Saturday, 30 December 2017

'The Best Books' - Robert McFarlane: The Wild Places

Reading is a luxury I don't get in large quantities these days - work, family, church, part time work (glorified hobbies), photography - they all take their chunk of time. As a kid I used to read loads and when we first got married, before I started University, we both used to read loads together - probably because we couldn't afford to do much else! These days what would have been my typical reading time - the period between going to bed and falling asleep - is often so short that reading the blurb in one go would be a struggle.

Anyway - that slightly off topic waffle goes to explain why it took me nearly two years to finish reading this book, but it was certainly worth persevering!

I'd been aware of Robert Macfarlane as an author for a while but not had an opportunity to read any of his books until a few years ago when I requested a few for a Christmas present (or Birthday... I can't actually remember!). Thereafter I started reading it in fits and spurts as time allowed, which often meant while I was away from home on trips - working in the woods, holidays visiting family and so on - when the normal routines which fill up your day were disrupted enough to free up a bit of time in the day. These are also the times when I am most likely to be able to spare some time for adventure, exploration and time spent out of doors in the peace that the natural world provides, either as a family or occasionally solo. 

And this is the core of the 'The Wild Places' narrative. It is certainly something that resonates with me - an exploration of the last places in the UK which can still be considered as wild, what an adventure! I'm lucky enough to be familiar with a few of the places he visited in the writing of the book. I even read the chapter about coastal wildness - which recounts a visit to Orfordness on the Suffolk coast - the night after a micro-adventure of my own in that area. My in-laws live just a few miles from Shingle Street, the little hamlet where the spit fades away and joins the North Sea. My brother in law had recently acquired a set of inflatable canoes and had been looking for a chance to try them out. Being mid-summer we made the most of the long evening and stole away for a few hours to try the new toys. The sunset canoe expedition which followed is a fond memory which I have written about before and took us up river toward Orford flanked by Orfordness to the East and the salt marsh on our landward side. We stopped briefly on the shingle to enjoy the views before heading back to our start point... a journey made far more difficult by the tide which had turned and was now racing in. We ended up walking back to the car, beaten by the speed of the inbound tide which rendered our inexperienced paddling completely useless as we struggled to not be drawn back inland, let alone making significant forward progress!

Suffolk was among the tamer landscapes and habitats described. Trips to islands, far flung, dune clad coastlines, limestone pavements and the hidden world within there shaded grykes, windswept moorland, barren mountains tops and snow covered bogs with the shadow of ancient woodland are all described in a detail which simultaneously transports you there in person while instilling a burning desire to make a similar pilgrimage to such places yourself . Ever since reading about a night Macfarlane spent on top of Ben Hope near the north coast of Scotland I have been trying to find a reason to justify the 1000 mile round trip to see it for myself. I haven't found a reason yet... but it isn't going anywhere, I'll figure it out someday. 

Of course his trip to the Hope Valley in Derbyshire to look for mountain hares is something I can recreate far more simply - given that my office is in the valley next door! That's not to belittle the experience, I still love to see the white hares bounding away, particularly when there is snow on the ground. So far this year I have been tied up with office work and haven't been up on the hills yet to see them in their winter coats. Luckily there is certainly good opportunity for me to do so in the new year and I'll be sure the make the most of it! It is easy to forgot - working there everyday - that to so many people in the UK coming to the Peak District is a way to escape the daily grind of work, whereas for me, it is work. 

The picture at the top of the page was taken while on a short trip of my own - I was on route to watch a rugby game in Cardiff with my family. Having spent many of my formative childhood years in Wales I made the most of the opportunity by travelling down through Wales revisiting old haunts. In the evening I travelled to the end of the Gower Peninsula on the south coast of Wales to watch the sun go down over Worms Head. It wasn't long after I had acquired my new camera and I attempted to capture the scene with a time lapse... it wasn't the greatest success (you can watch it here if you really want!), but it gave me an hour on a wild coastline to sit in beautiful surroundings and read about Macfarlane making a trip to a comparable coastline a few hundred miles north, only he was approaching from the sea.

I won't go on - discussions of this nature get my mind racing through the long list of places I'd like to visit. And while patience is certainly a virtue it's not one I'm blessed with in abundance. There is a real risk I will lay awake at night dreaming of the Cairngorms, or the Outer Hebrides, or the wild rivers of mid-wales where I swam as a child, or the rugged coastline of Devon where I camped as a teenager... you see what I mean!? Much like 'The Wild Places', my list of dream destinations are largely in the UK. We are blessed with such a diverse island, or series of islands, that international travel isn't necessary if you goal is to visit wild places. If you're struggling for ideas then reading 'The Wild Places' will certainly give you food for thought, in fact it will be a feast! 

Follow Robert Macfarlane on:
Twitter:       @RobGMacfarlane
Instagram:   @robgmacfarlane

Alternatively have a look at all of his books here at his Amazon author profile.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Working in Conservation: Moors for the Future Partnership - My Day Job

I have often mentioned 'work' and posted images I've taken while out working or on my way to work or some variation on those themes. I've been asked by several people what on earth it is that I do for work! So I wanted to answer that question in some detail. I'd also like to use this to kick start an ongoing series on working in conservation in the UK. 

In later posts I'll talk about my work at The Riddy Wood Project and give my perspective on the good, the bad and the ugly (and the beautiful) of working in the conservation sector in one way or another over the last 7 or so years (wow, it has been that long!). I have no doubt there will be other posts to come after that too.


