So Long New Zealand and Thanks For All the Sheep. Part 2.

Any European botanist arriving in New Zealand for the first time might just as well be landing on a different planet – so extraordinarily is the plant life on these South Pacific islands.

Looking from our mountain to another - this is Kakepuku.
Looking from our mountain to another one – this is Kakepuku.
It took four or five years to see any positive results when trying to establish our native New Zealand garden. The one thing that grew easily was flax, and this was encouraging, because I’d seen nectar feeding birds visiting flax flowers elsewhere – so, it wasn’t difficult to join up the dots… soon I was dividing and planting out as many locally grown flax as I could get my hands on. 
Alice dividing a native flax for planting in early 2010 several months before we leave for good.
My daughter Alice dividing an old grubbed out flax which might provide 20 starter plants or more.
One day I looked out of my office window and noticed the beautiful dusky red flowers of rewarewa blooming in the bush behind the house; and not long after an excitable tui began visiting several times a day to feed upon the nectar, but as soon as the flowers went over, so did the bird, quite literally – it flew over and away without hesitation. This was disappointing, but suddenly it dawned on me that we should be providing a whole range of appropriate flowering plants to attract birds in through spring and summer.

Tui feeding on Rewarewa in trees behind the house. 

As nectar appeared to be the key, I started playing detective, following tuis to see what they were feeding on. In spring one of the first visits they made was to the beautiful sulphur coloured flowers of kowhai, and there the guilty bird’s faces were soon covered in pollen.  Almost everybody in New Zealand must have seen this, but it was a revelation to me. On the day of my discovery, I set about searching for kowhia seedlings, which were easily found growing close by adult trees and were soon potted up and placed in a shade behind the house to establish.
Kowhai flowers are perfectly shaped for pollination by the curved beaks of tui and bellbird and once our first flowering kowhai were over, the birds moved quickly on to fresh rewarewa flowers in the trees behind the house. They sought out the colourful blooms just as our first visiting tui had done a few years earlier. I was excited by this minor progress –  the nectar timeline availability had been doubled with the planting of a single species.
These are kowhai flowers and the tui love them and will travel some distance to find them - that is, if native pigeon haven't already stripped out the buds, which eventually  happens, but not until we have left our New Zealand home when the trees become big enough for it to be worthwhile for the pigeon to bother.
Tui love kowhai flowers and will travel some distance to find them – that is, if native pigeon haven’t already stripped out the buds, which eventually happened to ours, but the trees have to be big enough for the pigeons to bother. So now there are native pigeons taking their share, the answer is to plant more kowhai.
Next in line was the mountain flax, which flowers after rewarewa, and filled a gap until the familiar New Zealand flax started to provide a nectar bonanza in early summer – this progression carried us through the period when tui and bellbird rear their young, and if we could get them to stay and nest we were home and dry – tui feed their young primarily on insects and spiders and there is now no shortage of these. Things were looking up. My flax planting habit now bordered on an obsession, with hundreds of plants going in over just a few days – a hopeful invitation to a future nectar feeding frenzy.


Flax goes in wherever there is space - here below the garden banks where it is interspersed with clumps of toi toi grass.
I begin planting flax wherever there is space – here on gully banks below the garden where they are interspersed with clumps of native toi toi grass.
As summer progressed, the nectar feeders (insects as well as the birds), moved onto pohutukawa that had been planted around the garden. Tui more naturally feed upon closely related rata flowers in the bush, but possum stripped them out before our arrival, although now the possum are under control the ratas are growing back.
Pohutukawa are susceptible to the frosts we get each winter until they are around a metre high; so these trees don’t grow here naturally and are more usually found in coastal regions where the climate is milder. I would cover our young plants every evening through winter until they were old enough to survive.
Pohutukawa flowers brought our nectar feeding season to a close and the birds would then leave in search of other now plentiful foods in late summer. Despite this tui and bellbird became permanent residents for five months or so through spring and summer, and in addition, they started to nest in our bush… Bingo!
December 2007. Pohutukawa or ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’ flowers on an establishing tree.
 Increased nectar availability is a major step forward, but ground cover is also important and I begin to measure success in terms of whether I can see cows in the next door pasture; the flax is beginning to screen them out now, and this is the plant of choice to form corridors along the fence line for birds to move along.
During 2007 we began to see more native birds. As I had hoped, our garden was developing a symbiotic relationship with the bush, and I wondered if this process might be applied more generally to some other conservation areas – providing the gardens can be prevented from moving into adjoining ecosystems.
Looking back at the house from the neighbour's pasture in 2009 it is apparent that I am getting there - the this have arrived as have bell birds - they are hanging around and now nesting in the bush.
2009: Looking back at the house from the neighbour’s pasture it is apparent that we are getting there – tui have arrived in numbers, bellbirds are also showing up, and both are now nesting in the bush.
 Mixing wild areas with gardens is usually frowned upon, but if gardens are planted entirely to natives they will provide a concentrated food source for many birds and insects, and do no harm to recovering environments that are still very much out of balance.
And there was a lot else to establish on this land besides flax. Manuka had died out altogether due to a disease that hit the local area sometime before we arrived. 
Eventually the manuka were re-established by collecting seedlings from locations where they grew densely, these were potted up to joined the kowhai seedlings behind the house and in a year or two, all were planted out. I learned the hard way that manuka are brittle plants and will snap in a high wind if there is no other growth to shelter them.
When in flower, manuka trees are covered with masses of beautiful tiny white blooms which attract thousands of native insects – these in turn are eaten by a variety of native birds that get a boost from yet another valuable food source. In addition manuka honey is medicinal and highly valued – we set up a bee hive… but never stole the honey.
 By 2010 eight acres of land was supporting a considerable number of birds, even bellbirds were moving along the edge of the paddock through corridors of flax, spreading the birds out and reducing competition.  
The bush occupies half the plot with the rest divided between paddock and garden. It would have been great to get rid of the paddock altogether, but in reality this would have reduced our properties resale value. Conservation is often constrained by practicality and it is better to work within such limitations than make life miserable.
In many parts of New Zealand, the old growth forests have largely gone and there is less natural food available in the young densely growing secondary forests that have replaced them. In consequence nature reserves often provide feeding stations to supplement the diet of native birds, but these may also be an invitation to disease, whereas a natural garden has the advantage of providing a super source of food with far less chance of transmitting parasites and pathogens.
2010. From the living room window we can now see no cows at all in the neighbouring paddock. Fanbloofytastic. I've never felt so at home. It seems a pity to leave.
2010. From the living room window plant growth prevents a clear view of cows in the neighbouring paddock. Fantastic! I feel much better now that I can no longer see livestock munching grass… but I can still hear them on a calm day.

As the garden fills out, the number of bellbird and tui increase in number through spring and summer.

Tuis are not uncommon birds – they have declined in some areas but are now making a comeback. A sure sign that conditions suit them is the successful rearing of young – here two recently fledged birds chortle to one another on flowering flax stalks.
The young tuis are everywhere now – they are hanging out at the local nectar bars behaving boisterously and are making a lot of noise. In late summer, things will become quieter as the birds move off to feed elsewhere.
Young Tuis playing at being territorial.
Tuis and bellbirds return in the autumn to feed upon insects, spiders and sap flowing from trees in the bush; they will pick off food mostly at the forest edge where it is warmer, and we see them regularly.
As autumn arrives bellbirds feed behind the house.
 Soon after we arrived, fifty lacebark trees were planted down the drive, they are old enough now to flower and supply food for large numbers of insects. In turn, some insects become food for the birds.
Lacebark flowers are attractive to native butterflies, but I like to pretend that Monarch butterflies should be here, rather than just in North America where they are truely native.
 Establishing the strangling plant Muehlenbeckia australis behind the house has increased the number of New Zealand copper butterflies that live here; there were very few when we arrived. The adults are now common through January as the females go about laying their eggs on tiny Muehlenbeckia leaves.


Adult New Zealand copper butterflies favour a native broom behind my studio where they feed and perform territorial behaviour. Hopefully planting more broom plants about the place will increase copper numbers even further.


I have tried to seal the bush line with native shrubs and trees and this is already reducing wind damage. In future this growth will increasingly protect the margins of this little block of bush.
Viewed from my office window at the back of the house, the garden flows effortlessly into the bush and provides protection from wind damage – this can only sensibly be done with non-intrusive natives plants.
So that’s the way it ends for us, we are moving on, although I refuse to say ‘to pastures new’. We can’t claim to have saved any species facing extinction, but when rare birds re-establish in the adjoining mountain reserve they will certainly travel down the spur of bush that ends close behind the house.
Currently there is a higher density of native birds here than further up the mountain due entirely to a super abundance of food provided by a diverse and concentrated garden planting regime. In the past at the onset of winter it is likely that birds would have migrated down from the mountain to the lush forests and bogs on the plains below, but almost all of this has now been drained and given over to  pasture. Tui will venture further afield for food, but this is as far as most native birds will get.
Some of the birds we have attracted in were previously uncommon. Tomtits showed up in 2009 which was a first for us. The next on the list might be robins, recently re-introduced to the national reserve (further up the mountain) by a dedicated group of conservationists.
Rowdy kaka parrots have been seen on the lower slopes of the mountain and I am confident that they will show up here once the trees mature and begin bearing quantities of fruit.
As the trees mature some will provide a fruit bonanza for kaka and the parrots might then return.
As trees mature some will provide a fruit bonanza for kaka parrots which might one day return.
As the bush matures other rare birds (once common here) will also return  – no doubt to the delight of future residents living in this carefully sited home.
The North Island Kokako was last seen in the area during the 1990s; the good news is that it has recently been re-introduced to the forest reserve – a process that started during 2017. If this is a success, I am quite certain that one day the bird will return and feed on the property. The South Island Kokako which has an orange-red wattle is now thought to be extinct. Sadly this species has not been seen for  a number of years, but some remain hopeful that it is hiding out somewhere and will one day be rediscovered.
The South Island Kokako is a distinct species showing an orange-red wattle, but sadly it is now though to be extinct. The North Island Kokako has a blue wattle would be a great addition to the birdlife here.
The North Island Kokako has a blue wattle and would make a great addition to the local birdlife.
 It is already possible to see natural New Zealand treasures from the house. A few weeks before we moved out, I counted (within a few minutes), seven species of native bird moving around the garden while I was sat on the deck – a truly rewarding experience.
With a reduction in pests and an increase in food there has clearly been a positive response by visiting and part resident native birds. Our neighbours have also noticed an increase in activity. 
Bellbirds are now regularly seen where once there were none and although they are less inclined to leave the bush line than are tui, they do now cross an open paddock to feed in our neighbour’s garden, which is a small thing, but an indication of positive change.
We have left this tiny piece of New Zealand more diverse than we found it; and this is something that almost anybody might do even with a relatively small block of land. It can be easily achieved with a little thought and effort, especially if they don’t keep a cat, and work at effective pest control.
This kind of project might be achieved almost anywhere in the world, although it need not necessarily involve nectar feeders, the priority might for example be to establish a greater abundance of seeds and fruits. Certainly planting for the provision of fruit as the bush matures was an important consideration for us. Tui and native pigeon are key birds for seed distribution in the New Zealand bush and it is clear they are driving regeneration here.
Returning diversity is essential when attempting to conserve ecosystems that have been degraded, and getting the birds and insects back is a necessary but small part of a far bigger picture.

Flowers are the key to feeding a great many animals in the New Zealand garden.


Our family’s carbon foot print has been covered by planting hundreds of trees and shrubs around this property, while the bush has been left to do its own thing, and now that there is no livestock grazing, the under storey is coming back. Parts of the bush are now impenetrable and there is extensive lush regeneration.
Half the land, which includes all of the bush area and quite a bit that was previously sheep pasture is now protected in perpetuity by a QE2 Covenant, and in theory, nobody will be able to fell trees or graze stock in the protected area again.

Each of our actions should  be driven by what is realistically achievable, but we must also be hopeful for the future.

The house with establishing garden and protected bush behind.
The house with establishing garden and protected bush behind.
Results have not been achieved on this site by using a purists approach, and to a degree there has been a push to move things along. In many conservation areas, the rate of recovery needs to pick up, because for some plants an animals it is a race against time. Whatever the choices we make, it is essential to retain species diversity as our population numbers increase, and natural areas disappear.
I can only hope that future residents enjoy whatever achievements they manage in this extraordinary and interesting place, and that they will find time in years to come to ‘take a picture’, and make comparisons that might lead to further improvement, and in some small way help ‘save the planet’.

 2002. Bird species seen in the bush on our arrival: fantail (Maori:- piwakawaka or tiwakawaka) ; grey warbler (Maori:- riroriro) and morepork owl (Maori:- ruru). Species occasionally seen or passing through: silvereye (Maori :- tauhou), tui and the bellbird (with two Maori names :- korimako and makamako).

2002. Bird species occasionally seen: Welcome Swallow (Maori :- warou) – these increased in number by nesting on the eaves of the house – two or three pairs would regularly rear two to three broods a year 20042010.

 2002 and 2010. Birds species common and nesting: Kingfisher (Maori:- kotare)  and Pukeko (the latter a grassland species which is not truly native).

2010: Bird species very common through eight to ten months of the year either in the garden or the bush and also nesting: fantail, grey warbler, silver eye, tui, bellbird and New Zealand pigeon (Kereru).

No change: morepork owl – occasionally seen and often heard.

Occasional: shining cuckoo (Maori:- pipiwharauroa), tomtit (Maori:- miromiro) and New Zealand Falcon (Maori:- karearea).

With thanks to my family and neighbours and especially Alice for helping with the planting in the final stages of our stay.

