Friday, 30 March 2012


A red kite flew west past my house this morning, a marsh harrier east. A buzzard was bullied off the common by our pair of lesser black-backs, back for another season of duckling-gulping at the pond. Alder leaves grow greener by the day and dog's mercury flowers in my mother's garden; but common gulls are still with us, cold clouds gather, and suddenly it's March again.

As the afternoon sun pierces the cloud a small tortoiseshell flutters through my garden and a common carder queen dangles at a saxifrage.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Ernest Hemingway   
A Moveable Feast

A cockroach and a flint

Here is the second of two guest editorials I wrote for RSWT's Link magazine during my two years as its editor, published in March 2012.

Last Words from outgoing Link editor Nick Acheson: 

From the start of my contract as editor of Link, it was destined to be a short-term job. The Wildlife Trusts had, very wisely, stipulated that they wanted editors to change regularly, to ensure a flow of new ideas and new enthusiasm. So, after almost two years, here’s my last edition. When I applied for the job, and was privileged to be given it, I had no idea what a game-changer it would become for me or how much it would enhance my understanding of environmental education in the UK and elsewhere.

I’m handing on the job in no doubt that the UK has a vibrant, talented and world-leading community of environmental educators. I know because, through working on Link, I’ve heard from you, spoken to you, pestered you for articles, and been met with nothing in return but enthusiasm, ideas, fresh angles, and encouragement. It’s an expression that’s over-used but I find myself in awe of the education folks who work in Wildlife Trusts around the UK. In just two years I’ve heard from people who work with primary school children, people who work with university students, people who work with disaffected young adults, people who run Watch groups, people who work with adults with mental health problems, and people who work with just about anyone who comes along. All of you are united by a common belief: a belief that nature matters for her own sake but that, beyond this, human lives are richer for letting nature in.

I was in Madagascar recently, leading a wildlife-watching holiday. Among the many mind-crunchingly fascinating creatures we encountered was a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Quite apart from the fact that this otherwise unprepossessing critter rejoices in the scientific name Gromphadorhina portentosa, it is for me a portal straight to my first experience of environmental education. At some point in the late seventies, a biology teacher from the local school came to visit the tiny pre-school I attended. With him he brought – I remember it as clearly as though it were this morning – a giant millipede, a Madagascar hissing cockroach and a stuffed platypus. I was rapt, astonished that grown-ups could devote their lives to knowing about these precious creatures, and in that moment a naturalist was born. A small boy and a cockroach. It’s all it takes.

I am writing this in the harsh handshake of midwinter (what possessed me to come back from Madagascar?), thinking of the UK’s valiant environmental educators struggling to keep young fingers warm and young minds interested, despite the brutal cold. I have been there many times myself. But above my desk, on the windowsill, I have a reminder of what these days of cold fingers are for. It’s a flint, round and grey and perfectly indistinguishable from the millions of other flints which litter our Norfolk beaches. But this is a flint that was given to me by a child. An inner London school visits Norfolk Wildlife Trust each year in icy March and, at the end of the first such visit on which I worked, a boy of Asian heritage, who had never before been to a beach, held out the stone to me saying: It’s for you. Thanks. And in that moment it was no longer a stone. It was a reminder of all we can do and why we do it.

Humble though Link is, those of us who work on it hope that it has at times been, and will in the future be, a reminder of all we can do in environmental education and why we do it. It’s for you. Thanks.

Reproduced with permission from RSWT.

On children and nature

For the past two years it has been my great privilege to edit Link, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts' internal magazine for environmental educators and outdoor instructors. Early in my career as Link editor I introduced a guest editorial on the last page of the magazine. I wrote the first of these myself, in addition to the most recently-published as this was my last edition in the job. Since my season of outdoor learning and teaching with Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Hawk and Owl Trust is just beginning, yesterday I wrote to my colleagues at RSWT asking whether they would mind if I reproduced these two editorials here, and they were kind enough to agree. Today, serendipitously, there has been a Twitter-storm around The National Trust's just-published report on the urgent need to re-connect children with their natural heritage, their innate wildness. So here, in this context, is the first of the guest editorials I wrote for RSWT Link magazine, published in December 2010.

