The 12th May was a landmark day for sharks, and their advocates, in the UK as the government banned the trade of shark fins. While the practice of shark finning has long been banned by the UK, a loophole in European law has meant that anyone is legally allowed to bring up to 20kg of shark fins into the country. The law has now changed in the UK to mean this will no longer be the case.
Kris Mikael Krister, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Why is it important?
Sharks around the World are experiencing population declines – many to the point where they are facing extinction. The main threat to sharks is overfishing – for their fins and meat, and as bycatch (caught by fishing gear intended for other species).
Shark fins are used in a variety of products, the most common and widely known being shark fin soup. Demand for fins is higher than ever, and this demand is driving the value of each fin upwards. This value is understandably appealing, to those who make a living from fishing around the World. As a result, sharks are being fished to unsustainable levels (more are being taken, than the populations can support).
There are more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays, all playing their unique role in ocean ecosystems. Our actions are altering the balance, by removing these top predators. It is estimated that around 73 million sharks are killed globally each year by fishing fleets. We are driving individual species towards extinction, and in turn having impacts on the rest of the ocean ecosystems to which they belong.
What can be done?
The move to make the trade in shark fins illegal in the UK is a big step – it sends a clear message around the World. It is also the positive result of years of campaigning by organisations such as Bite Back, and all the people who have supported their campaigns, indicating the high level of public support for improved protection and conservation measures for sharks.
Ultimately what is needed is a reduction in demand for the product. This will drive the value down, and make fishing of sharks less productive. However, this is culturally very difficult to achieve. In the meantime policies, and their effective implementation, are what is needed to improve conservation efforts. As a result, people power really can make a difference, as has been seen in this case.
If you would like to help, one of the quickest and most effective things you can do, is to educate others of the ecological importance and beauty of sharks. Then raise awareness of the issues, and take positive action. Support campaigns and organisations which are working on shark conservation, and help them to engage with people and politicians to make change.
There are many worthy organisations out there – but head to Bite Back and WWF for two great examples.
Winter 2020/2021 has been, for many, one of the toughest in years. I’m going to start this off now by saying that I spent two months at my parents’ home over winter, for the goodness of my health and wellbeing. So the wildlife in this entry, is not from my usual patch – but it is all local to my parents’ home, in the midlands, in England.
While lockdown was tough, there was still so much joy to be gained by nature. We made efforts every day, no matter how glum we were feeling, to do something nature related. It’s not a magic fix – the World is tough right now and its normal to feel sad or down about it. But nature provides a way to take your mind off it, to focus on positives, and to be mindful that life is continuing – and that can all help to alleviate some of the heightened emotions that we’re pretty much all feeling!
A winter surprise
When I’m at my parents’ home I do a lot of garden birdwatching. I don’t have a garden where I live – so I make the most of theirs! Just after Christmas, it got very cold and we had several days of snow. I always look out more in this weather, because often you can see more birds than usual, and more species. This is because the cold weather makes it harder for birds to find food – so they often try new places and travel a bit further.
I have to say though, I’d given up and was happily reading when my sister called me into the room which looks out onto the garden. “There’s a bird in the tree and I don’t know it what it is” she said. Now my sister is still a beginner when it comes to ID but in terms of spotting birds she’s incredibly skilled – I always see something I’d have otherwise missed when she’s around! At a glance I could see a medium sized brown bird, a bit like a thrush but not quite. “It couldn’t be a…surely not a…we never see them…” I ran to get my binoculars so that I could be sure. There it was, clear as day – a redwing! A single, beautiful, redwing just randomly sitting in our tree in the garden.
Redwings are members of the thrush family, and they can be distinguished by the white stripe above the eye and patch of red under the wing. They are winter visitors to the UK which migrate from their breeding areas in Iceland and Scandinavia. I normally make special birding trips in the countryside to try and see them – to see one without even leaving the house, was just amazing.
Eating out of the palm of my hand
One of our frequent places to walk was the local park, known as the Washlands because it’s next to the river. Part of the path is surrounded by trees and overgrown shrubs; this is where we see the robins!
One particular robin, whom I have named Robbie, is really quite tame. People bring him food, so he’s very used to people and knows that its often worth his while to hang around. I should say – I don’t actually know that Robbie is a boy; male and female robins look very similar!
So one day, me and my Mum decided to take some seeds for Robbie. We whistled next to his usual tree (sounds a bit silly but it works!) and Robbie appeared. I held out my hand with my palm open, full of seeds, and waited. Robbie kept glancing and edging slightly nearer. My arm started to ache; I was beginning to wonder if this was going to work. Then all of a sudden, Robbie flew into my hand! It was the quickest of moments, he just picked up a seed and flew back to the safety of his branch; but the feeling of his little feet on my palm, his small weight, and the elation of the moment is one I will never forget.
A very grey day
As is normal for winter, quite a few of the days were cold and/or grey. One particular walk by the river was very grey and drizzly – almost foggy. It was the kind of rain the slowly makes you soaking wet without you realising it, until you’re too wet to do anything about it!
