Fire ravages lynx habitat
During The Long Spring, my first port of call in Europe, once I’d crossed the Mediterranean, was Doñana. It is Spain’s most celebrated natural space, and one of Europe’s most important wetlands. It was probably my thirtieth visit, at least, a place I have been drawn to since the 1980s, when I was first sent there by the RSPB. My task was to work with what was then a small organisation, now the mighty SEO/BirdLife, to help build support for conservation in Spain. They were battling against Costa Doñana, a plan to double the size of the already huge resort at Matalascañas, threatening to destroy internationally-important sand dunes, home to the world’s most threatened cat, the Iberian lynx.
After a five-year fight, the plans were cancelled and instead, in 1992 a €344 million investment was announced: El Plan de Desarrollo Sostenible de Doñana – the sustainable development plan for Doñana.
Ten years later, on the night of 26 April 1998, I tuned in to the BBC World Service at the tail end of a news story about an environmental disaster in Spain. A reservoir containing waste from the Los Frailes pyrite mine at Aznalcóllar had collapsed, spilling five million cubic metres of lead, arsenic and cadmium-laden mud and acid water. A tsunami of poison flowed into the River Guadiamar, one of the main sources of water into Doñana, thirty miles downstream. The wave killed everything in the river, and spread over 5,000 hectares of farmland, which will never again produce food. The RSPB and SEO/BirdLife mobilised again. SEO would focus on supporting recovery efforts and pushing for long-term solutions, while the Government’s clean-up was under way. I again coordinated international support.
Three years ago, I went back to make a programme for the BBC radio series Costing the Earth. As reporter Julian Rush and I stood on the banks of the Guadiamar, close to where the wave of toxic waste had flowed sixteen years earlier, we could see poplars and willows had thrived in the humidity of the river and the warmth of Andalucía. The contaminated farmland has been allowed to rewild and has become a green corridor linking Doñana with the Sierra Morena to the north, hopefully reconnecting the fragmented and brink-teetering Iberian lynx population.
So news this weekend of fire raging through the pine and juniper forests to the west of Doñana brought back the same sense of doom I felt in 1998. As the flames spread uncontrollably, whipped by hot, dry gusts of wind, it became clear that the Iberian lynx captive breeding centre in El Achebuche was in their path. The animals and officers were evacuated: nine adult and five young lynx were gathered together for relocation; one sadly died during the operation, and with little time available, another thirteen had to be released to fend for themselves; eleven were eventually relocated and appeared in good health, with no immediate news of the whereabouts and safety of the other two.
Over four days, the fire gutted more than 10,000 hectares of pine and marine juniper forest and matorral scrub. SEO’s preliminary assessment was published on Monday: protected areas important for lynx - including the territories of three wild females -, chameleon, stone curlew, short-toed and booted eagles have been badly affected.
This morning efeverde.com reports that tracks of the remaining two lynx have been seen, and experts have set camera traps and cage traps in the area. The fourteen evacuated lynx have arrived back in the breeding centre at El Acebuche. The fire is under control, but 45 firefighters, equipped with five fire engines and a bulldozer, will stay in the area until the risk of re-ignition is over.
Live action from Alcalá de Henares
A year ago today, the journeys that made up The Long Spring came to an end. I was in Arctic Norway, having reached my final destination via North Africa, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden and Finland. Birds were my constant companions, and some species - cranes, ravens, even bluethroats - seemed to be acting as guides on my path, so constant were they.
For the first half of The Long Spring, right up to the Channel coast, white storks were like emblems of travel. I visited one of the towns laying claim to the title "Stork Capital", Alfaro in La Rioja, Spain. Another is Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid Region, where pride in the local storks is almost universal. Now SEO/BirdLife offer the chance for everyone to enjoy the not-so-private lives of this much-loved bird, live by webcam. The show has attracted over a quarter of a million hits so far.
