A skipper from Essex and Chalkhill Blue Butterflies

No, this is not about sailing, I’m talking about British butterflies.  Certainly one of the best reasons to avoid C19 is by being out and about in the countryside and in southern England, particularly where there are downs and hillsides and not crowds of people, rare and beautiful butterflies are thriving.

blog pictures Chalkhill blueChalkhill Blue Butterfly

Some years ago, I was involved in a fairly dramatic car accident (not of my making I may add) which resulted in severe hearing loss. At the time I was creating natural history wildlife programmes for the BBC and Anglia TV and was able to use the developments in headphones and hearing aids to help me; but anno domini hearing deterioration and a natural preference led me away from regular broadcasting to writing, photographing and illustrating my many articles and books.

I’ve been fascinated by photography for 40 years and even processed my own colour film in a small cupboard on the landing at our home… And I was, of course, an early convert to digital photography, trying any number of different manufacturers and hoping that my growing collection of lenses would fit.

I’ve also had the good fortune to do quite a bit of travel writing, but my long -suffering wife and the various airlines I used to get us to far away places have become less tolerant of the bulk and weight of my camera gear and I got rather fed up with the ever-growing cost of each new development.

Happily. a brilliant photographer and keen naturalist friend introduced me to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds range of cameras. I won’t bore you with all the technicalities but, in essence. the electronic chip that captures the image is much smaller than the 35mm imaging chip on my very heavy Minolta Camera.

Essex skipper ,Essex Skipper Butterfly

In consequence, the entire camera is smaller and lighter. Olympus have a well-earned reputation for superb optics and wonderful engineering and have managed to incorporate such refinements as excellent anti-shake, vital for hand-held telephoto shots; and both camera and lenses are water and dust resistance, which makes them a must for the back-packing fraternity.  Indeed for any traveller who likes to get off the beaten track and have the assurance that their treasured pics will survive the adventure.

Several years ago I bought an Olympus EM-5 mk 2 camera and replaced three lenses with an Olympus 12mm to 200mm zoom lens; the best purchase I’ve made in a very long time. In a stroke the camera bag was lightened by a kilo and, as a bonus, I found I could film in good quality video from close up to telephoto without having to change lenses. Olympus is justly famous for the quality of their glass and the Pro series of lenses are world-renowned. And, though my lens is not a pro spec, I can’t fault it.

Because I am severely deaf I wear two sophisticated hearing aids, which means I can’t use headphones. I just get a rather uncomfortable feedback howl.  So recently I’ve been experimenting with an Olympus recorder LS-P4. A minute piece of sophisticated kit that sits on top of my camera flash hot-shoe and plugs into the microphone socket, providing professional-grade sound.  In order to hear messages on my mobile I use a digital neck loop, and have been delighted to find that by plugging into my neck loop I can monitor the high quality of the camera sound track in my hearing aids via a simple and cheap mini jack cable.

It’s an exciting step forward and this week I have been taking some sample videos and some stills of chalkhill blue butterflies and Essex skipper butterflies… and I’m very much looking forward to the time when I have mastered the digital editing programme I have and can add sound and vision to my blogs.

I’ve very recently had a note from Olympus telling me they have a special offer on cameras, lenses, and on the sound recorder LS-P4.

Highlight and have a look at these Links:

Direct Link: https://shop.olympus.eu/en_GB/promo.html?id=14595


Enjoy Life. Stay Safe. Protect Nature.

British Wildlife Collection

I am a dedicated naturalist; one who needs to be out and about in the countryside to be at their happiest. I also happen to be one of the generation, the 70-plus population, affected the most by Covid-19 and have spent rather a lot of time in the garden or in the immediate environs of my home in Hertfordshire – taking the air.

There are many visitor centres and attractions based on the natural world that have had to furlough staff and, in some cases, make redundancies. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the lockdown is being eased these places will thrive again. They are, of course, out in the open air, which is the best place to be.

One of my favourite places to visit belongs to a very special man, David Mills, and this is a tale about his unique wildlife collection – the story of one man’s dream. David gave up a lucrative dairy farm and his pedigree herd of Channel Islands cattle on land just off the A22 at Newchapel near Lingfield in Surrey to pursue a dream. In 1994 he took a huge gamble; sold his herd and created a unique wildlife collection, housing virtually all of the native species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians found in the British Isles – as well as the odd furry immigrant.

After developing the concept, the next stage was to create enclosures and cages. These needed to have sufficient space and be filled with the right sort of habitat to allow the animals to feel comfortable enough to behave in as natural a way as possible. The core philosophy of the British Wildlife Centre being to conserve species and educate both children and their adults.

Main picture – Scottish Wild Cat, top right Red Squirrel, bottom right, Weasel

The wildlife residents range in size from red deer stags, tall as a man and requiring acres of land – to harvest mice weighing just a few grammes and capable of climbing a stalk of wheat without bending it. In between these extremes of size there are 40 or so different species of British wildlife, including the ancestor of the domestic ferret, the inquisitive and rather haughty polecat, (called “foulmart” in medieval times) and its elegant and inquisitive mustelid cousin the pine marten (known as “Sweetmart”.) Both are small, cat-sized predators driven to virtual extinction by gamekeepers over much of lowland Britain. Indeed, the polecat is still largely confined to Wales.

