The 07:50 to Exeter St David’s

As cormorants sit on sinking ships the mist rises lightly off the sea. The bright autumn sunshine, angled low over the sea catches the lip of each tiny wave and sends reflections bouncing around the inside of the carriage.

Birds wheel up, the only clouds in the sky, silhouettes against the sun. Winter waders are starting to make their return.

The air pressure changes as we enter a tunnel, ears and eyes sending urgent messages about the change, about the depth of the darkness. It is as if we have plunged beneath the silky surface of the water and are waiting, holding an in breath, to re-emerge. And then, as instantaneously as the flip of a switch, the sunlight floods back in amplified by the reflection off the sea it is overwhelmingly bright and we seek solace behind our eyelids.

But don’t close them too long, you wouldn’t want to miss this morning on the 07:50 to Exeter.

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I have had some appalling train journeys in my life, but the Newton Abbot to Exeter section of the GWR route is not one of them. If you want a fast, regular service between two major destination hubs, free WiFi and a modern, stylish carriage this probably isn’t for you. But unlike so many things in life – it’s what’s outside that counts.



A Love Letter to the Conker

As I approach the impressive shape of a horse chestnut I am not looking at the canopy, with its leaves already on the turn, instead my eyes are drawn to the debris below – green and cream and brown. Sitting through the prickly green cases is a real autumnal treat – prising apart the armour to reveal the thin white membrane, like the pith of an orange, and below – the prize.

Holding the fresh new conker in my hand like a talisman, I press so tight that I pretend to feel the pulse of the nut in my hand. I know it to be my own heartbeat, but rational thinking doesn’t really have a place when you are gripped by the love of a natural object like this.

Brushing the bits of earth and dirt off the surface reveals the delicate, intricate patterns, like the growth rings of a tree. How like nature to replicate the pattern that is yet to form on the very nut that will produce it.

It’s not a native tree (it was introduced from Turkey in the 16th Century) but it has a place in the national identity – from games to folk lore this tree has firmly established itself in the British psyche. Like many well loved trees it isn’t doing all that well at the moment. It is under siege from a moth, a fungi, a scale insect and a bacteria at the moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would miss this tree if it were to disappear.


Wildlife v Tourism

In a recent blog post I started to talk about the idea of what the impact of tourism is on wildlife. This is a topic that I have been turning over in my mind and, as is often the way with niggling thoughts, has been cropping up all over the place in the last week so I think it is worth re-visiting.

The question really is about the benefits of tourism and how they measure against the costs to the wildlife. This is not intended as an exhaustive list but by way of example, some advantages could be greater awareness, funding, political support, volunteering resource and inspiration – most people working in the conservation and ecology fields have had an experience, possibly through travel, that prompted their interest. Costs include disturbance, habitat loss, disease, pests, and possible contributions to the trade in animals and animal parts.

This is not a new dilemma but the general consensus on this has changed quite considerably as conservation and tourism have both evolved. For example, Dian Fossey was opposed to wildlife tourism for the majority of her career in protecting mountain gorillas. Indeed her accounts of ‘tourists’ in the 70s and 80s do not paint a picture of responsible representatives of wildlife tourism. To her, writing in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, tourism presented a very real threat to the scientific study (and hence conservation) of this endangered species. More than that, the actions of inconsiderate ‘tourists’ and film crews had a detrimental impact on the health, survival and normal functioning of gorilla family groups. She also witnessed the horrific effects of the demand for zoo animals in the 1970s – to capture a single juvenile mountain gorilla for a zoo usually required the slaughter of the entire family group who would defend their youngster to the death. In this environment, her views against tourism are well understood.

Happily, this does not describe wildlife tourism in the majority of situations today. Awareness among government agencies and tour operators has increased the sensitivity of wildlife facilities and tourist attractions to the needs and preferences of their subjects. After all – no one wants to pay to see dead animals. Discrete categories of tourists too have changed too – just look at the market for eco-tours, wildlife holidays and other packages charging a premium for a more ‘authentic’ wildlife experience.

Take, for example, the Nature Photographer’s Code – the fundamental principle of which is:

‘the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph’

This is a good basis for other tourist groups to adopt, not just those wildlife photographing pros who will endure considerable discomfort and even physical pain to avoid detection or disturbance of the bashful little ball of being that their lens is trained on. (PS If you were ever in doubt of this you should seek out the photographer’s notes alongside major photo exhibitions – the BBC wildlife photographer of the year being one of my personal favourites.)

