, as is the case for all raccoons – he is rather short sighted.

The thing about filming natural activity is that unless you plan to make a twelve hour nature film, there has to be some editing, and I’m more worried about that than many other aspects of the process. One very good reason for editing your own material is that there is a better chance of telling the truth, simply because you were there. The alternative and often preferential route is to put a story together from bits and pieces filmed over a period of time, and some professional film makers might say that it will be a dull story if it isn’t done in this way. Which might be the case, but I think it far more interesting and informative to watch things the way they really happened. There is however compromise to any edit –  it might be necessary for example to drop  a close up in to move the action along, and so keeping the flow authentic is a constant challenge.

The viewer is always in the hands of the movie-maker, who has the option to tell it as it is, or alternatively, make a story up, and  to a point there is always a degree of manipulation. Secondly, nature isn’t    simply about getting bloody in tooth and and claw – animals attacking has become fashionable on both television and the internet, but watching animals going about their daily lives demonstrates that there is a lot more going on. Just as with us, everyday activities may not be quite as exciting as a battle, but raccoons tend to do things with more gusto than most and their behaviour is often comic, a combination that will always provide cinematographic value.

This YouTube of a raccoon dabbling is captivating, but clearly not of a captive animal – without edits the action retains a feeling of authenticity.  You might not want to watch the same behaviour for an hour, but a short clip like this is absorbing, and you learn something about the habits of a wild animal:  raccoon dabbling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0lI3ub3DI8

This is a wide view of Willie that shows him on the set I had built - you can see a flag to the left of frame (this used to take light out of an area - which might sound odd, but is a good way to create shadow where it is required. Filmed in daylight, it can also be used as a night scene. I dropped two f stops to create the mood (seen in the closer shot above). I could also have blued it for night, but have left that for the producer to make that decision as it may also be done in post production.
Here is a wide view of Willie, showing him on a set built for a dabbling sequence – you can see a metal flag to the left of frame (used to create a shadow in one particular area). Filmed in daylight, the image might also be used as a night scene by dropping the aperture a couple of f stops to create a darker mood (this shown below). I could also have blued up the image for night, but have left that for the producer to decide, as a final decision can be made later… and it also gives the producer a chance to make a contribution! O.K., just kidding!
Here the exposure is taken down to give the impression of night - it might be taken down further and blued - this is why it is important to light the areas of action precisely - as you need to see what is going on. I could have also done the sequence at night and lit that. The technical possibilities are endless and all without changing the raccoons natural behaviour.
When the exposure is taken down it can give the impression that this is night time and might be taken down even further and blued up for a cooler night time feel, this darkening of the image is the reason that it is important that the light is directed precisely towards where the action is happening, because above all else, the viewer must be able to see what is going on. Another option would have been to film the sequence at night and light appropriately, or use an infra-red camera. The technical possibilities are endless, but most importantly, they don’t change the raccoon’s natural behaviour. Working today with video many people are inclined to record exactly what they see through the view finder, often in low light conditions, which gives a very narrow depth of field (that’s overall focus front to back). It is quite tricky juggling light levels to create a mood on film, especially when the final image isn’t visible to you through the view finder which is the way it usually is if you are lighting creatively. Our eyes can read light levels more broadly than film stock and that’s useful, and without it, going to the movies wouldn’t be half so interesting.

Whether in captivity or in the wild raccoons appear delighted to have something to do – it is simply in their nature.   Out in the wild, much of what they attempt seems destructive to us, but really they are just making a living much the same as we do when going about our business, except that we trash quite a bit more of the environment than they do in the process. I understand why many people view them as a nuisance, nevertheless it is ironic that as we start to move into their world they have a habit of pushing back, and at some level, you have to admire that.

This is a wild raccoon. I watched his progress from behind, worked out that he was going for a swim -ran along the bank and found a bridge and returned to catch him arriving on the bank from the front. I could see it in his eyes - 'Oh, it's you again!'
This raccoon was photographed in the wild. I watched her progress towards the water ahead, and worked out the position she was most likely to enter the water – then ran along the bank of the stream, found a bridge and made my way close to the spot where I thought she would arrive on the opposite bank. I could see it in her eyes – ‘Oh no, it’s you again!’ But I was long gone before her arrival.

In all honesty, if you take a picture of a raccoon in its native country you probably won’t contribute very much to saving the planet, but if you live outside of North America and get a shot of one in the wild, it might prove very important to conservation. Certainly if this species takes off in Britain – a place where raccoons really don’t belong – they would undoubtedly compete with native species that are already under pressure and their presence create environmental havoc. If a raccoon really did think and behave exactly the way that we do, he’d probably be saying ‘ Nice one… Bring it On!’ But in truth, Rocky is just doing what all raccoons naturally do… and he doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. 

