Wild Justice are right.

I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a background in fieldsports. While I’ve never done any shooting myself, I have attended plenty of shoots, been a beater on several, and have eaten roast pheasant, partridge and duck afterwards. More importantly, I have witnessed firsthand how shooting can preserve and even restore habitat that would otherwise be lost. I am a born and raised countryman with a healthy appreciation of shooting and its contribution to conservation.

However, this doesn’t give shooting a get-out-of-jail free card in my eyes; like any other industry, it sometimes needs a reality check. And such is the case recently, when Wild Justice, the organisation founded by Chris Packham and Mark Avery, requested a study into into the impact of non-native gamebirds on Britain’s native wildlife. This was in response to the revelation that an estimated thirty-five million pheasants and six million red-legged partridge are released into the countryside each year, but the proposal generated an unbelievable amount of backlash, including claims the proposal was”anti-shooting” and Packham accused of attempting to “cause chaos to rural lives”. So, as a supporter of this proposal with experience with game shooting, I feel that my opinion would be worth sharing.

So why do I support a scientific investigation into the release of pheasants and red-legged partridge for shooting? One word: quantity. Historically, game shooting had justifed its presence on the grounds that it provides a sustainable, low-carbon source of meat, while preserving wildlife in the process. And for the most part, I agree with this.

However, both these points are undermined by the fact that just two non-native gamebird species are released into the countryside in numbers that rival the total avifauna of Britain. It seems extremely unlikely that this practice has no environmental impact or that every one of these birds ends up eaten. Indeed, not only have mass burials of pheasants been unearthed on estates, but even the recent GWCT study on pheasant shooting raised concern about the impact that large releases could have.

This study would simply give us more clarity about whether this practice impacts Britain’s ecology, and if so in what ways.  Even if it turned out to have no impact, it would still be important that we carried out a scientific study, so that we can make informed policies about game shooting, and therefore ensure that the industry is benefiting our country’s wildlife.

If we truly care about shooting and want it to provide for conservation, as I do, scientific surveys such as those proposed by Wild Justice are crucial in showing us how to do it.

Hen Harrier Day 2019

My previous Hen Harrier Day blogs have covered the events in broad strokes: where it was, who was there, what the speeches were about and so on. The write-up for this year’s Hen Harrier Day, however, has a more specific focus.

Although the crowd of 1500 at Derbyshire’s Carsington Water that day were addressed by a wide range of people, from the RSPB to the Derbyshire Police, there was one theme that ran throughout these speeches, which I believe encapsulates the problem with tackling wildlife crime in this country: the belief that wildlife crime doesn’t happen here.

In their speeches, Ruth Tingay of Wild Justice and Tim Birch of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust both recalled how their careers initially took them abroad, to work in African raptor conservation and to campaign with Greenpeace International, respectively. Their reason? They thought that was where the conflict lay. They had fallen for the same misconception as so many people in the UK, and the one which makes eradicating wildlife crime so difficult in this country.

Make no mistake, this country has a terrible record for wildlife crime. In the last year, fourteen hen harriers have disappeared. This is also a time when most of the general public are aware of environmental issues in other countries, from the effects of trophy hunting on Africa’s wildlife to the consequences of palm oil plantations in Borneo. But somehow the illegal killing of protected birds in our own country still manages to go by unnoticed.

Now, I don’t want to point accusatory fingers at the British public, most of whom have more pressing concerns than a bird many of them have never even seen. Perhaps there would have been greater awareness of this issue if our conservation groups had been more outspoken about it, or if there were less people denouncing birds of prey as out-of-control vermin that take all their birds. But, regardless of who you blame, it beggars belief that an environmentally conscious public know more about the plight of wildlife halfway across the world than on our doorstep.

Towards the end of the day, however, Chris Packham did something that suggested things were turning around. When he got up on stage for his speech, he was accompanied by children, some as young as eight, who had written poetry about Hen harriers and the threats they face. Now, when I was eight, I could talk all day about the threats to tigers, rhinos and even North sea cod, but hen harriers scarcely crossed my mind. That these children are not only aware of the issue but are taking a stand against it is a positive sign. The same goes for the schoolchildren who wrote to
Scottish Parliament about the recent disappearance of golden eagles over a Perthshire grouse moor. And the hen harrier overtaking the puffin in the vote for a national bird. And the Labour Party calling for an investigation into grouse shooting.

All these show that we’re not just preaching to the converted anymore; we’re getting the message across, and people are listening. We’re that bit closer to winning.

