Thursday, 30 July 2015

Young Green Briton Debate - WOMAD Festival

A while ago I entered a competition being run by Ecotricity to find the ‘Young Green Briton’s of the Year’ to represent 4 categories; Energy, Transport, Food and Nature. I was of course interested in entering the Nature category and used the video I made addressing the party leaders as my entry.

Well, a few weeks ago I got an email through saying I was down to the last 3 which felt fantastic. But then a few days after that I heard the amazing news that I had won the nature category and would get to be mentored by Simon King and speak in a Young Green Briton's Debate at the WOMAD festival.

So last weekend we drove down to Wiltshire to spend 2 days at the festival. But first I must mention the Gloucester eco friendly motorway services. What a great place to stop for a rest and a drink. It is an amazing building packed with eco friendly technology, a farm shop and really good food. 

Next we headed straight for the festival, got parked up and then went to find the Ecotricity stand to meet the team. We had to walk through the Well Being area and there were some really different things going on in there. There were people humming together, there was yoga stuff and then there were even things like Gong Baths! We had loads of time to look round as the debate wasn't until Sunday.

Gong Bath!

The Ecotricity area was jam packed with people so we couldn't get to their stand, but  least I got to have a look at the stage we would be on (or so I thought)!

The Ecotricity Stage

As we were walking round, we got a call from Helen Taylor (the brilliant Ecotricity lady who organised everything for us). They had seen the weather forecast for Sunday, so she was calling to say meet her at the Siam stage which was the new venue for the debate. So off we wandered.

I had been a little bit nervous after seeing the Ecotricity stage, but I was quite shocked when I saw the size of the Siam stage. It was indoors and enormous.

Siam tent on Sunday morning before the gates opened

Helen explained how great WOMAD had been about wanting the debate to go well and move us to an indoor stage. I think I went a bit quiet as all I could think about were the thousands of people standing in front of the stage as we were talking.  Although I have to say the band that were playing at the time were so good, they were called Magnifico

We said goodbye to Helen and went for a wander that involved lots of hats, well it was a festival afterall.  I think Harley got all the best ones!


It was such a great afternoon with sunshine, interesting music. loads to see and fascinating people. 

What a different day it was on Sunday.  Just as well I don't mind a bit of mud.

The promised rain started falling and kept falling. We had backstage passes, so we were allowed to get into the main arena for a walk round before any of the crowds gathered. It looked totally different without all the crowds.

We headed over to the Siam tent ready to meet up with the Ecotricity team, the other young speakers and all the mentors.

When we arrived at the stage Helen was already there and then everyone else started to turn up. I had already had a great chat over the phone with Simon King earlier in the week to talk about the debate and about birds of course.  Standing on that stage and looking out was quite nerve racking, so I decided to sit for a while and gather all my thoughts in my head.  I really wanted this debate to go well, to do my very best as a voice for nature.

I could see Simon walking through the tent and he came straight over to talk, which was so good of him.

The tent was still empty and we thought no-one wanted to come and listen, but then we heard that the gates to the arena hadn't opened yet. But then when they did, masses of people just appeared from no-where. I had good chats with the other young speakers who had won their categories, all the mentors and the chair of the debate Jon Snow. The other winners and mentors were:

Energy - Megan Hanson - mentor Dale Vince (Ecotricity Founder)
Transport - Nerys Pickup - mentor Robert Llewellyn (actor, comedian, writer and electric car fanatic)
Food - Noella Usborne - mentor Geetie Singh-Watson (organic food entrepreneur)

And then it was time to take our places and get started with the debate. 

I have to say, Jon Snow was great at introducing us all and guiding us through the talks and questions. But rather than tell you about the debate, here is the video of the whole debate.  It is all fascinating to watch, but my first bit starts from 25:30 in.

Once the debate was over, the crowd started to disappear quickly, but I grabbed a quick picture on my phone to show how full the tent was.

We then had time to talk more with all the mentors, Jon Snow and of course Helen, before heading out in to the rain and mud again. It was also great to get some time with Dale Vince and talk more about the Hen Harrier situation with him. 

Here are a few more pictures from an amazing weekend.

With Helen Taylor

 It was an absolutely amazing opportunity and I am so grateful to Ecotricity and WOMAD for letting the voices and thoughts of my generation be heard.  If just a few people left the festival feeling that they could and should give more back to nature, then it will all have been worth it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Andy Clements

Today's 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from Andy Clements who is the Director of the British Trust for Ornithology. The BTO is a fantastic organisation and I feel very lucky to be a part of what they do. Andy is a great supporter of the younger BTO members and finds many ways to encourage us.  I have met Andy many times in quite a few places including Birdfair. AFON conferences and the the BTO Annual Conference, but my first ever contact with Andy was when he commented on the guest blog I did for Mark Avery when I was 10. In his comments he encouraged me to get more involved with the BTO surveys and since then I have learnt so much through volunteering in many BTO schemes.  

