Winter 1974 and filmmaker, Werner Herzog sets out from Munich to walk to Paris in the hope of reaching his mentor Lotte Eisner, who he has been told is dying. He believes if he travels on foot she will still be alive when he arrives.
This is a strange, dark dream of a book which mixes the imagination with observation in such a way that is is difficult to see the join. He walks through appalling weather, dismal towns and swampy countryside populated by surly distrusting people, sad dogs and ravens.
He has no qualms whatsoever about breaking into houses, holiday homes and caravans in order to find somewhere to sleep. He suffers from swollen ankles and aching feet. The journey sounds cold and dreary and painful and you marvel that he didn’t just give up and get the bus.
Somehow though, this book perfectly encapsulates the reality of a long walk out of season. It is what long walks are really like, exhausting, sometimes dull but with the ability to make the mind expand and reveal truths about yourself.
It is a book to read in a lockdown winter because it will make you happy to be inside.
After a year in which so many of us, myself included, saw our work halted and were forced to rely on Government grants (something which I’m sure goes against the grain for many self employed people). I am delighted to announce that December saw the beginning of a fabulous new project with the Upper and Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board.
After presenting my ideas to both boards in November, I have been offered the opportunity to re-write the board’s Biodiversity Action Plan which will help target action to some of our most vulnerable wildlife which relies on the network of drainage channels the IDB’s manage.
I am really looking forward to using some of the knowledge I gained through 8 years of working as Biodiversity Advisor to the River Stour (Kent) IDB and having the chance to positively influence management across such a wide area stretching from Surrey, Sussex and across to Whitstable in Kent.
I am conscious of my good fortune at a time when so many people in this country must be struggling to know where the next pay cheque is coming from and feel very blessed to be involved in a project which gives me the chance to learn and hopefully make a positive difference.
There can be few better ways for me to start 2021.
Happy New Year. If like me, more travel was on your list of things you longed for this year then you might be surprised to find me dreaming of a pilgrimage to my home county of Essex in today’s Guardian. But if 2020 has taught us anything is that we should appreciate mini adventures and value the local. My pilgrim walk across Essex was thwarted last year by accommodation closures and travel restrictions so I will be delighted to get to do it this year and give the old country some love.
In this era of Covid our Christmas task with the volunteers was always going to be a little different this year. No feasting around the bonfire but still I came away feeling my cup of happiness was brim full from a day of fresh air and banter However, I thought I would include a snippet of my new book, tentatively entitled, The Volunteers, as an ode to Christmas past. The whole book is still to be edited, so things might change, but I hope you enjoy reading this little preview.
The Volunteers , Christmas Task.
Stripped of it’s vegetation the woodland revealed an ethereal beauty and for one moment, looking out over the scene, I felt a link with the ancestors. With the people who had lived in the woods and stood at the door of a hut on a dark night as winter crept its fingers towards them. For one moment I felt the long dark of winter before electric lights. When it was still possible to wonder at a star filled sky.
It was this that put your feet back on the earth. This rhythm of life. This true connection with who we had been in the past and naturally still were. Not an outsider to nature as the people jogging and dog walking on the main path through the woods were but a working part of the woods and the seasons. Here, here was work to be proud of and which made your soul ring.
The memory of this past is written into us, All of us. You as well. We are part of the mycelium that dwells beneath the forest floor and burst into fungi in the autumn. We are the trees, created from carbon just like us. We are air and bird and sky and fire and dirt and death beneath the canopy. We are the running deer and the yellow eyes of the wolves that once roamed. Dust to dust, come from the earth, back to the earth. Divorce yourself from nature, don’t embrace it and you are turning your back on yourself.
Dig your hands in the soil, swim in a river, work up a sweat while felling a tree for a fire to create a feast with your friends and you are alive again. I could at this point quote you a myriad of research papers that will tell you the truth of this but I urge you to just get out there and find the truth of it for yourself.
So we feasted, as our ancestors had done, to celebrate the turning of the year, the return of the light, the half way point of bonfire season. Baked potato and butter speckled with wood ash. Dollops of chilli. Mince pies, hot apple punch, marshmallows crisped on the outside with hot gooey centres.
Afterwards the tables were cleared and there were competitions. Guess the baby. Guess the teenager. Fantastic photos of each volunteer with quiffs and pixie cuts and unimaginable beards which we had to put a name to.
Then there was Bevan’s quiz. Fiendishly tricky questions full of news items, literature and classical music. Always competitive, I teamed up with Bruno and Ruben, who between them knew everything, and won.
