Tracing the footsteps of the first Europeans in the Pálava Hills

The Pálava Hills

In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.

I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.

Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.

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The Venus of Moravia (copy)

The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?

Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.

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The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.

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Tools including primitive saws made from flints and shards of rock
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A necklace made from mammoth bones

The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.

Into the woods

The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.

Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.

Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.

The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.

 

These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.

Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?

Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.

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Mikulov castle with Austria on the horizon

Memories of sunnier times

In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.

On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.

I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.

At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.

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Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.

The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.

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Of castles and campfires

Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.

Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.

The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.

The Oostvaardersplassen: rewilding the Netherlands, or maybe not

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In May 2017 I visited the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Flevoland, north-east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The trip was organised by EuCAN in their drive to keep the conservation channels open in a post-Brexit landscape and my thanks go to Nigel and Kathy for their work in making it all happen, as well as my fellow travellers. The Oostvaardersplassen is renowned in conservation in the United Kingdom as one of the foremost ‘rewilding’ projects. I won’t attempt to completely deconstruct the project, its successes and failures, its history and ambitions, here. I didn’t gather enough information whilst there to attempt that. Instead I’ll offer a few observations and ideas regarding what we saw.

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The Oostvaardersplassen’s landscape

Oostvaardersplassen is a 22 kilometre-squared area of woodland, marshland and wetland reclaimed from the sea. Where the ‘free-roaming’ herbivores reside is completely fenced on all sides, though attempts have been made to create a wildlife corridor connecting them with other areas of the country. The site has been stocked with grazing animals – cattle, konik horses and several species of wild deer have entered in. The grazing regimes brought about by the inclusion of these animals are an attempt to recreate the prehistoric mosaic of open habitats that were once the ‘natural’ state of the European landscape. For some there is an argument that the landscape was coast to coast woodland, dark and overgrown, with few clearings. Another view, propounded by Franz Vera, a key figure in the Oostvaardersplassen, is that in fact the landscape was more open and that large herbivores (European bison, wild ox or aurochs, deer, elk and indeed geese) held back the woodland through their chomping, meaning a mixture of more open and wooded habitats. I am more convinced by the latter, especially after seeing the impact of the grazing here.

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The majority of the landscape is wetland, of open water and reedbeds. It is rich in birdlife and its geese populations are of European importance. This means that very little of the reserve is easily accessible but there is an excellent visitor centre and some footpaths and hides available for tourists. The most striking sense was of the large scale dieback of trees. As far as the eye could see willow trees were dead and dying. Speaking to one of the rangers for a short time, there is a great pressure from visitors whose views are based on aesthetics. The view from the neighbouring trainline has been voted the most beautiful in the Netherlands. Our guide spoke of how visitors perceived the landscape in terms of suffering, be it because animals that died were left to decay and that trees were not lollipops with a full compliment of leaves. This is not something confined to the Netherlands but it was clear these views stung the land managers and interventions had been made to ensure that animals, especially cattle and horses, were not allowed to suffer in ways that appeared negligent.

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The animals were the reason for the sea of deadwood that was immediately evident. The konik horses and deer had ring-barked the trees, meaning that the passage of food and water to the tops of the trees was impossible and the trees died. I found some real comfort in seeing this landscape of untidiness and it challenged my sense of ‘what a landscape should look like’. We are so used to formalised landscapes in the places that we live, be it the urban environment or the agricultural rural landscape. Why does a landscape have to look any way at all? It is an utterly middle-class concept. The ranger reminded us that there was no ideal vision for how Oostvaardersplassen would look. It was a matter of seeing how rich the landscape would become by returning it to one of free roaming grazing animals with limited human intervention.

In terms of flora, there was almost nothing bar a few dandelions due to the intensity of the grazing. Birds seemed to fare better, with male redstarts singing from song perches provided by the dead branches. The lack of leaves also gave an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph them.

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Redstarts are African migrants, preferring this kind of wood pasture habitat that grazing animals can create. The New Forest, though it has far more in the way of living trees, is another similar habitat type where redstarts still can be found breeding in Britain.

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To our delight, another species which enjoyed the prevalence of dead wood song perches was the bluethroat. At first hunkering down low in the reeds, the bird here nipped into a tree and belted out its medley of tunes and trills.

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In continental Europe the pied wagtail is replaced by a subspecies, the white wagtail. It has a greyer appearance. This bird was gathering insects to feed its young in the nest.

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There was an area of woodland accessible to visitors and free of grazing pressure. This was richer in plants, though limited mainly to nettles and other nitrogen-favouring species. In this area pied flycatcher was nesting and the insect life came to the fore.

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At the roadside a crowd had gathered to watch this eagle owl roosting in willow. It is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of 2 metres and a diet of buzzard and raven. It’s not a bird to meet in a side alley on the way home from the pub. There were reports of an eagle owl in Lelystad, the closest town, the previous day and there were rumours it could have escaped from a collection.

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There was a pleasing diversity of bee-life, with several species of Nomada bee potted and identified. This nomad bee had stopped to preen its antennae.

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A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle. Outrageous.

The map butterfly is always a pleasant sight because it’s not found in the UK. It has two broods with separate markings, the latter being darker, seen in the Czech Republic in July.

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The most common insect to be found was probably this Empid or dance fly. It spent most of its time drinking from hawthorns or else hunting crane flies. It would attack the crane flies and fly away with them, legs akimbo.

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What is rewilding?

Rewilding is a conservation movement which seeks to return large areas of land to natural processes where human intervention is limited, sometimes to almost nothing. There are strong arguments for moving away from tree planting, for example, in areas where (as Oliver Rackham said) the simple lack of grazing animals will allow woodland to flourish on its own. In Britain there are arguments to allow ‘the uplands’ to be returned to a more ‘natural state’ (sorry about the inverted commas, but the terms used are often subjective) to prevent flooding by ending intensive moorland management and allowing trees to recolonise and therefore store more rainwater to reduce flooding in the land below, where most towns and cities are located.

Other ideas are to introduce wolves or lynx to areas where wild deer numbers are out of control and their grazing pressure is severely damaging woodlands. Something closer to reality is the return of the beaver to the English landscape and the positives they certainly can bring in reducing flooding and diversifying riverine habitats and boosting other species. One interesting idea is the return of pine marten to reduce the number of invasive grey squirrels, and the return of the otter resulting in a reduction in American mink through competition. There are many ideas, some hugely exciting. They are experiments which, due to the utterly changed nature of the British landscape, will remain a mystery in many cases.

Personally I see big problems with the concept as it has been conceived and amplified in recent terms, largely related to my experience as a land manager, not merely an ecological theorist or environmental campaigner. But then rewilding is also thought to be achievable in an urban setting, something that is otherwise alien to the concept.