Pine martens very much at home hunting in trees, particularly Scots pine forests in northern England and Scotland. But these attractive predators are spreading south making themselves popular in mixed-species woodland where they tend to predate the introduced grey squirrels in preference to the endangered native red squirrel. They share their northern fastness with Scottish wildcats, arguably the rarest and most endangered our all our native wild mammals. Another victim of habitat loss and game preservation brought to the brink. They also suffered from dilution of the ancient wild cat genes through dalliance with feral domestic cats.

All three species, the two martens and the Scottish wild cats are housed in superb naturally planted enclosures and the Scottish wild cats, in particular, feel safe enough to breed with genetically pure native wildcats allowing visitors the opportunity to see them. They are so scarce and so shy in the wild that even dedicated naturalists have never seen one in the wild in the UK.

The enclosures housing weasels and stoats allow extended sightings of these mercurial little hunters. So fleeting and only spotted for a few seconds in the countryside yet they are far from rare. It’s a place where you can spend hours watching the antics of these beautiful hyperactive hunters.

Left above – Red Fox – Right above – Badger 

Certain areas at the Centre draw people like iron filings to a magnet. One of them is the fox enclosure. Foxes have a poor image generated in part by ill-informed headlines. Shy by nature, but wonderfully adaptable they are one of Britain’s two largest native predators, the other being the badger. The foxes here are in perfect physical condition, behaving much as foxes do in the wild, exploring and sniffing, scent marking and simply lazing in the sun. All too often our view of Reynard (the old country name for the fox) is limited to a sad corpse at the roadside, or a brief glimpse of an urban fox exploring the rubbish that we, who litter our environment, leave behind, yet there are few wild creatures to match a wild healthy fox in its winter coat.

Two large lakes nestle in a valley, home to a pair of otters. I’ve spent many hours watching them on the river dart in Devon. They exude enjoyment, living on a high protein wetland diet and spending a great deal of their time snoozing quietly on the bank before plunging, with hardly a ripple, into the water where their favourites pastime is playing. Feeding time with otters is very special.  I have the privilege to be the Joint President of IOSF, The International Otter Survival Fund, a charity based on the isle of Skye and dedicated to the support and conservation of otter species around the world… many of these are endangered

Among the most special features of this fabulous collection of native wildlife is the breeding colony of red squirrels that inhabits a large enclosure of trees, shrubs and grass kept in check by a family of muntjac deer. It is perhaps the most successful breeding colony of red squirrels anywhere in the UK. So at home are they, that they breed in sufficient numbers to allow some to be reintroduced to the wild; truly a case of conservation in action.  A raised walkway allows you to see the squirrels and for them to see you too. Indeed, they are so accustomed to people that they move along the rails of the walkway looking for all the world like Beatrix Potter illustrations come to life.

Feeding times are well signposted and popular, providing an excellent opportunity to see the animals at close quarters interacting with their keepers and the public.  David Mills is a superb communicator and at one time conducted most of the ‘in-cage’ lectures, but now his staff of four and a head keeper have taken over as he deals more with the administration.

Proof of the success of the Centre is the number of school parties that visit; the children are spellbound as the keepers explain the fascinations of nocturnal animals, or the way rabbits live underground, or the difference between a black rat and a common brown rat and, of course, these days, because of the pandemic, the role of black rat role in the bubonic plagues of the Middle Ages,   Details on the everyday life of hedgehogs, wood mice, owls and snakes is woven in between and, if the timing is right, (usually about 3.00pm) badgers may well come out to explore and pick up the food left out for them by the staff.

When the Covid-19 ceases to be quite so restrictive, I am sure they will resume the special photographic days when the Centre is closed to the general public. It’s well worth the extra cost for the opportunity to get much closer to the animals, fit and healthy and enjoying their superb surroundings.


Detailed information and directions can be found on the website – as will information on the “photographic days. www.britishwildlifecentre.co.uk  e-mail: info@britishwildlifecentre.co.uk



Spring in the British Countryside

The mere mention of the word spring conjures up visions of strengthening sunlight reflecting a multitude of shades of green; woods and hedgerows loud with birdsong and wild flowers in abundance and, everywhere you look, new life.

A queen bumblebee, an aerodynamic anomaly, wings seemingly too small to support the bulk of her furry body, trundles about seeking a safe place beneath a shed, or pile of logs, or disused wood mouse burrow to begin the process of founding a new female-dominated dynasty of worker bee pollinators – to the benefit of a host of food crops. Not so welcome, but of equal worth to gardeners and farmers, is the queen wasp. She too is searching out a site to establish her caterpillar and aphid-consuming colony. This year has the makings of a really good year for aphid species, so all those gardeners who kill wasps on sight might want to stop and think before they do. They will need the help of these small and much maligned, yellow and black aphid hunters.

Bluebell Wood in Hertfordshire – and common wasp collecting nest material 

The new decade opened with a worldwide Virus pandemic, but nature is carrying on as usual  The Duke of Burgundy fritillary butterfly, a small chequered-winged insect, favours cowslips for its larval food plant; we may look forward to a vintage butterfly year. The ‘Duke’ has some special companions in spring, the orange tip butterfly which patrols stands of garlic mustard plants and the green hairstreak butterfly that loves to sunbathe on bramble.

