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Appreciating nature on the doorstep – Ian Carter, ornithologist and author of Human, Nature

  • Written by  Ian Carter
  • Published in Books
A pair of great crested grebes. According to the RSPB, there are 4,600 breeding pairs in the UK A pair of great crested grebes. According to the RSPB, there are 4,600 breeding pairs in the UK SHUTTERSTOCK/WANG LIQIANG
11 Jun
Ian Carter – an ornithologist for more than 25 years, including for Natural England – reflects on the joy to be found in the less-heralded parts of our countryside and celebrates the often ignored wildlife in his local patch

This is an edited extract from Human, Nature by Ian Carter, published on 8 June by Pelagic Publishing. Geographical readers get 30 per cent off! Simply use the code GEOGRAPHICAL30 at checkout!

Local patch is a rather grand description for the farmland within easy walking distance of our house in the Cambridgeshire Fens. It’s not an area that is, in any way, exceptional for wildlife, though it does have a few things going for it. It’s dominated by the flat, arable farmland that is typical of the Fens, with crops of cereals, oil-seed rape, sugar beet, potatoes and beans.

One of the main fenland drains, about eight metres wide, passes close to the house – a linear oasis of wetland habitat carved into a bleak desert of farmland. Sedge and reed warblers chatter their way through the summer, hidden in the reed-fringed margins. Otters fish this drain, though we are aware of them only through finding their strangely sweet-smelling spraints, glinting with fish scales, along the bank and under road bridges. Like an addict, I feel compelled to pick them up and smell them each time I find a new sprainting site, more by way of celebration than from any need to confirm the identification. Even badgers use the drain, building their sett into the bank about 300 metres from the house. With a judiciously positioned telescope (and no little patience) we can watch them from an upstairs window in the early-summer evenings, until the bankside vegetation grows too tall.

There are numerous smaller side drains and ditches, with strips of rough grassland running alongside, offering further variety to the arable crops. The only mature trees are the sycamores, horse-chestnuts and leylandii within our garden.

It really is my local patch, because despite years of daily visits I’ve never seen anyone else take the slightest interest in the wildlife here, at least not in a positive way (of which more later). I enjoy being the only person watching this area. It means that when something unusual turns up it will be me that finds it, if anyone does. There is satisfaction in knowing that the birds I see would otherwise not be noticed, which is not always the case when visiting well-watched sites. The wildlife here, as across a large proportion of our wider countryside (away from nature reserves and public spaces), goes largely unseen and unheralded.

Image 2The sedge warbler is easily identifiable by the creamy white stripe above its eye and is known for its noisy, rather rambling song. Image: SHUTTERSTOCK/SANDERMEERTINSPHOTOGRAPHY

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On most jaunts around the patch, I see nobody else. Occasionally, if I’m walking on one of the public rights of way, I’ll come across a dog walker from the local village. Less often I’ll meet a horse rider, or people riding mountain bikes or even motorbikes. Along the main drain I see the occasional fisherman (usually from Eastern Europe), casting hopeful lines into the water and furtive looks up to the house if successful, all too aware of the peculiar British tradition of wrenching fish from the water only to put them straight back in again. Then there are the local farmers and contractors, usually safely sealed off from the environment inside a four-by-four or the enclosed cab of a tractor. The only other people I’ve seen include a few hare coursers with their distinctive long dogs and, at night, people out lamping, flooding the blackness with their powerful, rotating beams of light.The hare coursers and lampers clearly have an interest in the local wildlife, though, like the fishermen, they are really only interested in catching and killing it.

I can’t be sure that everyone I see lacks any positive interest in wildlife. Perhaps some of the dog walkers and horse riders are cheered by the song of skylarks high above them in spring, or the flocks of lapwing that rise up in great swirling masses in winter. Perhaps the fishermen take at least a casual interest in the great crested grebes, mute swans and tufted ducks on the drain and, if they are lucky, the occasional kingfisher or water vole. Maybe some of the farm workers enjoy being surrounded by clouds of screeching gulls when they are ploughing the fields and delight in the brown hares fleeing ahead of their machines. But using the ‘binocular-carrying test’ as a reasonable indicator of keen interest, it really is just me out here actively looking for and enjoying the wildlife.