Is shifting baseline syndrome damaging conservation?

The term ‘conservation’ is hard to define, and is the subject of much debate. Generally, however, the definition is ‘preserving the nature we have for future generations’. On the surface, this is a good idea, and one that has saved plenty of species, both in Britain and internationally. But there’s a problem with it- it’s in the expectation to preserve “what we have“. Because this principle misses a crucial point- the biodiversity we do have is already vastly depleted.

This is often overlooked due to a phenomenon known as ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’, a phrase originating in the fisheries industry to refer to how we view whatever state of nature we see around us as natural. We direct our attempts to maintain what we know, but rarely to restore more than we know. In doing so, we develop a narrow conception of what is natural.

In British conservation, this syndrome manifests itself in two main ways. Firstly, we are left with a limited understanding of what would naturally live where. Take the bittern, for example: in Norfolk, where I am currently at university, it is celebrated as an ornithological comeback kid. Having gone extinct in 1885, it recolonised the Broads in 1900 and, despite some ups and downs in population since, now stands at around 80 males in East Anglia and 150 across England and Wales. But in my native Scotland, where the bittern was also common, talk about its return or reintroduction is few and far between. Conversely, the corncrake is one of the Hebrides’ conservation success stories. However, its additional former abundance in England and Wales seems to have been overlooked, and attempts at reintroduction to these regions have been few and far between. In both cases, the extinctions of these birds happened before conservation projects began in either Scotland or East Anglia. Nobody rallied for their return, because they forgot they were ever there.

See the source image
A conservation success in Scotland, but barely spoken about below the border.

More broadly, shifting baseline syndrome can skewer our understanding of habitats, namely how we manage land for specific species. Historically, this was justified on the grounds that certain species require certain habitats: a blue tit is a garden bird, a bullfinch is a woodland bird, a curlew is a moorland bird and so on. This has been the justification for practices such as burning heather moorland and the almost universal clearance of scrub: preserving manmade habitats to suit a specific roster of species. However, we are increasingly finding that some species aren’t living in their preferred habitats, but the ones we have confined them to.

Back when I volunteered for Trees for Life, I was shown groves of aspen, believed to be a tree that favoured valleys and riversides. Yet on Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate, where fences had been erected to keep deer out, it was abundant on exposed ground. In most of the Highlands, where aspen saplings are a favourite of the deer, it has survived only in the most inaccessible habitats. But because we have no memory of what the landscape would naturally have looked like, we assume that it is natural for aspen to grow in more inaccessible places. Elsewhere, nightingales and nightjars, long thought to be woodland and heathland birds, respectively, have colonised rewilded wood pasture, while in Scandinavia ‘moorland birds’ such as red grouse are abundant in upland scrub, a habitat almost extinct in the UK. For species that have been around for thousands, even millions of years, it makes sense they can live in more than one habitat.

The purple emperor butterfly, believed to be exclusive to closed-canopy woodland, currently breeds in record numbers in Knepp Estate’s wood pasture.

 

With all of this in mind, it’s worth asking if our conservation policies need a rethink. We now know that many species are living in the habitats they have been forced into, rather than those they would prefer to live. With the focus of conservation moving away from small reserves to large-scale ‘Living Landscapes‘ projects, there’s plenty of opportunity to embrace a variety of habitats, and a less-intensive, more hands-off approach to managing them. Perhaps the best way to create wildlife-rich habitats will be to not try creating habitats at all.

 

 

The importance of mangroves

What can I say about my trip to Indonesia? For four weeks, I was working with Operation Wallacea on the islands of Buton and Hoga, and during those four weeks I dived with turtles and sea snakes, learnt how to survey bats, birds and reptiles, got wet, got muddy, met some fantastic people and overall had a truly memorable time. But if I had to pick just one highlight of the trip, it would be the mangroves.

Twice during my stay in Indonesia, I went snorkelling in the mangroves on the island of Kaledupa. On entering the water, one thing was immediately noticeable: in contrast to the breakers and underwater noise of the coral reefs, the mangroves were calm and tranquil. And while at first the brackish, sediment-laden water can appear lifeless at first, a search along the bed or the tree roots can reveal sea cucumbers, mangrove corals, sea sponges, juvenile barracuda, clownfish, mudskippers, sea snakes and a plethora of birds.