Last Words: Nick Acheson reflects on the crucial importance of outdoor learning

The footprints of humankind are young upon this Earth and for most of our time here they have been just that: footprints. Humans and their relatives have trodden barefoot over grass and marsh for all but the modern-most moments of hominid evolution. So too have their quick eyes read landscapes, their ears heard the mutterings of the woods, their lips felt the moods of the wind and their minds threaded all of these sensory inputs into understanding. For to be human is to be human in a landscape. For hundreds of thousands of years we have followed prey through landscapes, found water in landscapes, built homes from landscapes and found meaning for our own lives in landscapes.

It’s easy to romanticise the pure-seeming humans of our genetic past. Make no mistake, they lived short, hard lives and they lived in fear. Theirs were fears of wild beasts in the shadows, of pandemic illness, of starvation, of natural disaster and of malevolent spirits. Yet despite this, indeed because of it, they were creatures of their landscape.

Humans in today’s Developed World live largely in virtual landscapes, perpetually connected to everywhere but the present time and place. Gone is the need to understand when the rains will come, which fruits are bitter and where the wild beasts lurk. They no longer lurk and, to a large extent, we no longer live in a landscape in which death is the swift payment for inexperience and inattention. But this doesn’t equate to a landscape without fear for us. We have transferred our fear to skin cancer from exposure to the sun, Weil’s disease through contact with pond-water, Lyme disease from walking through long grass and the threat of strangers lurking round our playgrounds. These are real dangers, against which proper precaution must be taken, but there is a greater danger by far which faces modern humanity in the Developed World. It is the death of the human soul by dislocation from the landscapes in which we evolved, in which we belong.

If through fear and apathy we keep our children away from the woods, swaddle them from contact with their wild heritage, prevent them cutting their fingers on blades of grass, and stop them exploring, we strangle their humanity. Yes we must take steps to protect them from the perils of skin cancer and of ill-meaning strangers but if, in so doing, we stifle their relationship with their landscapes, their dreamscapes and their mindscapes, we deny them their birthright. In this context our role as outdoor instructors and teachers is cast in a new light. It is not enough to hug trees to inspire children to protect them or to watch ants to teach children respect for other creatures – though these are aims of lofty importance. The aim of today’s outdoor education in the Developed World must be nothing less than saving humanity from slow death by losing sight of its place in the landscape.

So tear outdoors with your children, your classes and your groups and (after a moment’s appropriate risk assessment, better yet with input from the children) wield those dipping nets in the muddy waters of ponds and rifle through barn owl pellets in search of shrew skulls. Let them leap onto sleds and rip down snowy slopes, let them scramble up trees, let them cycle off by themselves in search of secret places, let them walk barefoot. Assess risk and establish rules, yes, but do so to enable not to limit them. And feel happy when children come home with muddy knees and bits of grass in their hair. Happy they’re human. Happy they’re creating for themselves a story of the landscape. Happy that their children will have stories told to them of secret camps in the woods, of bee-stings and of discovery.

Outdoor education has never been of more importance, to save both nature and humanity in the Developed World. May our children’s children echo the sage words of Rudyard Kipling in The Just So Stories:

Suleiman-bin-Daoud was wise. He understood what the beasts said, what the birds said, what the fishes said, and what the insects said. He understood what the rocks said deep under the earth when they bowed in towards each other and groaned; and he understood what the trees said when they rustled in the middle of the morning. 

Reproduced with permission from RSWT.