For the second half of  ‘A New Zealand Odyssey’ numbers Six to Eleven in approximately 5 minute sequences, please see below. For Numbers One to Five please view ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep’. PART 1.



So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep. Part 1.

New Zealand doesn’t have a perfect environmental record, despite its hokey reputation as clean and green… It does however have more than its fair share of beautiful beaches. My family wander along one on the Tasman Sea.

We recently said goodbye to our New Zealand House as another family moved in to what had been our home for eight years.

I guess most of us like to think that our properties are special, but this one really is –  there is a conservation area that didn’t exist before we arrived –  an unusual situation when a new house goes up, because most people bring in pets and refine their gardens, which more often than not, drives wildlife out. I had hoped to do exactly the opposite and bring back native species by restoring an alien environment into something altogether more natural… I mean how difficult could that be?

We arrived from England in 2002 to discover that New Zealand wasn’t the paradise we had expected – most of the great old primary forests had been cleared in lowland areas and replaced by agriculture – more than half the country has been given over to farmland, and three quarters of that is now pasture – an environment totally unsuited to the native birds, but ideal for the many pests introduced by man, that have either eaten or driven much of the native wildlife out. 

This is a classic New Zealand image, but things are changing. The old woodshed near to our house was demolished shortly after this picture was taken.
A classic New Zealand image, but things are changing. A neighbouring old woolshed was demolished shortly after this picture was taken.

Ingrained ideas that New Zealand works best as just another version of ‘the old country’ have become uncomfortable, but things are beginning to change. Increasingly, New Zealanders are establishing their own identity – which creates a more positive attitude towards conservation.

Pommies… they think they can change everything!

It was outrageous to think that I could make a difference here – even a small one. My intention was to build a house close to bush, and knock out a grazing regime that had been in place for decades and then set about increasing native plant diversity in what has for many years been an essentially agricultural area. I also hoped to create a native garden with a super abundance of flowering plants – a natural resource that might encourage back both missing and infrequent birdlife to the adjoining bush.
We wouldn’t try to save endangered species, just encourage back species that had become scarce and if we could do that the rare birds – even those presently heading for extinction, might one day return. I set about the process with great enthusiasm… but this was followed by years of failure
It took a  while to find a suitable spot – a little way up a mountain, the last stop on a winding road before both the road, and electricity ran out. We weren’t quite at the arse end of nowhere but once we had built a house, we could clearly see it from the bathroom window.
It was essential to find a site connected to a protected reserve by at least a slither of bush, so that if there were native birds in the area they’d find us (native forest birds are adapted  to live in the bush and many prefer not to cross open farmland). Hopefully they would come down off the mountain reserve and find us before hitting the lowland pasture just below us. Not an easy task, but we found our site within a couple of weeks; then I set about everything in a a hurry, which was very much against the ethos of the New Zealand way of life.

Autumn 2002: 

At the end of a spur of woodland bush we purchased what is known in New Zealand as a lifestyle block – usually this is a plot of land big enough to keep a few stock animals… and quite the last thing I wanted to do. 
At the end of a spur of woodland bush we purchased what is known in New Zealand as a lifestyle block, which usually means you are going to keep a few stock animals which was the last thing I wanted to do. The birds on the pasture are turkeys - aliens from North America, but they spent most of their time on our land and I grew fond of them - until a neighbouring farmer shot them. When I asked him why, he said they ate too much grass..... I know, that sounded odd to me as well.
Our fence line runs from centre picture (where the bush line ends) to left of picture. The dots on the pasture (just in front of where the house will be sited) are turkeys – aliens from North America, that spent much of their time on our land and I grew fond of them. Then a neighbouring farmer shot all of them. I asked why, and he said that they were eating too much grass… which made me think that conserving anything here might well be an uphill struggle.

October 2002.

I hated to see the land so beat up, but topsoil was carefully put to one side and then replaced around the house once it had been built.
This was not my favourite phase of the project - apparently things have to get worse before they get better.
This initial destructive phase was not my favourite part of the project, but apparently things had to get worse before they could get better.
New Zealanders may have a reputation for being relaxed, but our builders weren’t wasting any time – they moved at break neck speed while we selected interior fittings  – the question was… could we keep up?
It is the 29th of October. A concrete foundation is in place and our house is going up at breakneck speed.
The 29th of October 2002: The concrete foundation in place, the house build is progressing.
While the builders kept busy, I filled in age old sheep scrapes, then a gully bottom that had been washed out and finally I made a start on invasive weeds in need of clearance.
A couple of neighbours, Jim and Ron saw me struggling with intrusive barberry and without needing to be asked showed up with their chainsaws and saved me a month’s hard labour.  For working favours beer is the usual currency of appreciation here.
Most neighbours are kind and helpful because New Zealanders are generous by nature. Best of all they are supportive of what I hope to do.
Jim fells troublesome barberry.A couple of neighbours, Jim and Ron saw me struggling to fell barberry along the margins of our bush line and without needing to be asked showed up with chainsaws and saved me days of hard labour. Bottles of beer are often the currency of appreciation here.
Jim fells troublesome barberry invasive along the native bush line.
Not far behind the house I enjoyed visits the waterfall which is down in a steep gully and difficult to get to. None of our older visitors ever made it down there, and a friend who did, had a heart attack and left on a stretcher, but thankfully made a full recovery.
Not too far behind the house was a waterfall.
Although not far from the house, the waterfall felt remote.
Once the house was finished my neighbour Paul moved a great deal of top soil back onto the banks using his tractor – there was certainly plenty of it and for years great piles remained along the driveway. I transported this where ever it was needed using a wheel barrow – an epic struggle but not quite as desperate as the one I was having with the weeds.
Agricultural soil is nitrogen rich and markedly changed from the natural soil found in the bush. Pasture takes time to revert, and I was now seeing more weeds from Britain than plants native to New Zealand.
The moist wet climate presents ideal growing conditions for most of the year and after struggling for two I was close to giving up. The  old paddock wasn’t converting to anything like a native garden  and I was beginning to think my efforts rather foolish.
The whole place was full of plants and animals that I recognised from Southern England, gorse, bramble, thrushes, blackbirds, hedgehogs, stoats… the list seemed endless, and a great deal of bush had already been eaten out by Australian possum before we arrived. A mass aerial poisoning of the area with 1080 pellets soon after we arrived was rather frightening – 1080 kills anything that eats it, but it did considerably reduce possum numbers which was a relief because they eat just about anything that leafs, fruits or flowers. Before control programmes became more stringent, possum numbers in New Zealand were estimated at around 30 million.
We began seeing flocks of silver eye passing through, small birds that evolved elsewhere in the southwest Pacific region. Silvereye are more adaptable than many truly native birds. In winter they come to the bird table and they are often seen feeding on fallen fruit. Silvereyes regularly visit New Zealand gardens and are viewed as native birds.
Hebe was a great native to plant out on the banks – it grew well, flowered profusely and provided cover for other natives to grow through – many will not survive in an open landscape. It didn’t take long for the rabbits to find them and start chewing them up, and nothing would survive until I stated encasing plants in ugly plastic milk bottle containers.
Any new tree that was planted was quickly barked by hares or gnawed down – this they will do to anything new growing on their territory, but once a plant is finally underway both rabbits and hares will leave them alone. I shot a great many rabbits during our stay, but for sentimental reasons could never bring myself to shoot a hare. This stage of breaking through was long and depressing – a classic case of one step forward and two steps back, repeated over and over again like a ‘groundhog day’.

2003. The Battle of the Weeds.

My brother-in-law Steve organises a delivery of wood chip pings. My daughter Alice lays newspaper and then helps me spread the chips on the banks to inhibit weed growth.
My wife’s brother Steve organised a delivery of wood chippings and my daughter Alice helped lay newspaper – then together we spread the chips across the banks to inhibit weed growth. This proved the only way to beat the weeds without using poison – at one point things got so bad I did resort to spot spraying, but the process could  be done without it.
My wife Jen and I were out at weekends to any local event that had  plants on sale – this reduced costs and sourcing plants from the local area made good ecological sense.
Jen with a local purchase for the garden. Essentially we built are garden one plant at a time and I held our budget in check by dividing plants as they grew.
Jen with a local purchase for the garden. We built our garden one plant at a time and  our budget was held in check by dividing plants as they grew – the whole garden cost hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

2005. At last… stuff starts to grow!

The intention was to cover the banks as quickly as possible by planting native grasses – this worked well, as the  larger natives really did grow through the cover.
The 9th March 2005: The same bank Alice was wood chipping in September 2003.
 9th March 2005: The same bank Alice was wood chipping in September 2003.
There are a few non-native South African daisies as Jen got bored with the lack of colour – native New Zealand flora can be very subtle – the daisies came from dunes along local beaches and I collected a variety of colours from different locations, but essentially I was now adding hebes and flax along with the most colourful flowering natives I could find. Limited numbers of plants with large colourful flowers might even be seen as an advantage to garden design.
It is impossible to outline every detail of the development of a large garden here, and so I’ll narrow the detail to the importance of nectar as a source of energy for insects, and most appropriately, for New Zealand’s nectar feeding birds.
There were no flaxes present when we arrived that might provide nectar rich flowers attractive to feeding  tuis and bellbirds, and so I began to plant them  – but it was a year before any flowered, and still no sign of the birds I was hoping to see, nor were there a great many native insects. It was clear that I was failing – the place seemed as much a desert for New Zealand wildlife as it had been three years earlier when it was all grazed pasture.

With the Spring of 2005 comes signs of of change.

October 2003 and things are moving a bit more quickly. A commercial forest is being logged not far away and I am beginning to haul large tree ferns out of the carnage and am planting them around the place. It seems odd getting them so large and for free as they cost hundred of pounds each in garden centres back in Britain. The big one back right took a whole afternoon to drag out using a rope and a wife.
October 2005: things are moving more quickly. A commercial forest is being logged not far away and I am beginning to haul large tree ferns out of the carnage to  plant around the house.. It seems odd getting such large plants for free as they would have cost hundreds of pounds each in garden centres back in Britain. The big one (back right) took a whole afternoon to drag out using a rope and a wife.
By now the flax, grasses and ferns are beginning to take a hold but there are still no native birds to speak of. Despite this I begin planting corridors down fence lines to encourage the birds to spread out… should they ever show up! The more widespread the planting, the more native wildlife the land will support. I’ve done all that I can – it is now a case of waiting for plants to flower.
That a super abundance of food will attract in nectar feeding birds is a great theory… but this is reality and I’m beginning to think it could go either way.

PART 2 To Follow.                

Pictures and text  ©Stephen Bolwell.

 With thanks to my family and neighbours.

A new Zealand Odyssey may be viewed in 11 parts of approximately 5 minutes each. Parts One to Five below. For Parts Six to Eleven please see, ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep’. Part 2.





The Not So Strange Case of the Disappearing Trees.

Many successful conservation efforts are best dealt with locally – it’s easier when things happen closer to home. Commendable though it is to try and save rhinos on the other side of the planet, practical conservation works best when it’s just around the corner.

A stream running through Fleetwood natural woodland. It is Just beautiful.
A stream runs through Fleetwood Park’s woodland, which is conveniently close to where I live.

I have concerns over a woodland habitat that forms a major part of Fleetwood Park, in Surrey B.C. , an exceptional wildlife environment, and like many others in urban areas, really needs locals to remain vigilant.

The stream in spring.
The stream in spring.

I recently wrote about tree felling in the park, because it was impossible to miss the large number of trees that had been cut along a path running through the woods. Prior to the felling, a local said that she’d stopped counting the red markers on standing trunks at 65 trees, but she’d seen plenty more, and was concerned. And for most of us, that’s about as far as it gets.

I guessed the trees were for the chop because they were considered potentially dangerous, but it was clear that more than half of those that eventually came down posed no immediate threat – they were just trees along a pleasant walk with a bit of rot that attracted feeding woodpeckers, and had been useful to a great many plants and animals.

The stream in Autumn.
The stream in Autumn.

I e-mailed the local Parks division to outline my concerns over the felling in the hope that it might be moderated, and to their credit, I received a prompt response. 105 trees had been designated for removal and nothing was going to change that. Reluctantly I have accepted, that in a litigious world, local authorities have to protect themselves, even if sometimes they are overzealous. I also learned that around 250 young trees would be planted – more than double the replacement number, but I’ll return to that later.

There were other details concerning policy  – most of which sounded good on paper: – a ‘Sustainability Charter’, a ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’, a ‘Preservation Policy’, a ‘Dedicated Urban Forest Parks Policy’ and a ‘Natural Area Management Plan’ and finally a ‘Common Sense Just Leave Things Alone Working Group.’ Sorry… I just made that last one up.

All in all, there was a lot to take in, but in the end there is no denying that essential corridors between the few remaining natural habitats in the area are rapidly disappearing, and trees continue to be felled across the region for land development. You can’t help but think that despite all the words, policies are mostly concerned with appearance, and very little to do with practical conservation.

I take pictures in the wood almost every day and it makes me wonder - how could you possibly improve on this?
I take pictures in the wood almost every day and it makes me wonder – how could you possibly improve on this?

My response was to suggest that what the woodland really needed wasn’t so much tree felling and re-planting, but a couple of other less intrusive smaller scale activities.

I asked for the summer mow along the paths to be staggered – and we aren’t talking a grass mow here. Plants that grow several feet high suddenly disappear: one day there are butterflies feeding on flowers, perhaps a Pacific tree frog sitting on a leaf, shrews scurrying below in the ground cover, and a whole lot of other activities in full swing – then quite suddenly everything is levelled.