Three Cetti’s warblers were caught on the south coast of England in 1968 bringing the all-time British total to six - how things have changed. 1968 also saw the second year’s occupation of Bass Rock by the Black-browed Albatross. I was blissfully unaware of these ornithological tectonics, in my third year at secondary school with plane-spotting vying (unsuccessfully, thankfully) with the nature experience. Don’t laugh, I could have been a train-spotter!  It was the year of the last steam passenger train, notable because my Dad worked for British Railways, his career flourishing after beginning with firing those steam locomotives. The Viet Nam war was raging, Martin Luther King was shot dead and the only Apple products were Beatles LP’s on their new record label. Led Zeppelin began climbing their stairway to heaven….

We lived in Derbyshire at the time, and I was boarding at Haberdashers’ Aske’s school in North London, struggling to escape a northern accent, my National Health glasses persona, and to establish some sporting credibility. Being a birdwatcher didn’t help. At home in the holidays I could be myself, exploring the countryside by bike and monitoring a local patch, although I didn’t realise that was what I was doing. I clearly recall the day my YOC silver and grey Kestrel badge arrived, giving me permission to follow my hobby. My patch was Egginton Gravel pits where I first experienced wader passage discovering Green Sandpiper which should have been there, and Oystercatcher which, I thought, should not. These early experiences alerted me to the seasonal movements of birds, and to the inadequacy of Field Guide distribution maps. Information on which birds were where was sparse with a much rarer shorebird, a Killdeer, slipping through my patch without me knowing until years later.

So, how did I get from those shaky first steps to here? Like so many others it was the influence of an important mentor, mine in the shape of my biology teacher Barry Goater. Not only did his teaching shape my future career - zoological science, conservation and leadership - but he encouraged me to start a school bird club. Trips to local reservoirs and country parks brought my first Water Rails, Black Terns and Willow Tits and, in future years, we ventured further afield around East Anglia, the New Forest and even to Shetland - obsession was born. Highlights were finding a local Hoopoe, and finding our very own Snowy Owl on Ronas Hill, Mainland Shetland before visiting the known breeding pair on Fetlar. And it wasn’t just birds. Helping with moth-trapping and creeping through Breckland forest looking for Military Orchid ignited passions that remain with me 45 years later.

From where I am now, it all seems very different for the young naturalists of today. I’m glad we have passed the point where there is general lament about the lack of a new generation, and are celebrating today’s nature stars through initiatives like 13 years Wilde, AFON and BTO’s engagement with young ringers, nest recorders and surveyors. I am inspired by the opportunity to talk regularly through social media with Fin, Ellis Lucas, Josie Hewitt, Evie Miller and many others, and to engage with the conservation contribution you make through your passion. I wish I was 13 years wild all over again!

Andy Clements

Friday, 24 July 2015

13 Year Wilde - Stephen Moss

The next guest blog in the 13 Years Wilde Series comes from Stephen Moss.  According to his Twitter bio, Stephen is "a naturalist, author & TV producer, passionate about birds and British wildlife".  But this doesn't show how much Stephen does to encourage my generation in engaging with wildlife. His book "Bumper Book of Nature" is one of my brother Harley's favourites and he has taken it into school loads of times to try out some of the things to do. I have met Stephen several times thanks to A Focus On Nature. He has given up lots of his time to talk to, engage with and encourage younger generations and I admire him for this. 




To be honest, I sometimes struggle to remember what I was doing when I was 13. It just seems so long ago. And then I get out my bird notes, and am instantly taken back in time to that awkward first year of teenagehood: of spots and school, puberty and purple herons… at least in my dreams!

Actually, 1973 (yes, you’ve now worked out that I am 55) was a crucial year for me, firmly cementing my lifelong passion for birds. If I leaf through This Birding Life, a collection of my Guardian Birdwatch columns covering these formative years, I am amazed at just how much I managed to pack in.

In April 1973 – just before my 13th birthday – my mother took me for a few days holiday to the legendary Minsmere, which was about as difficult to get into, as Colditz was to escape from. Advance permits were required, for which you had to send your birth certificate, inside leg measurement and great-grandmother’s maiden name, and then be checked by MI5 to make sure you weren’t a Russian spy (I exaggerate, but only a little). Once we did get in I not only saw my first avocets, marsh harriers and loads of other fabulous birds, but I also met the legendary Bert Axell, the warden and creator of Minsmere. Like the other Creator, Bert had a god-like aura about him; yet he took time to speak to me and point out some special birds (which is probably why I talk to young birders now!)

My ‘local patch” – although that’s not what we called them at the time as the term hadn’t yet been invented – was Staines Reservoirs. Imagine the worst place you’ve ever been birding, and add high winds, driving rain, baking heat, plagues of ladybirds (during the 1976 drought) and all the birds at least half a mile away, and you’ll have some idea what this place was like. But my birding friend Daniel and I still visited religiously once a week, cycling there and back and keeping immensely detailed notes which we still have, unpublished and unread, to this day.