A red kite just flew past my window, my first for the common. The barnacles just called along the river behind my house. A quick visit to BirdTrack to record these wonders and I'll settle down to my day of bees.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Changing fortunes

A couple of days ago, my mind still dulled by two sleepless days of planes and trains, I heard a goose call I didn’t recognise. This was odd: I like to think know my geese. This morning I woke before dawn and in the misty stillness of first light I walked along the river. The odd goose call came again and over me flew a pair of coal-necked, snow-bellied barnacles. This is the first time I’ve seen them anywhere along the river. Doubtless they’ve moved here from Pensthorpe where for years there’s been a self-sustaining, though highly sedentary, flock. Twenty-two years ago I began a life of sharing nature with others as a volunteer at Pensthorpe, so I told this morning’s barnacles I’d known their great-great-grandparents. I wonder whether this errant pair spells the start of an explosion of feral barnacles along the river.

This morning was all about waterfowl. Greylags flew over me too; now nothing special by this river, thirty years ago they would have been quite as remarkable as the barnacles were today. Three gadwall whirred by, two males harrying a female; more birds whose fortunes have improved dramatically in Norfolk, in part by human agency. A drake teal sprang from a rushy meadow pool and a pair of patterned shelduck stood by another. A dawn of ducks.

The fields and hedges were bustling too: the gravelly mutterings of linnets, the hesitant tut of a cock yellowhammer, the scraping syncopation of (also feral) red-legged partridges. Everywhere were hares, streaks of caramel across the fresh-tilled earth and flashes of black-white tails as they bounded away. The fields were full of black-headed gulls, their chocolate hoods and breathy calls the signals of their readiness to breed. I thought, as I always do, of Mediterranean gulls. My friend David North, of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, maintains I have a weird affinity with these lovely birds, and it’s true I stumble across them in the oddest places. QED: a little later over a newly-ploughed field there came the once-heard-never-mistaken yelp of this most glorious of gulls. Two celestial beings patrolled their field on bowed silver wings, bound soon no doubt for a breeding throng along the coast. Another immigrant to Norfolk in my lifetime, and most welcome here.

I crossed the road to reach the common and saw in the verge the chalky flowers of Danish scurvy-grass. This canny saltmarsh plant has spread apace along the heavily salted verges of our roads and now is found all over the country, miles and miles from its tidal origins. Nature never stays still and rarely reads the books. We do well to remember it.

Not all species are spreading though, not by far. This morning the RSPB releases the news that starlings have declined by 79% in UK gardens since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979. And as I write an RSPB newsletter falls through my letterbox, full of tales of birds and their habitats in critical need of help. In all the story of humanity nature has never needed our help more urgently, nor we more urgently needed the help of nature.

The barnacles fly again over my rooftop and my laptop, the greylags too. What’s their future along this river? I’ll let you know.

Humans seek out wild landscape. We do so, if not on a daily basis, then certainly on a weekendly basis. We need wild landscapes not to go birdwatching, but to go soul-restoring. These places enrich us. They help us endure life better or enjoy life more.

Simon Barnes
In RSPB Birds, May 2010  

New this morning


Mediterranean gull
Larus melanocephalus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 433
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Where the bee sucks

On Saturday I'm teaching a workshop for Norfolk Wildlife Trust on bumblebees, so I spent much of today reading and jotting on bees, driving the jungle cats from my mind and bringing the bumbles out of mental hibernation. Come four o'clock I was ready for a walk and, since my trade this week is bees, I could almost convince myself that going to look for some was righteous.

I strode three steps down my front path before a bee-fly Bombylius major caught my eye as it supped at a Labrador violet. Then I noticed the weeds, quite a few weeds if I'm honest. I reasoned I would rid my front garden of them before they all set seed, and, since the bee-fly had shown the way, I hoped the bumbles would come to me. Seven-spot ladybirds trundled amiably around my plot as I fought my unfortunate flora, and over the common a lark sang his miraculous song. Two hours later, as I stood back to admire my work, a common carder queen bestowed her blessing with a visit to an Erysimum.