The cutting is necessary, but staggering it would reduce the impact on wildlife – taking out one half of the plant growth and then coming back in a few weeks’ time to take out the rest would help to prevent the whole habitat from vanishing in one fell swoop. Presently, a single cut leaves many small animal corpses along pathways and nowhere for insects to feed. There is unfortunately no budget available to make a change, but I wonder if ‘keep it nice and tidy’  might also be on the agenda.

It is always a thrill to see a Pacific tree frog on a leaf by the path, but the summer verge cut poses a survival problem for them, as it does for many other creatures.
It is always a thrill to see a Pacific tree frog on a leaf by the path, but the summer verge cut poses a survival problem for them, as it does for many other creatures.

This is a great place for amphibians – the woodland remains fairly wet on all but the hottest days of summer and it is a credit to park authorities that they leave fallen trees to rot on the ground – a major contribution to conservation that doesn’t happen everywhere, as many will tidy up even through natural woodlands.

What amphibians need most in this otherwise perfect habitat is a few scrapes in the ground close by streams to provide still water for egg laying. This water must last long enough to allow larvae to develop, but not so long as to allow colonisation by predators such as beetles and dragonfly larvae.  A good sized tyre rut is ideal, but with the increase in hot, dry summers, these temporary pools need a little maintenance during winter to keep them open and viable so that they last long enough for young amphibians to emerge during summer.

Such pools would be helpful to several amphibian species including the long-toed salamander, which might also lay eggs in slow running streams, but here there is a chance that larvae will be washed down stream and the young salamanders emerge outside of the conservation area. Unfortunately no larvae can wash into the park because stream water arrives via underground springs that are now covered by amphibian unfriendly urban developments.

As expected, there is no budget available for the maintenance of pools either, but I’m hopeful that in future something voluntary might be organised if the park authorities agree to it.

Long-toed salamanders tend to emerge at night and are seldom seen during the day. I know... What's the point if you never see them... Well, it's all about diversity which is a sure sign of a healthy environment.
Long-toed salamanders tend to emerge at night and are seldom seen during the day. I know… What’s the point if you never see them… Well, it’s all about diversity which is a sure sign of a healthy environment.

One of the main concerns for animals that can’t fly, is isolation on natural islands that are rapidly becoming surrounded by seas of development – this is a particular problem for amphibians and reptiles.

It makes sense in this woodland to undertake small projects rather take on expensive planting schemes. The environment is healthy – there is good species diversity, along with plant regeneration and the habitat functions well without too much interference.

 Most urban forests are secondary replacements for primary forests that were felled in the not too distant past; once clear of trees the land was initially utilised for agriculture, but much has now been replaced by development. The secondary forests that remain are still quite young, shaped by human influence, opinions vary as to how best to maintain them.

One option is to plant new woodlands in places where they have disappeared altogether. And established woodlands that are developing naturally, might benefit from the re-introduction of lost species, but otherwise might best be left alone.

A dynamic woodland progresses at it’s own pace, increasing in complexity over time. Parks departments understandably want to replace trees that they have felled, and may also wish to speed up forest development, even in woodlands that are progressing naturally – we have become so used to planting trees commercially it is difficult to escape the notion that it is quite necessary to interfere.

The borders of the woodland path three years ago during late spring - a perfect wildlife habitat and very beautiful.
The borders of the woodland path three years ago during late spring – a perfect wildlife habitat and very beautiful.

The decision to plant 250 potentially very big trees here – mostly conifers with many close to the path, might be consider a disproportionate activity in relation to the rest of the woodland.

The authorities might also be considering slow growing conifers, such as cedars, as requiring less maintenance in years to come, but it is worth remembering that seeds will still be arriving on the wind, others will be carried in by woodland birds and mammals; and many of the trees that will form the next stage of woodland development are already present and will grow and multiply in due course – a process that  may take tens, even hundreds of years, but in the end might achieve a healthier forest.

Three years ago and early in the spring: the two trunks leaning away were beginning to rot, these would eventually have fallen away from the path at some stage - they formed part of a habitat that acted as a food source for a great many forest dwellers. Wood peckers worked for grubs right next to the path (see their beak hammer holes in the trunk - top right).
Three years ago and early in the spring: the two trunks leaning away were beginning to rot, these would eventually have fallen away from the path at some stage – they formed part of a habitat that acted as a food source for a great many forest dwellers. Woodpeckers worked for grubs right next to the path (see their beak hammer holes in the trunk – top right).

My response to the park authority was that very little could be done until their conservation policy entered the 21st Century, which retrospectively seems a little unfair – they just want something other than a natural progression –  but I’m not quite sure what; and I don’t think there is any fear that they are overthinking the situation. At such times I sometimes lose patience… say something unfortunate… somebody gets upset, and then nothing changes. And that’s always going to be a problem when you tell it the way you see it.

I know… if it doesn’t work, then why do it!!!?  and I was thinking exactly that when there was an unexpected response from the parks manager – he was very reasonable and happy to meet me on site; I should have expected this, because Canadians are endlessly tolerant and polite, but that doesn’t mean their views will be any less entrenched than anywhere else that you might question authority.

Our meeting duly happened and I was given a couple of generous hours to make several points and then listen to why park policies were in general disagreement with my views. I wasn’t getting anywhere… but I kind of expected that, even before I started.

A hairy woodpecker feeding last year on one of the trees that have recently been felled along the pathway.
A hairy woodpecker feeding last year on one of the trees that have recently been felled along the pathway.

Between my last contact with park authorities and the meeting, all the young trees had been planted. Rather too many along the woodland path in my opinion – almost all of them evergreens that will in places (during somebody else’s lifetime), create screens that for many years will blank out agreeable views until the trees have grown; whereas presently there are many wonderful sight lines through moss covered branches. Conifers provide cover for birds and are all part of the natural progression, but I wonder if it was appropriate to plant quite so many here?

Conifers might eventually establish everywhere on this site and return the forest to the way it was before man interfered, but it is also possible that in future, woodlands such as this will be managed to provide different stages of the ecosystem to maintain a greater diversity of wildlife. This habitat is already interesting but it has the potential to become a rare treasure as urban development continues to swamp the landscape.

Potentially mighty trees planted just three feet apart seems odd to me.
Potentially mighty trees planted just three feet apart seems odd to me.

My recent disappointment at seeing so many trees felled was now overtaken by puzzlement over the planting regime. Why were groups of half a dozen potentially big trees sited almost on top of one another?

‘They will form a grove’ said the manager’.

‘I don’t think so, not when they are planted so close together’. I replied.

‘Only about 40% will survive’ – was the manager’s response.

But I didn’t think that was likely either, and said so. The trees’ survival rate would be higher because the wood isn’t prone to heavy grazing by deer,  and as urban development continues deer will become even less frequent visitors.

When tree seedlings grow in an open space they may grow in their thousands, with the result that tightly packed spindly trees will establish for a hundred years or more before a few finally out compete their neighbours, but the trees in this wood are not growing like that, they are well spaced and visually pleasing – there is no precedent here to encourage the planting of five or six saplings close together, but even if this were natural, wouldn’t it make sense to plant them farther apart if you had the option?

These three conifers are planted within a few feet of one another - should they survive, at some stage their trunks must fuse. But if a grove is intended, they need to be planted a few paces rather than a few feet apart. Just over the felled trunk are the two potentially mighty trees shown in the previous picture - the planting here is very tight.
These three conifers are planted within a few feet of one another – should they survive, at some stage their trunks must fuse. But if a grove is intended, they need to be planted a few paces rather than a few feet apart. Just over the felled trunk are the two potentially mighty trees shown in the previous picture – the planting here is very tight.

Trees planted so close, ultimately compete for resources; many of the conifers in question are slow growers anyway and they will inevitably take even longer to mature when planted in close proximity; and there is always the possibility that in a tight group of five or six, the trees closest to the path may head towards the light and grow out over the walkway, creating a potential hazard that I had assumed park policy would be keen to avoid… but I was wrong.

‘And they won’t be cut’, said the manager, ‘unless they show signs of rot. We accept that healthy trees will sometimes drop branches’.

Douglas fir he told me, do this without any sign of rot. I had seen an example of this only the day before on the main bridge over the gully stream and this demonstrates that a fir branch dropping from above poses a far greater threat to people than a trunk toppling across a path, which is more likely to be observed and avoided.

A healthy Douglas fir bough that has splintered and fallen onto a frequently used gully bridge. Had anybody been walking across they might easily have been hit.
A healthy Douglas fir bough that has splintered and fallen onto a frequently used gully bridge. Had anybody been walking across they might easily have been hit.

In addition there was the tree that blew over and fell across the path a few weeks ago…  a few days after the tree felling had been completed! The contradictory behaviour of trees in relation to park policy and the potential for litigation was beginning to defeat me.

The woodland two years ago during spring... just so delightfully subtle!
The woodland two years ago during spring… just so delightfully subtle!

The truth regarding the new trees was that they were probably planted in haste, which isn’t the best way to plan a forest for the future.  A moments consideration is essential when siting a tree that might  grow for a thousand years or more – and is certainly an activity that shouldn’t be rushed. The manger freely admitted that the ground between established trees might have been difficult to dig, with established roots making precision planting difficult. Perhaps we were getting nearer to the truth now. And maybe one of the best reason for not planting a tree is when a bigger tree is telling you not to.

Recently, I noticed a couple of trees in the wood that were hardly planted at all – they were leaning over with their roots partially exposed above the soil; unless there is some artistic or practical reason for such an odd angle (e.g. hedge laying), it is likely that the process was hurried.

A small tree planted at 30 degrees off of the vertical; in consequence its roots are exposed.
A small tree planted at 30 degrees off of the vertical; in consequence its roots are exposed.

Tree planting is a discipline that has many variables and few guarantees, it is an unselfish act that should benefit future generations, but inevitably success can only be judged retrospectively.

My wife noticed this one a few days ago - a forgotten big leaf maple. Perhaps it is a bit mean to point this out more than a week and a half after the planting - but if you don't put them in the ground... they won't grow.
My wife noticed this one a few days ago – a forgotten big leaf maple. Perhaps it is a bit mean to point this out more than a week and a half after the planting – but if you don’t put them in the ground… they won’t grow.

Maybe people will come to this wood in future and take further pictures as the trees grow, and provide useful comparisons of change; but I still think that getting things right from the start, by siting potentially large trees with care, is the key – especially when adding them to an already existing woodland. In the end none of this is rocket science… It’s far more important than that.

N.B. I went into the woods on a Sunday morning not long after the planting, only to discover holes where some of the trees had been planted, most of these appeared to have been removed in a hurry and my first thought was that they must have been stolen. In the words of Homer Simpson, ‘I didn’t do it!’ I hurried home and left a message for the park authorities and then notified the police.

On the Monday I received an e-mail from parks. The manager had checked the plant spacing with his arborist and confirmed that the some of the planting was too close; subsequently the contractors were sent in to remedy the situation. They will also have to return again to fill in the holes that will otherwise act as pitfall traps for small animals. On the up side, the Surrey Parks Division response has been rapid in rectifying a mistake.

The Spotted Towhee is resident year round, but has been less frequently seen over the last twelve month, possibly due to disturbance caused by local urban development.
The Spotted Towhee is resident year round, but has been less frequently seen over the last twelve month, possibly due to disturbance caused by local urban development.

I expect local authorities where ever I have lived hold parties when I move on. But if I can make a small difference by simply observing and then using a camera, then many others can do the same. So, if something is not quite right where you are, then why not – ‘take a picture’ and help ‘save the planet’ – even if only in a small way.

With thanks to Professor Bernd Heinrich for observations made on his woodland in Maine, although there is no intention to imply that his views are reflected in this article.

To see hairy woodpeckers working a tree for grubs in Fleetwood Park, please watch:

And pileated woodpecker:

Is Every Rotten Tree in the Forest Really Out to Get You?

The modern world has noticeably changed. We all have rights now; should a tree fall upon us somebody else will almost certainly be  responsible, and if an appropriate scapegoat can’t be found we can at least expect to sue our local authority. There is very little left in the developed world for which we are responsible – becoming fat, having too many children, getting run over when jogging across a busy intersection whilst listening to a stereo system plugged into our ears; even spilling hot coffee over ourselves in a public place clearly has nothing to do with us. Read the warning on the cup: ‘The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot’. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it – a juice perhaps – but wait… there’s no diabetes warning – how irresponsible is that?

Whatever stupid thing we might choose to do is done with the understanding that when things go wrong it will always be somebody else’s fault – it falls to the authorities to protect us from every idiocy we care to perpetrate on ourselves; but as we pass on our personal responsibilities, inevitably a lot else goes with them, not least our personal freedom. And if you think that natural selection is no longer operating at the human level with our now near total control of the environment, you’d be wrong, because we are now maintaining all the stupidest genes within the pool by a process of litigation. Who’s really responsible when a tree falls on us? And shouldn’t it be up to us on occasions to see a potential problem before it arises?

This sort of thing isn't impossible, but it's rare - in this case I'm feeling better than appearances might suggest... and photographing fungi.
This sort of thing isn’t impossible, but it’s rare – in this case I’m feeling better than appearances might suggest… and photographing fungi.

My family and I now live in Surrey, British Columbia – we arrived around five years ago and it was then perhaps even greener than its leafy name sake in England. Both Surreys are well known for their tree filled suburbs – but something is very wrong with the one we now live in. According to a local report, the Surrey in B.C. has lost almost one fifth of its tree canopy in just over a decade and that isn’t very Canadian – most people here favour trees, which might seem a bit odd for a nation that not so long ago built an entire economy by cutting them down. Presently, it is the suburbs that are at the sharp end of the chop, and a large number of trees have been felled in recent years. Maybe fewer of us are bothered than was once the case, or it might just be that not enough people live in the same place for long enough to notice the changes.