Ah yes, Daniel. Or as I should now call him, Professor Daniel Osorio of Sussex University. Had we not sat next to one another on our first day at grammar school, in autumn 1971, I would almost certainly have given up birding. Fortunately we discovered our mutual interest, and by October 1973 his family were happy to take us off to North Norfolk for the autumn half-term holiday; and then let us walk, cycle and hitchhike around the place as if stranger danger hadn’t been invented (which of course it hadn’t).

On our first visit to Cley (dubbed ‘the Mecca for birdwatchers’ by John Gooders, who wouldn’t get away with that today) we racked up some fabulous birds including grey phalarope, bean goose, black redstart, Richard’s pipit, and both snow and Lapland buntings – all, of course, lifers for both of us. The icing on the cake was a splendid great grey shrike, which we found for ourselves on a country walk a few days later.

So 1973 was, all in all, a vintage year; which continued into 1974, when we made the first of many visits to Dungeness Bird Observatory, and twitched Ross’s gull during a camping trip to the New Forest; and 1975, when we found a male little bittern at Stodmarsh. During that period we had loads of time for birding: there were only three TV channels, which shut down for most of the day; tablets were things you took when you had a headache; and the Internet was still decades away.

The only distraction was girls, though to be honest we were late developers, so even they wouldn’t be on the horizon for a few years. Looking back, I have a lot of common ground with my contemporary Mark Cocker (actually I think he’s a year older – but doesn’t look it!) In his excellent book Birders: Tales of a Tribe he writes:

I often rehearsed a nightmare scenario in which a large gang of girls stood in a scornful huddle laughing at the nerd with the anorak and the binoculars. I don’t know why I should have had that particular childhood fantasy. At that age I didn’t even know any girls.

So I’m delighted for you, Findlay, and the growing teenage gang of birders and naturalists, that birding is now so cool that you probably use it to impress your friends, rather than being embarrassed about it… At least I hope so…

PS: One more thing – I do envy you; with a lifetime of birding and wildlife watching to look forward to!

Stephen Moss is a lifelong birder, naturalist, author and TV producer, living on the Somerset Levels.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Stephen Le Quesne

The next 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from Stephen Le Quesne. I have met Stephen several times at AFON conferences and he does so much to encourage youngsters to get involved with wildlife.  He works with schools, creates information booklets and is setting up a wildlife club for children on Jersey.  He has worked for BBC Springwatch several times and I was really pleased when he asked to write a guest blog for this series.


13 Years Wilde – The unknown Naturalist 

As I sit down to write this it has just started to rain, bringing a freshness and coolness to the air after the very high temperatures that we have been having over the past few days. It is quite apt that I am writing this as it is raining because the rain sums up me when I was 13 years of age, because I was always outside, and I mean always. Whether it was rain, sun, fog, mist, cold or hot I was always somewhere on the family farm where I was brought up, and this farm up-bringing has stayed with me as I have grown up and pursued a career as a Naturalist and Conservationist.

During the past 12 months I have focused a lot on my childhood and my formative years due to the fact that I have been having counselling for depression and anxiety, ever since I returned from Australia, which was around this time last year. If you follow me on my blog and website, you will know that I am very open about my illness and how it relates to the outdoors and wildlife, mainly because I just want to do some good. What I have learned about myself and about my childhood is what I am now going to share with you.

Me as a 13 year old was a really difficult time and so was most of my childhood from 12-16 years of age, mainly because I was bullied heavily at school, with little or no emotional support, which took its toll on my confidence and who I was, and which I now know laid down the initial seeds of depression, which I am still battling today. I have many memories of pain and feeling alone, trying to find my place in the world, which are now fading. On the flip side I have the memories that have stayed with me as bright as ever, this is also something I am determined to give to children now within my role as a Naturalist an Educator. I can best describe me as the ‘Unknown Naturalist’ as I loved the outdoors, but did not really know that I did, I just considered it as a normal thing. One thing I did miss out on is that there was no mentor or expert to guide me to the path that I am on now and I am just really grateful to my grandparents who encouraged me to explore as much as I can, and follow exactly what I want to in life.

As a 13 year old I did not know what a Naturalist was or what bird-watching was (it was never taught at school), all I knew was the smell of freshly cut grass, the best way to crawl through bramble bushes, how the smell of freshly dug potatoes permeates through the air and how to build dens. If there was one thing that took up most of my time as a 13 year old it was den building. I would spend hours collecting materials, thinking about how to construct my den and how I would waterproof it from the elements. Due to this and be known to me I got to know the different types of grass, the life stages of the bramble plant and the food chains of the undergrowth.  I also spent a lot of my time building things and searching for disused bits of wood, metal and other materials, not worrying about getting dirty, crawling through the dust or injuring myself, even when I used to in the derelict greenhouse that could have fallen at any moment. I explored, explored and explored and even now I could tell you every inch of the farm, how it smelt, sounded and felt like.

