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Bringing British wildlife to schoolchildren: badgers, foxes and 30 Days Wild

June is possibly my favourite month. Aside from being my birthday month (28 this year!), it also means 30 Days Wild — a celebration of British wildlife!

Every day for the last month, I’ve been taking on the Wildlife Trust’s challenge; to do something ‘wild’ each day in June. This has meant discovering some wonderful places; including WildlifeTrust‘s Tewin OrchardWoodland Trust‘s Heartwood Forest (Hertfordshire), Suffolk Wildlife Trust‘s Lackford Lakes and RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve (Suffolk). I even had the honour of judging a photography competition at British Trust for Ornithology‘s Nunnery Lakes Reserve (Norfolk).

Having the chance to get outdoors, tackle any signs of the so-called ‘nature-deficit disorder‘ and photograph all manner of birds, bugs and butterflies (I’ve shared some of these findings here and on my Instagram feed), feels so good for the soul and does wonders for calming any stress or anxiety.

 

Badger watch at Tewin Orchard

I was also fortunate enough to attend my first ever badger watch at the start of June, at Tewin Orchard in Hertfordshire. Organised by my good friend Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, and lead by Christie Wood, Chair of the Herts & Middlesex Badger Group. What an amazing experience!

Two-Badgers-at-Tewin-Orchard-Hertfordshire

I had never seen a live badger before, just a handful of dead creatures at the side of the road during my years of growing up in Norfolk; so to actually see badgers coming into full view, bouncing towards us and sniffing the ground, was such a treat.

I had no idea that badgers have very poor eyesight, and follow ‘scent lines‘ to find their way around. They make these lines using a scent gland under their tails, which produces a smelly liquid called musk. They then use their scent lines to locate regular feeding spots.

Fox-and-Badgers-Tewin-Orchard-Hertfordshire

During the course of the evening, we saw a total of 14 badgers (all at one time!), which were joined by a muntjac deer, 2 rabbits and 2 foxes; a timid vixen (pictured above) and a much more boisterous male. We even heard a owl hooting from nearby.

On the short drive home —  to top off such a special evening — I spotted a family of foxes feeding at the side of the road. A mother with 4 cubs! I really did feel like I’d turned into Snow White for the evening! See more of my badger watch photos at the bottom of this post.

 

East Harling Primary School assembly

It seemed a great and fitting opportunity then, in the same month, to be approached by East Harling Primary School in Norfolk and asked to give a British wildlife themed assembly.

Helping the children to think about their whole school topic: “Whose world is it anyway?“, I prepared a talk focussing on badgers and foxes specifically and enlisted the help of Badger Trust CEO and Born Free Policy Advisor Dominic Dyer to advice the children on how we can best take care of our native wildlife.

Kate-on-conservation-giving-a-Brtish-wildlife-assembly-at-East-Harling-Primary-School

Kate on Conservation giving an assembly about British wildlife at East Harling Primary School

Bringing the talk around to my role at National Geographic Kids magazine and my experience of blogging about wildlife and the environment, I discussed a few things I’d learnt about British wildlife.

I encouraged the children to think about the difference between native and non-native species, using grey squirrels and red squirrels as an example and we discussed the ways that grey squirrels compete with our native red squirrels. 

I asked the children whether they had seen animals in the wild, perhaps near their houses or in local woodland, and was happy to see almost all hands raised. The children listed blackbirds, pigeon and deer as creatures they had encountered, and a few had even seen foxes and hand full cited badgers. 

Boris-the-badger-East-Harling-Primary-School-assembly

We played an ‘identify the species’ game, where I read out a fact, and the children had to respond to pictures; raising their hand to the badger picture if they thought the fact was about a badger, or to the fox if they thought it was a fox fact.

  • About 90 years ago, this animal began to move into our cities. Despite often being thought of as a countryside animal, today around 150,000 of them can be found in cities such as London.  — fox
  • This animal’s babies are sometimes called kits — fox
  • This animal lives in an underground home called a ‘sett’ —badger
  •  This animals’ tail is about one third of its length — fox
  • This animal can eat over 200 earthworms in a single night  — badger
  • Traffic is a major threat to this animal, killing thousands every year. —both

I explained that sadly, 60% of foxes fall victim to road traffic collisions and 50,000 badgers are killed by cars every year – the most of any UK species. I showed them a couple of rescue stories from National Geographic Kids, about the care given to injured badgers and foxes, and how they were able to be released after being nursed back to health.