Surrey Fleetwood Park's woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.
Surrey Fleetwood Park’s woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.

Not long after arriving, I was photographing birds in a local wood when a passing local stopped to talk. I told him that I had seldom seen such a diversity of birdlife in a suburban area, and he responded by saying that if I thought that this was diversity, then I should have been here twenty years ago.

In some Surrey woodlands bird diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.
In some Surrey woodlands bird species diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.

That’s just the way things go; we move in, then move on and hardly notice the change. Or could it be that we just allow our brains to slip into a happy state of mind. If so, this rosy thinking may have long term consequences because decreasing wildlife diversity is a clear indication that we are heading for trouble. I’ve noticed an obvious decline in woodland birds during the five years I have lived here – it’s a sad situation, but I’ve seen it happen before.

Getting older provides plenty of time for bad dreams to repeat themselves, but it clearly isn’t up to me to decide which woodlands should be protected from development, although it is obvious that this kind of destruction can’t continue at the present rate forever. Every local should be entitled to a view, but unfortunately most prefer to moan after the event, and many Canadians are so pleasant, they hardly complain at all. Fortunately, I’m not so good natured, and will comment even if it’s a little late to make a difference, but perhaps by doing so I’ll help to change the future… and we could argue for days as to whether that’s remotely possible.

Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but inn general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetables.
Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but in general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetation.

So, I’m away from the area for a week and return to discover a great many of the trees in Fleetwood Park woods have been felled along the main pathway, and on almost every occasion I return there, more trees that have been cut down. To me this seems a travesty, but I’m not sure that others share my view – I feel like the character in a 1960’s horror movie who has walked into that lonely pub on the moor thinking something is wrong, but the locals don’t want to talk about it.

The forest isn't full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should 'be happy' out in the woods - and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.
The forest isn’t full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should ‘be happy’ out in the woods – and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.

What is certain is that along the path a great many trees were marked with red paint and not long after, they were, and still are being cut down, probably due to a concern that one might fall onto the path, which occasionally happens, but usually this has happened at night during storms when the chance that somebody might be walking by is very low. Branches that fall directly from above in windy weather would certainly present a hazard, but there are none over the paths here, and a tree that topples directly onto somebody is unlikely in the extreme.

My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her... O.K. she's just bird watching.
My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her… Alright, she’s just bird watching.

It is surprising how long a rotten tree will stand before it goes over and when it does, you have to be as rooted to the spot as the tree once was to get hit. A tree falling takes time and is a noisy process. There is a little sign along the nature walk to make us feel good – it reads ‘Nature at Work’, and that’s exactly what this is – so the best thing you can do is step out of the way – unless you’re one of those litigious people just waiting for the right opportunity to bolster family fortunes.

There can be no complaints about cutting this one - clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.
There can be no complaints about cutting this one – clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.

The real concern is that many of the cut trees are not  dangerously rotten and there are a great many of them. It can take a hundred years and more for some trees to grow to a decent size, but only a few seconds to daub a blob of red paint on a trunk, with only a few more required to fell it.

This one probably could have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.
This one probably should have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.

Until recently we were lucky enough to own a small wood; and from an upper window I could watch the effect of storms on a tree line close by the house. When a large tree was blown over, disturbance to trees further into the forest was clearly noticeable and sealing the forest border produced a marked improvement in tree survival. Shrubs and trees allowed to grow naturally along the margin will substantially stabilise a forest and it is surprising how effective even a five to ten year old natural windbreak can be in sustaining the interior.

Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the wood more susceptable to wind damage.
Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the woodland more susceptable to wind damage.

I asked local people passing through the wood what they thought and most seemed unconcerned, and quite a few hadn’t even noticed – I can’t imagine how this is possible because it looks as if a battalion of tanks has driven through – apart from the obvious sharply cut tree bases, which didn’t seem at all odd to the man who thought the problem might have been caused by the wind. Another couple had other views: the man said cottonwoods didn’t grow nicely and  he’d like to see them replaced with conifers which he much preferred, and no matter how many trees came down the parks people would certainly replace them by planting more. His partner said she didn’t like the increasing development in the local area but the tree felling didn’t bother her at all, and in any case it wasn’t a major concern for them because they would be moving from the area. My response to this didn’t go down well.

I believe we should all engage in our local area while we are living there – otherwise almost anything goes…. and usually, quite literally, it does. I have to admit that this makes me think about what people rely want – maybe some just want different things than I do, or perhaps they don’t see the subject as important, and if this is the case, there can be little doubt that they are wrong. I accept that sometimes it is necessary to remove a tree that is in the wrong place, especially if it presents an obvious danger. Invasive species sometimes need dealing with and species that have been lost may need reintroducing: salmon berry has been re-established in some places here and its return is very welcome, but for the most part, a natural woodland that is re-generating successfully should be left alone – nature knows far better than we do where a tree should grow.

Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.
Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.

A tree that comes down in the interior may create a useful glade and increase plant diversity, but along the borders such an event can be destabilising and the incidence of ‘tearing out’ will usually increase in exposed locations; and a small woodland suffers from having a more exposed perimeter in relation to its area that a large forest.

I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk,as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn't immediately result in a death sentence - the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk, as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn’t immediately result in a death sentence – the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn't reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden rather than a forest mentality.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn’t reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden park mentality rather than considered as part of a natural forest.

A recent addition to the forest has been the introduction of information posts and these  really do need felling. There is plenty enough information that we have to absorb outside of the park; in urban environments this kind of thing is everywhere and we should be able to come to a woodland haven to get away from all of that. If there is a need to have an information board, then it should be at the entrance to the woodland walk with interior areas left free of clutter, which otherwise ruin both views and photographic opportunities.

These signs do have their uses in cold weather - I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board - to reveal rhyming details for a woodland dweller, presumably with the intention of engaging children.
These signs do have their uses in winter – I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board, but my preference is the snowy cover – beneath there is a picture of a woodland dweller with an accompanying description in rhyme, presumably to engage the minds of children. Sadly, the poetry leaves me feeling even colder than the snow.

Ironically the most recent information post to go up beside the path provides a description for pileated woodpecker, which is odd, because every tree along the way with even a little rot has been felled, leaving very few places for woodpeckers to feed or nest where they might easily be seen.

I didn't get the opportunity to observe pileted woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada - these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness in that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in the local area.
I didn’t get the opportunity to observe pileated woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada – these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in my local area.
If it doesn't work out, I guess I'll just have to rely upon memories of my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream one day of coming to North America to see the real thing.
If it doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll just have to rely upon memories from my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream of one day coming to North America to see the real thing.

We need to be safe, but not ridiculously so. Cutting down a tree in the adjoining Fleetwood Park Garden is an altogether different consideration – a carefully laid out garden is a discipline that doesn’t pretend to emulate the wild. The woodland on the other hand isn’t just a place for joggers and people emptying their dogs, it also has a role to play in conserving nature, much to the delight of those who care about such things. When people lack transport or the necessary mobility to travel so extensively, natural parks in urban localities become an increasingly important amenity, especially as the natural world is pushed increasingly further away by development.  There is very little woodland left in most suburban areas and the last thing we need is overzealous tree cutting. A favourite mantra is that it is happening everywhere now, but that isn’t a good enough excuse to ignore the problem, we need to react.  So, when you see too much tree felling in your area – make a fuss; and remember… take a picture – and who knows, maybe one day this might help to save the Planet.

To see pileated woodpecker working an old tree in Fleetwood Park please go to:

More worrying red dots are showing up on big tree trunks along the Fraser Highway at the point where it passes through Surrey’s Green Timbers Urban Forest………….. Should I be shouting ‘TIMBER!!!!’

Wandering the Borders of Believability.

An interesting photograph will sometimes push beyond the bounds of reason to the point where we should become skeptical, but deciding when we have moved beyond good sense and into the realms of gullibility is not always easy to assess; and this dividing line is important, because everyday we make decisions based upon images that throw into question exactly what we are prepared to believe.

When we pay for a service that relies solely on the written word, complexity is part of the deal. Buying into financial services or legal representation forces us to seek help, because these are disciplines that have evolved complex terminologies that usually benefit those doing the representing, ahead than those footing the bill. However, when a sale is direct – say from a supermarket shelf, simplicity is the key, and the fewer the words the better. Even more potent, is the use of visual imagery, which can grab our attention in a very physical way, or at least, that’s the way it feels. There is no doubt, that an appropriate picture can have enormous impact, even when presented through smoke and mirrors with the sole intention to deceive.

The pony
This picture has not been photoshopped or tampered with – there was definitely no smoke, but certainly a mirror involved. From ‘The New Forest Landscapes’. 2003 (book).

During waking hours we are forced to make hundreds of instant decisions about the ideas we will buy into and the ideas we won’t; much of this input comes directly from advertising, a medium full of contradictions where complexity and subtlety are often combined with a simplistic presentation that lures us in and then hooks our brains at a primeval level that can sometimes elicit a response more effectively than brain surgery.

A person extracted from a hundred years in the past and dumped into our modern world would at once suffer visual sensory overload, especially if they were forced to deal with the full compliment of technical gadgetry that has become part of our everyday lives, and yet most of us remain surprisingly unphased by this ever increasing complexity. At no time in history have we been more savvy or aware, and yet we are frequently confronted by images that raise serious questions about what we are prepared to believe.

In my mid-twenties I started making a film in the hope that it would help me get a job in television. Looking for an unusual subject I decided to work on my childhood preoccupation – reptiles and amphibians.

 Reptiles aren't everybodies idea of agreeable, but how is that possible? This female adder is perfection. How is t possible not to befor me most are very beautiful - in is case a female adder is a perfect example. How is it possible to be anything other than enchanted?
Reptiles aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but it is difficult to ignore their adaptive elegance, here represented by the sinusoidal beauty of a female adder. How is it possible to be anything other than enchanted?

Whilst filming my chosen subject I was visited by a B.B.C. Natural History Unit producer with a background in outside broadcast -mostly covering golf. He told me that there would never be a successful film made about creatures such as frogs or snakes because nobody would want to watch it….. This was clearly a  downer and I had a mind to ask, ‘Could there be anything less interesting than watching golf?’ but before I could drive home the point, David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ showed up and nothing would be the same in natural history film making again.

The producer of the amphibians programme, Richard Brock sought me out because he thought I might usefully film sequences for the amphibians programme, and he brought with him a far more positive attitude than his colleague. He was engaging as told me about ‘Frogs Law’, the gist of which is, amphibians are expressionless creatures that give little indication of when they are likely to do something, and only become animated when least expected. In consequence filming them can be very expensive. Sadly, I had already discovered this.

Frogs will often jump into your side of reality when they are being filmed.
Frogs will often jump from their reality into ours when  they are being filmed. I think this frog is Malaysian, but frogs from several continents regularly ended up on this macro lens. Picture used as a chapter heading for the book, ‘The Making of  “The Living Planet”‘ 1984.

In the grand scheme of things my contribution to ‘Life on Earth’ would be small and initially revolve around the filming of British species,  but I  nevertheless put a great many hours into the project, mostly waiting for my cold blooded subjects to do something interesting. The film went on to become a favourite within the ‘Life on Earth” series and provided me with future opportunities to continue filming creatures that weren’t cuddly, hadn’t been filmed widely before and were of particular interest to me.

There were bad experiences of course, and I’ll never get back that week I spent trying to catch a female frog emitting her spawn… unfortunately I missed it, but there was a lot that I didn’t; it’s just unfortunate that I remember failure more clearly than I do success.

A by-product of half a lifetime of recording unusual animal activities is that I’ve spent more time watching, waiting and filming  European common toads than I care to mention; and it would not be unreasonable to claim that for the most part, I know what these toads will do and even more useful, when they are likely to do it; and so much of their behaviour totters right at the edge of credulity. This then is my area of expertise and the one I have chosen to question visual believability. I could just as easily have chosen social insects – so be thankful I’m not going on about ants – I’Il stick with toads because they are bigger, slower and easier to photograph … But are they really slower, taking into account relative size? A question that has troubled me from an early age. I must have been an odd child, but fortunately, failed to recognise this at the time. Each of us has an area of expertise that provides us with our best possible chance to decide what is or is not true.

A hedge fund manager, might for example, be able to show us how to make money from something that doesn’t exist whilst staying out of prison – an activity right on the limits of understanding, even for the most perceptive amongst us. Of course, it can be done, but I can’t imagine how, and so it make sense for me to stick with the interesting but unlikely habits of Mr Toad. Why did the toad cross the road?

On the Road Again - it's always about getting to the other side isn't it?
On the Road Again – it’s always about getting to the other side. This picture was taken during the filming of one programme in a children’s anthropomorphic television series for the B.B.C..       I wrote the original story for ”A Day in the Life –  A Toads Tale’ in 1978, and filmed the project assisted by Chris Packham. The toads name was Buffy but no vampires were slain.

In early spring the urge to return to a pond (usually the pond of origin) is strong, and crossing a road is not something a toad is obliged to think much about. It just happens. When something moves across the retina of an amphibian’s eye neurons fire – a fast moving fly for example will stimulate a frog to flip out his tongue with great rapidity, whereas something moving more slowly may not elicit a response. Getting close to a frog or toad in the wild without disturbing it works on the same principle – you try to avoid firing neurons in the amphibian’s brain by moving slowly.

Frogs and toads react to stimuli without going through the trials and tribulations of thinking, although they have the ability to remember some things well, which rather gives the impression they are thoughtful creatures.