Rewilding has experienced a massive spike in interest since the publication of Feral by George Monbiot but it was not first thought of then. Sometimes it is hard to be convinced it is a concept at all, such is its similarity to other conservation projects which are currently in action, as with the beaver reintroduction in Devon. Rewilding could be a response to the apparent bureaucratisation of the conservation movement. People don’t want their donations to conservation charities to be spent on printing and electricity bills (sorry but it actually has to sometimes). Rewilding has become a populist movement, largely thanks to Monbiot’s ability to inspire people in ways that previous proponents have failed to.

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Monbiot is a popular environmental writer who seeks to tie in his economic and social writings with those of environmentalism, connecting the impacts of Western consumer lifestyles with the shocking loss of species in the past fifty or more years. He is one of the only writers to be given column inches and use the phrase ‘British wildlife’ in a grown-up way, rather than simply recounting childhood memories. On the opposite end of the scale to Monbiot, there are xenophobic reimaginings of rewilding, highlighted in a twitter page called Rewild Britain, which uses the notion of species decline to lambast ethnic minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not ‘indigenous’ to Britain. Many people today have not understood that there are no ‘pure’ or ‘indigenous’ Brits. Our farming systems evolved in the Middle East, our language a melange of foreign ones, and Britain has been enjoying immigration ever since it became an island. Suffice to say the social media account in question has no accountability, no name, no website, and is easily confused with the official account of Rewilding Britain.

Is rewilding open to misanthropy? I have spoken to proponents of what they deem to be rewilding who have stated that they think, in essence, that humans are bad and that we should not be a part of nature as they conceive of it anymore. We are a part of nature, our place is still in the natural world, it is simply that our place in the food chain, in the temporal sense, has been warped by technological advances: it takes longer for our species to be impacted by environmental change. Climate change is impacting upon species with a low trophic-level (butterflies, bees, birds) right now and it will meet us in the same way later on, in terms, because of our protective measures buying us time whilst our damaging measures draw difficulties closer.

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Doing it the Dutch way

Back to the Netherlands. On our merry way around the five-lane motorways of the north-west Netherlands, we stopped in at the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland to visit an area where European bison were acclimatising. Bison are thought to have been present across the entire Northern Hemisphere before humans began to impact on their populations. Though there is debate about whether they were in Britain, they are now being introduced across Europe thanks to successes in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park. The bison in this part of Holland were living in an area of ancient sand dunes close to the sea but, as the photo above illustrates, close to human habitation. The place was a riot of nightingales. On our tour of this closed site, the manager of the bison told us that he wanted people to see that we can all live alongside these animals. They are not dangerous, they are unpredictable. He was underlining something we have lost in regard to wildlife: respect. That is something I can get behind, planning the reintroduction of extinct megafauna with people in mind. There can be no other way to do it when our population is set to increase further in the coming decades.

What is the point of releasing these bison here? It’s conservation of a gene-pool. By introducing the animals in as many different locations around Europe it makes them more resilient to population loss, allowing their genetic diversity to to evolve and for inbreeding to be reduced.

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The work being done here was admirable. Rather than sitting in front of a computer postulating about the possibilities they are getting on with it. But how wild can rewilding this way actually be? The bison we saw here were penned in, accounted for and cared for, just like livestock. Our impact on the environment is now so far reaching that reintroducing larger animals immediately has connotations in terms of animal welfare. Many of the species we want back in the landscape travel long distances, are predators of livestock and are greatly feared by people, for reasons that are largely unfounded. In Britain we struggle to live with badgers, foxes, cormorants, hen harriers and wasps, let alone wolves or lynx.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a case in point but then its managers have never called it a rewildling project. They have no plan for how it should look and no desired outcome other than to learn from its results. It gives a sense of hope, perhaps that’s what so draws people to rewilding. We are growing bored of the endless stories of negativity when positives exist and must be sought. The very existence of nature is a positive that sometimes conservationists have to draw on to keep going. That should be the very point, whether it’s rewilding, nature conservation or simply good stewardship, we have a duty of care to the planet and its wildlife. Finding out the best way of making it work is the challenge we and wildlife face. That we can surely all agree on.

North Downs diary: The bees are racing on the Mole

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North Downs diary, Mole Valley, Surrey, April 2017

I follow the Mole gap trail into Norbury Park, ash woodland glowing in the spring sunshine, dog’s mercury abounding on the soil between the pale trunks. The railway line cuts across the eastern edge of the woods, a brick bridge taking trains straight over one of the major footpaths. Under the bridge a lady walks her dog down the hill, her shape appearing beneath the brick. She pauses as I pass under the bridge and takes a photo.

‘All I could see was your legs,’ she says. ‘And then the rest of you appeared.’

We both have cameras and she asks what I’m here to photograph, about butterflies and how many I’ve seen today. Orange tip, brimstone, peacock and my first small tortoiseshell of the year. Along the banks of the Mole butterflies have flitted in good number.

‘Oh I haven’t seen many,’ she says. She tells me more about Norbury Park, its managers Surrey Wildlife Trust and how angry she feels about the fact all the Trust’s rangers will be made redundant. ‘It’s always the people who are out there doing the actual work that suffer. When there’s a fire or something goes wrong there won’t be anyone there for us to contact.’

The ranger programme was being funded with money from Surrey County Council, and Jenny has been making efforts to register her discontent with local councillors. ‘It’s all about priorities, they’ve just resurfaced the A24 and when there was nothing wrong with it.’

‘I devote myself to the countryside,’ she says. ‘Apart from 3 years in London for university I have always lived in Surrey. I spend hours walking with the dog and never get round to everything I need to do in life. When I get home I just head back out again.’

I ask her how things have changed over the years.

‘There are definitely less birds than there used to be,’ she says.

As we stand talking next to the railway bridge the sun shines down through the leafless trees. Peacocks sun themselves on the ride’s edge, bright yellow brimstones pass across the slopes above us. We say farewell, Jenny heading off into the Park while I continue south towards Box Hill.

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The Mole edges Norbury Park, where beech woods sprawl along the eastern slopes. On the other side of the river the smell and calling of livestock breaks through. In the woods the beeches gleam in the glory of the sun, ramsons begin to flower one by one. Leaving the Park, farmland opens out and the woodland is replaced by fields with single oaks, and a beanpole lime tree riddled with mistletoe. I learned recently that mistletoe grows only on smooth bark, its seed is sticky and is often left there by the mistle thrush, so named for this reason. The branches in the canopy of limes are always sleek and silver, perfect for the mistletoe to attach itself to. The oaks are grand specimens, one dying back from above. Many trees are leafing on the Downs but no oak or ash quite yet. Overhead buzzards soar and mew, and the rickety frame of a red kite tumbles towards Box Hill.