I told the children that this is why reporting any sightings of injured animals is so important, and that we also encourage readers to ask anyone they know who drives a car to slow down when driving on country roads — especially at night, as these animals are nocturnal – meaning they’re doing all their feeding and foraging at nighttime.

Slower speeds on the road means these animals are more safe, and if they do get injured, they stand a better chance at rescue and survival. 

Dominic-Dyer-in-classes-at-East-Harling-Primary-School

Dominic Dyer gives the children a chance to see and feel Boris the badger

Dominic elaborated further on this, with the help of ‘Boris the badger’ – a taxidermy badger who had himself suffered the fate of being killed by a car, years ago.

It seemed that Boris truly captured the children’s imaginations, and the buzz of excitement that came from have the chance to see and touch the figure of a real life badger was palpable.

It seemed that by the end of the morning, the children and teachers were completely on board with supporting British wildlife and National Badger Day (taking place on 6th October this year) and thinking about how they can help with raising awareness to make roads safer for badgers.

Dominic-Dyer-assembly-East-Harling-primary-school

Dominic’s exciting presentation on the work of Born Free Foundation, which encouraged the children to enjoy wildlife in the wild — through showing them the kinds of species that Born Free works with and the scenarios from which they must rescue and relocate suffering animals — was the perfect way to extend their morning’s learning by applying the “Whose world is it anyway?” topic to a wider, global viewpoint.

***

I was delighted to receive after the assembly this wonderful fox drawing from Bellatrix Blades. What a fantastic confirmation that the children felt inspired by our wonderful British wildlife!

Many thanks to Dominic for his help with the assembly, and to Christie Wood for leading the badger watch. As promised, here are a few more shots from my amazing evening at Tewin Orchard to conclude a brilliant 30 Days Wild!

kate on conservation wildlife blog logo

Learn more about British wildlife

Want to hear more about badgers?

Want to learn more about foxes?

Discover British Bats

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Fox hunting: Holding on to hope

In the four years that I’ve been keeping this blog, I haven’t once written about fox hunting. Not once.

Which is particularly surprising when I consider that the first ever piece of ‘conservation-themed’ writing I ever did was a persuasive letter to the then Prime Minister, John Major, asking him to put an end to the cruel practice. Circa 1996.

IMG_7926The main aim of my keeping a blog is merely an extension of that persuasive writing exercise. To encourage compassion and persuade others that things don’t have to stay the same. That they can be made better. That they should be made better.

IMG_7932Perhaps that’s why I’ve avoided writing about matters related to fox hunting: shrouded in class-based politics, it’s minefield of negativity. I want to inspire hope and positivity on this blog: positive action and progressive thinking.

IMG_7956I joined the #Keeptheban protests near Parliament Square yesterday, and outside Downing Street today; standing alongside the likes of Born Free Patron Dr Brian May, Badger Trust CEO and Born Free Foundation’s Policy Advisor, Dominic Dyer, and my good friend and fellow blogger Anneka Svenska, against a relaxing of the long and hard fought fox hunting ban.

IMG_7931The ban is not an all-encompassing, total solution, but it’s better that it’s in place, than not.

The outcome of the last two days was not the one that conservationists were hoping for, but it wasn’t an absolute disaster, either. The SNP pledged their allegiance with those wanting to keep the ban. David Cameron postponed today’s vote; a delay tactic that has many implications, but the ban is in place — for now.

IMG_7927As I say though, my aim is to inspire hope, not promote hopelessness.

The last time I met Dr Brian May, it was at a Votes for Animals protest, ahead of the General Election, and he was promoting his campaign; Common Decency. Common Decency was about voting for MPs ‘colourblind’; paying attention to their policies and not their party.

IMG_7930Shortly after meeting him this time, I received the following response from my St Albans MP, Conservative party’s Anne Main, in response to my lobbying email:

