Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

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Summer’s lease – sing, dammit-it’s a tradition

March in England was the coldest since 1962 and the second coldest since records began so April’s first warm, sunny days were very welcome. Ann and Lars were over from Denmark and even though it was still too cold to sit outside in comfort a visit to the east coast and the West Mersea Oyster Bar enabled us say thanks and goodbye to the native oyster season. This is becoming a tradition for Mission Control and me; the oysters are matchless and the fish and chips pretty good too, especially after a bracing walk along the Mersea seawall or beside the Blackwater.

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea
Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea
Blackwater barges
Blackwater barges
Mudflats on the Blackwater
Mudflats on the Blackwater

I like traditions and believe they can have great value even if, in some respects, we’ve lost sight of what we are celebrating. Mark Twain reflected on it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” and so it appears in real life.  In Sweden traditions are important; anything that attracts more than three people becomes a celebration and any celebration that’s repeated becomes a tradition. As a consequence, the calendar overflows with them and, not content with those they have, more are being added. We find our travel is often framed around one particular gathering or another.

We never miss Fettisdagen – Fat Tuesday – at the start of lent, where the tradition is celebrated with fastlagsbulle or semla – delicious buns filled with cream and almond paste. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is an old tradition with roots in the Middle Ages. It gets a ‘thumbs-up’ from me on the merits of these scrummy little treats alone but at the other end of the dental cavity scale the new kid on the block is Kanelbullens dag. This piece of nonsense, which was started in 1999, is a tribute to the cinnamon bun and while accepting that it’s a staple of any coffee morning in Sweden I wonder if it really justifies its own web page. In between Valborgsmässoafton, when the evil spirits are driven out and fertility is invoked with bonfires, singing and drinking and Kräftskiva, when we eat crayfish, sing more songs and get hideously drunk, bookend Midsommarafton, the most celebrated of Swedish traditions.

April’s weather was fine but cool although summer really started for us on 1 May, where the tradition of heralding the arrival of long, light evenings, deserted offices and phones switched to voice-mail, needs a bonfire. So a few days after the oyster season closed we were in Sweden celebrating Valborg or Walpurgis Night, as it’s known in England. The village turns out to light an enormous and – it has to be said – dangerous fire, sing folk songs and offer a few prayers for a plentiful bounty in the coming year. Actually, warding-off evil spirits and invoking fertility come a poor second to alcohol on these occasions so we were inside drinking elderberry flower and gin cocktails long before there was any danger of having to deal with first-degree burns.  The singing – as always – was led by our local patriarch Henry Ekelund, who has been warding-off evil spirits since he was born in the village over ninety years ago. It was clear and cold that evening; perfect for our fire but a night of contrasts. I recall hearing the first nightingale of the summer and seeing Henry’s wife, our beloved Signe, for the last time; she passed away shortly after.

My Swedish is little better than my knowledge of brain surgery but every year they give me song-sheets and every year I stumble through lyrics about buds bursting into leaf that I don’t quite understand while trying to carry tunes I don’t really know. The important thing, of course, is being there, sharing the occasion and contributing to the friendship and community spirit that pervades the evening. I’ve found it helps if you can hold your drink, too, so I practice at every opportunity. Rejoicing in the invention of the cinnamon bun seems a little silly by comparison.

Spring and early summer in Sweden can be a mixed blessing. Time spent in the wide open spaces and lengthening days are often tempered with a chill in the air. May was cold but with clearer weather, on balance, than in England so we ended up spending most of the month there, indulging ourselves in the richness of Sweden coming to life, anticipating a warm June and looking forward to the next celebration.

As a measure of how important the return of the long, light days are midsummer’s day was at one point considered a candidate for National Day. It’s always a very social occasion but dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs and holding hands with people you’re normally only on nodding terms with doesn’t come easily to a bloke from London’s east end. Prodigious amounts of alcohol can be consumed but tales of drunken abandon and debauchery tend to mythologise a national treasure and are not entirely true. That being said, anyone with a modicum of concern for their liver will avoid the traditional celebration of Midsommarafton. Anecdotes involving alcohol tend to define the occasion, the essence of which was captured perfectly in Ikea’s German TV ad. It was banned on the grounds of implying inappropriate rectitude but, that aside, most celebrations are far less riotous. Nonetheless, each of Sweden’s traditions is observed with great seriousness.

As a foreigner I’m very happy to go with the flow but somehow, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of that singing.

The village invokes fertility
The village invokes fertility
Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire
Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire
Visitors drop in
Visitors drop in