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: 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 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 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: 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.