Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.

Morrey Salmon: the father of British bird photography

A few months ago I went to visit Norman Salmon, a retired Army major living in Ashcott. He talked about his life in the military, particularly his involvement in the Korean war; he also told me about his later pursuit of his future wife, which led him to southern Africa and to cross half of Europe to re-unite with her: a wonderful Cold War romance that would grace a movie! As I was leaving, he showed me some photos of his father, Morrey Salmon, who had risen to the rank of colonel whilst serving in World War 2 with the RAF regiment – but whose real passion was as a pioneer of wildlife photography.

I was fascinated and found a copy of his book, which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Ingram in 1934, “Birds in Britain today”. A few weeks later Norman gave me a copy of the biography he and his brother had written about their illustrious father, which gave me some of  his background.

Morrey Salmon, holding a juvenile puffin on Skokholm

Morrey Salmon, who was born in 1891, had a distinguished military career in two world wars. One of his most notable achievements came near the end of the first world war, when he led the liberation of the small French town of Bry. His company came under heavy gunfire, and they lost 24 soldiers in the conflict, but he was determined to persevere and succeeded in taking and securing the town even with a depleted company. Norman visited Bry over ninety years later, and was honoured in a civic ceremony as the son of their chief liberator.

Between the wars he worked in his father’s business, South Wales India Rubber Company, but joined up again at the start of the second world war. He was the Commander of the RAF Regiment in North Africa, and then rose to the rank of colonel for the invasion of Sicily, before ultimately taking overall charge of the RAF regiments for the invasion of Italy.

For all this, it was nature that was his greatest passion. He was avidly interested in photography from an early age, and took his first photograph of a bird in 1909. He joined the Cardiff Naturalists in 1910, and two years later started its Photographic section. In 1914 some of his photos appeared in a major exhibition in London.

Morrey_Salmon_RBS1crmed

Photo of a red-backed shrike at a nest in Wales. This is of considerable historical interest because this species no longer breeds in the UK.

He used much of his spare time in the inter-war years in the countryside, observing and photographing wildlife. His chief companion in this was Geoffrey Ingram, and the two of them eventually wrote a book together, “Birds of Britain today”. It’s a fascinating record of the birdlife in the UK at the time, and the comparison between the 1930s and now is quite revealing.

For example, I was intrigued to see a substantial entry on the red-backed shrike, complete with a photograph of a male on a nest. It was then a regular breeding bird throughout the UK, although sparsely distributed: it happened that there were several pairs near them in South Wales which they were able to observe at close quarters on many occasions. However, they wrote that “Our own view is that it is becoming, or indeed has become much scarcer, especially in the western districts which we know so well.” This was a perceptive observation: red-backed shrikes ceased breeding altogether in the UK by 1989. There have been a few signs of hope since then – for example with two pairs breeding on Dartmoor in 2010 [ref1;ref2] – but this is still very far from their widespread distribution in the early part of the twentieth century.

Peregrine falcon feeding her youngsters on her cliff-face eyrie

Today, the way for a wildlife photographer to get a close shot of a bird would be to use a big zoom lens – but when Morrey Salmon was active, such lenses did not exist. The only option was to build hides near to where the birds were. This was how he was able to get such good shots of the shrikes, for example. Writing about a hide that they had set up near a peregrine’s nest, he and Ingram were almost lyrical about its location:

Crouched in a hide on a narrow shelf high up on the face of a cliff, all the world seemed open to our sight, and the view stretching away for miles across the hills was almost indescribable. Behind the hide, a little waterfall festooned at its lip with great masses of Saxifraga hypnoides, splashed and tinkled unceasingly, while to its music was added the wild and ringing pipings of the Ring-Ouzels nesting on the screes below… In front, not more than twelve feet away, upon a small ledge fringed with polypody ferns, and separated from the hide by a deep cleft in the face of the cliff, was the Peregrines’ eyrie containing three small young about a week old.

This makes photography with big zoom lenses seem quite tame by comparison!