In fact, Indonesia has the largest area of mangrove forest of any country, with a total of over 2.9 million hectares. Globally, however, there are over 13 million hectares of mangrove forest across 105 countries. While their importance is often unrecognised, they provide a nursery ground for 75% of reef fish, reduce wave height in storms by 65%, and most importantly, store 5 times more carbon per hectare than a similar area of rainforest. The overall value of the ecosystem services these mangroves provide is estimated at $6.1 billion.

Unfortunately, mangroves are under threat in many parts of the world. Southeast Asia alone has lost 80% of its natural mangrove cover, with one species, Bruguiera hainesii, estimated to have less than 250 mature trees remaining. There are numerous reasons for this, including rising sea levels, coastal development, shrimp farming and unregulated logging. The last factor in particular has had a major impact in Indonesia, exacerbated by a total ban on logging in many areas, and the distinctive red timber of mangroves are one of the most durable hardwoods.

The good news, however, is that across the world, there’s a growing movement to conserve and restore mangrove forest. These range from the Mangroves and Markets project that has trained over 500 shrimp farmers in Vietnam in organic shrimp farming and mangrove planting, to recreating over 1000 hectares of mangroves on Madagascar’s Tsiribihina Delta, where that habitat had been completely cleared for 40 years. Evidently, in many developing countries there is a growing interest in this habitat and a will to sustainably manage them over the long term, but this can only be the case if there is awareness of the importance of mangroves and the plight they face, and this aspect I feel is sorely lacking. So having fallen in love with mangrove forest in Indonesia, I hope this piece can do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before we create new national parks, we need to make our current national parks mean something.

Earlier this month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove proposed the creation of a new line of national parks. Where these might be remains unclear, although campaigns for national park status have taken place for decades, from Coll and Tiree to Greater London. You might expect me to be excited by a proposal such as this, and certainly I agree with the sentiment and can understand the well-meaning aims of the people who have rallied for their areas to become national parks. Unfortunately, I must confess I wouldn’t support these proposals. Why? Because of the lack of meaningful protection in our current national parks.

Wildlife crime is by now well-known to be rife in our national parks. The persecution of protected birds of prey occurs in almost all of them, but is particularly prominent in some. In the Dark Peak region of Peak District National Park, an area with a high concentration of grouse moors, peregrines no longer breed, and goshawks have also suffered large-scale decline. The Yorkshire Dales National Park contains Mossdale Estate, site of a laying of illegal pole traps, while the Cairngorms National Park includes North Glenbuchat Estate,  site of six missing eagles in the past seven years. Otpecies such as mountain hares also face persecution, being extensively culled on many Highland estates, including in the Cairngorms National Park.

But far worse than the targeting of protected species in our national parks is the damage caused to the landscape as a whole. This is evident on both a local scale, such as the deliberate burning of blanket bog on Walshaw Moor, in the Peak District National Park, for the purpose of grouse shooting, and a regional scale, typified by the widespread grazing by sheep and deer of the Lake District, Peak District, Snowdonia and Loch Lomond and Trossachs, to name a few. Equally problematic is the fact that, in most cases, very little that can be done about this; in most British national parks, large areas are under private ownership, with none of them being above Category 5 National Park status (Categories 1 and 2, typified by places such as Yellowstone or the Serengeti, being the desirable goal for national parks around the world).

Having ranted all that, I must confess that I don’t have many ideas to offer about how to fix it. Despite what my comment on the ownership of British national parks, we couldn’t simply clear off all the sheep and evict all the inhabitants from them. Ideally we would want to see land managed for deer and grouse allowed to revert to more natural conditions, and for upland grazing to be reduced, but I couldn’t say how we could bring this about. While the already steadily-declining number of upland farmers is likely to accelerate this to a degree, it would be a shame for people with a genuine love and passion for their pastime gone. Perhaps the routes to take would be replacing upland sheep farming with cattle, as has been done in the Pumlumon area, and to provide some form of incentive for farmers to keep livestock in enclosures. Licensing game shooting and increasing police power would go a long way in reducing wildlife crime, by giving would-be criminals a reason to think twice. Hopefully there can be constructive discussion about how to better look after our national parks, including with the National Park Authority, so that by the time it rolls around to create new national parks, our existing ones are something to be proud of.

 

 

Buxton Heath

My first year at UEA is over, which inevitably means it’s time for reflection. It won’t come as a surprise that I joined the university’s Conservation and Wildlife Society. Through it, I’ve become acquainted with one particular reserve via our volunteering efforts. I refer to Buxton Heath.

