HedgeOX up and running … Countryfile Live

The launch event of HedgeOX, with Pam Ayres and a host of other amazing people, was a great way to introduce Oxfordshire to my plans – but – life has a way of creating challenges and since then I have been dealing and coping with the illness and death of my mother. It is wonderful that the funders, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the Felix Byam Shaw Foundation, have been so understanding – enabling me to deal with the pain and the bureaucracy.

And now – we are back up and running. The first real outing for the campaign to save Oxfordshire’s hedgehogs was Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace. This all happened with very little time to prepare – the week after the funeral I was at Port Eliot literary festival talking about Linescapes. So in just a very few days I think that we did pretty well!

First – materials – banners and leaflets. Thanks to the amazing design from Stig that side of things was easy. Then volunteers – as this was going to be a BIG job – over 9 hours of public engagement every day. There was no way I could do that alone … but at such short notice, could I recruit anyone?

Well, yes – and they were amazing. They made the whole job of exciting and enthusing people about the potential to help hedgehogs possible.

We collected hundreds of sightings on a map – actually two maps – we obliterated Witney with hedgehogs in the first two days. Now this was not massively scientific – we were partly measuring where people came from. But it also does suggest that Witney has a healthy hedgehog population.

The people – the stories – we listened to hundreds of stories. And after a while it became clear to me that this is an important part of what HedgeOX is doing. We are enabling people to reconnect with nature by passing on these tales – whether it is the ordinary ‘I saw a hedgehog in my garden’ or the extraordinary ‘I found a hedgehog in my bedroom, it must have climbed up the stairs’ – they were all important moments in the lives of the story-tellers. And we were genuinely interested – affirming the value of the event, reinforcing the connection.

Now I am not a ‘fan’ – I don’t go collecting autographs or selfies (often) – but when Ellie Harrison stopped by I could not miss the chance … 

I have been lucky to meet her a few times – and we have ‘chatted’ by email as well. She is a very ‘real’ person – not a TV construct. Genuinely interested and surrounded by a great gaggle of charming children.

So what have we achieved? I have found that people care enough about what I am doing to volume their time – one young man – Jake – who has just finished his A levels and will be heading up to Liverpool to read Zoology – offered a day and a bit and stayed for three days! Jane brought her delightful assistance dog Jason along which help lure in even more. There were 14 amazing people in all – thank you.

What else? HedgeOX works – people get the idea and want me to come to their communities to help get them connected – spreading Hedgehog Street magic around Oxfordshire. Farmers want to learn what they can do too. I am thrilled.

I gave a talk on one of the stages each day and had a lovely moment when I mentioned that Hedgehog Street was about to reach 50,000 signed up champions …. and someone in the audience went on their phone and found that we were already at 50,005!

We gave out hundreds of stickers to happy kids, many of whom got to stroke my very tame hedgehog … as one whit suggested – ‘it is clearly pining for the fjords’ – distributed countless leaflets, collected nearly 200 email address from people who want to take a more active role – and on top of that raised over £100 for the BHPS!

Though the hours between 2-4pm when our tiny gazebo was blasted by the sun were challenging – those four days were some of the most enjoyable I have ever worked – and I really look forward to getting my teeth back into the campaign over the coming months – keep in touch!

A perfect state of meditative bliss

To be honest I am not one for meditation. I find being still rather physically uncomfortable so have always been put off the practice. But I hear the benefits from the many friends who do – and have occasionally found myself in that ‘thoughtless’ state that is such a delight. When I was out at sea in looking for dolphins with the CRRU I found myself melting into the act of observation, lulled by the rocking movement and driven by the single-minded focus of looking for the change in the sea that signalled an animal.

I was reminded of that yesterday, but in a different setting. Walking along the beach at Charmouth, on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset – head down, looking for fossils. My children had been briefly engaged, but had vanished off into their own world of fantasy. I was in a place of peace. The sun warmed the air as it shifted with just enough vigour to remove cobwebs. The sea filled the space with the perfectly soothing organic white noise of waves on shingle. And my eyes were drawn to the ground.

The chaos of stones, lentil to cricket ball in size, varied beyond count in denomination – hid treasure. I have always had a passion for finding fossils. I am no expert – my passion has not shifted into detailed research, I just love the hunt. My parents had a new load of gravel added to their drive when I was young – and I was transfixed by the broken memories the stone contained. Imprints of shells – probably winkle-like animals – could be found if you looked hard enough.