I look back when I was 13 and I see a troubled, fragile 13 year old, who was determined to do well at school but who sought out the outdoors as a place of safety, a place of refugee, where I could escape and feel free. At that age I was completely connected to the natural world and completely oblivious to the fact that I was. Even though I had no mentor to guide me and teach me (Gerald Durrell lived down the road, but I never met him!) I had the complete freedom of the farm and countryside around me. There was no fear or stranger danger, just my imagination and me and without even realising I now know that I created an intimate portrait in my mind of every tree, plant and animal that I encountered. One of my greatest joys was putting on my wellington boots and coat, whenever there was a thunderstorm and either walking in the rain and following the storm as it passed through. Sometimes I would just watch the storm, mesmerised by its power and how each clap of thunder made the ground shake, I was completely humbled, filled with joy and passion, yet fascinated at something that looked so simple but in fact was so complex.

I would definitely say that my Naturalist skills have now improved, because as soon as I knew that I could follow a career in conservation I did, mainly because of the memories I have held since childhood and the knowledge that the outdoors brings me absolute joy, even in the darkest times, and that is something I am determined to share and give to the young naturalists of today.

Stephen Le Quesne

Sunday, 19 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Alan Davies

The next guest blog in the 13 Years Wilde Series comes from Alan Davies, one half of the Biggest Twitch team (with Ruth being the other half).  Alan and Ruth have been all over the world bird watching and in 2008 they set a new world record for the highest number of birds seen in a single year; an amazing 4,341 species.  I have bumped into Alan all over the place including Birdfair, Hen Harrier Day and at Parkgate.  Alan is always fascinating to talk to and we often share notes and sightings on the North Wales birds we have seen.


Being a teenage birdwatcher – 1973

By the time I was a teenager I was already well and truly hooked on birds and everything to do with birds. Birthday and Christmas present choice was easy for my family – anything to do with birds. It was on my thirteenth birthday that I got my hands on a “real” pair of binoculars, a pair of Zeiss Jenoptem 8x30’s. Prior to this I had been using some silver-coloured Boots 10x30’s which were pretty awful to say the least. But my Zeiss were the real deal and if you find someone who still has a pair and take a look, they still hold up remarkably well with today’s optics.

I grew up in Conwy town on the North Wales coast and luckily our house was outside town on the Sychnant Pass Road; in front was a large field and beyond that Conwy Mountain – the perfect place for a young birdwatcher to hone his skills. I would spend a huge amount of time on the mountain looking for birds and learning how to identify them, or at least trying to! In those days I was firmly in the closet as far as birdwatching was concerned; it was not cool to be a birdwatcher at school. Hardly any of my friends knew I was obsessed by birds, so most of my birdwatching was done alone. I don’t think I really minded this, I was very happy to get out and lose myself in watching birds. Home life was not particularly happy so any chance I got, I grabbed my binoculars and headed for the mountain.

My school, Aberconwy Comprehensive, overlooked the Conwy Estuary and several classrooms had panoramic views over the mudflats and saltmarsh, so you can imagine how often I was told off for “day-dreaming”. Of course I was watching birds. Looking back at my note books for those days I still had a lot to learn: those flocks of Tufted Ducks I noted on the estuary were almost certainly Wigeon!

Our summer holiday that year was to the Scottish Highlands and I was very excited about all the birds that I might see. One of my favourite bird books at the time was the “AA Reader’s Digest Book of Birds”, a large tome with lovely paintings of the birds. This book also had little maps showing where each species occurred, the only book I had that showed where to look for each bird. I spent every possible chance in the weeks leading up to the holiday looking at those tiny maps and dreaming of seeing lots of new birds that could only be seen in the Highlands of Scotland.

Finally the big day arrived and we set off north for Scotland! My parents liked hill-walking so the Highlands was an exciting place for them too, but no way were they anything like as excited as I was. On the journey north I amused myself by counting Kestrels. In those day they were the raptor commonly seen along our motorways, sadly not so many now, you’re more likely to see a Common Buzzard. At last we reached north-west Scotland and a chance to see new birds. At the very first loch we stopped, we noticed a gull on a rock and realised the bird was on a nest. Looking closely I was delighted to see it was a Common Gull – a lifer! My AA book had shown that the only place you could see these birds was in Scotland and here was one! What I had not realised at the time was that my book only showed the breeding distribution of the birds! Imagine my surprise when we got home and there in the field opposite our house was a Common Gull; I was learning! Sadly I didn’t see many of the amazing birds I had hoped for; not knowing where to look other than a tiny bit of colour on a very small map didn’t help much.