Buxton Heath is a commons managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is mostly dry lowland heath, but also has extensive areas of wet heath, rough pasture, bog and birch scrub. In recent years, however, there has been concern about this particular habitat overtaking others, and to combat this it frequently deploys the Conservation and Wildlife Society.

I’ve participated in a variety of activities in my first year, including cutting down  birch saplings, creating bonfires of branches and digging ponds. The first few Saturdays in which I volunteered were in the winter, and I will freely admit that, at that time of year, the heath can be a dreary place: even without the downpours I had to endure, it’s cold, colourless and seemingly lacking in any sort of life. But come Spring, the flowers emerge, colour returns to the trees and Buxton Heath becomes very inviting indeed.

This is in a large part due to the birdlife. Woodcock and snipe can be seen all year round, in no small part due to the aforementioned pond-digging that the Conservation Society have been doing for several years creating plenty of wetland habitat. When the warmer months come around, however, the newly-verdant woods are awash with the song of blackcaps, chiffchaffs and cetti’s warblers, with the occasional cheeky cackle of green woodpeckers for good measure. The long grass is also ideal for mice and voles- and kestrels. On a good day volunteering, I’ve seen three kestrels in an afternoon.

I’ve mentioned the reptiles that inhabit Buxton Heath, but the same sunny and exposed conditions that make it such a good habitat for them also benefit a wide variety of invertebrates. The paths that have been cut through the heather have created exposed soil, creating an ideal habitat for minotaur beetles, and as such, the paths are littered with their burrows. Scan the heather, and you have a good chance of finding mining bees and sand wasps.

However, where the reserve really stands out is fungi. An eager mushroom enthusiast might find turkey tail, shaggy parasol, fly agaric to name a few. But a true speciality is the presence of the nail fungus Poronia punctata, a species was only discovered in Norfolk in 2012, and is found on only a handful of sites across the UK.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the herd of Dartmoor ponies that graze on the heath. If you do ever go down there, I would suggest that you seek out these ponies-they’re very friendly and their presence has brightened up plenty of wet days for me.

Norfolk boasts an A-List of nature reserves: Strumpshaw Fen, Titchwell, Holkham, Cley Marshes, to name a few. Buxton is far, far removed from these distinguished names; Nonetheless, it has a real charm to it, and enough wildlife to make it well worth a visit.

 

Reptiles of Norfolk

Once again, university work has occupied a large part of my time, and consequentially I’ve fallen behind on this blog. Now that I am finally getting around to writing a new post, however, my first year at university is almost over.

Just as Year 1 draws to a close, however, UEA and its surrounding nature is at its most beautiful. Norwich is a surprisingly green city, at least around the Student Village where I live, and just now the trees are budding in profusion: the oaks have their leaves out, the birches have catkins, and there’s even some cherry blossom still there. There’s also plenty to keep any birdwatcher occupied, and due to some recent sunny spells in Norfolk, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at the lake on UEA Campus, which at this time of year has nesting common terns, displaying great-crested grebes and a variety of songbirds, including my first blackcap.

All this, however, is for another time. The subject of this post is reptiles. In the nearly three years this blog has been active, I’ve barely mentioned reptiles, if at all. There’s a simple reason why that is: Britain has very few species of reptile, with only three species of lizards and snakes each. Scotland has fewer still, with only two lizards and one snake, and all of them are small, unobtrusive and can bolt away in a second when seen. However, since arriving back at UEA for the final term of the year, I’ve managed to make up for lost time by seeing four of Britain’s six reptile species.

I saw my first ever grass snake about three weeks ago, on my way down to the lake. This encounter only lasted a few seconds, however, as I tried to pursue it through the undergrowth, with predictable results. However, one week later I had more success as, following the course of the River Wensum from the University Village, I came across a pond with a grass snake swimming across its surface. Grass snakes are in fact firmly attached to water- not only can they swim, but they can stay submerged for over an hour. This makes them one of the top predators in pond ecosystems, with both tadpoles and adult frogs and toads forming the majority of their diet.

One day before that second encounter, I was volunteering on Buxton Heath, a reserve just under an hour’s drive from Norwich, which frequently employs UEA’s Conservation and Wildlife Society as a taskforce. Usually after a working in the morning and if the weather is good, we take a wildlife walk around the heath. On this particular day, one species was ubiquitous: the common lizard, of which I saw at least twenty in the space of an hour.

