Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ponds, life and the death of a scientist

Sometimes wildlife writers pull out literary phrases and quotes from the greats (White, Clare, Manley Hopkins) in a desperate bid to make their own writing seem better and more authoritative somehow. If that truly works then this blog post will possibly win me an award. Are you ready…?

I have a quote for you. It’s about ponds, and how incredible they are for learning. And it was written in 1880. (Yes, I own an old book. Aren’t I learned etc. etc.). Here goes…

“The pursuit of such studies, in their lowest results, is a good school for the exercise of patience and perseverance, and in their highest it bring one into contact with the manifestations of Divine power, as exhibited in a world hidden from the uninquiring eye, but withal as wonderful, if not even more astonishing than that in which we live, and move.”

Translation: ponds are bloody excellent.

The quote comes from M. C. Cooke’s Ponds and Ditches, part of the Natural History Rambles series. I absolutely love this book. Even though the cover’s hanging off and it’s well-thumbed, I feel like I can see a past world full of enthusiastic boyish (or girlish) endeavour and discovery about wild places. And there’s no mention of health-and-safety anywhere.

The tattered book now sits on my desk like a memento mori. A reminder of a Victorian time, when learning about nature was easier, instinctive and more, well, natural to young people.

This resonates quite a lot with me at the moment. I’m coming up to working with my 100th school in the past year, which is a milestone I’m quite proud of. One thing I’m not proud of is how few of these schools I’ve successfully managed to encourage to put a pond in (or make-good their current pond) for educational learning.

It’s quite shocking how many schools have a pond that remains unused for learning because it’s overgrown, dried up or it’s turned into a stagnant lifeless mess, largely useless.

In my experience the teachers know these ponds need fixing, but there’s too many competing priorities in the school for the teachers (or site-managers) to step up and realistically take the bull by the horns. Money’s an issue too, but another problem is a lack of confidence about pond management: what exactly needs to be done to keep the pond in a good condition for use as an outdoor study area? And it’s not just the schools I visited, research undertaken by Froglife (and their excellent Leapfrog project) paints a similar picture.

But hang on. Is it really the end of the world if schools don’t have useable educational ponds on site though? After all, many schools get their pond-dipping fix on field trips to nature study centres, right? Well, sadly, this is happening less and less because these ex-situ educational ponds are also under threat.

Death of the field centre

Field centres offer something out of this world, offering young people field experience and a chance to see real wild animals. Plus young people get to work with proper ecologists - scientific role-models. And there’s more: the field centres provide everything else - microscopes, nets, identification guides, toilets and sometimes a gift shop. Mostly though, field centres provide memories, direct experiences of outdoor life on this planet, and sometimes they create the emotions and passions that define us as adults.

It’s no surprise that 60% of people cite fieldwork at school as having a “crucial impact on their pro-environmental behaviour” (according to the Field Study Council's excellent Teaching biology outside of the classroom? Is it heading toward extinction? report in 2002).

Sadly though, field centres are becoming a strained community, eroded by two forces.

Firstly, many schools (that I work with at least) can’t afford the increasing cost of hiring a coach, and have to think of cheaper alternatives or cancel field-trips as a cost-cutting provision (more on this here). And then on the other side there’s the fact that some local authorities view field centres as easy pickings in the economic cutbacks (in fact, I think the Field Studies Council (FSC) are looking into this and are publishing something soon). The result is that many field centres are closing.

So in school and out, educational ponds are harder and harder to come by.
These educational habitats are becoming like an endangered species; starved of attention, isolated, fenced away from human contact, often only the preserve of the rich. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and frankly I hope that we can raise the profile of this issue somehow. (I urge you to join the FSC’s Save Fieldwork campaign by the way).

To me, ponds are like eggs in a cake. Without them we’ll fail to make the big spongy scientists of the future. And without scientists we become a boring stagnant society, lacking discovery, lacking passion. Our adventurous spirit lost. We become a big floppy proto-cake. A species plateau.

All this, plus without scientists we drop the baton in helping future generations protect the natural world that’s so life-giving for, well, everyone and everything.

It’s all quite heavy and depressing stuff and sorry to tarnish the reputation of this normally perky and cheery blog. So, time for a quote, once again from my century-old Ponds and Ditches. This one’s about studying freshwaters:

“No branch of science, moreover, has been more humbling to the boasted rapidity and omnipotence of the human reason, or has more taught those who have eyes to see, and hearts to understand, how weak and wayward, staggering and slow, are the steps of our fallen race.”

When read slowly these beautiful words sound almost like etchings on a gravestone. I guess time will tell.

More soon, Jules (P.S. funding news, as usual, below).


Trust for London - Max. Value: Discretionary

Financial assistance is available for London-based voluntary and community organisations that are carrying out projects that aim to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Thomas Wall Trust - Max. Value: £ 1,000

Grant for registered charities undertaking educational and social welfare projects in the UK and for individual disadvantaged students for vocational courses or courses concerned with social welfare.

Woodward Charitable Trust - Small Grants - Max. Value: £ 5,000

Grant for community organisations that encourage social regeneration through education, rehabilitation and outreach in the UK.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Corpse on the cob

This week's blog looks at the magic of spiders' webs - and how to do a CSI-style corpse survey. There's information on bringing spiders' webs back to the classroom for study. Oh, and some bleating about a woman on her wedding day. Funding news too.

Picture the scene. It involves a human being, a young successful twenty-something, on her wedding day. After ten years she’s worked her way up the ladder. She owns her own house, mortgage paid. She’s going for the full-hand: car, house, job, soon marriage and then kids. Today is the day - she gets herself prim for the biggest day of her life. For her, life starts now.

