Danes Moss

A Letter to Cllr Sam Corcoran

Dear Sam Corcoran

I write to you about your support for a proposed 950-house development on the Danes Moss raised mire that interpenetrates Macclesfield town. Everyone says you are a conscientious, listening councillor, well respected and devoted to your area and constituents. Given that you are a member of a party which I supported for decades, I suspect we’d have much in common. On this issue, however, we’re divided. I urge you to reconsider and hope you will read this to understand why I think you should change your mind.

Danes Moss is an ancient raised lowland bog whose character has been in continuous development for more than 5,000 years. When Stonehenge was under construction, Danes Moss had long been in play as a living landscape. On first encountering it, I felt as if I’d left the Peak District and entered a bit of East Anglian fen, such is its radical otherness in terms of structure and atmosphere from anything local. It’s the mixture of herb-rich glades, the belts of trees lining the ditches on both sides and then the wonderfully wide grassland space at its heart. The wetness of the place is striking, giving that peat formations like this have fewer solids than milk. 

The stands of sallow and birch are interesting, because these support the second and third most diverse invertebrate faunas of any British trees. Only oak is richer. Alder, the third component of the woodland at Danes Moss, is among the top ten. The recent mothing activities there are a revelation. They bear out what any naturalist feels on visiting Danes Moss: here is a really important wildlife area. In just 3-4 nights, moth recorders have produced a total of 279 moth species. Knowing what it takes to chalk up a big number like this – with such little effort – I’d hazard that Danes Moss will have more than 800 moth species, a third of the national total, which reflects its exceptional qualities. 

(Here’s a tiny sample of the wonderful moths at Danes Moss)

Most remarkable is that all of this abundance lies not two miles from Macclesfield’s wonderful silk museum. Like the museum, Danes Moss is a feature of the inner townscape and is an amazing living resource to have at your civic heart. I can’t think of another northern town so blessed. I’m guessing you have seen how people go there for all kinds of recreational purposes. In lockdown it was vitally important, sparing the residents of Macclesfield’s centre from the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that were a consequence of the pandemic. All will have responded, if only subliminally, to the interplay of light and shade, the colours of the flowers standing on all sides, their associated insect pollinators, the glorious shapes of the coppiced trees and the songs of birds.

singing common whitethroat is typical of the birds at Dane Moss

Yet it is the wider context that underscores the importance of keeping Danes Moss inviolate. On the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), covering 232 countries, Britain is 220th: twelfth from bottom. England alone is the seventh least intact country on Earth. Since 1980 we have lost 44 million breeding birds. In the 20th century we lost 99% of 4 million acres of flower-rich meadows in England. The State of Nature Report of 2019 indicates that in the last half century Britain’s most important wildlife populations have fallen by 60 per cent. A central revelation of new research, much of it done in Germany, which is 100 places above us on the BI Index, is that wildlife is often richer in towns and cities than it is in the countryside. When people hear of nature’s catastrophic losses, they think it is about white rhinos down to the last two females, or about cheetahs and elephants ravaged by poachers. Far away creatures of which we know little. This is wrong. Nature’s losses are here. Now. They involve creatures under our noses. Like this broad-banded digger wasp, a rare insect found only twice in Cheshire. One of those places is Danes Moss.  

This brings us to the false mindset which privileges the development and loss of brownfield sites or wild places in an inner town. Most of the regulations, culminating in the first of several Town and Country Planning Acts in 1947, were instituted by a Labour government and operated on the basis of several assumptions about nature and development. They are still the foundation of planning policy. Yet these original ideas from the nineteenth century were muddled up with unhelpful concepts such as the picturesque. Essentially the argument presumed that natural beauty and biodiversity were not only synonymous, but that they, in turn, aligned with farmland, and that their boundaries exactly coincided. It said: urban areas = bad (for) nature; farmland = greenbelt = good nature. Keep the farmland and you keep nature intact.

The systemic chemicalisation of agriculture in the twentieth century has turned this upside down. Farmland, even relatively lightly grazed pasture, is now often a rye-grass monoculture devoid of wildlife. There is no comparison between the complexity of the larger Danes Moss zone (including the old landfill area) and most of the heavily overgrazed sheep pasture encircling Macclesfield. Sheep grazing occupies about one-quarter – 4 million ha – of the British farmed area, attracting annually hundreds of millions of pounds of government subsidy. It yields to the British economy in its entirety – from Lands End to Cape Wrath – less than tourism in Derbyshire and the Peak District. In the process, that national sheep ‘industry’ delivers, at massive public expense, one percent of the calorific value of the British diet. Yet we persist with a scheme of building in inner towns – slowly obliterating all their wild spaces as long as they lie outwith the greenbelt – as the best policy.

(This is what green belt often looks like and reflects the kind of environment which the designation protects. Here’s the kind of nature-free development planned for Danes Moss. To my eyes they look tailor made for one another: one desert to another.)

We have all been assailed this summer by ever-more troubling images. After the fires have come the floods. The latest news is of devastating monsoon and glacial-meltwater deluges in Pakistan and the intensifying droughts in Somalia and Ethiopia. We rightly focus on the human dimension to these tragedies, just as you are focusing on the human needs for housing in Macclesfield, which is what compels you to persist despite many councillors, even in your own party, opposing the Danes Moss plans.

Yet the central challenge of this human-centred thinking is that it is precisely how we’ve got into the current predicament. In a way, the systemic loss of British nature and climate chaos are part of a syndrome of anthropocentric behaviours. At the heart of the issue is our refusal to accept or acknowledge that we are part of nature. In fact, we are nature. And we have to value nature, if we value ourselves. We have to build a future for both. The consequences of ignoring these precepts are now everywhere in our lives.

Strangely enough, Victorian planners knew something about the importance of nature in the built environment. They developed parks and green spaces as a counter-balance to the civic architecture of their towns and cities. We have now a crisis of obesity in Britain and also of type-2 diabetes. Danes Moss is the best gym you could have. Because it caters to mental well- being, as well as our physical health. Yet it is more than just an instrument for us. It supports thousands of other species. All of this surely offers the best model for Macclesfield and Danes Moss: to sustain it as a living, breathing area, meeting local needs in perpetuity, those of its human residents and the non-human.