One of many abiding memories of my encounters with storks last year is of their own special sound at the nest, which you should be able to hear from time to time if you tune in to the Alcalá family. My notes from Alfaro say:
"Each bird’s return is marked by a duet of bill-clattering, a sound like deep castanets, amplified by a resonating chamber in the birds’ throats. This gular pouch under the chin, is turned skywards as the birds draw their heads back to lay their long necks along their backs. It is a sound that in Spain is familiar and distinctive enough to have acquired its own word – crotoreo."
A blackbird sings as I write this. Its evensong – to use Richard Smyth’s word – is surely the defining sound of early spring. A sweet, wild note, to borrow his title, which quotes Gilbert White’s description of the song of another bird, Smyth’s favourite, the blackcap.
Like blackbird song, A Sweet, Wild Note flows in a stream of consciousness. It eddies around subjects such as poetry and music, connecting the science with the lore and meandering into philosophical backwaters. It is a subject about which countless volumes have been written before, and in exploring the cultural history of birdsong, including some less clichéd subjects, Smyth has found a niche. So, alongside the necessary but predictable subjects of Beethoven and Delius, there is plenty of space for composers like Jonathan Harvey and Evan Parker. Smyth’s writing on poetry is insightful but less wide-ranging, with a preponderance of well-studied Romantics. Still, there is room for a Rumi or a Ciardi.
Humans' desire to possess birdsong in caged form is given an unflinching treatment, as is the impact we are having on the very future of birdsong. The impoverishment of natural soundscapes is an unsurprising consequence of the impact we have had on bird populations, but the fact that birds have retimetabled the dawn chorus to fit around flight schedules at Berlin airport was an eye-opener, and a shock.
From two fields away, I hear a blackcap’s free-form jumble of notes that just reach me in the gaps in the blackbird’s phrasing. Smyth loves blackcap song. “I love it so much,” he says, “that I can give you a list of my top three singing blackcaps.” Which he does, in ascending order. He does not explain what made those moments special, and one small fault I could find in this book is Smyth’s relative silence about his own direct responses to the experience bird song. Occasionally he comes out from behind the scenes: at one point he re-imagines his (presumably successful) marriage proposal with birdsong added in, having failed to notice any at the time. It is a quirky moment among many, a feature of an entertaining style that manages to avoid becoming a distraction from a subject that is itself, perhaps, the most ancient and enduring form of entertainment.
A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott and Thompson on 13 April.
I am delighted that Richard Allen, the artist and illustrator, has been signed up to illustrate The Long Spring, including the cover and seven pictorial maps.
Richard, whose work can currently be seen at Birdscapes Gallery, Norfolk, Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve, Aldeburgh Contemporary Arts and SeaPictures, Clare, Suffolk, specialises in birds, other wildlife and landscapes. He lives amid the creeks and marshes of the Essex coast. “My great passion is the natural world, particularly birds, and I enjoy the challenge of sketching and painting them directly from life in the field in all weathers. The Colne estuary near my home in Wivenhoe provides plenty of inspiration, especially in winter when large flocks of waders and wildfowl flock to the coast”, he says.
A freelance illustrator with over 30 years experience, Richard has worked in publishing, newspapers, stamp design, and on interpretation illustrations for many conservation bodies, including the RSPB and National Trust.
I was particularly keen to use lino cuts in The Long Spring, and seeing Richard’s Coastal Birds collection of prints, which was published by Jardine Press in 2014, convinced me he was the man to illustrate the book! The Long Spring will be published by Bloomsbury early in 2018.
Marsh harrier by Richard Allen. Linocut.
To mark Sámi National Day (February 6) here are some pictures of the rock carvings at Jiepmaluokta, the Sámi name, which means Bay of Seals, for the place near Alta, north west Norway. The images (recently dyed with harmless red pigment to make them easier to see) were probably produced by stone age and early metal age people whose successors went on to identify themselves with the Sámi. Some of the images are almost identical to symbols found on Sámi artefacts in the period immediately before Christianisation.