She climbs out of the car, walks up the steps to the church. And then… and then…

…She gets stuck in a massive sticky web? She gets bitten by an enormous eight legged fang-laden spider four times her size? She dies a slow and painful death…? Well, yes. If you're an insect. In the insect world, young lives in the prime of life are lost each day.

Don’t believe me? Well, go to your nearest pond and study the spiders’ webs. Tragic tales like those above are festooned all over them at the moment. Rites of passages ruined. Maiden flights foiled. Metamorphoses wasted. Spiders fed.

In the waters below these webs, aquatic larval stages have been gorging themselves on prey (or plants) before they burst forth out of the pond to the stuttering buzz of virgin wings. The spiders must think some satanic deity is paying out.

Caddisfly larvae are my favourite – their larval cases are made from whatever’s in the pond (grasses, twigs, leaves, mud, polystyrene), all cut to shape and glued into an intricate moveable cave (it’s even inspired artists in the human world). Each larval caddisfly species has its own fondness for materials: some like thin twigs specially aligned (Limnephilus rhombicus), some have a love of big leaves (Phacopteryx brevipennis), and some even have a thing about tiny ramshorn snailshells (Limnephilus flavicornis).

As a tool for inspiring people about the value and awe-inspiring power of freshwaters, I’d say caddisflies feature as high as frogs. Maybe higher – they just need more publicity.

But back to those spiders' webs…

What’s in your pond?

So, as I was saying, spiders’ webs that have been flung near ponds are rich pickings if you want to see which insects were living in the pond as larvae (and which may be present again next year). At this time of year many webs are full of caddisfly adults (honestly, go and look). After all that effort of making a larval case to live in, plus the whole metamorphosis thing, it’s shocking how many die so early. Such is life / Life…

Their webs are full of the adult life stages of other things too – mosquitos, small hoverflies, even moths (Brown China-mark Moth is quite widespread).
Who’d have thought that spiders, in their blood (hemolymph?) lust, would inadvertently create a survey tool for wildlifers to use to understand what’s in their pond. Clever little nightmares, they are.

A web-tool for engagement?

When I scour spiders’ webs for insect treasure part of me gets sad about the waste of such larval potential. I think of the woman on her wedding day, predated. A small part of me feels her pain. If I’m honest though most of me is excited and inspired about it all. Actually it’s the same boy-like awe and excitement I still get when imagining dinosaurs killing one another or a great white shark ripping apart a torso. Is this just me? Am I disturbed? Maybe.

Perhaps using spiders’ web as a study tool might help young boys (particularly) to engage better with nature? It sort of fits alongside the ‘Deadly Sixty’ mentality which grabs young people so well. (I hear the sentence, “I’ve seen that on Deadly Sixty!” on most days). Try it out and let me know how you get on.


I’ve never attempted it, but there is apparently a way to bring spider webs back to the classroom (or the study/lab/garage workbench) for further study (and maybe to satisfy an artistic urge or two). Bizarrely it involves hairspray. In Nick Baker’s excellent, clear and informative The First Time Naturalist, it says you can spray the web with spray paint a couple of times (to harden it up), then hairspray (to make it sticky). Then it’s a case of carefully lining up a bit of card and pushing the card through the (now sticky) web. Not sure how long it would preserve the insects caught within the web – certainly long enough to get your microscope out for a further look I’d say.

Give it a go! If anyone’s got any pictures of your web exploits let me have them – I’ll post them on Twitter (@juleslhoward).

Right, that’s me done – from life in webs, to the web of life, spiders have certainly grabbed my interest of late. Hope they do yours!


Only one national one to speak of this month – but might be a good one…

Ideas Fund Green is provided by Ideas Tap, a not-for-profit organisation, bringing young, creative people together and offering cash funding, opportunities and a portfolio to showcase work. The aim of the scheme is to realise creative projects that either address green issues or are produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. Up to £5,000 is available.

Until next week, Jules

Saturday, 30 April 2011

How to solve a problem like Mycologia

Behold the bacteria of the genus Prochlorococchus, the most abundant organism on this planet and largely responsible for the production of the majority of organic matter in the ocean. Without it the foodchain would collapse and we’d likely have a (bigger) mass extinction on our hands.

So when did we discover Prochlorococchus? Was it those hoity-toity Victorians? Or the stern-faced biologists of the Fifties? No, incredibly it was as recently as 1988. Have you ever heard of it? No. (Me neither).

That’s because many of us (including me) only want to hear and learn about the bigger life forms on Earth. Case in point: did you know that this week scientists mapped out the biodiversity of British soil for the first time? Or that other scientists are finding out the biodiversity of human bellybuttons? Nope.

Don’t worry, I’m the same. If someone tells me they’re a microbiologist my brain races to find something to say or an interesting question to ask. Yet, if they were a herpetologist or a shark wrangler I’d be positively salivating. It should be that, as people with a shared interest in life on Earth, microbiologists and I should have loads to talk about. It troubles me, being sizist in this way.

There’s a serious point to this you see. We’re seeing a drought in young people wanting to study the small stuff, and lack of public interest is a factor behind this. In 2008 we saw reports that were only eight fungi experts left in the whole of the UK. And sadly I have a feeling that one of them died last year.

This is serious. If we don’t have the experts here in the UK then other countries stand to make the most out of scientific discoveries (remember penicillin?). And there’s a conservation viewpoint to this too. If our experts understand the infrastructure of things like soil or leaf-litter then the potential to wield this knowledge to create stronger ecosystems has fascinating and encouraging ramifications.

The sad truth is, though we produce excellent big animal conservationists, we’re a long way off understanding and protecting the smaller stuff. I’d like to see British scientists at the forefront of this micro-frontier.