They orientate sometimes better than we can, and will usually move off in the same direction whenever they are replaced in an original starting position. You might believe that Mr Toad is decision making, but this is your illusion not Mr Toad’s – he’s not so much a thinker as a doer. You on the other hand have confused what you are prepared to believe with what you think you know. This is the story of our lives – thinking we know, and then believing what we think we know clearly isn’t the same as really knowing… but most of us just don’t know that. There is a lot going on in a toads head that we understand, but  still a lot more that we don’t, and the ability to orientate is high on the ‘not yet quite understood’ list for both reptiles and amphibians.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had been prepared to lay on a road in the middle of the night and film common toads crossing… but of course, I never did. All of the central road shots were filmed on a set, and anytime toads were close to cars on a real road, the vehicles were driven by friends who knew exactly where the toads were, and when a toad got squashed it was always one made from plasticine. Sometimes it’s really difficult to know what to believe.

A pair of Common Toads at the point of spawning.
A pair of Common Toads at the point of spawning.

Amplexus is the action of a male frog or toad grasping a female, but with toads the whole thing can get out of hand when large numbers of males begin grasping a single female.

Amplexus describes the actio of a male frog or toad grasping a female during spawning, but with toads this can get out of hand.
Of course, this whole event might just have been photoshopped – it just depends on what you are prepared to believe, or what you think you know.  This was photographed during the filming of ‘Life on Earth’. but featured in a book for Gerald Durrell’s ‘Ourselves and Other Animals’ series which I filmed sequences for during 1986 -87 .

When common toads begin clinging on in numbers it is possible that a female will drown. At a time when these animals were far more common than they are today, I would wander around local ponds at night with a torch, and on finding a ball of toads would remove the smaller males that weren’t really in the game, and this would give the females a better chance of surviving (I know – interfering with nature!). Occasionally, I’d find a really large female that had drowned because she had been so laden with potential partners she was unable to surface for air – the ball rolls and  males clustered around the female get to breath – It seems hardly fair, especially as the females, despite their age, are usually in good health – the selective advantage of the process is difficult to fathom.

Is it possible that toads become entombed in trees, only to be discovered when the tree is cut down. This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds; once a toad finds a good hidey hole, he or she may sit in such a place for months feeding on passing prey, and eventually grow too big to squeeze back out. A toad might live for years like this, grabbing invertebrates that wander in, or catching those that pass close enough with a flick of the tongue. When the tree is cut the toad is startled into action by the activity; or perhaps when a tree is cut a nearby toad jumps and gives the impression that he or she has been liberated from a tight squeeze? It all depends on what you are prepared to believe based on the available evidence, or maybe by just using your own imagination.

And what’s the likelihood that a toad has a fitted air ride like some fancy hotrod. The answer of course is ‘close to zero’, that is until a grass snake comes by – and then a toad will do something that it never does at any other time.

The toad
At the approach of a grass snake, the toad blows up and rises high on straightened limbs in order to to appear larger than usual. Photograph taken by Chris Balcombe during the filming of a sequence for ‘Life On Earth’.

You have more chance of being eaten by a python if you are lying down than when you are standing up. So on meeting a python more than twice my length, I always stand up. That makes good sense to me, but you can believe what you like.

How did toadstools get their name? Surely it must be because toads hop up onto them. The obvious consideration is that a toadstool would be too weak to support a toad, but that’s not the case. The real question is, could a toad really manage to hop up there in the first place?  Surely, it is more likely that those monkeys, given infinite time, will type the complete works of Shakespeare long before a toad  manages this extraordinary leap – although for us, it just requires a leap of faith.

What if I was expecting a visit from a naturalist who had to come through a wood, and I placed several toads upon toadstools along his route – if he saw them sitting comfortably, would he consider the activity demonstrably proven? I once managed to get 7 toads onto toadstools before the first one started to get off – and a comfy toad might stay in place for several minutes.

About as likely as....... Well, you decide.
About as likely as……. Well, you decide.

O.K. That’s covered a few of the visual possibilities for toads – their response to movement and our response to what we see them doing. I guess we could start the whole story over again asking  similar questions about auditory responses. How about  ringing a bell to call Mr Toad out  from his hole for a reward of food? Does that cross the borders of what is believable? If it is of any help… it doesn’t work with snakes (and that’s not because they’re stupid).  Perhaps it would though… if we were prepared to jump up and down a bit.

What we find at the borders of believability, is always up to us.

I'm here
Me and a toadstool painting – sometime in the late 1990s – when I wore a younger man’s clothes – who am I kidding, I wore that shirt yesterday.

Please remember that it is inadvisable to handle amphibians without good reason – their absorbent skins make them susceptible to disease – and in some cases it is now illegal to touch them.

Links below to two excellent and successful photographers who have assisted me in the past:

Of Toadstools and Other Things.

When I was a small child, I would go to the fair with my grandmother and I hated it, the noise, the grubbiness, the smell of sweat and the stickiness of candy floss all upset me; my grandmother on the other hand was in her element, she would display clear delight as her penny rushed down a wooden channel, then slowed and wobbled hesitantly as it ran towards her frequently missed winning number. Better still, she could place a ping pong ball in the open beak of a huge yellow fibreglass duckling that waggled from side to side until the ball was ejected from its bottom to run into one of a variety of differently numbered compartments. With five balls to place, the lucky, or perhaps ‘unlucky’ high scorer might win a hideous brown vase as brittle as brown crystalline sugar.

Like his mother before him, my father enjoyed similar entertainments, his favourite was the circus. My parents took me to one when I was about six years old and it was an horrifying experience. Why were men in outsized outfits with gaudily painted faces driving a junk car around an arena until the doors blew off with a bang? By the response of the crowd it was obvious that it was me – the one with the ‘can we go home now’, sense of humour failure, that was out of place. Maybe the 1950s was a time when we laughed at different things – apart from me that is – I was laughing at different different things.

Today, more complex games are available than my grandmother could ever have imagined, let alone find at the fair; the mindless nature of these new forms of entertainment invade our homes every day via the internet to be absorbed by our children’s brains, the greatest wasters of irretrievable time so far devised (the games not our children, although sometimes….?). Certainly modern electronic games eat into more spare time than was ever available to my grandmother and father combined, both of them having no other choice but to live in the real world. I have watched my children as they get sucked into imaginary meaningless worlds each with a slightly different slant on predictable stories told with uninspiring graphics – the flickering opiates of a darkened room. O.K. I’m from a different galaxy, but I’ll struggle on, deriving pleasure from the natural wonders that my adopted planet has so far managed to hang onto, and as I do, I will do my best not to get suckered by the incredullous cheap tricks that have infected the minds of generations of my gullible family.

I met a man today who wanted to know what I though I was doing – and that’s not unusual – I meet people everyday who ask the very same question, and I’m often obliged to explain why I am lying front down in the dirt. On this occasion I was photographing toadstools and I told him exactly that; then I notice that he had a dog with him, and I said, ‘That’s a nice dog’, because it was. ‘What’s his name?’

‘It’s Improbable’, said the man.

And my response was that this was an unusual name for a dog.

‘People often say so’, he replied, ‘but I don’t think that this is the case. It is simply an improbable name for a dog, whereas Unusual might be an unusual name for another dog’.

So, it seemed that he was a wise guy, but I was completely drawn in by the way he thought, and so I asked him why he had called his dog Improbable’.

‘Because he’s very big for a small dog’, he said, ‘and so for me he’s a bit like the Universe – improbable. But, I should add, by no means impossible.

I realised that I should then have said, ‘A well behaved dog then?’, but by the time I’d thought of that the moment had passed. So having lost my best opportunity, I didn’t know quite what to say, but I did know that if I asked the obvious question, Impossible would be an impossible name for yet another dog. All that I wanted to do at this stage was the usual thing, and that was to pretend I hadn’t noticed anybody standing close by, but it was too late for that, and so instead I said (rather stupidly in hindsight), and as much for something to say as in reply.

‘Are you perhaps interested in the improbability of the Universe?’

‘No I am not’, replied the man. ‘I’m not interested in the Universe or anything of that sort. I don’t have a telescope or any of the required knowledge that would allow me to be remotely knowing about such a thing – I simply wouldn’t know where to start. Infact, I’m not interested in science, mathematics or anything along those lines… I think it is safe to say that I’m not an inquisitive person’.

I couldn’t help myself. ‘Are you interested in anything at all’. I asked.

‘I am’, he said.

There was a pause and I thought the conversation might mercifully be over, but this wasn’t the case.

He continued, ‘Mostly I’m interested in novelty, mystery and the misfortunes of others’.

‘Oh’, I said, because I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. So I changed the subject.

‘My name is Stephen’, was all I could think of at short notice.

‘Mine’, said the man, ‘is Arthur… Arthur Cottingley’.

‘That’s an unusual name’, I said, and he didn’t say, ‘What – Arthur?’, because he wasn’t that predictable. Instead he said, ‘I am sure you already know it, because you must have heard it before’.

I decided to ignore his presumption about what I must have heard before and changed the subject for a second time.

‘The light isn’t quite right for this shot’. I said, ‘I’ll have to come back and try again tomorrow morning’.

And it was then that he asked a rather strange question.

‘And will you be doing your picture from the position you are in now, or will you do it from the other side?’

‘This is the shot’, I said, ‘it has to be exactly from here’.

‘Exactly?’ he asked in confirmation.

I checked the shot and said yes, but when I looked up Arthur Cottingley was nowhere to be seen, and I must admit to being quite relieved.

As the sun began to set, I packed up my gear and walked out of the wood.

The next day I went back and took the picture below; and thought no more about Arthur Cottingley until the result had been imported into my computer, and then I began to wonder if I’d ever met Arthur Cottingley at all.

When you take a picture, you don’t always save the Planet, but once in a while, you get an image that your grandmother might find entertaining – improbable as that might sound.

RIMG0373.FAIRY.FIX FINAL2_C_edited-1

UP, UP AND AWAY. From Ebola to Exponential and Beyond.

Perhaps the most reliable way to ‘save the planet’ is to take a picture that has been constructed by using mathematics and arithmetic; these exist in a variety of forms, but most commonly they are represented as charts or graphs that can provide at a glance, information on any subject for which there is reliable data, and graphs in particular are good at showing numerical change against a baseline of time.

I’m one of those unfortunates who have trouble adding up a column of figures – seldom do I get the same total twice – even with a calculator! That’s discouraging, but it’s not a valid excuse to give up.  And mathematics doesn’t come any easier, but let’s face it, we owe it to the planet to try, because mathematics is the key to measuring everything important that is going on around us.

A politician or national spokesman who says, ‘I’m just hopeless with maths’ or ‘math’ (depending on where they are standing) and then laughs it off, should be looking elsewhere for work. There is understandable concern when the people who represent us do not usually have backgrounds in mathematics or science – political science doesn’t count, because that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, the ‘I don’t get mathematics’ excuse is unacceptable from any elected official and we should urge them to ‘try harder’.

When I heard a health spokesman say recently that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa was growing exponentially month by month there was obvious cause for concern. The spokesmen then gave the number of infections that occured during the previous month followed by the predicted figure for the month to follow, and the figures were exactly the same. This implied that he either didn’t understand exponential, or the increase wasn’t exponential at all. The statement was confusing: was the  rate of infection steady and controllable? Or was it expanding  exponentially, suggesting that  heading for the hills was the best possible option?

Understanding exponential growth shouldn’t be a problem. Most small children can draw it, even if they can’t describe the outcome.

Little Timmy can't say the word, but he can certainly draw it - a simple example of exponential growth.
Little Timmy can’t say the word, but he can draw a simple example. Here, a single person infects two others and if the disease is passed on in the same manner, the infection quickly gets out of control. This kind of growth applies to many things including human population growth.

In everyday life, most people don’t think much beyond arithmetic progressions, where the increase between numbers is constant.  But exponential growth is nothing like that. Once you start down the road to exponential, by doubling up, it isn’t long before the figures are mind blowingly large, and if they relate to a dangerous disease that goes unchecked, no health service on the planet will be able to deal with it.

There is an ancient Persian story that explains the process well. An inventor who pleased his king with a wonderful invention was asked to name his reward; but he at once disappointed the ruler with the seemingly meagreness of his choice. The inventor asked for grains of wheat to be placed upon a chess board in the following manner: one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on, until all of the 64 squares were covered. The numbers start small and most of us don’t think much beyond the 8th square where the total hits 128 grains, which isn’t an outrageous figure. Quite a surprise then to discover that to reach the 64th square requires 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat – more wheat than was available in the whole kingdom. The tale is spun as  an example of intelligence winning the day, or alternatively, it is a story of cunning and greed –  the inventor either becomes ruler of the kingdom, or he loses his head.

In today’s world we might relate this story to pyramid selling where an investment doubles up every move it makes down the line and before long the numbers become vast, but by then, many individuals have dropped out of the scheme and never pay their contributions, while those who stay in begin to run out of suckers to sell to.

Telling a story is a great way to explain numerical change, but an artful graphs is a more visual approach. The two graphs below are free of annotation which allows the image to pass for art if you prefer it – perhaps as a late Matisse paper collage.

This could be a late period Matisse paper collage, but we might also consider it as representing two curves on a graph running along a base line of time. curves
Consider the above as two curves on a graph with a base line (or x axis) representing the passage of time, and a vertical (or y axis) representing the numbers or the density of an animal population increasing linearly as the line progresses upwards. This colourful ‘picture’,  interpreted correctly, contains enough information to save the planet .