I visited Jiepmaluokta the day after The Long Spring journeys came to an end, and saw seven thousand year-old images of reindeer husbandry, the earliest known images documenting the reindeer herding that is the defining tradition of the modern Sámi. A herd of wild reindeer is being corralled: there are thirty inside the fence, where a man wields a stick to keep them under control. Six more are at the entrance to the palisade, walking in, and thirty others are browsing freely, scattered throughout the landscape. Four bears, a male, a female and two cubs, have walked across the scene from their den, leaving their footprints in the snow. On the far side of a miniature mountain, seven moose roam. In the distance, eight people form a line, I imagine them hollering to drive the reindeer towards the corral; nearby, others wield clubs and sticks to keep the bears from the deer.
Exactly when these first images were made is a matter of debate: six thousand years ago based on the rate of isostatic rebound (land rising after being released from the downward pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap during the Ice Age), but recent thinking suggests they may be a thousand years older. There were times when the ice-melt caused the sea level to rise so much that it cancelled out the land-rise and the coastline may have changed little for more than a thousand years. At other times, relative land-rise was so rapid it would be noticed during a person’s lifetime.
Yesterday I sent off the manuscript for The Long Spring to Bloomsbury, bang on schedule. A year ago today I began the series of journeys that the book describes. I stood at 35° 54’N, on Monte del Renegado, looking south from the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, to the Rif mountains beyond Tétouan thirty miles away. I tried to imagine the whole continent of Africa before me, and two billion birds beginning their journeys to the lands to the north. The first sign of spring was a gathering of migrant hawker dragonflies preparing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe when the time was right, when wind direction and warmth allowed.
The next day I crossed the Mediterranean myself. From the ship I noticed a line of dark brown birds flying in parallel to us, effortless in their stiff-winged air-skiing, inches above the waves. Thirteen of the critically endangered Balearic shearwater. It is a species with a tiny breeding range and a small population, numbering around three thousand pairs and undergoing an extremely rapid decline. At their breeding colonies on islets off the main Balearic Islands, they are eaten by introduced mammals. At sea, they are killed as, to use a rather lame euphemism, fisheries by-catch.
With the book 99% finished, and the manuscript due to be sent off to Bloombsbury in a fortnight's time, I've returned to the website after a few months with my head down...
Look out for a series of photo-essays over the coming weeks, and in the meantime, I've created a new page, where my forthcoming talks are listed. I've had to reschedule a couple - many thanks to Barry and David, two speakers who have been able to swap or step in.
New novel explores the autumn migration of birds
Writer and ornithologist Antonio Sandoval Rey, whose book What Good are Birds? (original title ¿Para qué sirven las aves?) appeared in English earlier this year, has published a novel – BirdFlyway. Currently available only in Spanish, it is the story of a family who decide to go on a special holiday: following the autumn migration of birds from the Arctic to southern Spain.
Naturally, this reverse version of the journey I have just undertaken caught my attention, and Sandoval’s fictional family visits five of the sites that will feature my book The Long Spring: Doñana (Spain), Loch Garten (UK), Hornborga and Getterön (Sweden) and Liminganlahti (Finland). BirdFlyway is one of the most extraordinary routes in Europe, travelled each autumn by millions of migrating birds. Together with a very special guide, the members of the family in this novel travel through its natural scenic beauty, replete with life and history; but they also discover surprising things about themselves through the landscapes and birds they find.
Launched in Spain in May this year, the BirdFlyway project, is not just a work of fiction. Participating sites, including the ones mentioned, and several others in France, Belgium and Denmark, are encouraging people to experience the places visited by millions of migratory birds, which together form a vital network.
For Spanish readers, the first chapter of BirdFlyway is available to dip into here. It sets the scene – introducing the teenage narrator, his older sister, parents and grandmother, whose idea it was, as they prepare for their unique adventure. Click on the cover image for details of the book, published this month by Lynx Ediciones.