The green fields turn instead to brown where cattle graze. More oaks mark the old field boundaries, likely once connected by hedgerows now removed. The farmer has fenced them to protect their roots and bark from the jaws and hoofs of his or her livestock. The fields are protected by electric fencing audibly ticking, but several of these oaks are dying, possibly from the damage done by the cattle. Crossing the Mole again the train line returns, a neat arch allows the river to flower as it kinks round. The light shimmers and ripples on the underside of the brickwork built almost in a spiral. It’s dizzying to watch for too long. Across the old footbridge and into a field named Foxbury Shaw more veteran oaks stand ready to leaf again, a trio leaning into a dried up channel, perhaps a former braid in the river.

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One oak has fallen and lies supine with that typical stag head of old roots. Passing close by I notice the swarming of insects at the root plate. It is surely too early for wasps and they appear too big. Edging closer, they are in fact hairy-footed flower bees whirring and zipping around the old roots. When the tree fell the roots lifted soil with them, now hardened like great chunks of biscuity dough. The sun has baked the soil and the wood of the fallen oak. Here is the very image of a life after death.

The oak is being mined by solitary bees, some, like the bronze furrow bee are minute. There are more animals besides them, with jumping spiders waiting for the chance to pinch their prey. One sits atop a root basking in the sun, camouflaged against the  bleached timber. The soil has been drilled with holes, the habitat of the flower bees. A group of about five to eight males, blonde and super-fast in flight, zip around me as I photograph their homes. Truly it is the sound of racing cars or X-wings tearing around at several hundred miles an hour. Another species of bee basks on the upturned roots, it has long, black antennae and is disturbed when I look more closely. It’s a mourning bee, a parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of hairy footed flower bees. The eggs hatch, eat the young of the flower bee and then eat the food stash left for its prey. Despite our clichés, some bees are only in it for themselves.

Explore my North Downs diary

Essay: In conservation, Europe shares a common goal

Wildlife does not heed national boundaries. EU funding, legislation and partnerships have led to benefits for our wildlife and ecosystems that a standalone UK could not have initiated. Britain’s membership of the European Union is often tabled as a threat to our sovereignty and freedom when in fact it has protected us from damaging policy decisions made by our own government. What has the EU ever done to help British wildlife? We must look back into the distant past to understand

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The making of a great divide

Consider the landscape of some 40,000 years ago: glaciers sat north of London, covering the whole of northern Europe. Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States all locked in ice. But the earth was going through a period of global warming that allowed a new species to spread into the landscape we know today as Europe. This species had complex social structures and big brains, had learned how to clear trees, build fire and to cook food. That species was us, Homo sapiens. Our stepping stone societies had made it out of Africa and across Siberia. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago and these first Europeans had found themselves in a landscape that was changing in ways they had never known. Their world, Europe, warmed, the glaciers retreated north, carving valleys, exposing unimaginably old rock formations, rearing up chalk and baring limestone, flooding the deepest lying valleys and trenches. But it was not just people who crossed this new landscape, wolves (the greatest of terrestrial travellers), lynx, bison, elk and deer all migrated across land opening and warming, leafing and flowering in a way it had not for over 100,000 years.

By 8,500 years ago the trenches and gullies that once will have seemed so high, so insurmountable to our ancestors, were submerged by what we now know as the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and most significantly in this case, the English Channel. Those animals (and I include Homo sapiens, of course) that did not cross in time, and that did not have wings with which to fly, were confined to Europe. The European ice sheets had melted and a critical divide had been made: Britain and Europe. For the next 8,000 years there were human attempts at passage and colonisation from Europe, and from Britain to Ireland and the now habitable Scottish isles. Some of these incursions are well known: the Roman invasion (43AD), the Vikings (9th century) and the Normans (11th century). There are some not so well known, like the early boats made from oak, chestnut and ash that will have capsized in their hundreds, their passengers never registered in history. On the shores today, many settled in their cities, towns and villages trumpet their near permanent roots in England, ignorant of the truth: the first Brits originated in Africa, arriving on foot via Russia 40,000 years ago. Further to this, we all depend on a system of food production developed by our ancestors in the Middle East. We are all the children of migration.

 

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The French connection

Ironically, British habitats are not so rich because of our separation from continental Europe both climatically and physically. On a landscape scale, take England’s chalk grasslands, a rare habitat home to species that have evolved in grasslands that pre-date the English Channel. At the tip of Kent, survey the fauna and flora of a chalky valley then catch a ferry across the water and see it equalled where it still exists. In Kent it’s called the Continental Southern Element, a place where plants like man orchid (above), pyramidal orchid, field eryngo, meadow clary and autumn lady’s tresses can be found, wildflowers that spread from southern Europe before the great flood some 8,500 years ago. Britain’s habitats are unique because we are an island. We have chalk grassland, ancient woodland, coastal dunes, freshwater lakes and river networks, saltmarsh, heather moorland, peat bog and mountain ranges. We have many of the habitats found across Europe, all encircled by one shoreline.

Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions. All of these problems are recognised by the European Union

A visit to many of Europe’s towns, cities and wild places, the encountering of common species that we call British, reminds us of our simple and close connections. A percentage of the beloved blackbirds and robins you see in your garden each winter are of Scandinavian stock, the Vikings of the bird world. The nightingales so loved by English literature, the swallows and swifts we welcome ‘home’ in spring, each are African birds, stopping off in Europe on their way to the UK. Each species is known to distant cultures and people who also feel a connection with their joyful freedom and music when we see them depart.

But our wildlife is in decline, our sparser diversity of species growing poorer. Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions, and even our own habitat, our cities, is poisoned by air pollution that stunts the lung development of our children, leads to mental ill-health, heart disease and shortens the lives of us all. And yet all of these problems are recognised by the European Union and our membership pressures our political leaders to act upon them. Bats are protected species, as are badgers, water voles and the great crested newt thanks to the Bonn and Bern Conventions. In England it is our very own government that ignores the protection of badgers. Our birds are supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, our rivers now improved thanks to support from the Water Framework Directives. I have volunteered on projects and received training in invasive species control thanks to EU funding so to me and my local area the benefit is tangible. On some of the most crucial issues regarding our collective wellbeing, the EU has stood up against our government to do what is right morally (and ecologically) for British people. Even Chancellor George Osborne wants Britain in the EU, someone who considers environmental protections like the habitats directives ‘red tape’ holding back economic growth.

