Wednesday, 1 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Chris Packham

The next guest blog in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from Chris Packham. On his Twitter profile it says that Chris is a "Naturalist and BBC broadcaster", but I think he is so much more that that. He is someone that is willing to speak out and stand up for nature and encourages others to do their bit to make a difference. For example. he has done lots of work for Hen Harriers and gives up his time to campaign for them. Chris is also extremely active in fighting against the Malta massacre of migrating birds.  I find Chris to be an inspiring, knowledgeable, funny and encouraging mentor to me and other young naturalists I know.  Be ready for another brilliant read, and I know you wont be surprised about his interests when he was too was 13 years old.


Thirteen . Nineteen seventy four . The three day week, IRA bombings and ABBA, it couldn’t be worse. Except that I had a bike and all of Hampshire laid out in front of my muddy tyres. Mine was a world of birds nesting, grass snake catching and visits to the Natural History Museum. In between finally realising that I might have to concentrate on my lessons and pass a few O levels and trying to kick a ball straight and increasing my squadron of Airfix Spitfires. I got an air gun for Christmas and a Subbuteo set for my birthday.

I’d just discovered birding, had some very cheap bins and didn’t know anyone else who was into it at all. So I’d go out on my own, with my Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow stuffed in my pocket and try to find new species. Of course that was easy at first and I remember my first Whitethroat, Grasshopper Warbler and nearly bursting when I saw my first roding Woodcock . I wont describe what happened when early one morning I wandered into a barn to find a brood of owlets lined up on one of the beams all staring at me!

In fact I was very lucky as I told my biology teacher about them and then we cycled back to the barn once a month, every month for three years to collect the pellets produced by the roosting and nesting birds. The following weekend he’d bring the dried pellets round and we’d meticulously go through each one counting the numbers of voles, mice, shrews . . . and once a bat . . . and once a dormouse, that the birds had consumed . It was my first ‘real data’ and I drew many graphs, bar charts and pie diagrams . Needless to say I still have them, they are fastidiously neat and then and now were treated as real treasures . This was my first foray into science and I was tremendously excited by the idea that we could discover something new. Sadly the project came to an end when the barn was converted to a home for humans, a familiar story, and one amongst others which awakened an awareness in how most people show scant regard for our wildlife .

But aside from my budding birding, snakes were still a big part of my life at thirteen and Grass snake and Adder catching expeditions were a priority whenever the weather permitted. I had a large custom built vivarium in the garden from which, I’m sorry to say, there were many escapes! My bedroom was lined with tanks holding exotic species (many more escapes) and my skull collection was beginning to outgrow its shelf space. There were quite a few things hidden under my bed which were smelly and finally evicted by my parents, mostly bits of recovered road-kill, the passing of the putrefying Badgers foot was particularly painful – such amazing claws !

It was also around this time that I got into watching ‘Horizon’, ‘World About Us’ and ‘Chronicle’ documentaries on the BBC but not if it was still daylight, that was something which could never be wasted, there was always somewhere new to go, something new to see, something more to learn. I now make science documentaries but I still don’t watch them if its daylight outside .

And then I saw David Bowie singing ‘Rebel Rebel’ on Top of the Pops and something else dramatic happened. Its my ringtone, which says something . Being thirteen wasn’t all brilliant but as it turned out it was quite important in the long run.

Chris Packham

Sunday, 28 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Keith @HoldingMoments

The next blog in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from Keith, or as many people know him @HoldingMoments. Keith has been very, very supportive to me and we try to meet up at a local reserves a few times a year when he is staying in North Wales. He is a great birder and photographer and I know he gets a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from spending time in the natural world.  



The year of ........ the assassination of the American president J F Kennedy, the end of  one of the worst winters on record, that blanketed the country under snow for nearly 3 months, the beginnings of Beatlemania, and a host of similar groups that dragged music towards the massive industry it has become today, and in the month of April, I became a teenager. I turned 13; the same age as Findlay Wilde.

There were no multi channel TV's, with nature programmes, no home computers, no internet as we know it today, no mobile phones; in fact, the world when I was 13, seemed very Black and White. Even my first bird book, a few years later, had about half the illustrations in black and white.

An interest in nature grew slowly.

When I was younger, I remember my grand dad had 'cage birds', birds in cages hanging from the wall of his living room. Goldfinches and Linnets mostly. Something that was quite common years ago, but I always felt a sadness for these beautiful creatures, trapped behind bars, singing their songs to attract a mate in vain.  A practice that has thankfully stopped now, but back then, was quite common.

