Planet Earth 2: A Marvel of TV

Recently there has been much (justified) hype in nature circles and the wider culture about the Planet Earth 2 series, the first BBC show to be shot in 4K HD. For that title the series has to be something special and after last week’s opener I can confirm it is! I’m sure we’re all waiting with our mouths watering for the next episode.

The original series was the jewel in the crown of nature filmmaking and the sequel is no different, with dramatic and beautiful scenes, interspersed with expert narration from the world’s most lovable nature personality, David Attenborough. Truly the recipe for success. The drama is what makes the series so successful, just think of the Iguana. This masterpiece of a scene set everyone’s pulse racing with an Indiana Jones-style snake chase, what’s more it’s behaviour I never knew existed! Snakes hunting in packs, what could be better? Personally, the Jay vs Sparrowhawk scene in the BBC’s (again!) The Hunt still takes the biscuit, but we’ve got plenty of Planet Earth episodes left.

Planet Earth 2’s filmmakers have managed to add an element of horror and gritty reality into the show to attract yet inform a more mainstream audience. I’m a nature nut and I’m sure many of you reading this are too, so the series would probably have attracted me no matter what, but to appealing to the masses is something Planet Earth 2 does extremely well. While from a purist’s point of view, the series isn’t that informative about the animals it depicts and it could be said that the style of the programme anthropomorphises the ‘characters’, usually pitting the underdog against something scarier in order to get us to side with the smaller and usually furrier animal. I don’t care though! Even I have to admit that regular nature documentaries can get a bit boring after the same things have been covered over and over again, Planet Earth 2 dispels this stereotypes of nature programmes, being so full of drama and beautiful pictures. This is what brings in the regular TV viewer, and it has done so spectacularly, with the number of viewers exceeding those of the X-Factor on at the same time!

From a conservationist’s point of view, it’s great that so many people are at least mildly interested in nature, interested enough to watch the programme, 9.2 million of them to be precise. But, how many of these people actually care about the amazing species which grace their television screens? Considering the fact that the RSPB, the biggest nature charity in the UK, has around a ninth of the numbers that watched the show as members, should those who watch Planet Earth for its entertainment value care more? Imagine if 9.2 million people did conservation work in their local area or donated money to a cause supporting nature, the world would truly be a better place and conservationists wouldn’t have to constantly struggle to get their message out into society.

Adding onto this, are most of those who watch Planet Earth only interested in the large and showy wildlife, for example on the plains of Africa? Are they the type of people to pay for a safari, maybe put up a bird feeder for the hell of it but other than that ignore the wildlife in their local area? While I can agree that British wildlife isn’t in-your-face and eager to give its secrets away, our country is still packed with things that, once shown can peak the interest of anyone: those birds flying over your head could have come from Scandinavia and could be en route to France, those flies sitting on that leaf could be performing an intricate and beautiful mating dance which you would have only noticed if you’d looked up close or that Fox slinking down the alley could be on its way to feed its week-old cubs secluded under your neighbour’s shed. These people need to be educated that creatures live here whose lives can easily parallel the interest of any penguin, lion or parrot.

Planet Earth 2 has been beyond brilliant so far, roll on the next episodes!

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Hen Harrier Day 2016: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting

The following piece is what I wrote and spoke for my Speaking and Listening exam for my English Language GCSE (and it got high marks). There is also a section at the end where I unleash what I really think, this section was not included in the exam as it may have been hard for the examiner to understand and may have been unsuitable for the exam environment.

“The uplands of Britain are where many people go to ‘get away from it all’ and to immerse themselves in nature or the wilderness. But what many people do not know is that this environment is about as natural as the manicured lawns we see in parks and gardens today. The reason for this is management for the hideously highbrow ‘sport’ known as driven grouse shooting.

Driven grouse shooting usually involves a very rich man, who has paid a lot of money, sitting in a grouse butt while his workers drive the birds towards him. The grouse eventually take fright and fly over the shooter while he unceremoniously blasts them out of the air with a shotgun. This is his idea of fun. Shooters regularly judge each other by how many dead grouse have accumulated at the end of a shoot. This is why unnaturally high densities of grouse have to be created on the hills.

The management needed for this is extremely detrimental to the local and wider environments. An example of this is the burning of heather on some of our most delicate and rare habitats, which is needed so that the huge, unnatural numbers of grouse have more than enough to eat. Our uplands hold a very unique, internationally important habitat known as blanket bog. Blanket bog is home to many rare and specialised organisms but also has many more importances. One of these is carbon storage. This is a benefit that is becoming increasingly important in our ever-warming climate. Unfortunately, a large proportion of our blanket bog is situated on land managed by driven grouse shooting gamekeepers who show a complete disregard for the environment and the law. They illegally burn the heather on these protected habitats which dries out and destroys the bogs, releasing the carbon that was being stored. This adds to the greenhouse layer, contributing to global warming. The UK’s peat soils are estimated to store 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon, which is the equivalent to 31 times the UK’s annual emissions. This is the scale of the effect burning our uplands will cause and blanket bogs are a significant part of this, being a particularly effective carbon store.