The upper curve begins between yellow and red but continues for the most part  between yellow and green – it starts shallow, then rises exponentially before levelling off. This forms a ‘logistic curve’ first used by Pierre Verhurst  in the mid 1800s to show natural population growth where numbers are held to an upper limit by predation and availability of resources.

The lower curve that runs at first between red and yellow and then red and green takes time to rise, but when it does the line steepens rapidly – this is exponential growth that hasn’t levelled off. The world human population presently follows this ‘run away’ curve, but without infinite resources it cannot continue to grow in this manner. In a finitely resourced world the predictable result is a sudden levelling of the curve and a plummet downwards that mirrors the up. To alleviate suffering, it makes sense to control the drop – this really is a case of the higher you go the harder the fall.  Birth rates are presently falling across the developed world, but for economic reasons the numbers are usually bolstered by immigration (O.K. there will then be fewer people somewhere else, but that doesn’t regulate the population in places where people are genuinely trying to control their numbers).

The logistic curve along with the wave curve (see the predator prey relationship graphs below) apply to almost any species other than our own and they have longterm benefits for both the species and the environment – and make better models for longterm regulation than does uncontrolled exponential growth. All the information we need for responsible behaviour is contained within a couple of simple graphs, indicating that self regulation of human population is a better option than the inevitable collapse that continued exponential growth has in store .

Unfortunately, governments do not run economies with a view to longterm sustainably – they invariably opt for growth above all else, and are reluctant to make changes, preferring instead to pass the parcel onto the next generation – a ticking time bomb which they’ve chosen to ignore. Economies are run as if resources are infinite and without cost beyond extraction, refining and transportation. However, at a certain point, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain this, and if the present generation continues to charge up the steep end of exponential… future generations will be forced to pay the price, and will know that we had all the information available to make the right decisions, but instead carried on, business as usual.



Human population growth started off slowly.It is obvious that population wasn't a problem prior to 1800, but an agricultural revolution, an Industrail Revolution and the development of modern medicine has aided population growth and  when the graph is climbing as it is today, there is a genuine need for us to engage with the reality.
Human population growth started off slowly. Population growth clearly wasn’t a problem prior to 1800, but an Agricultural Revolution, an Industrial Revolution and the recent development of modern medicine have all helped to allow our numbers to grow exponentially and there is now a genuine need for us to engage with reality.

Things often start off slowly before exponential growth kicks in. With the human population nothing much changed for a very long time. There was even a period around70,000 years ago (long before the time line represented in the above graph), when the human population dropped so low we almost disappeared altogether.

It may well have been cooking meat and the development of  agriculture that started things moving, but there have been other set backs: the black death was a devastating pandemic and can be seen as a dip in the population graph around 1400. Prior to the plague weather conditions around the mid-1300s  were unfavourable, and throughout Europe crops repeatedly failed. It was a perfect storm of a disaster and millions died – but the loss of a third of Europe’s population did change the economy. Suddenly, there was a shortage of workers and for the first time in recorded history a more reasonable wage could be asked by those who survived the devastation. Poverty was still widespread, but many people were liberated from serfdom, and took the first steps along a path that generations later would drive the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the modern Western economic system we have today.

In the broadest sense exponential growth isn’t a disaster, it is often the way things increase in the natural world, but there are always boundaries. A fertilised ova wouldn’t develop at a rapid enough rate if cell growth wasn’t initially exponential, but once a certain functional level has been reached, cells are programmed to be replaced when and where they are needed – if they keep on dividing without control, we call it cancer.

Almost everything that relates to our rapidly increasing human population is unsustainable.  The graph below demonstrates a normal predator prey relationship where foxes are eating hares; it could equally be wolves preying on deer, or any number of other predator prey interactions.

Along a base line of time the green curve of prey animals increase, producing more food for predators which set the pattern for controlling the prey as the prey numbers decline, so do the predators. The winner is plants. Without the predators the world becomes less diverse as the plants are eaten. This of course is an oversimplification as there is a web of life, but the principal holds.
Along a base line of time, the green curve shows prey animals beginning to increase in number, thus producing more food for their predators, the foxes – shown in black. Foxes then increase in number, eat more hares and cause their prey to decline. Fox numbers begin to fall in response to the diminishing food supply and hare numbers pick up again – the process continues in a cyclical manner.

Other species also benefit as predator and prey numbers ebb and flow. Plants for example will escape total obliteration by hares and rabbits as predators reduce herbivore numbers. Without natural predation environments become less diverse as certain species are eaten beyond their capacity to regenerate. However, the predator prey graph is an oversimplification, and although the general principle holds true, the system is really a three dimensional web of life that demonstrates far greater complexity. We refer to a natural balance of nature, but the reality is closer to a series of peaks and troughs. If our human population followed closer to the logistic curve, modern technology would allow us to regulate against a roller coaster of loss and gain in a manner that can’t so easily be applied to the steep end of exponential growth.

Related closely to our population numbers is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This graph shows the level of oil extraction (fossil fuel) and as would be expected it follows the same line of exponential growth for the human population. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but follows the same exponential growth line.
This graph shows the level of oil (a fossil fuel) extraction.  As expected it follows the same line of exponential growth shown on the human population graph. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but clearly follows a similar exponential growth curve.

It is impossible for us to remove and burn fossil fuels indefinitely, because such resources are finite and as time passes, these diminish and become increasingly difficult to extract. And another consideration is the effect that burning fossil fuels has on our atmosphere should we decide to try it.

The increasing emission of carbon into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is clearly changing the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not surprisingly Carbon dioxide emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels also follows an exponential line.
The time line starts here at 1600 – before this time, man’s burning of fossil fuels was negligible, but when the Industrial Revolution kicked in Carbon dioxide emissions began to pick up and were soon growing exponentially. Once again the sudden ‘up’ part of the curve runs close to the curve for human population growth.

Burning fossil fuels has a special place in the grand scheme of things, because it increases the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that in turn increases global temperatures. Continuing to do so at an ever increasing rate not only changes the atmosphere, it also changes the weather and at a certain point these changes may be irreversible.

Some times politicians and spokesmen do know how to use the figures in their favour. Global temperatures are evidently rising, but what if they were to show you only the section on the red box?
Some politicians and spokesmen do appear to know how to use graphs when they work in their favour. Global temperatures are clearly rising, but what if you were shown only the section of graph in the red box?

If you looked only at a graph showing the period between 1950 to 1970 you’d consider global temperatures to be fairly stable.  There has also been a similar levelling of temperatures in recent years; these are the favoured areas for climate change sceptics to cherry pick their examples and tell us, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, but unfortunately, there can be no denying the general temperature trend is upwards – the planet is warming, which supports the idea that it is necessary to always view the whole picture.

The Ebola infection figures discussed earlier do indeed appear to be growing exponentially (at the time of writing). The curve ran fairly level through May and June, which would have been the ideal time for the developed world to have moved in and defeated the disease before it took off. To have ignored this opportunity seems careless if not arrogant. The question is, if I can manage the calculation on the back of a cigarette packet (see below), why can’t those in power do the same. It would be generous to put the terrible suffering in West Africa down purely to ignorance, but sometimes it is suffering economies rather than suffering people that elicit the most rapid responses.

Below: an ‘on the back of a cigarette packet’ calculation derived from figures freely available from news reports. This was quite tricky – not the mathematics… it’s just that I don’t smoke.

A back of a piggy packet graph for Ebola infection. Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control - an exponential doubling month by moth is almost too horrible to contemplate.
A back of a ciggy packet graph for Ebola infection shows more than 13,500 cases at the time of writing ( I drew this graph during October. Since then the figures have rapidly picked up and I’ve had to extend the graph upwards). Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control – an exponential doubling month by moth as can be clearly seen between the beginning of October and the beginning of November is too horrible to contemplate. Potentially, there is a long way to go before the disease peaks and crashes naturally if it is allowed to spread unhindered.


So far there have been around 5,000 deaths due to Ebola and there will be many more in the coming months, but hopefully, now that medical help is arriving in the affected West African countries (better late than never), the infection will begin to come under control.

Whenever we hear a spokesman say that ‘growth is exponential’ it is good to be clear about what he or she means. Certainly this is important when it refers to human population growth; or the increasing use of fossil fuels; and the rapid spread of a contagious disease. In each case we need to ask the right questions, then be certain that our answers make sense, and last but not least, act as quickly as possible – and so far we have been unforgivably slack on the last one.

The ciggy packet slip aside, all of the simple ‘mathematical’ pictures shown above have been colourful, and without exception are easy to interpret – this isn’t intended purely for the benefit of small children – it is also to grab the attention of the mathematically challenged politicians making important decisions; they really do need to, ‘get the picture, act in good time’, and in so doing, ‘save the planet’.

In mid October 2014 Tony Abbott predicted that coal would be the world’s principal energy source for decades to come. It was he said, ‘Good for humanity’. I wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe – Tony Abbott must be better informed than I am… he’s the prime minister of Australia.

At the time of posting there was some hopeful news. A decrease in the number of reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. WHO’s spokesman Bruce Aylward said the response to the virus was now gaining the upper hand, but warned the crisis wasn’t over. The Head of the U.N. Mission says that ‘presently he doesn’t have the  resources to defeat the disease’. How nuts is  that?

For a perceptive and amusing view of man’s destruction of the Planet,  take a look at this cartoon:



If You Can’t Take a Photograph – Will a Painting Do?

Well… Maybe.

A photograph can be targeted to help save the Planet, or more precisely, benefit present bio-diversity, but what about a painting? Perhaps a painting can provide a more imaginative approach and demonstrate truth more effectively than photography. Our minds relate to stories and a photograph sometimes tells a good one, but paintings can be honed more precisely – nothing need be left to chance – creating an image that really sticks in the mind.

When a few years ago I started photographing eagles on a local nest where generations of birds have reared their young for as long as anybody can remember, I wasn’t expecting such a rapid urbanisation of the surrounding area.

A woodland disappears to urban development only a short walk from the eagles nest.
A woodland disappears to urban development only a short walk from the eagles nest.

A chat with a local resident who has lived here for many years brought home a truth that can only be told with the benefit of time. Once there were six pairs of eagles nesting close by and now we are down to a single pair. Continued runaway development across the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is responsible for the declining availability of eagle hunting habitat and threatens the longterm survival of nest sites. This is important because disappearing eagles are indicators of  failing ecosystems. In another environment some other animal will carry the banner for species diversity and a reliable measure of the health of our planet.

As usual, my story starts elsewhere. Some years ago I was filming during February at The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and each day I walked the short distance from my hotel to work. Then, one morning, a sudden gust of wind took my breath away, causing a severe pain in the nerves of my teeth and drove up through my head. I had the sudden impression that my eyeballs had frozen open and imagined myself as a cartoon character in icy motionless mid-walk, about to shatter into a thousand pieces, although in reality I’d made it through the museum doors.

When it's cold  - you just don't go out there!
When it’s really cold –  don’t go out there!

As I was thawing out, I asked a professor how people survived days like this when temperatures dropped well below -20C; I never established exactly how low because nobody wanted to discuss that. He said, mostly, it was about dressing appropriately, but when things got really cold they just didn’t go outside.

Weather in Canada it seems is not simply a question of the wrong clothes, there are days when you could end up a stiff no matter what you are wearing.

Am I standing in front of a one or two storey house? I have no idea.
Away from the mildness of coastal  living –  am I standing in front of a one or two storey Canadian house? I have no idea. Either way, I’m almost on the roof.

Is it any wonder that the mild southern coastal area where I live is so popular. I am one of many outsiders who don’t have the cold tolerance of most Canadians who live in the interior – for more than half the year, winter temperatures fall lower than anything you could experience by sticking your head in the icebox of your fridge.

The mild Lower Mainland is caught  between a rock, a wet place and another country and three things happen when space is limited: people move in, house prices go up and developers make money, but this isn’t a longterm reality because urbanisation can’t continue indefinitely – eventually space runs out and the environment in which we live becomes degraded. And it doesn’t make sense to build on the only location you have for food production with a reliably long growing season.

Worldwide we have colonised the most habitable regions and are increasingly disinclined to share with other species even when they benefit our general wellbeing. Our indifferent attitude to nature is a bit like strangling the canary before going into the mine instead of bringing the bird chirping along with you.

The presence of two well fed eaglets about to fledge suggest a healthy environment.

Eagles are at the pinnacle of a wide range of less charismatic creatures that go largely unnoticed, they are representatives of whole ecosystems,  but once you move beyond using an eagle photo to ask ‘Will they stay or will they go?’ their image can so easily end up as just another agreeable wildlife picture. So, maybe there’s a more startling way to make a point… With a painting.

The claim that painting is dead has reoccured with great regularity over the years, because technology is always moving forward, creating a dazzling array of new ways to make images.

During the 1990s artists became increasingly indulgent – like naughty children they wanted to shock, but the only real shock was the employment of artisans to do their work for them. Then there were the naval gazers. ‘Look at me’, they bleated – ‘I’m full of angst and want to tell my story’. Fortunately, self analysis is no longer cool and science backs up the view that too much introspection is bad for us – looking outwards is far healthier. And then there are the artists still painting fruit bowls and goldfish… Is is any wonder that so many commercial art galleries are empty?

Art is usually related to the period in which it is produced  and ‘now’ couldn’t be a better time to show ourselves as part of nature, rather than living above and dominating it. We can no longer ignore the havoc we are causing and this should be reflected in the art we produce.

Certainly landscape painting is of its time, although in the past it has either romanticised the natural world, or glorified the changes that humans have made.

John Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ is amongst the most famous and seriously underrated paintings ever made; its artistic reputation steadily eroded over the years to the level of chocolate box art.