Finally – and forgive a last digression – but I include part of an article published last August in the socialist Chartist magazine by three High Peak Labour councillors – Madeline Hall, Rachael Quinn and the late Keith Savage – and myself. It specifically focuses on a housing proposal, similar to that at Danes Moss, where the most wildlife-rich area of Buxton has been earmarked for development. It is called Hogshaw. The key difference between the Macclesfield scenario and here in Buxton is that Cheshire East has met future housing needs for the next five years. What is centrally relevant to you is that these words are largely those of the late Keith Savage, Labour councillor and socialist to his fingertips. He wrote:

“At that time there was little serious argument about the future of ‘brownfield’ sites; [Hogshaw], it was assumed, had been spoiled and neglected and new development would improve and ‘tidy-up’ such sites, which was a far better option than the trashing of green-belt land. This is precisely what the planning regulations instituted by Attlee’s government were intended to achieve: protect the supposedly wildlife-rich countryside from the biological shrinkage inflicted by housing and urban development.

There was a widely held understanding, across political parties, that the contaminated Hogshaw site was an obvious candidate for redevelopment. Additionally, a new road would unlock the site, although the addition of hundreds more cars to an already overburdened road network where air quality is poor is a questionable ambition.

Current government pressure demands that planning authorities identify five years’  worth of land supply for new housing and for a borough like High Peak that equates to over 1700 new homes. There are thousands of people on the housing waiting list and the only realistic way that new housing on any scale will be built is through deals with private developers. In short, the only measure available to meet the social challenge of adequate local housing is the blunt instrument of capitalism.

The Council manages housing stock but its budget is small and borrowing to build housing is not an option. This puts developers in a strong negotiating position – a situation which the government is happy to strengthen. A consequence of this is that builders want to build wherever it is most profitable, without regard for what is needed. This undermines local democracy. In the case of Hogshaw, interested developers have let it be known that they ‘need’ a bigger site than the one identified in the Local Plan – [which excludes a 4-acre playing field called ‘the rec’] in fact they want the whole site, including the ‘rec’, if they are to make a reasonable profit and provide some affordable housing.

Sceptics about Hogshaw’s future, if its sale and development were approved, anticipate that the developers will soon conclude that the costs of ‘decontamination’ work are higher than anticipated and seek to reduce the amount of affordable housing provided. This is just one case study. What does it tell us or ask of us at a policy-making level?

In the first instance it highlights the inadequacy of more-or-less arbitrary targets for new housing imposed by central government. No real account of demographic data informs these top-down goals. Nor do they capture local need.

The 2021 Census data is likely to confirm that the British population is ageing – especially outside of big cities – and that many younger people have left following Brexit. This should have implications for planning – especially housing stock – but will it be taken into account?

In many parts of the country it is also obvious that housing is too expensive and with many workers on flexible contracts and minimum wages there needs to be more rented accommodation. This is only going to be provided by local authorities or housing associations. For that to happen more money needs to be switched in that direction. Housing could be built to higher standards meeting stricter environmental targets that would go some way to meeting the needs of those marginalised by the present set-up. Some of this would start to target the real issues of housing supply and deliver with a flexibility not allowed for in chest-beating demands to ‘Build, Build, Build’.”

Keith Savage explains here that new housing in local areas is seldom the housing required by its communities; that the provision of social and affordable housing is downgraded to suit developers; that local councils are coerced into inappropriate housing decisions by all-powerful central government.

In short, the system by which housing decisions are taken is inadequate. At Danes Moss there are further massive complications. The houses are to be sited on peat where deep steel piles would be necessary and where the whole area would be susceptible to shrinkage as the water content of the peat is lost. It is hard to imagine why housing developers would want to proceed in these circumstances. But this complicated and difficult housing scenaio is surely one least likely to fulfil your own concerns for the less-well-off in your town. Some of the Labour councillors in Buxton have come to regret any role in the designation of Hogshaw. Given the extraordinary 5000+ years of history of Danes Moss, I think you would come to regret if your name was forever linked to its destruction.

This is the kind of ground the developers would be building on. Peat is by its very nature wet – containing fewer solids than milk – and in this healthy condition it remains a living accreting system, that sequesters more carbon than rainforest.

Zagori through 360 Degrees

Monday 16-23 May 2022

STOP PRESS This tour has two last-minute places.

Please email me here or go straight to booking here.

Zagori is a distinct area of the northern Pindos mountains in Greece close to the western city of Ioannina, the regional capital. It is a landscape of high peaks, extensive new-growth oak forest and grazed pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer a more dramatic vista. At Zagori’s heart is the Vikos Gorge, reputedly the deepest in the world and certainly one of the most spectacular natural features I have seen anywhere in Europe.

The encircling mountains now support important populations of wolf and brown bear, yet the northern Pindos also hold some of the highest levels of biodiversity enjoyed by any European region. As an example, the Vikos-Aoos national park, on which we focus for the week, has as many plant species and more mammals than in the entire British Isles. It is to boot among the most natural river systems found on the continent.

As if that this were not enough, Zagori has a remarkable human story. Remittance payments from its historical Greek communities, who travelled and worked all over Europe and the Near East, supported the creation of some of the most striking vernacular architecture you will find anywhere in the Mediterranean. The life of the villages was also interwoven with the yearly migrations of transhumance pastoralists – the Vlachs and Sarakatsani herders – whose sheep flocks kept the slopes open and the flowers in abundance.

Now some of this has gone and Zagori has endured a long period of abandonment, which has led to forest encroachment and a period of inadvertent ‘rewilding’. Yet it has also been the focus of some of the most sympathetic eco-tourism you will find anywhere. With a total population of under 1000 people it feels like a place where nature is in charge. Our holiday is shaped to ensure we enjoy an encounter with all of Zagori’s elements: mountains, rivers, forest trails, meadows, soaring crags, eagles, orchids, insects,  butterflies, tortoises, yellow-bellied toads, leopard snakes and snakes’ head fritillaries.

There are some fixtures which we make sure we include in the week: such as the cultural centre at Monodendri, the cliff-edge Paraskevi monastery; the old stone bridges near Kipi; the viewpoints of Oxyia and Beloi, which offer the defining images of this whole landscape; the glorious vernacular architecture at Dilofo (where we stay) and Papigo; the slow descent to the shrine at Vikos to see the waters pouring out of the Voidomatis springs, which are so pure and preternaturally aquamarine-blue that you could almost imagine Naiads bathing on their banks. So much of Zagori is breathtakingly beautiful and the sense of wildlife abundance can be exhilarating. If you wish to read a little more about it and the wildlife then see my blogpost here.