Even more immoral, perhaps, is the widespread murder of our upland wildlife. On grouse moors anything that could potentially harm a grouse is routinely and barbarically killed, without any regard for the negative effects it could cause, by either shotgun or poison, legally or illegally. This includes much of our enigmatic upland wildlife but there is one bird that one bird that stands out from the rest and acts as a beacon to bring the illegal and immoral murder of our wildlife to wider attention, as it is so often in the firing line of the grouse shooting community, metaphorically and literally. This is the Hen Harrier, surely one of our most beautiful and iconic birds of prey. Now, this is virtually only an upland bird, especially favouring heather moorland. Unfortunately, this puts it in close contact with grouse moor gamekeepers and owners and, as a species that occasionally eats grouse chicks, it is unpopular in the grouse shooting community. But the Hen Harrier is a legally protected species and this, you might think, would make it safe. But, oh no, too frequent are the reports of monitored birds mysteriously disappearing. The reality is that these birds are killed ruthlessly and with a complete lack of empathy. Our current government rarely does anything about this, despite legislation put in place by them and other governments, possibly because they have grouse shooters high up in their ranks. There is enough suitable habitat in England for over 300 pairs of Hen Harriers but in 2014 only 4 pairs bred and this year there have only been 3 attempts when there should have been 332. This is why it is imperative that we save this beautiful bird because the illegality surrounding it undermines our legislation, conservation and quite frankly, our morals.

Now that I have shown you the reality of our uplands, are you happy with their treatment? Do you want to stand back and let this happen? Or do you agree that we need to unite for the benefit of ourselves, our environment and our wildlife by changing something. That something is banning driven grouse shooting.”

Now, the fact that the numbers of Hen Harriers aren’t being allowed to reach even 1% of their potential population makes me livid. And we’re not even just talking about the Hen Harrier, multitudes of species are affected: Golden Eagles, Mountain Hares, Buzzards, Goshawks, Merlins, Red Kites, Stoats, Foxes… The list goes on. All of these species are being brutally ripped from our upland landscape by gamekeepers just because some of the rich people in our country want to kill some more birds with a gun. What’s more, the rich people owning the grouse moors are actually subsidised by the government to conserve a ‘healthy upland landscape’. Well, that’s certainly not happening is it? Anybody with even an elementary grip of ecology can see that an ecosystem with no predators cannot function and the claims made by the grouse shooting community that grouse shooting is a vital part of the economy are completely false. Tourism makes far more money in the areas where grouse shooting occurs. Driven grouse shooting is not beneficial to anybody other than those directly involved in it. In fact, it’s far from being even remotely beneficial to the public: increased water bills and flood risks spring to mind. Overall, driven grouse shooting is a barbaric, senseless, immoral and environmentally damaging practice that is of no use to the public. Why can’t our government see the light and ban driven grouse shooting?
Here’s a link to the petition to ban driven grouse shooting, please sign it for your benefit, society’s benefit, our wildlife’s benefit and the environment’s benefit, thank you.

Petition To Ban Driven Grouse Shooting

Header photo credits: ©Frank Osterberg

Guest Post for Wild South London – A Throwback to Spring and Wild Hull

Note: I’m very sorry from my break from blogging which was caused by having to do my GCSE exams and then being abnormally busy in the holidays. Thankfully I felt my exams went well and all that is over now so I can get back to blogging regularly. This seems like an appropriate post for my return to blogging as this was how it was before my exams…

This is a guest blog post for Will Harper-Penrose, urban nature blogger and self-proclaimed adventurer, about the urban wildlife of Hull. His blog can be found at https://wildsouthlondon.wordpress.com/ which is packed with interesting posts in his entertaining writing style.

When Will first asked me to write this blog, the prospect didn’t fill me with joy. I had never really been looking for wildlife in the city centre, it has always been just as easy for me to visit sites in the countryside, which most people would view as being better. That all changed, though, during the course of this trip, in two of the top sites for urban wildlife in Hull.                                                                                                                                                      However, I think it is fair to say that Hull is not seen as the most glamorous of places, but in this blog post I hope to extirpate this stereotype, at least from a naturalist’s point of view. Now, where has my copy of The Urban Birder got to?