Now I was free to search for bees. Along my well-walked stretch of river the birds were busy. Hawthorn bushes, their first leaves breaking bud, were loud with whirring churring purring wrens, with newcomer chiffchaffs and the sorrow-laden trickle of a robin. Across the river, in the reeds, two mist-winged male marsh harriers swayed and mewed, declaring their genes' right to reach another generation here. A red-tailed bumble queen buzzed heavily around my head, asking whether I could be of any interest. A little further on a rotund buff-tailed queen searched for a spot to make her underground nest, her genes too demanding that she spend the spring and summer sending them into the future.

I was in shorts – in March – and for this fashion faux-pas I received my first sharp nettle stings of the year. Nettles abound in these generous valley-bottom soils and with their early shoots now are the jagged first leaves of equally nutrient-greedy hemlock. The tigers and the leopards have been fine – far more than fine – but now my Norfolk wakes and all around me wildlife hums and bustles. My place is here.

Where the bee sucks, there lurk I.

William Shakespeare
The Tempest

Sambar ka awaz

When my fridge reaches a critical temperature and its motors jump into action to cool it, it makes a noise remarkably like a distant sambar alarm-calling on seeing a tiger. This had slipped to the sidelines of my mind in the months since I bought the fridge. Today, freshly back from the lofty forests of India, I heard the fridge alarm call and for one misguided moment all my tiger-watching instincts surfaced.

This morning as Chhoti Mata and her cubs prowl the Mukki zone of Kanha and scar-faced Bokhra dozes through the midday heat of Tadoba, chiffchaffs proclaim the bright blue spring all along a river in North Norfolk. Starlings, in their spangled spring loveliness, bustle through my garden in search of grass stems for their nests and house sparrows chip and chunter all around.

What better time to reappear in Norfolk? This naturalist is happy to be home.

Most field naturalists I know relish being new, anonymous, at their own disposal, untrackable, freed from their past, able (even required) to reinvent themselves; and yet they also tend to phone and write home often when they're in port, many times a day blazing a link to their loved ones.

Diane Ackerman
The Moon by Whale Light

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


My journeying is almost done for now, though tonight I’m stranded in Heathrow Terminal 4 and I won’t be at home in Norfolk until tomorrow. Our Tiger Direct tour ended with a dramatic flourish typical of tigers. A hitch in park paperwork, deftly and diplomatically resolved by Tarun, meant we entered the Mukki gate half an hour later than planned on our last morning in Kanha. As our karma would have it, this hitch put all four of our jeeps in just the right spot when Chhoti Mata or Little Mother, the gorgeously-marked mother of three ten-month-old cubs, strolled confidently across the road among us and spray-marked two trees by the forest roadside. After she had gone, barely believing our last-minute luck, we sat beaming and listening to the alarm call of a barking deer telling us that she had slipped into the rocky hills.

This wondrous female tiger, sharply striped in black on a deep orange coat, her colours heightened in the kindly shade of the sal forest, is around seven years old. She raised two cubs last year and was very frequently seen with her family in Mukki. This year she has three cubs but her behaviour has changed and she rarely allows herself to be seen. Though I am in the business of showing tigers to people, and as discussed here previously my Indian tiger-watching friends persuade me strongly that tiger tourism is important for tiger conservation, I find it heartening that these tigers whom I love choose whether or not to be seen by us. One older female, still alive I’m told, whom I have seen several times from elephants in Mukki, simply doesn’t like jeeps and is never seen from them. She has nothing against elephants though and will allow people to approach her closely on them. By contrast Munna, the muscular, charismatic male tiger who rules the Kanha zone of the park, knows the power of his own image and happily wanders through lines of jeeps in the middle of the day or slumps beside them to sleep. Munna is equally prepared to be photographed from elephants and is currently the pride of Kanha’s A-list.