We also spend an entire day in and around Ioannina. It’s a busy city but set amid the most dramatic scenery on the northern shores of Lake Pamvotis. It also has several lovely museums, including Ali Pasha’s mausoleum (below left) and just a ten minute ferry ride is a small island in the lake. It is the location for several monasteries and the sixteenth century images in Philanthropiki monastery are some of the most beautiful Orthodox paintings you will see anywhere in Greece. The island is an excellent wildlife locality with a huge number of breeding great crested grebes and often the odd visiting pelican …

Another goal for our combined day of culture and nature is a visit to the ancient oracular shrine of Dodona close to Ioannina. We also have our lunch near these fifth century BC ruins, perched high above the site with spectacular views over the shrine and the encircling mountains. It seems almost a rule of the Hellenic world that these archaeological sites are also great for wildlife. Dodona is full of singing nightingales and turtle doves, and the open spaces between the remaining stonework, including a rather beautifully restored open-air theatre, can be superb for flowers and butterflies.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece 20 times since the 1970s. Our joint approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Epirus are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or al fresco paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the holiday.

The week includes moderate walking, some of it involving quite steep climbs and descents (especially the walk into Vikos). However we will provide everyone with walking sticks and really take our time, so all the walks should be perfectly achievable for a reasonably fit person of any age.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our PlaceBirds and People and Crow Country, have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In 2019 A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Book Award. Mark led wildlife holidays all over the world in a previous life and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and having dinner and drinks with the local shepherds and fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotel

In Zagoria we stay (16-22 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1595  Shared: £1495                  Dates:   Mon 16- Mon 23 May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of twelve. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

The Unofficial Bookclub

Review No 4

Accidental Flowers by Lily Peters, Arachne Press, £9.99 and Words from the Brink, editor Cherry Potts, Arachne Press, £9.99.

This intermittent series of blog posts is intended to profile new but sometimes lesser-known works on environmental themes. Arachne Press is definitely a micro-publisher whose progress will warrant close attention. It gives opportunity to new authors and focuses on new writing about our relations with nature. I especially admire that the staff are seriously looking, not only at content, but the way in which they present the material.

The editorial for their new collection of 2021 Shorts (pictured right) emphasises how they use no plastic packaging, nor do their printers, their electricity is 100 per cent renewable and they are fitting solar panels. All equipment and stationery are recycled products while their paper is wood-free. Let’s hope more mainstream publishing houses start to follow suit. Congratulations Arachne for this superb business model and stance.

One of their highly promising authors Lily Peter kindly sent me her new novel out of the blue last year and I have finally found time for my review. Accidental Flowers is a single united fabric but pieced together from a patchwork of short stories. Think of James Joyce’s Dubliners and you have Lily’s working blueprint. What I admired most was the enormously diverse ways in which she frames her central narrative, which is a rather shocking vision of social re-ordering.

Her forte is these close-focus portraits of domestic relationships and their inner workings, but through such snapshots of lovers or individual characters – at their allotments or walking their dogs and visiting friends – the author provides a personalised emotional prism through which we view the colder context of government breakdown in the wake of climate chaos. In a sense her methods humanise apocalypse and add humour: given that her theme is social disruption I was struck by Lily’s ability to make us laugh.

A good illustration of her narrative flexibility is the story entitled Sailing to Crouch – one of the darker episodes about the flooding of London. It is told convincingly and with fine attention to detail as a Twitter conversation by strangers online. The skeletal brevity and the inferential approach to the storyline, not to mention the spartan arrangement of the messages on the page, all add to the understated tragedy of the episode. Over the five pages of messages we witness the BBC as an organisation being taken off air by flood, while one of the parties to the tweet conversation is possibly drowned.

Peters’ version of a post climate-chaos world imay be roughly sketched behind her stories of individual lives. Yet we see a world subject to prolonged toxin-loaded rains and floods. These trigger a basic division between those who are persuaded, under state supervision, to go and live in a series of enormously tall survivors’ towers. Insulated from the worst effects of the floods, but isolated from the facts of what has actually happened below, these survivors are obliged to live off products yielded in high-rise greenhouses including toothsome stuff called ‘extracellular matrix’, a kind of pink protein goo. The social disruption inflicted by flood can be tasted as much as it is visualised in Peter’s prose. Then there is another group of survivors that forego government coercion and remain at ground level, a food-growing or food-scavenging community – hence the emphasis upon allotments – that form a self-help community of citizens.

I enjoyed this piecemeal conjuring of a future world but I was surprised also to note something missing from her narrative form. One way of putting my unease is to say that I wanted a richer stock of non-human characters. The book involves a large bouquet of human variation (and these are admirably set in north-east England near Newcastle, rather than in London; I liked this provincial version of the metropolitan), but aside from a sequence of relationships between people and dogs, very few other species have a detailed presence in Accidental Flowers.

Given that our western techno-industrial society has got into this ecological crisis through its collective self-referential preoccupations – material wealth disconnected from its planetary sources – do we not need to create stories that incorporate our indebedness and interrelationships with other parts of life? In short, I could have done with more trees, grasses, flowers, birds, mammals – and heaven forbid but what about the real heavy lifters of our world such as bacteria, phytoplankton, lichens, fungi and insects – inserted into the new fiction. For me dogs don’t do it. In fact, given that the global estimate for the canine population is 900 million, they are looking much more like the problem than the solution.

This aside, I was provoked and charmed, disturbed and moved by Peter’s short story sequence. I am expecting exciting things from her in the future.

To return to the wider issue: how do we tell stories that both take account of the problems and challenges we face on Earth while also offering a new way of being in relations with other species. Arachne’s pocket-sized volume of stories and poems edited by Cherry Potts faces this challenge more fully. Here are other species in abundance: birds, ferns, fungi, fish, frogs, toads, turtles, lions and wild flowers. Their stories imply and comment upon our story. One of the poems I really enjoyed was Kelly Davis’s ‘The Last Lioness’. This beautiful female beast, rather like ‘Martha’ the last passenger pigeon – Martha’s death in 1911 marked the extinction of the most abundant bird species on Earth – is housed in a zoo. (WordPress struggled a little with the verse space breaks so don’t take these lines as precisely replicating those in the original poems.)

People buy tickets

wait in snaking queues,

to see the queen

brought low:

The Last Lioness.

They can say

they were there,

took photos

on their phones.

 

In her cage, She is haunted

by the scent

of prey,

tastes the bubble of blood

at the antelope’s mouth,

sees the hooves kicking,

the sliver of life

snatched away.

