A Rant About Life and my 'Vision for Nature': Enthusing a generation

Living in modern society is so hectic that the environmental processes that underpin our very existence are often forgotten, undervalued or quite simply ignored. And if this situation continues for much longer, it will not end well for any of us.

If you switch on the news, what do you see? Stories highlighting the devastation caused by human conflict, tales of political incompetence or some load of tosh about the latest celebs to get married/divorced/etc is my guess! When was the last time you saw a feature on the hardships faced by species which are almost always as a result (direct or indirectly) of our intervention?

The 90-99% decline (since the mid-1990s) of Vulture species in India, Nepal and Pakistan has mainly been linked to the use of Diclofenac, a cheap veterinary drug used on cattle to treat inflammation, fever and pain resulting from disease or injury. And guess what? This disastrous drug became widely available across Asia in the early 1990s...coincidence? I think not.

Vultures play a key role in any ecosystem in which they are present - they are nature's bin men. Their exceptionally corrosive stomach acid allows them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with Botulinum toxin, hog cholera and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers. But they are not invincible. The birds were eating the carcasses of animals that had recently been treated with Diclofenac and were then dying of kidney failure.

It has been shown that even if less that 1% of animal carcasses contained lethal levels of the drug, this would have been enough to cause the collapse of vulture numbers. Thankfully, the manufacture of the veterinary diclofenac was outlawed in India in 2006 and this was followed by bans in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Due to the swift action taken by these proactive and clued-up governments, the latest evidence shows that diclofenac levels are beginning to come down and this can only be a good thing for the vulture populations.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are another example of the devastating impact human action can have upon the environment when we play the hand of God and upset the natural balance.

I think that's the rant part of this blog over and done with, but I'm not promising anything.

My Vision for Nature

In an ideal world the environment would be valued so highly by everyone that there would be no need to purposefully protect it, and its importance for both our mental and physical wellbeing would be more than enough for it to be respected and revered in the greatest possible sense without fear of it being put under pressure from developers, loggers, frackers, drillers or otherwise. Unfortunately this is not the case and this needs to change. This is our only planet, and to paraphrase 'The Voice of the Beehive' "We walk the Earth, this is our home". There is no planet B. 

I believe that young people are the way forwards in nature conservation and that the key to making a difference is ensuring that the environment is something they care about. Because if they don't care about it, they won't stand up for it - I mean why should they, what has nature ever done for us?! (I jest of course)...

Children have an innate sense of wonder and curiosity for all things natural, whether it's watching butterflies, digging up worms, racing snails or something else. It is this unconscious connection that we should endeavour to nurture, throughout their childhood and teenage years, in hope that this small spark ignites a life long passion for the natural world!

There are numerous ways in which kids can engage with nature but I think there are 3 main points to remember:

1. Get 'em when they're young. This is the time in their lives when the first seeds of interest are planted.
2. Don't neglect them in their teenage years. It's a tough time and they need all the help they can get. Nature can sometimes act as an outlet for feelings - i know from personal experience that going for a long walk around my local nature reserve can help relieve nerves, anger & stress!!
3. Let them get stuck in. Allow them to climb trees, fall out of trees, jump in puddles, touch nature, run through long grass, roll down a hill, build a den etc...

I would like to focus on point number 3 in particular because I feel that in modern society there is the increased thought that nature is dirty, shouldn't be touched, played with or interacted with in any way other than observing. This is wrong and exactly what washing machines were invented for!

Nature's tough. An ecosystem won't collapse if you dig up a few worms or catch a couple of crabs to hold and touch. So go do it! Please take your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to your local park, nature reserve or green space. See if there are any local events being run such as pond dipping, bug hunting, den building or orienteering.

Other events to keep an eye out for are bird ringing demonstrations. These are a fantastic way of allowing people, particularly those of a young age, to fully interact with nature because quite often the ringers will let you release a bird once it has been processed. Being given the opportunity to study a wild bird at such close quarters is second to none - and that's based on my own experiences.

After almost 3 years of training to become a qualified ringer I still feel immensely privileged and humbled each and every time I extract, ring or process a bird. This is because to me, it is not just another bird...each one is an individual and I find it absolutely mind blowing that the little Reed Warbler I'm holding that has a wing length of 64mm and weighs just 10.6g will migrate all the way to Subsaharan Africa in a ridiculously short amount of time, only to sit out the winter, moult its feathers and then migrate all the way back again next spring...simply amazing!!

Anyway, to sum up what has been a phenomenally long post (congratulations for making it this far), we need passion and emotion with regards to nature, for without that, it is doomed. Any passionate and dedicated naturalists/conservationists with a backbone want to go into politics - I'm sure it wouldn't hurt given the current situation...

Please do what you can to support and encourage any young people you know in interacting with nature because for all you know, your enthusiasm could be just the thing needed to inspire the next Charles Darwin or David Attenborough.

Many thanks for reading and I would really welcome any and all comments/suggestions/feedback on this post or about what your #VisionforNature is.

(Oh and apologies for the really long post - I felt what I've written really needed to be said!)

Birdfair 2014

Birdfair ~ 15th-17th August 2014 ~

Birdfair: the Glastonbury of birdwatching, as it is affectionately known, is the biggest fair of its kind anywhere in the world and takes place annually in August at Rutland Water in Leicestershire. Bird lovers from all over the world are drawn to the event and this year was no exception!

Unlike previous years when I have only managed to attend for one or two days, this year I managed to make all three days of the event and boy were those three days hectic! When I have been before I haven't known anyone, okay maybe one or two people, nor do I recall ever having seen other young people there who look genuinely interested in birds and not like they've been dragged along on a family day out.

