from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 31 May 2013

save our species

The lanes are almost unbearably beautiful at the moment. What a privilege, to be in a position to go out and immerse myself in it all every day.

Yesterday the two little robin fledglings stopped my heart for a second as they dropped in freefall from the oak-tree above the courtyard down the cliff-face, the parent scolding all the time at TM's cat, sitting practically right beneath (luckily she's not much of a bird-catcher, though if temptation drops towards your mouth, what do you do?). After a couple of metres they both opened their stubby little wings and sculled to the ivy and the climbing rose stems, and I breathed out. 

10 million British songbirds sacrificed each year to domestic cats who don't actually need them for food is 10 million too many. Fond as I am of TM's little cat, I wouldn't personally keep one; but each to their own. The neighbour's fat ginger and white cat is a different matter from his/ours, though, and I know has dissuaded many birds from nesting here, and caught a load.

In the hedge the poor dead badger has nourished the new campions, bluebells, poor man's mustard. I turn my mind away, as I did when I saw her first, for what can I do other than drown in anxiety at the possibility that she was lactating and her cubs will therefore have died?


In Simon's field the newly-steeped hedges are greening:

and below them are these beautiful white flowers. Anyone know what they are? They're not in my wild flower book, and maybe they're garden escapees?

Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem, 'White Flowers', which ends like this:

Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers

13th Century Zen master Dogen tells us that everything has buddha-nature, exists in a perfect state of being, flowers and all: 'The body and mind of the buddha way is grass, trees, tiles and pebbles, as well as wind, rain, water and fire.'

Speaking of buddha-nature, I've had three close encounters this week, practically eye-to-eye. The first was a hedgehog; the second a young grass snake (if someone who studies snakes is a herpetologist, does that make the collective noun for, or rather the genus, herpes?); the third a yellowhammer, and then another. 

It was all I could do not to kidnap the hedgehog and bring him or her back for our slugs, but my better nature didn't want to remove it from its family and territory. Conservationists reckon there are fewer than 1m hedgehogs left in the UK; down from 2m in the 1990s and 36m in the 1950s. Roadkill and hedge-loss, it's guessed. The yellowhammer I initially hoped might be a cirl bunting; they're coming back from severe decline through a few introductions in selected places, of which our South Hams is one, but its rump too chestnut and its head not grey enough identified it as a yellowhammer. But a yellowhammer is joy enough, actually.

Every encounter with wildlife is a privilege, and a source of personal delight to me. These encounters shouldn't be quite as noteworthy as they were, however – it's just that all three species are endangered now. 

As a child, I'd often sleep out in the summer garden, under the apple tree. We'd put out food for the hedgehogs, and invariably at least two would arrive (they're unbelievably noisy eaters). It was common, almost daily, to see a hedgehog out in the country where we lived.

We're still living out in the country, and my daughter was brought up in it and lives right in the middle of the moor, about as wild as it gets in England, but she's seen one, or at most two, hedgehogs in her whole life.

And again, as a child, yellowhammers, along with linnets, were a familiar and common sight in the hedgerows. Not any more.  

The Guardian last week told us depressingly quite how fast the decline in wildlife is: 'Most species are struggling, and one in three have halved in number in the past 50 years... Blame is placed on the intensification of agriculture, with the consequent loss of meadows, hedgerows and ponds, and on the increased use of pesticides... Building developments, overfishing and climate change are adding to the factors... Three in five of the 3,148 species that were analysed for the report have declined in the past 50 years, and one in 10 are at risk of extinction.' 

The article doesn't mention herbicides, but they are also in the picture, removing the 'weeds' that some birds and many insects need; by the way, as if we didn't already know this, a new study shows the actual alarming toxicity of the herbicide 'Round-up', Monsanto's own, I believe, marketed as safe to wildlife: it's simply not so, and its effects on human health are pretty appalling too. PLEASE don't use it - buy a small flame-thrower instead, or, better, find a way to co-habit with flowering weeds. 

Down the lane, another barn was converted a couple of years ago; generations of many families of swallows have had nowhere to return to the last couple of years, and swallows too are noticeably few in the air this year; though the warmer weather, when it comes, might bring a few more.

Terrible news. And I guess you, like me, feel so helpless. What can we do? People-pressure: create and sign petitions to lean on governments. Speak of this when you can. Post it on social media. Grow organic food and set aside a small area of nettles etc for wildlife. Make little habitats friendly to eg hedgehogs (buy a hedgehog nestbox). Don't buy pesticides or herbicides (incidentally, ant-killer also kills bees, so avoid that too). 