The month of April and May mark the highest level of migrant bird movements.  Most winter migrants like waders, ducks and wild swans will have left Britain’s lakes, ponds, estuaries and mudflats well fed in preparation for the long journey back to their summer breeding grounds, many in the far north.  From the opposite direction a flood of summer migrant songbirds is arriving, in particular the warblers.   Among them, though not known for their musical ability, will be some special rare visitors like the large fish-eating osprey and elegant common crane.  Both osprey and crane indicate the success of policies explored over many years of providing habitat and round the clock protection.  Neither as large nor as spectacular as the osprey, nor as showy as the cranes, nor as musical as the warblers, is the corncrake. This highly specialised member of the rail family very nearly became extinct in Britain due mainly to long term changes in farming practice; it’s a bird that needs flower-rich hay meadows and tall rank grasses cut much later in the year than the current trend for haylage or silage and, consequently, the secretive ratchet call of the territorial male has become a rare sound in the countryside.  Despite its seemingly weak fluttery flight the corncrake is a long-distance migrant, flying up from Africa in the spring to breed.  Once common on the flowery water meadows and traditional hayfields found in Victorian and Edwardian times, towards the end of the last century they had retreated to a small area of wildflower-rich ‘Machair’ hay meadows on the northern isles of Scotland and to a few hay fields in Ireland.

Thanks to a remarkably far sighted project sponsored among others by Whipsnade Zoo, the RSPB and the Pensthorpe Trust in Norfolk, the corncrake should be heard (once we are allowed out and about again) on the newly recreated Cambridgeshire Great Fen project, which aims to restore over 3,000 hectares of fenland habitat between Huntingdon and Peterborough.  The plan is to connect the two National Nature Reserves of Wood Walton Fen and Holme Fen and thus create an area with real conservation benefits for wildlife – and socio-economic benefits for people too.

Wood Walton Fen is an internationally important site and one of the very first designated nature reserves in Britain because of the communities of wetland plants and animals that it supports; this is reflected in its designation as a Ramsar site and Special Area of Conservation.  The whole project is impressive in its ambition and vision, aiming to combine nature conservation and management with tourism and other income-generating activities. It could also play a strategic role by storing flood water for the protection of the Middle Level System and the homes, farms and businesses that depend on this system.

However exciting they may be rarities are but the icing on the cake. It is the commonplace breeding birds like bluetits, sparrows, dunnocks and greenfinches, collared doves, robins and blackbirds that share our gardens and town parks that are the reality of the countryside and excite millions of garden birders, especially in otherwise ecologically barren areas of high density housing.  Regular feeding with nuts, seeds, fat and crumbs has meant that garden birds are filling nest boxes with clutches of eggs that will hatch to replace the birds lost to the rain-sodden winter…

Corncrake at Pensthorpe, Norfolk – and Robin in my garden

If any one particular  birdcall heralds the spring, it must be the bi-syllabic chiff-chaff which repeats its name from hazel twigs in ancient woodland and manicured hedges in town parks.  These birds make a journey of thousands of miles to come to Britain, and as the dawn chorus ripens so the chiff-chaff’s two notes will be joined by the more varied songs of other summer migrants with a backing of staccato drumming provided by resident greater-spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers; they use their head and beak as a hammer to beat on a resonant dead tree to attract a mate. To avoid getting a headache the woodpecker’s brain and eyes are protected from impact and flying chips of wood by a cushion of fluid at the base of the bill and around the eye socket.

Wherever you live in these complex islands of ours, the birdsong is varied.  In Kent, nightingales, fresh from Africa, join in with British robins. In Wales, summer migrant redstarts compete with song thrushes… and, of course there is always the blackbird. Few songsters can hold a candle to this Pavarotti of the avian world; it’s melody says … this is my place in the British countryside

FACT BOX: for more information


Whipsnade Zoo – www.zsl.org

Pensthorpe Nature Reserve & Gardens – Brainchild of the Jordan family (better known for high quality breakfast cereals), Pensthorpe is the current home of BBC’s Spring Watch. – www.pensthorpe.com

Great Fen Project – Still in its early stages this is destined to become one of the most exciting fenland re-creation projects in Europe – www.greatfen.org.uk

RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – As regular readers will note the RSPB crops up regularly in recommended website; with good reason. It’s role in national and international bird and habitat conservation is unmatched. – www.rspb.org.uk

Buglife – An organisation dedicated to conserving the small things that run the world – www.buglife.org.uk


The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland by David T. Parkin & Alan G. Knox, Published by Christopher Helm (Imprint of A C Black) ~ ISBN 978-1-4081-2500-7 – A new publication, packed with information on every conceivable British bird.

Insects of Britain and Western Europe by Michael Chinery, Published by Collins ~ ISBN No: 0-00-219137-7 – The insect reference book I use the most.

Collins Butterfly Guide by Tom Tolman and Richard Lewington, Published by Collins ~ ISBN No: 978-0-00-727977-7


Serengeti Show Live

One aspect of the Covid-19 epidemic relates directly to being housebound for your own protection. Namely, those myriad jobs that have been put off for some time will now coincide with self-isolation. In the past, we might have said we were waiting for a rainy day. Let us all agree it is absolutely pouring, metaphorically speaking!