What can we do to create more micro-zoologists then? Three words. Invest in microscopes. Every classroom should have a handful.

Invest in microscopes

I'm actually not that sizist. Although I have trouble exciting myself about bacteria and fungi I love the minutae of pond life. In fact my earliest memories of looking through microscopes were pond-based.

One of the first things I remember looking at was phantom midge larvae. To the normal eye they look like nothing more than translucent, and very nippy, maggots. Get them under the microscope though and you can see everything that makes this animal tick. Look carefully and you’ll see a balloon puppet brain, and a balloon puppet digestive system (including a little balloon puppet gizzard) all contained within a larger balloon puppet body. Very weird. And it’s angry. Oh so angry.

As my 1880 edition (get me, eh) of Natural History Rambles: Ponds and Ditches puts it:

“Their quietude is like that of an eagle, for like that bird, they are watchful and ready to pounce in a moment on any object moving beneath them. Our phantoms are, I fear, not so innocent as phantoms should be… a glance at the cruel armature of the mouth will satisfy you of this fact.”

It's incredible how microscopes can bring alive something most people (including me) would barely register while walking by a pond, or any wildlife habitat. Microscopes got me, and a generation of pond-enthusiasts, really interested in smaller life. And that was then, when microscopes (and slides) were unwieldy, inaccessible and relatively expensive.

No more is that the case. I mention above the three words “invest in microscopes”. Now how about three letters: USB.

Praise be to USB

Thankfully microscopes are now more accessible and cheaper than ever and can easily plug into any laptop. Personally I’m pleased to see how many primary schools have these now (microscopes used to be restricted to secondary schools).

The ones I use are Dinolight microscopes (which range from £100 - £300), and they are the only ones I know of that have microscopes with a polariser (which means you can see clearly into water, without the light of the microscope reflecting off the water surface back into the lens). The microscope stands seem really pricy though (£50!), so since mine broke I’ve just been holding the microscope with my hands, which is actually fine.

If you (or your school) haven’t got this sort of money handy then there is a cheaper alternative which I got to try out recently. It’s called a Veho microscope and it comes with a stand, and at £36.00 it’s very reasonably priced. Although it doesn’t have a polariser I must say it was almost identical in quality to many of the more expensive USB microscope models on the market. I’m going to get a handful ready for the summer term…

Oh of course, once you’ve got your microscope it takes a while to get into the mindset of using it. You have to always be looking out for opportunities to see things up close. Hangnails, tick larvae off the cat, split ends, dirty jeans, ladybird jaws, harvestman heads and the hairy bottoms of backswimmers. All of these (and more) have been under the glare of my microscope in recent weeks. It’s just a case of always remembering it’s there.

With microscopes more freely available in schools we might well see more up-and-coming conservationists with their eyes on the smaller things. I hope so.

Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll have an enough fungi experts to fill a football team. Hopefully many more. Maybe we’ll be celebrating a BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner with a penchant for the cellular. It’d be great if so.

“Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope.” said someone. Hopefully having more accessible microscopes will help more people to hear them.

Funding round-up

There's lots going on this week if you’re looking for ways to fund school wildlife projects…

Deutsche Bank Small Grants FundUp to £5000 available for voluntary and community organisations undertaking projects for education and community development in areas of London.

John Jarrold TrustGrant for community and voluntary organisations undertaking a variety of charitable activities in Norfolk, including those relating to the environment and education.

Grassroots Grants Grassroots Grants is a three-year programme that is funded by the Office for Civil Society and administered locally in the London Boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Haringey, Havering and Redbridge by the East London Community Foundation. The grant helps voluntary organisations, including schools.

Community Greenspace Challenge
The GrantScape Community Greenspace Challenge is a c. £500,000 grant programme designed to support local communities in creating enjoyable new outdoor greenspaces, including by transforming existing unloved areas. This grant scheme specifically designed to benefit the environment both for people and for wildlife, supporting people’s health, well-being and access to nature. Grants are available for amounts between £20,000 and £75,000

Right, that’s it for me this week. Here comes the busy summer term. Brace yourself wildlife, we’re coming for you…

All the best, Jules

Monday, 18 April 2011

Nature’s amazing feats (appearing now at your local service station)

Student exchange trips at our school were hell. Weren’t they for every pre-pubescent teenager? Well, the bit where you had to go abroad was. Living with a complete stranger, with little idea whether, and to what degree, his non-English-speaking family were maniacs.

Thankfully at our school we also had exchanges with people who could speak the same language - namely Americans and South Africans, on tour for football and rugby. It was one of these visits that woke me up to something striking about local nature.

Here’s the scene: it’s a small kick-about at the park. Us vs. the Americans. We’re one-nil up and the the ball goes into some long grass. One of our American opponents rushes in after it. Seconds later he’s back, without the football, screaming and clutching his bare legs in shocked agony. Stinging nettles. The look on his face was one of panic, his eyes flinging across each of our faces, seeking reassurance that he wasn’t actually going to die a long drawn out death there and then. He was utterly shocked. Well, I thought. Interesting…


It was my first recognition of the fact we have plants that can defend themselves just as well as the plants I had seen on the Life of Plants (which was on TV at the time). And this bloody plant was everywhere now I think about it (weirdly, they’re also native to North America – perhaps our American friends didn’t get out much).

Nettles. A stinging plant, armed with tiny barbs capable of deterring animals. Under a microscope these barbs are actually hairs (called trichomes), but if you ramp up the magnification you’ll see that each hair is more like a hypodermic syringe, each one loaded with a tiny dose of histamine.

And they can grow to triffid size (2 metres if you’re asking), just like those ones on telly.