Cards were swapped, written surreptitiously during working time while The Boss wasn’t looking. Each one needed a personal message. Jim, thanks for your support, Ruben, I enjoyed our chats. Val, your cakes are a lifesaver, Bella, continue to sparkle.
And finally I gave a speech, remembering the year passed, our achievements, and thanked them for their support.
It was nothing really, A Christmas bash in the woods, but it was fun and free for everyone.
The light mellowed as the afternoon wore on, becoming honeyed like the golden ends of the logs freshly cut and stacked high along the path. And then as the light faded, we watched the embers and talked of nothing with an ease bought on by fresh air, exercise and the long knowing of each other.
This sun soaked romp through Corfu is perfect reading for a dismal, locked down, English winter. In Gerry’s world the sea is warm and a glitterball of phosphorescence, lizards climb through the myrtle trees and a small boy wanders the olive groves sharing figs with the locals and hunting for snakes in the rivers.
If you enjoyed the ITV series, The Durrells, this will all be familiar territory to you but you may be surprised to find that Mrs Durrell is more interested in cooking than romance and Spiro is not such an hunky, practical, Greek Adonis as the tv series would have you believe. However, the rest of the cast, and the character of the island leap from the page with beautiful descriptions of the island’s scenery and rich portrayals of Durrell’s family, from the gun toting Leslie, to vain Margo and self obsessed Larry.
By modern standards, some of the attitudes in the book might be a little out of kilter. The locals are described as peasants, animal loving Gerry thinks nothing of killing wildlife for his studies and, at the end, the family ship trunk loads of unwilling creatures back to England rather than set them free. These attitudes mark it out as a book of it’s time but this, to my mind, makes it no less enjoyable and the writing, which lopes along, still feels very fresh.
As a nature loving child, I hugely envied Gerry Durrell’s childhood. I read and re read The Amateur Naturalist, tried to mount the skeletons of creatures the cat dragged in and had my own version of a naturalist’s study in the summer house but I confess I never could get on with reading My Family and Other Animals. I know for many people this is a much loved children’s book but reading it as an adult I could understand why it failed to engage me. This book, as Durrell himself says, is as much to do with his family and their relationships with each other as the wildlife. This time round I fell into this book with delight.
If you have seriously missed out on a foreign holiday this year I suggest you grab an exotic drink, turn up the heating and dip a toe into Corfu by sinking into this delightful tale.
Whenever I give a talk about my work I tell people that I am an Environmental Consultant and then quickly clarify this by saying, “but not one of those consultants.”
‘Those consultants are people whose work primarily comes from building developers and whose day to day activities involve analysing the wildlife value of land and then working out how the developer can legally clear the site and shift any protected species elsewhere.
This is a very basic definition of what consultancies do. They also encourage developers to leave areas untouched and create schemes to mitigate for habitat loss but I have always proudly declared that, “I would rather stack shelves in Tesco than do this kind of work.” In the past, I freely admit, I have referred to these type of consultants as ‘black hearted’ and their consultancies as ‘the dark side.’
However, over the last few years I have had enough with such ‘them and us’ definitions. I have been deeply saddened over the polarisation of the country and the unwillingness of both sides to listen to each others concerns and seek common ground. So, in an effort to practice what I preach, I contacted one of ‘those’ consultants in order to listen to their side of the story.
Dave Smith of EPR Ecological Consultancy was good enough to give me a whole day of his time to show me and Matt Hawkins across a proposed development site and answer our questions. It was a frank and fascinating discussion in which I learnt a lot.
I was particularly interested in the opportunities around Biodiversity Net Gain. This is a proposed system where (to put it crudely) a developer has to create 10% more habitat than has been lost. The details of this scheme are still being worked out but developers can create additional habitat on site or off site. It could provide a huge new pot of money for habitat enhancements and appears to be a step in the right direction for our wildlife if it is used correctly.
Creating new habitats on land with little current wildlife value could be a real win for wildlife. Destroying wildlife rich brownfield scrub land with breeding turtle doves and creating plantations of tree tubes will not do anything to protect biodiversity.
However, I also accept that it is possible for developments to add value for nature by creating ponds, woodlands and wildflower meadows on land that has been intensively farmed with chemicals. Again, it all depends on the value of the habitat being destroyed.
I still think the problem is that too many developers are being given planning permission on land that has high existing value for wildlife and that currently developers pay consultants directly. It would be far better for wildlife and far less stressful for consultants if instead, developers had to pay a tariff that could then be used to pay for independent consultants to survey land and write the impact assessments.
Of course the other problem is that this epidemic of development has done nothing to solve the so called ‘housing crisis’ as developers have wasted land building 4 bed executive houses instead of the ‘starter’ homes people actually need and nothing is being done to tackle the root of the problem which lies in the cost of accommodation in London and 20,000 homes in the capital currently sitting empty.