 

Now there is only

pacing, pacing,

the slow draining of days.

Eyes that scanned the savannah

brought up short

            by walls.

Meat arrives                 in buckets

Equally I loved Lucy Grace’s poem ‘After This’, which celebrates lavender, spiders, bees, ants … and the possiblity of hope. So three cheers, for Lily Peters (as well as Kelly Davis and Lucy Grace), for Arachne Press and for flying ant day.

After this,

I’m going to speak of all the things

We no longer have.

All the things

We no longer point at, saying –

                                                            Look!

                                                            Look at that!

Later

We will not know

Where everything went,

We will look at each other, saying –

            Remember those massive spiders that came

                                    out from behind the telly?

Remember how those bees loved your lavender?

                                    Remember flying ant day?

We will not remember why we ridded them.

We will not remember

That spiders were housekeepers and fat bees were lifesavers

And ants built their communities under our feet.

In the shed

Under the sink

Beneath the stairs

We will secretly gather old killing sprays and suffocating powders,

Embarrassed by ourselves.

After this,

I’m going to speak of all the things

We still have. 

Derbyshire Break 1

with

Mark Cocker

Mon 25 April – Thurs 28 April 2022

A four-day all-inclusive break to experience the hills and dales of north Derbyshire with multi-award-winning naturalist and author in his home patch. This tour is now full but we will run other breaks soon. Plese message us here to be notified of future events.

Buxton and the High Peak

North Derbyshire is a fabulous area for natural history with a distinctive rural culture and a proud record as the site of the UK’s first-ever national park, The Peak District, which was designated more than 70 years ago. Our wildlife breaks are centred in historic Buxton. The town stands atop the thermal springs for which it has been renowned since Roman times, but it also straddles the two characteristic geological formations of the High Peak, the limestone plateau and the gritstone uplands. The life of 320 million years ago is never far from the surface and has shaped the region’s environmental present, as well as its industrial past. Only a single English spot to the south of here is higher than Axe Edge, the ridge running just west of Buxton. This formation is a central watershed for English rivers (ie those flowing off one side join the North Sea, those heading west from Axe Edge flow to the Irish Sea). For our purposes Buxton is perfectly placed because it is so close to a range of great wildlife areas and our excursions will involve minimal driving. The break is also timed to catch the region at its spring best.

  • Our Westminster Hotel is a five minute drive from the high moorland and on our first evening we will make an excursion to enjoy some of its special breeding birds including short-eared owl and golden plover. They arrive back in late winter and take up breeding territories and should be well into their nest season by late April. The presence of owls is dependent upon the quality of the habitat for voles and they move year to year so it is hard to predict. But a displaying short-eared owl is one of the most beautiful sights offered by the avifauna in these islands.

images from left: short-eared owl, common snipe and common wheatear

Our first day will be spent in the fabulous Chee and Millers Dales, where the River Wye cuts a steep-sided gorge into the limestone valley and the old railway line provides a perfect broad track through what is otherwise difficult terrain. The deep limestone canyons are a perfect resonating surface against which the breeding jackdaws fire a cacophony of their joyous calls.

The area is celebrated for its flora and we will visit at least two Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserves to enjoy the limestone gardens that are brimming up with colour and beauty. Willow warblers will now be singing and common redstart returns from the African Sahel to take up territory. One of the pleasures of arguably Britain’s most beautiful migrant is working out the mimickry embedded in the male’s wonderful little ditty. My most prized ‘spot’ was the sound of a calling ‘bee-eater’ which was all the weirder for being in a Derbyshire dale. We also meet some of the other avian specialities such as grey wagtail and dipper and, more recently, the dramatically colourful mandarin ducks. This Asiatic import has taken very well to the tree cavities in the ash and sycamore woods that line the steep valley sides.

images from top left: mountain pansy,, dipper, wood anemones and mandarin duck family,

Spring is late to arrive in this high plateau area but there is a huge amount of colour and scent to enjoy: the kitchen tang of the ramsons, the star-like beauty of celandines, the patches of primroses and wood avens and the early flowers of the scarce spring cinquefoil. Yet it is the wider atmosphere of the Wye Valley in this section which is also captivating, especially its sense of astonishing greenness. Here is a brief slideshow sense of the place.

  • images: Wye Dale, flowering cowslips, common redstart singing, lesser celandines in flower, flowering ramsons, hazel catkins, limestone formations in Chee Dale, River Wye in morning mist

After the lush almost subtropical photosynthesing power of the dales we head on our second full day for the more austere, open character of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire tops. In fact Dane Bower quarry is just over the border into Cheshire and in a short walk we will take in all three counties. The whole area is one of the best moorland landscapes for all the birds traditionally associated with the uplands – curlews, golden plovers, lapwings and common snipe. It also holds a small number of breeding ring ousels as well as the more numerous stonechats and wheatears.

images top left then clockwise: red grouse, male stonechat, Eurasian curlew, common snipe, moorland near Axe Edge,

The walk runs through an old abandoned quarry and we will plan to have our picnic overlooking the wonderfully named Wolf Edge, near Flash, the highest village in England. If it is a good vole year this is a great place for breeding short-eared owls and there are often peregrines and ravens in the same area. If time allows we will run down into the Gradbach and follow the River Dane through the woods to visit Lud Church, a rather eery cleft in the rocks, where the persecuted Lollard sect was said to gather in the fifteenth century. The site is also credited as a key location in the anonymous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But Gradbach is just a lovely spot for wildlife and will add to the day’s full mix.

Our last day in England’s most landlocked county will be determined by weather and wildlife as the season unfolds. But it will capture something special about that particular spring. One spot we may visit is among my favourite in the area: Beeston Torr in the Manifold Valley. It is in Staffordshire and is dominated by a huge domed bloc of limestone that is often visited by peregrines. The surrounding woodlands are some of the best in the area and are a great place to catch up with two of the area’s rarest speciality birds – marsh and willow tit. Wherever we go it will be chosen to offer you the fullest sense of this place and to capture the essence of the Peak District.

images Beeston Torr with a resting peregrine, marsh tit and Beeston torr

The 360 Degree Approach

Our Derbyshire breaks are co-organised by Mark Cocker and Chris Mounsey of Balkan Tracks. Chris will make all arrangements, handle bookings and oversee finances. Our approach has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The break is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Derbyshire are a stimulation for reflection, thought and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while I am not expert in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is peregrines or periwinkles. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of our holidays.