The highlight of that day, however, was lifting up one of the metal slabs dotted around the heath, and finding a slow worm and a juvenile adder, another reptile first for me. This particular adder was also notable for its brick-red body, a rare colour in adders, and one Norfolk is a hotspot for. Then yesterday, I was back on Buxton Heath, and on our way to the site, came across a full-grown adder, this time with the grey and black patterning, and sunbathing less than an inch from where my shoe was.

Even if it’s only a brief glimpse,  I do have a certain fondness for reptiles. As such, it’s been incredibly satisfying to up my game with reptile spotting, particularly coming from having never seen any of Britain’s species of snake. Come to think of it, I should probably talk more about Buxton Heath. Maybe next time…

My scepticism about banning driven grouse shooting

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends”

Some readers may be baffled by the presence of the above quote, taken from Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is doing in a nature blog; and yet for the subject that I am talking about on this post, I could think of no better way of illustrating the problems I face. Not only does the argument on this post go against the arguments of many bloggers from the “biocentric tribe” (i.e. Peter Cairns’ description of the people who believe nature does best when left alone) whom I follow, but it also goes against arguments I have made myself, on this very blog.  The issue in question? The e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.

 

The fourth such e-petition was created back in November last year, but while many naturalists were actively promoting it from the get-go, I barely gave it a mention. Part of this can be attributed to my six-month absence, but when all three of the previous e-petitions were created, I swiftly put my signature on all of them, something I was very vocal about. It was a great feeling to see the third e-petition achieving 120,000 signatures and a debate in Parliament, and frankly a bit disappointing to witness the low turnout of MPs on the actual debate. The same could be said about the result of the debate, even if, deep down, I never expected a ban to actually come to fruition. Not that this deterred Gavin Gamble from creating the fourth e-petition mentioned above, which as I said, I didn’t sign.

So what was my reason for not signing it? Quite simply, I had changed my mind on the subject. I no longer think that banning driven grouse shooting is the way to stop illegal activity.

On one hand, I still have a lot of issues with grouse shooting. I don’t like the fact that the habitat being maintained is the result of deforestation, I want to see more upland land allowed to manage itself and I still believe that this would be compatible with grouse shooting as an industry.

At the same time, I can’t deny the huge amount of good that grouse moors do. This was a point that was frequently brought up in the Parliamentary debate, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of the facts backing this statement up. Grouse moors are providing a haven for a lot of species that are otherwise scarce in the UK: studies from the GWCT show successful breeding increase by 35% in curlews and 40% in lapwings following keeper-led management, for example, not to mention the demonstrable benefits to golden plover, black grouse, merlin, short-eared owl and greenshank, among others.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t shifted on the need to combat criminality in shooting. The
recent disappearance of both a golden eagle in the Monadhliaths and hen harriers over grouse moors in Northumberland and Wales illustrates why. But I’m no longer convinced that a ban is the way forward. When push comes to shove, I would advocate licensing game shooting: it’s a compromise between two extremes, utilised in most European countries, supported by the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, and is currently being implemented in Scotland as we speak.

I know that I am in a somewhat awkward position in terms of what I want, but then again this position is a good illustration of how this debate is not clear-cut and lacks easy answers. But regardless of where we stand in this debate, we can all congratulate ourselves for raising awareness of an issue that only five years ago was almost unheard of. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than when the hen harrier overtook the puffin in the competition for Britain’s national bird. While wildlife crime is, in many ways, as bad as ever, the outcry against it has never been stronger, and the perpetrators are finding themselves challenged for perhaps the first time.

The petition to ban driven grouse shooting is still open until April 2nd, and if you support it, then you can add your signature here. Meanwhile, Ed Chalmers’ petition for licensing is open until June, and I would also recommend signing it. And remember that it’s okay to disagree, even with like-minded people.

 

Long-tailed tits from my window

Imagine for a second, that you’re in my place. You’re in your room, at UEA’s Student Village. It’s a weekday afternoon, just after you’ve come back from a lecture; or maybe it’s the weekend, but you committed to going nowhere, because you intend to do work. Chances are it’s raining outside, or at least overcast, and unfortunately the weather is a perfect match for how you feel right now. You’re barely making any progress in what you’re doing, and you’re inner self is begging you to leave the room, go outside, maybe get the bus into Norwich- basically anything but this!

Then, from your window, a cascade of little birds descend on the birches, swarming all over the branches in the most chaotic way possible, with birds moving in every direction. Yes, the long-tailed tits are coming through, and considering how you feel right now, they’re a god-send.