The Hay Wain is a romantic idyl for us today, but in its time the painting was a rural reality, and this may explain why it didn't sell when first exhibited - it wasn't romantic enough for the period in which it was painted.
The Hay Wain is a romantic idyl for us today, but in its time the painting was a rural reality, and this may explain why it didn’t sell when first exhibited – it wasn’t romantic enough for the period in which it was painted.

Our understanding of the painting has been seriously skewed by the passage of time. Apart from the course of the river Stour and the usual wild Constable sky, everything else is a construct of man and we might do well to reassess it with the benefit of the passage of 200 years.

Constable moved trees and buildings for artistic convenience, but still he painted a certain reality. Sadly I can’t paint as well as he did; I can’t even copy his technique – he sparkled the surface of his oils with white flecks that are difficult to emulate.

My paintings aren’t in any case a reality; they are allegories that examine our relationship with the natural world. ‘The Mixed Blessing’ was painted under the influence of place; it would not exist if I lived outside of this land of eagles, and relates directly to  a moment in time.

The Mixed Blessing.
The Mixed Blessing.

On one level the baby represents us, and the eagles, the natural world. On another level the baby might be Jesus giving a blessing, and careful examination indicates that the blessing is not all that it at first seems.

Close to the beginning of the Old Testament God says ‘Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth.’ Genesis 1:26. The King James Bible – a book that would be much shorter if God had been less inclined to repeat things.

At 1:28 God expands his instructions. ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.’  This, all too spookily, is a description of our present behaviour. Maybe it’s a co-incidence – perhaps we’d be doing the same things even without God’s rule book, but as a directive – under the present circumstances, the ‘dominion over’ approach is seriously misguided.

I am not concerning myself with either God’s will or his existence, the point is that societies based upon Judeo-Christian foundations adhere to certain doctrinal behaviours, often long after their religions have faded, and that may not be a good thing.

Detail from my painting - not quite up to Leonardo, but in fairness it's tiny.
This detail from my painting – is not quite up to Leonardo, but in fairness it’s tiny compared to the original.


I’ve painted Jesus as a baby before. I say painted, but all I did was copy ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had two choices because Leonardo painted the subject twice. His first effort hangs in the Louvre and was intended for a church that was paying him a pittance. Leonardo sold it off quickly to another buyer, then rather insultingly took ages to knock out the second painting to fulfil his agreement – this now hangs in the National Gallery and the version I copied to form part of a much smaller painting. It was copied many years ago when I was a student (of Zoology – not art, so I won’t make any false claims about technique!)

Virgin on the Rocks. Leonardo Da Vinci.
Virgin on the Rocks.  by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Baby John is  next to Mary and she is introducing him to Jesus – he is the baby sitting next to the angel to the right, and he is clearly giving a blessing – the action I wanted in the ‘The Mixed Blessing’, because anybody who has a background in art would get the reference straight away, but for most of us this doesn’t matter. Essentially I kidnapped this baby from the National Gallery’s version of ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ for a second time, and spent several days changing the tonal quality of the image to match the ‘all sweetness and light’ sunday school illustrations of childhood.

The original underpainting with the little old man baby
The original underpainting with the little old man baby in place. The Louvre version contains a far more likely baby, but I hadn’t noticed this until recently.

Then my wife saw the painting and told me, ‘this isn’t a baby… it’s a little old man.’ And because she works with babies I was forced to take note. ‘What do you mean…This is Leonardo Da Vinci, we’re talking about’, I told her, but a response based upon experience rather than art was difficult to argue against, and she wasn’t finished. ‘I don’t care who we’re talking about… He can’t paint babies!’, and she was right… I wonder how many art experts have noticed this. Maybe Leonardo couldn’t bring himself to render either Jesus or John as anything other than self aware and not in the malleable clay of infancy. – even as babies he could see only spiritual wisdom.

The final 21st Century baby - perhaps more fitting anyway.
The final 21st Century baby is perhaps more fitting.

I felt my choices narrowing, and so it came to pass that the baby in the nest moved into the 21st Century, and perhaps this was for the best.

If there had never been a Genesis version of ‘In the beginning…’ would we think differently? Or, with the real possibility of a genetic predisposition to believe, might we have travelled  another route to the same conclusion: God/us/the rest of life on Earth?

Without the option to rewind time, there is only scientific evidence to draw upon and this indicates we behave better when we think we’re being watched! Would overcoming this hardwiring in our brains allow us to see with more clarity how things really are.

Could we accept the blindingly obvious?  We are  clever animals but only in comparison with all the other animals –  our brains have limitations. If we accepted that, might we be more inclined to see ourselves as part of, rather than above the natural world.

The ‘sole dominion’ approach clearly hasn’t been a great success in terms of the Planet’s biodiversity, and presently we need to chose diversity over dogma. Maybe it’s time to try something else… Humility perhaps? We might be stuck with faith, but a little logic wouldn’t go amiss; and if we can’t trust ourselves to live without a rule book, then at the very least the rules need to be updated once in a while in the light of new and reliable information.

And God said, ‘Go forth and  be at one with nature’.

If we have to believe something – why not give that one a go. Sadly I’ve lost the Biblical reference, but it has to be in there somewhere.

With thanks to Dorcas for reminding me that God can be a difficult subject to discuss without upsetting somebody.

 Other paintings by Stephen Bolwell can be  seen at:

The Plight of the Eagle – Urban Development.

After I wrote my first blog my daughter told me that I would need to write new ones quite regularly, because, as Punch said to Judy, ‘That’s the way to do it …’ This was quite a shock, although it has nothing to do with Punch sounding loud and shrill, and everything to do with ‘quite regularly’ sounding like a job. The blog started over concerns about an environmental issue and rather stupidly I hadn’t thought much beyond that. There are a couple of other concerns as well, and my friend Colin put his finger on one of them straight away, ‘the trouble with you,’ he said, ‘is that you usually say what other people are just thinking’… and in these politically correct times that could be a problem. Assuming that I do have readers, I will eventually upset them all and end up writing for myself, which begins to sound less like writing and more like therapy; and that brings me to my second problem… I’m not sure I’m bothered.

The Canadian fish eagle – sometimes known as the bald eagle – is quite something. When living in England I lived at the wrong end of the U.K. to see Britain’s, or more properly, Scotland’s national equivalent, the golden eagle. You’re best chance of seeing one of these would be to travel to the Western Highlands and get well organised for a photo opportunity. There are around 440 pairs nesting in the U.K. and I have only viewed single birds in flight, none of them near a nest.

Then, I moved with my family to New Zealand where you can forget about seeing eagles altogether; most of the interesting native avians are either extinct or moving down that rocky road to oblivion; although New Zealand has been a land of birds and so it is no surprise to discover that there was once an eagle in the mix – Haasts’s eagle, the most impressive tick for a birder that can be imagined – and I don’t mean that in the parasitic sense, although the bird may well have had species specific ticks that disappeared when the bird did. The great thing about this eagles is that it was the largest predatory bird ever known to exist. Sadly, Haast’s eagle disappeared about the same time as nine species of flightless moa which were all hunted to extinction by Maori around A.D.1400. With their prey gone, the eagles quickly climbed the stairs to stuffed, or more precisely, to ossification. Imagine if you can, 35 lbs (15 kg) of bird in flight, the estimated upper limits for a large female… extraordinary, and I missed the picture by around 600 years, but it wasn’t personal, so did everybody else. And right now you’re probably Googling the bird’s name to see if I’m fibbing.

Over the years I’ve made many trips to the United States but it was a long time before I saw my first bald eagle. To avoid confusion I use the bird’s American name although I don’t feel obliged to do so, vultures are bald but eagles for the most part are not. In the middle ages ‘bald’ would refer to a patch on a stock animal, but an entire bird’s head is something else. I love America, but let’s face, it, Americans are none to precise with words – in reality a bathroom isn’t a lavatory, and if an herbivore is an herbivore, how can an herb be an ‘erb’ What’s that about? And ‘The World Series’???… Let’s not go there.

Sorry I digress, we all know what a bald eagle is, but they were certainly less frequently seen during the 1980s than they are today in every state in America, but the bird did manage to cling on and breed in a few of them, including Florida which is where I had my first encounter with this wonderful eagle in the Everglades. Startled from its resting place in a tree, the poor creature almost fell on top of me as I quickly tried for a picture with the 200mm lens that was attached to the sharper end of my camera. Unfortunately the eagle was far too close for a long lens and by the time its feathers came into focus the bird was moving away and quickly hidden by foliage. If I had failed so completely and missed the photo in almost any other state my story might have been doubted, but in Florida seeing a bald eagle was very believable and nobody had reason to question it. I had nevertheless missed the shot – photographers see things differently, they freeze away packets of light while others have life experiences; they store away little capsules of time to be viewed at a later date, although any picture that has been recorded successfully is soon forgotten. It is the ones that get away that are remembered forever, or more correctly… remembered until you die.  A photograph on the other hand need not suffer oblivion, but it is as well to consider that there are as many bad photographs in the world as bad memories; and by that I mean memories are unreliable, while photos – if we exclude photoshop – pin down a certain kind of truth… I know, we could argue that one all day.

IMG_4066.FIX:©     If you are out in the woods – don’t let one of these fall on you.

In British Columbia, where I now live, people can be complacent about their Canadian fish eagles, because the birds are so frequently seen, but that could easily change as habitats become degraded or destroyed. In the United States the birds have survived in part because they have a wide distribution. Early in the 20th Century they were hunted mercilessly because of the fear that as predators they might eat young stock animals, in particular lambs. Nobody at the time had heard of trophic cascade and many still haven’t. The term describes the important role that top predators play in shaping ecosystems or even landscapes as they work the top end of the food chain and the results tumble down through the system. Only recently has this process become more clearly understood and eagles are certainly up there amongst the top carnivores when it comes to ripping at the tapestry of existence.

Having survived an initial assault with guns the eagles would plummet in numbers again around the middle of the 20th Century with the widespread use of the pesticide D.D.T. which would accumulate in the bodies of many predatory birds and cause eggs to suffer from a thinning of their shells which were easily broken before the embryos inside had a chance to develop fully. Many raptors would totter precariously on the edge of existence until D.D.T. was banned in 1972; it takes about 15 years for the pesticide to break down in the natural environment, and so it was a while before fortunes changed and eagle numbers began to climb.

In the United States the bald eagle appears on just about everything from national seals to custom paint jobs on Harley Davidson motorcycles – a perfect example of the power of visual imagery, but you have to wonder how the bird might have faired had it not been politically expedient to save it. More generic eagles with less literal forms show up on the coats of arms of more than twenty five countries, but there has never been a closer association with a single bird species than the United States has with the bald eagle, except perhaps the relationship that New Zealanders have with their namesake the kiwi.

In British Columbia and Alaska, this fish eagle might be described as common, which is perhaps why it is taken for granted. During the salmon run, the fish move some distance inland along the rivers of the North West coast of North America to spawn and the eagles, congregating in numbers, rely heavily upon them for food. When the salmon stop running the birds behaviour changes and in late winter an early spring they move off to their traditional nesting sites, many of which are now threatened by development, especially when bordering urban areas, which in lower mainland B.C. is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Urban eagles can cope with some human disturbance, but increasingly there are fewer places for them to hunt while they are tied to the nest feeding young.

I have been fortunate to record eaglet rearing activity at my local nest over the last few years, which will attest to their presence should they finally run out of prey and are forced to move away; certainly things appear to be moving in that direction. In 2012 two eaglets fledged successfully on the local nest; last year there was only one eaglet and this year one again, after the adults were forced to rebuild when the old nest fell during a winter storm.

Under exceptional circumstances a pair of Bald, or Canadian fish eagles  might rear four youngsters; three is hopeful, but two is more usual, or rather the laying of two eggs is more usual. The rearing of only one offspring is common enough, but doing so season after season suggest a lack of available prey – perhaps they could do better under more favourable circumstances. At least two other nests in the area also managed only one youngster during the 2014 season.

Nobody it seems can remember a time when there weren’t eagles nesting here; people have become so used to seeing them and may be unaware that the birds could be lost to the urban developments spreading across the surrounding woods and farmland. Close to the park’s borders this process has been startlingly rapid over the last couple of years, which is unsettling and casts doubts over the longterm viability of the nest and I really hope the adults manage the increasing distances they will need to travel to hunt down prey. Whatever happens, it has been a privilege to have spent time watching and photographing these wonderful birds.

IMG_8853.BALD EYE FIX.C      An adult drops food, quickly grabbed by the dominant eaglet.

If planning departments are prepared to give over land designated for agriculture, along with natural areas in and around urban locations, then many native plants and animals will inevitably disappear from the landscape and our lives will be the poorer for it. Only a few people will gain financially from intensive house building, whilst the majority will see little benefit. Living closer to nature has been demonstrated to be of great benefit to our health and this is increasingly denied to a great many people. Essentially, we will move past the point where there are teachable class sizes at local schools, or reasonable waiting times in the emergency rooms of hospitals. It is of no great benefit to the majority to push urban density to the levels we expect to find in cities, but few of us are allowed any part in the decision making. As a neighbour recently pointed out, ‘When it comes to development, money talks and b/s walks.’ And that pretty much sums it up. Urban development programmes should not be ruled by a minority who are turning a buck at the expense of the majority, and above all else financial gain should not be allowed to push intelligent urban planning into second place.

Next time: If You Can’t Take a Photograph a Painting Will Do.

With thanks to Harold Myers for providing details on local nests. Thanks also to Colin Shotter and Penny Beck.



Don’t know what’s going on? Take a picture – it might be useful.