Somehow I managed to persuade my family that we should head east to RSPB Loch Garten to look for Ospreys. This was a dream come true for me. How many times had I looked at that painting in the AA book? It was a Holy Grail bird for me! We arrived at the reserve and walked to the hide and there was an Osprey! I was just over-the-moon, an Osprey, a real live Osprey in my binoculars! Of course, way back then Ospreys were rarer than Hen Harriers are in England today, so it was just brilliant to see one. But things got better, the RSPB Wardens picked up on how thrilled I was to see this rare raptor and asked if I would like to go to the forward hide – for wardens only – for a closer look. Of course I did and we crept through the pines trees to a tiny hide much closer to the nest. I looked through the telescope and had a full frame view of one of the Ospreys: wow!

Later the same year I had the chance to look for another of our rarest birds of prey, Red Kite. Yes in the early 1970’s the Red Kite was confined to small area in mid-Wales with just a few pairs breeding. Hard to believe now that these wonderful raptors are doing so well and I can now see them occasionally over Conwy Mountain. We spent two-and-a-half days touring the byways of mid-Wales scanning the skies and seeing many Common Buzzards but not a single kite. Again our information was very sketchy to say the least: we knew to look in mid-Wales and heard a rumour that the village of Tregaron might be a place to start. Half-way through our third day of looking we found ourselves on the mountain road above Tregaron in warm sunshine and enjoying a picnic. Then there it was, a Red Kite! Sandwiches were abandoned and we grabbed the binoculars as the beautiful raptor slowly glided over the hillside – what a bird! I can still see that first Red Kite even now after all these years.

So how has birdwatching changed since those distant days? I think the biggest change is the availability of information.  I remember being desperate to find out more, particularly about where I could go to see birds. Not knowing any other birdwatchers my own age was a shame in hindsight; it would have been great fun to share my birds with someone my age. Hopefully these days it is easier to meet other young birdwatchers? I do hope so.

Alan Davies, Birdwatching Trips

Thursday, 16 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - James Common

The next guest blog in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from James Common.  He describes himself as a naturalist, birder, aspiring ecologist and blogger. If you haven't visited James' blog already then you must check it out, it's called Common By Nature. James has also done lots of nature writing for groups such as AFON and NGB, and he is also a writer for Wildlife Articles. I was delighted when James approached me after reading a few of the 13 Years Wilde blogs and wanted to do one. As with all of the people who have written a guest blog for me, James is hugely supportive and kind over social media, and I'm know that you're in for another great read.


A huge thank you to Findlay for running this extremely interesting series of blogposts. The apparent disconnection between wildlife and today’s youth is an issue extremely close to my heart and something I have talked about at length - most recently as part of AFON’s “Vision for Nature” campaign. I don’t quite know how I am going to follow previous, admittedly quite enthralling posts by respected names like Mark Avery, Matt Shardlow and Lucy McRobert but I will give it my best shot. If anything the following picture should achieve a chuckle or two!

At 13 I wasn’t like most children. I couldn’t tell you anything about sports, video games or mind numbing television shows but could quite happily list the Latin names of my favourite birds, identify a number of commonly encountered trees and could readily separate your Small-Tortoiseshells from your Red Admirals. At 13 other children aspired to be vets, nurses and firemen, I aspired to be David Attenborough (who doesn’t). Was I odd? Maybe, though I truly embrace this now. At the time however, things were different, at school going against the grain was far from routine.

Growing up on the Northumberland coast I have been extremely lucky, at least in the sense that fantastic wild spectacles and beautiful countryside views have always been part of my life. Indeed I have loved nature for as long as I can remember though it wasn’t until the start of my teens that I truly began to discover my passion for the natural world. At 13 everything was new, everything was exciting and even the most run of the mill wild encounters were enough to set me chattering like an over excited Parakeet for days to come. The only problem was that I had no-one to chatter to.

Growing up as a young naturalist my early teens were an extremely lonely affair. Until my departure from high school and my eventually “coming out” as a naturalist, school was a frightful business. Whereas other kids partook in sports and parties I opted to spent my time in the woods, immersing myself in nature and getting to grips with my beloved birds. Other young adults it seems were utterly unable to fathom this apparent affront to normality and thus at 13 I began my career as a wild pariah. At 13 however I didn’t care, I had my birds and for me school was just six hours. Six hours of mundane, mind numbing boredom that otherwise could be spent roaming around my local nature reserve. At 13 the opinions of others held very little meaning.

My blissful ignorance changed as school advanced however, my isolation waning only when I began to conform to normality. Eventually I found my place in the pecking order though this was no easy feat, achieved only by completely supressing my “wild side” and hiding my inclinations from even my closest “friends”. At 13 I was still fairly vocal about my love of nature, at 15 however I rarely spoke of it. Indeed as my academic career advanced I developed somewhat of dual personality, enduring the benign talk of teenagers that dominated my days and venturing out and about only by night, absent the judgemental stares of my classmates. As I stated earlier I have always loved nature though as a young lad growing up in the North-East this love manifested itself as more of a dirty secret, my passion bottled up inside day after day, year after year until my school years finally expired.