 

 

As Dismissed As a Newt.

There was a man on the Radio today talking about great crested newts, and that got me listening carefully, because for many years I had an eventful relationship with these fascinating creatures;  which might sound odd, but not entirely ridiculous considering that this was the first animal I filmed for prime time television, and the fact that I was suddenly earning a living from what most regarded as a pointless childhood interest at least impressed my father.

My parents were tolerant of my preoccupation with all things amphibian, even allowing me to keep a tank of salamanders in their bedroom – suitable because it was north facing and cool during the summer months; but at the time there was no indication the little creatures that arrived as a gift, would be around for more than 25 years and produce quite so many offspring.

Although I wasn’t obsessive about keeping amphibians, their behaviour fascinated me. My introduction came through a neighbour when I was about eight years old; she worked in a plant nursery and noticed a pond where large numbers of newts were engaged in courtship. She offered to bring some home for me to observe, and I didn’t need to be asked twice, quickly organising an old fish tank to house them, and a regular supply of earthworms to keep them fed.

The first newts I kept as a child were smooth newts, at the time relatively common. This male is at his most  crested and colourful and has just a mass of frog spawn on which he has been feeding and no doubt cutting down any competition for his offspring by taking out future frog tadpoles.
The first anphibians I observed as a child were smooth newts – at the time they were relatively common. This male has been feeding on a mass of frog spawn  to the right; taking in this high protein meal will also reduce competition for his future offspring.

I couldn’t believe my luck when they arrived – newts are nothing much to look at on land, but as soon as they enter water, their transformation is extraordinary – and I was surprised how much there was to learnt by simply watching them: I noticed for example, that an amorous male would delay coming up for air when he was busy flickering his tail at a potential mate, but if she remained indifferent, he would eventually have to break away and rocket to the surface for a gulp of air, then quickly return before another male could engage her.

The male smooth newt is a beautiful creature that most of us remain indifferent to  - essentially we have a goldfish mentality and until that aesthetic changes, amphibians will remain in general decline.
The smooth newt in full courtship spleandour is an impressive creature that most of us will never encounter. The majority of us would in any case prefer to see a goldfish and until our ‘goldfish’ mentalities take an aesthetic turn for the better, amphibians will continue to be in general decline.

At their best amphibians are quite beautiful and they have uncomplicated lifestyles that can be easily analysed – which makes for an entrancing combination. Not so much for my grandfather though who said he wouldn’t visit again until I ditched ‘the dreadful creatures’. Needless to say I didn’t see him again until early summer when the newts had finished their reproductive phase and left the water; they were then transferred to an overgrown part of the garden from where they would eventually find their way to our fish pond each spring to reproduce; and, if the pond still exists, their descendants will still be doing that.

This North American red salamander is also very colourful, but many species are less inclined to be dandies.
This North American red salamander is very colourful, but there are many other species that are not such dandies, retaining drabber colours to avoid attention..

In North America newts are referred to as salamanders, but in Europe the name is restricted to the really colourful ones that dress as court jesters – usually in black and yellow – essentially a warning that say’s ‘Don’t eat me, or l’ll make you vomit’. This colour combination is a worldwide warning displayed by many small animals likely to make a potential lunch for hungry predators: spiders, bees, wasps, beetles and others all make use of this contrasting colour combo, and although many predators don’t see in colour in the same way that we do, it is a defence mechanism that seems to work. 

A female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth to her offspring.
A plump female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth.

Imagine you’re a peasant living in central Europe long before the internet, television, or even the radio – infact so long ago candles are the latest thing. It’s a cold winter’s night and you throw a log on the fire, and pretty soon, in the flickering light of the rekindled embers, a strange creature walks out onto the hearth. It’s no more than a salamander rudely awoken from a peaceful winter’s slumber, but you don’t know that because science hasn’t been invented yet, or at least it hasn’t where you live – halfway up a mountain somewhere at the back end of Austria. You’re naturally terrified because you still organise your life around the time-honoured habit of superstition, and on seeing the creature, you know you’ve been stricken by a curse. Months later a very old man dies in the village, or perhaps a crop fails… it doesn’t matter… bad things happen because this is the Middle Ages, and everything can be traced back to that fateful encounter with the devil’s fire creature. If only you could have looked it up on the internet, but no…  just like my grandfather, you were living in the past and totally ignorant of just how interesting a salamander can be. Today, this rubbery little animal seems far less terrifying, but is still sometimes referred to as a fire salamander.