Weary though I am, after two months of work and travel in Asia, and today’s long journey against the world’s time zones, I shall not sleep tonight on my wooden seat in the arrivals lounge of Terminal 4. Sitting here awake I smile a broad smile, seeing in my heart the small-clawed otters of Kaziranga scampering across a dusty road in front of us; hearing the forests of Assam sob with the soul-born song of western hoolock gibbons; smelling the fresh green leaves of the tiger-trodden sal forests of Kanha; scanning the south Sri Lankan sea for the blows of blue whales; and watching again with my heart’s eye the sixty sunsets I have seen in Asia since I was last at home. I have been richly blessed these past two months and am humbly grateful to all the people and the wildlife I have met in India and Sri Lanka. Thanks too to you for following my journeys here.

I cried of course on seeing Chhoti Mata yesterday: tears of happiness that my clients had their chance to see into the life of the most magnificent of beasts; tears of gratitude too for all that I have experienced on this trip; and tears of fear, fear that we may yet be weak enough to let this priceless being vanish from our forests.

“Thy trail ends here, then, manling?” said Kaa, as Mowgli threw himself down, his face in his hands. “Cry thy cry. We be of one blood, thou and I – man and snake together.”

Rudyard Kipling
The Jungle Book: Book Two

Monday, 26 March 2012

Jungli billi

24th March

A quiet day on the carnivore front and a long day too. Just two new birds to declare: a white-rumped needletail this morning and a brown-capped pygmy woodpecker in dry scrub on the plateau above Mukki this evening. Near here was the best of the three jungle cats I’ve seen on this tour, sitting ramrod straight like an Egyptian god and glowing gold in the dying light of the day. Green eyes and a knowing grin: I do love jungle cats.

New today


white-rumped needletail
Zoonavena sylvatica
brown-capped pygmy woodpecker
Dendrocopos nanus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 432
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2

Cats all round

23rd March

At Jungle Lodge everybody smiles. They’re right to smile as this is a beautiful place to live and to work. Here in the shady sal forest I know my clients and I will always be welcomed with the same big smiles, the same delicious food, the same attention to the tiniest detail, and the same commitment to sharing with everyone the tiger and the many other plants and animals found in its beautiful habitat.

For the habitat here is beautiful indeed. There is a grace, a subtle stateliness, to the sal forests of Kanha. The forest here is tall and cool and at each season glows a different green. In March the pallid green of the sal’s sweet-scented flowers is giving way to the hopeful sharp green of young leaves. The sal forest rings now with the rolling purrs of brown-headed barbets and the strident sci-fi medleys of greater racket-tailed drongos. In the shade of the forest barking deer pick quietly through fallen leaves and inky infant langurs hop clumsily between their mothers and aunts.

As winter dies the common hawk-cuckoos sing, their loud repetitive whistles the ceaseless soundtrack of the Indian summer. Jungle owlets are noisy now too, throatily exclaiming their dissatisfaction to any forest dweller who cares to listen. I’ve often mused that many Indian birds sound angry, disgruntled or miserable. The Indian grey hornbill whines, the roller snarls, the jungle babblers whinge and bicker, and the large cuckooshrike complains in tones of loud self-pity. As for treepies, much of the time they just sound cross.

I though am not cross at all. I love these Indian birds more each time I visit them, as I love the people here too. Kanha Jungle Lodge and its people are steeped in tigers. The lodge is run by my friends Tarun and Dimple Bhati, aided by their charming seven-year-old son Jai, and by a host of friendly, diligent staff. Tarun is the grandson of Kailash Sankhala, the founding director of Project Tiger, and he grew up immersed in the lore of the jungle. Like his excellent drivers, Vinod, Vinay, Pramod and Monu, who are working with us this week, Tarun is a brilliant tiger-tracker and has a wealth of stories to tell about the inhabitants of the jungle.

This morning I have come back from the forest very happy. Avid marshtitters will know that on our pre-tour extension to Tadoba our group had great success with tigers. However, since four new clients arrived for the main tour, we have been having trouble finding them. This morning, at last, the hathi walle found a four-year-old tigress and permission was given by the park for them to take tourists to see her on their elephants. Thus all of my clients saw a beautiful four-year-old tigress superbly this morning. That sounds so good I’m going to say it again: all of my clients saw a tigress from an elephant this morning. My 100% success rate for tiger tours is maintained.


