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


I am just going outside and may be some time…

…or a walk around the village…

After mild weather in Scandinavia that produced only a token dusting of snow I expected to find England balmy, full of birdsong and our woodland carpeted in snowdrops. And so it was for a few days before tentative forecasts of snow began to surface. Despite spring being in the air we were told to expect arctic conditions that would bring life as we know it to a frozen and ice-bound halt. I’m a sceptical sort of chap and take such warnings – the Met Office issued an Amber alert – in my stride but found myself glancing at the horizon to see if the distant spires of Cambridge were disappearing, Mordor-like, under dark clouds.

As the weather front approached us Heathrow Airport cancelled first a third and then half its flights; the BBC warned of icy conditions, road closures and probable accidents; concerned spokespeople wrung their hands in angst during hastily-arranged interviews as they implored us to pay extra attention to our elderly neighbours and the wireless advised us to stay tuned to our local station for weather updates. The tension mounted and the weather dominated the news – reporters ‘live’ at a silent Heathrow and various points around the country gazed upward into clear skies and down at deserted roads as they explained how serious it was going to be. When temperatures began to drop I wondered if I should I head over to our 24-hour Tesco store and stock up with essential provisions but worried that, if the snow hit, I might become trapped in a nightmare world of clueless staff, special offers and tasteless cheese. As Sky News reported that the snow had started falling in the north and was moving south we lit candles, turned up the heating and drew the curtains in what were probably futile gestures against the forces of nature.

It snowed during the night. At least 10cm lay on the ground and the biggest problem I faced was negotiating around the neighbour’s kids’ snowman on the way to pick up my croissants. Ben and Emily came in for hot chocolate later and, somehow, against the odds it seems, we all managed to survive without the aid of the emergency services.

Just another year – but forward or backward?

2010 ended with a whimper; it’s been foggy and very damp outside my office window and mild; very different to the snow and sub-zero temperatures prevailing when we returned from Sweden for the holidays. The trip that usually takes a few hours took two days, involved cancelled trains, cancelled planes, a fitful but greatly-appreciated sleep in Copenhagen before a forced change of airport and some dodgy moments in the taxi that brought us here. We’d read about the chaos at Heathrow and how the country had come to a standstill following the first flurry of snow so we expected something much worse than we found. By the time we landed both runways were open and planes were moving the backlog of red-eyed and dishevelled travellers but there were still huge stacks of baggage lying around and a lot of despondent expressions. Beyond the airport boundary the roads were clear of marooned drivers, who had apparently survived the previous few days through a combination of soup from the Salvation Army and messages of moral support from the tabloid press. BAA’s completely inept management and arrogant disregard for its customers generated justifiable outrage but gave us plenty to moan about so things were more or less normal in pre-Christmas Blighty.

In all honesty though, I was pleased to be out of Sweden for a while because it wasn’t quite so cosy over there, either. It’s usually pretty well organised but, believe it or not, the snow was causing some travel problems although the weather wasn’t all that was troubling the Viking spirit; it was just one of the issues combining to depress an already glum population that was battening down for a long, cold winter. Sweden prides itself on maintaining a smug homeostasis and is rarely disturbed by anything more significant than the issue of the new Ikea catalogue; 2010 wasn’t to be the same.

Remember Julian Assange? In August Sweden issued an arrest warrant for him only to revoke it next day. Was the Swedish special prosecutor’s office misbehaving or just maladroit in the manner in which charges against him were dealt with? First the allegations were dismissed and then resurrected after appeal by the two girls involved. Then another arrest warrant was issued, allowing barmy left-wing itinerant intellects the opportunity to tell us that free speech is being stifled. Maybe it is but someone needs to un-muddy the waters for us as I seriously wonder whether the guy can now get a fair hearing after so much speculation and, this is the ironic part, leaking of information to the media. Back in June it had been so much easier to put our faith in something less tangible than the course of due process; true love.