 Britain has only three native species of newt

and none are court jesters. It isn’t so much that newts lack colour, but rather that a great many restrict bright colouration to their bellies. Once again black and yellow or black and orange are colours that might be flashed as a warning and as an opulent display might also be helpful during courtship, but colour can also be a bit of a giveaway, which has led to many species retaining muted upper-sides, to reduce predatory attacks from above.

A newt or salamander that isn't careful can end up inside one of these.
A newt or salamander that isn’t careful might end up inside one of these.
To exist alongside herons and many other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring and all are of the larval stages are initially tied to the water.
To maintain an existence alongside herons and other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring with their larval stages tied to the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, most people dismiss newts as rather boring, probably because they are only noticed when they come to breeding ponds during the spring. Water is necessary during reproduction, but outside of that many will remain land based, hiding away during the day under logs, in crevices, or in the soil, venturing out only on damp nights to feed.

The second species I came into contact with in my childhood was the palmate newt, so named because courting males develop a sooty black webbing between the toes of their hind-feet. Palmates are the smallest of the three British species and I first noticed them in water filled tyre ruts when out picnicking with my parents in the New Forest, where heathland soils provide an acidic environment that the palmates seem well adapted to.

A pair of palmate newts, the female above right and the male below left.
A pair of palmate newts, the female above right, the male below left.

Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:

during spring, smooth newt males develop a complete crest along the back and tail; palmate males do not, they have a small crest along the tail; but nothing along the back, instead there are two small ridges that run along the upper sides of the body producing a rather boxy shape in cross-section, this in contrast to the rounded curves of smooth newt males and the females of all the other British species. Palmate males have a strong black bar marking running through the eye and a little black pointer that develops at the tip of of the tail. Smooth newts may also have an eye bar, but this is often less pronounced.

The black hind feet and the tail pointer in palmate males makes identification easy, but the females are less easily differentiated from smooth newt females; I remember trying to explain the key differences to an expert just before he was about to give a broadcast on the subject, but for the most part it is a question of experience. The female palmate, just like the male, has a pinkish tinge down the centre of the tail bordered above and below by a darker, often jagged line – but this feature can be very subtle. Outside of the breeding season newts become solitary and maintaining these visual signals is no longer necessary and they become muted or disappear altogether. 

A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it - perhaps she judges the leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.
A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it; perhaps she judges this leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.

The largest of the three British species is the great crested newt,

which has become one of Britain’s most controversial animals; the reason for this relates almost entirely to politics and money, but more about that later. Identifying a great crested from a smooth or palmate is easy – because a mature great crested newt is about twice the size of the other two and reaches about 16 cm in length. The upper body is dark and warty with spots that are darker still –  these continue to the orange underside where they make a striking combination. There are sometimes white speckles on the face and along the lower sides of the body, and the male has a white bar that runs along the centre of the tail during courtship and the body crest is clearly serrated – all features that make identification a doddle. 

A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.
A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.

In the mid-1970s the Sunday Times published an article I submitted on the status of great crested newts in Britain. It ended with an informal survey, asking readers to give details of any great crested ponds they knew of in their area.

The response went well beyond expectation – it seemed that great crested newts were more widely distributed than had been previously thought – it really was great crested news! That was until I travelled to look into some of the ponds that readers had mentioned, only to discover that in many cases smooth newts were being misidentified as great crested newts, which seemed impossible to me, if only because of the clear size difference, the warts and the obvious crest serrations that smooth newt males clearly don’t have. Disappointingly, far too many observations were unreliable and I began to think that some people would have had trouble differentiating a big newt from a baby crocodile, and there were a few who would have been pushed to make a reliable I.D. against a hippopotamus. Even today the great crested newt’s status in Britain is in question, which is an unusual situation for a species that many consider to be in need of protection.

Newts discard their old wet suits.. or are they dry suits, I'm not sure?
Newts discard their old wet suits… Or are they dry suits? I’m not sure.

Back in the 1970s making a film wasn’t something that many people could afford to do. Between 1974 and 1977 I managed to put together a couple of movies which proved both time consuming and expensive. Today, working on video would have made the process far easier – even a phone can turn out some pretty impressive results, but back then, getting hold of a 16mm film camera (for broadcast quality), and buying filmstock, was a money pit .Half my monthly income was going towards buying just ten minutes of film running time, and it would take several years to shoot a movie devoted entirely to British reptiles and amphibians… How stupid was that? Working on a subject with such limited appeal seemed foolish… but then I got lucky.

Great crested newts are difficult for most of us to appreciate - there lifestyles mean that we don't see them very often.
Great crested newts like many other amphibians are difficult to appreciate, because their lifestyles dictate that we don’t see them very often.