This afternoon the cat-watching got better still. In the meadow at Bishanpura we watched a jungle cat picking purposefully through the parched grass. Jackals are similar in size and colour to jungle cats and frequent many of the same habitats but, whereas jackals amble along aimlessly, blundering into whatever mischief they can, the cats look always as though they know precisely where they are going and why. Our lovely cat this afternoon spray-marked his territory and patrolled his golden grassland with care, before crossing the road in front of us and slipping into the sal forest.

Everyone in our group saw a tiger and a jungle cat today. With an oriental scops owl clunking loudly outside, this naturalist heads to bed a happy man.

New today


grey-breasted prinia
Prinia hodgsonii

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 430
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2

The trouble with tigers

22nd March

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Naturetrek newsletter which began like this:

The trouble with tigers is that it’s only ever the next one that counts. No matter how many tigers you have seen or how cool you pretend to be about seeing another, the moment you enter the forest and hear the throaty alarm bellow of a sambar, telling you that a tiger is near, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your heart beats double time, just as they did for your first tiger. And your second. And your third.

These words are just as true now, many tigers later. For tigers have a power over me, over us, which is hardly equalled in the natural world and still, though I’m ashamed to admit it, every tiger that’s seen near me, but which I miss, pains me a little. This I suspect is something common to all avid tiger-watchers, even those who have seen innumerably more tigers than I have. 

One of the great personalities at Kanha Jungle Lodge is a young man called Vinod. He sits beside me as I write and over the years we’ve spent days sitting beside one another in a jeep in the park, watching the wonders of the jungle. He’s the son of the former head mahout in the Mukki zone of Kanha and is a gifted and brilliantly entertaining driver-naturalist. He grew up watching tigers and has watched tigers professionally since he was but a boy; yet still he’s hungry to see more every day.

This morning a leopard, a tigress and the same tigress’s three cubs were seen by a couple of jeeps from Jungle Lodge, but not by any of my clients. Vinod, I’m delighted to say, is driving and guiding for us and on returning from the jungle having seen no cats himself he was exuberantly excited to hear about this new tiger encounter and to see the video that was taken of the mother and her cubs. Here is a young man who has spent his whole life watching tigers and what does he want to do every day in the future? Simple: watch more tigers.

The trouble with tigers is that it’s only ever the next one that counts.

New in Kanha today


hard-ground barasingha
Cervus duvaucelii branderi


grey nightjar
Caprimulgus indicus
common hawk-cuckoo
Hieroccocyx varius
sulphur-bellied warbler
Phylloscopus griseolus
brown-cheeked fulvetta
Alcippe poioicephala
Eurasian house martin
Delichon urbicum
white-naped woodpecker
Chrysocolaptes festivus


oriental rat snake
Ptyas mucosus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 429
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2

18 : 0

21st March

Our last safari in Pench this morning brought no tigers. That’s eighteen drives I’ve now taken in this park over the years, without once seeing a tiger. There were many delights today though, among them a forest wagtail, in company with a grey wagtail, happily tiptoeing over the mud at the edge of a lake. What’s more, in the forest in Pench and in the forest as we reached Kanha this evening, I saw greater racket-tailed drongos, the most resplendent and unlikely of all India’s drongos and the last of the seven species I shall see on this trip to South Asia.

This evening we are at Kanha Jungle Lodge, my favourite lodge in all India. Just as our hosts Tarun and Dimple welcomed us to the lodge, another giant flying squirrel left its hole and bounced up a sal tree by the dining room to glide away into the coming night.

Night, yes, and sleep. Tomorrow we’re off to the forest. I’ll tell you what we see.

New this morning


forest wagtail
Dendronanthus indicus
greater racket-tailed drongo
Dicrurus paradiseus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 423
Reptiles: 11
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2