I remember finding a pigeon one day, that didn't seem as though it could fly. There were no animal rescue centres that I knew of back then, and a trip to the vet, would have resulted in its neck being wrung, to 'put it out of its misery'. Sadly standard practice back then. I kept it in a cardboard box, on a sheet of  newspaper from my dads Daily Mirror, in the shed. A saucer of water, and a few slices of bread broke into pieces carefully placed with it. No fancy wild bird seed varieties back then; they got bread, and bacon rind.

For about a week I checked on my bird. Changed his newspaper and water, and then finally launched him to the sky. I watched with a smile on my face as he flew up towards a neighbours house, and perched on the roof. He sat for a while, and then flew away.  And every pigeon that landed on that roof after, for a few weeks at least, was 'my pigeon'. Come to say 'thank you', or so I believed.

At 13 I enjoyed the wildlife around me.  I had a dog called Cindy, a beautiful long haired mongrel that was bought from a pet shop for ten shillings (50p).  I didn't have brothers or sisters, and most of my mates were into football. I wasn't. I lived in north London, Enfield. Lots of green spaces then ........... not now.

For money I had a 'Saturday job', working in a plant nursery. Like a modern day garden centre is now, but back then it was no fancy names, it was a plant nursery. Run by 2 young brothers who lived in a bungalow, a large garden, and glass houses to grow the plant in.  My jobs were to keep things tidy, pot some plants, sweep up .......... anything really.  I loved it, and learned a lot about plants while I was there.  And I saw a few birds, mice, and the odd stray cat.

Sunday I would ride my bike to Epping Forest. Quite a ride, but I loved it.  I'd sit under a tree, and just watch whatever passed by.  Not birding. I don't think that word existed then; I watched birds. Anything.  No spotting scopes or binoculars, no cameras to take pictures; just my eyes and memory, to record what I'd seen.  Things I didn't know, new birds or animals, would have to be looked up later, at the local library, in their limited selection of books.  How different things would have been today, with the vast selection of books, social media and ease of travel.

Fast forward a year, and dramatic events in my life turned it upside down and saw a big shift into music, (which played a massive part), and into the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and all that went with it ............. the good and the not so good.

But my heart was always and always will be, be with the wild.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Jules Howard

The next guest blog in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from Jules Howard.  Jules is a science/nature writer, zoology correspondent, author (not sure what order that should be in) and he really likes slug mites! I got to know Jules through Twitter and he has always been very encouraging and supportive to me, other AFON members and youngsters generally. Jules twitter feed is always great fun to read and will have you laughing out loud in a good way.  


FROGS AT 13: how many naturalists do we lose in their teenage years?

At 13 I had a unique problem. I had no real interests in life at all. Nothing. No-one I knew at the time had much interest in anything, to be honest. Actually, one of my friends did have a secret interest in trains. But that was it. Oh… and football. There was that. We liked football. And video games. And football stickers. And video games with footballers in. Some of my friends had interests in the opposite sex but I didn’t even have that. I remember the looming threat of GCSEs gathering. I remember thinking that 13 would be the time that I could enjoy myself before all of the exam prep began. Before things got really serious. Before people started asking me “What do you want to be when you’re older?” and really hold me to my answer.

I remember only a single really meaningful encounter with nature at 13 and it was quite short and simple. I had gone to a friend’s house to play video games, but we had decided to play football in the garden instead. At the end of the garden was a fish pond and three smaller shallow plastic-lined ponds. It was early spring and there were frogs everywhere. I had wandered away from the game to have a look at what all the plopping and groaning was about (common frogs groan - they don’t croak) and I was transfixed. I lay on my belly, got my eyes right to the surface and watched. I stayed deadly still. Deadly silent. Migrating frogs would make their way out of the long grass and scramble into the water. Postering males would emerge proudly from within the spawn-mass and groan as if their lives depended on it (which they kind of do). It was wonderful. Another world, almost. A private thing that I had seen. I later beckoned my friends over. We all watched for a bit. After a while they went back to playing football. I stayed. I stayed… I waited to see what would happen next. I stayed for the frogs but then got caught up with the newts that were sharking underneath the water. I stayed for the newts but got caught up in the water beetles and the mosquito larvae. I think it was the weirdness that kept me there. And it lived within me. It grew, but only after a long period of dormancy...