The B.B.C. Natural History Unit became involved in a series that David Attenborough had been wanting to make for some time –  a television presenter during the 1950s and early 60s, he’d moved into management but now wished to return to the subject that interested him most. The result would emerge in 1979 as ‘Life on Earth’. and it was my good fortune that the series included a film dedicated entirely to amphibians. The producer of the programme, Richard Brock, was brave enough to allow me to film the British amphibians that were to be included, and in the grand scheme of things my contribution would be small, but my sequences would nevertheless involve months of work.

I had been in the right place at the right time and fortunately, the amphibians programme was selected to represent the series for publicity purposes. These cold-blooded animals had turned out to be rather more interesting than most people had thought possibe and the programme won a number of awards, but by that time I was too busy filming other projects to look back,  although I fully appreciated that for me, amphibians had been an unlikely but useful start.

An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is very beautiful, but it gives little away.
An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is often very beautiful, but it gives little away.

When I first met Richard Brock he told me all about ‘Frogs Law’ a term that had come to signify one of the biggest problems to be faced when filming amphibians – they are essentially unpredictable and usually move only after the camera has stopped runnning; there is not a glimmer in an amphibian eye that will tell you they are going to do something before they do. Animals further up the food chain usually give themselves away somewhere around the eyes, but a frog or salamander will give you nothing, and it isn’t as if they have the flat dead eyes  of a shark – quite the opposite – amphibians display some of the most beautiful eyes in the animal world. The truth of the matter is, that if you spend hundreds of hours watching any animal, you eventually learn to pick up on something and run the camera appropriately. Good to know then that all those hours of watching during childhood, weren’t entirely wasted. 

A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, it is impossible to film - here, he has cleaned away most of the detritus  on the gravel around him
A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, that it is often impossible to film, and here he has cleaned away most of the detritus on the gravel around him.

Sometimes a male newt displays to a female and she isn’t responsive to his love dance. Perhaps the male doesn’t suit her, or maybe she just isn’t ready, in which case she will usually break away, but often she will just hang around; there is something almost imperceptible about her body language that tells you there is no chance of getting the shot today… maybe tomorrow… and this understanding saves both time and money. Certainly you can’t afford to miss the action, but on the other hand, you can’t watch newts 24 hours a day, because down that road lies only madness.

If you fail to recognise when the female becomes receptive you won’t catch the moment when the male releases his little packet of sperm, after which he will back away still displaying as the female moves forward to pick up the packet on her cloaca. The male knows exactly when to make his release, and if you can’t pre-judge his behaviour and run the camera appropriately, you’re pretty soon looking for another job. And there’s another problem – amphibians respond to chemical signals – pheremones that have been released into the water, but you have only newt body language and the clock to go on – usually when one thing happens, something else will follow. Newts are little reproductive computing machines that with careful observation, are not beyond our understanding.

 I filmed my first T.V. newt on 12th February 1977 before filling in the details on a dope sheet wondering if ‘dope’ specifically applied to me – fortunately, it did not. I labelled the roll, ‘Test. Great Crested Newt. Daylight.’ and sent it off to the lab for processing – my wildlife filming career had started. 

Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf - they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they may sniff at eggs and eat those that weren't laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved snd this mechanistic behaviour appears totally orrganised but requires very little cognitive input.
Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf – they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they will sniff at eggs and sometimes eat the ones that have not been laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved and this mechanistic behaviour, although totally organised, requires very little cognitive input. 

So, back to the man on the radio – he’s outlining the  fact that great crested newts are less common in some parts of Europe than they are in the U.K. and consequently may not require as much protection as they presently receive from European law. For some time great cresteds have been protected under British law, but since the late 1980s they’ve also received an extra layer of care from Brussels due to a policy known as ‘The Habitats Directive’. Under this ruling, 18% of natural habitats in European countries are now under protection. The question is – if Britain opts out of the European Community, will great crested newts suffer because the European Directive no longer applies to them?

The developing larvae of a great crested newt sometimes known as an eft.
The developing larvae of a great crested newt is known as an eft.

I don’t know enough about environmental policy to be certain either way, but clearly the man on the radio was being reasonable. His company built a reservoir, in an area where several ponds had existed that at one time had probably been visited by great crested newts. Under ‘The European Directive’ these ponds had to be monitored, and if great crested newts were found present, these would have to be relocated. The whole process took a couple of years to complete and in the end only 10 great crested newts were found – the conclusion was that the cost of conserving each newt was six thousand five hundred pounds, but the company representative wasn’t making a fuss about that; instead he focused his attention on the newt habitat that had been created and on the whole his attitude was commendable.

