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

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Forests sell-offs and the panic attack in the zoo canteen

This week's review tackles the enormous issue that is the forest sell-off, and asks who benefits from us keeping our forests? Everyone? Or just celebs and the car-driving middle classes? Plus there's stuff on wetlands, and more on citizen science surveys...

I must be one of a minority of people to have had a panic attack at Twycross Zoo. It was a few years ago. My wife nipped off to the loo, and I sat alone in the canteen then… BANG… Cold sweats, heart palpitations and a feeling of being overcome with worry and, well, impending doom.

Thankfully I’ve never had a panic attack since, partly because I took to writing my troubles down. So forgive me if I put into words some worries that I have about one of the big conservation stories of the last few years: the Government’s big forest sell-off.

It’s an enormous deal: The Sale of Our Crown Jewels, the loss of our places of legend, our heritage – and the public response has certainly had the government on the ropes. It seems like every day the government’s been weaving, bobbing and, twisting its stance after each day’s onslaught by campaigners and celebrities. (DEFRA keeps releasing a series of ‘MYTHS ABOUT THE FOREST SALE: DUBUNKED’ postings, that have a distinctly Orwellian ring to them).

So what’s my concern? Well, first of all let me say this: I AM SUPPORTING CAMPAIGNERS ON THIS ISSUE! In fact I urge you to go to the 38 Degrees website right this minute and encourage your local MP to think carefully about this issue before they vote tomorrow (2nd February). It takes three minutes, honestly – go do it now. I'll meet you back here.

Ok, for those that haven't been waylaid, I’ve been a bit concerned about the publicity that’s been surrounding this issue, and the celebrity forest endorsers that keep coming out of the woodwork (so to speak). They say things like: “Hands off our forests!” or “These forests are ours! We love them and we’ll stand by them!”

So where’s my beef? Well, I worry that this type of talk paints an alternative reality of our woodlands, and public access to them. Yes, some of the car parks are full on weekends, but how about the rest of the time? Does the man in the street really feel like those forests belong to him (or her)? Do most people really know where their nearest Forestry Commission site is, or are the people filling the carparks repeat visitors? Who do these forests really belong to? Celebs and (dare I mention…) the middle classes? Rightly or wrongly these questions keep popping into my head.

I’d like to see it mentioned somewhere that access to Forestry Commission sites has not been good enough at the present time, and I’d argue that they’re not accessible for everyone in this country – particularly those in urban areas. We need to do even more than just save them. We need to improve access to them. So I guess I’m sad to see so many of the campaigners sound like they’re fighting to keep things the same. It just seems like a missed opportunity somehow…

Also, it shouldn’t be forgotten that our forests are rarely free: the car park charge the Forestry Commission introduced a couple of years ago killed off that notion, and few people are realistically going to get public transport (buses) to such sites. And talking of public transport, the rising cost of bus-hire puts the use of such forests for field trips out of reach of all but the richest and nearest schools (certainly that’s the opinion of teachers I’ve spoken to).

I’m not blaming the Forestry Commission here – there’s no doubt that reaching communities is (was?) one of their aims, but we shouldn’t over-egg how near they were to meeting the challenge they were facing. The forests aren’t (or weren’t…) full enough, otherwise the Government’s proposal might never have got traction in the first place.

Even if the forests are ‘saved', we’ve got our work cut out for us. So let’s add this to the debate! Celebrities unite! We don't just want to keep our forests, we want them to be better, and for everyone!

(Ahhhhhh…. and relax. That’s it. Rant over. Thanks for letting me put this into writing (and reading this far no-less - wow). Ah, I feel better already. Look at me, safe to go back in the Twycross Zoo canteen once more).

So, what else is going on this week...?

Water way to learn about wetlands

Well, first of all tomorrow (2nd of February) is World Wetlands Day – a global celebration of the power of wetlands. You can find out more about the initiative on the RAMSAR site but for good educational resources you could go no better than visiting the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, who are committed to the conservation of wetlands. Lesson plans and other downloadable resources are available, and I’ve heard many people raving about their KS2 Great Pond Safari. Find out more here.

Incidentally, wildlife conservationists often try to quantify the positive impact that wildlife conservation has in terms of the economic benefits to society. This is particularly the case for wetlands, since so many of us depend on water for life, and livelihoods. There’s a nice summary of the power of wetlands here from today’s Guardian – remember it, it might make a great case study, if forests aren’t your thing.

Recording more species in your backyard!

With the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch over for another year don’t forget that other wildlife spotting initiatives are available, notably from OPAL, the Open Air Laboratories Network (coordinated by the Natural History Museum). If you’re up for surveying soil, air or water, your (or your group’s) observations can help scientists understand where wild things may (or may not) roam in this country. If I haven’t said it before, surveying is a superb activity for young people to get involved in, and OPAL packages these activities up perfectly.

Well, that’s about it for this week. I’m off to go and print this out and stick it into my Worry Diary, just like I promised my therapist I would.


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Note to self: “There is a wider world that doesn’t care about nature conservation. Yet.”

This week’s review tackles dirty websites, how to identify centipedes without burying yourself in books, and argues why the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch is worth an hour of your life, even if it does mean you’re likely to be couped up indoors and not experiencing the great outdoors like Chris Packham wants you to… (Oh, and there’s a weak analogy about chips in there too).

A friend of mine regaled to me an anecdote about childbirth this week. Not long after seeing his wife go through a twenty eight hour labour, finally giving birth to his first baby boy in the late hours, he (my mate, not the baby) was booted out of the hospital by the midwives. On the way home, starving, he stopped off at a chippie. While waiting for his sausage dinner his brain span, bursting with pride, dizzy with emotion. Overflowing with fresh memories, he quietly mentioned to the chippie when receiving the take-away that he was now a dad. “Congratulations,” said the chippie blandly, dumping the sausage dinner on the counter. “That’ll be three pounds eighty.”

I think wildlife’s a bit like this. Ok, the analogy’s not perfect, but it sums up how the very strong personal emotions and inspiration that nature gives you and me, may be viewed by the masses with a complete and blank disinterest and disregard. Put simply, nature is not everyone’s bag of chips*.

It’s easy to forget this when wildlife is something you’re involved in every day. We should have it on a Post-it note on every desk: “There is a wider world out there that just doesn’t care much about wildlife yet”. It’s true. Ever wondered why wildlife news stories are always on the radio at ten to the hour, not ten past? Why wildlife magazines vie for shelf space in WHSmith with motorbike magazines and sewing journals? Why the three main political parties barely mentioned nature conservation in their (now laughably irrelevant) manifestos?

Wildlife conservation is just not a big issue in the public conscience. After all, the RSPB has over one million members - what about the other 61 million members of our (big) society?

The truth is, we’re making inroads, but we have a long way to go in order to make a conservation-savvy society. That’s why it’s so good to see that, every now and then, there’s a wildlife conservation project that breaks into the public conscience.

A wildlife project your mum’s heard of…

Hats off then to the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch. This classic ‘citizen science’ bird recording project has been running 30 years and every year pulls in 280,000 people, each of whom records observations of garden bird species in a one hour slot over the last weekend in January. “Yes, yes, 280,000 people is still only half a percent of the entire UK population”, I hear you say, but it’s a start. You can realistically expect to hear this one mentioned occasionally by strangers on the Tube, on a bus or, well, in the chippie.

So this year give it a go, if only for the excuse to sit down in your living room uninterrupted for an hour. You can register at: www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

Big Schools Birdwatch…

Garden Birdwatch’s sister project, the Big Schools Birdwatch, runs from the 24th of January to the 4th of February. The premise is the same: watch birds, record birds, relish birds, and the RSPB website is full to the brim with KS1 to KS3 resources. Plus there’s a neat addition where you can view, and interrogate, your own classroom results. Fantastic stuff – highly recommended.

Of mice and birds, and unidentified centipedes...

The question is: do the RSPB mind if I also record the field mice, the newest of my birdfeeder visitors? (Another Post-it for me this week: “clear seed detritus away from feeder before family next visits”).

In fact, if you do see strange birds or mammals during your classroom birdwatching (or any weird species in your schoolgrounds for that matter) then don’t forget about the excellent I-Spot. This cracking web resource, courtesy of the Open University, allows users to upload wildlife photos, and get other community members to identify them. Superb for those hard to key minibeasts!

Dirty websites…

Further evidence that there’s a whole world of wildlife waiting for the mainstream to discover comes courtesy of Project Dirt. This website aims to bring like-minded people together to make environmental change happen. If you click on the Projects page, you can see 447 environmental projects waiting for you to tap into if you’re a school or community group based in London.