Image 3The small reed warbler is another member of the warbler family. Like the sedge warbler, it’s a summer visitor to the UK, mainly congregating in East Anglia and on the south coast. Image: SHUTTERSTOCK/JONCLARK

Steve Dudley, a well-known birder who lives near Peterborough, also has a local patch in the Fens, well away from the nearest nature reserve. He has watched the same area on an almost daily basis for many years. He covers the ground rather more intensively and effectively than I do and has recorded over 150 species of birds. But, with the exception of local birders from Peterborough who visit occasionally, specifically to see something rare that Steve has found, he too has never encountered anyone else watching the local wildlife. If he lived elsewhere, these birds would never be found or appreciated by anyone. My patch is near the village of Gorefield, with about 1,200 residents, and is well served by public access routes. Steve’s is only a few kilometres from the 200,000 people living in Peterborough. There must be vast areas of farmland in the Fens, as elsewhere, that is more remote from human settlements and less well served with public access routes. Just how much of the farmed landscape of this country supports birds and other wildlife that no-one ever sees?

Thinking back to my days growing up in the Chilterns, it was much the same story. I spent countless hours in the beech woods surrounding our house but cannot recall ever seeing anyone else looking for wildlife. These woods supported generations of nuthatches, marsh tits, woodpeckers and other birds that were never seen, or appreciated, by anyone. Only those individuals that strayed into nearby village gardens to take hand-outs would have had any chance of connecting with humanity.

The contrast with high-profile, well-visited nature reserves is staggering. The RSPB’s Titchwell reserve is just over an hour’s drive from where I live. Even if you turn up at first light, in the middle of winter, on a weekday, when it’s raining, you’ll be lucky to have the place to yourself. On a better day, you’ll be sharing the reserve with hundreds of other people and will have to fight for a spot in one of the hides. And you’ll be very fortunate to see a single bird that has not already been watched by numerous pairs of eyes. To a greater or lesser extent, the same is true of nature reserves around the country. Indeed, most birdwatchers probably adopt their nearest nature reserve as their favoured local patch rather than choosing somewhere out in the wider countryside.

Image 4The reed beds at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire, East Anglia. Image: SHUTTERSTOCK/ANDY333

Does it matter that so much of our wildlife watching is concentrated in small areas set aside specifically for wildlife, and that huge tracts of land outside these reserves are rarely, if ever, visited? I have mixed feelings. If hardly anyone is looking at the wildlife across large parts of the country then it becomes more difficult to make a convincing argument for its conservation. Yet I find it perversely reassuring that there are still vast areas where you can have the place to yourself, make your own discoveries and see things that would otherwise go unnoticed. These areas may not be especially rich in wildlife, and farmed land is likely to be a lot less rich than it was even a few decades ago, but, as shown by Steve’s efforts, they do still support plenty of interesting species.

Returning to my patch, the rough-grass strips alongside the drains are paid for through agrienvironment schemes. This is taxpayers’ money paid to farmers specifically to encourage wildlife-friendly farming. At the moment it would appear to be just me that is benefiting from the additional wildlife. Although I’m extremely grateful, does this represent good value for money? According to government figures, we spend around £3 billion each year in the UK on subsidies to support farming. This includes funding that pays for specific environmental benefits as well as broader support to help maintain farm incomes. That works out at roughly £100 for every UK taxpayer. Perhaps, then, we are fully entitled to enjoy the wildlife that we see on the farmland around our home.

There is a small breeding population of yellow wagtails hanging on here. It’s one of the birds that most delights me when it returns each spring, and again a few weeks later when the newly fledged young perch, precariously, on top of the wheat stalks. If they disappear in the next few years, as they have done already in many parts of the Fens, I will miss them and mourn their passing. I don’t suppose that anyone else will notice.

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