After 13, I went on into the exam period of my life. I was ok at science. I got on well with my science teachers but I was often bored. I was bored because it felt like we were just learning things that other scientists did (Krebs, Darwin, Newton etc. - all male) and then simply being tested on our ability to recite the things that these scientists had learned, which in reality is exactly how the whole thing worked. But this didn’t work for me. My teachers were great teachers and they were brilliant at helping me recite these facts, but I went through the whole of secondary school failing to understand what science is: how the underlying principle of science is about curiosity and creativity and… resolving weirdness. I could have been more of a naturalist if I’d discovered the power of research and the power of asking the right questions as well as simply observing more about what’s around us. But no. I wasn’t motivated in any way to do this.

In the final few weeks of my A-level biology course, on a field-trip, I discovered that my teacher had a handbook of British plants that he took around with him everywhere, and that he’d ticked off the plants in the index that he’d seen. It turned out that he was a secret (and brilliant) botanist. Everyone laughed and there was lots of banter about it, but actually this discovery about our teacher made me really sad. I wished we could have learned what he had learned to give him the passion to chase plants in his spare time. I wanted what he had. Much later, long after school, I got there (?) but I wonder how many naturalists are lost at this crucial 13+ age. I wonder how many young people have to relearn nature in later life. I wonder how many young naturalists get subsumed within the great sausage machine we call the British education system. Probably many. Thankfully, not all. I’d be interested to know what your readers think, Findlay! Maybe it’s not a big deal? Maybe it is?

And so finally… I took Findlay up on his invitation to write for this blog thread mainly because I think that one day Findlay will probably become CEO of some big charity or other and therefore he will be likely to have the option of commissioning me for paid work, and I wanted to get in there early professionally while he is still only 13. But I also wrote this because….you know what?... I wrote this because I think it’s really encouraging for young people to talk more about their passions in nature, and have friends with which to share it. Many of the young readers of your blog are so brilliant at that. I suspect that my first encounter with frogs was something I kept secret from my friends for fear of looking uncool or weird. I was wrong about that. Many of you (and I refer to AFON as a whole here) don’t seem too worried about this; you just carry on being outwardly passionate about nature. Good for you. They say each generation gets smarter than the next. Well, you guys are proof. So keep going!

Jules Howard

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Douglas McFarlane

It's time for another 13 Years Wilde blog and this one really shows the positive power nature can have on you. I got to know Douglas McFarlane through blogging and social media. He writes a great blog and takes really amazing pictures.  He has always been very supportive and encouraging and I think I understand why now, after reading his very honest guest blog about being 13.  His guest blog just shows the difference one person can make to your life and it's amazing just how much nature can change the way we see things. I am really glad that Douglas had Mrs Hapkiss and it's even more special that he was able to thank her all those years later. This blog really made me think a lot about things.

When Findlay asked me to write a blog about what nature meant to me at thirteen it’s with no exaggeration I laughed my head off. Why me? An over and often wrongly opinionated wildlife photographer/lorry driver but at two very important parts of my life nature meant without exaggeration FREEDOM and then later in my life it saved my life, let me explain.

By the time I was thirteen I had only been living in the UK for five years and had lived in Northamptonshire for about a year. I was a lucky kid if I’m honest. Prior to moving the UK and I had spent the first eight years of my life living in Concorde just outside San Francisco. My dad had worked his way from state school to Vice President of Bank of America. Part of his job was to go to new and emerging countries/economies and help set up banking systems, mostly in Africa as they seeked independence from their colonial masters. I was also fortunate that my dad was very keen on my two sisters and me to experience the outdoors. The great big National Parks was one of the reasons he wanted to work and live in America. He often when possible took the family with him on his business trips before the age of eight I was lucky enough to have visited Kenya, Gambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Japan, South Korea, Egypt and weirdly Syria.

My earliest child hood memories were earthquakes (a lot of them), wildfires, huge Redwood trees, National Parks, bears,as kids trying to catch Terrapins and thanks to Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco I had to dodge Pelicans trying to steal my crab sandwiches my first encounter with birds and feeling somewhat sorry for the Sea Lions lazily lying around on the rafts. It was a great country in which to experience wildlife and the great outdoors.