Throughout all of this there was however one person who listened to me, one person with whom I could truly be myself and let my love of the natural world run free. I am of course talking about my dear old Grandmother, Vera Harrison, a truly amazing lady and a person to whom I owe a great deal. Without my Gran I can safely say that the ridicule and bullying associated with my school years may have had a far greater impact on my life. From 10-16 the majority of my weekends were spent with my Gran, venturing into in the woodland surrounding the River Blyth and having a veritable whale of a time. We made walking sticks, pressed flowers, watched birds, caught insects in the garden (always releasing them safely), played conkers, and spent innumerable hours walking our dogs up and down the river taking in the sights and sounds associated with Northumbrian coast. Oystercatchers, Mute Swans, Little Grebes, Otters all bring back extremely fond memories. In truth I owe an awful lot to my Grandmother, not just for keeping me sane during my torturous teens but for providing me with the identification skills and the knowledge to take my passion further in later life. (If you get round to reading this Nanna, thank you. Though if I am correct you will probably tell me to “stop being soft”).

And so we come to the present day. I made reference above to “coming out” as a naturalist, to me that choice of words perfectly describes the feeling of sheer relief that accompanied my departure from school and eventual embracing of natural history. Indeed, coming out as gay at 20 was a relative walk in the park when compared to owning up to my passion for wildlife. The latter resulted in far more raised eyebrows for sure. Following school I was able to cut off many of the “friends” who frowned upon my choice of hobby and was finally able to be myself. At school I would not have dared openly tweet, talk or blog about wildlife, now however I find it hard to stop. My late teens and very early twenties have been a breeze. Birding, twitching, blogging, botanising, herping and volunteering, all have found a place in my life and all have increased my feeling of self-worth tenfold in recent years. I boast of being a birder and naturalist whereas only a few years back I may have lied through my teeth to prevent the truth breaking free.

Now, as I look towards taking the plunge into a conservation based career I look back with disbelief on my teenage years.  Did I really need to be so secretive? Did I really I need to suppress my passion? The answer is clear, no. Kids can be cruel but after all the jibes and taunts words are wind. If you are truly passionate about something then you should embrace it full throttle. It is inspiring to see young people such as Findlay Wilde, Sorrel Lyall and countless others truly embracing their wild side. I do however firmly believe that for every one person that is open about their inclinations another two hide them. This has to stop. Wildlife is not the realm of freaks and outcasts and people must stop thinking of it as so.

James Common, 21.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Skydancers at Dusk

A very important break from the 13 Years Wilde series.

I'm sure you know by now the passion I have for Hen Harriers. I have read about them lots, talked about them lots, talked to lots of people who know about them lots and hopefully raised lots of awareness about the species and about their continuing troubles.

Last year I was offered the opportunity of ringing some Hen Harrier chicks to learn more about the species and their ecology as part of my species learning as a trainee ringer. Now, a few weeks back I received an e-mail, explaining that the time for ringing the juvenile Hen Harrier chicks in the nest would be coming up soon, and I was delighted to be out somewhere in Wales on the moors ringing Hen Harriers last Thursday evening after school. 

I was out with a very experienced ringer for the BTO and also the RSPB warden who put all the time and effort into finding the nest. Amazing dedication of continual monitoring and understanding of species and habitat.

It was a bit of a trek to the nest as the ground was quite uneven, with large tussocks of grass, boggy sphagnum moss and of course dense heather.  However, the ground became more firm as we reached the nest site.  The nest is basically a few sticks with a sort of a platform, however the chicks seemed to make their own tunnels in the heather where they are less visible from predators.

We were no where near the nest when we first picked up the call of the female Hen Harrier, and then she came into view and gave us superb views as she darted over us, with some stunning scenery behind.  She had obviously spotted us a long time before we spotted her!

As it got into early evening, huge clouds of midges attempted to eat us alive, but fortunately there didn't seem to be any where as near as many as when we actually got round to ringing the chicks. 

The conditions were perfect, and in this particular nest there were four chicks, all of which were females, you can tell this by the the color of the iris. It will be greyish for a male, you can also start to tell by the plumage, and other bio metrics.

 The chicks that we ringed took F sized rings, and sat perfectly quietly and calmly on our laps whilst we carefully carried out the ringing process, took the measurements of the chicks wing and weight.

After all the bio metrics were taken and recorded, we returned the chicks safely back to the tunnels they had made.

I learnt so much from the experience and to top it off, just as we were leaving the nest site, the male Hen Harrier appeared from no where and circled right above, giving us spectacular views which really made the experience all the more mesmerizing.

I wonder what the future holds for these 4 chicks. Seeing such healthy chicks in such a stunning setting did fill me with hope, but it also made me want to fight even harder for them. I know that you will understand why I am not going in to too much detail in this post about the location etc.