Being a semi-retired writer on the subject of wildlife and natural history and a photographer and artist in order to illustrate my work, I’ve been drawing and painting, editing photos and catching up on a life story that I’ve had in mind to do for several years.  Writers depend on all sorts of things for inspiration; visual triggers, audible triggers, to set the juices going.  One such trigger came from watching BBC News recently and the announcement that the Excel Centre in East London was to be converted into a hospital for intensive care wards for victims of Covid-19. Named ‘The Nightingale Hospital’, it will be able to provide up to 4000 beds.

This news coincided with some emails I received from Tanzania and it was at the Excel Centre some years ago at a World Travel Market Exhibition that I first met Carel Verhoef, a young man who was just starting out as an organiser of Safaris. Subsequently, we have become firm friends and he has become an expert in the field of African wildlife and Safaris – based in Tanzania.


Back then I was compiling and presenting radio programmes and writing articles on ecotourism; a subject I had specialised in for some years. My wife and I had toured around the posh end of the Exhibition at the Excel Centre and took ourselves off to the peripheral stands in the Africa section where I knew some of the representatives.  We stopped at a small display with a collection of outstandingly good photographs of lions with the caption the ‘Lobo Pride’ and the smiling young man on the stand fitted to a tee the classical outdoor, healthy safari specialist. I admired the photos and he began to tell me all about them. How, where and when they were taken. I’m an enthusiast and warm to others of my ilk.

In next to no time we were on first name terms and he was telling me about his concession on the Serengeti at the Lobo Kope (where he based his main campsite) a huge pile of rocks a billion years old and set in tens of thousands of acres of wildlife-rich land. What started out as a general chat of mutual interest was the beginning of a friendship that has grown over the years. He now runs a successful and fascinating safari business and is the father of two lovely girls.

Over the years our face to face meetings have been few, generally at WTM (travel market exhibitions) but we keep in touch regularly. I’ve been to Africa several times, twice with Carel, and I was hoping to plan another trip with him this year to see the Wilderbeest Migration.  However, that will have to be put on a back burner.

The first trip I made was to the Serengeti and Ngoro Ngoro Crater. My wife is not a fan of rough camping in the bush so, with my son Robin, I arranged to meet up with Carel in Arusha in Tanzania to spend some time with him and his Tanzanian business associate ‘Machine’ who was as good with vehicles as his name would suggest.   Carel set about showing us his domain and in next to no time we were seeing leopards and elephants and the Lobo pride of lions and were surrounded by a host of other wildlife.  I’m no slouch when it comes to wildlife. It’s been my life’s work to write about it but, familiar as I am with many larger beasts of the plains, I am out of my depth when it comes


Ensconced in the Serengeti with a couple of comfy ridge tents and camp beds, the fire burning, Carel cooking supper and chatting over the day’s experiences, marvelling at the night sky – what more could you ask for.

Since that first trip, we have travelled thousands of kilometres through Southern Africa, Namibia, Botswana with Carel and his family. Trips that Carel has especially tailored to our needs.

Going back to the beginning of this blog, the e-mails that triggered this were from Carel and his partner Sally Grierson checking up on how we are faring in these difficult times and telling us that they are in the same boat. Well, not quite in the same boat; they are self-isolating in the Serengeti where wildlife is king, and they are thinking of ways in which they might share their fantastic experiences with the rest of us.

I mentioned that Carel and I first became friends when I stopped to chat with him about his superb photographs. He is also a master videographer and with the cooperation and input of two other camera people and a sound engineer has produced a series of programmes of what is happening in the Serengeti – as it happens – Serengeti Live.  There will also be pre-recorded programmes. They are looking for people to partner up with them to get these programmes out to as many people as possible.

The programmes will be ready to stream. If you have a budget for this type of programme, I guarantee it’s just what a locked-down population needs to lift their spirits. All the psychologists are advising us to let nature help us to avoid depression. Even to sit in a comfy seat by the window with, hopefully, some greenery outside is reckoned to be a benefit….. How much more beneficial to watch a specialist at work in the wonderful wildlife-rich Serengeti.






Trip to Hayling Island with Olympus

Hayling Island with Olympus OM-DE-M1X Camera and ED 300F.4 Pro Lens

I’m a keen photographer with a huge library and over the years have owned several makes of camera equipment with a few breaks, usually due to lack of funds.

When I had to buy some photographs to illustrate my very first book, The Country Book of the Year, published in early 1980, they were so expensive that, even though I was happy with the quality of those few I did buy, I had to use my small ability as an artist to illustrate the bulk of the artwork with drawings and paintings.. Ever since I have taken my own photos, spending many hours in a darkroom like a modern-day alchemist, turning silver and rare elements into images on print and slide.

Some years and several books later I entered the world of the single lens reflex camera. Having tried and been frustrated by offerings from a number of high-profile camera makers, I was, photographically speaking, at my wits end. Fortunately, a friend, who is a skilled photographer and artist himself recommended Olympus, a highly respected manufacturer that enjoys a considerable reputation in the field of medical optical equipment as well as cameras and lenses.