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Europeans working together for nature

It is true that the EU is not perfect. The spread of agricultural intensification into areas of traditionally-farmed landscapes of southern and eastern Europe will accelerate the ecological breakdown already seen in England’s rural landscape. The owl-rich farms of Serbia, the meadows of Hungary and Romania will be degraded and reduced to a shadow of their species diversity if they ever fall prey to agricultural ‘improvement’. This will mean more pesticides and a disconnection between people and the land. Once gone, these traditionally-managed landscapes are hard to bring back. Their stewards might well have packed up and headed for the city by then. Strangely, in Britain our wildlife is better protected from agricultural intensification by EU membership. When considering the role the European powers have in protecting our environment, the case of declining pollinators like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects is worth noting.

In March 2013 the EU proposed a ban on systemic pesticides, otherwise known as neonicotinoids. This at first failed to achieve a majority of support and the ban could not be implemented. Why was a ban being proposed? Neonicotinoids were linked to declines in honey bee and other wild insect populations. This is because many agricultural plants are now grown from seeds which are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides. This means that the entire plant is toxic. When these plants grow and their remains fall into the soil the toxicity lives on, contaminating local water bodies and river networks. This toxicity is also linked to a decline in farmland birds in Europe. It’s a decline which is shared at home. One month later, in April 2013, the motion was tabled once more at appeal and the UK switched its vote from abstention to objection, but enough nations voted in favour and the hung vote was taken up and implemented by the European commission. In this instance, we require the EU member states to protect our wildlife and wellbeing from the vagaries of our own government. We also have the chance to influence policy in Europe, a continent which has far greater biodiversity than we. We should take heart from the fact that the European commission has taken action on the Polish government’s unscientific clear felling of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s largest ancient, lowland woodland.

Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at its very heart

In my mid-20s I was lucky enough to attend an EU funded placement volunteering in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. I saw then what EU money could do: support for local conservation projects that allow people, in this case shepherds, to contribute to the conservation of the lammergaier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that like so many does not heed national boundaries. This project with the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture was one of many EU funded projects supported by EuCAN, a Community Interest Company based in Dorset, England. There are partner projects in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Hungary that have benefited from the support of EuCAN and its EU funded teams of volunteers. In July 2013 I visited South Moravia in the Czech Republic to meet people I now consider friends, all of whom are working to encourage a kinship between people and nature, riches of which the English can but dream. In April 2015 I travelled by train to Romania to meet Barbara Knowles, who very sadly passed away in 2016. Barbara’s project, Treasures of Transylvania, works to promote traditional land management in order to sustain some of the richest habitats Europe has. Prince Charles has travelled to Romania to offer his support for the project. Barbara worked alongside Pogany Havas, a local initiative to support the same goals.

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Britain and Europe’s wildlife needs us

The truth is that without EU membership British organisations like EuCAN are even less likely to be able to receive funding and the alliance of EU-wide conservation is threatened with critical impairment. Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at the very heart of conservation. In England there is an unspoken rivalry between conservation groups (all of whom, it would seem, support EU membership, with 6% of the Wildlife Trusts’ income garnered from the EU and David Cameron’s RSPB endorsement of what the EU does for wildlife) but organisations like EuCAN and the Barbara Knowles Fund show that we all share a common aim and understanding on a local level, whatever our nationality: our ecosystems are suffering because of human impacts, people are becoming disconnected from the landscape and we need to do something about that, together. The impacts of human populations and industry are not going to go away and so we have to accept there will be change and find a way to influence it.

It can’t be denied that the European Union’s impact on nature is not all good, but that is the nature of the world we live in today, be it Britain, Europe or the Americas. Remember that it was the EU that enforced a bee-killing pesticides ban, that it is EU legislation which protects our wildlife and rivers, that funds so many of these local initiatives that connect people and nature. In Britain it is by being a part of this discussion that we as individuals can speak to our political representatives to make a case for a better union for nature. If Britain leaves the EU, we lose that power and our wildlife loses a lifeline. The British connection to Europe is clear in the history of our culture, landscape and wildlife. We are all Europeans, however far back our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage may take us. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a time when European nations were at war, when millions of people were dying in wars fought over European borders. We now live in an age where Holland and Belgium trade land to clarify their borders without the hint of bloodshed, simply the ruffle of papers and the clatter of a computer keyboard. Today we reach out to each other, across the Channel to recognise the need to preserve our wildlife and local traditions that maintain Europe’s diverse habitats. The EU has supported and will support this. In conservation we have a common European goal, we should cherish that.

 

North Downs diary: the wreckage of waxcaps

Farthing Downs, Coulsdon, November 2015

It’s a struggle, this time of year. The early darkness feels new and staunch. It’s a time to dread as far back as July, when the birdsong goes and some butterflies begin to look tattered. The newness of spring feels far away. But here we are, a mild November once more, knapweed and scabious in flower on Farthing Downs. I’ve often heard people say November flowers are confused, a human trait, of inaction. Really these hardier daisies are taking advantage of the warmth, ‘waiting’ for the frost to kill their petals off. Where there are no flowers I find instead the wreckage of waxcaps, trodden in by human, cow or canine. Some meadow waxcaps lie young and picked. There is a natural urge to do so, though the City of London Corporation won’t allow you to. I lie on my side to photograph a bright red honey waxcap that had me magnetised and muttering upon seeing it. Farthing Downs and neighbouring Happy Valley are rich in this family of mushrooms, due to the ancientness of the grasslands. The Corporation’s workforce have cleared a large chunk of post-war oak, hawthorn and ash woodland, opening up more ground for the rare waxcap habitat of this chalky landscape. I ponder the fact that a similar area of trees is to be landscaped up north in the borough of Southwark at Camberwell New and Old Cemeteries in order to provide new burial space, resulting in a campaign and a heated debate amongst the local community. Here at Farthing Downs this important work passes with no such fuss.

The grazing cattle’s cowpats merge with the mud coughed up by the machines brought to clear the trees. Looking closely, the surface of each poo is dotted with tiny orange coins. They are the fruiting body of Caprobia granulata, a dung fungus. But that is not the only life to be found on the cowpats. Yellow dungflies, one of 54 species in Britain, perch on the ledges of the pats, brawling and mating in the furrows. Some rest in perfect stillness until I venture too close and their mounds are vacated in an instant. I hear the alarmed calls of a crow and look up at the faintly blue sky. Nothing. It is usually the crow’s indicator of talons and curved bills. Indeed, I see them now – two rooks and a crow, the latter with a piece of food held between its bill, chasing a sparrowhawk. They dive and the hawk turns its talons up at the incoming corvid, righting itself with a 180 degree spin. The sparrowhawk slows, turns, ducks another attack and then moves off, gliding to the safety of Devilsden Wood.