Since settling in at UEA, my bedroom window has become an important site for what little birdwatching I’ve been able to do. Usually, it’s the typical garden birds: robins, blackbirds, blue tits and so on. One of the highlights of January was seeing a pair of fighting firecrests. But the most fun birds to watch are undoubtedly long-tailed tits.

Long-tailed tits are not, in fact, relatives of blue, great and coal tits, but are in fact a separate family known as bushtits, and are the only species of this family found in Europe. They’re very much a nomadic species, always moving from tree to tree, and never really staying anywhere for very long. When they move, they like to do it in massive flocks- often I see flocks of 10-15, sometimes 20, but flocks of 50 have been recorded.

As I said, they’re tonnes of fun to watch, and a lot of this comes from their flock dynamic, or rather the lack of it. This is because they’re completely disorganised: when they touch down on a tree, they then start moving about, with each one going in a different direction, in a state of complete anarchy.

What also makes them so entertaining is their personalities; they’re so loud and bubbly, with a seemingly limitless supply of energy: quite simply, they’re completely incapable of giving less than 100% to any action. Add in their resemblance to rotund fluffy lollipops, and you’ve got one of the most charming creatures on Earth.

The tits may stay there for half an hour or a few seconds. But that’s all part of the fun; not knowing how long they’ll stay makes you rush to the window to see them as quick as you can; to let your eyes fully take them in, before it’s too late. Sadly, I haven’t seen them for several weeks, which is to be expected: by now, the flocks have broken up into pairs and individuals, and gone their separate ways. This is one of the many signs Spring is here: with the Beast from the East having passed Norwich and the snow now almost gone, the snowdrops, which were already in full bloom, have survived almost unscathed. The crocuses are beginning to flower, and the blackthorn buds are opening. Who can say what Spring has in store?

 

 

My experience as a naturalist with Asperger’s Syndrome

It’s become a regular thing for me to apologise for my lack of content, and yet again, I feel obliged to do so, with this post taking nearly four months for me to write. This is partly due to moving down to Norwich and beginning life as a student at the University of East Anglia, leaving me caught up in work and student life. However, the biggest reason for such a delay, if I’m honest, is me often feeling burned out, and even considering giving up writing this blog; something I have firmly decided not to do.

I originally began this post when, back in October, I sat down and watched Chris Packham’s incredibly revealing documentary Asperger’s and Me. Chris has been very vocal about his condition, and it’s raised the issue of naturalists on the autistic spectrum. As such, I wanted to share my own experience of growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the effect it has had on me, because even though a lot of time has passed, it’s still something I want to talk about.

In many ways, living with Asperger’s Syndrome has been a trial. In the past, I’ve behaved the wrong way in certain social situations, without knowing what I’ve been doing wrong; indeed, I’ve often struggled with social situations full-stop. While I’ve learned in recent years how to form and maintain a friendship, I’m still far from sociable, and if I ever take a day out it will typically be on my own. I’ve still never asked a girl out, although I’d really like to: I’ve just never felt confident enough. And while I haven’t quite been driven to depression, I have been prone to extreme low points when things haven’t gone as I hoped. Arisaig this year was a case in point: the RIB broke down early on in our time up there, and I felt really down about not being able to go out to sea. It should come as no surprise my blogging productivity was low during that time.

In reality, however, these are things that everyone experiences. I’ve learned to be put off by these, because for every pitfall, Asperger’s Syndrome also provides a great advantage. Chris pointed to two particular aspects that he felt defined him as a person: a hypersensitive memory and an obsessive mind-set. Both of these are things I can relate to. Whenever I’m in the garden, or at sea, or anywhere else outdoors, I always find myself noticing things other people miss, because I am always looking meticulously at the surroundings and everything in it. And like Chris, this meticulous observation has been fuelled by an obsession, from an early age, with wildlife and natural history in some form or other, and a desire to learn everything about it, whether it’s keeping a slow worm in a tinfoil container, or the countless hours pouring over encyclopaedias, even to the point of having them read to me as bedtime stories. Even when, in times such as the last few months, I’ve felt burned out, it’s this obsession that’s kept me going.

Asperger’s Syndrome, or any form of autism, can be difficult to cope with of times. Ultimately however, it’s something that has defined who I am, as a naturalist and as a person. As we saw in Asperger’s and Me, there are scientists who are attempting to find a way of ‘curing’ Asperger’s and other autistic disorders. And while I wouldn’t object to somebody with the my condition who wanted themselves cured, I wouldn’t do it, because Asperger’s Syndrome is an instrumental part of me.