In 2019 they celebrated 100 years in business and have developed an imaging format known as ‘micro four thirds’  I’m not going to try to explain the technical details, other than to say the devices that capture the image are far smaller and lighter than those in full frame cameras –  a system employed by the majority of cameras makers. Being a nature and travel writer and photographer, I find this lighter weight equipment gives me peace of mind in having my full range of camera kit in my cabin baggage. As well as being light, this equipment (camera and lenses, reduces the level of human-induced shake, particularly when trying to photograph birds in flight and taking shots in poor light conditions, this is something Olympus has majored in.

Recently, I had the opportunity to check out the very latest Professional camera and lenses from Olympus – namely the OM-DE-M1X camera and ED 300 F.4 Pro lens at the RSPB’s reserve on Hayling Island.  In winter it’s an excellent place for birdwatching with several thousand waders, Brent geese, egret, kingfishers and a large number of duck species recorded; and even the occasional seal.

Having arranged a short-term loan of the latest Olympus equipment, my friend Peter and I met up with a representative from Olympus. I checked the tide tables and crossed my fingers re the weather. The best laid plans ran true to form. The day dawned wet and windy. However, the tide was just right, and the Brent geese and waders were there on cue. One of my favourite waders is the turnstone, a dumpy brown and white bird in its winter plumage. It’s remarkably trusting and happy to carry on flicking over small pebbles to get at sand hoppers and tiny shore crabs while being photographed.

Turnstone_Blog_Hayling Island

One of the plus features of the Micro 4/3rds system is the fact that the smaller sensor doubles the magnification of the 300mm lens to 600mm with no increase in weight.  The professional specification ensures that it does not lose any of its performance, creating a combination that can be used all day.  I use the Olympus OEMD 5 Mk 2 as my day to day camera, so the control layout on the M1X, though different, sports a button layout with a similar feel, and the camera controls fall easily to hand so that I needed very little instruction

In spite of the weather and, incidentally, camera and lens are both water-resistant to a remarkable degree, and the battery held its own in the cold, it was an excellent day.  When the rising tide drove the waders to roost out on the small islands in the harbour, it was time for us to leave them in peace, and part with the M1X. It was quite a wrench.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be in the most northerly tip of arctic Norway where the turnstone breeds and Cinderella-like the males throw off their dowdy winter clothes and dress in bright plumage with lots of dazzling white and amber and brown so they can display to a population of equally elegant females. For six months each year these birds have no contact with humans, and this might well account for their seeming tameness.





Travels to the Camargue with Olympus

Last year my wife, who shares the same birthday as me, arranged a surprise visit to the Camargue, an immense salt marsh that forms the Delta of the River Rhone on the southern coast of France.  Having circumnavigated the hurdles and minor irritations of Ryanair (Mr O’Leary’s winged money collecting system), we landed at Nimes and took a taxi to Arles. This delightful walled town is full of Roman interest. The ampitheatre was built in the 9th century AD and seated 21,000 spectators and there’s an imposing bathhouse to keep them clean and healthy after their questionable “entertainment”.

My wife Ann and I are Francophiles, having written about France for a quarter of a century. We love the laid-back French way of life. My French is dreadful and being deaf, I find accents almost impossible to understand, but a smile and a polite request in halting French and I usually manage very well.  The supposedly offhand manner of the French towards the English is not our experience.  We booked into La Muette, a lovely hotel within a building nearly 1,000 years old in the centre of the town. Typical French cafés abound, some with memories of Vincent Van Gogh, others serving delicious north African food.

However, we were there to see the wildlife and I also wanted to field test the remarkable Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 Mirrorless flagship pro camera and the 40 x150 f2.8 Pro Zoom lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro Zoom. As you can probably tell I am an Olympus fan, so I supplemented this combination with my own Olympus 6mm macro lens for close-up and insect work. It was interesting to see how the new equipment performed when measured against my existing Olympus camera, the smaller OM-D E-M5. First impressions were excellent; the sort of high-end quality that is standard with Olympus… and, despite being professional standard, the weight is reasonable and it all fits into a handy-sized camera bag,

As a working naturalist, travels to far flung places has taught me that the ultimate quality with the minimum weight is what to aim for in camera equipment and this combination from Olympus with the HLD9 battery grip gave me the weight I like and the power to not have to worry about enough electricity in the kit when that special shot comes along late in the day.

Olympus lenses are renowned for the quality of their optics. They have managed to put high-end elements into a relatively compact, but physically strong, dust and splash proof design without sacrificing superb focus, accurate stable zoom and edge-to-edge clarity. It’s one of the main reasons I am a fan… However, let’s get on with seeing the wildlife, including the flamingos, horses and fighting bulls for which the Camargue is justly renowned.

An incredibly helpful Frenchman in the tourist office in Arles booked us onto a Land rover Safari which was to take us across the marshes and through the national parc. We had planned to hire a car to explore the Camargue, but I was pleased that Ann convinced me that it might be best to have a look first with an expert guide then, perhaps find alternative transport; such as the local bus. We presented ourselves at the pickup point and met up with a cheerful English-speaking guide/driver.

