Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Saving species

Written on 31st May, published with the agreement of the press team at RZSS and other interested parties

I have been stagnant these past two weeks, my mind and body rebelling against the great pile of jobs which has built up during almost four months of travel. Over these two weeks I could-have-should-have-would-have prepared better for this trip to Scotland, read more, written more here (I still have a mountain of ideas from Asia), and generally been a more assiduous marsh tit. Instead my body and mind have been in rebellion.

Today, like a proverbial new broom, Doug Richardson swept into my life and filled my mind with ideas, with questions, and with excitement for this second, British stage of my Big Cat Quest. Doug is Head of Living Collections at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park. And well he should be. He has spent his working life in many of the world's finest zoos and is full of zeal for the role that responsible zoos can play in wildlife conservation on our pained and compromised planet.

Doug had kindly agreed to meet me today to talk about cats at the Highland Wildlife Park and for two hours this morning that's just what we did.

Our conversation was wide-ranging (geographically and intellectually), tangential (at times almost fractal), impassioned, and frequently expletive. Often when listening to zoo folk in the past I've been disappointed by their apparent lack of knowledge of wildlife where it belongs: in the wild. Not so with Doug. His range of experience and reference is enormous, embracing distant continents and diverse animal groups with ease. He cites obscure subspecies of cat and best practice for raising arctic ducks in captivity without pausing for breath, and has always a dark spark of humour in his eye. Here is a man who is passionate about wildlife and its conservation.

It so happens that his contribution to its conservation is in captivity.

We spoke of so many things that it would be impossible to list them all here. I shall summarise some of what we said of cats, species by species, mog by mottled mog, beginning (in this post) with our native wildcat.

Wildcat Felis silvestris grampia

Among the most threatened vertebrates in the UK is the wildcat. It is known as the Scottish wildcat by historic accident, for everywhere else in the UK we killed it off. It survived, by accident, only in the remotest and least tamed reaches of Scotland.

A second peril compounds this range restriction today: hybridisation with domestic cats. This has been recognised as a problem for some decades and as an acute problem for several years but in Doug's no-nonsense words, 'We kinda faffed about.'

Today no-one knows whether any pure wildcats remain in the UK for none has yet been found. I learn from Doug that this includes the captive population: of some 35 wildcats of Scottish origin in captivity he estimates that 20% are 'worth breeding from.' Genetic tests to identify these animals are ongoing.

Genetic tests are also applied, where they can be found and caught, to cats in the wild. As part of the recovery programme coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage there will be a widespread campaign of trapping, led by RZSS, to establish where there are cats, how pure they are and (this is where controversy enters the equation) which few should be brought into captivity as the founders of a new, representative breeding population.

Hackles will doubtless have risen at that last statement. Bring them into captivity? It shouldn't be allowed! Why would SNH take away our wildest animal's wildness? The why of it is tragically easy to understand. For a very long time there have been domestic cats in the range of the wildcat. All domestic cats, Doug says, are descended from just six founder females of Middle Eastern origin. Middle Eastern wildcats, and their domestic inheritors, are genetically very distinct from European ones but interbreed freely with them and produce fertile offspring. This is precisely what they have been doing for generations, with the result that there are possibly no pure wildcats left in Scotland at all, not to mention the rest of Europe.

Two measures of purity are used to assess wildcats which are caught. The first is phenotypic, based on characteristics of pelage which are known markers of Scottish wildcats, and is carried out by Andrew Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland. The second is genetic and is carried out by RZSS. The benchmark for what a pure Scottish wildcat ought to look like, and what it should be genetically, has been taken from museum skins and mounted specimens of the nineteenth century. On account of the lack of 100% pure animals identified thus far in the captive and wild populations, a lower genetic threshold must be applied regarding what is functionally a wildcat.

The fundamental problem is that even those wild animals deemed functional wildcats are still surrounded by feral cats and less pure hybrids. It is for this reason that Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Doug and many colleagues have accepted that in the short term the only solution for the wildcat is to take more animals into captivity, and there maintain and build a population of animals which genetically and phenotypically best represent the Scottish wildcat. Cats left to their own devices in the wild, through most of Scotland, will soon be wholly swamped by the genes of feral cats and an irreplaceable part of our island's biodiversity will be lost, through genetic attrition, forever.

