Monday, October 21

In Winter’s Trail – Part One

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This morning, there are more dazzling heaps of feathers, outside my window – sparrow hawk hunts, fast and clean with a maximum scattering of feathers, almost fast food, bones left behind for bigger buzzards and smaller carrion to pick through. The pair of pheasants that bobbed about in the lush grass seemed unmoved by this common sight. Pigeons are fodder.

There’s a carcass spread out, complete from mandible to long tail feather, its wings laid out whole and across. With all the hunting, pairing and nest building amongst the raptors, it must be a rare natural death.

Sing-song whistles fill the clear blue sky. I’ve been spotted. And the red kite takes off, showing the full span of its tawny wings, from what is now just a pile of white down feathers and a few quills tipped in slate grey, no bones picked clean. It joins its mate and they soar across the field over the far canopy, calling to each other. Work done by the Royal Society for the Protection of birds has paid off.

Despite its beautiful green hills, Britain is a shadow of its former self. Once it was full of vastly diverse indigenous forests with glades in which wolves, bears and lynx made their homes. Humans replaced them with farms and fields for cows and sheep. Killing all the large predators to extinction meant the herbivores could decimate yet more wild flora.

In mainland Europe, where rewilding has been gathering momentum, there are now at least 17,000 brown bears, 12,000 wolves, 9,000 lynx and 1,250 wolverines. But not in Britain. According to biologist, David Hetherington birds can fly to Britain but Wolves will need a helping hand from humans.

In 2013, just three years after conservationist began the rewilding of Europe, the first beavers, since they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century, were seen in the wild in Devon, England. Beavers gnaw stems to coppice trees, which on shooting regrowth support insects to feed birds, fish, voles and shrews which feed foxes, owls and wolves.

I’m walking past the fenced field with brassicas and sunflowers – their heads drooping, the petals long gone. To my right is the forest where the blue bells carpet the woods in springtime and the field where the butterflies populate the wildflowers in early summer. Up over the hill, the forest continues. There’s a herd of skittish deer, skipping over the fence into the thicket. The squirrels are still out feeding, rapaciously fat, their bushy tails curled snuggly over their rears. Geri my companion, tells me that these lands belong to a couple, who with their passion for gardening and landscaping created or preserved these different areas with the advice of the national trust.

Geri’s told me the kites are building nests because the weather has been unseasonably warm. The opportunistic crows follow with their cawing or are those ravens kraa-kraaing, into the yellowed forest, now almost leafless but for autumn’s fall crunching beneath my boots.

In the forest’s medieval rag pit, lives an old tree, its roots clinging to the eroded sides. A thick layer of leaf litter fills it giving the dogs more to rummage through. Flint and chalk fragments lie all around the forest floor and would have been gathered from the pit, which is an abandoned quarry, for building in the middle ages.

The shepherdess has moved the sheep after that last extraordinary event. The unmistakeable chestnut shape of the fox stood out on the lime green grasses, shorn by the dots with black and white coats, thick and woolly this time of year, making them look larger than usual. The fox’s nonchalant trot must have irritated one sheep, the one who decided to take him on with a nudge and a kick. This alarmed the rest of the herd into a menacing mob that began to gather around the fox, kicking and pushing it to the ground. The fox lay down unmoving, whilst the sheep milled about it. Several times the sheep relaxed and the fox tried to get up, but they turned on it again and again until it played dead for long enough so the sheep became complacent and the fox could dash into the surrounding forest.

But in all the stories handed down since medieval times, foxes and wolves are villains! Yet here we are, both Geri and I, anxious that the Fox might actually die. Still, they are considered vermin by farmers who are deeply opposed to re-introducing wolves and bears.

Because, when white tailed eagles were reintroduced on the Isle of Mull, after being wiped out in early 20th century, they now sometimes kill lambs.

Predators keep populations in check so that everything remains in balance. So it is the elusive lynx that may be introduced first after 1300 years absence, as it poses no threat to humans – its preferred diet being deer and gamebirds.

Britain’s rewilding has been spearheaded by George Monbiot, who famously criticised David Attenborough – named UK’s most trustworthy figure by the independent newspaper – for downplaying our environmental crisis and so generating complacency, confusion and ignorance. He proffers that wilderness will generate alternative sources of income in rural areas.

The clear brightness of the day also makes it cold and I can feel the temperature around my ears, dropping. These are not the unfenced plains of the Maasai Mara, I’m some 3000km north of the tropic of cancer. Even now, in the midst of winter in January, nature in the wild, is exciting and dramatic.

But will all this last? And does it really matter? 250 million years ago, massive volcanic eruptions forced carbon dioxide into the oceans asphyxiating 90% of all marine life and 70% of life on land. Beginning with agriculture and accelerating since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide is again being forced into the oceans, so that corals are dying.

36% of the worlds mammals are one species – human. 60% are livestock for human consumption and all wild mammals, from mice to elephants, make up just 4%. Wild birds are most numerous at 30% as 70% of all birds on the planet are poultry. This is according to a report released in 2018 by the USA’s National Academy of Science.

Higher up the food chain, we are threatened by the alarming decline of fish, amphibians, bees and flying insects. A study in the science journal Plos.org published in 2017 stated that over the last 27 years more than 75% of flying insects have been decimated due to climate change. These insects pollinate crops. The World Wildlife Fund states that the massacre of wildlife since 1970 now threatens civilisation.

Ironically, concrete jungles have taken away everyday experiences of wild nature, unless its human behaviour we’re discussing. Research conducted by Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy at Canada’s Carlton University has long proposed that disconnection from the natural world is contributing to our planet’s destruction.

If Britain’s bare hills became forested, trees growing up against streams and rivers would steady the flow of water reducing the risk of floods and droughts. Lucy Jones writing for BBC said if a country as stripped of its wildlife as Britain can rewild, anywhere can.

Knowing and feeling our connection with nature is good for us, bringing health benefits and joy, just as the sounds of birds and raindrops lull us into relaxation and meditation. Social scientists say it also promotes prosocial behaviours.

You are right now probably like those red kites, luckily gliding above some of the wildest and most beautiful regions on the planet. Will you however, remember to share stories of your travels along with the importance of finding constant solutions for conservation?

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