The 360 Degrees team

Mark Cocker is an author and naturalist born and brought up in Buxton. He has contributed to the Guardian country diary for 34 years and his 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our PlaceBirds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008, while A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Books Awards in 2019. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Prespa in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated ‘responsible tourism’ company, which is devoted to connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finestnature and, importantly, the people who live among it. Chris is currently exploring newforms of flight-free holidays in the UK and other parts of Europe.

Our Accommodation

Our base is the four-star Westminster Hotel, a family-run 12-room establishment on Broad Walk at the heart of the town, with lovely views over the Pavilion Gardens’ lakes. The breakfasts and packed lunches are hearty and based on locally sourced produce. In the evenings we have three-course dinners at a small privately-owned and family-run restaurant called La Brasserie Bar, where the food and atsmopshere are first class. It is just ten-minutes walk from the hotel and located in the most vibrant part of Buxton’s scenic centre. There are terrific micro-brewery pubs around this area and our hotel is chosen to give you easy access to Buxton’s famous historical architecture, such as the St Anne’s Crescent and the Devonshire Dome. You can find out more about your accommodation at their respective websites: www.westminsterhotel.co.uk and www.thebarbrasseriebuxton.co.uk.

Prices and Arrangements

Dates:   Mon 25 – Thurs 28 April 2022

Price £795 (plus £100 for single supplement) Included are all transport, guiding (entry fees), all meals including daily packed lunches and accommodation. Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your travel to/from Buxton, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The tour will have a maximum of eight participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 5pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. A £200 deposit is payable on booking. See my website for additional details. if you want more information about the programme please email me hereIf you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

Derbyshire Break 2

with

Mark Cocker

Mon 4 July – Thurs 7 July 2022

A four-day all-inclusive summer break to experience the hills and dales of north Derbyshire with multi-award-winning naturalist and author in his home patch. If you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

Our wildlife breaks are centred in historic Buxton. The town stands atop the thermal springs for which it has been renowned since Roman times, but it also straddles the two characteristic geological formations of the High Peak, the limestone plateau and the gritstone uplands. The life of 320 million years ago is never far from the surface and has shaped the region’s environmental present, as well as its industrial past.

July is a great time of year to visit the Peak District and the break is timed to capture some of the area’s most distinctive wildlife at its best. The real beauty of the season is that we get a full sense of the area’s wildlife abundance with the minimum of travel. Time spent travelling to the sites is kept to an absolute minimum.

Once we have gathered early on Monday afternoon we intend to be among it all in a matter of few minutes. Buxton itself is a great place for wildlife and we will visit one of the local hotspots to begin the holiday. Willow warblers, whitethroats and spotted flycatchers are all feeding their nestlings or embarking on a second brood in the local woods, while ravens and buzzards are common locally and often fly directly over the town. Wherever there are flowers there are always insects and local specialities include bilberry bumblebee and the elm-loving white-lettered hairstreak.

(images below, clockwise from top left: southern marsh orchid and kidney vetch; white-lettered hairstreak, dark green fritillary; bilberry bumblebee and golden-ringed dragonfly).

North Derbyshire in high summer is one of the most botanically rich areas in England and enjoying this festival of colour will be a key part of our four-day break. The dales also have real specialities at this time of year and both dark red helleborine and dune helleborine should be in full bloom. We have about a dozen fabulous dales to choose from and I may adjust the programme to take advantage of nuances and local information at the time. A common denominator, wherever we choose, is the sheer floral abundance: the riverbanks forested with triffid-like stands of butterbur, the banks of betony and lady’s bedstraw, harebells and knapweed climbing up the sides of Hay Dale; the stands of eyebright and thyme that crown the endless nests of yellow meadow ants, with which they are ecologically entwined. All of these will be encountered at some point over the four days and we are not averse to recommendations.

Images 1-: butterbur in the River Wye; eyebright, one of the two dagger moth species on its food plant; Chee Torr tunnel in Miller Dale; bloody cranesbill; DWT’s Millers Dale Quarry reserve; the rewilded railway sidings near Millers Dale station; green woodpecker, .)

Some of the gusto of the spring bird chorus may have been lost by July but there are compensations: such as flocks of newly fledged hirundines – house martins and swallows – that muster over the dales and woods. Adults redstarts are also busy feeding their broods of semi-independent young and they flick in and out the limestone crags and hawthorn bushes flashing their telltale fiery tails. Dippers breed really early and may well be fledging a second brood by July’ so the rivers will never have so many of these wonderfully characterful birds. It seems almost a rule of life on the riverbank: find a dipper and there will be a grey wagtail family too. Another part of summer nowadays is the mandarin duck mothers with their endearing broods of ducklings. Overhead, meanwhile, we keep an eye out for pergrines that are feeding their well-grown chicks at ths time, as well as occasional hobbies or red kites, which are now creeping into the area as breeding birds.

Images clockwise from top left: mandarin duck family, barn swallow fledgling, willow wabler, peregrine male, common whitethroat.

On our last morning, depending on the weather and the group’s fitness we can venture onto Kinder Scout which is the highest part of the Peak District. Defoe infamously wrote it off as a ‘waste and houling wilderness, but it became famous in the twentieth century as the heart of the access movement. This was especially after the Mass Trespass of 1932, which is now celebrated almost annually. Kinder is well known for its grand prospects but it is also a very interesting place for wildlife.

The tops are most famous for their blanket bog, but the Kinder valley into the lovely village of Hayfield holds great oak woods and these are excellent for wildlife. Purple hairstreak butterfly is one of its scarcer resident insects and the local abundance of three flowering heathers is a major draw for a range of bumblebee species. Another local speciality is the solitary heather bee, whose colonies riddle the exposed shaly outcrops with their tiny burrows. We may not get the health benefits of a full Kinder climb but the foot of the Scout is a great spot for our picnic, while the panoramic views are a perfect finale for our Derbyshire break.

Images clockwise from top left: heather bee colony, the view across to Mam Torr from Kinder, mountain hare and hare’s-tail cotton grass, common heather in flower.

The 360 Degree Approach

Our Derbyshire breaks are co-organised by Mark Cocker and Chris Mounsey of Balkan Tracks. Chris will make all arrangements, handle bookings and oversee finances. Our approach has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The break is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Derbyshire are a stimulation for reflection, thought and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while I am not expert in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is peregrines or periwinkles. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of our holidays.