First up on the list of places to visit was the Pearson Park Wildlife garden. This is a mini wildlife oasis managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, secluded in the heart of urban Hull. It is aimed at involving young children with nature, something that previous readers of my blog will know I feel strongly about, with eye-catching fact boards and creative statues dotted around.                                                                                                                                                    I headed straight for the pond, having fond memories of pond-dipping, and was not disappointed as lurking within were the dragons of this realm, Smooth Newts. These were my first of the year and courtship behaviour was observed, often involving three newts at a time. They are definitely best seen up close, though, with their beautiful and striking mottled bellies, washed delicately with the colours of fire. Very small tadpoles were also writhing around the pond and congregating in the shallower areas. A sure sign of spring. Along with them, my first Pond Skaters of the year flicked effortlessly across the unruffled surface of the water.

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Tadpoles in the Pond

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Pond Skater

I then decided to take a look around the rest of the reserve. There were a multitude of garden birds; Wrens were flitting from bush to bush and firing their rapid song into the clear spring air, Long-tailed Tits roamed the canopy in their parties, exploring every nook and cranny in the delicate new branches for miniscule insect prey and this rather friendly Robin came down from his perch to investigate me.

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Friendly Robin

It may have been better to visit later in the year, the information boards promising me Common Blues told me that, but all around me, spring was coaxing the world into coming out to play after a long winter; fresh green leaves were appearing on the Hawthorn bushes, Great Tits were broadcasting their repetitive song and the first bumblebees of the year were taking their initial tentative flights into the air. Spring was springing and I was loving every second of it. At the boundary of the reserve a juxtaposition became apparent, through the hedge I could see businesspeople striding briskly down the path, I could hear the squeak of car breaks and the occasional horn blast. But, if I turned around all of this melted away and the serenity of the gently swaying bushes and trees and the calming calls and movements of the birds would absorb me and the outside world didn’t seem to exist.

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 Fresh Hawthorn Leaves

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The Wildlife Garden

Back to the main park it was to try to photograph some of the (mostly feral) birdlife at the pond. The easily-spooked pigeons had flown up all around and their atmospheric flapping filled every part of the soundscape, taking me to 1800s Wisconsin and the immense, and sadly now extinct, Passenger Pigeon flocks. They soared in circles with wings raised into a poised, elegant V and departed to wreak havoc in the bread crumbs of the city centre. Many wildfowl and gulls frequented the pond including this immature Herring Gull:

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Herring Gull

What would a visit to Hull be without seeing its claim to fame, the Humber river? I wasn’t expecting much, but was secretly hoping for some scarcer birds out on the estuary, but what followed made me think differently about urban birding.

I came to the river by The Deep with the Humber Bridge in the distance, landmarks galore (!), and was immediately greeted by a Redshank bobbing amiably among the rocks by the shore of the great river, a good start and maybe a foreshadowing of what was to come.

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Redshank

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Many Landmarks!

Scanning the river brings up nothing but a few distant gulls. But, a short walk along the river later and a large wader is seen pottering around among some seaweed. A quick glance through my binoculars confirms it as a Curlew. It allows me to edge closer and closer until I am about 3 or 4 metres away, I fire off some shots but then go back to scanning the river as I am in a more likely place for birds that have come in from the sea. When I finally lower my binoculars the Curlew has come even closer, now this is definitely the best view of a Curlew I’ve had! It allowed me to get ridiculously close, waders here are certainly tamer than in their usual seaside or estuarine habitats. This is one of the great joys of urban birding! Seeing a Curlew is even more special now, because of their well-publicised and drastic decline.

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Curlew

Further downstream, I come to a quay sunken into the street where some Moorhens and Mallards are bobbing about. There is also a Mallard’s nest tucked away in the corner of the quay amongst some grasses, the female who is incubating the eggs and guarding the nest is defiantly hissing at some males who have approached too close. Unfortunately, you can see that some of the eggs have fallen into the water, a tragedy for the female and one of the dangers of having your nest so close to the edge of the water.

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Female Mallard on her Nest

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Eggs in the Water

I come to a channel flowing into the much larger Humber and it makes an attractive photo opportunity, this view would not look out of place on an unspoilt and wildlife-rich Scottish estuary. But it is here, just a stone’s throw from the centre of industrial Hull. The wildlife associated with this environment is also present here, albeit in much smaller numbers. At this point in time I am incredulous that I let myself think that urban birding was not going to be a worthwhile pursuit! Many gull and wader prints were also scattered around on the mud; it seems I missed quite the party!

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Prints

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Channel into the Humber

I keep walking and seaweed-covered rocks start appearing at the bank of the Humber, out of the corner of my eye I see a whir of wings and expect to turn and see small waders; Dunlin, Turnstone or something of that description. But no, Starlings have some down from the rooftops on my left to reap the rewards of the estuary. I have never seen this behaviour before and you can see the characteristic feeding method of inserting the bill into the weed and then prising it apart, looking for invertebrates hidden within. Starlings; the unofficial waders of today!