Before I finish this blog, I just have to give a huge thank you to some special people. Firstly Gethin, who did a fabulous job on finding the nest and keeping up the excellent effort into watching over it. Also Adrienne who watched over me whilst I ringed the Hen Harriers and explained the whole experience superbly, which made being out extra special as well. And also I have to say a huge, huge, thank you to Kel who was the one who organised the opportunity for me, and without him, I wouldn't have been sitting on a beautiful piece of moorland at dusk, watching and sharing something of the lives of these fantastic birds. 

To learn more about Hen Harriers, the BTO ringing scheme and the work the RSPB do for Hen Harriers visit the web links below. You can also see how you can help stop these beautiful birds from going extinct in England:

RSPB Skydancers
Hen Harrier Day 2015
BTO Ringing Scheme

Linking to Wild Bird Wednesday

Thursday, 9 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Martin Harper

The next 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from the Conservation Director of the RSPB, Martin Harper.  Although I have never met Martin face to face, we have had a lot contact through social media and he has always been really supportive. Martin has blogged quite a lot about the Hen Harrier situation on the RSPB website and I have learnt that it is important to read as many points of view as possible. I think it must be a tough job that he has, because some people will agree with you and others will be really against you. I am learning from people like Martin that working out what is the right thing to do is never going to be easy and that most times you can't do it on your own.


It was a dandelion seed that did it.  Howard Jones’ Hide and Seek was providing the soundtrack to the summer of 1984 and it was then that I first looked at a dandelion clock. I mean properly looked at it.  Like all kids, I’d blown many to tell the time.  But for some reason it wasn’t until I was 13 that I properly plucked the seeds and marvelled at the efficiency of the design: a tufted parachute carrying a delicate parcel to guarantee the next generation.

I wanted to know how things worked.  To me, understanding seed dispersal was a way of deciphering different species reproductive strategies.  The dandelion, like the oak tree invests in thousands of seeds, hoping that a few might make it, while mammals such as whales or humans take a very different approach – investing in just the one.

My mother was a biology teacher and I have her to thank for making me look at the world differently. She was the one that taught me to ask questions about the natural world.

And it was through exploration that I came to love it.  In many ways, I was a late convert.  For too long, I’d been side-tracked by cricket.  But, the more I saw and heard, the more I cared about what was happening to nature.  And I learnt to love beauty which is why I shall never forget the first time I saw a lapwing through binoculars.

I grew up in a Christian household – my father was a vicar – and it was clear that there were certain things that were right and things that were definitely wrong.  I have always had a pretty good sense of fairness and justice.  And, when I became aware of the damage that our species was doing to the other millions of other species on which we share this planet, this felt wrong.  It upset me, angered me and I think that these were the emotions that drove me eventually to want to do something about it.

Now, I am fortunate to have two young children who will, in a short time, also be 13.  My hope is that they too become fascinated by dandelions, by the extraordinary beauty of nature and that through this they learn to love and care about it.  We need the next generation of environmental leaders to act on love to help us live in harmony with nature.

Martin with the band Stornoway

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Miss Brandreth

Today's 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from my Principal at the County High School Leftwich, Miss Brandreth.  I really wanted to include Miss Brandreth as she has been very supportive of my conservation work by allowing me time off to attend conferences, give talks and do filming.  I think that at first Miss Brandreth was unsure about being included, but when you read her blog post it is just great; another example of how one amazing interaction with nature can stay with you forever. I'd better check the spelling and grammar especially carefully on this introduction though! 


When Findlay asked me to contribute to his blog, my first memory of my childhood connection with wildlife was kicking a ball into a stream in a park. Without hesitation, I toddled to the water’s edge to retrieve it and got a tadpole stuck in my sock. Even the ice-cream that followed failed to appease me, but the incident did serve to awaken my interest in wildlife and many an ensuing holiday incorporated the exploration of rockpools, jellyfish and crabs, though never with bare feet!

Aged thirteen, my faithful border collie, Shep and I shared a large L-shaped garden which backed onto a series of fields and a fishing club. The latter encouraged all manner of wildlife which, once Shep was safely ensconced in his indoor basket, would inquisitively and bravely venture onto our lawn and trample quite a few of my mum’s favourite plants and shrubs. Weeding was frequently punctuated by her squeals as frogs and toads jumped out of the way of her nimble fingers.

Shep’s nose would twitch excitedly when the hedgehogs scurried the perimeter, hugging the house walls. Arriving home from school one afternoon, to my surprise and delight one followed me up the path. I even held open the gate so it could enter the garden and was fascinated by its tiny paws and pointed nose. I remember sitting one night by the back door and, in the light of a full moon, Shep and I held the gaze of a beautiful fox which stared at us motionless for a few moments before turning nonchalantly away, presumably to seek its supper in the fields. We decided we had neither heard nor seen anything the next day when our neighbour was cursing the rubbish that was strewn over her patio from an overturned bin.

My current garden still attracts hedgehogs and the occasional frog or toad and Coco, my three year old Jack Tzuh, allows me to feed the birds, though I suspect with a tinge of resentment as she sits beneath the birdbath and barks with irritation whenever they splash her. However, I have not yet seen another urban fox; I’ll keep watching, though.

Miss Brandreth

Saturday, 4 July 2015

13 Years Wilde - Dr Rob Sheldon

Today's 13 Years Wilde guest blog comes from Dr Rob Sheldon.  Rob is the Chairman of OSME and spends much of his time in the Middle East.  I first met Rob at the Birdfair and we had a really good talk (about birds of course), and it has been great to catch up with him a few times since then.  Rob has a tiny patch of dry dusty ground outside where he lives in the Middle East, but he gets some of the most amazing birds on it. We often tweet to each other about the birds that have been on "the smallest patch".  The OSME annual conference is happening today at the BTO Nunnery head office, so to find out more about what they do, follow #OSMEConf2015 on twitter.


On the last day of my 44th year I got a Twitter message from Findlay asking for my email address as he wanted to ask me something. A few minutes later the email arrived asking to contribute a guest blog for his excellent website. Simply tell Findlay what I was doing for wildlife when I was 13, ie Findlay's age now. I had no hesitation, and emailed back saying I'd have something for you in a few days!! Wrong!! This turned out to be much harder to write than I first thought!

I suppose my wildlife journey can be divided into three stages. The early years, which started from about 7 or 8, I'm not sure on the specifics as it is too long ago to remember. Every Sunday as a family we used to visit my Nan. We mostly drove, but we'd often walk too, along a disused railway line then through some mature secondary woodland. I'm sure I never noticed the wildlife at first, but I had always loved being outdoors, running around and exploring, climbing trees, hiding in ditches - usual kids stuff, at least it was to me. I'd often visit my Nan's neighbours, Mr and Mrs Dorset. Mr Dorset was a birdwatcher, and I vividly remember in his front room a bookcase with loads of colourful bird books. He must have just started collecting "The Birds of the Western Palearctic" series, as I do remember being amazed by ostriches! There were loads of coffee table books with photos of birds from around the world. It wasn't long before I was going birdwatching with Mr Dorset every Sunday afternoon. We usually did the same route, that I remember clearly, a short walk along a busy road, then off down a quiet lane surrounded by arable fields (and loads of skylarks, buntings and finches etc). We'd reach the canal, then on to the sewage works, back along some farmland. Farmland birds were common, buzzards were rare.

I can't remember the specific timing, but it was when I was about 13, my interest in birds and wildlife waned. I don't really know why, and I've been pondering this ever since Findlay asked me to write this guest blog. My enjoyment of birds and wildlife didn't totally disappear, like many folk I tuned in to David Attenborough programmes, but I did stop the weekly bird watching. My attentions turned to sport - tennis, cricket and football - I wasn't great at any of them, but at least I was still outdoors. When I was 13 I guess I still had a latent interest in nature, but I don't remember any of my school friends having a similar interest, so maybe I just drifted along with the crowd. I guess I should be thankful that most of my school friends liked sport, so I did keep that connection to the outdoors.

When we weren't doing sport we would be 'hanging out' down the old railway line and areas of open ground, messing about - but always outdoors. The National Trust recently had the 50 things to do by the time your 11¾ initiative, I guess I'd done most of them by the time I was 13, except geocaching and riding a horse, although I'd certainly not made a large papermach√© hen harrier! So when I was 13 I'd lost much of my direct interest in birds and wildlife, but still had that broader connection with nature. It wasn't until I was 23 that my interest in birds (and wildlife) returned. So in a wildlife context, I guess from 13-23 we could call the lost decade!!

My enlightened stage has continued since my university years (lots of ecology and bird projects), PhD studies (lapwings), and employment (the fantastic RSPB). I currently work abroad (for ZSL) and have done so for more than a year. I ponder a lot, Findlay's request has made me ponder even more. When I was 13 there were lots of skylarks singing above every field, turtle doves on every telephone wire. There weren't any red kites in England, hardly any buzzards and what was a little egret? When Findlay tweeted me, I was visiting my folks in Spain. In every small Spanish village there were masses of screaming swifts, a site I remember being common when I was about 13. Populations will always be in a state of flux, but one thing that doesn't change is our wonder of the natural world. Far too much wildlife is disappearing, and the experiences of the 13 year olds of the future will be poorer for it.

I'm glad that when I was 13 I had that connection to nature, there are many 13 year olds today that don't. I'm glad there are 13 year olds like Findlay and his peers who are connecting people with nature and wildlife through blogging, tweeting and their sheer enthusiasm. Nature is under greater threat than it has ever been, something I never really thought about when I was 13.

Rob Sheldon

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