We moved back to UK in 1986 to at the time a small village called East Grinstead in Sussex. Again my childhood was filled with nature but more by pure chance then deliberate engagement. Our school for example had us collect tadpoles which we placed in tanks and logged their progress from tadpole to frogs. We were taken on walks through nearby woods to see Bluebells. Our playing fields especially the football pitches were often home to Adders and Grass Snakes and before we actually played football we would have to go and pick them up and move them, do you think a school would allow students to do that these days? I had been bitten several times. And at an early age could tell the difference between Grass Snakes and Adders which given the amount of times I was bitten was important. As a family we would walk our dogs on Ashdown Forest and heard what I now know is a nightjar and were lucky enough to have both House martins and Swifts nesting on our house I could lean out by bedroom window and watch the coming and goings of what today is now one of my favourite birds.

My dad really hated us sitting down and watching TV we were actually limited to how much we were allowed to watch, if we didn’t go out and play we were forced to help and do some DIY around the house. East Grinstead was a brilliant place at the time to grow up. We would cycle to a small swamp behind the squash club and catch tadpoles and dragonflies, my friends dad, Nick Holby was a farmer and I learnt how sheep and cows were born and often had to help, I loved it.

When we visited my grandparents’ home in Northolt and other relatives homes in Harrow and Eastcote we would stand in the garden and feed House Sparrows from the hand. My other strongest memory was sitting in a Pizza Hut in Piccadilly Circus watching tens and thousands of Starlings roosting in the city centre, the noise was deafening the sheer numbers made most murmarations I see nowadays look tiny in comparison.

But I wasn’t a bird watcher I didn’t go collecting eggs or searching out bird nests. My real connection to nature at that time came from being like my dad and going fishing and trying to guess what birds we were seeing only happened if the fish weren't biting. My dad and I fished everywhere. We were obsessed to be honest we had gone to Ireland, watched in horror (well I laughed) as my dad watch an Osprey snatch his catch in Scotland, fished the Nile and gone on numerous sea fishing trips. My other connection to nature at the time came courtesy of the Boy Scout movement which sadly not many people get involved in with these days. But which had us camping outdoors, exploring woodland and just generally enjoying the outdoors.
We then moved to Northampton and a housing estate that’s called Rectory Farm, sadly it reflects where we are currently at with nature and concreting over the countryside as it was an actual farm that became a housing estate the community centre was the old barn and farmhouse, the pub at the top of my road was called the Barn Owl. My school's emblem had a Barn Owl on the front and we often would see Barn Owl's  sadly their area is also now a housing estate. We had plenty of nature around us from bats in our lofts, again more House martins and at the bottom of the estate were two small lakes a small brook and then farmer’s field and the countryside.  We would collect Sticklebacks, build a dam or two, make a rope swing over the brook, walk to a nearby country park and take our girlfriends for a quick snog in the romantic lol.

We’d only been living in Northampton for about a year when my dad returning from a business trip in Saudi Arabia contracted Deep Vein Thrombosis within twenty four hours of his arrival home he had died. My mum and sisters were at dog show in Leeds and it was just me and my mate Danny Pickford who was busy phoning for an ambulance as I held his hand and helplessly watch him take his last breath.

It would be fair to say his death hit me hard sending me into a very destructive circle of violence and petty crime, my mum and sisters weren’t as keen as my dad and I were of the great outdoors I had subsequently lost all interest in fishing, the Scouts seemed somewhat irrelevant and at the age of thirteen I was at a serious crossroads in my life…at thirteen! Looking back it was obvious I had no outlet and at the time no common interests with my mum. I had gone off the rails in a big way, in serious trouble both at school and out of school. I am ashamed to say I had even been arrested, more than once and was close to going into care or worse a Young Offenders Institute as my mother simply couldn’t control me. In a last ditch meeting/intervention involving my school teachers, social services, my mum and the police one teacher agreed to try and change my behaviour Mrs Hapkiss agreed to mentor me if she failed I was off into care or jail! Mrs Hapkiss was a true eccentric, a proper oddball. Once a flower power teenager of the 70's She taught history, English and taught sixth formers GCSE Government, Law and Politics she was a keen naturalist/birder and socialist, whatever that was; to me at the time a birder was like a train spotter something to be mocked and sadly bullied....Rather then be inspired by. We’d go out at weekends, her with her binoculars/scope me kicking my heels and a serious attitude problem. She’d point out this bird, that bird, this butterfly but none of it was sinking in to be honest or so I thought. Mrs Hapkiss perseverance, character and ability to make a subject come to life slowly sunk in a very subtle manner, which is important, you can't/shouldn't force it on people.