A more active presence on social media in the past year or so, plus me joining NGB and AFON meant that this year was a completely different experience and almost everywhere I looked over the three days was someone I recognised or someone who seemed to recognise me! It was amazing - I had members of NGB and AFON coming up to me and introducing themselves and I also had people saying they recognised me off Twitter/Facebook...admittedly it was a bit weird but at the same time it was awesome because it shows how powerful social media can be!

Over the three days I attended quite a few talks, including Mark Avery and Tristan Reid's one about how the Passenger Pigeon went extinct 100 years ago and what that means for nature conservation in the 21st century. It was fascinating, but slightly scary because it highlighted the fact that despite the vast amount of knowledge we have gained in the last 100 years, species around today are still facing the same threats that the Passenger Pigeon did a century ago, the main ones being habitat destruction and hunting...sounds familiar *cough* Turtle Dove *cough* ?!

Another talk that stood out to me was presented by Chris Packham on Saturday which was all about the annual massacre of birds that takes place in Malta. It followed on from the self-funded trip he did earlier in the year in an attempt to highlight the sheer scale of the hunting that takes place. (If you missed his daily videos from his trip, you can find them here.) Both Chris Packham and Nimrod Mifsud, a young maltese native, spoke incredibly passionately about important it is to raise awareness of this annual massacre and it was heartbreaking to listen to Nimrod recall how the first Osprey, Montagu's Harrier, White Stork, Black Stork etc... that he'd ever seen in his life he then had to watch plummet to the ground having been hit by a hunter's bullet.

That got me. And to be honest I think it got almost the entire audience because by the end of the talk most people had soggy eyes. How on earth can it be that in the 21st century when we see ourselves as such a developed and advanced species that people still find 'fun' in blasting thousands of other living creatures out of the sky basically because they can?! The mind boggles but it is an issue that needs international attention because it is not just in Malta that birds are hunted - it goes on in Spain, Italy and France, just to name a few. If these birds were being shot for food, then I think I could be a little more understanding, because a person's got to eat haven't they?! The problem is they're not. The large majority of these birds are being shot for fun in countries where there is no need and that is just wrong.

What can I do?

This is a question you may be asking yourselves right now...I know I am and there are a number of things that you and I can do.

1. Write about it. Whether this is highlighting the issue with facts and figures or sharing with people how it makes you feel. You have a voice, use it.

2. Write to your MEP. Ask them to use their position in the EU to find out what is being done. Question them.

3. Volunteer. This is a more practical way of helping. Birdlife Malta do a fantastic job, but it is one that would be impossible if it weren't for their passionate and dedicated volunteers. If hunting in Malta is still an issue by the time I am old enough to volunteer (which I sincerely hope it is not) then you know where I'll be... Birdlife Malta's Spring Watch

Congratulations if you have made it this far!

To sum up, Birdfair is awesome and I hope to see many more of you there next year!


Wraysbury Ringing (CES 7)

Wraysbury ~ 12th July 2014 ~ 

Shamefully I hadn't managed to get out ringing to Wraysbury yet this year before today so it was very nice to be able to catch up with everyone in person and not just via the odd email or two. 

At a rather more civilised time than when I go to FP, my mum and I arrived at Wraysbury at 05.45 and after everyone else had arrived we headed over to our ringing area and proceeded to set up the nets. It took a while but time passed quickly and it was then time to do the first net rounds. 

I went with one other person to check nets 10 and 20. There was one bird in the first net so we extracted it and then moved on to the second net. At a glance it didn't look like there was anything in it but as we walked along it, I noticed a smallish bird in the bottom shelf near the end of the net so I made sure there was nothing else in the net before walking to the bird near the end. At first I thought it was just a Reed Warbler because it was a light, creamy brown colour and looked fairly pale underneath but as I looked at it a bit more closely it suddenly dawned on me that it definitely wasn't a Reed Warbler and was in fact a GRASSHOPPER WARBLER!!!!! I'm not sure I stopped grinning from the moment I realised what it was, until after I had ringed and released it! Before this morning I had never seen a Gropper, having only heard them reeling from deep within a reed bed. This made it even more special to be able to handle one and examine it so closely - especially the awesome undertail coverts!

Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt  
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt 
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt  
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt 
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt  
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
© Josie Hewitt 
When the time came to do the next rounds, I was summoned to go first around the rest of the nets: 30, 40, 50, 60, 75 and 80 and hope my good luck continued! We reached net 80 and there were a few birds in the net. We each headed to a bird so we could start extracting them and when I reached the one everyone else had walked past I had to do a double take and check with someone else to make sure I wasn't imagining the identification. I wasn't making it up and it was indeed a CETTI'S WARBLER (!!!), and a previously ringed one too (it had been ringed at one of the group's other sites about two weeks ago)!

Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)
© Josie Hewitt
Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)
© Josie Hewitt
Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)
© Josie Hewitt
The rest of the session was fairly dull in comparison but then again, we were exceptionally lucky early on and I've never had such a session, nor do I expect to have one of such quality any time soon! The fun task of trying to age Garden Warblers kept us suitably occupied for the remainder of the session!

The totals from this morning are as follows (re-traps are in brackets):

Blackbird - 4 (2)
Blackcap - 19 (3)
Blue Tit - 1 (1)
Cetti's Warbler - (1)
Chiffchaff - 5 (2)
Dunnock - 4
Garden Warbler - 22 (3)
Grasshopper Warbler - 1
Great Tit - 1
Lesser Whitethroat - 2
Linnet - 1
Robin - 4 (1)
Sedge Warbler - (2)
Whitethroat - 18 (3)
Willow Warbler - 1

Total: 83 (18)

Many thanks for reading - I hope you've enjoyed it! Don't forget you can keep up with my activity on my website hereFacebookTwitter and Flickr.