The 360 Degrees team

Mark Cocker is an author and naturalist born and brought up in Buxton. He has contributed to the Guardian country diary for 34 years and his 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008, while A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Books Awards in 2019. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Prespa in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated ‘responsible tourism’ company, which is devoted to connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finestnature and, importantly, the people who live among it. Chris is currently exploring newforms of flight-free holidays in the UK and other parts of Europe.

Our Accommodation

Our base is the four-star Westminster Hotel, a family-run 12-room establishment on Broad Walk at the heart of the town, with lovely views over the Pavilion Gardens’ lakes. The breakfasts and packed lunches are hearty and based on locally sourced produce. In the evenings we have three-course dinners at a small privately-owned and family-run restaurant called La Brasserie Bar, where the food and atsmopshere are first class. It is just ten-minutes walk from the hotel and located in the most vibrant part of Buxton’s scenic centre. There are terrific micro-brewery pubs around this area and our hotel is chosen to give you easy access to Buxton’s famous historical architecture, such as the St Anne’s Crescent and the Devonshire Dome. You can find out more about your accommodation at their respective websites: www.westminsterhotel.co.uk and www.thebarbrasseriebuxton.co.uk.

Prices and Arrangements

Dates:   Mon 4 July – Thurs 07 July 2022

Price £795 (plus £100 for single supplement) Included are all transport, guiding (entry fees), all meals including daily packed lunches and accommodation. Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your travel to/from Buxton, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The tour will have a maximum of eight participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 5pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. A £200 deposit is payable on booking. See my website for additional details. if you want more information about the programme please email me here. If you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

The unofficial book club review no 2

Looking at those extraordinary anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from 510 years ago, which feature a stillborn child plucked from the womb of its deceased mother, you realise that one of the world’s most celebrated artists seldom felt a demarcation between his aesthetic exploration and what one could broadly call his scientific investigation of life. Art and knowledge were two parts of a single practice and the driving heart of it was one of the most curious, tender and wonder-filled minds ever to have evolved.

It has always struck me that art still has a central part to play in modern natural history. Although the deep connection is partly being broken or, perhaps one should say, continued by photographers, there is still an important place for painters in nature. Illustrations of wildlife have changed the way we see other creatures. The American Roger Tory Peterson, for one, made birds accessible to millions of us in the twentieth century. I think equally of the bird plates of the Swede Lars Jonnson. Theirs isn’t perhaps art in the same vein as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa but, rather like the latter’s anatomical drawings, the work of these naturalist painters enables us to enter worlds and see things that we barely knew.

If I am asked to name a contemporary illustrator who has done an enormous amount to change how we see British nature I immediately think of Richard Lewington. His astonishingly accurate, painstaking depictions of butterflies, latterly of moths and most recently of the 275 species of British bee, are among my favourite paintings by a modern illustrator. His images adorn several key groundbreaking field guides and for many thousands of people they have given access to a whole new world of insects.

And rightly so, you would say, because insects can be beautiful (look at the Atlas moth above). There is now also a deepening and rather belated public recognition that insects are astonishingly important to life. I think there are 24 insect orders and just four of them – flies (diptera), moths and butterflies (lepidoptera), bees, wasps and ants (hymenoptera), and, last but not least, the gargantuan order of beetles (coleoptera alone contains 400,000 species) – include somewhere in the region of 770,000 species and perhaps close to half of all life forms that humans have pinned a name to.

Part of the problem of insects is the sheer size of that taxonomic list. Britain is pretty poor for insects with a modest total of only 24,000+ species. When the animals are this numerous and diverse and taxonomically unstable it means their names and the hypothetical order in which they are arranged change regularly. It also demands that the nomenclature for them is largely based on scientific Latin and Greek. Unfortunately it places one of the planet’s most important classes of life behind a pay wall of near impenetrable complexity. The price you have to fork out is an intense effort to master all the complicated terminology and detail. The result: insects have languished in a place of deep human ignorance and we see them very often as just nasty little bugs that have us reaching for the spray can.

If you are in any doubt about the terror inspired (I say this humorously: in fact, one of the great cultural gifts made by insects is the inspiration they’ve provided for most of the horror genre in world cinema!) by these creatures then look at the extraordinary jaws on the green tiger beetle that I saw the other day in the Goyt Valley. But I also bid you look again at this completely harmless little fellow and see how stunning are its colours. And those are my finger tips: he or she is tiny and anything but scary.

At a time when there are reports suggesting a 80 per cent collapse in entire European populations of insects we really have to change our attitudes and practices towards them. An idea once falsely attributed to Einstein was the notion that if honey bees were to go extinct, humanity would have about four years before its own demise. It is untrue and he never actually said it, but a world without insects is genuinely one that would suffer monumental disruption. And while life would continue, humans almost certainly would not. Insects are at the very heart of the business of plant pollination. They are the great refuse disposal agents of the planet, recycling nutrients to ensure healthy plant communities in all terrestrial environments. Forests probably would cease to function without insects. This class of life is ultimately the foundation of most food chains and without insects almost every creature on Earth would be adversely affected.

So cometh the hour, cometh the man. Paul Brock has possibly done more to change how we see, recognise, grasp, understand, and, therefore, care about insects than any one else in Britain. His original 2014 book A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland (Pisces publications) was an instant bestseller and changed the landscape of insect recognition overnight. It was partly the beautiful lay out, the inclusion of pretty accurate distribution maps on the same page as the text, the presence of so many really pin-sharp photos, and partly his coverage of more insect species than any previous single volume. He then did a companion A Photographic Guide to Insects of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which widened the geogrphical range of his focus. Now here comes a new improved stab at the whole business.

Britain’s Insects: A Field Guide to the Insects of Great Britain and Ireland by WildGuides (£25, first published on 5 July 2021) is a whopper! It is not perhaps a field guide in the sense that you would carry it around easily in your bag, but you could have it in the car and most all-round naturalists will definitely want it on their shelves. What it does brilliantly in 600 clearly laid out, if busy, pages is to put at your disposal the most comprehensive single text yet produced for British insects, packed with key up-to-the-minute data and with 2,600 superb images of nearly 1500 species.

There are 1-2 innovations and a whole lot that was excellent in the earlier books which Paul has carried over into this new one. One of the most important for me is the inclusion of as many English-language names for species as he possibly can. There’s a famous Spanish-derived adage quoted everywhere by naturalists these days – ‘you cannot love what you do not know’. I would modify it slightly to argue ‘you cannot love what you cannot remember’. English names are pivotal to the dissemination of knowledge and, thus, of real attention and devotion to any branch of natural history. Of course you cannot easily have English names for all 24,000 insects, but you can work on the principle that accessibility is everything. The editors at WildGuides are past masters at this stuff and I could not recommend their collective project more highly.