The collective euphoria of Crown Princess Victoria’s fairy-tale wedding was short-lived and with Julian looking like he wouldn’t be back for his day in court the country was dealt another body-blow when it was dished-up a dose of reality at the September general election. Life took on a different perspective as the ruling coalition lost ground to the Sweden Democrats, a party that leans a fair bit to the right and has strong views on immigration. Immigrants represent nearly one in seven of the population but this issue is usually grumbled about in hushed tones. Although this was only the second time that a Conservative government had been re-elected it was returned without an overall majority and the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time. The previously ever-popular Social Democrats – these guys have ruled for 65 of the past 78 years and are largely responsible for the sumptuous welfare benefits that are enjoyed – were given the finger. Thrown into turmoil at election results that were the worst since 1914, they forced their cold-eyed leader, Mona Sahlin, to walk the plank. The turmoil left the government reeling from the political uncertainty and it had to spend as much time managing its allegiances, alliances and negotiating margins as it did addressing the economy, energy and the environment, which are perpetual and major issues. As the Swedish winter was about to plunge the country into dim twilight more than a few Swedes were reflecting on the consequences of getting what they wished for.

Certainly the unfortunate souls being picked-off by a sniper at bus stops in Malmö did.

In November it was the turn of the Monarchy; with the political situation becoming clearer and the dust settling a book called The Reluctant Monarch was published. The 20,000 print run flew off the shelves as word spread that it alleged the revered and previously respected King Carl Gustaf XVI was actually something of a rake. Here was a monarch of great dignity and mild countenance who, the book alleged, attended strip clubs and wild sex parties while philandering with a buxom model. To make things worse, it was also alleged that he used the secret service – Sapo – to manage the necessary cover-up by repossessing compromising photographs from the sirens themselves, presumably under threat of having their welfare benefits withheld. It seems that the Royal Family have done the proper thing – they reportedly discussed it sensibly and agreed to move on – but I wonder what else there is over on the dark side. The King is a committed hunter; the book acknowledges this when it alleges that he had sex with two women at the same time [I suspect that this is not literal and means that they were engaged in a tripartite tryst] after completing a successful elk hunt. Back in 2008 he caused a minor flap in conservation circles when he advocated hunting Swedish wolves before their population of about 180 ‘exploded’. 180 is not a lot of wolves in the third largest country in western Europe, especially when they tend to stay in the forest, so these revelations suggest to me that there might have been something more sinister to his enthusiasm for culling them. I’m thinking three, maybe four at the same time? Bad enough but then there were suggestions of Nazis further up the family tree. A TV documentary – Kalla fakta [Cold facts] – has alleged that Queen Sofia’s father grew rich during the Second World War by producing armaments from a factory that had been stolen from Jewish owners. She claimed that the factory produced hairdryers and toy trains. I guess that’s just what was needed in Germany during the war so that’s alright then. Hairdryers, eh?

It was all a bit worrying as we’ve always thought that Sweden would be the perfect bolt-hole in the event of civilisation coming to an end so you’ll appreciate that all this uncertainty – which in Sweden is tantamount to civil unrest – was unsettling, to say the least. Then in December just when we thought life might get back to normal Sweden, of all the places in the world, suffered a terrorist attack. We were appalled – not so much at the possibility of a life-threatening event but that someone had dared to do something that was so, well, un-Swedish. As Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt put it when responding to the two explosions ‘Our democracy functions well; those who feel frustration or anger have the opportunity to express it without resorting to violence.’ Which is of course true, unless you come from Luton, where the perp was apparently radicalised and where they don’t speak Swedish but it doesn’t really demonstrate an understanding on what Islamic terrorism is all about, does it?

So, the holidays are about over, people here are still groaning about the weather, traffic chaos, petrol and rail fare increases and VAT at 20% but spring is just a few weekends away. 2011 will be a better year, mark my words.

Here are some pics from those dark, cold days……



….well, not that dark, really.