Dear Miss Snowdon,
Thank you for your email regarding the Hunting Act. I apologise for the standard nature of this email – as I am sure you understand, I have received a very large volume of emails in a short space of time from constituents asking me for my views on this important issue and I was keen to ensure that you received a full and informative response. I would like to thank those who included a personal message in your email; I did read all of the emails which were sent to me and I was grateful to hear all of your views.
It is now my understanding that the vote which was due on 15th July has been postponed and will not take place tomorrow. This was a Statutory Instrument to make amendments to the exempt provisions included in the Hunting Act 2004, as opposed to a vote on repealing the Act itself. Prior to the withdrawal I was going to vote against the Statutory Instrument as I feel it would weaken the ban.
Currently, as part of the Hunting Act pest control exemptions, farmers and gamekeepers can use up to two dogs to flush foxes from cover to be shot. I understand that upland farmers have argued that the two-dog limit can be impractical on their terrain, which can be vast, difficult and covered by woodland. The new Statutory Instrument intended to give land owners in England and Wales the opportunity to use more than two dogs to flush out foxes. However, I believe that the changes proposed would make prosecution of those who participate in illegal hunting more difficult which is why I would have voted against this measure.
Many of the constituents who contacted me have asked for my views on the Hunting Act more generally, following the commitment in the Conservative Manifesto that MPs would have the opportunity to repeal the Act on a free vote. I would not like to see the Hunting Act repealed and I would not wish to see hunting returned as a sport.
I hope that I have been able to reassure you of my commitment to ensuring animal welfare. Animal welfare is an issue that I have been raising in Parliament for some time. I am the leading Conservative campaigner against the badger cull, and I have done significant work in opposing the culls. I have also campaigned to the Government against the use of pinch collars on dogs with the help of the Dogs Trust, and have supported a variety of animal rights campaigns including those relating to wild animals in circuses, backstreet breeding and strengthening protection for racing greyhounds. I have worked with a number of animal welfare charities and I am determined to continue the fight against animal cruelty.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
With best wishes,
Mrs Anne Main

A damn sight better than the lack of response that 6-year-old me got from John Major!

IMG_7952

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‘Wild Neighbours’ with Sir David Attenborough and Gordon Buchanan

In hushed awe, the crowd at the Rose Theatre in Kingston listened attentively as Sir David Attenborough, legendary TV naturalist, led the way at the Environment Trust for Richmond’s annual lecture.

Titled ‘Wild Neighbours’, the event examined what happens when animals living wild in the UK collide head first with busy, urban environments. IMG_8398Sir David examined the issue of non-native species being introduced… and flourishing… on our shores (such as the now firmly established Canadian goose, the green parakeet and grey squirrel) and how they can impact the native species that claimed the land first. IMG_8401I was surprised to learn the long-accepted wives’ tale that red squirrels and grey squirrels are competing for food, is in fact incorrect. Instead, the red squirrel actually faces bigger threat from the pine martin (incidentally a nemesis of its grey counterpart, too) than the grey squirrel.

Often what happens when a non-native species is introduced to Britain (nearly always by the deliberate decision of humans) is that when its numbers climb too high, we take it upon ourselves to ‘control population’… through culling.

This is a fate that the afore mentioned green parakeet has faced on more than one occasion. When pressed, Attenborough conceded that he actually welcomes the parakeet to the UK.

Next to take the stand was renowned wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan.

Through real life anecdotes and humorous videos, Gordon relayed the plight of the urban fox. IMG_8409 As well as talking the audience through the life cycle of a fox (born in March; first emerges from the den in April; weaned in May; leaves den in June; before being kicked out of the family unit in November), Buchanan spoke of why they find themselves living amongst our cities and towns: we ate into their habitat after WWII.

The two admissions that intrigued me most from Gordon, however, were slight tangents from his talk about foxes; his opinions on reintroduction and intervention. IMG_8412 These two concepts seem to leave the nature world divided as to just how much we should ‘interfere’.

Given that people pay no mind to introducing non-native species to the UK, such as the parakeet (and then culling them for crisis control purposes), or taking away habitats, such as that of the fox; it intrigues me that whether or not we should reintroduce lynx and wolves to Scotland sparks such discussion (though for the record, it didn’t spark to much discussion at all from Gordon himself, who quickly declared himself as believing it will ‘pay off economically’).

The area that Buchanan did seem to struggle with having a definitive opinion on, however, was whether or not a wildlife filmmaker should ‘just let nature take its course’.

I’m sure we’ve all seen those heart-wrenching moments on BBC wildlife series’ where an animal becomes separated from its family unit and is left stranded/lost/alone with no food and no hope for survival – and have shouted at the screen: “help him! Why can’t you help him?!”

But when should a filmmaker intervene?

“I used to think; never” Gordon admits, ‘but over time my view has changed and softened a bit.”

“Now I think it sometimes can be ok. If you’re looking at something that is a direct results of humans (such as the clip he shows up of a fox cub with its head stuck in a Pringles can), I think it’s fine. I just wouldn’t go as far as stroking a wild animal, or treating it like a pet.”

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