One detail I must mention before I close and let you go off and pre-order it. I am a passionate devotee of grasshoppers and crickets, partly because, like birds, they up and fly away, making them an enhanced challenge in the field. But they also produce some of the most glorious vocalisations of the British summer. This book has a system of QR codes for every member of the group so you can use your mobile phone to find recordings and thus hear these orthopteran melodies in real time as you are looking and listening to the beast itself. What a great innovation. Congratulations Paul Brock. Congratulations to the team at WildGuides.

Red Shift: Helping House Martins and Swifts in their time of need?

Last month we got official confirmation about the new national status of swifts and house martins (above) in Britain. Although anyone over 40 years old with even the slighest interest in nature will have watched these glorious summer birds become less and less common. Places where they used to breed have increasingly fallen silent. Now we have the facts in black and white, or perhaps in scarlet letters. Because both have been declared red-list species in Britain and at risk of extinction, with swifts having fallen by 58% and the martin by 57% since 1995.

The grim background to this story is that 70 species, about double the number previously red-listed in 1996, have now been placed in this highest category of threat. Just as worrying is that a further 103 birds are on the amber list. Why does that matter? Well until recently swift and house martin were amber-listed birds also. The red and amber lists suggest that there are troubling population trends for three-quarters of all British birds. Just a quarter of our avifauna has a positive environmental status with a green listing.

The central issue accounting for losses of swifts and house martins is probably revealed in the Krefeld report, a German document that shows how insects have declined in that country by 75 per cent in the last 40 years. Most signficant is that these changes came not in the wastelands of industrialised farming but from within the country’s protected wildlife network. Insect biomass is directly implicated in the losses of insectivorous birds. Why would we be surprised that 3.2 billion birds have vanished from North American skies and now 600 million from Europe over the same period? These are precisely the areas with the longest history of intensive agricultural use of insect poisons. (let’s call a spade a spade here: they are not ‘pesticides’, they kill so-called ‘pests’ and everything else.) Here’s a swift (below) with its throat bulging with 300-1000 insects that it will feed to its chicks.

Below is a heart-warming scene involving house martins en masse as they gather nest-making materials. It was taken in northern Greece, where house martins are still in extremely good numbers, but there is something else in the image that may help to explain why this little pied mouse has plunged so dramatically in Britain. Mud. House martins need it to make their nests and you invariably require livestock, primarily cattle, to create mud. That is exactly what you see in the Greek shot. Otherwise the birds use industrial and agricultural sites or natural places – river banks and temporary puddles – in order to collect their essential pellet-sized building materials. My guess is that a mud shortage is a lesser but significant factor in UK house martin declines.

There is a third factor in the losses of house martins and swifts and this is one we can all do something about. Both birds originally would have used a range of natural nest sites – caves and cliffs or treeholes – but at differing times in the history of civilisation, these two switched to nesting above our heads in roofs. (Below is an original house-martin nest-site on the chalk cliffs at Flamborough and you can read my fuller post and Guardian pieces here and here).

But things have changed dramatically in the last half century. A new requirement for higher levels of insulation and changes in construction materials have probably worked against both birds, but especially swifts, which need access holes in our roofs. Our increasingly tidy-minded habits have probably played a further part in evicting house martins. I have actually seen people knock nests down, which is illegal, or hanging decorative Xmas-type lights permanently on the gutters in an attempt to deter the birds from building, which is probably legal but appallingly uncaring. Loss of nest sites by both birds is surely a major factor in their declines.

The sad disappearance of these two magnificent creatures has mercifully not gone unnoticed. And there are many things that anyone can do. I am going to list a few of the positive ways in which people can and do help house martins and swifts.

There is, for example, a wonderful group called House Martin Conservation UK and Ireland. You can find more about their work on the website here and on Facebook here. Both links give you access to an entire community of friendly people and brilliant ideas about what to do. House martins need an eave so that they can usually glue the mud cup both to the back wall and also to a horizontal surface at 90 degrees to vertical. But you can buy ready-made cups that sit on boards and slot into exactly that space. My picture of Millers’ Dale station shows that success is not guaranteed. The bird still often prefer their own homemade versions. House martins have thousands of years of history of using our sites but building their own nests. Switching to the ready-made alternatives may take a little time, so try to be patient.

House Martins are also highly communal and like to be with friends. Here is a picture recently taken at Castro Verde in Portugal which shows how they love to be with one another. So, if you have success with luring a single pair into your purpose-built box then perhaps put out others nearby. One house martin pair is great, but 2 or more is better still.

The ready-built nests are now made by a range of manufacturers at relatively small cost. My personal favourite manufacturer in our area is Peak Boxes, which is constantly innovating on new ways to encourage birds and to create nesting places for martins and swifts, and for a whole suite of other hole-using species. Here is their latest idea for a socially minded creature like house martin, a tower block complete with more than a dozen nests at the equally brilliant rewilding Derbyshire farm Sunart Fields run by Geoff and Rachel Evatt. Link here.

Swifts are similarly adapting to human-made alternative nest-sites. We have one of Peak Boxes’ seven-unit apex nest-sites for swifts, so far, it must be said, with imperfect success for the target bird. The best means of luring swifts to new boxes is to play tape-recordings of their social calls. Most of the manufacturers, such as Peak Boxes, sell these sound systems. And they have led to startling successes, sometimes with swifts moving into freshly erected boxes within hours. The unit structures at Peak Boxes have been designed after decades of research by swift aficionados like Mark and Jane Glanville.

The key point to make is that you don’t need a multi-nest box to have an impact. A single occupied site makes a difference and the other possibility is to work with neighbours to develop a community project. A real long-term solution would be if all new-built properties came with special nest bricks for sparrows, starlings, martins and swifts so that this traditional roof-nesting bird suite were accommodated at source. The groups often campaign for these outcomes.

There is a comparable suite of active swift groups which can help with advice and contacts. There is the pioneering specialist collective Swift Conservation which has a website here. There is another Facebook equivalent with many members called Save our Swifts, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins. If you use social media their dedicated page is here. All of the mainstream conservation organisations have page or groups dedicated to the birds and there are a number of other county-based collectives. We have a fabulous example locally run by volunteer Nick Brown for the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust here. And in Buxton itself we have a wildlife group that is partly dedicated to counting and censusing the local swift population. Email if you would like to know more.