I’d never really thought of this plant as an impressive spectacle, a fascinating example of adaptation to foil herbivores, yet here it was before my very eyes, deterring humans from another continent.

Urtica dioica: Stinging bastards*

“European wasp!”

I got this awe-struck feeling again a few years later at a service station, when watching Australians encounter our wasps for the first time. Their tourist bus had parked next to a bin, from which wasps were coming to and fro, and the foreign passengers were viewing the bin like there was some sort of vicious bear in there. Those that did pass chose to run, and did so with great cries of “European wasp! European wasp!”.

Could they really have been Australians, you ask? A nationality possibly more at home with venom than any other - could they really be fearful of our lowly wasps? But then, to be fair to Australians, our wasps are actually quite scary and have a wily resourcefulness about them when you think about it. Plus, they are quite inquisitive (dare I say nasty seeming) at times, unlike their family’s representatives in other climes (like Australia).

Just like with stinging nettles, we’re lucky to have such impressive feats of evolution so close to us (and our bins)…

Are European wasps really that impressive? Well, yes. It’s a resourceful and highly social insect that we’ve become rather blasé about – in reality we have a neat little product of evolution we’re talking about here. A species capable of building nests the size of a VW Beetle (or a Beatle come to think about it). A social insect capable of building such intricate nests, armed with knowledge of one thing: an inordinate fondness for hexagons. An insect with a yearly cycle of societal profligacy and societal decay (picture those drunk wasps at year-end). We could learn a lot from them.

Just like stinging nettles, wasps are wildlife examples worthy of any TV rainforest drama.

So, wasps and stinging nettles. These are impressive feats of nature, and I suspect that that if we looked at them with fresh eyes every now and then (like my exchange colleagues or Australians) we’d be better able to inspire our UK audiences about the impressive nature we have outside the back door, or in school grounds.

Sometimes it takes someone from another country, screaming wildly in a service station car-park, to remind you.


Allow me to term a new phrase then. Incredimals: animals that provide us with fascinating insights into the complexity of nature’s diversity, but that we overlook because, well, they’re all over the bloody place. Here’s five off the top of my head…

Woodlice – turn over a bit of wood and you will see these animals, crustaceans (we all remember this from school). What’s always impressed me though is that this crustacean is such an important decomposer – yet it’s an imposter, an aquatic astronaut (terranaut?) still at the top of its game in The Age of Insects. Bravo.

Woodpeckers – here you have a beak evolved for picking insects out of bark, but that later evolved into a tool for drumming, for declaring territory and sexual prowess. I love how sex has picked up on this behaviour and used it to meet its ends. The noise certainly carries better than some birdsongs.**

Aphids – sex is pretty central to the theory of natural selection, but aphids like to mix things up by also practicing parthenogenesis. If one finds a nice uninhabited plant, then they multiply to conquer. You would if you could.

Swifts – animal migration is an incredible thing but don’t forget that swifts, maybe more than any other bird, have evolved to become masters of the air - they eat, drink, mate and sleep in the atmosphere above.

Mallards – sure, peacocks tails are impressive examples of sexual selection, but you can see the same iridescence on mallards at this time of year, and for the same reason. Very nice too.

So there it is. Let us come together, as people who love wildlife, and spread the word about these incredible examples of evolution, that you can find just outside the backdoor.

Turn off the telly, log-out from YouTube and scream it from the rooftops: “European wasps! European wasps! European wasps!…”

Egg hunting…

So what else is happening this week? I’ll tell you: newts.

If you have a garden or school pond now is great time of year to find out more about the newt species that may be present. The best way to do this is with a torch. Go out before bed and carefully scan the pond edges with your torch looking for this amphibian in the midst of its courtship rituals.

Unlike the raucous mating of the common frog and common toad, newt mating behaviour is a much more measured affair. Males stand proudly in the open, near the bottom of the pond and when they see a female they carefully waft pheromones towards her with sensual flicks of the tail. Patient observers may even see the gentle transferral of a spermatophore from male to female. He drops it, she picks it up. The female uses this packet of sperm to fertilise her eggs internally, before laying more than 500 eggs individually on submerged pond plants.

You can report your sightings to The Great Easter Newt Hunt – www.arguk.org

Funding opportunities for wildlife projects…

Here’s some funding schemes that might help you with school ground development projects. Check the deadlines though – they’re approaching…!

SITA Trust Enhancing Communities Programme - Fast Track Fund (Max. Value: £ 10,000) - www.sitatrust.org.uk/community-funding

Support is provided for community projects in qualifying areas of England, Scotland and Wales. The type of projects supported include improvements to nature areas and community spaces (allotments, school grounds, village halls).

Bernard Matthews Fund (Max. Value: £ 2,000)

Financial assistance is available to voluntary and community groups for projects that address a clear need and where they will make the most impact. I’ve never used this one – if anyone has used this scheme, and would like to provide feedback please do so below!

Lastly, I just wanted to apologise for the gap in blog posts recently – I have no excuses, except excuses. I hope to get back in the swing with updates each week or two!

Enjoy what nature’s got out there for you – this blog has been written to a wonderful melodious background provided by dunnocks, blackcaps, swallows and blackbirds in the backyard. What a lovely time of year this is.


* It doesn’t really mean that. The genus name Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning 'to burn,' because of these stinging hairs, and the dioica means 'two houses' because the plant usually contains either male or female flowers.

**What I really love is that at some point in the woodpeckers’ early evolution, female proto-woodpeckers must have started getting more interested in the noise of male woodpeckers pecking the bark, rather than their ‘songs’. Can any ornithologists elaborate perhaps? Their early birdsongs must have been truly awful if so.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Passion or sex: what motivates nature writers? (and can we jar it up and sell it to schools…)

This week’s review discusses nature writing – what it is, why we humans seem to like it, and how we can help seed other budding nature writers. There’s also a bit of a search for resources online to help you.