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Starlings Feeding on the Seaweed

Just behind the Starlings it becomes present that true waders are in attendance, a group of Redshank are puffed up on the tideline and another group of them then shimmer back the way I have come, uttering their peevish but calming calls, the white panels in their wings shining out amongst the gathering gloom. An allusion to North Norfolk, past holidays there were always Redshank-filled and this moment brought me back there.

All in all, this was a brilliant day that changed my opinion of urban birding and nature watching. I won’t be surprised if I take many more trips to find nature in the city again!

 

Rants For Change Blog Post – The State of Nature in Teenage Society: Nature Isn’t Cool

I was recently asked to write a blog post for the Rants For Change site. I chose to do this topic because I think it is extremely important and it is also something I feel strongly about. You can find the Rants For Change site here http://rantsforchange.com/2016/02/25/the-state-of-nature-in-teenage-society/

I think it’s fair to say nature is not seen as ‘cool’ in today’s teenage society. This is something I feel passionately about, and which needs to be changed, especially as I had first-hand experience of being teased (not exactly bullied) about my love for nature late in primary school. Because of this, I sadly felt the need to hide my passion and have denied it multiple times, many of these at high school. I also know of many other young birders and naturalists who have suffered the same fate.

It is harrowing to think of the talent that is, or could be, out there but is being suppressed within people due to immature teasing. Talent which could change the world. I’m not just talking about scientific talent, or talent that could advance our knowledge of nature, but all forms of talent can end up being suppressed due to young people feeling the need to ridicule anything that is slightly different to what they are used to. Ecological and conservation talent is especially important considering the challenges our planet faces in the future, with an ever-growing population.

Now I have got rid of my (relatively) childish embarrassment and am no longer hiding my love of nature. I assumed people would judge and think less of me as a person for it but, in reality, no one would have acted differently towards me. I’m now confident if more people found out about my love for nature, it wouldn’t change their opinion of me. It’s easier for me to realise this now, because I’ve gained the respect of my peers, as I am in my final year at school and no longer feel any need to prove myself to others.

Sadly, children who are younger than me may be in a different position, feeling they have to fit in with their peers and need to prove themselves to others by trying to act hard. In my opinion, that is not the type of person you should aspire to be and you should never be afraid to be yourself. Eventually, everyone will respect you for your own character and not your quirks and interests, that is something I have learnt. Just take a look at Findlay Wilde, a young naturalist, birder and conservationist who has nearly 3000 followers on Twitter and has already been on national mainstream television. He is a prime example of what can happen if you go after your goals and open yourself up to what you feel passionate about.

Besides, nature hasn’t always been an uncool and ridiculed pastime. Around the time of the Second World War, nature was a cultural mainstay in England, especially loved and interacted with by teenage society. Activities like butterfly and bird’s egg collecting brought teenagers into contact with nature and, although in most cases they were extremely detrimental to the species which they involved, it inspired future conservationists and nature personalities. It’s ironic that destruction of species in the past, led to the conservation and protection of species in the future. It demonstrates that the conservationists of today, or in the near past, were enlightened about nature when it was a ‘normal’ activity to pursue. This is a scary prospect for the future, for if oppression by peers stops people interacting with nature, I fear there will be a significant lack of conservationists and nature-lovers in our future.

This poses a huge risk at a time when humankind needs conservationists the most. It is quite clear to me the biggest problems affecting us as a species are the problems created by ourselves. For example, threats such as global warming and intensive farming are damaging the delicate links between species which make up the wider web of nature. The ecosystem that we are damaging provides us with fresh drinking water and oxygen so it’s clearly something we need to take care of. These are all problems caused by us.

My Rant for Change is for teenage society to accept wildlife watching for what it once was, a normal pastime. Clearly this isn’t going to happen overnight so celebrities, nature personalities and organisations need to get involved. I feel there are a couple of solutions to this issue. There are brilliant projects currently in action run by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts – inspiring people who would not otherwise have any stimulus to look at the world around them in more detail. There are children in cities who don’t know where the food they eat comes from.

If all children were given the opportunity to experience nature at a young age it would be particularly effective because, as these children get older and grow into their teens, they’ll become less judgemental and more accepting of change and new things. This could be further implemented by creating a space in the national curriculum for a lesson of ‘nature studies’ or something similar. This way, pretty much every child in the country could be brought closer to nature and, even if not everyone becomes a naturalist, birder or conservationist, new generations will be more environmentally aware and more inclined to make a difference to the future of our planet.

I think it’s clear that something needs to be done socially too. I’m sure that many celebrities, nature ambassadors and those who govern education could really help change this. Then young naturalists, birders and conservationists can be free from the judgemental eyes of teenage society and be allowed to embrace their passions. Hey, maybe one day walking out onto the street with a pair of binoculars might be cool?

“I can’t stand the way they slam today’s gifted”- Tech N9ne