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


  1. HI Finaly very interesting to read how these people started into obserrving nature and where it has taken them in life ike Matt today

  2. Brilliantly written by Matt at times I swear I was stood next to him as he explored his childhood haunts. Though I did feel for his teacher but only a little.
    I also found myself nodding in agreement with so much Matt has commented about particularly with the current curriculum in schools, disconnection with nature and also whether people recognise to the true value of nature.
    As a kid I visited the Durrell zoo and was impressed their strong conservation message.

  3. As Douglas says, so much of what Matt writes resonates with my own youth (even misappropriating dinner money for Texan bars). Such a shame that schools show little interest.
    Super read.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Awesome Matt, and as the father of a 6 year old, who loves all things bug like (we've found stag beetles and larvae both in our garden and at school) I will be doing all I can to keep his interest going as he grows...
    Ps: Cannon Fogarty used to scare the life out of me too...

  6. It would be great to see more wildlife/nature/environment stuff included in the curriculum. I think it could be part of most lessons. One of the lessons I remember the most was when we debated the badger cull, everyone had something to say and it really got everyone thinking. Thank you so much for writing this guest blog.