I glanced over to the other side of the river, and there on the bank was a grey heron. It was huddled up on the bank, shielding itself from the rain, resting. In terms of heron watching I’ve had more exciting views – they’re great fun to watch while they’re hunting and flying. However, there was something very peaceful about just watching it be; putting up with the grey day and waiting for better, just as we were.
Grebes – little and great!
There are certain species that I commonly see on this stretch of river: Mute Swans; Canada Geese; Black Headed Gulls; and Mallards. I am however always open minded to the fact that something else might pop up! And its a good thing too, because on two separate occasions I spotted Great Crested Grebes, and Little Grebes!
As it was winter, both were in their winter plumage (the feathers in winter). They were still wonderful to watch, and it was exciting simply because I don’t normally see them there. As I was taking a video of the Little Grebes, a woman walked past and loudly said to her partner “I don’t know what exactly she’s trying to take a photo of” as if I was being silly, because all she could see was the river. It’s such a shame, because had she just asked me, I would very happily have shown her!
My first top tip for wildlife watching: keep both your eyes, and mind, open!
Summer of 2020 was, like the rest of the year, unusual. However – at the time, restrictions were starting to ease and looking back on it, it was a time when I had the most freedom since the Covid pandemic hit. Able to travel further and see family and friends, this was a comparatively happier time. Unsurprisingly, it also resulted in some of my favourite wildlife encounters of the year.
As soon as we were allowed to travel, I headed up to see some friends in Aberdeen. We enjoyed some lovely coastal walks, and spent a morning at Torry Battery – one of the best places in the UK to spot dolphins. It’s normally quite cold and windy there, so you have to layer up and be prepared to stick it out. But this day was beautifully sunny and not too cold. More to the point, almost as soon as we arrived, the dolphins appeared. A huge group of more than twenty, stayed for around an hour. We watched happily as they jumped out of the water with infectious joy.
I know better than to try and take photos when this is going on – I’m not a good enough photographer and I don’t have the right kit. The best thing to do is to not worry about photos, and just enjoy the moment. I watched through my binoculars, and felt so happy. Even in this rubbish year, I had seen dolphins. The World was not so bad.
In August, my family came up to visit me. We spent a week going to local attractions and wild places around Scotland – it was the month where Scotland had the fewest restrictions and looking back on it I’m so glad we had this time. My family come from the midlands in England – so any trip to the seaside is a treat! We spent the last day of the holiday in North Berwick, and went on a boat trip run by the fantastic Scottish Seabird Centre.
The boat took us around Bass Rock, an island which is home to the World’s largest colony of gannets. I always love watching these impressive seabirds, especially watching them dive down into the water for fish. But I have never been this close to them! The first thing you realise as you get close, is that the rock is not white – it’s just absolutely covered in gannets. Then the smell hits you (the smell, you know, the smell of seabird poo – called guano). After that it’s the noise – thousands of gannets calling to each other, with nothing else around. With all of that going on, it’s hard to know where to look. Every gannet is doing something – flying, preening, diving, displaying, fighting, feeding a chick; you can give yourself neck ache trying to see it all.
It was a very memorable wildlife experience for me, and for the price of the trip it’s an absolute bargain – if you get chance to book a boat trip next summer, do it. I’ll definitely be going again!
Regular readers of this diary will know I love ducks, and therefore I love ducklings even more! Not just ducks actually, swans and cygnets are lovely too. Who can deny it? I got through the spring and summer by taking regular walks, often to areas with a river or pond. These are prime duckling and cygnet months, and I saw the young of many species, including: mute swan; mallard; goosander; and eider. Just being near water can calm you down. Being near water, and seeing little bundles of fluff, is enough to cheer anybody up!
It was on one of these routine walks along a nearby river, that I had one of the best surprise wildlife encounters of my life – I saw an otter. I was just returning from a stretch where I photograph the ducks and swans, and looked across at the river by habit – it’s a spot where I always look. As I turned my head, I saw something brown disappear into the water. My brain was working faster than I could consciously think – and I instinctively knew it was something interesting, before I could work out what! I quickly whittled it down – there are not many large, brown animals that you can see in UK rivers. “Oh my goodness it’s an otter” I thought, and scrambled for my camera.
At that point, the otter popped back up, and looked straight at me. It didn’t seem bothered by me at all. I was still careful not to disturb it, and just calmly watched, and started filming. It was such a sunny day and the otter was foraging for fish. I was so close to this otter – I could not believe my luck. I had already seen otter cubs on the canal in the city back in February, and I felt this was absolutely a bonus to be seeing one again a few months later!
As I watched, people naturally started to wonder what I was looking at. I helped another person to see the otter, and we watched as it caught and ate a fish. Just as the otter was munching away, my camera died! That’s what happens when you spend hours taking photos of swans and ducks, only to have a surprise otter at the end of the walk!
I did manage to get one photo before the camera died – it’s a little fuzzy but I love it. The otter is looking straight at me, and it’s a memory of a moment that I shall remember forever. A surprise otter in the sunshine, it doesn’t really get better than that!