RZSS and Highland Wildlife Park's role in this has several elements. The simplest (though by no means logistically simple) is that half-a-dozen relatively pure Scottish wilcats are kept at the park and are bred (I saw some adorable kittens today) under the studbook kept by the Aspinall Foundation at Port Lympne in Kent. Secondly through this same work Doug's team contributes to understanding of wildcat husbandry, and this will be critical as the species' conservation becomes, in the short term, more dependent on captive management. Such management of wildcats at the Highland Wildlife Park forms part of Scottish Wildcat Action (new website to be launched soon), a multidisciplinary approach to the conservation of the cat involving captive breeding, threat reduction in the wild in six priority areas of Scotland and extensive monitoring to assess the effectiveness of measures being taken.

In addition, the Highland Wildlife Park can act as a quarantine facility for animals which come into captivity, either through chance (such as orphan kittens) or as a result of deliberate trapping, and can facilitate the incorporation of animals of wild origin into the captive population. Critically the park has large areas which are off exhibit and in which genuinely wild animals can be kept away from the gaze of the public, safe from habituation to humans. It is very clear in the minds of all involved that wildcats, however much intervention is needed, must be kept wild.

It is the word wild and our romantic understanding of it that cause most controversy. Those of us who believe in the conservation of wildlife still hanker after a wilderness in which wildlife looks after itself. It offends us to think that wildlife should be brought into captivity in order to preserve it. The wild should be wild! When recently Craig Packer, director of the Serengeti Lion Project, and arguably the world's greatest authority on lions in Africa, declared on the basis of decades of research that the only way to save lions in the Serengeti was to fence this massive park he was vilified. Despite clear evidence that the lion is declining catastophically across Africa and that conflict with humans in the Serengeti is reaching a critical level, he was shouted down. There were even voices from the conservation community which argued that it would be better to have no Serengeti than a fenced Serengeti.

Doug has no time for such sentimentality (and nor in fact do I). My own response is to ask whether those who would rather have no Serengeti have been there, whether they have seen the phenomenal spectacle of its migrating herds and their attendant predators. To lose such a treasure by taking a holier-than-thou attitude towards conservation would be unforgivable.

Doug believes that the same applies to the wildcat in Scotland. The evidence that hybridisation is destroying the species apace is unassailable. Better therefore to be the custodians of some of the purest cats in captivity for a generation or two, until a solution to hybridisation can be found across wild landscapes, than to preside inactive over the extinction of this remnant of our primeval wildness.

If it were only that easy

My customary selfie,
this time with a Scottish wildcat

In the end, after a week of searching, I did manage to see a largely pure wildcat in the wild. The story of the encounter may be found here.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

From Borneo

This week I received these lovely photos from my great friend Kenny Ross, reminding me of a fantastic month spent with Naturetrek in the sweaty forests of Sabah, Borneo. Thanks Kenny for sharing them.

Bornean pygmy elephants along the Kinabatangan River

Long-tailed macaque

Roosting black-and-red broadbills

Reticulated python

Blue-eared kingfisher

White-nest swiftlets

Black-nest swiftlets

Bornean orangutan

Collared kingfisher

Sunda pig-tailed macaques begging for a caption

Leopard cat

White-crowned hornbill

Common palm-civet

Malay civet

Buffy fish-owl
Plain pygmy-squirrel

East Bornean grey gibbon

Bornean slow loris

Leopard cat

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The wild within

As I walked from my bus into Norwich yesterday a buzzard drifted high towards the spire. I knew, from three months spent in the company of the cathedral's peregrines last spring, what would happen. As distant dots both adults scrambled into the airspace above their spire (and on it their three just-fledged chicks). As almost always, the female sent the male up to the buzzard, to drive it from her patch of sky.

This was my first sight of the Norwich peregrines this year (I've been abroad for almost all of 2015). I have missed them; and as much as them I have missed the fantastic team of staff and volunteers who watch the peregrines, who work with cathedral staff, and who - crucially - explain the lives of the birds to the public. Many thousands of people visit the peregrines each spring, or watch them from home on the Hawk and Owl Trust's webcam. For some, these breathtaking birds are a first point of contact with the natural world, and a relationship with it, a first glimpse of the wild we all carry within.