Bizarrely, I spent the whole of World Cup 2002 sat on a sofa typing up the life-histories of 5,000 authors. Why? Well, I was trying to work out whether or not writing could have evolved through the process of sexual selection, the same process that drives the fancy male peacock’s tail or the horns of male stag beetles.

The question I was trying to answer was this: could writing, or story-telling (or any form of human creativity), have evolved as a way for human males to show off to females how good their genes are? Could big brains and creativity be like men and Ferraris? (“Look at me, I can afford to run an expensive car! / brain!”).

It’s one theory behind the massive increase in brain power that humans have seen in their two million year history, and I was to investigate it as part of my studies. Plus I could do it from a chair, in front of the football. Everyone’s a winner (except the England team - it was a World Cup year after all).

In many mammal life-histories, the production of testosterone increases the things associated with sex. So in my studies of authors I was hoping to see, when males reached their mid-twenties (which is a bit of a sexual peak), a huge surge in book production. I could almost hear the metaphorical slapping of fist on chest with each book published.

The large number of authors included in my study, from a variety of cultures, was supposed to offset societal complications, like paying bills and child care.

So, was it a success? Is creative-writing a gift from evolution, or specifically, through sexual selection? Is the writer Richard Mabey really that inspired by nature, or is he secretly hoping to sow his wild oats throughout his female readership… (Bloody hell, I hope he never reads this).

Of course, no. Nothing much came out of my study –I was wasting my time. No, writing is about something else. It’s a human adaptation that’s hard to put in a box, to explain rationally, let alone with data. Plus there's the obvious point that women and men are equally blessed with such skills.

I can see now that writing can’t be simplified in the crude boundaries of sexual selection or human evolution. It transcends this, and offers us more somehow – a way of communicating feelings that our brains can’t allow through other senses? It flows out of many writers like water, sometimes unstoppably. Perhaps our creativity is a handy by-product of another adaptation (like big brains needed for community-living)? I must confess this is one of those areas of human evolution that still baffles me…

I think about my failed research every time the subject of nature writing comes up. To those that love it, nature is the ultimate muse – mainly because there’s something in nature for everyone: lust, anger, family, love, sex. Whatever your mood you can find an outlet. And nature writing is turning into big business (comparatively speaking!) in the conservation arena.

It’s on this note that I refer to BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writer of the Year competition in this month’s issue. This competition is open to anyone and everyone – published or unpublished. Why not consider giving it a go this year?

So, what is nature writing?

What is it all about then? The first rule is, well, there aren’t any rules. It’s all about expressing how nature makes you feel. It comes in many forms: symphonies, sonnets, novels, phonological observation or simple scrawlings (my favourite).

I use it (as readers of this blog have no doubt worked out) as a sort of therapy. I download my thoughts, worries, concerns and inspirations about nature and, hey-presto, I feel better. Nature writing stirs up feelings within me that normally only occur when I’m outdoors. It leaves me happy to be alive.

There are some seriously amazing nature writers out there. If you want to see some of the best, most heartfelt examples, I’d recommend reading Richard Mabey’s numerous books (or his column in BBC Wildlife Magazine) or Simon Barnes (of the Times). Another favourite of mine is Paul Evans. Google these people, take a punt on one of their books. You’ll see what I mean.

You could also get a grounding in nature writing by reading about the greats: John Clare, Gilbert White, Rachel Carson or E. O. Wilson.

But don’t let these people make you think this is how nature-writing is done. Anything you write about nature is ‘nature-writing’. It’s not like you get a certificate in the post – we can all be nature writers. So write about whatever it is about nature that moves you. And make sure you’re honest. Oh, and do it when you’re ready. Don’t push it – it’s got to feel natural.

How can we get more nature-writers?

I think that if nature writing was even more of a national past-time we’d have greater passion for wildlife conservation in this country. Maybe it’s something we should be teaching at a younger age? Let me go even further: let’s teach nature-writing in schools. (English teachers take note).

Here’s some advice that young nature-writers could take on board:

1. Write things down: The best ideas, thoughts or observations are the ones that pop into your head when you’re doing something else; but like butterflies they’re fluttery things – they’ll disappear if you don’t write them down. So get yourself a notepad and a pencil and have it in your pocket at all times. When you’re feeling in the mood for writing, reach for your notebook, scan the pages and pick a topic or an observation you’ve made recently. All nature writers rely on this method.

2. Make time for writing, but don’t push it: In chick-flicks, girls seem to write in their diary before getting into bed. Make it this way with nature – both forms of writing are invariably about love. If you set aside some time which is yours each day or week -almost like Buddhist contemplation- you will have time to keep the nature part of your brain serviced and nourished. Having said this, don’t push it. If you sit there and nothing’s happening in your head, then what you pen will be strained, and it won’t be natural. Do something else.

3. Read other people’s work: Reading other people’s work can help you get a feel for the variety of forms of nature-writing out there. You might then notice that your own nature-writing find its own direction in terms of style. When you’ve found your own style you’ll find the words come more easily and you feel more ‘you’ – you’ll be left feeling more satisfied when you write like this.

4. Get out there: This is the golden rule for nature writing. If you are wanting to write about how nature makes you feel then you need to get out there and feel it for real. It might be that you use your nature writing as a diary for your learning about nature (this is still how it is for me). Everyone loves a journey.

So there we have it. Some bits of advice that might, or might not, prove useful. Let me know if you’ve got any other comments or titbits of support to offer young nature writers. Add them below.

The BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature Writer of the Year competition is now open and you can find out more about it here. The closing date is 30 April 2011. You can see last year’s finalists here.

What else is on the web to help you become a nature writer?

If you’re keen to do a bit of nature writing yourself, or to inspire other nature writers (Do any English teachers read this blog?) then sadly there isn’t many online resources to help you. I was quite shocked at how little there is actually.

One site that is pretty good though is The John Clare Cottage (John Clare is one of history’s finest old-school nature writers). The site has a number of teacher’s resources aimed at helping you incorporating nature writing into your workplan, particularly if you want to approach nature writing from a historical viewpoint.

I was encouraged to see that there’s a Festival of Nature Writing (it was last week!), where writers (speaking!) included Richard Mabey and Patrick Barkham (author of the fantastic The Butterfly Isles which I’m reading at the moment). A diary date for you next year perhaps…

Nature writing doesn’t have to be flouncey or particularly lyrical. One blog that I really like is Arkive’s – where sometimes wildlife conservation is given a human face through stories from scientists, posted on their blog. This week’s Finding the Rubbish Bin Frog is a great piece, summing up what it’s like to discover lost species of frog all over the world.

Lastly, can birds be nature writers? Hmmm… the BTO this week posted a link to the only birds to feature on the social network, Twitter (fitting eh). It’s at: http://www.birdsontwitter.com The birds punch letters on a suet-soaked keyboard, then someone submits the bird’s random punchings as Tweets (message postings). It’s sort of like a modern take on Skinner’s rats. Can we expect Shakespeare from our avian wordsmiths? No. But it’s less cruel than a room full of monkeys chained to a fleet of typewriters I guess.

Right, I’m off to get a big jar of Nutella and see if my backyard birds fancy giving me some ideas for next week’s blog.

Until then, happy writing! Jules

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Birdsong: understanding the mind of mother nature (and why pigeons love girls called Emma or Gemma).

In this week’s review you can find out tips for improving your mental well-being while taking the bins out, why wood pigeons all love my wife, and how learning birdsong can be a inspiring way to show others that unusual nature is all around us, all the time, wherever we are.

Go to your nearest window now and open it. Or if you’re reading this outside, then pause. Wait. Wait. There! Between the noises of cars, planes and rattling earphones. Again, hear it? Birdsong. Woohoo! Nature’s sex engine is starting to rev... !

So what am I hearing as I type this…? Hmmm…Oh, there! The blurted digital computations of a wren from deep within the bushes. And what was that…? A trickling robin’s song on the top of a conifer. Oh, and there... a few chords of blackbird, like the backing track to a game of cricket in Midsomer.

Knowing a few bird songs can be a great way to inspire others, and inform them that wildlife events –often unusual, sometimes violent- are happening around us all the time as we humans go about our normal business. Picking up on birdsong can be a great foundation for young naturalists.

What's so good about knowing a few bird calls?

Nowadays I use birdsong as a way to get a free pick-me-up from nature (a fleeting “Ohh, green woodpecker.” whilst taking the bins out). It’s a nudge in the ribs from Gaia for when I’m getting too fixated on checking my emails or channel hopping.

Birdsong urges me to look at the real world (as opposed to the Real World).

I didn’t use to be this way about birdsong. I used to be adamant that birds were over-rated, and that it was the weirder stuff (bugs, fossils) that was where it was at. I assumed that birdsong was just, well, birdsong. Ah ha, no. Since opening my ears to birds my faith has been shaken, because listening to birdsong is something you can do anywhere: cities, farms, parks, heathlands, forests, airports, supermarket carparks. And it’s free. It’s like having a Google News Alert sent to your phone. “NATURE ALERT: Behind you, in that tree. Nuthatch.”

The point of birdsong

But birdsong is about more than just getting a quick nature fix. In fact, it’s got nothing to do with us humans at all. Birdsong is biological. Natural selection went for it because it helped birds communicate their genetic wares to other (normally female) members of their own species. If bird species didn’t sing their individual songs, female and male birds would be wasting energy investigating each and every calling bird in a territory. Natural selection abhors the wasteful. No, far better for birds to sing a special song that only members of their own species knows.

And it’s not all about sexual adverts (although it sort of is in a convoluted way). Birdsong is also a way to show off a bird’s territory. Prime real estate may contain a range of things that female birds want for their future chicks: they like male birds that have access to plenty of food, hiding places, and nest sites protected from predators and too much sun. By singing, males are declaring to females that the territory is theirs - that they own such things. But males respond to songs too; some will move on, while some will challenge the resident male for ownership of the spoils. So, as well as being purely an advertisement for female birds, birdsong is also a way for males to show other males that the spoils are theirs. It’s a sort of species-specific twang that says “Bugger off”, but in a way that females find sexy.

So that’s what’s behind birdsong. But you probably know all this. In many ways it’s elementary. It wasn’t for me though. I really wish someone had told me it earlier. I’d love to have learnt some bird calls at primary school, to have understood the point of birdsong, or to have been able to at least appreciate that May was when the dawn chorus was at its peak, and on the slide hereon after. Birdsong, this free bit of audio pick-me-up, might too have helped me during my period of teenage angst (instead I turned to Dawson’s Creek…), and it might have made me a lover of birds at a younger age. This is something I now regret immensely.

It’s powerful stuff, birdsong.

What can you do to inspire others to listen to birdsong?

So what can environmental educators do to help others learn to appreciate birdsong? Well, learn some songs for a start. Thankfully resources exist for this purpose. The RSPB website has a handy ‘call playback’ facility for each and every UK bird. BBC Wildlife Magazine has a lovely article (it’s out now – grab it!) by Mark Cocker, and they point to www.xeno-canto.org as a great online resource for birdsong. (The magazine article itself is fantastic, outlining such things as how the musical traditions of long-dead human cultures are still being played back to us through the mimicing abilities of some birds, like the Albert’s lyrebirds. Incredible.)