The Camargue.is a huge area of marshes and wetlands with cattle ranches and rice paddies. It was formed when the sea rose after the last Ice Age, creating a delta where the River Grande Rhone drains into the Mediterranean.  The whole region has a long history of importance to humans and to wildlife. The river Rhone forms a migration flyway for birds passing to and fro the Mediterranean.  Long before the Roman legions conquered Gaul and set up an administrative capital in Arles, Celtic tribal groups fished for oysters and mussels in the fertile waters and trapped fish and some of the immense flocks of wildfowl…. I enjoy an oyster or dozen myself, but I mustn’t forget I was here for the wildlife.

As I’ve said the “Carmargue” is huge, encompassing miles of green-velvet, rice filled paddy fields, farms where the region’s fighting bulls are reared as well as sheep and the famous white Camarguais horses that are allowed to roam in free-running herds; periodically rounded up for local fiestas.  The whole area is intersected by minor roads that are not signed and all look exactly alike – and apart from a few distant dark-coloured birds away over the rice fields that I recognised as Ibis, not a white horse nor fighting bull to be seen … yet.   Birds in general were thin on the ground and when I mentioned this there was a smiling reply from our guide “we are not there yet.”  True enough, it was just about to get far more interesting.

We turned off the main road towards a small grass-roofed hut, a shade bigger than my garden shed. It had been a farm workers over-night shelter; a relic of the days when agriculture was pre-mechanisation (indeed, pre almost every creature comfort.)  20ft or so from the hut was a pole with the powerline crosspiece on which perched the largest nest I’ve seen in years. On top of this truck-load of twigs sat a pair of very affectionate white storks displaying. I was surprised to see the nest so close to the road, but storks are used to being around humans and their dwellings. My picture shows the remarkable optical quality of the 40-150 Pro lens … a good beginning. Later, when I looked at the shots I’d taken, I noticed that the storks were tenants and owners of an avian block of flats with house sparrows flitting to and fro beneath their large majestic landlord’s nursery.


The vast scale of the Camargue is difficult to come to terms with at first because the land is as flat as a billiard table and scale is confusing; but as we drove further into the park along smaller and smaller roads and, eventually, tracks, the birds began to appear.  A small flight of avocets and a black-winged stilt looking for all the world like an elegant waiter in dinner jacket.  Quite often flocks of dark birds appear in line of sight, but just too far off, especially with heat haze, to be clearly visible through binoculars, but it wasn’t long before we were close enough to get a really good view of what turned out to be glossy ibis probing in the newly flooded paddy fields for worms


These tiny tracks often lead to groups of ponds where waders, particularly avocets and stilts probe the flooded fields. The horizon can be filled with immense tracts of saltmarsh where flamingos, herons and egrets occupy the shallow channels. I’ve seen flamingos in many differing habitats around the world, but still can’t get my mind around the fact that these bizarre-looing creatures are members of the same family as geese and swans.   They are, of course, beautiful and ungainly at the same time, yet perfectly adapted to take advantage of a food source in the shape of algae and the minute invertebrates that are among the smallest most abundant creatures on earth.  Flamingos not only thrive on their peculiar diet but, as a bonus, absorb red pigment from their food which, in turn, colours their feathers in varying shades of pink and vivid red.  Is it any wonder that we are overawed by nature? As we were leaving this lovely area we drove past a small muddy pool where three of the iconic white horses had decided to wallow and splash about like large children in a puddle.  Needless to say, we had to stop to take some pictures.



Beautiful Indicators


Peacock (photo by Dennis Furnell)

It has been a weird summer with quite a lot of rain and cool temperatures early on. Nature has had to use all its survival strategies to ensure the continuance of species.

Of all creatures on this planet (if you take viruses and bacteria out of the equation) on land, at least, Insects are the most adaptable; yet they are not invulnerable to the changes humankind is making to the land – in particular day-flying, scaly-winged insects,

Butterflies have earned themselves the unenviable role as an indicator species. In the mid 1970’s a member of the family known as ‘blue butterflies’, the large blue, became extinct in this country because of aggressive land management, habitat destruction and a misguided attempt at conservation by people paid by the government to manage the habitat on which the last remnant of the large blue depended. On continental Europe, particularly France, the large blue thrived, though it too is in decline partly due to the subsidy-rich agriculture promoted by the EU. Until the turn of the millennia there was still a great deal of the rough farmland on which this insect’s larval food plant, wild thyme, grew in profusion and on which a particular species of meadow ant also thrived; this meadow ant being a vital link in the development of the large blue caterpillar.

The post office produced a postage stamp depicting British butterflies, including the large blue, painted by a close friend and fellow naturalist, the renowned wildlife artist, the late Gordon Beningfield. Almost single-handed Gordon promoted the value of butterflies as indicators of the health of the countryside and campaigned to found the organization “Butterfly Conservation”, a charity he supported until his untimely death from cancer in 1998 aged 61yers. I had the good fortune to be a close friend, near neighbour and fellow conservationist for more than thirty years and my family and I still have a long-standing friendship with his family.

I have been fascinated by butterflies and moths since childhood and always look forward to the first butterflies of summer, the holly blue and the brimstone, and in high summer I love the sight of Buddleia with its blue or white nectar-rich florets a magnet for butterflies such as painted ladies that have migrated across the Channel on southerly winds from as far afield as North Africa.