Still, these fundamental issues are outside the control of the consultancies and what I did learn from Dave is that there were similarities between our jobs. The tactics he uses and the ethical dilemmas he wrestles with when dealing with developers were not so far removed from those I employ when working with farmers. I also prioritise the needs of some species over others and smooth over differences of opinion in order to create good relationships.
Ultimately I feel the difference lies in the client. EPR’s clients are mainly developers. My client and the client of the people who pay me is ultimately wildlife. The needs of wildlife are always at the heart of what I do and because of this my job brings me fulfilment and joy on a daily basis.
So, at the end of the day I haven’t changed my mind. I still think that shelf stackers in Tesco do something of greater moral good and fundamental value than ecological consultants that work for building developers. It is my prerogative to think this but I have learnt that there is common ground and there may in the future be some projects on which it is worth joining hands over the barricades to create something of real value for our wildlife.
I would very much like to thank Dave Smith and EPR for giving me their time.
Back on the farms of North Kent I was buzzing with happiness after the Burden Bros created new scrapes and rills on wet grassland at Mockett’s Farm on the Isle of Sheppey. This work, undertaken at their own expense, should really enhance this site for waders. Location, Location, Location is at least 50% of the game, I have learned, when it comes to attracting those pesky lapwing to breed. The other 50% is made up of correct management, water availability, having insect rich grassland that has ideally never been reseeded and a dash of predator control. Luckily we have most of this at Mockett’s and the birds have previously shown that they love the site. With these new wet, muddy features I am hoping for a healthy crop of chicks next spring.
Finally this month I gave two presentations to the Upper and Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board. After years of experience as Biodiversity Lead with the River Stour IDB I am itching to use my knowledge to revise the Medway Board’s Biodiversity Action Plan and potentially look at a wider programme of work.
Nothing has yet been agreed but this project has massive potential to improve habitat and water management across Kent from Tunbridge Wells to Sittingbourne. This is the sort of work that I love. The opportunity to get in on the ground level at something truly exciting that could have such positive benefits for our wildlife. This is what I work for, something which brings true satisfaction and joy to my heart.
To welcome in December I am hosting a guest blog by our foreign correspondent Lynn Yardley who is looking forward to a second festive season in Sweden.
I arrived in Sweden just before Christmas last year and was blown away by all the festive lights on display. Not an inflatable Santa to be seen, but instead miles and miles of fairy lights draped artistically throughout the land. Almost every home was adorned with lights on balconies, roof ridges, doorways, hedges or trees. It seemed like candle bridges shone from every window.
Now, almost of a year on, I can fully understand why Swedes are so keen to indulge in plenty of festive cheer and as many (obviously very tasteful) twinkly lights as they can. When there is barely six hours between sunrise and sunset and the shortest day is still some way off, masses of pretty lights and candles definitely go some way to helping lift the spirits.
Not only are festive lights up and shining by mid November, but they remain up for far longer than I have experienced anywhere else. Last January 5th I was bracing myself for the sad task of taking down the Christmas tree and carefully packing away all the sentimental decorations for another year, when a chance comment from a neighbour stopped me in my tracks. It turns out that in Sweden the tree stays up for another week until Saint Knut’s Day on 13 January. Even then it’s just the Christmas trees and the candle bridges that get packed up. All the outdoor fairy lights keep twinkling away until April.
So given this love of all things sparkly and festive it did not come as too much of a surprise when Yuletide goodies started appearing in shops even earlier than in the UK. However, what did surprise me was passing one of my favourite charity shops at the beginning of November and seeing a Father Christmas hanging out by a roaring brazier and a small group of (not as socially distancing as is officially recommended) passersby enjoying some hot glögg. It was only some days later that I realised what had been going on. The shop had been transformed into a second-hand winter wonderland. Everything from lights, huge baskets of baubles, candle holders, Christmassy tins, gnomes, books, shiny plant pots, bells and shelves of, shock, horror, actually quite tacky Santa ornaments.
I immediately grabbed a box of Ikea’s finest gold baubles, an advent candle tray, complete with old lichen nestled round the four candle spots and a lovely bullfinch tea light holder. The bullfinch is the Scandi equivalent of the robin when it comes to iconic Christmas birds.
The seasonal charity shop transformation is an excellent idea. It’s an opportunity for some guilt free Christmas retail therapy, it is reducing, reusing and recycling and it is giving to charity. It is a joyful, sensory experience of immersing yourself in all things Yuletide and an idea I would love to see catch on everywhere.