Field work thumbs up…

Anyone else starting to hear our commoner birds doing some vocal practice laps in the mornings? Yes, spring –the field trip season- is approaching…! In last week’s blog I mentioned the Association for Science Education and their campaign to get science field-trips back on the school agenda. Their report is now released (here) – they’re urging the government to develop a co-ordinated programme of teacher training in fieldwork “to promote a more effective and inspirational approach to teaching science and mathematics using outdoor sites and venues in our towns and countryside”. If you’d like to help them you can get your local MP to sign their Early Day Motion.

Generation X-box

While we’re on the theme of getting young people outdoors, it was encouraging to hear Chris Packham supporting the Kids Closer to Nature campaign (am I being cynical or was this one big advert for Arla Foods?). Either way, getting the message out there that a quarter of young people spend too much time slumped in front of the telly is no doubt a good thing. The publicity also said that kids need more time outdoors with nature. Even if it was sales spin from Arla, it was well intentioned and encouraging.

Criminals can count birds too

Talking of getting the masses to love nature, it was good to read this week that the there’s sixty prisoners who are taking part in this year’s Garden Birdwatch . I must admit that my initial response was surprise. 60? Is that all! What else is there to do in prison except look out of the window? However, on a more serious note, there’s no doubt that a brush with nature is good for the soul, and that there’s new skills, training and confidence to be had by new audiences getting into wildlife conservation. This applies also to those involved in work with disadvantaged young people or those with mental health problems. With this in mind, this week’s funder of the week is the Digbeth Trust (Midlands) which helps community groups develop projects that turn “community ideas into community action” through a variety of grant streams, including those targeting mental health issues.

Ah mental well-being… I’m off to get my bird feeders stacked, my lounge windows cleaned, and find my most comfortable lounge outfit ready for this weekend’s birdwatching…

TTFN, Jules

* this is the weak analogy for which I can only apologise.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Why Hugh Fearnsley Whittington is not a sexy Gaia

This week’s review asks what better stirs people into action: sexy HD wildlife shots from the BBC’s Natural History Unit or Hugh Fearnsley Whittington shouting about the ludicrous state of the EU policy on fishing? Oh, and there’s resources to help communicate the sorry state of our oceans to others, news on funding from Tesco and an introduction to the RSPB’s Classroom Birdwatch. And (in a celebrity special) there’s two mentions of Davina McCall…

I’m going to tell you something weird. I have a recurring fantasy about what happens when you die. I have a theory (without any science to support it) that when you die you enter a de-briefing room where a Davina-esque demigod allows you to see your “best bits”, and interrogate your life’s events for interesting statistics.

These are the three statistics I’d love to know about my own life: i. has there ever been a moment when an animal has assessed whether or not I'm worth eating, without me ever knowing? (Was a bear watching me pass on that lonely walk in Canada? Was it a shark that bumped me from behind while snorkelling all those years ago?). Statistic ii. How many ticks have I had on my body without me ever knowing (ok, this is my own neurosis speaking); and Statistic iii. Would I still be into wildlife if there was no such thing as the BBC Natural History Unit?

This last question pops into my head every time the BBC releases a new ‘ground-breaking’ nature documentary series: a sexy Gaia-porn showpiece like Blue Planet, Planet Earth or, this week’s, Human Planet.

These programmes drip with beauty, and everyone (wildlife fan or not) appreciates them, but they rarely mention the fact that we’re buggering up this sexy planet, and we (not-so-sexy humans) need to do something about it.

Some people argue that this is a missed opportunity when the audience ratings for these Natural History Unit treats are invariably very high. Rarely is there a call to arms - a sad emotional “we have to do something” end to the narrative. The BBC Natural History Unit would argue that these programmes are the step-before; that these programmes underline the beauty and importance of these species and their habitats, and that their TV images inspire, and underpin, the conservation work of others in future. In other words these programmes are the public gateway to high-end environmental education.

The diversity of these approaches to environmental education were highlighted perfectly this week. At the same time that Hugh Fearnsley Whittington, on C4’s Fish Fight, was exposing the ridiculous nature of the EU Fisheries policy that sees half of all marketable fish thrown overboard, the BBC was showing how Homo sapiens have conquered the oceans in surprising ways like surfing, free-diving, and errr... hypnotising sharks. All of this was (of course) in sensual HD.