Since June 2016 I've been working for the Moors for the Future Partnership full time as a Conservation Works Officer. You could say it is my first proper job in the conservation sector as prior to that I had only done part time, seasonal or voluntary jobs. Moors for the Future are a partnership organisation headed up by the Peak District National Park Authority but also including the National Trust, the RSPB and several water companies. As the name suggests the focus of the partnership is protecting moorlands (in the Peak District and South Pennines) for future generations.

Edale Valley, Derbyshire
Not quite the view from my office, but my
office is in this valley, just out of frame (left) 
There is plenty of information on the Moors for the Future website (linked above) but to give a quick run down: the peatlands of the South Pennines are (or were at any rate) some of the most degraded anywhere in the world as a result of years of atmospheric pollution, drainage and wildfire. This came about largely as a result of the industrial centres surrounding the moors and the air pollution that resulted from those industries, but also from short sighted agricultural policies and unsympathetic management practices. This damage resulted in large scale loss of critical plant species from the moors and eventually led to complete vegetation loss over large areas and the associated erosion of the peat soils. This causes problems down stream as well as up on the moors as the peat soil washed off the hills, silted up reservoirs and increased the cost of water treatment among other things.

In about 2003, what was to become Moors for the Future (MFF) started work to address these issues. Fast forward 13 years through several rounds of funding from various sources and of various sizes and we get to 2016 when I joined the team. The year before a new funding stream had been secured, a second EU LIFE funded project called MoorLIFE2020. At the time it was the largest grant from the LIFE programme for a environmental conservation project in the UK - 12 million. The increase in work resulting from this new funding stream required extra capacity and I was in the right place at the right time - often the way jobs in conservation come about - and got one of the two roles being offered.

On this occasion the 'right place' happened to be working with a conservation works contractor - Aitch Conservation - building a footpath across Brown Knoll, an exposed ridge to the south-west of Kinder Scout in the Peak District. The 'right time' was the winter and early spring and it didn't always feel like the 'right time' to be working up there to be honest! The footpath project was being run by MFF and during my time working on the path I got to know a few of the staff a little who tipped me off to the upcoming recruitment and suggested I may want to apply. I did and here I am.

But what do I actually do? I work in the CaLM team (Countryside and Land Management - there is a certain irony in the acronym I have to say!) which is responsible for the physical 'on the ground' conservation and restoration work such as bare peat re-vegetation, gully blocking and sphagnum reintroduction. (There are also Science and Communication teams within MFF which do pretty much what they say on the tin.) We work as a project management company when it comes to our works delivery and as such we don't actually do any of the works ourselves, rather we contract it out to specialist contractors. 

I am one of a team of 6 Conservation Works Officers (CWO's) although we are soon to be expanding that number. Our day to day job includes land owner engagement, site surveys, writing work proposals, tendering for conservation work contracts and supervising contractors. Throw in the odd bit of preparing funding bids, working with Natural England as moorland restoration experts and occasionally assisting other teams with public presentations and you have a fairly comprehensive idea of what I do. 

Moving heather brash for a bare peat re-vegetation
contract in the Peak District National Park. 
Oh, and helicopters - nearly forgot. Understandably that catches a lot of peoples attention. As so much of the work we coordinate takes place miles from any sort of road, and often requires transporting tonnes of material (literally - often hundreds, and in some rare cases even thousands of tonnes) the only way to get those materials to the site is by helicopter - and yes, I do occasionally get to have a ride! Yes, it is cool. No, the novelty hasn't worn off yet. One of the better perks of the job for sure!  

So I do spend a fair bit of time outdoors 'in the line of duty', certainly more than most office dwelling folks. And because of the nature of the work, when I am out doors, it's normally in some pretty scenic places. Predominantly at the minute in the northern half of the Peak District National Park, but also further north into the South Pennines on occasion and for some recent projects short spells into the South West Peak too. But it certainly isn't always in good weather. In fact between April and August, so certainly the best 2 or 3 months of the three, we're not really allowed up on the hills at all on account of that being the breeding season of the ground nesting birds which breed in the uplands. This and other time restrictions means that the majority of our conservation works contracts run over the autumn and winter months, which is always when we spend the largest proportion of our time out and about. BUT - I subscribe to the philosophy that even a bad day out of doors is better than a good one stuck inside, so I can live with that.

It's not all helicopters and hill walking of course - writing contracts and managing budgets doesn't exactly get my heart racing and that type of task makes up a pretty big chunk of my day to day work. And while the scenery of my commute through the UK's original National Park takes some beating, at least on the days when you can see it through the fog and low cloud (as hopefully my photo's regularly illustrate - take a look at my hash tag #aconservationistscommute on Instagram) nothing makes the 70 mile a day round trip commute any shorter.

So that's what I do for work - is it a perfect job? Not for me perhaps, because I tend towards being a hands on kind of person. In an ideal world I'd prefer to get my own hands dirty and do at least some of the work myself. Is it a good job? Definitely. Because the changes which are made through the work we do (or coordinate and facilitate) make real, noticeable and measureable differences to the habitats we are working on, and by doing so, provide significant benefits to local communities.

Next time I'll fill you in on my work on The Riddy Wood Project which is how I get my needed fix of hands on conservation work and hard, outdoors manual labour!