Friday, 22 May 2015

A Wildlife Outing with Cowdray Estate

If you have ever visited Midhurst in the north west corner of Sussex, you may well have noticed the distinctive egg-yolk yellow painted window frames on some of the brick and flint cottages and heard mention of ‘Cowdray’ in reference to these properties, and of course the famous ruins just a short stroll from the centre of the town. However, you may not be aware that these features are one facet of a much larger entity, the Cowdray Estate. Owned by the Pearson family since 1909 and covering 16500 acres, this large country estate is the principal landowner in the Midhurst area, stretching from the north face of the Downs, including farmland and heathland, and into the wooded weald, with Midhurst at it’s historical heart. The River Rother snakes through the estate, from Wealden greensand to Downland chalk, its banks lined by alder and willow trees. Fly-fishers seek the brown trout in its clean waters; waters which after heavy rains can be tinted by sand, and turbulent under stone bridges.  Veteran trees grace hedgerows between farmland fields and polo lawns, their ancient limbs pointing to the route of historic walks and rides which once saw the passing of royal hunts. On the face of the Downs a seemingly forgotten chalk quarry and lime-works, like a bright white eye, gazes northwards whilst below the edge of the woodland hangers, pheasants are reared. Songbirds and farmland birds flock to these field margins in the cold depths of winter, to take advantage of any grain the game birds can spare.  From the roads and lanes, you may catch a glimpse of carpets of bluebells in May, seas of tawny bracken in September, drifts of snowdrops in January.

5.30 pm on Wednesday 20th May 2015. A small group of four people are meeting beside a Landrover in front of the Cowdray Golf Club, they have just finished a pot of tea and are eager to take their seats in the vehicle, full of anticipation for the evening ahead. One of the four is Barry Martin, the Cowdray Estate’s Wildlife Outings Guide. Another is me.
As we set off there is much chatter about what we would each like to see. Crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife, the secretive inhabitants of the estate, featured heavily on the list; badgers topped the billing, with wild deer and brown hares hoped for.  However, travelling along lanes bordered by wildflowers, over humpback bridges across the Rother, though pretty clusters of cottages and climbing up onto the Downs, the landscape of West Sussex charms us. By the time we are once again standing in a group beside the Landrover, this time gazing out across a beautiful view highlighted by the low sun, we almost feel as though it wouldn’t matter if we saw no wildlife at all.

The field, in which we have stopped, is an oasis of unimproved grassland rich in a bewildering variety of wildflowers. The cowslips are just fading, but the buds of oxeye daisies nod in the breeze. Barry intrigues our imagination with mention of the orchids that will bloom here in the months to come.

A little way from the edge of this field, just where its neighbour meets the single-track lane, a solid stone barn holds the promise of a barn owl in its dark cavity. Sadly the owl is not present tonight. I look back at the view, and find that missing out on a sighting of this silent hunter doesn’t matter any more.
Away to our right, the pale stone of Petworth House glows in the soft evening light. In the far distance the horizon is broken by the whaleback hump of Blackdown, the highest point in Sussex. To our left the patchwork of farmland and woodland stretches into a blue shadowy unknown beneath a breeze-tousled cloud base. Even with my binoculars, I can’t quite pick out my house.

Barry has brought us to this location in search of hares. His knowledge of the estate, obvious through his quiet and patient explanations of the working of the home farms and the extent of the estate’s operations during the drive, is confirmed by the ease with which he leads us to the perfect place for us to lift our binoculars and enter the world of the mysterious Lepus europaeus, the brown hare. There was a scattering of hares across the opposite corner of the field, a group of three together and another further to the left where the green sward met the chalk-pale plough. As the day cooled they were rising from their forms (a shallow scrape in the ground where the hare hunkers down and relies on camouflage as it rests during the day) to graze the spring growth. They were developing their characteristic russet-red coat colour of summer. I drew Barry and our companion’s attention to another animal close to one of the hares. Closer inspection through our binoculars revealed that this too was indeed a hare, but one of such a pale colour that it appeared sandy and white, something Barry had never come across before. It just proves that with wildlife, you can never know what you will see.  Hares are of course most famous for their speed, and we had an armed forces Chinook, practising their low flying operations to thank for our opportunity to see the hares stretch into this characteristic long-legged stride.