This eft still has gills, but has fully developed functional lungs and gulping air, it will soon be leaving the water.
This eft still has gills, but now has lungs and will soon be leaving the water.

There are however issues concerning the relocation of species that are troubling.

Newts aren’t like higher mammals, which might sound obvious, but what is relevant in this case is how their populations are maintained. If only 10 newts are found in a habitat, and say only four of them are females, between them these individuals might lay around 1,200 eggs during a single spring. Certainly predation will take a toll, but amphibian populations often bounce back very quickly – it’s a numbers game; and not withstanding the problems that a reduction in the gene pool may cause, amphibians have a better chance of surviving a decline to very low numbers than do animals with much lower reproduction rates, and so protecting 10 newts as opposed to 10 bears or 10 tigers, may result in a much more successful outcome. The truth is, the success of a species that has suffered massive decline depends to a large extent on what that species is.

Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and can look less impressive once out of the water.
Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and look far less impressive once out of the water.

In Britain I was fortunate enough to have great crested newts in my garden and know how difficult they are to find. Clearly the best time to move them successfully is when they have returned to the pond during the spring, although this species may remain in the water for extended periods throughout the year. There will however always be immature individuals not yet ready to visit the pond and these are always difficult to locate. Away from water newts are masters of hiding – on occasions I’ve found great cresteds a foot down under soil and one perfectly healthy individual was discovered living five feet down a drain. Even when captive in a tank of moss and soil newts are difficult to find and care must be taken to avoid physical damage when searching them out. In an expansive natural habitat locating every individual is impossible to achieve and the loss of a great many immatures will adversely affect the population in years to come. I know from experience that relocation works, but it should perhaps be regarded as a last resort rather than accepted as a matter of course. As a conservation  tool, it is simply better than doing nothing at all.

The presence of a wild animal should on occasions be enough to keep an environment intact and perhaps we shouldn’t move into every location available to us, just because we feel the need to expand – there is a strange arrogance in thinking that the whole planet is there for us to colonies and trash as we please. Great crested newts are just one small part of a complex natural ecosystem and the idea that we should move them or their environment any time that suits us is flawed. Creating habitats for plant and animal populations to expand into can work very well, but moving the complxity of the natural world around like some giant game of musical chairs lacks forethought – ultimately the only species left with a seat might be us and our attendant parasites, thus limiting the sort of games we might be left to play in future.

A salamander in the wrong place. This axolotl was found by my friend Chris Balcombe in a pond in the New Forest. Southern England. It would be more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don't always get a choice. This species remains in the larval form and can reproduce successfully without ever growing up. This one was very healthy, very big and steadily eating its way through all of the native species and their offspring until it was removed from the pond.
Extreme cases of relocation can be a problem even when it concerns only a single animal. This axolotl was found in a New Forest pond in Southern England by my friend Chris Balcombe; it probably would have felt more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don’t always have a choice. Axolotls can remain in their larval form and still reproduce successfully. This one was big and healthy, and until it was removed, steadily eating its way through much of the ponds native fauna.

It may be that great crested newts are not endangered to the point of extinction in Britain, but there can be no arguing that along with their ponds and surrounding habitat this species has been in steady decline for decades.

The common response, ‘It is happening everywhere. What can you do?’  won’t solve the problem, and neither will our expansion into every natural space that is available. It isn’t in our longterm best interest, let alone the many other species we are pushing out as we do so. In many cases we are simply following the money, and then building arguments to justify our actions – ultimately another generation will have to face the consequences, because we did not tread lightly and leave things as we found them. 

It is of course ridiculous to think that we can save every newt or salamander from disturbance, but at the very least it makes sense to move beyond the point where we regard protecting other species as a benevolent eccentricity. So, if you uncover something as seemingly insignificant as a newt, or other small creature that you’ve never seen before, then record the time and the place, and always take a photograph to dispel doubt in others. Be proactive –  take a picture and maybe in some small way you might help save the planet, even if only by increasing awareness in others.

All the underwater photographs above were taken in tanks using natural light. Please be aware that permits may we required to keep some amphibians in captivity and this should not be attempted without a full understaning of lifestyles requirements.

Dedicated to eight year old Nolan Gagnon who recently donated his birthday money to ‘The Burns Bog Conservation Foundation’. This 3,000 hectare bog is recognised as the largest raised peat bog remaining on the west coast of North America and one of the last major undeveloped natural habitats in lower mainland B.C.. The bog’s survival is down to the persistence and hard work of local people and needless to say, is busy with salamanders and other amphibians which are the key indicators to the health of life on planet Earth.