Twenty years later he was experimenting with flash photography. On one occasion he and a colleague (Arthur Brook) decided to try to snap swifts as they flew up to their nests, realising that early evening was the best time to do it. So they rigged up a camera and flash system on a ladder which they operated below. The experiment was a great success but there was something odd about what they saw. As he describes it:

An extraordinary photo of a swift in flight, arriving at a nest, with cheeks stuffed full of insects it has caught.

We developed the plates while having supper and when we looked at the negatives we simply could not understand what we had got because the head of the bird in each case had the profile of an Otter. When I arrived there next evening Arthur had printed some and the mystery was resolved. The bird’s throat was so bulged out with a mass of flies that it reached beyond the tip of the bill. We had obtained what had never been done before – photographs of speeding swifts flying up to their nests with food for their young and flying out again.

Morrey Salmon’s passion for wildlife and its photography led him to be at the forefront of nature conservation at a time when it was a small minority interest. When writing about the peregrine, he referred to the antagonism of pigeon breeders whose birds were being killed by peregrines. He and Ingram wrote: “When surveying the pros and cons of this question, it is well for all to bear in mind that pigeons can be raised artificially in thousands, annually, but once let a species like the peregrine be exterminated it is exceedingly improbable that it can ever be re-established. It seems an exceedingly unwise policy to allow our native birds of prey to be exterminated for the sake of imported or artifically reared creatures which represent nothing but so much £ s. d.”

It was a theme to which they returned at the end of their book. In a passionate plea to gamekeepers, they urged them to cease their persecution of birds of prey, and in particular to end some of the more barbaric practices that were then used. They conclude their book thus: “…as sportsmen, will you not give the most sporting birds we have, the largest raptors especially, a sporting chance?”.

Their words did not fall on deaf ears, even if change was slow. The work of naturalists like Salmon and Ingram ultimately led to legislative change through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which – amongst other things – made it an offence to kill any bird (with certain obvious exceptions), with higher penalties for the killing of many of the raptor species, like peregrines and harriers, which appeared on Schedule 1 of the Act.

Morrey Salmon’s distinguished life was given appropriate reward: his military career, for example, earned him two military crosses and a CBE. His conservation work led him to be awarded the Gold Medal of the RSPB, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Wales. The significance of his photography is probably best described by another notable pioneer, Eric Hosking, who described him as the ‘Father of British Bird Photography’. Even now, in the early 21st century, it is clear that he was an exceptionally skilled wildlife photographer.

Birds of Britain Today, by Geoffrey C S Ingram and H Morrey Salmon, published by Nicholson & Watson, 1934.

Footprints on the Sands of Time: the life of Colonel Harry Morrey Salmon, by Norman & Hugh Salmon, 2011

Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!

 

An otterly brilliant trip to Meare Heath

Black-winged stilt with black-tailed godwit at Meare Heath

A few days ago I went on a quick trip to Meare Heath and missed an otter by about 5 seconds. I couldn’t complain too much as I’d just seen a black-winged stilt that was on a one-day stopover before heading elsewhere – but I was still miffed.

This afternoon, after I’d completed my Easter ministerial duties, Jen and I were keen to plan an afternoon that would work both for my mother, and Andrew & Rachael and their kids. That’s how we ended up back at Meare Heath – the kids could wheel their way up and down the track, while I went with Jen and mum to the hide. (Ulterior motives? Surely not!)

We’d just got to the hide when one of the guys there pointed out an otter in the lagoon. I’d had a good sighting of one some months ago, but had not photographed it – so I realised this was my opportunity!

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

We were able to watch it continuously for about five minutes as it meandered across the shallow waters, hunting for prey. Eventually it caught a huge eel that looked as long as the otter itself.

The otter battling with the eel – though there was little doubt about the eventual winner.

Having won, the otter trots off into the reedbed.

Never having photographed an otter before, this was a wonderful encounter!