If it’s CDs of UK bird calls you’re after then I am a big fan of ‘Songs of Garden Birds' which is nice and clear – I listened to this in the car for months. If apps are more your thing then there are plenty available for your iPhone, or via Android Market. Muck about with them whenever you can, and then go and try it out for real. My friends used to test me in the pub, which is fun (in a sort of "is-it-banter-or-bullying?" kind of way).

Another good tip is to make your own mnemonics about bird calls, or mentally describe what each call reminds you of. This is a great way for your brain to make quicker and firmer connections between neurons, so that within months recalling birdsong becomes more effortless, and automatic to you.

With this in mind, to me (but not others I’m sure), blackbird song is like a jolly flute player; robin song is water-like; chaffinch is like a bowler getting ready to throw a bowling ball; willow warbler song is like a sleepy drunk man who is slowly realising no-one’s listening. One year we had a wood pigeon sit on our chimney echoing into our bedroom each morning: “We… all… love… Emma. We… all… love… Emma. We… all… love… Emma.” My wife (Emma) can no longer look one in the eye.

These sound ridiculous, but that’s fine. Bird calls can be personal. These personal stories helped me mentally file away each call correctly in my addled brain, and I can still remember each and every one each spring as a result.

Learn some showpiece calls

If you really want to inspire young naturalists, my advice would be to learn the calls of some showpiece birds at least. These are the ones you’ll pull out of the air and everyone will be amazed. Start by trying to learn the more unusual-looking (but common) birds by their calls. You’ll be amazed how many are about.

Here’s my top five amazing birds that you'll realise are all over the place once you've mastered their song:

1. Green woodpecker - listen out for a loud cackling laugh (called a 'Yaffle'). Green woodpeckers often do this as they fly out of trees and along exposed areas.
2. Long-tailed tit - like the tinkling of tinny broken whistles coming from all sides of you. Long-tailed tits fly (throughout autumn and winter) in noisy small flocks.
3. Greater spotted woodpecker - apart from the drumming of beak on wood in spring, you can often hear the sharp angry "PIK" as greater spotted woodpeckers make their way busily between the branches of trees. Learn it, listen for it. You'll realise these colourful birds are all over the place.
4. Swift - "SCREAAAAACH" "SCREACHHHHHHhhh" - this is one of those calls you hear once, and realise you've been hearing it for years whilst you sat in beer gardens or drank rose in the garden (just me? Ok then). Look overhead when you hear this and you'll see swifts surfing the nothingness above.
5. Goldfinch - these birds look far too colourful to be common but, if you learn the jangly sound of their manic bell-like chirps, you'll realise that they're all over the place. Beautiful, and forever happy-seeming little things.

I never knew such birds lived so close to us.

So there you have it. A guide to getting more from birdsong. Anything I’ve missed? Any other tips? As always, add me your comments and suggestions.

Simon Barnes (in the excellent How to be a bad birdwatcher) has a lovely bit about birdsong where he says something along the lines of: only by learning the instruments of the orchestra, can we understand the mind of the composer. An unbeatable metaphor. On that note, happy listening!

So what else is going on this week?

Nature guide to the seasons…

If all this talk of birdsong has got you in the mood for learning about seasons, you might like to know about the Field Studies Council's new guide. The fold-out laminated Guide to the Seasons follows in the mould of all FSC guides – in other words, it’s clear, concise and field-friendly. Perfect for nature-learning.


Ever heard of The EUROPARC Federation? No, me neither, but apparently they have a neat programme called: Alfred Toepfer Natural Heritage Scholarships . The award provides young European conservationists with €3000 to undertake a study visit to one or more protected areas in European countries other than their own. And guess what? They count under-35 as ‘Young’. Even I can apply!

Citizen Science – get out there and hunt for the underdogs

If you finished the RSPB’s Big Birdwatch the other week and found yourself thirsty for something a bit weirder then there is a place for you. The nation will be going Oil Beetle crazy later this spring when Buglife (through the excellent OPAL scheme mentioned previously on this blog) launch their Oil Beetle Hunt. Oil beetles get their name because when they’re disturbed they release oily droplets from their bottom. Leafhoppers, however, just jump the hell away. You can survey for them by joining the Auchenorrhyncha Recording Scheme (name change anyone?). These little-recorded species need your help – why not make them the theme of a nature club sessions and try and find both at once? Better still, why not add in searches for stag beetles, bees and stick insects for that matter). Phasmidtastic.

Right, I’m off to get my pond ready for the arrival of my frogs and newts. (You can pass on sightings of these species to Froglife and ARG-UK, and report your spawning dates to Phenology.org). Right, my heads about to explode.

Happy birdsong, Jules

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A wifi-cloud spotters' guide to the future of wildlife education

This week's review sees us travel into the future, where pupils can scan wildlife, like barcodes, to identify species and where wi-fi access underpins all outdoor learning. We ask "Is this the end of the Age of Discovery and the dawn of the Age of the Ipad?" Plus (back to reality) there's lots on discovering more about forests, and information on getting your nest boxes up in time for National Nest Box Week.

Permit me to paint you a picture of the future. Possibly an alternative reality, or something like that, where Britain’s nature reserves have become even better places for the public to see and understand wildlife.