At Jiepmaluokta, near Alta in north Norway, each step down the path to the sea represents a decade or two along a timeline of changes that began about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. The land there was lifted from the sea by isostatic rebound, the rising of the land freed from the pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap. I went there at the end of May, on the last day of The Long Spring. I stopped at a group of massive, sea-smoothed rocks that emerged from the waters about 6000 years ago, and now lie eighty-five feet above the shore. When people first arrived there, they discovered a place imbued with a magic or a utility we cannot perceive today. They gathered here from distant settlements, and the shoreline rocks became their message-boards. They chiselled images into the fine-grained, grey-green sandstone using quartzite nibs: reindeer, moose, whales, bears and people. In all, about 3,000 known petroglyphs were made over a period of about four thousand years.
To walk the path from Alta Museum to the sea is to travel in time, downhill to the present. One rock, lying about sixty feet above the shore, emerged from the sea between 4200 and 5300 years ago. There are ghosts on this rock, hieroglyphs of gone birds, with messages to the future. It is a small rock, with a handful of reindeer, and three high-sided boats with moose-heads at the prow. And there are great auks, four of them. I was not expecting to come face to face with great auks, a bird that became extinct when the last pair were killed in Iceland in 1844. The guidebook has a photograph of the auk-glyphs, describing them as “probably geese”. But they have thick bills, shorter necks, legs positioned towards the rear, giving them an upright posture; one is flapping its paddle-wings, quite unadapted for flight, and has a man’s hand round its neck. It is either a very bad drawing of a goose, or a pretty good one of the extinct great auk.
A USA-based research institute, Revive & Restore, which attempts “genetic rescue” for endangered and extinct species, want to recreate the species and gradually restore it to the wild coasts of the north Atlantic. The scientists believe they can extract great auk DNA from museum specimens and sequence the animal’s entire genetic code, or genome. Those genes that distinguish the great auk from other species would then be edited into the cells of its nearest living relative, the razorbill. Fertilised embryos would be implanted into a bird big enough to lay a great auk egg, such as a goose.
In 2017 Finland celebrates the centenary of its independence from Russia. Artist and broadcaster Minna Pyykkö, and her husband the writer Juha Laaksonen have launched a campaign “to give Finland a centenary gift of birdsong” by installing a million new nestboxes in the country’s gardens, parks and forests, in time for spring 2017.
“We launched the idea in the autumn to give ourselves two springs to reach our target. Already we have 750,000 boxes installed” Minna told me during an exhibition of her paintings at Liminganlahti nature reserve.
The public are encouraged to make or buy a nestbox, and take selfies showing the box in place. There is a website for uploading the pictures, which is how Minna and Juha are able to monitor progress.
The campaign may have popular appeal, but there is a serious side to it. “Finland has more forest cover than most other countries, but it is almost all commercial, and we have lost vast numbers of old trees. Birds like pied flycatchers and redstarts, not to mention Arctic specialities like the Siberian tit, have fewer natural holes in which to make their nests.”
During The Long Spring I arrived in Finland from Sweden, by ferry across the Gulf of Bothnia. Liminganlahti, on the Bothnian coast, was my first stop en route through Finland and into Norway. It is a 12,000 ha. protected area, part of the European Natura 2000 network, comprising shallow brackish sea, saltmarsh and wet forest. 150 species of bird breed there, and it is an internationally-important staging post for waterfowl and waders. Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Areena anchor Minna was there exhibiting a series of watercolours, all native species of owls. The paintings ranged from sensitively-observed portraits to studies of light and landscape in which owls are a semi-fantastical presence.
Minna Pyykkö’s previous exhibitions include a collection of birds portrayed in Finland’s national epic poem, Kalevala. They include the Swan of Tuonela, famously depicted in the Sibelius tone poem, and the long-tailed duck, regarded in Finland as the bringer of spring. Our discussion of Minna’s art, and Kalevala and its birds will be the subject the latest in the Conversations series on our sister website NATURAL LIGHT, and will be posted by 19 June.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.