The fool with the gun

Coulsdon, London, August 2015

The woodpigeons take flight as the gunshots ripple through the air from a neighbouring farm. I heard a little girl say, with great sincerity, that she wanted to come back to the downs with her sled when it snows, ‘I love it here,’ she said. So, what gives the fool with a gun his pleasure? It’s a question that needs answering the world over. But it’s not just pigeons that disappear into the trees at the sound of ammunition, a sharp-winged kestrel evacuated a tree in the middle of this hillside meadow, slipping into nearby Devilsden Wood like a compact disc. Thankfully the insects and wildflowers aren’t fussed by the gunfire, instead common blue butterflies drink from wild marjoram, a hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis, does the same. A white tailed bumblebee’s heft droops the heads of yellow rattle, still flowering low. From amidst the flowers birch, willow and ash leaf like little green fires ready to burn these grasslands up into centuries of shade. The man with the strimmer will hold back their revolution with those of his machine. If only the ammonia stench from the grazing cow’s dung could be cut back like vegetation. When you step in it, it follows you around wherever you go. At least I’ll have a carriage to myself on the train home.

Restoring the Magnificent Meadows of the Cotswolds

In July 2015 I volunteered with the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to help with the harvesting of wildflower seeds from hay meadows and other species-rich grasslands. The Magnificent Meadows project is partnered nationally between the AONB, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and the RSPB. I was helping Conservation Officer Eleanor Reast and volunteer Will Bowers. Since 1945, 97% of British wildflower meadows (hay meadows, water meadows, chalk and limestone grassland) have been lost. There are many reasons for this and there are a number of projects to raise awareness and physically restore this near-obliterated habitat. The loss has been catastrophic for invertebrate populations, namely the bees which are popular whilst their misunderstood habitat continues to decline. I don’t mean honeybees specifically, they play an important role in pollination but the biggest and most concerning losses are to bumblebees, with some of the rare species now confined to coastal meadows and grasslands. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust estimates that bees provide £560million to the UK economy through pollinating high value crops. But bumblebees are only a fraction of British species: there are around 250 species, 32% of which are threatened with extinction. Solitary bees make up much of the numbers here, with an amazing array of species having taken to different niches and areas of our landscape, giving us mining, mason and leaf cutter bees. Wildflower-rich meadows, along with woods, should be the fulcrum of support for our rural wildlife, instead the former has been near-destroyed and millions of pounds are now rightly being invested in their regeneration. At the same time government continues to build on remaining rich grasslands and open up more areas for fracking.

The AONB is vast and the job of Eleanor and her colleagues is not a simple one. The project aims to work with local landowners both to collect seed from their meadows but also to re-seed new grasslands where the soil conditions are suitable. Flower-rich grasslands are generally nutrient poor, this means that they haven’t been fertilised with chemicals or dung (also human excrement as I learned in the Cotswolds). This is vital because if the soil is too nutrient-rich, dominant species like nettle, bramble and hogweed will begin to overtake. Species-rich grasslands are often also rich in waxcap fungi. However, according to George Peterken, the nitrogen emitted into the atmosphere by car engines and through aviation is leading to rainfall that is actually fertilising grasslands and reducing the range of fungi as well as wildflowers. Orchids are impacted here as some species have intricate, symbiotic relationships with fungi, and the loss of fungi can therefore impact the meadow ecosystem in subtle ways.

Harvesting the meadows required a Land Rover to drag the seed harvester around the landscape and a trailer to get the thing out there. I spent most of my time trying to sift the collected seed of knapweed, yellow rattle, orchids and scabious, or else trying to photograph insects.

We were visited by BBC Countryfile’s Ellie Harrison, who is also the President of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Ellie is helping with the Magnificent Meadows project and was keen to see, first hand, how the work was going. Seeing Ellie driving the vehicle, though only briefly, through the field made me think of how meadows challenge our notion of the ‘natural’. They are man-made habitats which have been around in their current form for at least 6000 years, when the Neolithic farming revolution reached its nadir or height, depending on your viewpoint. Much of the meadows and farmland we have today will once have been covered by wildwood, a habitat of nature’s own making that is lost to us in Britain thanks to thousands of years of deforestation by humans. Peterken suggests that meadows originated from woodland glades that once would have been kept open by aurochs (wild cows), deer and other large grazing animals. Something close to these old wildwood meadows are wood meadows still found in Estonia and Sweden.

The seed had to be emptied onto the blue tarpaulin which was then sifted out using the homemade wooden frames and wire sieves. There was a lot of insect by-catch, most commonly grasshoppers and crickets, unfortunately losing one leg most of the time, and a few dead meadow brown and marbled white butterflies, and silver-y moths. Don’t be upset though as these are common species in the Cotswolds which will, in the long term, be able to increase in number when the meadows diversify over a wider area of the AONB.

The meadows were generally ‘over’ but there was still a lot of insect life. I think this is a stripe-winged grasshopper.

Bumblebees were busy and looking worn from their summer work. This ‘rather faded’ common carder bee was on common knapweed.

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There were a number of wildflowers still in bloom, like this white variation of greater knapweed.

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It was not entirely possible to gather seed every day. We tried to harvest at Leckhampton Hill, a site with very rich and beautiful limestone grassland. Only minutes after arriving and bringing the mower on site, a torrential downpour hit and the grassland become impossible to harvest. We had to return, seedless. I took the chance to look for insects and found a gathering of longhorn moths, Nemophora metallica. I like this little punk of a micro-moth, it looks quite tiger-like to me. I’ve had to invest in the Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland to acquaint myself with them.

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The seed had to be spread out in the barn after harvesting. Will and I (mostly Will, whose practical skills were, for a 21-year-old, amazing and embarrassing) raked out the seed onto tarpaulins. Will diligently turned the seed so that it would stay cool. If it got too warm and mound-like it would effectively begin to compost and decompose.

Here you can see the most sought-after seed, that of yellow rattle, a wildflower which is parasitic on the roots of grasses and so can help other less dominant, nectar-rich species to move in. Eleanor said that you only need a single yellow rattle seedling to establish for the plant to take hold in a meadow. Of course the conditions have to be right, this is a plant that likes calcium-rich limestone grassland like meadows being protected and enhanced in the AONB.

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When the seed was ready it was the job of Eleanor and volunteer Will (and me) to hand-sow the seeds, carrying them from point to point in dumpy-sacks. It was a real challenge to get it right and it will take years for the plants to establish. It’s a project that needs patience as much as it needs meadows to harvest.

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My final day of harvesting took place in Tewkesbury, an area of rolling hills with hay meadows and arable land lined by trees and hedges in the valley. The weather was warm and dry and therefore perfect for harvesting. We harvested from a slither of the hillside which was designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) but was in fact somewhat ‘rank’, meaning it was not so floristically diverse and instead was clogged with grasses. I did, however, find some wonderful (for spider-lovers) and a little horrifying (for bee-lovers) insect-life.

Capsid bugs are a large family of insects with 229 species, known as the Miridae, but they’re quite easy to encounter if you have a macro lens for your camera or some other form of magnification. This capsid bug was traversing the stamens of knapweed.

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The SSSI was edged by a line of trees and dense bramble. Hidden away in the bramble was this funnel-web spider that Will found. It had created a tunnel (or funnel) from which it could prey on insects. There were plenty of potential meals to be had.

A lot has been said about the importance of meadows for bees and butterflies. Bees are also important for the other creatures that prey on them. I watched this spider wrapping a solitary bee in its silk. The bee fought to try and free itself, but the strength of the webbing is not something that can be broken by a solitary bee. It was unpleasant to watch but also fascinating. You can be sure this is a scene that has been occurring for centuries in the meadows of the Cotswolds, with balances maintained within the ecological network by predators like these grassland-dwelling spiders. Nature’s beauty is indeed subjective. Don’t confuse this, though, its full-scale importance to us cannot be put in material or capitalist terms.

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Away from the harvesting there were a few signs of good government policy in action. Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is a boring-sounding scheme which is being undertaken in different forms across the EU where farmers and other landowners receive funding from government to seed wildflower-rich margins, plant woodland, reintroduce grazing to ailing grasslands and replace lost hedgerow. This field had sidings of oxeye daisy, poppy, cornflower and a range of other native wildflowers which have been lost from British farmland in the past 60 years. Sadly, at the same time the Tories caved in to unrelenting corporate and National Farmer’s Union pressure to allow bee-killing pesticides once more, flouting an EU ban.

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Another national meadow project is Prince Charles’s Coronation Meadows scheme in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife. The heir to the throne loves the place so much he hung out with Eleanor in July. As for me, I got the chance to visit one near Morton-in-marsh. It was mostly covered by greater burnet, a member of the rose family that likes wet meadows and margins. The flowers were not at their full pomp in July, though the gentle spots of burnet and devil’s-bit scabious pointed to the richness of the meadow, the orchids having flowered and gone.

There were lots of insects feeding on the still flowering burnet, like this hoverfly, a member of the Sphaerophoria family.

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And this male red-tailed bumblebee was working hard on this greater burnet flower. He had a fine yellow-beard.

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I’d like to thank Eleanor and Will for all they taught me about meadow restoration and the laws of the Cotswolds. Eleanor and her colleagues obviously work incredibly hard out there trying to improve the landscape for future generations of people and wildlife. It is no simple task but hopefully it will make a big difference in decades to come meaning more bees, butterflies and beautiful, vital wildflowers.

Photography: The Great Hungarian Plain

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Bearded tit at Hortobágy-Halasató

In April 2015 my good friend Eddie Chapman and I visited the Hortobágy in the Great Hungarian Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site designated as ‘an exceptional surviving example of a cultural landscape constituted by a pastoral society’. Hortobágy is a small town in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, three hours east of Budapest by train and a little bit to the west of Debrecen. The area is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and we were visiting on our way to Romania by train. The main focus of our visit, being without a car and dependent on public transport, was the fishpond complex known as Hortobágy-Halastó (Halastó meaning ‘fishponds’ in Hungarian). Halastó was ‘dripping’ with birdlife. This vast area of water was cut through with a single gauge railway (which we never used) and a mile-long, single file footpath. We saw a long-eared owl sleeping in a bird box, six eagles in the sky at once, marsh harrier at every turn and many other wonderful species. In the town, storks cavorted in front gardens and battled for prominence on streetlamp platforms placed there to support the storks. I had wanted to visit the region for several years after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 account in Between the Woods and the Water, as the teenage Fermor travelled from Rotterdam to Instanbul on foot. To see this area of land over ground hid none of Europe’s failings: people living in rubbish, vast areas of land devastated by extractive industries, huge infrastructure projects half built and deserted, rivers channelled, concreted and their banks denuded, and more rubbish, so much rubbish. But we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes and villages and guided us around the lands they call their own. The wildlife we encountered, for an early spring visit, was incredible. I recommend the excellent Crossbill Guide for anyone visiting.

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The Great Hungarian Plain or ‘Puszta’ is known for its flatness. The phrase Puszta was created after the Magyar (Hungarian) population was decimated in the 1200s by Mongol invasion and then the black death. It refers to the emptiness of the landscape after those devastating events. The Magyars settled in the Great Plain at the end of the 800s and they are seen as the founders of the land we now know as Hungary.

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230-140 million years ago the Plain was covered by the Tethys Sea, which is described as ‘the mother’ of the Mediterranean. Later, the Pannonian Sea was created with the formation of the Alps and Carpathian mountains surrounding it. The eventual draining of water from the landscape led to a unique mixture of soils, namely loess and clay, the former created when glaciers grind down underlying bedrock. As a student I read Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and other stories and fell for these endless landscapes and the people (in Chekhov’s case Russian) who had to live from them. Chekhov didn’t miss their wildlife though, his short story The Steppe reveals its hidden life, death and beguiling beauty. As in Chekhov, first impressions of the Great Plain give the sense of a deserted landscape. In reality it was alive with wildlife: white stork, buzzard, roe deer, corn bunting, butterflies, wildflowers, boxing hare, red fox. These were only the things we could see. We missed the steppe tarantula and ground squirrels.

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In the town of Hortobágy white storks were a common sight. They arrive in spring from their wintering grounds in Africa, building their famously large nests on platforms erected to support them. We saw tens of white stork in the town itself, some seen at dusk walking around in front gardens, sometimes in very small spaces. From a distance they looked like people, blurred either by heatlines or crepuscular light. We noticed that house sparrows were building nests of their own underneath the mass of twigs put together by the stork. There was tension between the storks with a number attempting to intrude upon the scene pictured above. The birds are silent but for a bill ‘clacking’ gesture, evidently territorial.

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Yellow wagtail is a spring migrant to Europe which is in severe decline in Britain. There were a good number of them on the Plain. Being bright yellow with a grey head, it’s easy to mistake the more urban and common grey wagtail for this bird.

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The only way for us to get around was to travel by train, the only time that we were really able to mix with local people. For the untrained, Hungarian is a pretty inaccessible language, with no relation to Latin or Western languages, it descends (or ascends) from Finnish. We tried our best but could only really master egészségedre (‘to your health’ or ‘cheers’) after a week in Hungary. The railways were typically post-war Communist, pumping out black fumes and chuntering along. But they were always on time and provided a lifeline for people who had no other means of transport. No one gets around on horseback like they did when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 20th century, when ‘carts drawn by horses and oxen easily outnumbered the motor cars’ (p.44).