Did the BBC show us the glorious gory human efficiency with which up to 73 million hammerhead shark fins are cut off on Chinese star-destroyer-esque vessels each year? Of course not. Should they have? Well, I’m sure that they would argue that the thousands of people signing up to the Fish Fight petition, were inspired to try and protect the oceans by watching Blue Planet a few years ago…(Another stat for our heavenly Davina debrief).

This is a paradox known well to environmental educators or fellow wildlife nuts: when inspiring action from others do you start with scare stories about the fate of the planet, or do you invest in wildlife appreciation, and then casually introduce conservation issues at the end of the session?

Resources that exist to teach others about the fate of our oceans, and over-fishing, abound on the internet. For me, the most powerful images are on Google Earth, care of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (for those that don’t know her, Sylvia Earle is the Jane Goodall of the oceans). On this website you can uncover ocean stories, including looking at the disastrous impact of bottom trawling (China is becoming a recurring theme in this blog...).

The Sylvia Earle Alliance website also has an amazing map that shows where declining fish stocks have occured, decade by decade. (Spoiler alert: it’s like watching an army of Pacmen gobbling up pills, across the planet).

Another good website (particularly for younger audiences) is the Marine Conservation Society's, specifically its Cool Seas programme.

Those seeking sweeping changes to the science curriculum to accommodate more ‘sea learning’ could do no worse than read more about the US-based approach called Ocean Literacy. (Thanks to Autumnwatch’s Maya Plass for that one).

If it’s quiet time you’re after, then how about watching ‘End of the Line’ or ‘The Cove’ (which I confess, I still haven’t seen)?

Lastly, if you’re after a bit of training in using the sea for environmental education, then Archimedes Training are offering an OCN Beach Schools Qualification.

Outdoor learning: every little helps…

Thankfully there is no need for heavenly statistics about the value of outdoor learning. Answer: it works. If you don’t believe me here’s an introduction (courtesy of a nice letter in the Guardian this week), and if you want a big review of why outdoor learning has value look at this. This literature review is the Rosetta Stone for why outdoor learning matters; it translates all of the pre-2004 published research about the issue into plain English. (Hint: save a copy for cut-and-pasting the summary into future funding bids!).

In fact, talking of funding bids, Tesco’s Charity Trust aims to help Tesco support the local communities in which they operate. I notice a number of schools (and their environmental initiatives) are on Tesco's list of organisation’s they’ve supported. Their community awards offer between £500 to £4,000 in support for projects.

Rest In Pieces…

On the downside, it looks like the government is pocketing the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. This fund was made up of contributions from the gravel extraction industry. The fund supported lots of wildlife charities in the past, many of them working at a community level with schools. More from the RSPB here

Park life!

Many of these community awards seem to go to primary schools. Where are the secondary schools? If you’re a secondary schools in the southeast you might like to know that the Field Studies Council is on hand to help through a project called Schools in the Park, offering the use of free equipment, and support to make use of nearby parks and open spaces for outdoor learning.

Ready… steady… bird!

Not long to go until the recording-fest that is the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch on the 29th and 30th of January. Even if you don’t know your dunnocks from your doves, this is great fun – and educational to boot. The Big Schools Birdwatch is from the 24th January to the 4th of February – this year’s it’s the scheme's 10 year anniversary! Many happy returns!

Meanwhile this blog returns next week, neurosis-free.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

"How do I get a job working with animals?" (or models?)

This week The Bug explores how to get a job in wildlife conservation, what is a Science Fair, does wildlife conservation actually work, what is the new DDT, and is Chris Packham married?...

A curious thing happened to the internet about six months ago. Google started trying to finish your sentences. For instance, type in ‘Angelina’ and it tries to finish your sentence with ‘…Jolie’. It makes this presumption by looking at what most people on planet Earth type into Google and predicting what you'll write, a process it calls autocompleting.

This makes for some interesting lunchtime fun. Type in “Chris Packham” and you can see that most people finish this search sentence with “married” (or “gay”). Type in “how do I get rid of…” and you’ll see that most people (well, kids) are searching Google trying to get rid of the parental control settings on their internet browser. That or fleas.

Well, the point of all this is because if you type in “How do I get a job working with…” guess what comes up tops? Yep, you guessed it: “…animals”. Incredible. In fact, two of the top ten searched items on this planet are “…working with animals” or “…working with wildlife”. (For interest, “How do I get a job working with models” is also in the top ten*).