In our alternative future school children on a fieldtrip empty out of their bus (yes, there’s still buses ok), eye up the gift shop for later (them too) and look forward to a day’s learning. The educational ranger hands each pupil a ipad-like tablet (complete with scanner) and off they go into the woods…

First stop for the children: a tree-top walk. The pupils ascend into a beautiful canopy arena, while their eyes remain glued to their tablets which busily assimilate a newsfeed of all of the birds within 100 metres. The tablet collates the bird list by picking up their calls in the dense foliage.

Next the pupils coalesce at a viewing platform 100 metres high. Here they can connect, via wi-fi, to see live camera feeds of every nest in the woodland on their tablet’s screen – camera-feeds mean that every pupil will get to watch a bird hatching, in real time.

Near the front, some of the keener pupils check Google Ring Maps, to see if any unusual ringed birds are making a pass of the viewing platform…

Time continues to pass in our alternative future. Next, the pupils file down to a pond. Here they walk down stairs into an underground cavern beneath the pond, and are able to look up through the pond’s bottom at the creatures in the water. Each pond creature has had a special gene inserted so that the pupils can scan each animal, barcode-like, with their tablet before Google Chrome(asome) provides species, genus and all the rest of the answers…

Ok. And we’re back. Yes, back to the relative safety of this blog. So what picture am I trying to paint with my future vision? Well, it’s an exaggerated version of where I feel we’re in danger of going with some of our wild places. I think we could forget about discovery of nature and focus too much on learning. Let me explain...

You can see nest box cameras at many nature reserves. You can walk through treetop canopies at some (and very nice they are too). But do these expensive techniques really inspire enough new nature lovers to justify the expense? Are we removing the mystery of nature a bit, and providing kids with all the answers too soon?

My alternative future might not be right on the mark, and sure, the other bits (scanning species genes, Google Ring Maps, underground pond safaris) aren’t commonplace yet, but I guarantee you these things have been discussed, or they’re in the pipeline somewhere. Handheld tablets for site visitors? It’s been done by many organisations already, including (successfully I should say) by the wildlife charity Froglife.

Exciting as this sounds though, I wonder if it’s dangerous for us to invest as a society too heavily in this area if it’s naturalists and conservationists we’re after. Although these techniques make nature accessible to everyone (particularly tech-savvy young people) and are clearly of benefit in learning (particularly for large groups), we shouldn’t bank everything on them.

For a start they can be costly long-term (tree-top walks decompose just like the trees, albeit a bit slower!) and don’t get me started on the IT side (as we all know software dates quickly and badly). Pond-dipping platforms also decompose eventually. Do we really need them too?

This was brought up this week by my former colleagues at Froglife. Schools invariably want them for their ponds, but are they really the best use of money, as ‘safe entry-points’ to the underwater world, or as platforms for ecological surveying? Pond Conservation’s Jeremy Biggs’s excellent The Garden Pond Blog underlines this point really well.

Although I agree that technological feats have a place, and novel ways to get up close with nature, like tree-top walks or pond-dip platforms, have a place, let’s not forget about the inspirational power of the teacher in all of this. We need more of them, somehow...

(In the future world I tried to paint, this inspirational teacher will be the one who’s got the young naturalists looking at the dead bugs on the windscreen of the bus, or gazing at the wasps chewing on the wooden handrails of the tree top walk - the places that the IPad can't reach!)

Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring, and a bit of an inspirer of humankind herself) summed it up rather well: “It is not half as important to know, as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” In other words, it’s the discovery that’s the magic, not the knowledge.

My fear is that, in the future, it’ll be the ipads doing too much of the discovery…

Handy pointer to Forest Schools

So it’s here that I point to the Forest School initiative. You’ve probably heard about it through a friend of a friend, or read some nice press. It’s a lovely approach to teaching, pioneered by the Scandinavians. More and more schools here appearing to be taking notice.

The rules are simple. Get a forest, get the pupils learning there, and help them learn in their own way; steering them to make learning associations and pursue their interests themselves, and largely through play.

It’s all about discovery (of course) and there’s lots of information at: http://www.forestschools.com. Here you can find out how to set them up, where your local Forest School is, and how to get trained-up (there are five levels of Forest School teachers, don’t you know).

To update Wordsworth’s famous quote: “Let nature be your guide (not your ipad).” Amen.

Some resources about learning about forests

So what else is going on this week? Well, here would be a good place to squeeze in a special mention to Mission:Explore. This educational application allows members to post outdoor ‘missions’ in outdoor spaces, and encourage other members to go out and do them. Again, discovery is what it’s all about.

There are lots of forest-based missions on the (packed) map, including: “Go and sit on the lowest branch on this tree” or “draw a 360 panorama sat under this tree.” There’s a real guerrilla charm about the Mission:Explore website, even if it’s just about getting ideas for entertaining the kids at half-term.

If you want more ways to let the forests do the teaching, there are other resources to help. I had a little rant last week about the Forestry Commission, but they do have a few resources for your perusal. You can find these here.

Another organisation that can provide you with resources is the Forest Education Initiative, which has a sackful of educational resources, mainly focused on how wood gives us nature-friendly woodland and, through management, everyday wood products like errr…. nest-boxes.

National nest-box week

Ah, talking of nest boxes don’t forget that next week is National Nest Box Week. This lovely initiative (which is also a neat bird monitoring tool for bird conservationists, the British Trust for Ornithology), encourages everyone to make and put up bird boxes in preparation for spring. On the website there’s guidance on making bird boxes, and importantly, how to monitor which birds may be using the box when egg-laying starts soon. It all kicks off on Valentine’s Day (when else?).

As always, I am up for hearing your comments, feedback and other pointers for helping environmental educators stay connected to what’s going on in the wildlife conservation scene.

Now’s the time to get inspired, particularly as the days lengthen and nature’s loins start to stir! (Hmmmm….I’ll leave you with that rather weird image).

Until next week! Jules