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Both Eddie and I were struck by the struggles of people in the places we visited. It was at times impossible to see the trip as a holiday, particularly because of what we saw from the windows of our train as it passed from Debrecen over the border into Romania. I like old buildings crumbling around and lament their loss from London (I know there is a housing crisis) and took a few photographs of some that were around the Halastó station.

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Having travelled in the Czech Republic and Poland, I’m not a big fan of what communism has done to the landscape. The former Soviet Union has also contributed greatly to global warming with its industrialisation of much of rural Europe. Its architectural merits are also lost on me. I’m not a fan of what modern capitalism is doing either, via agricultural intensification, oil and fracking. But agricultural intensification is something that communism welcomed with open arms, rounding up the smaller farms and destroying millions of hectares of natural grasslands, woods and rivers in the process. Today agricultural intensification is the biggest threat to the steppe grasslands of Europe and Asia, making them some of the most threatened habitats on earth.

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This was the door to the station building, now housing sparrows. I should say that dilapidated housing and other buildings do not mean people in the area are suffering or unhappy. Here people seemed perfectly content with life on the surface. No one was homeless and the National Park appeared to be offering good support to the local community through ecotourism.

Hortobagy blog pics-13 More charming for the outsider were the individual thatched cottages dotted across the landscape. The evidence of how inhospitable this landscape is for trees can be seen by the two here sheltering next to the cottage. Whether this was used to shelter livestock or dry hay is unclear to me.

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We arrived at the Halastó fishponds on foot. The reeds from 2014 were being cut and piled into these pyramids, neatly put in rows. The thatch from the cottage in the previous image will likely have come from the vast reedbeds of Halastó. The reedbeds supported an amazing array of birds, this even before the spring migrants had arrived.

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Marsh harriers could be seen at every corner of the landscape, flying low over the reedbeds in search of food. Upon leaving, we were shaking our heads at the sheer number of these birds of prey. We missed them when we’d left.

Hortobagy blog pics-19 Another bird of interest for us was the pygmy cormorant, relative of the great cormorant which I know from the River Thames in London, and most waterbodies, really. Seeing these birds perched on branches low in the reeds was like looking back into the prehistoric swamps of Europe.

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A line of dying trees at the edge of the fishponds were fitted with open bird boxes. The boxes were a form of social housing for kestrels, what I later found to be lesser kestrel (thanks to Nigel Spring for pointing this out to me), a separate species to the common kestrel we have in Britain. There were several more kestrels out of sight but my lens couldn’t quite capture the scene.

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Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.

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Ever since reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the film The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), I had wanted to see cranes. They are returning to England as a breeding bird for the first time in 400 years, once being a common species of marsh and fenland before their habitat was drained for agriculture. These birds were often eaten by royalty in England. The Latin name Grus grus points directly to the noise they make. These birds flew over our heads as we watched the kestrels and sleeping owl.

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For wildlife to be protected successfully in the long term there has to be some benefit for humans as well. Fishponds have been present in Eastern Europe since medieval times and were created for royalty. Today they have a much more wide ranging commercial value and there is conflict to be found between those who like to pull fish from the water and those who like to watch birds pull fish from the water. Here we happened upon workmen extracting fish from one pond into the back of a lorry.

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Climbing up one of the lookout posts, Eddie happened across six eagles flying on thermals over the fishponds. I managed to get this photo of what we think are mainly white tailed eagles with a possible lesser spotted eagle, though that may have been out of the picture. Later we saw a white tailed eagle sitting in the mudflats of a drained fishpond, taking to the air with deep wafts of wingbeats.

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The sunsets of the Puszta are famous. We encountered this scene on our first day walking back from the fishponds. At this point we were turning back and forth between the setting sun and a pristine red fox trotting along the edge of the path. Corn buntings flocked and roe deer attempted to escape our view with nothing but the blur of the horizon to disappear into.

From here to Canterbury

Wildflowers

The North Downs, Coulsdon, May 2015

Entering onto the Downs, a group of teenagers are fixing their upturned bikes in the buttercups and silverweed. They spill out onto the lane, calling across to each other when a car comes past. It’s evening and the sun hits the mounds of anthills overgrown by birds-foot trefoil and speedwell. The glowing yellow and blue petals are a precursor to the summer yet to hit these chalky meadows, their flowers like a stash of forgotten jewels. From the strip of trees and bushes that separates Farthing Downs from New Hill, a flow of blackbird music runs, moving here and there as the wind tugs and carries their songs to different places. A red fox slips into the hedgerow. Song thrushes evade the wind with their daggers and trills. Up ahead, a pair of young women pose on the path, and only until a few paces ahead do I see the selfie-stick with their phone on the end. Disappearing off, knowing they aren’t alone, they throw a few more statuettes to their camera, before slinging hand bags back into the crooks of their arms. Skylarks call from up on high, one with its wings and bill working as if it all depended on that verse. In the hawthorns the linnets ping and pang, a green woodpecker lifts up from the turf and submerges itself in some oak scrub. The magpies tread through short tufts of meadowland coloured by buttercups and the hot red stems of salad burnet, still yet to leaf. Before me is Happy Valley, its wayfaring trees flowering in white spots on the hillside. Slipping off into the chalk hollow that will lead to Devilsden Wood, the defiant song thrush sings into the tunnel of hazel and yew, a master of this underworld. On the track before me is a light brown toad, sitting in the middle of the path. Like a baby it crawls towards me and nuzzles in against the side of my boot. I remove my foot and let it continue its journey into the undergrowth.

In Devilsden Wood I feel the first hints of the evening cooling, the sun having reddened my skin in the open land. The new, hardening green leaves of beech explode in the canopy where the light hits them, the few slithers of sky that can be seen between their branches leaves nicks of light along the trackway. A couple with their two sons walk with sticks, picking their way through the undergrowth to find new paths and treasure. The bluebells hum purple in the dark hazel coppices, brightened in part by the helmets of yellow archangel and splashes of stitchwort. The wood ends and the buttercup meadows of Happy Valley simmer at the break of trees. A man and a woman stroll the way I have come with butterfly nets in their hands, a happy day spent on the Downs, I am sure.

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The route leads back into sun dappled bluebell woods swamped by bramble. Two dogs shoot past from behind a small mound and I’m taken by surprise. Meeting company in the dark wood I waste no time breaking out again into the valley. On the hill that will take me to Coulsdon Common, two lads are rolling down, swearing as their tumble takes a surprising turn. At the bottom of the hill waits a girl with hands on hips, as if deciding between them who she will choose when their race climaxes. The lad with long black hair and grunge hoodie lies on his back, raising himself up on his elbows. The girl jockeys him and lies back. They rest in the sun-draining valley like a pair of Siamese twins. I pass them and head towards Coulsdon Common, overtaking a man in his seventies:

‘Evening,’ I say.