A slightly blurry record shot of of the pale hare with a another hare of the usual brown colour to the left. 
The sun is sinking lower in the sky. Time to go in search of badgers. A buzzard hangs, silhouetted on broad wings catching the dying thermal of the hillside as we leave the field. Swifts cut through the air and swallows and martins swoop low over the hedge-lined track ahead of us. Traditional cottages, some the homes of Cowdray employees, stand unimposingly here and there, increasingly frequent as we reach the approaches of the village of Cocking, passing the ancient church and the war memorial which eternally gaze at the South Downs.

The roe doe stares unblinking at us, unsure but not quite disturbed. Barry has stopped the car part way along a rough track a short way after turning off the main road north of Midhurst, almost a footpath at a woodland edge, and was quietly explaining about the different deer species found on the estate and what the Roe deer might be up to at this time of year. The young bucks will be independent now, after almost a year of their mother’s nurture and company, as the does will be expecting to give birth to this year’s kids in the next month. (Roe deer females are called ‘does’, males are ‘bucks’ and the young are ‘kids’.)

We leave the doe to her peace and quiet, and continued some way further along the track until Barry pulled the car up beside an oak tree. He explains the need to talk in whispers from here and gently shuts the car doors with a soft click behind us. We follow him across a field of long grass, dandelion clocks and buttercups, heading towards a line of trees that grow from an old boundary ridge, where we can see a small wooden hide nestled between two oaks. I find I am holding my breath.
The badgers have clearly been out for a while, the tempting treat of peanuts scattered by Barry earlier that afternoon before we all met at the golf club, had mostly all been snuffled up already. It is still daylight, and the hollow the hide overlooks glows softly with green birch and a tapestry of bluebells and bracken shoots. One of the badgers is foraging around a tree stump; another sits down for a scratch. 

They bumble off onto the trees, in the direction of their set hidden beyond the ridge, but soon return to check for any peanuts, worms, beetles or bluebell bulbs they may have missed. One trots off determinedly on a well worn track that disappears to our right, and Barry explains with a chuckle the fastidiously tidy nature of badgers, and how they prefer to use a set latrine location which was probably where that individual was headed.
A black and white striped head pops up in the bluebells to our left, following a path worn clear by countless journeys of broad, thick clawed, five-toed paws over the many generations of badgers at this set.

A Jay flies through the branches, having stolen a peanut or two. From a hidden perch somewhere above out left shoulders, a familiar two-note call reverberates. My first Cuckoo of the year. Other birds are singing too; black bird and wren, and the air is filled with the heady scent of the bluebells. The peace is suddenly disturbed by a loud bark, and a roe buck bounces into view. He has picked up our scent, or perhaps caught sight of a movement, and springs across the dell barking his harsh alarm call. The badgers take this as their cue to head off on their nights adventures, and us in turn as our signal to leave. Even as we reach the car we can still hear the cuckoo’s strange repetitive song.

The sun is setting but none of us are quite ready to head back to the real world just yet. We spend the twilight marvelling at the size and age of the locally famous Queen Elizabeth Oak, a hollow pollard sessile oak in the old deer park near Benbow Pond, and musing over the evening’s experience.

Whilst putting my camera away in the boot of my car after parting with the group back at the Golf Club, I noticed a green caterpillar climbing up the leg of my trousers and carefully transfered it to a nearby bush. As I opened the car door I instinctively paused and glanced upwards to take a last deep breath of the evening air and the flickering flight of a bat crossed the pale gap of sky between the trees. Blackbird song serenaded the thin crescent of the new moon that hung in the sky above Midhurst as I made the short drive through the town to home.