So, animals is top of the list then - interesting? Yes. Entirely surprising? No, not for those working in wildlife conservation who have to sift increasingly through reams of graduate CVs that come in for each and every paid position.

The truth is, working with wildlife –certainly paid employment in conservation- is really hard to get. Lots of people want to do it. Lots of people have trained for it, and lots of people have gathered lots of experience to help them get it. But with budgets being shaved on pretty much all sides of the conservation arena, there’s undoubtedly growing numbers of graduates competing for fewer and fewer paid graduate posts.

The RSPB, increasingly the mothership of UK wildlife conservation, this week reminds us of the struggle that graduates face: they have a new project that’s offering eighteen paid graduate places within their science teams, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It can certainly be viewed as a sign of the times when the Lottery is funding paid employment for wildlife conservation, while the government quietly and politely sweeps the curtain back…

I’m undecided as to where, as environmental educators, this puts us? Should we be pushing undergraduates (and sixth formers for that matter) harder, pushing them to take on more and more volunteer work to add nitro to their CV’s and better guarantee them the job at the end, or should we be promoting the notion throughout education (including within university) that good old amateur naturalism is as worthy a pursuit as a paid career?

For me, the truth lies somewhere in between, if you provide enough inspiration, pupils may find some thirst within life for paid, or unpaid, conservation work. They’ll get it where they can. Either way, wildlife conservation wins.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own top-five advice for graduates to get paid work in wildlife conservation (or at least get an interview!):

1. Volunteer – if you haven’t got experience, then get in line. Charities depend on volunteers for a number of things: office work, field surveys, event preparation are but three. It’ll make you stick out to show that you have worked in some capacity for a wildlife charity, volunteer group, or even an environmental consultancy (depending on what sort of work you’re after). Many charities have started special schemes (apprenticeships) offering six month unpaid positions – these can give you a good spread of skills (office / site-based / working in teams), if you’ve got the savings… (ha!).

2. Get admin-savvy: because budgets within wildlife conservation are getting tighter by the day, there won’t be a Miss Moneypenny on hand to sort out your filing, to walk you through the office software or to organise a meeting using Outlook. You’ll need to show you’ve got these skills. They don’t sound like much, but they can help show that you are the sort of person that can fit in, and start working quickly.

3. Try and manage your own project, or show that you ‘own’ something: Consider writing a blog, starting a volunteer group, campaigning on a local issue – anything, as long as it’s yours, and you managed it yourself. If you can manage a project successfully it shows to your future employee that you’re capable of seeing something through, of working with other people and of problem-solving ‘on the job’. It shows them that you’re a known quantity, and that you’re capable. Depending on the project, this sort of thing can shine out on a CV.

4. Don’t fly-CV, and be concise [unlike this blog]: If you’re struggling to come up with reasons why you can do the job you’re thinking of applying for, then give up and invest your energy in a job application where you feel it’s more ‘you’. Also think carefully about honing down your CV, for instance picking out the top three things you’ve done for each of the given skills they outline that they want – almost like a tick list. Punchy, powerful CVs are always better than tomes of single-side gumph.

5. Read the advert: I cannot underline how important this one is. CAREFULLY READ THE ADVERT: if they ask for a covering letter outlining why you’re suitable then do one. Don’t just say: “Dear sir / madam, here’s my CV”. Take note of the deadline too!

(Ok these are just my own modest thoughts, but they might be helpful to someone who has just typed “How to get a job working with…” into Google). Please feel free to add your tips below.

IN OTHER NEWS…Field trips, errr, make the news…

Of course, experience counts for a lot when it comes to CVs, and what better early experiences are there than the biology field trip? Well, it was fantastic to see the Association for Science Education’s message this week that increasing the number of school field trips could help improve children's understanding and knowledge of biology and chemistry.

Science legend Steve Jones sums it up in a lovely piece in the Telegraph:
“I have vivid memories, once I had escaped screaming from my grammar school chemistry lab, of being taken at the age of 14 on a trip to the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Field Centre in Yorkshire; and being enthralled by the possibility, even in the rain, of actually discovering something about animals (fresh water snails, as it happened) in the wild.”

“That first experience of field work formed my scientific career as it has that of many others.” he says.

ASE hopes to bring the field trip back to the centre of the school experience. Next week, it launches a report on the issue at the House of Commons. Good luck to them!