Many years ago I went out into the desert and there I met a man who had a vision. I’ll have to stop doing that… building up my story before I’ve started. More prosaically, I was setting up to film a sequence on elf owls for a  movie about, well, what else but owls… and the man I met in the desert was Bill Peachey, one of those experts the B.B.C. seek out  when their freelancers aren’t sure what they are doing – pretending to know is useless and in any case, you can’t know everything. Elf owls nest in holes in saguaro cacti in the Sonora desert and if anybody was going to be able to find them, it was Bill… but sadly, not this time around –  two long nights and we didn’t see a single owl. But all was not lost…… I learnt something else, something quite useful, and I’ll share it with you.

Saguaro before sunset – the classic cartoon cacti – sadly no elf owls. Oil painting from photo taken during the owl outing.

Bill had seen things in the desert – interesting things, mass animal migrations in the moonlight  and creatures noted in the past that hadn’t been seen for many years. Then he’d tell somebody – a hunter perhaps, and they would say… ‘Never!’ A common response from people who hadn’t lived in the area for very long. The problem Bill pointed out was that as we begin to spread out into natural environments, many of the animals that live there move on. To be clear on the changes, Bill told me, it was essential to get a photograph of everything of consequence that you saw, preferably with a signpost in shot, or something that would date the picture exactly. It was my turn to have a vision – I imagined an elk with a copy of today’s paper wedged in his antlers, then a cougar walked in front of a circus billboard with the show dates prominent to one side, but as I took my picture the cat’s body moved and obscured them. It was hopeless – we were living in 1985 – far too early to make any of this work.

Today technology has moved on and most of us now carry something that will take a pretty good picture, whether it be a camera, a small computer or a mobile phone, and nearly all will automatically record the date, the time, and in some cases a  GPS position. In the 21st Century nothing much can happen in public view without  somebody noticing and recording the change, and if we care about the environment, more of us should be making visual notes and start using them as the basis for asking questions about how we all feel about the situation.

I am the most unlikely person to write a blog, but when I see things changing in my local area that I don’t think are in the best interests of my neighbour’s or the local environment, I feel obliged to comment. You of course may not be living in the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada, but it is likely that something very similar will be happening close to your home, because there is a general disconnect between what most of us want, and what our local councils and planning departments would like to slip past us.

Here is the story I have on my mind:

It’s time to rethink high density development, or say goodbye to the natural wonders of the Lower Mainland. by Stephen Bolwell.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska she got into hot water for something she never said, ‘I can see Russia from my house’. Well, I’m living on the coastal side of Lower Mainland B.C. and I really can see another country from mine – it’s America, and that’s exciting, although stretching things a bit, because all I can really see is Mount Baker – it‘s just so big, but despite this, to get a clear look I need to take a short walk to my local nature area, ‘Surrey Lake Park’, because  all expansive views in my area are now built across.

Twenty years ago it was all fields and woodlands, but now you don’t see much that is natural, and recently somebody on Surrey Council told me why, ‘You are living in a high density development area,’ he said, ‘and soon all those scruffy little open spaces around you will be filled with houses’. I felt obliged to enquire whether the locals had been asked if they wanted to live high density – and that turned out to be rhetorical, because what council officials like best are people who don’t ask troublesome questions; the conversation was over – tragically the poor man had been struck suddenly deaf.

Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park - the only clear view in the neighbourhood.
Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park – the only clear view in the neighbourhood.

I am British by birth and as most Canadians know, Brits have a reputation for whinging; we like to think we’re organizers, but whinging is what we do best. So, when I took my first outing from Surrey to Vancouver on the SkyTrain, it wasn’t long before I started whinging quietly to myself about the ugly sprawl of development flowing past my window and I didn’t feel entirely happy again until my feet hit Stanley Park – I love Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York, almost any park you care to mention, but Stanley Park is easily the best, and although  Vancouver is near the top of the list of most beautiful cities,  it is the natural beauty of  B.C. that makes this place so special. However, the Lower Mainland is changing; as you drive South out of Vancouver towards the U.S. border, it is impossible to miss the urban sprawl and it isn’t until you get into the U.S.A. that the countryside begins to open out. The lower mainland is filling up – it is impossible to ignore a rapidly expanding urbanisation as it pushes hard into  diminishing pockets of agriculture. At this point I should say that I do see the irony of moving into an area and then moaning about development; with so may outsiders arriving, it is clear that we all need to live somewhere. There is though, an important consideration, the lower mainland has a unique beauty that once buried beneath development cannot so easily be re-instated, and for residents with a long family history, the changes are painful to witness. The creation and conservation of natural parks and reserves is essential because they represent environments that were once extensive across the area. The question is – are these places getting the respect they deserve? And the evidence suggests that probably, they are not.

I’ve spent my working life traveling to interesting places to film wildlife documentaries, but nothing compares with my present location; I live in suburbia, but am only a short walk from my local Canadian fish eagle’s nest,  where I can take some really great pictures… not just a whinging Pom then, but one with a self-inflated sense of his ability.

A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.
A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.

Later in the year I will be only a short drive from the centre of Canadian fish eagle activity when the salmon are running. I know Americans call these birds ‘bald eagles’ and claim them as their own, but in the fall along local coastal areas and up the Fraser River and its tributaries this place will be bursting with eagles as they arrive in numbers to form the largest congregation of vertebrate predators anywhere in the world. Make no mistake these are Canadian fish eagles, and it might even be claimed that these impressive birds appear most at home in  British Columbia.  So, imagine my surprise, when early in 2014 I went walking through Surrey Lake Park and discovered that an adjoining woodland along the park’s eastern border was being ripped out by heavy machinery, a complete destruction worryingly close to the eagle’s nest. Surprisingly, nobody seemed bothered, apart from a few locals who were, and still are understandably upset because they live so close to the noise and destruction.

This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer, but often developers prefer to clear everything.
This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer zone, but most often developers prefer to clear everything.

In all, a little short of 4.2 hectares of forest including valuable and fully mature trees were cleared from the site, and these are unlikely to show up on the Surrey tree loss figures for 2014. For me the changes were startling, only a few weeks earlier this had been a quiet farm, with woodland, streams, and paddocks of grazing ponies; suddenly the land had been scraped bare and its earth carted away by the truck load. Weeks passed, the area expanded, hardcore arrived to form a base along with the accompanying rumble of cement lorries. The disturbance was extreme and seemingly endless.

There was of course a notification of construction for local residents which some claim not to have received  – in fairness at less than a page this might easily have been overlooked – it stated that preparations for BC Hydro’s new Fleetwood Substation at the south end of 156th street would be completed between January 17 and May 15 2014 with day shifts from 7.00am to 6.00p.m. and afternoon shifts from 7.00p.m. to 6.00a.m. – an odd sense of time, but technically this is still after noon. The development pushed on through August with  trucks coming and going every few minutes through daylight hours, which was a pretty full on disturbance for both the locals and the parkland reserve. The troubling thing is, there never have been any signs posted to indicate what this development was for, potentially one of the biggest Hydro power sub-stations to be built in British Columbia. I thought it odd that BC Hydro should describe itself as a conservation powerhouse, but I soon realised that it wasn’t the sort of conservation that I was thinking of.

With a natural reticence for B.C. Hydro to get promotional on this site many people in the district are still unaware of the development, and those who are, often don’t know of its relationship to the ‘conservation powerhouse’. But now the natural world has been swept away and there is clearly nothing left to conserve, perhaps the company will take a more upfront approach to the site. There was a short article in a local paper that mentioned B.C. Hydro by name, but the story focused mostly on  unhappy neighbors; there was a generous acknowledgement by one, that such developments have to go somewhere, but there were also clear concerns over the disruption and adverse effects upon the environment, particularly the birdlife and several endangered animal species.

A report from ‘AMEC Environment and Infrastructure’ was undertaken during 2013 which stated that ‘due to the time of year it wasn’t possible to conduct a bird nest survey’ which is odd because there were two site visits, one on 29th May when there should have been clear signs of birds nesting. Some locals say that red-tailed hawks nested in trees on the property and I certainly know of a pair that were present during the two previous years. The report also noted three species of conservation concern potentially on site: the red-listed and SARA schedule 1 listed ‘Endangered’ Pacific water shrew; the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Western Toad and the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Northern Red-legged Frog, with tadpoles present in one stream that may have been of the same species.

As a know it all Brit I am knowledgable about amphibians and noticed pictures in the report that showed both woodland and reedy areas along streams that were suitable for species known to exist in the adjoining park; creatures like the Pacific tree frog and long-toed salamander which few will ever see – and so it is sadly a case of out of sight out of mind, but there is a real issue here: if a suitable habitat bordering a small reserve disappears then the chances are that any species that can’t fly in will have a good chance of going the same way – an affliction common to island populations, and the reason why buffer zones and corridors beyond park boundaries are so essential to the diversity of small reserves.

On a recent visits to the park I am troubled by the additional noise, of a radio playing at high volume across a dyke close by the reserve – I am told, for the benefit of blueberry pickers. Passing joggers already have music plugged into their ears and they don’t notice. As for the rest, mostly people walking out to empty their dogs, they don’t notice either. At certain places on the reserve the din is so loud it drowns out bird song completely; birds sing for a reason that has nothing to do with increasing their berry picking speed, and everything to do with maintaining territories. Cognitive dissonance sets in and I begin to ask whether it really matters for 2014, because there are so few birds to be seen in the area, certainly far less than in previous years. Several locals have told me that before the development started, an attempt at netting was employed, but having established that this was illegal, bird wailers were installed that played distress calls to put birds off and deter them from nesting (both activities were against the advice of the environmental consultant). This appears to have worked though, because during this spring and summer there have been fewer birds in the adjoining Surrey Park and the nearby woodland reserve at Fleetwood.

The Hydro development at the lower end of 156 St lies in an agricultural zone, not far from another recent development which is also ongoing. A little over a year ago on this second site there was also a mature woodland, but this has now been replaced by large houses entirely out of keeping with their surroundings and it is difficult to understand why building consent was granted. Until recently this woodland was another essential buffer zone for the park and busy with wildlife; nothing natural remains there now, all has been replaced by housing with sterile new lawns kept green by water sprinklers that are not so good during a dry summer, but apparently there is no sign of a water shortage; although with the race on to fill Surrey with housing, there soon will be. With many more people living close to the nature park, there is likely to be extra pressures, with pollution from cars, noise from mowers and many more dog walkers with easy access to the park’s dog emptying facilities. If you can get away with taking out a woodland and building on this site, then you can get away with it almost anywhere.

Maybe it’s just bad timing, but on 22nd July a local paper ran a feature on Surrey’s latest ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’. Coun. Bruce Hayne said, “It’s time to focus our efforts on building our inventory of natural environment”, and, “It’s not good enough to protect the eagles bedroom, i.e. their nest. You have to protect their kitchen and dining room too!” A sound bite from Deb Jack, president of Surrey Environmental Partners, “What a legacy this is for the history books” is also contrary to the local reality. Surrey City Council claims to have adopted a green initiative that is expected to have an impact on the city’s ecosystems for decades. Well, better late than never I guess, but it is certainly too late to put things right for the biodiversity of Surrey Lake Park. In truth, there never was a need to implement a green initiative to conserve this area, everything was covered by existing planning laws; all that was necessary was to implement them. ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’ …It sounds impressive. I’m guessing there’s an election in the offing.

So, now that two extensive developments have been permitted at the bottom of 156 St, it won’t be long before all the other natural areas along the quiet lower end of the street are filled in. Penny Beck’s family have lived here for 40 years, they are the closest to the Hydro development and the residents most affected by the disturbance. ‘We still have that’ says Penny pointing to a tangled area of scrub and forest across from her house, ‘hummingbird habitat – the council know better than to spray  with roundup while I’m still here’. Penny is a rarity, she has a practical understanding of what wildlife really needs, but the Beck’s family home is up for sale and when Penny goes, the hummingbird nesting site will disappear. Canadians are tidy people and their gardens don’t make great habitats for wildlife, and if all ‘the scruffy little wild spaces’ are built on there will be no more hummingbirds visiting local feeders because nesting sites won’t be available. I wonder how long it will be before the local Canadian fish eagle’s nest lies empty, to eventually fall from the tree, and with no eagles returning to rebuild, it can only be  a matter of time before people forget that there were ever eagles here;  just as they have forgotten that not so long ago a female black bear used to come and feed with her cubs in the local berry patch.

In 2012 two young birds fledged on the local nest. An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches.
In 2012 two youngsters fledged on this local nest.  An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches on.

I can whinge as much as I like, but it isn’t my place to speak for the community. I believe that those with historical connections to the area need to have a say about their area, and then they need to remain vigilant over what might be lost, namely the natural wonders that are the true heritage of the Lower Mainland. To conserve the area something has to change, because presently, the essence that makes this corner of British Columbia so special is being given away – not just without a fight, but without a murmur.

N.B. A precedent has now been set. On 13 August a notice of proposed development was received by a resident at the lower end of 156 St, informing of an application to the Surrey Planning Department for the rezoning of a nearby area of woodland and scrub from “General Agricultural Zone (A-1)” to “Comprehensive Development Zone (CD)” to permit the development of 46 family lots with 16% open space (great news – only small lawns to water then!), and the planning staff won’t be making any written responses to comments. The notice appears insensitive to local feeling, even a little arrogant perhaps, but above all it seems unCanadian. If globalisation goes belly up, we  might all need to grow our own food locally and serious questions need to be asked about the persistent development of agricultural land. In the end of course, the local planning department might just do the sensible thing and say no, but I’m not holding my breath.

A local resident informs me that the native Douglas squirrel has not been seen so readily since the development. For a short sequence on the squirrel view :-

Pictures don't just tell stories – they change the world