One of the enormous pleasures of helping these two magnificent birds it the thought that action taken on your own doorstep could have direct consequences over the forests of the Congo or in the skies above South Africa. For they are truly world-wrapping migrants. They make our planet a single place and the whole world one community.

Unofficial bookclub review no 3

Europe’s Birds,

by Rob Hume, Rob Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop, 640 pp, £20, Wild Guides & Princeton.

or ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is opticron-logo-347.jpg

A question. Do you have friends about whom you wonder sometimes why exactly you’re friends? I must confess I do. One of my closest friends is David Tipling the celebrated photographer with whom I worked on a book for ten years. Birds and People is still one of the favourite projects that I have completed in my career, partly because of collaborating with such a talented guy. The problem is he and I probably shouldn’t be friends! Because we agree on almost nothing.

And I’m not just talking politics here. Take any subject you like: the Queen, Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Manchester United, beefburgers, Coke Cola. On all of them we hold diametrically opposed views. In fact we disagree on so much that I once said to him half jokingly (we laugh a lot!) : ‘Matey, don’t ask me what I think of something. Ask yourself whether you like it or not and just assume I’ll be the opposite’. I should add he calls me ‘Matey’ and I him! It’s one of the things on which we are united.

A subject about which we have disagreed is field guides. Needless to say, David, a brilliant photographer to his fingertips, is a proponent of the photographic guide. I, on the other hand, have always loved illustrated field guides. I cherish the artwork in field guides and have always thought the capacity of the artist to arbitrarily include the details necessary for field identification – those subtleties that photographs so seldom once captured – have given illustrators an infallible advantage. These things are so silky; say, the relative length of the primaries, or the slight upward turn in a supercillium, or the patterning in the tertials, that only a painterly eye and hand can convey them.

My lifetime sequence for British bird books is as follows: The Observer’s Book of Birds, and then, from the age of 12, The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe by Bertel Bruun and Arthur Singer (1972). Next came what was familarly known as Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. The technical title was The Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East by Collins (from the age of 13 onwards). It was the subtitle and all those improbably wonderful, exotic African and Middle Eastern creatures like Dupont’s Lark and Grey Hypocolius that probably did more to change my world view and my life ambitions than any other field guide.

Next came a new generation of books with such beautiful artwork that you couldn’t imagine they would be bettered. I mean Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East by Christopher Helm in 1992 and then ‘Svensson’. The gold standard for the next generation, its full title is Collins Bird Guide (2nd Edition) The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom (Collins 1999.

What all of them have done, and do still, is inform our sightings with greater comparative understanding and ever more forensic detail on bird appearances and variation. In turn they fuel our ambitions for future obervations. These field guides – all of them, right back to The Observer’s Book of Birds – tell us how we should look and what to look for. In short, they help us see better. It is a great gift. Collectively they also provide a social history on the birding community and sequential measurement of how optical technology, such as that by Opticron who support these pages, have changed the way we observe.

All of the above I’ve come to appreciate slowly. What I never imagined is that I’d now come round to the idea that the future belongs to photographic guides. Even more difficult to say: I have to admit David Tipling is right. To put it another way: ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

The book that has changed the landcape, for me, is this astonishingly beautifully and technically masterful Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop of Wild Guides under the umbrella of Princeton Press £20.How to begin to capture the scale of their collective achievement? Well, it is a very big book, 640 pages long and 1.4kg (3lb in old money) in weight. This largeness is actually part of the reason for its overall quality. Not only is it roughly 200 pages longer than ‘Svensson’, but each page is a slightly larger canvas with roughly an extra 2cm of height and width. The space has given its creators lots of room to cover all the latest taxonomic changes and give each of 900 species its full due, using 4700 images to go into the details required for making a successful discrimination.

 Here is a family with which I often struggle. Divers. See one in summer on a loch and it is usually straightforward. But out on a choppy sea in winter, when they lose all that tell-tale colour, it is another matter. The beauty of these photographs is that they are able to do all the work I once credited only to illustrations: they capture the exact differences, but they do so with pictures of the actual living beast.

The sheer abundance of photographic images for Wild Guides to choose from – partly because the latest technology has brought decent images within the compass of many gifted amateurs – means that they can find pin-sharp pictures of hard-to-separate species in almost perfect analogue poses. And all can be placed in close proximity to the well-chosen words of a master of fieldguide prose, Mr Rob Hume. The combination is truly superb.

It is in the context of what is, for me, one of the most difficult-to-identify common bird families – the skuas – that you really see all the advantages of photographs and the finely honed text working in tandem. Skuas may be tricky, but having all the finer points of separation for your to pore over, really helps to get it straight in your head.

The various European species – Arctic, Pomarine, Long-tailed and Bonxie – have been minutely trawled in the separate species accounts. Then, for good measure, the authors have put together this hugely economical and information-packed double-page spread to allow you to digest the foregoing data in visual form. All of the necessary words are slotted into the previous pages. This, if you like, is both the icing on the cake AND the nitty gritty revision all in one space. It is a tour do force of digital organisation. The designers have really worked the whole book out in meticulous detail.    

Here’s a page I enjoyed partly because it celebrates a favourite family. Also the photos capture something which my beloved copy of Svensson doesn’t convey through its paintings. I’ve always thought Rook and Carrion Crow have a quite different flight profile. Usually they are instantly separable on a flight view alone because of it. The rook’s outer wingtips are more deeply and finely fingered and the hand (the outer section of the wing sits at an oblique angle to the inner portion). Together they make the whole wing look more like a backward-slanting paddle. Carrion crows, on the other hand, have straighter-winged flight profile. They lack the appearance of a finely fingered hand and the distinctly angled shape. Most of the time, at least.

Pointing out the clarification made by Europe’s Birds is not to denigrate the earlier book but to celebrate again the achievements of the new one. Not only is it a complete and integrated survey of all Europe’s birds and the challenges they pose in terms of identification, it is a beautiful object to have and peruse. And, yes, it has also made me realise that sometimes I’m wrong and my old friend is right.

It leaves me only to say, ‘Matey, I agree with you’. It would appear there are things we have in common. I’m pleased to think we can still be friends.

I include one last page so you can savour the way in which subtle features and sometime glaring differences are synthesised in one complex montage

If you would like to leave a comment for me on this or anything else, you can contact me here. To see what else I am upto and if you would like to join me for a writing course, a Derbyshire break or holiday then go back to my website.