 

A multinational weekend – and a swing-seat

It was a privilege for us to be able to host some of Jen’s students and colleagues last weekend. We had Maryam (one of Jen’s PhD students) and her husband Mansur, both from Nigeria; Karla from Mexico and her boyfriend Nick (from Yorkshire!); Carmen, lecturer from Spain with her husband Enrique and teenage children Carmen and Tomas, and Mariia from Ukraine (a PhD student in Italy). We also had our good friends Debra and Geraint, who have just completed a ten-year stint as pastors of a church on Dine’s Green in Worcester, and are now looking for fresh fields in south Wales.

The Somerset Levels are a bit of a contrast to London, so instead of museums and art galleries we offered the wildlife of Shapwick Heath (with its replica of the neolithic Sweet Track) and Ham Wall. On Sunday, Jen was leading the café church in Shapwick, where Debra & Geraint gave the main talk. We had the reading in four languages: Russian (by Mariia), Spanish (by Carmen jr), Welsh (by Geraint) and English (Nick).

Testing the carrying capacity of the Sweet Track – the re-constructed Neolithic trackway: Debra, Geraint, Jen, Maryam, Karla, Mariia, Carmen, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan, Mansur, Nick


Sunday lunch at the Piper’s Inn in Ashcott… In front: Mansur, Nick, Jen, Debra, Carmen; behind: Maryam, Karla, Geraint, Mariia, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan

A couple of days later, Andrew and Rachael arrived with Sophie and George – and Andrew installed a swing-seat that he’d made for us! It’s now a rather magnificent feature in the garden.

Sophie enjoying the swing of the new seat with designer and dad Andrew.

The Little Grebe: Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 2)

On a cold, grey, windy day on the east side of Lindisfarne, about seven years ago, I sat in a bird hide watching a lone little grebe on a small lake. Frankly, I’d expected a bit more… I was on a trip to the island with the vicar factory, and during the free afternoon I decided to head to the bird hide that I had spotted on the map. As Lindisfarne is well known for its birding, my expectations were higher than just the one bird.

That was the day that I discovered that little grebes are very watchable. They are busy birds, and for the half hour I was there this little grebe was constantly diving for food. I found myself enthralled to watch it.

A few years later I wrote a blog article called “Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 1)“, featuring a couple of decent photos of a little grebe in winter plumage: and I intended to make my case a few weeks later once I had acquired some photos of their breeding plumage… but I’ve only just succeeded. I could try to make this sound like a long and arduous trail with lots of twists and turns of fate – but that would be untrue! The little grebe is a common waterbird – just rather little, so photographing it well necessitated it’s being fairly close in good lighting.

LittleGrebe_5540cr1lg

Little grebe at Ham Wall

Little grebe at Ham Wall: look at the water before and after!

The Tor Hide at Ham Wall provides some good photographic opportunities for grebes. They swim around in front of the hide with the appearance of serenity… but the photo here, showing the calm water in front and the churned-up water behind, shows just how hard the bird is working to move around!

The little grebe is also known as the dabchick, a name that strikes me as a bit patronising on account of its diminutive size – but it’s still a grebe and thus quite specialised, particularly for diving fast after small aquatic prey. Perhaps if it was called the ‘chestnut-throated grebe’ it would be given more respect…

It also has a rather striking call – a loud whinnying call which is instantly recognisable when you know what it is. It featured on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day in July 2016, and is also listed in their list of top ten strangest bird sounds.

The other day I visited the Catcott Lows nature reserve with Jen and her mum, going to the new Tower Hide. Although it’s a lovely location the lake was bit lacking in bird life – but there was an active little grebe on the lake. Some years after that day on Lindisfarne, I still find little grebes very watchable – capable of redeeming a dull day anywhere!

As luck would have it, only a few days after posting this blog, I found myself visiting the National Trust’s Wallington estate in Nortthumberland. On one of the large ponds there was a very obliging little grebe that was nowhere near as shy and retiring as the species is meant to be. Hence I ended up with my best photo yet of a little grebe in breeding plumage!

An obliging Little Grebe at the NT Wallington estate.