Google does a science fair

Ah, the science fair. That piece of American culture that we in the UK only know of through occasional references in US teenage sit-coms (Saved by the Bell anyone? Anyone?). The idea is that you pick a problem and you solve said problem with a little table display, ideally with a diarama, or a hamster in a mini-blimp. Well, hats off to Google for coming up with an international Science Fair (International? Ssshhhh... just don't mention the Chinese...) for 13-18 year olds. Prizes include expeditions with National Geographic, Google scholarships (worth £25k) and something about Lego. Just don’t ask them what they do with the ideas…

Reasons to be alive…

Didn’t I read that January was one of the most depressing months of the year? Well, here’s one reason to be cheerful. Conservation works. It’s easy to forget that conservation does save species, and that species once on the brink of extinction can be pulled back. A nice summary of conservation success stories can be found here on Treehugger's beautiful blog: You might want to tell others (pupils or colleagues), to help keep their peckers up.

…but not necessarily blind to the challenges
Remember DDT? Course you do, it’s the staple example in biology textbooks of how pesticides can multiply up the foodchain and do massive damage to species, and ecosystems. Well, if you’re looking for a more recent example to discuss with pupils or fellow wildlife fanatics then look no further than neonicotinoids. These pesky chemicals are increasingly thought to be behind recent bee declines. But will the government listen to the science-based arguments from Buglife and The Independent? Answer: probably not yet, so write to your local MP.

Hmmmmmm…MPs working with animals? There’s something you won’t see in Google’s autocomplete listings any time soon.

Until next week, Jules

*answer: grow-up or get a Saturday job in Games Workshop.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Three about trees...

I refer, in my previous post, to the ‘Chrimbo Limbo’, the period when the professional world goes into a sort of hibernation, and where drinking port and wearing knitted jumpers becomes, well, normal. As a result (of the quiet, not of drinking port), here is a rather succinct review of the week’s environmental education news for you, courtesy of this week’s The Bug

New year, new life, saplings sprouting and other new year analogies: If you’ve got a space set-aside for tree-planting but you’re struggling to cover the cost, don’t forget about the Big Tree Campaign. The first 1,000 schools to register on their website will receive a free sapling pack of fifteen native species. The deadline approaches (January 12th)... There are also bigger funding pots available through this campaign, to help your schools become tree-tastic (yes I did just write that) – find out more information here.

And talking of trees…If you’re looking for a global campaign to link your tree-based environmental education exploits to, I’d recommend having a look at information on the UN's Year of the Forest, a neat follow-on from the organismal orgy that was International Year of Biodiversity 2010 (IYB2010). If IYB2010 is anything to go by the Year of the Forest could attract a host of media attention, AND more pots of funding for tree-planting projects, and the usual cornucopia of education resources too.

What you can do with your old Christmas trees:
The tree theme continues. As well as being the Year of the Forest; the year of the Edinburgh trams; the Year of Consequences; the year of the fixed remortgage; and the Year of the Musical Robot (no, I'm not joking), 2011 is also the year to bring insects in from the cold, according to the Telegraph. One way you can help the UK’s dwindling invertebrates is by providing new insect homes in your school. One excellent idea is to cut up your spent Christmas trees and turn them into minibeast paradises – advice and information provided courtesy of Gardener’s World’s garden wildlife guru, Kate Bradbury. Great stuff – an activity I can imagine some schools relishing.

British Science and Engineering Week
One last thing…It won’t be long until the British Science and Engineering Week (11th – 20th March 2011). You can register your activities, and download information resources on their website, and there’s something in there about winning £800 too.

Happy New Year all – may it be one utterly festooned in nature.

- Jules

Extinction lifeline for environmental education fundraisers...

This week, the Bug outlines funding sources available to environmental educators keen to make habitat improvements to their school grounds or community greenspaces...

Well, the 'Chrimbo Limbo' has come and gone, when the malnourished news wires propel a host of "2011 is the year of.." stories. So far, I've seen 2011 quoted as: the year of the tablet; the year of the Edinburgh trams; the Year of Consequences (that'll be Milliband); the year of the fixed remortgage; and the Year of the Musical Robot (no, I'm not joking).

Thankfully nature themes feature strongly this year: 2011 is the UN's Year of the Forest, a neat follow-on from organismal orgy that was International Year of Biodiversity 2010 (IYB2010). If IYB2010 is anything to go by the Year of the Forest could attract a host of media attention, AND more pots of funding for tree-planting projects and funding (more on that later...). There will no doubt be good 'forest based' educational resources that spring up in due course too, as an output of this celebratory campaign.