Norwich Cathedral peregrine dreamteam:
Mike, Julie, Becky and Maureen

For my friend Mike, the peregrines have been just such. Gripped by their lives on the spire the year before, last year, while I was helping to run the team, he joined us. Mike is not a man of half measures. If he does something, he does it well. He hurls himself at life with commitment, with verve, with talent and with a filthy sense of humour. The peregrines were no different and in no time a new naturalist was unfolding before us, a naturalist enchanted by everything around him, seeing the wild for the first time, hearing birdsong - really hearing it - anew. I have been privileged, at times, to share with Mike a new bird for him; and while I have been away he's kept me abreast of the wonders which have flown on brave wings into his life.

I visited the peregrines yesterday to see the birds during fledging week - always the most exciting - and to see the wonderful people who watch them. Some of my favourite peregrineers were on duty; so our morning sped by in talk of their lives and those of the birds, in watching a collared dove foodpass and the anger of the female at a herring gull who came too close (it won't be making that mistake again). Afterwards, having not caught up in all the months I've been away, Mike and I had lunch and talked, of birds and other beasts, in the sun.

There was time before my bus left for home so Mike stole me into the Castle Museum. To step inside this building, a Norman keep wrapped in Victorian pretension, is to step into my childhood. I knew at once what I wanted to see: the tiger. It was doubtless the first I ever saw, long before I ever dreamed I could see one in the wild. When I was a child there was a button on the side of its case which, when pressed, made the tiger roar. To my small child self this was thrilling.

The button is no longer there. The tiger no longer roars. The cat is there though and, on a day spent watching peregrines inspire people to inspire people about peregrines, this faded mockery of a tiger caused me to reflect on our relationships with the wild.

To the people of George V's Britain (whose king shot the Castle Museum tiger), a tiger in a case meant, I suspect, dominion over the wild, the bringing of order (British order, of course) to a wild, dangerous world. When George shot this tiger there were probably more than 50,000 tigers in India, ranging through vast areas of genuinely untamed forest. Injured tigers regularly killed people (a casual look at Jim Corbett's books is enough to confirm this) and rural people lived in deep fear. Britain's job, the king's job, was to suppress the wildness, to bring order where savagery prevailed. In killing a tiger, probably many tigers, the king confirmed his fitness for the job.

The Castle Museum's lions,
like the tiger still faded and old, still beautiful

Near the tiger there is a clever case, one of several on a theme of Victorian naturalists and their taxidermic relationship with nature, in which all of the specimens stem from Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie. The skins are frightful - the leopard's face twisted into a hideous grimace - but they represent a past relationship with nature in which the wonders of the wild world were being discovered and brought home for the edification of the public (and the filling of menagerie-owners' pockets). I mused on what went through the minds and hearts of Victorian people on visiting a travelling menagerie. For many, I suspect, although the wild was not yet something to be preserved, seeing these hapless creatures was as inspiring as pressing the button on the tiger's case for my child self, or seeing a peregrine through a telescope (provided by Viking Optical, I should add) for a child today.



Lion cub

In the next gallery are hundreds of ill-starred birds collected by Victorian naturalists in the days in which ornithology was practised with a gun. Some, like a drake Steller's eider, are the single specimens of their kind ever to have been seen - and killed - in Norfolk. Others, like great bustards and (in the gallery of Norfolk dioramas) the otter, represent species which in modern times have been driven from our county. The otter was long persecuted here but finally extinguished from Norfolk (or all but extinguished) by pollution. Happily today it has returned in force, thanks in no small measure to the tireless work of the Otter Trust (rest in peace Jean and Philip). The great bustard was wantonly hunted from our East Anglian brecks. All that remains of it today is feather and skin and dust behind glass.

It is easy to judge these Victorian and early twentieth century attitudes to nature and animals: to censure, to condemn. It is equally important to reflect on or own attitudes and to remember the world in which we ourselves live, to which we contribute. Ours is a world in which dolphins are beaten to death in Japan and elsewhere; in which seal cubs are clubbed in developed world nations; in which your biscuits and chocolate contain palm oil which - directly - condemns orangutans and thousands of other species to death in felled forests; in which dogs are boiled alive in Yulin; in which raptors are trapped and poisoned and eggs are thieved in my Norfolk; in which the British government licenses the slaying of badgers and the destruction of buzzard nests, against all scientific evidence and advice, as a sop to its political cronies.