I have never got into smashing up rocks in the hope of finding something amazing inside – I prefer to just look – to rely upon chance. That is how I found the best fossil – an ammonite, as most are on Charmouth. Early one morning – when the children were much smaller and prone to a lack of sensitivity when it came to adults’ need for sleep – I left them with my wife at her mother’s house and headed to the beach, just as the tide turned. Ahead of me were the professionals, head to toe in water proofs, armed with hammers, spades and buckets. I just had a tweed jacket and my eyes.

At first I thought it was a footprint from one of their boots, but the rhythm was not quite right so I stopped, looked and almost walked on – but hesitated, and found it to be the ridges of the most amazing fossil I have ever held. For the first time in around 190 million years this creature was back out in the world, pulled from a clay tomb.

Yesterday my finds were less remarkable but no less appealing – a belemnite and a pack of pyritised ammonites, alongside the smooth touchstones that help keep me sane, and it was the most relaxing time.

picture by Zoe Broughton

I returned to the melee of half-term better equipped, calmer and happier. So my message, go find a beach and spend a hour or so being washed by the waves of noise while searching for that subtle shift in rhythm that might just mark out some treasure.

Wholehearted Nature

Wholehearted nature

I was sitting, sifting shingle through my fingers on the beach at Charmouth. This is not an unreasonable pastime – right on the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of Dorset, it is a prime spot for fossil-hunters. And I have found one of the best ammonites I have seen anywhere, museums included, along the shore.

The sky was grey, the wind stiff and the sea like pewter; when it was not curling into ‘crash and shhhhh’. And I was alone. The more sensible elements of my family had found a slightly more sheltered spot to hop across boulders. But it is here I find myself as close to meditating as I get. Absorbed in the quest for patterns; the regular curve of ridges that indicates an ammonite or the smooth needle of a belemnite. Time can fly by with my head down; eyes focussed on the myriad stones, evolving and revolving into sand. But this time I was distracted. Someone else was braving the elements with their spaniel. Continue reading

Gareth Morgan, badger-man

Last night I learned that my badger-man and friend, Gareth Morgan, had died.

I met Gareth as I was writing The Beauty in the Beast – he took me to the sett he had been studying for the past 30 years and talked so lovingly and movingly about the beautiful animals. He loved them, and nature, with a passion and a deep, wise, knowledge.

mid-Wales badger-man

Though he was a very gentle man, buzzing with an energy belying his 70 years, he could be moved to anger and action. As it was in protection of the badgers he loved, when he spoke out about the plans to cull. His anger was directed in large part not at the farmers, but at the supermarket chains that bind farmers into impossible contracts so that they pay the farmer less for the milk than it costs to produce. We walked the fields of his mid-Wales home and he pointed to the grass in what seemed like a idyllic field. But no, his sharp eyes had noted just one species of grass. ‘I detest silage,’ he said. ‘I think it is the worst thing that happened in farming, because that’s why we have no flowers…That is why we have no birds nesting in the fields…This is like Astroturf.’ And there is evidence that the poor quality of food this produces has an impact on the cows and the badgers, increasing the risk of bovine TB.

But mostly, as we sat and watched his badgers come within a few feet of us, it was love that drove him. ‘I love them like I love my wife,’ he told me, without a hint of hyperbole. ‘Sometimes she will ask me not to go up on a night, but it is like a magnet, something pulls me…she thinks I am setts mad.’

I recorded the time we spent together and have made a short podcast of him talking about badgers and featuring his amazing voice – I could listen to him for hours.

It was not just badgers, he was in love with the natural world. And so it was that his last outing, when he died, was to  the osprey project he so loved near Machynlleth. His wife, Marion, told me that he died doing something he loved. And he will be buried in the clothes he wore out in the wilds – his camouflage trousers, old jumper and body-warmer and ‘his dirty old cap’. There will be wild flowers at the funeral and they have had to book the biggest church in Newtown, such was the impact that this wonderful man had on so many people.

I will close this with a few more words he gave me.

‘We’ve got to fall in love with nature. And my badgers and your hedgehogs, they are like gatekeepers to the wider wonder of the natural world. I bring people down here at eight o’clock for an hour and I find I am still here at one in the morning. I get the barn owls quartering the field, probably hunting for the woodmouse that sometimes sits on my knee. And then there was the stag beetle that would come and take peanuts, one at a time. You know, there was a blackbird who would sit on my shoulder and a chaffinch who would follow me from the car to the sett where he would wait for a peanut.’

‘We should be in love with nature; it’s all we have got. I’m coming on seventy now, and I’m not going to be here soon. But for my children and for theirs, we have to do something.’

Dear Gareth, you will be missed.