I would, however, be hesitant to say that the majority of tourists understand the impact they have on wildlife, and even fewer who actively mitigate it. The vast hordes of tourists disgorged from their gaudy tour buses into reserves and wildlife parks, chattering, littering and generally being oblivious to their surroundings are not a resounding accolade of the responsible face of tourism. Taking photos I can well understand (and do myself) but filming the whole unedited moment from a shaky GoPro on a selfie stick, swung blithely around with little regard for life or property, while simultaneously snapping away with a phone or camera as well is plainly absurd.  Frankly, I am rather alarmed by this behaviour so heaven knows what our wild relatives make of it all. But, actually, I don’t believe this to be the worst sin of modern tourism. Instead, I propose the instagrammable selfie with something ‘cute’ – the kind of pose that is only possible because of the contortions of the photographer and the close proximity to the animal. We are now just one inane ‘aaww cute, I want one’ comment away from stimulating a demand in the trade of wild animals for the pet trade.

Am I over reacting here? Maybe.  Like the eloquent authors of ‘Last chance to see’ perhaps it is purely the impact on me that I am assessing – the false expectation that I was going somewhere wild, to see a ‘wild’ thing and experience something akin to its ‘wild’ life. In this excellent book, the authors describe their hunt for the komodo dragon, their sense of expectation and how this was shattered by the apparent orchestration of the event and the large group of fellow ‘tourists’. Maybe, like them, this is entirely my problem in feeling that by having to share this moment with a large group of people who seem only superficially interested in the subject, and who lose interest as soon as it is committed to pixels, somehow devalues it for me. This has a whiff of wildlife snobbery and sounds suspiciously like the complaints of art critics sniffing that the public ‘don’t understand art’.

But then, I think it would be fairly accurate to say that the majority of tourists visiting a reserve are not that knowledgeable about the wildlife it contains, not really, not at a level where they could make a judgement call as to their impact on the needs of the subject.

And that’s why it is so important that these experiences exist and why they need to be informative as well as entertaining – to provide that context and education. Or at very least to start it off.  I think this makes it increasingly relevant that visitors are made aware of the needs of wildlife, and to defer to their preferences – even if this means you can’t guarantee a sighting, much less a perfect selfie.



Sage coloured crab (spider).

Being on safari in South Africa is definitely a wildlife highlight of the year, but it is a very different kind of wildlife watching to my normal style. I like taking time to notice the changes in the habitat around me and to watch nature going about its business, whether this is charismatic mammals or enigmatic insects. Today’s blog post is squarely in the second camp. While assessing the impact of the summer sun on the garden I came across this beautiful little critter, which I believe to be a crab spider. I say believe because there are 37 families of 670 species of spider in the UK and I am definitely not an expert.


Crab spider – Photo credit: Em

I think this is a crab spider because the front two pairs of legs are longer than the third and forth (which makes it look like a crab…). What also makes this a trickier ID is that the spider can change colour to adapt to the flower head it has made home. As an ambush predator this is an important skill to have. My crab spider is the colour of dying sage, because it is on a dying sage bush. It is quite a small one – so maybe a good ‘gateway spider’ for those who prefer their wildlife to have considerably less legs.


P.S. I would highly recommend the field guide by Bee, Oxford and Smith (ISBN: 978-0-691-16529-5) for any British spider ID questions.


Myth Busting a Hippo

I was amused to see that the Latin name for a hippo was Hippopotamus amphibius – it’s notoriety makes the second part seem rather redundant given that there isn’t a non amphibious hippo that it needs to differentiate from. In fact, there are just two species of hippo around today – this one (the common hippo) and the pygmy hippo (found in Liberia). Fossil records suggest there used to be several other types such as the Malagasy, European and several dwarf hippos (Indeed Wiki suggests that hippos were once found in the British Isles). Sadly both the common and the pygmy hippos are respectively classified as vulnerable and endangered by IUCN. Having only just met these impressive behemoths I am keen that future generations also have the pleasure of their company.

Here comes a problem though, because a lot of what I thought I knew about hippos turns out to be false. It could be that I am singularly uninformed but I suspect that the popular culture version of hippos isn’t as scientifically accurate as it could be. They don’t swim, they are the most dangerous animal in Africa, have no sweat glands, and they do not dance around to ‘Dance of the Hours’ wearing little pink tutus. (If you think I have gone a bit bonkers here you need to watch Fantasia – it will be 126 minutes very well spent).


Hippo sunset. Photo credit: Em

To unpack the serious revelations then let us first talk about the swimming thing. Or rather the lack of it. When you see hippos in a body of water with their little snouts poking out it would seem they are not floating around but rather standing on the bottom, in the mud. Sort of pretending to swim then. They can cross rivers and deeper lakes but they do this by walking along the bottom underwater and then bouncing up for air, and really, they tend to avoid deeper water. Considering that their closest relatives are the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) it would seem almost comical that swimming is not their forte. Certainly anyone who repeatedly saw the BBC1 ‘ident’ of the swimming hippos can join me in feeling a little mis-informed.


