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.

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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.

Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. 🙂 This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,  I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the path, to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.