Red Admiral (large picture), Comma (top right(, Painted Lady (bottom right)                               photos by Dennis Furnell

Other butterflies that migrate from Europe include the beautiful red admiral and the clouded yellow, the latter not a regular visitor to buddleia, though I have seen them in Dorset taking advantage of the nectar-rich flowers. Other members of the same family as the red admiral are the peacock and the small tortoiseshell. Both lay their eggs on the leaves of nettles as will the comma butterfly – so called because it has a white mark just like a printed comma on its under wing.

Our British population continues to decline because of aggressive agriculture, sadly the “guardians of the countryside” as famers like to be known still plough up wild flower meadows and spray potent agrochemicals that kill the food plants of the butterflies as well as the insects themselves. If you wish to see butterflies in any profusion, other than whites, one has to make a journey to a nature reserve.

Perhaps sanity will begin to drive conservation now that soon we will be moving away from the pervasive influence of EU supported agriculture; although I am not sure of the outcome as government are saying that the British taxpayer will be picking up the tab. However, I am hopeful that there will be no repeat of the demise of insects as there was with the large blue and our children’s children will have the delight of gardens full of summer butterflies and a countryside rich in wild flowers.

Butterfly_Clouded Yellow

Clouded Yellow (photo by Dennis Furnell)

Journey to East Africa … continued

Left – Leopard – Top right – Oldevai Gorge, bottom right – crocodile 

The Serengeti is perhaps the last place on earth, excluding Antarctica, where nature reigns supreme. Formed during a period of intense seismic upheaval, which occurred at much the same time as the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater was formed, about 3 million years ago, the area was dominated by several volcanoes.

Volcanoes differ one from the other by the intensity of their eruptions, dictated by the consistency and amounts of gas and water vapour in their magma, or lava. There are several types of volcanic eruptions and those that occurred in East Africa were “Plinian” eruptions caused when a gas in the magma, the liquid rock that wells up from the earth’s white hot mantle, is suddenly released and thrown out in minute droplets with incredible force – similar to the effect you get when a bottle of fizzy water is shaken and then opened.  One of the other most common types is the “Hawaiian” eruption when lava flows like white hot treacle forming dense beds of solid rock as they cool.

The event that created the Serengeti was caused by a series of intense Plinian type eruptions hurling dust and ash high into the stratosphere. This vast burden of volcanic ash settled over the plateau below and briefly smothered animal and plant life; but volcanic ash is full of fertility and in the period between eruptions, something in the region of tens of thousands of years, plants and animals recolonized the plateau.

Several millions of years ago a party of Hominids, the primate line of mammals and one of our most distant biped ancestors, walked across a stretch of damp volcanic ash, which hardened in the fierce tropical sun leaving behind a perfect imprint of their footprints – as well as the footprints of a number of the animals that shared this developing landscape.  The ancestors of modern humans are hard to identify, but the footprints found at Laetoli indicate they had come a long way from their tree dwelling primate forebears.



Zebra on the move

The soils of the Serengeti are fertile but thin, in some places less than a metre over the bedrock, but perfect conditions for that master plant coloniser “grass”. Dense grass encourages large populations of grass-eaters, but as the rainfall pattern on the flatlands is somewhat inconsistent the herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle soon strip the thin soil bare and have to migrate following the rains and the new growth of grass. The herds digest those parts of the grasses they need and leave behind a liberal supply of droppings; manna from heaven for dung beetles, unwitting experts in the recycling of the herbivores’ leftovers.

One of the fascinating facts about grasses is their ability to resist grazing pressure in the long-term. The foliage above ground can be cleared by grazing and even by fire, but the roots and the growing points beneath the surface of the soil are protected, ready to grow as soon as the rains return; creating a perfect circular migratory cycle for the vast herds of grass eaters and predators such as leopards, lions and hyenas that depend upon the herds for their existence.

Elephants and hippos, giraffe and Thompson’s gazelle all depend upon the annual rain cycle too; and the gathering together of these creatures in astonishing numbers on the Serengeti and along the Mara River makes for the most wonderful wildlife experience. The Crocodiles that lie in wait may have not have had a meal for six months, but now, as the first wildebeest and zebra splash into the turbid flow the crocodiles close their jaw and propel themselves into the river. In spite of their huge size (many exceed 5 metres in length) they are masters of ambush with a lineage that goes back to dinosaur times surviving the great the great extinction 65 million years ago.  Lying on the sunny sandbanks, mouths agape waiting for the next meal, you could be mistaken for thinking they are dinosaurs.

My next trip is to South Western Africa……



Great White Egret

A great deal of speculation has been going on for some time in the scientific and lay media as to the timing and impact of a 2% increase in global temperatures, and this year seems to bear out the possibility that, whether by natural or human intervention, there is a blip in the weather patterns around the British isles and continental Europe.

Human beings, with their relatively short life span, find it hard to imagine that only 18,000 years ago the British Isles were part of an extended European land mass, brought about when the most recent Ice Age locked up a vast amount of water and the world’s oceans were considerably lower than they are today. A polar ice cap several kilometers thick extended as far south as the Midlands The mechanism for this phenomenon is thought to be a change in the earth’s rotation and as a consequence a reduction of the heat output from our sun. During this time there were incredible changes in the natural world with animals and birds in the northern hemisphere adapting to the intense cold periods, some of which lasted for several million years.  The last Ice Age was not one event, but several events interspersed with warm, almost tropical periods. Technically we are currently in one of these warmer periods with another Ice Age in the distant future …  if the pattern holds true.