To find out more about Cowdray Estate and the wildlife tours visit:

Monday, 18 May 2015

Inspiration and Influence - a Personal Power List

This week, BBC Wildlife Magazine published their Wildlife Power List, a list of the 50 people thought to be the most influential in wildlife conservation and with the most potential to change the outlook of conservation in the coming years. 
This set me thinking about who and what has influenced my love and knowledge of nature over the years.
Although there are a huge number of names I could include, and this list is by no means definitive and exhaustive, I finally settled on 12 people including a mixture of well known and historical characters as well as a few personal friends. 

Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough was my first teacher. As soon as I was old enough to know how to operate a VHS tape recorder (for younger viewers, VHS tapes or ‘videos’ came before DVD’s or Downloads and you had to rewind them after watching to get back to the start!) my go-to entertainment on rainy days was a copy of Sir David’s ‘Living Planet’, and his commentary became a soundtrack to my early years. From ecosystems to migration to tectonic plates, this laid the foundation of my knowledge of how the natural world worked, and eventually the tapes themselves became over stretched through too many plays and re-winds.
Sir David Attenborough may have been my earliest influence, but he is also my most constant, and continues to inform and inspire me through his life long dedication and tireless attitude to his work and passion.

Stephen Moss
My direct contact with Stephen Moss came only last year, although his extensive work producing nature programs for the TV has had an indirect influence for many years. I was fortunate to be put in contact with Stephen via a mentoring scheme run by AFON, a network for young conservationists, last summer. Since then, in the role both as mentor and friend, Stephen has helped me develop and tweak my nature writing and to view this activity more seriously. On the flip side, the main reason Stephen makes this list is that the pure and simple enjoyment and joy he finds in contact with nature, from the excitement of an unexpected early-morning-cycle-ride barn owl to the daily rhythms of his local patch, reminds me not to take nature too seriously and enjoy it for the pleasure it brings.

Bruce Middleton
Bruce Middleton is a Ranger with the South Downs National Park Authority and is extremely knowledgeable about the nature and the area for which he is responsible, particularly plant-life. I got to know Bruce through volunteering with his team of rangers on the South Downs and Lowland Heath, initially as work experience whilst still at school. His detailed and freely offered facts remind me in every conversation that there is always more to learn. 

Robin Crane CBE
Robin Crane CBE has been a personal friend for many years. We first met through a shared objective – the success of the South Downs Campaign for National Park Status, back in 2007. Mr Crane CBE, a retired cameraman and producer and lifelong naturalist, was chairman of the campaign and I was a 16year old student writing letters to the local press and my local MP, and attending campaign photo-calls. In the years since, Mr Crane CBE has continued to support me as I develop my career, and continually encourages me to keep reaching for the next opportunity.
Mr Crane CBE makes it onto this list as he inspires me through his determination and devotion, including his long dedication to the conservation of lowland heath and the study of a butterfly species that is a specialist of heathlands; the Silver Studded Blue. 

During 2013 and 2014 I was working for the RSPB as a Visitor Services Trainee. During this time, the RSPB were one of 70 organisations to jointly launch the State of Nature report; a key paper of the state of UK’s wildlife. The RSPB produced a short film of beautiful clips of wildlife around the British Isles accompanied by Elbow’s song ‘One Day Like This’. This film was often played as an inspirational endnote at the numerous training courses I attended throughout the 18 month traineeship. The song always brings memories of pond dipping, moth trapping, nightingales and butterflies and inspires me to get up and get out and make the most of the day.   