Especially buy organic. I hate to advocate supermarkets – I don't shop in them bar for a carton or two of organic soya milk from the Co-op – but Tesco offers their organic range at the same price as their non-organic (and yet, astonishingly, most people, it appears, choose to buy the non-organic. WHY?).


And I won't even start on the imminent, misguided and barbaric badger cull, except to say what kind of people reckon they'll work out – in retrospect, mind – how 'humane' the cull methods are by the volume of the noise the dying badgers make, as a recent government statement reports?

Sorry if this has brought you down. 

One thing I'm doing is recording the little moments of encounters with the wild on a daily basis, to remind myself that they haven't yet all gone. How precious other species are; how impossible life without them would be, in so many ways.

And there's some good news: raptors are on the increase, especially buzzards, red kites and urban peregrines; and – hooray – so are otters.


  1. You did bring me down - the whole week's news has indeed brought me down. I read something the other day about an ingredient/additive in, I believe, food of some sort which is produced from a beaver's scent-marking gland. (I wish my memory wasn't getting so dodgy!). But as I read it I wondered how this is extracted and what it does to the beaver and aren't beavers endangered and being re-introduced very slowly in a couple of places and why do we need something like this and, oh, on and on.

    But a real lift this morning - on 'our' lake (not ours at all but the lake I walk around every day of my life taking Rosie for a walk and watching the seasons) there are suddenly a family of 8 cygnets, another of 7 goslings (Canada geese) and a whole army of ducklings. Suddenly I was walking on air... until I saw that the council had been along the verge of the lane by the lake with a strimmer and scythed down all of the nascent Flag Iris. One of the gradually disappearing species of wild flowers I think.

    I'm going to Buddhist meditation classes starting in a week's time. Will this calm my anger I wonder!

  2. Sorry, Angie :-(. It's a fine line between pretending all is well or banging on about what needs addressing.

    So glad to hear about the swans, geese, ducks... the 'law of continuing' is also resilient.

    And after all these many years of Buddhist practice myself, I now realise that sometimes anger is a good alert to action and, I find, paradoxically compassion (for all this woundedness), and doesn't have to be expressed violently or aggressively but can fuel our commitment to positive activism for change. I hope you find it useful!

  3. Hmm...have heard that "10 million birds murdered by cats" statistic before. Not sure of the source or the accuracy. I think monoculture farming, pesticides, fungicides, pollution from nitrates and the ripping out of hedgerows play a far more insidious and damaging role.
    Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any research about the impact of dogs on the environment. It disgusts me that there are people who think it hilarious that their out of control animals chase and sometimes kill or injure wildlife. And what about ground nesting birds? They don't have a hope as more people think the right to roam includes their dogs too.

  4. Jinny, I wasn't meaning to suggest that the other things aren't responsible - in fact I listed them, but I forgot to specify monoculture but meant that with the 'intensification' label.

    I believe the stats come from research by either BTO or RSPB - can't remember which but I do remember it was a reputable source.

    I agree, re dogs and irresponsible owners; but at least most humans mostly have control over their dogs when out walking (at least the ones I meet; and most dogs in our country don't roam on their own), and few domestic dogs actively hunt 'for fun' in a way that cats do. It's different when they eat what they catch and it's part of their overall diet; and while I know the death of any animal is a sad thing, I'd prefer my (lazy) dog to catch her own rabbits than to buy abattoir produce, and I'd prefer that, too, if something has to be killed, as they're so plentiful compared with voles (endangered), and birds (getting there)...

    But this is a personal/subjective choice, and I wasn't meaning to judge cat-owners in any way - dog-owners have a lot to answer for too.

  5. A couple of people have emailed to say those white flowers are probably Star of Bethlehem. Thanks folks! Some confusion here as when I was a child I was told, presumably mistakenly, that the name Star of Bethlehem was an alternative name for the greater stitchwort, a very common flower here compared with the white one above that I've never seen in Devon.

  6. I agree, it isn't a cat v dog issue at all. I think it's more to do with our (in a very general sense) relationship with animals. Dogs and cats were originally domesticated in order to work and now they are generally companion animals, giving rise to some quite bizarre relationships. I find it quite disturbing that dogs especially seem to be a fashion accessory rather than a sentient creature descended from wolf. But that is a whole other subject and miles away from your original post!!


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