Eventually certain birds did start to be recognisable like Stonechats and thanks to the nearby Scout ground Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. The same area had Barn Owls which really did make an impact on me. We’d explore the nearby Lings Wood which is now the headquarters of our local wildlife trust. We visited Snettisham and nature shocked me and left a gobby teenager silent and awe struck at the sheer numbers of birds (Knots) flying in formation, something I hadn't seen since the Starlings at Pizza Hut in London, it must've triggered some sort of subtle memories as I actually for the first time since my dad's death broke down in tears, 14 months after his death I was finally and properly grieving.

By the time I was fifteen I had calmed down and hadn’t been in too much serious trouble for a couple of years. I left school at 16 and with the help of Mrs Hapkiss had avoided getting slung into prison and the loss of my FREEDOM. I did from the age of 16-28 sadly have no further connection with wildlife it was all about football, raves, work and women. I refer to this part of my life as 'the lost years'. I so wished I hadn't forgotten about nature.

I look back at what Mrs Hapkiss had done and wonder if schools or even teachers could possibly do what she did in todays modern schools, probably not. Too much time focussed on exam results and overly protective parents making sure kids only contact with adults is with relatives or stick them in front of the TV or laptop . It seems nature these days is not important enough and not worthy of being taught until if you are lucky you get to university. But she definitely had an impact on me. How? If I am honest I would struggle to explain exactly how she managed to turn my life around. I personally believe that it was multiple reasons: unstructured learning in the form of recognising and naming of species of birds, reading the text associated with the birds etc, socialising with people I wouldn't normally mix with, maybe it was just getting away from my usual surrondings and being back outdoors in fresh air again which was a massive part of my childhood prior to my dad’s death and having someone just listen to me and my problems and her character did make me laugh too. How she put up with my attitude and kept smiling and plugging away I never found out, sadly.

But undeniably my birding excursions with Mrs Hapkiss did have an impact as when I was thirty I had a big accident which left me with multiple injuries including a bleed on my brain which in turn effected my health mentally and amongst other issues left me battling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and to this day depression. I was treated with a new technique called Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EDMR) basically it's like hypnosis. It's now used extensively in treating our troops returning from conflict zones with PTSD. Weirdly nature weaved it's way into my subconscious after every session we talked about what I had been thinking of etc again those Knots, Barn Owl's and Housemartins featured heavily and my subsequent treatment had structured visits to nature reserves and volunteering at a falconry centre.

Again wildlife and enjoying nature helped me massively to deal with depression and once again played a vitally important role in saving my life, I had prior to treatment had tried to take my life on more then one occasion. I love the outdoors and enjoying whatever nature decides to show me. If I have a bad day at work or just feel the cloud of depression setting in just spending even just an hour completely relaxes me and slowly helps the depression ebb away.

In 2009 in Mrs Hapkiss passed away, I had spoken to her quite a bit before her passing and had seen her up at my local nature reserve a few times and once at Birdfair. I did thank her every time I bumped into her and we both wondered where I would be now if she hadn’t introduced me into bird watching. I looked at the people I used to hang around with some are dead, some are in and out of prison and I realised if it hadn’t been for nature I too could’ve ended up in prison or worse.

She truly believed the root to tackling some (not all) troublesome kids is with nature and creating an interest in learning using nature as tool rather than the accepted text books/revision/exam method currently used and by removing and not including nature in the curriculum would exclude/alienate so many so called problem children from the education system, I too strongly believe this too…I am living proof of that.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Newsround - National Bird Vote and Birding Tips

Last week I appeared on Newsround talking about birding and in particular the National Bird Vote results. I though I would share the programme with you as of course I managed to get the real threat of Hen Harrier extinction mentioned. I do like Robins of course, but the opportunity to raise awareness for Hen harriers just had to be taken. Anyway, here is the Newsround episode.

I was also asked to give some birding tips to get other youngsters started.

Hopefully a few more youngsters will now have heard of a hen harrier and that hen harrier awareness grows a bit more.

The filming took place at one of my favourite places to go birding, Frodsham Marsh.  Traffic, mosquitoes and bullocks all did their best to stop the filming, but we got there in the end. A few pictures from the evening we spent filming. 

Come back again tomorrow for the next 13 Years Wilde guest blog, but who will it be!!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Matt Shardlow

Today's 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from the CEO of Buglife, Matt Shardlow. Buglife do amazing work for our often neglected and overlooked invertebrates, in fact, thanks to them and all the support they raised, they very recently managed to help protect the Horrid ground-weaver spider.  I first came across Buglife on-line but I have also seen some of the team and talked to them about the work they do at Birdfair. Matt and his team are great at engaging with my generation and I would encourage anyone, young or old, to follow them on twitter @Buzz_dont_tweet

A nattily dressed young Matt Shardlow with a grass snake © Matt Shardlow

The Secret Diary of Matt Shardlow, Aged 13¾

Growing up in the provincial city of Chichester, nestled between the chalky and wooded hills of the South Downs and the flat saltmarsh, estuary and beach fringed Manhood Peninsular, came with plenty of opportunities to explore the countryside and its wildlife.

My love of wildlife had been evident from a young age.  Recently a batch of early school books was unearthed from by parent’s loft.  One tatty exercise book contained an archive of stories and diary accounts from a six year old me.  It contained a page titled ‘Fungi, Wednesday’, I was impressed to find a plausible list of five species, from ‘Shaggy ink cap’ to the much more exciting ‘Death cap’.   Even at that tender age I felt it was very important to be able to put a name to each of our cohabitants on the Earth, to the extent that scrawled in the list in my irregular, non-joined up, hand was ‘Coltrichia perennis’.

About the same time my friend Clive and I got into terrific trouble at school. Trouble so profound that the Headmistress gave us both barrels, and at assembly the next day the 10 foot tall Canon Fogarty, stick thin, topped with a shock of white hair and a hooked, ruddy nose, stared at us through silver wire-rimmed glasses, and tutted.   Our crime had been to discover the wonderful past-time of pulling bark off a de-branched dead tree.  It was compelling, each piece had different animals living underneath, once we started we could not stop. The prize find, a finger-sized hairless grey grub, was the cause of great, fascinated excitement.  When we presented the fantastical creature to our teacher we were surprised and disappointed that she did not seem to share our focus on the amazing discovery, but instead was more interested in the huge pile of bark that we had stripped of the now naked tree trunk!

My natural history endeavours were not all deemed to be socially delinquent. When nine I found a Deadly nightshade plant in the corner of the playground furthest from the school. I had identified it from the shiny black fruit, the size of blueberry and sitting on the child-sized plant like an un-drooped tomato.  I went straight to the headmistresses office and persuaded her to send the caretaker out to remove the hazardous plant.  I then stood guard over the plant to make sure the younger children did not eat the big juicy berries, until eventually the caretaker arrived and it was removed!

So at 13 I had already had quite history of wildlife engagement. It was an interest inspired and formed by the warm, humorous writings of Gerald Durrell whose detailed observations of the wealth of life he encountered while on amazing adventures I avidly absorbed.

My main natural history mentor was a truly exceptional man, Ken Murch.  A small wiry, sun-baked, almost hairless, polymath, Ken had been in the RAF and was now a high school technician, he had built a hovercraft and a flight simulator. Ken was one of my Scout leaders and with him we built a rather impressive, but slow, go-cart, constructed from duraluminum that he had scavenged from the wreck of a WWII Stirling bomber.  Field trips with Ken involved identifying woodland fungi using photostats of his own hand written keys and netting rainbow shimmering sea gooseberries from water swirling around Selsey breakwaters.

It was on a Scout camp near Frensham in Surrey that I first encountered the Banded demoiselle.  This is a damselfly of exquisite beauty, the metallic green female sparkles with red and gold in the sun, like a tropical jewel.  But I first spotted the male, blue, indigo and electric and an inky blue thumb print on each wing; I was captivated by his beauty and the shear brilliance of his colour.  This was not enough for me I also had a thirst to understand what they were, why they looked like this and how they interacted with the world around them, my inquiring mind knew few limits.

Every day I would walk the mile home from school through Chichester, the parks were largely manicured municipal green deserts, much more interesting were the bits in between; scraps of wilderness, neglected strips or patches behind terraces, along railways, on old rubbish dumps and gravel extraction sites.  On my own or with school pals I would stop at a newsagent and stock up on Aeros, Texan bars and Panda pops purchased as a result of fraudulent repurposing of my dinner money (not recommended behaviour!).   We would then find a nice spot to scoff our sweeties.  One of my favourite spots was a gap between two houses where a house had been demolished and the garden run riot.  Secreted away between bramble bushes and shrubs, it was an ideal spot to lie in the long grassy meadow sprinkled with hawkweeds, wall flowers and many other blossoms and watch the thrum of life.

It was here that I found an unusual animal, half way between a cricket and a grasshopper – slender, green and shiny, but with a pointed head and long antennae.  Identifying grasshoppers and crickets was nowhere near as easy in 1984 as it is now.  The last proper monograph on the group has been published in 1965 (Ragge) and was a rare book, and the next one would not arrive for another four years (Marshall and Haes), of course there was no internet to fall back on either.  Using Grasshoppers (Brown 1983) I was just about able to work out that they were Long-winged coneheads – one of the rarer British crickets.  But Brown was a thin book with little information on distribution, history or ecology of the individual species.  Hence it was not until many years later that I worked out the significance of my observations.  In 1980 the Long-winged conehead was a rare coastal animal, with sites mainly in Dorset and Hampshire.  It was due to be on the first list of British Red Data Book insects, however this all changed in 1983 and 84 when the species started to spread inland from the coast.  Its expansion has now swept the whole of southern England, except strangely the interior and north of the South West, unbeknownst to me, my observations were of coneheads on the first wave of the incursion.

Reptiles were my pinnacle.  Several times my father took me early in the morning to Ambersham Common, a sandy heath nestled in the Downs.  There we would then walk along the scarp watching adders smoothly emerge from the heather and bask.  Common lizards were also frequent and there was the occasional slow worm and a single grass snake, each species sounded different as it slid or darted through the heather.  The fantastic discoveries continued when I found a small sand lizard colony and a melanistic ‘black adder’.

So at 13 I was having a wildlife rich time and absorbing natural history information like a sponge, but what happened next? Adolescence is our metamorphosis, our minds transform just as profoundly as the body of a tadpole turning into a toad, frog or newt.  Interests and priorities wax and wane and new responsibilities and relationships consume our energies.

As David Attenborough says “When people ask me, ‘How did you get interested in animals?’ I reply, ‘How on Earth did you lose your interest in them?’ Every child is interested in animals.”

For those who do lose touch with nature I suspect this happens mainly between the ages of 12 and 16. This disconnect causes real problems, people who don’t care intimately about, or understand, wildlife are poorly equipped to empathise with, or comprehend, the urgency of halting the widespread damage and decline that wildlife is being subjected to by humans.  This is a challenge in my job at Buglife, while those who lost interest in bugs during their teenage years are more likely to rediscover their passion later and understand conservation messages, and are certainly more sympathetic to conserving the little things that run the planet than are those who never found joy and fascination in bugs or who abhor them, never-the-less, I do wonder if some adults see wildlife and bugs as something that happens in childhood and is not quite serious, adult or important enough to warrant significant further investment.

In my case I put less time into wildlife during my teenage years, but the passion still burned strong, a huge 45cm long slow worm was a brief pet, my annual holiday became an exercise in monitoring the size and belly patterns of a population of common toads, I picked A-Level subjects with a strong biological focus, and initiated a school wildlife area.  However, it was not until university that my initial promise as a natural historian was set alight.  With the support of my lecturer Bob James (more on him here, enthusiasm of fellow students and easy access to a wide range of identification guides, I was able to get to grips with identifying woodlice, plants, moths, birds, spiders and many more.  I believe that knowing the name of a species is the first step to understanding the species, and only through understanding how species interact can we hope to ensure that the future will be as rich in wildlife as was my 13th year.

I hope that 13 year olds today are more likely to stay enthusiastic about wildlife.  Firstly the internet is an amazing resource of information and connections.  Getting hold of specialist books, linking up with fellow enthusiasts and finding a photo of a particular species would have required dedicated research and days of effort when I was 13, now it all happens at the click of a few buttons. When young I was a member of the a little society, the Dodo Club that had been set up by Gerald Durrell, and would receive twice a year a pinkish brown envelope with a Jersey stamp on, I would tear it open, read every word of the newsletter and pin the A2 shiny poster of an endangered species to my wall.

These days there are many more groups and local activities to engage children with wildlife - Watch Groups, Wildlife Explorers, RSPB Phoenix and of course A Focus on Nature.  The work of the latter brings a welcome political dimension to young people’s engagement with wildlife issues.  It is important to understand that, not only is biodiversity loss a terrible tragedy, we can still reverse the trends and save species from extinction, all we need is enough people having high enough expectations of their politicians.

However, not everything is moving in the right direction, the national curriculum has reduced the capacity of teachers with a particular passion for wildlife to pass this onto their pupils, indeed field trips and out-of-doors lessons are rarer; parents are less likely to let their children walk home alone from school; and in many areas wildlife has been destroyed and ipso facto can no longer be accessed by children.  This creates a syndrome that has been labelled ‘nature deficit disorder’.  Perhaps the most profound loss has been of those neglected little urban spots where coils of slow worms would lie under sheets of discarded plywood. All my little brownfield haunts near my old home in Chichester are now houses and gardens, robbing the next generation of the opportunity for wild play.

Still there are more nature reserves, better transport and your average parent has more leisure time and disposable income than in the 1980s, so get your mum or dad to take you to a nature reserve next weekend, it will do them good as well as you.

Matt Shardlow

Thursday, 18 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Andrew Fulton

The next blog in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from Andrew Fulton.  I'll get straight to the point, without Andrew, I may never have started blogging. I met him by chance when I was 10 at Anderton Nature reserve with my dad and we all got talking about the birds and wildlife we had seen; Chiffchaff, Willow Warblers, Gropper and the odd wader such as Common Sandpiper. Andrew gave me the time of day and was very happy to answer my questions and didn't just talk to my dad. We had a chat about loads of wildlife things and Andrew said that he was going to mention me in his blog. I said thank you, but I didn't even know what a blog was back then. When we got home from the walk I looked up Andrew's blog and that was it, I decided I had to start writing. Andrew has been really supportive and encouraging ever since then, and he will always be very important to me for the kick start he gave me with nature writing.  

Andrew on the left with his brother Colin

I started watching the birds in our garden when I was just 8 years old... I had been to a friend's birthday party (1964) and he'd been given a bird table that came on offer with birdseed called "Swoop". His feeder had loads of birds feeding on it and I wanted one, my birthday was only a couple of weeks later and I got one. I was also used to handling birds in those childhood days, rescuing trapped birds in the nets covering my Dads strawberry beds. We lived in Sandiway a village just a few miles from where Findlay lives now... and just across the road were some fantastic woodlands. Kennel and Petty Pool Woods were our playground with wildlife a plenty and in the days when children just ran wild without supervision... "be home by 7o'clock or you'll get what for!", day's spent catching tadpoles and newts and bringing them home to show Mum. Minnows and Sticklebacks in jam jars were our Goldfish... wonderful days. At the age of 13 my life seemed fantastic... a couple of years earlier when I was 11 my parents took us (me and my younger brother Colin) to the Earls Court Boat Show in London, and Dad bought a yacht.

For the next couple of years our weekends and school holidays were spent in North Wales. The yacht was four berth, named Scaden (Gaelic for herring) and about the size of a caravan, we also had our own little dingy to play in. The boat was moored at Porthmadog. In the harbour there is an island made from the ballast dumped by ships which were then loaded with slate from the local mines. Ballast Island was our very own Treasure Island and we had it all to ourselves, as the local kids couldn't cross the water. We camped out, fished for our tea and searched for broken clay pipes discarded by the old sailors. The bird I remember most from those days were Oystercatchers and there were loads them.

We also saw dolphins while out sailing but the most memorable experience I had was one summer day on my brothers birthday (21st July). It was really calm as we dropped anchor off the stony beach between Criccieth and Black Rock Sands. We had fished for mackerel as we sailed there and were gathering driftwood to build a campfire to cook our supper when suddenly the seashore became a frothing mass... thousands of mackerel were thrashing about by the shore which I know were spawning. I would love to experience the whole episode again with video camera in hand it was amazing... all we did then was scoop fish after fish into buckets by hand and we caught loads... even taking them door to door around Criccieth the next day selling them to the locals (even the local chip shop bought some).

These were highlights of those days but sadly by the time I reached 13 my Dad was quite ill.

My brother and I spent the summer of 1969 in Scotland (our parents were both from Glasgow) on the island of Great Cumbrae just across the water from Largs. We stayed with family in the same house Dad stayed in when he was evacuated from Glasgow during the war (he served in the Royal Navy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before the war ended). We had a great time, played golf, cycled around the island (10 miles) and saw all sorts of wildlife (there is a famous crocodile near the harbour) the Crocodile Rock was first painted in 1913 before the First World War.

Another memory from this holiday was hearing the Rolling Stones singing "Honky Tonk Women" for the first time... it's funny what memories come flooding back while reminiscing.

Unfortunately my Dad passed away in 1971 aged only 44 (I was 15) but when I look back I had a wonderful and quite privileged childhood with some wonderful memories.

I must add I am £35 out of pocket after having to purchase a digital scanner... all Dads photos are slides. The scanner has enabled me to convert them into digital images, much to the delight of my family, they had been gathering dust in the loft for years. Mum is now 84 years of age with an Ipad and is delighted.