CF Tunnicliffe
I think I inherited my love of ladybird books, and indeed some of the books themselves, from my Mum. Particular favourites were the ‘What to look for in” seasons series, and that was all down to the illustrations. Originally painted by CF Tunnicliffe, a renowned wildlife artist, these picture were capable of holding my childhood-attention endlessly as I searched out every detail. Even today I am prone to stop when a particular view catches my eye and exclaim that it is “just like a ladybird book picture!”.
It was through these pictures that my interest in rural life and the associated history and traditions emerged, alongside my already growing fascination with wildlife.
Tunnicliffe also illustrated many books by Henry Williamson such as Tarka, a firm lifetime favourite.

Ewan Clarkson
On my bookshelf is a battered paperback: "In the Shadow of the Falcon" by Ewan Clarkson. As a teenager I read this book countless times, along with it’s book-shelf companions “Halic, the Story of a Grey Seal”, and “The Running Deer” and I still turn to them from time to time. Reminiscent of Tarka, my first introduction to nature writing novels, I was captivated by the clarity and detail of the scenes Ewan Clarkson described. The author’s knowledge of the ecology of the book’s subject is very clear, as is his understanding of the relationship of humans and wildlife, as well as the balance between positive and negative aspects of nature. Through Ewan Clarkson’s work I escaped to a world intricately connected with nature in a way our lives are often not these days, and learnt to appreciate the reality of how that nature can be red in tooth and claw.

Emily Williamson & Eliza Philips
These women co-founded the RSPB, determined to protect wild birds from the feather trade. They stood up for their beliefs despite it being against the fashion of the time, despite being women (which at the time meant a lot less freedom), and they prevailed; the RSPB is now one of the largest conservation charities in the UK and continue to have a hugely positive impact on habitat and wild bird conservation. How could I not be inspired?

Roger Barnes
Not famous, nor seeking of the limelight, my cousin Roger Barnes is far from a household name. Except here in my house. I have grown up familiar with stories about and from this older cousin, often receiving emails with photos or comments about exciting wildlife sightings on his latest trip abroad. These trips are as a guide with his wildlife holiday company. However, some stories are not of holiday trips, but expeditions with a very different purpose. In the 1990’s, Roger made many trips into the rainforest regions, searching for protected species, and even discovering long lost species, in order to protect the precious habitat from destruction from commercial logging. In the days before global connection via smart phone and facing dangers of kidnap, and less than welcoming wildlife, this was bravery for a cause. 

Caroline Lucas
Caroline Lucas is best known as an MP for the Green Party and in the recent election was re-elected in her constituency of Brighton Pavilion with an increased majority. But this has nothing to do with party politics. Ms Lucas MP makes this list as she is the only politician who I have known to literally put herself on the line for her beliefs, instead of playing games and hiding behind vague statements or answers they think voters want to hear. The specific issue that brought Ms Lucas MP to my attention was a protest against a proposed fracking site in Sussex, when Ms Lucas MP joined the protesters on the ground and was actually even  (wrongly as it was later proved) arrested whilst standing up for her beliefs and taking action to support her statements

Owen Paterson
Owen Paterson MP may be a name that people are surprised to see on this list. During his time as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson MP oversaw the culling of badgers with the aim of reducing Bovine TB despite scientific evidence that this method would not work and in fact may well have a negative effect on the spread of disease amongst other issues. He also was known to be sceptical about the human impact on climate change and was famous for ridiculous statements, with perhaps his most famous being his ‘the badgers moved the goalposts’ remark. Therefore it may seem strange that a politician with such a negative influence on the UK’s environment would make this list of inspirational people. But every time I hear his name, I am reminded to check my facts!

Bill Oddie
Bill Oddie, you make it onto this list simply as a thank you, for teaching me along with countless other young people, through the medium of TV, how to bird-watch.

I could have included a long list of other names, from Chris Packham to Neil Oliver to my personal close friends. I am certain there will be other names joining the ranks in years to come. 

It has been in interesting exercise to consider what has influenced me, and considering these values and actions has reminded me to live up to and follow the example of these inspirational people, and if I can, take up the baton from them to inspire others.