2011 is also the year "to bring insects in from the cold", as well as being the Year of the Bat. You may also be interested to know it'll be the Chinese Year of the Rabbit (they don't need much conservation help though, God love 'em).

So what's my New Year headline? I'd be tempted to call 2011 "The Year of the Fundraiser". The fundraiser Argento venotoria, a disappearing creature. Once a common and rather plucky species, it is sadly facing a number of threats due to the decline of its food source -funding pots- which are eroding away through mankind's chaotic management of the banking system, the investments on which many grantmaker's depend.

With fewer funding pots, and increasing competition for existing funding pots, this is serious stuff for those seeking financial help in making their environmental education projects a reality. In particular, this may affect the bigger 'wildlife habitat' projects: the pond-dipping platforms, the new allotments and the sensory gardens, for instance.

As the economic downturn bites (and here the analogy with the animal world continues) only the fittest fundraisers will survive and gain financial nourishment. I suspect that these will be the fundraisers that: a. know where the funding pots are; and b, know how to write a good funding application.

So, allow me to help you on your journey by providing you with five funding avenues that can help you get your environmental education projects off the ground.

1. The big funders: Some of your projects may involve large-scale works to your school's (or community) site (such as putting in a new pond, a butterfly bank, or allotment site). The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF - Your Heritage grantscheme, 5k to 50k) is a popular grant-giver for projects like these. They can fund projects that demonstrate that you will improve a local heritage item (e.g. ponds, wildlife, birds etc.), and improve local lives (not just in the school but also in the local community). The application process is rather intense (lots of questions, and likely a couple of face-to-face chats with HLF), a process that can be difficult for some schools to invest in. It could be worth the effort though...

Another big grant giver are the landfill tax credit schemes such as Biffaward and Violia (though I haven't much experience personally with this one). These players invest in local projects (normally within 5-10km from a landfill site) that benefit communities and schools. Again, you have to invest time in the application process, but the rewards (in terms of money generated) might be worth it.

2. The corporate funders: Some multi-nationals have a charitable grant-giving arm (often run by marketeers eager to show off their organisation's ethical beliefs and credentials). These are good pots, and relatively easy to apply for. The two best I know of are: 02's 'It's your community', and the Santander Foundation - both offer grants of over £1k-2k. There are others - in fact if you know of particularly good ones please do add a comments below...

3. The local authority funders: it's no secret that local authorities are bearing the brunt of the recession. Sadly environmental activities have been first to be chopped back for many, being deemed (WRONGLY!) to be a non-essential service. However, all local authorities will have someone (or even a team of people) called 'Biodiversity Officers' or suchlike. Search your local authority's website. These people are excellent contacts to email for information on small local funding pots (not necessarily council run) that could be just the job for your wildlife project. Sometimes these funding pots are undersubscribed - they're waiting for environmental educators like you to make contact!

4. The wildlife charities: Many wildlife charities may be open to working with schools or community groups to help create (and sometimes fund the creation of) special habitats for the species they represent. For ponds (which is where most of my experience lies), there are small funding pots available to create or restore ponds for great crested newts (see Amphibian and Reptile Conservation), or to create new high-quality ponds for other aquatic wildlife (see Pond Conservation's Million Ponds project) - Plantlife too may also be able to help if you're a plant buff. For ponds too it might be worth scanning Froglife's website to see what education projects they have on the go at that given time.

Another great charity is Learning Through Landscapes. Though they can't offer much in the way of grants, they can offer a free advisory service to enhance your plans for your outdoor learning project, possibly making it even more attractive to funders.

5. The local good folks: Yes, you guessed it, 2011 is also the European Year of Volunteering, so you could have a think about what you could get for free from a local volunteer workforce. If you have a project that requires some hard graft (not necessarily money) why not enquire about roping in existing conservation volunteer workforces from local branches of BTCV, the Wildlife Trust or Groundwork.

So there you have it! Five channels open to you if you're trying to get money for environmental education projects in 2011. This is by no means all of them. There are other funding pots out there to help environmental educators make their dreams a reality - please do post comments below if you have recommendations!

Oh, and Happy 2011, may it be your year too. And here's to those rabbits.

- Jules