It is hard, in such a world, to stare into the glass eyes of a tiger and righteously condemn the attitudes towards nature of Victorians or English kings. The killing continues today; and, worse, the destruction of wild space is nearing its endgame, in the UK and across the globe. 

If we are to arrest it, if sense is ever to be bashed into the skulls of our ignorant, self-serving politicians (a red kite flew over my desk just now as I looked up to find the next phrase), if our children are to live in a world full of wild wonders, we need more Mikes. We need more prophets for nature, more moments in which children stare in awe at peregrines, or ladybirds, or woodlice (that one's for you Julie), or red kites. We need a revolution in the way we see the wild. The wild we all carry within.

Walking home from my bus, by the river I saw the death-blotched stems of hemlock and the dusty perfection of the flowers of mallow and I touched it: I touched the wild within.

Hontar: You had no alternative Your Eminence. We must work in the world; the world is thus.
Altamirano: No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.

The Mission (Movie)

Thursday, 11 June 2015


I should not have gone out this morning. I should have stayed at my desk and addressed the emails and letters from which I've been hiding in Speyside. I should have written; I should have read; I should have worked.

But the Horsleys have form for routing me from my desk (much as a mother warthog routs a cheetah). Three weeks ago Gav got me out on the Point the day after I reached home from three months in Asia (a fruitless search for a Moltoni's warbler but a wonderful walk through shorescape and friendship). This morning, just as I was considering how to spend my day, the telephone rang. It was Gav's dad, DTH, wondering whether, under this summer sun, I would like to go with him to look for chalkhill blue caterpillars.

Emails which have waited for three months can wait an extra day can't they? I went with DTH to Warham, to an Iceni patch of chalk, and birds, and flowers. (According to family lore - and my family has been in Norfolk a very long time - it's pronounced ickenny.) Elm hedges here rattled with the songs of lesser whitethroats and scratched with those of their commoner cousins. The wide blue sky was loud with the lark and distant buzzards rode the summer breeze.

Our focus though was on our toes, on the plants growing by them and, particularly, on horseshoe vetch, foodplant of the chalkhill blue. We've watched the blues here together, DTH and I, for some years now and were hoping to find caterpillars; but following a cold and bitterly dry late winter and spring, and perhaps some overgrazing by the sheep which manage the site, the sward is weak, the flowers few and the vetch, to use a favourite phrase of a sage naturalist friend who has left us, depauperate.

We found not a single caterpillar. We shall wait to see in high summer whether this means the blues will be few on the wing. I amused myself instead scraping my knees on stemless thistles and pointing my iPhone at milkwort, rockrose and vetch, while DTH hunted for grubs and we plotted a winter romp to southern Spain in search of lynx.

Milkwort in North Norfolk chalk grassland

Wednesday, 10 June 2015


I should not have walked to the postbox this morning. I should have stayed at my desk and addressed the emails and letters from which I've been hiding in Speyside. I should have written; I should have read; I should have worked.

Had I dutifully stayed at my desk, however, I would not have walked across the common and heard the chaffinches, the song thrushes and chiffchaffs singing for their second broods.

I would not have seen the last flowers of bogbean in the pool, nor the first of marsh thistle; nor heard the happy chip of sparrows.

I would not have seen the fragile constellations of rough chervil in the hedge, or the soft small flowers of ground ivy; nor would I have puzzled over the parentage of a thistle (marsh/creeping hybrid I think).

I would not have smiled to see mallard fledglings wrestling over a potato by the river.

Nor would I have met a meadow bumblebee (a male, a first sign of autumn) feeding at green alkanet; nor the same plant blooming beautifully by the postbox (meaning my walk was over).

I would not, on my way back, have made the acquaintance of a handsome cock, nor talked with fat lambs, by a hedge bright with herb robert and wild rose.

I would not have seen the heraldic leaves of hop ramping through the verge.

I would not, reaching my home, have seen flags shouting yellowly from a pool

All these gifts to my soul from the wild I would not have seen, or heard, or smelled this morning.

I'm glad I walked to the postbox.