It was during one of these climatic upheavals that our own species evolved and ever since we have been changing the planet to suit our own needs, especially over the last two or three hundred years.

Great White Egret

The event that brought about this train of thought was a bit of birdwatching at Summer Lees Nature Reserve on  the Nene Valley in Northamptonshire. I had arranged to meet up with a close friend to see what the unusually wet weather had brought in to the flooded gravel workings.  We had just settled down in one of the many hides when a large white bird flew across an area of open water and dropped down behind a reed bed. I only got a glimpse, but was pretty sure that it was a great white egret, confirmed a few minutes later when a little egret flew past.  Both of these birds were rarities in the latter part of the 20th century, but as climate change began to kick in the little egret in particular began to colonize the southern part of England from its stronghold in France.

The little egret is pure white with black legs finished incongruously with yellow feet that look rather like a pair of rubber washing up gloves.   The great white egret, about the same size as our common grey heron, also has black legs, but black feet and in the breeding season the top of the leg takes on a yellowish/red colour.

Like the little egret, the great white egret is a European bird of lakes and marshes.  They have popped up uncommonly from time to time in southern Britain and East Anglia as spring and summer passing visitors to the delight of the twitching fraternity, but during the past 5 years their appearances have become more frequent and they have begun to turn up in late autumn at certain nature reserves and lake sides showing every sign that they are not just visitors, but might fancy staying on; particularly if an egret of the opposite sex should happen to pass by.

I have watched these beautiful birds in various parts of Europe, but only occasionally in Britain.

The bird at summer Lees obligingly decided to walk sedately out of the reeds affording me with a brilliant view and allowing for no doubt as to the species.  Later in the day it was joined by another great white egret, possibly a female as it was a little larger… and the whole point about changes in our bird fauna  due to alterations in the British climate took on quite a different perspective.  Hopefully, like their smaller cousins, they will begin to colonize here. It would be a bonus and one of the unrealized benefits of changes in our weather that might make us more aware of the value of nature

East African Adventure


                                           Robin & Dennis                                             Bull Elephant

One of the joys of my work is the opportunity for travel. My wife is not particularly keen on rough and ready camping, she prefers a little comfort, and I can’t argue with that so when I travel to Africa I usually go with my our Robin.

When I was a small child, living in a tiny hamlet in north Devon, my favourite reading was a pre World War 11 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I scoured from end to end looking for things about wildlife. Of all the places that caught my attention the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater came top of the list. The pictures showed men in safari suits proudly holding a massive rifle beside the dead carcass of some unfortunate creature. It put me off big game hunting, but instilled instead a fervent desire to visit these magical places that seemed only slightly less distant than the far side of the moon.

Life can play amusing tricks and having visited Africa as part of my work as a wildlife broadcaster and writer I developed an abiding affection for the continent, including the beautiful but troubled country of Sierra Leone; but, despite travelling to various African countries I had never been to East Africa until five years ago. A trip to the World Travel market in London to make a programme for local radio about foreign wild life travel, took me to the section on African travel where I met Carel Verhoef, a brilliant naturalist a South African who organises and conducts safaris. It was the beginning of a fascinating long distance friendship, which resulted in us arranging a trip using simple ridge tents, camp beds, a Land Rover and a plan that took us from camp to camp across the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater finishing up at a place called Lobo Kope a massive outcrop of rock a billion years old.

Lioness & Cub                                 Ngorongoro Crater

Carel and Robin, about the same age, have a highly developed sense of humour and get on well and both of them look on me as if I’m in my dotage – and they may well be right. We timed our trip to catch part of the mass migration of wildebeest and zebra across the Mara River with the crocodiles, true prehistoric monsters, waiting their opportunity to make short work of the weak and immature… But funnily enough, it was the elephants I liked best. I had never seen truly wild plains elephants before, only glimpsing forest elephants in Sierra Leone.  Like most people my view of elephants had been restricted to the zoo. I live not far from the RZS collect at Whipsnade, perhaps one of the  best collections of its kind, but captive elephants have little opportunity to exhibit the majesty of their wild brethren and after two immense four ton bull elephants walked silently through our camp site as if we did not exist, my perception of them changed completely.

Carel negotiated the typically African roads that led to the place I had so wanted to see since childhood – the world heritage site of the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed volcano three million years old, twenty six kilometers long and twenty one kilometers wide. We stopped at a viewpoint high above the crater and I tried to focus my binocular on the floor of the crater below, but my eyes swam with emotion and I couldn’t answer Robin when he said “Well; what do you think of than then Dad?”  It was more awesome than I had ever imagined

Naturally we saw lions and luckily lionesses with cubs; we saw leopards, hosts of gazelles and other herbivores and a bird thought to be the largest and heaviest flying bird, the Kori Bustard, an imperious creature that seemed to be aware of its unique place in avian creation. There are so many aspects of nature in east Africa that it was essential to make another visit and this we did just recently – travelling 6,700 kilometres from South Africa into Namibia and on to Botswana and the Okavango Delta; but more of this next time………………