‘Good evening, sir!’ he fires back, as if still in the military. He stops, casting his eyes across the flowering meadow to the scene of a white gazeebo in a garden where a PA system amplifies a ceremony of some sort. He is a lone figure on that track, wearing a cap and winter coat. On Coulsdon Common the goal posts gape in shade as the sun breaks through the branches, illuminating the grasses: cocks foot and meadow foxtail. It’s approaching eight o’clock and so I chunter on, passing Saturday evening strollers fresh from an afternoon in the Fox pub. A man drives a mower along the verges, a clutch of bluebells given a stay of execution around a fencepost. I drop down into Rydons Lane past houses with vast lawns dotted with wildflowers left over from their previous incarnation as meadowland or wood. The absurdity of suburbia strikes its note – carp ponds, seven cars, gates with intercoms. I leave on an incline swallowed by yew trees and bursting with chalk, a Labrador storming past me. A voice blurs with the tree dark.

‘He’s over here,’ I shout.

‘Oh, thanks mate,’ is the reply of a man in a white t-shirt, stranded amidst dogs mercury.

I walk through a familiar farm where women ride horses, a Jaguar parked close by. In winter these fields are boggied by the deep clefts of horse hooves, now they are sealed by the heat of a hot day’s sun. Crossing a stile I arrive in a field where a man smokes a cigarette at a pathway in from his house, evidently in need of some silence and peace, he does not see me. I follow the mowed path alongside a hedge of poplar suckers, beyond a dead oak and its dead ivy which has only collapsed in the past year. In need of a snack I sit on the grass and notice paths which I had not seen before. A young, fresh red fox bounds into view, skipping as if from something invisible to the human eye. It sees me and stops, staring, unsure of what I might do. But I’m only here to sit and chew a Tunnock’s Caramel. I watch it through my binoculars, its image framed by buttercups and hedges, a house at the field’s edge. Insects move in small clouds along the edge of the mower’s reach.

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On Hayes Lane I dodge speeding cars and see that patches of wild garlic are being harvested with scissors, hollow stalks standing leafless on the verge. Their thoughtful foraging will make no dent in this robust lily, a plant flowering in profusion along the trackways from here to Canterbury in spring. At the entrance to Kenley Common a song thrush rises to a protruding branch, smashing a snail against the wood. It drops it and flies away. Taking a closer look I see the snail still curled up in its brittle, fractured home. The Common is not empty, the same spreads of buttercup full with human life. A man lies on his stomach in the flowers calling for his dog to run towards him, the remaining sunlight channelling straight down his lens. I look at the English oaks, swelling woods and distant wounds of chalk quarry and wonder what draws us so readily to gather professional images of our pets. With time on my mind I snatch a glimpse of the Caterham valley and head towards Whyteleafe, the remainder of the Common swamped in the shady wood pasture by cow parsley. The wood of mature ash and wayfaring trees are bright white, naked limbs in the twilight. At the end of my walk a poorly, urban fox cub nips into the road, pausing to watch me, like its healthier meadow counterpart, to see what I might do. I watch it disappear into the avenue of parked cars and take the pavement down to catch the next train home.

Essay: John Keats and how nature makes us feel so small

Galloway
Galloway, Scotland

John Keats (1795-1821) died aged 25 thinking himself a failed poet. Today he is revered as a great. I mine his poems for evocations of nature, the nightingales, the bees ‘bustling down in the bluebells’, and his recurring musk rose. For these moments, from a wet and gloomy winter, I find great pleasure in peering back 200 years to Keats’s descriptions of a London that had not yet swallowed Hampstead entirely, or my borough, the 800-year-old parish of Lewisham. In Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, he describes much of what makes birdsong a cure for human pains, the continuity of wildlife and nature gives us a place in the world, for we are not the first to hear a blackbird, song thrush or nightingale sing, nor will we be the last:

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown (p. 220[i])

Birds do not discriminate against any audience, their songs can be heard by any person who happens to be passing, be it the song of a robin singing at midnight in central London or a nightingale firing in the morning from a blackthorn hedge in a Dorset field. And perhaps real nature conservation has this at its heart, though often unsaid from a fear of sounding eccentric or elitist. Nature is vital to humanity in many ways, humanity is inseparable from nature, but in dealing with dissonance and social discord brought about by contemporary austerity and financial inequality, its inclusiveness is what makes it most relevant to us living in the 21st century. The song of the blackbird can be heard by anyone who might happen to hear it, more so if conservation is supported by communities and authorities.

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Loch Trool, Galloway Forest Park, Scotland

On a recent visit to Dumfries and Galloway in south-western Scotland I brought Andrew Motion’s hefty biography of Keats with me. It appears more and more that it is not so much Keats’ poems I like the most, but the many aspects of his story, which poetry seems such a big part of. He lived a very short and full life, his published poems barracked by what we might today equate with critics or journalists of the propagandist right’s ilk. And many people thought that he had died from the heavy blows of his critics. Motion points to his wildly ambitious walking tour of Scotland and Ireland, arguing that it was the conditions a weary and exhausted Keats experienced on the Isle of Mull that began his descent into critical illness. Keats had embarked on a mission to collect experiences to influence his writing, and he was astounded by Scotland’s sublime mountains and wild landscapes. He ‘forgot himself’ and found that nature took away all resentment he might have for other people, or his critics, at that time:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s own fellows. […] these scenes make man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely – I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. (p. 269)

Keats has been knocked down by nature’s visual power and, eventually, by its impacts on his body. He cracks open the heart of the genre of nature writing. Surely the whole point of casting nature as the central theme in anything is so that ‘these scenes make man appear little.’ In the face of the sublime image of Scottish mountains, human problems are made to feel minute. It’s the same feeling people experience today in British woods, on those same Scottish mountains and by the sea. Surely if Keats were alive today his thoughts might have turned to conservation of larger landscape areas – in the same way that his biographer, Andrew Motion, once Poet Laureate, now works for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, defending National Parks from a development lobby which seems to hold sway with government. National Parks are an idea created by John Muir, the Scottish adventurer who helped to found Yosemite National Park with his grand and flawed ideas of wilderness. In Scotland, protected landscape areas such as the Trossachs National Park, Cairngorms National Park and Galloway Forest Park are key to preserving the impact of those places on the human mind, at the same time protecting their prehistoric ecosystems and wildlife. A National Park or protected landscape area is an admission or celebration of the fact that nature can show us how small we really are. For John Keats and visitors to mountains today, if underestimated or not treated with respect these landscapes and their conditions can kill.

[i] The Complete Poems of John Keats, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2001

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014