Yawning hippo. Photo credit: Em

Next up the accolade for Africa’s most dangerous animal is attributable to their land speed of 30km/hr, their large and powerful bite, and their complete unpredictability. They might seem like a gentle giant but that would be a seriously life-shortening mistake to make. Hippos grind their teeth to sharpen them and have pretty impressive canines and incisors for a herbivore because they use them for fighting. A male hippo can weigh more than 2,000kgs and swim at 8km/hr, helping him to hold a territory in water, in which his pod lives. A pod can be anything up to 100 hippos, though the pods we saw were more like 20 individuals. Almost all of a hippos life, from birth to mating and fighting, to eating and snoozing will be done in the water. In short, if you can see a hippo you should probably give it a very wide berth (incidentally the ‘yawn’ is actually a warning sign – you may be too close to a hippo for his comfort).


Double trouble. Photo credit: Em

For a beastie of this size living in Africa, not having sweat glands would seem to be something of a disadvantage. If they stay out of water for too long their skin can crack, however they are not as unprotected as they might seem. Hippos actually secrete something incredibly useful: sunscreen, which, being highly acidic, is also an anti-bacterial agent. This secretion has a red colour that was initially mistaken for blood.

Aside from the mind-blowing biology of these incredible creatures I was struck by their sociability. Bobbing on a boat nearby we watched as a youngster rested on the back of its mother in the middle of the group. We heard the low, nasal calls the group made to one another and watched the gentle ear flicks splash water over the pod. I can’t quite call them elegant, but there was something calming in watching them together, their little pink eyes squeezing shut against the last amber rays of the sun. Contented.



How much is too much?

Having had the absolute pleasure of visiting South Africa this summer (winter) I think it would be churlish not to allow my little blog to wander from the strict confines of South Devon for a few posts…

As a wildlife spotting destination you can’t go too far wrong with South Africa. Having spent some time in the north (more on that later) we ended up in Cape Town where we found the stunning Protea in flower.


Protea – the national flower. Photo credit: Em.

The size of a dinner plate with so many petal layers it is unlike any of my native flora and I was very sad not to have my macro lens to hand to capture the structures of the petals.

Don’t let the sunny setting fool you, this is a changeable time of year to visit Cape Town – most days were rainy and cold – including the day we went in search of the African Penguin.


Pair of Penguinos – Photo credit: Em

The Penguins can be found behind an unpromising looking car park, down what looks like a residential street. Perhaps at one time they were a slightly unusual neighbour to the local (human) residents but the introduction of a pay wall hopefully protects their vulnerable dune habitat from erosion and development. With their funny pink eyebrows and characteristic tuxedo jackets these are beautiful animals.


On land a group of penguins is called a waddle. Photo credit: Em

The African Penguin used to be called the Jackass Penguin – not for any especially idiotic antics but for their donkey like laugh. I like the name African penguin better, especially since it is the only penguin to breed in Africa – it would seem to be entitled to the name. Unlike a lot of their relatives, the African penguin has to deal with extremes of heat instead of cold. It is for this reason that they are usually easier to look after in temperate zoos – and why they are quite numerous in captivity. This ubiquity is misleading though as they are listed as vulnerable by IUCN and populations have declined since 2008. Their key threats? A classic cocktail of habitat loss, food availability and disturbance. Specifically tourism.

That raises an interesting dilemma – If I had known about the impact of tourism on the colony would that have stopped me going to see them? The boardwalks overlooking the colony and nest sites were very well used, and we were but one of many tour groups that day. The noise, the pollution, the disturbance of the penguin seeking, camera toting humans must be quite considerable. And yet – the experience of seeing an animal up close in it’s natural habitat, smelling it even, it leaves a memory and creates an impression that lasts well beyond any article or indirect contact. If everyone left with a deeper appreciation for the unique African Penguin then I would be confident in saying yes, the impact is worth the risk. We know this probably isn’t true, but what if half left with a greater sense of the value and ‘special-ness’ of wildlife? A quarter? What kind of a value tips wildlife tourism into the red? We can subscribe to the mantra to ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’ but that ignores the impact we can have just by being there.

For me, having made the pilgrimage, I was content to sit quietly and watch. The weather put a lot of people off watching for long, retreating back into the bowels of their coaches. But, like the penguins, I stood outside a while longer. With the wind whipping inland from the sea the smell of the burrows was temporarily blown away. The waves rose up, showing surfing penguins through the brief glassy green window before breaking onto the white sand – the thin line where a raft becomes a waddle.


At sea a group of penguins is called a raft. Photo credit: Em

Watching two individuals step aside from the group they began mimicking one another. Then one stood still and the other walked around them in their slow shuffling walk. When they returned to face their partner the other one set off instead. It seemed like a pair bond ritual. As a monogamous species this could be a couple retaking their vows to reaffirm their relationship. I ducked out and left them alone on the beach – that is until the next coach comes along.



Pensive, from behind. Photo credit: Em