Like everybody around the World, I have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic in the past few months. For around 10 weeks Scotland (the country where I live) has been in lockdown. This has meant we could only go out for food, medicines, to care for someone, and for exercise at a place we could walk or cycle to. Yesterday, the 29 May, Scotland lifted some of the lockdown restrictions – which meant I could take a short drive (within 5 miles of home) and walk somewhere new. This entry will look at how I coped through those 10 weeks, how wildlife helped me, and what it felt like to be able to go somewhere new yesterday.
As the disease spread through Scotland, I became unwell. At this point, we had not gone into lockdown, but the advice was to self isolate if you had Coronavirus symptoms. So, I spent about 17 days (because that’s how long it took me to feel completely well) self isolating. I do not know if I had Covid 19 or not as there was no testing – but I don’t normally get ill, and I would suspect it was, given that it was at the height of the high transmission rate in Scotland and I had the mild symptoms associated with the disease.
During those 17 days, the World turned upside down. The UK went into lockdown, making it a reality that I wouldn’t see my English family and friends for a long time. Our office closed and everyone who could, was asked to work from home. In the next few weeks many people would be furloughed. Our roles changed. For me – my life had gone from being busy, happy, full of people, purpose, adventures, and laughter with family and friends to sitting on my own all day every day in a flat.
Regular readers of the diary will know I do a lot of wildlife watching, and make regular trips to favourite places. Sadly, I couldn’t do that during lockdown. I live in the middle of a city – so the only thing for it was to find some parks. I used google maps, and took tips from friends. I found a local park which I could walk to in 20 minutes. Initially, when we had an hour long restriction on exercise, this was still a bit far…so I tried to walk quickly! I also re-discovered a site which overlooks the Firth of Forth – this was a lifeline because I could see the sea! (Well, a big part of the river Forth as it nears the sea). Finally, I found a cycle path – this was quite funny because it is literally behind the main road; I just didn’t know it was there before!
In addition to these three green places, I tried to focus on birdwatching from my window. I have had a lot of fun watching the Lesser black backed gulls and given them little characters. They seemed to be loving the new quiet roads, and were strutting around like they owned the place! I also took solace from watching the beautiful colours of sunset (and the sunrise – once). I can’t see it fully from my windows, but I can see the colours. I watched the stars and the moon, and the patterns of the clouds in the sky. I listened to the sound of the wind and of course of birdsong – which again was mostly gulls!
On my walks I became even more mindful than I ordinarily am. I loved the colours, and the sounds – the birdsong was incredible. I was going to the same places day after day, so I literally watched spring happen. How often do we get the chance to do that in our busy lives? I saw the wild garlic, the crows gathering material to make nests, the blossom come and then go, the bluebells emerge, the flowers of trees begin to bloom, and eventually the chicks begin to appear – I saw it all when I possibly wouldn’t normally notice.
As time went on I was finding the mental and emotional challenge of the whole crisis very difficult. I was getting bored and lonely – I was missing the freedom of choosing a place to go, and going. I realised there was a park behind one of the local supermarkets. So I switched to doing my shopping there. After I had done a shop (or before) I would go around the small park near the shop. Crucially, this park has a pond – so I was able to see all the waterbirds I love so much. I saw swans, ducks, gulls, coots, a heron and even ducklings! Just seeing water is therapeutic in itself.
At this point, England started to lift some lockdown restrictions but Scotland remained in lockdown. This created a bizarre mix of feelings – I was jealous, sad, disappointed, confused, worried (because I think it was too soon to do this in England), and frustrated. It also heightened my feelings of boredom and loneliness. I couldn’t change the situation; but I could change how I was approaching it. I continued to focus on nature, and on me. I tried to read more, watch some films, do some drawing, phone people more and I’ll admit, I’ve done a lot of online shopping! I also tried to remember that this is not permanent – that all the things I miss seeing and doing, I will see and do again. That, is key.
A week ago, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced how Scotland would start to come out of lockdown. As long as things continued to improve, the first restrictions would be eased on 29 May. I immediately knew what I was going to do, and it was great to be able to look forward to doing it!
When the day came, I took some time off work. I drove my car for 15 mins, a distance of about 4 miles, near to where my office is. Firstly – it was nice to be in the car long enough to listen to the radio! It was such a sunny day, and I had a sense of summer freedom that I used to get when going on holiday. I parked and took a walk along a river that I used to go to regularly. I can only describe the feelings I felt as elation and joy. To see that the World was still there, that people were still happy, that wildlife was still there, that the sun was still shining – I could feel the anxiety of the past 10 weeks easing. To top it all off I saw more different types of ducklings and cygnets in one short walk than I’ve seen in a few years!
The past 10 weeks has been one of the most difficult times of my life – aside from the things I’ve described, I’ve had personal events which have been made worse by the necessary restrictions of the crisis. Nature, friends, and family have got me through it and I will be forever grateful to them all and mindful not to return to old habits when we go back to some kind of normal.
Here are a selection of photos from my time in lockdown: