Dave and Katharines Blog

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Homing: from Africa to Scotland

Posted by on Jun 27, 2020 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

We moved to our first home together (non-floating kind) last autumn 2019. It took 12 hours from Devon to reach the West Coast of Scotland. For our winged visitors, it took months.

A steady passage of: chiffchaffs, sand martins, willow warblers, cuckoos, swallows, black caps, grass-hopper warblers, spotted flycatchers, sedge warblers, even an osprey, homed in on us (or close by) from March to early May.

One of the African migrants- a cuckoo feeding on caterpillars in the nettle beds below.

Many of these voyages weigh little more than a couple of dried teabags . Yet they had flown over jungles, the Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean Sea, all the way back to the gorse scrub, wood, barn, bog or whatever pinprick of interest they call home.

For generations they have returned. Following a combination of visual, offacultory, celestial, magnetic and still unknown cues. The feat is extraordinary; one of nature’s many amazing phenomena.

It has been the house martins I have been particularly pre-occupied by. They were the latest to arrive of the hirundines, on the 16 April. They hung about in the cluster of houses across the valley and scoured the fields for flies, but didn’t return to our house. Why not? There is plenty of accommodation- with old nests waiting for improvement and space for new to be built. Did they not like the new owners, the ponds we had dug for them to sip from or the scrape we had created for them to mine mud?

House Martin scrape making- to be recommended!

I had hoped it would all be perfect for their arrival, so why were they keeping away? Bad weather on passage had apparently suppressed numbers. Perhaps ‘our’ house martins had succumbed and would never return?

A pair of house martins checking out the house.

On the 29th April my heart sang; thirteen buzzed around the house, inspecting old nests, the garden, everything. All would be fine. Or would it?

They didn’t stay. Over the following weeks they would make the odd sojourn to check out accommodation, but never commit. I was fraught with worry.

Nesting building- a team act.

Finally, on the 26th May, ten house martins returned and one pair diligently started nest building. They created two ‘plates’ on the west-facing side of the house, abanded those and began two more in earnest on the north-facing side.

Swallows and martins using the scrape which we topped up with water during the dry spell to provide plenty of soft mud for building.

They found our scape and pecked bundles of mud out, pulling out grass leaves too. A swallow pair joined them. Two pairs of each species were not the crowds I had dreamed of, but it was something, and our offerings were being used. I sat, in heaven, in the meadow watching their frenetic nest building work.

Collecting mud from the scrape. We trimmed the grass around it to ensure the martins didn’t feel at risk from predators.

A couple of days later the new residence was ready. Within a few hours of completion, the house sparrows moved in. What?!

A beautiful nest nearly ready.

I couldn’t believe it. My stomach migrated to my mouth. Why didn’t they fight? Within a few hours there was wool hanging out of the house martin’s meticulous home and nest 5, Sparrow Street was occupied.

I have loved watching the garrulous bunch of house sparrows over the winter. Amazingly, this is the first house I have lived in with sparrows in residence. They’re on the red list of conservation concern due to their decline in numbers, but recent studies have thankfully shown an increase in numbers.

I realise sparrows are important, but house martins are declining too. They’re amber listed and could imminently be red listed as their insect diet freefalls and nesting options plummet. Either way, I can’t cope with the eviction, nor the fact that the martins have travelled so many thousands of miles to be turfed out by vocal-locals.

A plan? Yes. We have decided to flood the house with artificial nests. Our burgeoning sparrow population will not be able to saturate the development we have in mind!

In heaven, watching martins and swallows excavating mud from the scrape.

In the meantime, they house martins are back. I really don’t understand it. Four were prospecting again on the 24th June and a pair started building a nest, then disappeared. What?! This late? Perhaps they’re last year’s fledglings which describes the tardiness and haphazard building? Either way, they were back inspecting yesterday and today 27th June.

You never know, perhaps they will nest and once again the house will watch a new brood of incredible birds fledge, before disappearing on their magical and still not quite understood migration home to Africa?

Great Radio 4 programme on Bird Migration- In our Time 18 June 2020

Endangered Species

Posted by on Jun 23, 2020 in Big Toe Blog, Conservation, Farming | 0 comments

Endangered species are animals or plants or any life form (from fungi (eg mushrooms) to bacteria (tiny living cells)) that are at risk of dying out or becoming extinct (lost from our planet).

What animals can you think of that are extinct?

Illustration from mentalfloss.com

You might think of animals like dinosaurs, dodos, wooly mammoths or saber-tooth tigers. How many others can you think of and what can you find out about them?

The Steller's Sea Cow reached 11 tons and 30 feet long. It ...
The enormous Steller’s Sea Cow is extinct.
Illustration by Pieter Arend Fokens from reddit.com

Animals and other life forms did not just become extinct hundreds, thousands or even millions of years ago. They are going extinct every single day as their habitats (homes) are changed or destroyed.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists all the species of animals and other life forms that we know about (because there are still millions we do not know about!) and decides how ‘safe’ they are. Or how likely they are to becoming extinct.

In the UK we are also worried about species that may become extinct from our island. Species like wild cats in Scotland or smooth snakes in the south of England.

One little species that nearly disappeared was the cirl bunting. This is a little bird that once lived in villages and farmland habitat all the way from Cornwall to Yorkshire. But in 1989 the RSPB and Devon Birds counted only 118 pairs left in south Devon.

Cyril the cirl bunting. My illustration from my book.

I worked for the RSPB with land managers to make sure that the right habitat was created for cirl buntings to thrive. Now, thanks to the work of farmers and the RSPB, cirl bunting populations are increasing . I have written a book to celebrate the return of cirl buntings. It’s called ‘Cyril’s Big Adventure’.

The book also includes the cirl bunting’s conservation story, a map of Cyril’s adventure and a nature quiz. You can buy a signed & dedicated copy here. Also from RSPB Darts Farm & Arne Nature Reserves, NHBS online nature shop and bookshops throughout the UK. 5op from each copy sold goes to the RSPB’s cirl bunting conservation work.

To listen to me reading the story click here.

Hedgehogs

Posted by on Jun 18, 2020 in Conservation, Mammals, Wildlife Moment Of The Week | 0 comments

A sick hedgehog joined our growing menagerie on Wednesday. I haven’t seen one close up for years, only a few unfortunate squashed individuals on the doorstep. It was the archetypal ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle’ with sparkling eyes and a wet snuffling nose. Well that was on day two, on day two it looked totally dejected.

It quickly rolled into a ball when we picked it up, displaying it’s wonderful anti-predation tactic. This evolutionary behaviour is ingenious, but doesn’t outwit a car.

Being given this sick hedgerow sparked a home-school project with our 3 and 5 year olds. Because there is loads we can do to help these gorgeous little hogs that crunch on snails and slugs for a past time, so being the perfect garden companion.

Lots of ideas for looking after hedgehogs!
Avoiding using slug pellets is key- as they eat them or the dead slugs/snails and die.
Plus providing log piles and hedgerows, shrubs etc. and taking care to check for hedgehogs if you have to cut vegetation/ burn it.

After two days, one night, snails, slugs and lots of scats later(!) it looked better, so we decided to return it to the wild where there was lots of habitat in our garden, fields and woods beyond.

Snails, slugs, water and the hedgehog returned to the wild late in the evening.

For more information on hedgehogs see: https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Hedgehog-Street-HEMP-guide.pdf

To report your sightings of live or dead hedgehogs see: https://bighedgehogmap.org/

Let’s Make the World Wild

Posted by on Jun 11, 2020 in Conservacion Patagonica, Conservation, Farming | 0 comments

While running the length of South America, we spoke to two amazing people, Kris and the late Doug Tompkins. Over the last twenty years they had conserved over two million acres of wilderness (more than any other private individuals in the world) in Chile and Argentina. Their motive, they said, was simply “To pay our rent for living on this planet.’

We ran through two of their parks, which they have since bequeathed to the Chilean government as fully functioning, restored and re-wilded national parks; Parque Pumalin and Parque Patagonia.

The parks are breath-taking natural wildlands. Parque Pumalin is ancient woodland saved from deforestation and hydro-electric dams. While Parque Pumalin is a vast grassland, saved from desertification.

Here I describe in my book, Running South America with my Husband and other animals, the perils of sheep and how their reduction or removal has allowed this ecosystem to recuperate,

 “But these non-native grazers, introduced by European settlers, have stripped away the tapestry of wildflowers and grasses that once emblazoned the steppes, leaving clumps of unpalatable grasses in a dust-bowl of fragile, trampled, soil. The earth is unable to hold water or nutrients, and takes to the air. Without soil and water, even those postcard sheep are leaving Patagonia, driven out by their own voracious, unsustainable appetite.”

David and I will never forget meeting this truly inspirational, yet humble couple. Listen here to Kris’ eloquent and moving TedTalk calling each and every one of us to act and work together to rewild our planet for its sake and our own.

Fore more on Rewilding:

https://rewildingeurope.com/

https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/

https://www.waterstones.com/book/feral/george-monbiot/9780141975580

https://www.rebirding.org/

https://www.isabellatree.com/

Saving Orangutans

Posted by on Apr 30, 2020 in Big Toe Blog, Conservation | 0 comments

Asian rainforests in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are being chopped down and burnt so that palm oil can be grown instead.

This story book shows what happens when palm oil plantations replace rainforest

This is a big problem. Those rainforests are ancient; some of the oldest rainforests on the planet. They are home to incredible tree species and plants. These trees and plants in turn support all kinds of amazing animals such as butterflies the size of plates, orangutans, rafflesia flowers, clouded leopards, rhinoceros hornbills, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceros and Bornean elephants.

When the rainforests are chopped down and turned into palm oil plantations the amazing rainforest animals have no where to go. Their homes are lost forever and they die.

This cartoon explains what is going on.

Palm oil is being planted everywhere because it provides cheap oil that is being shipped around the world for foods and all kinds of products.

Click here to watch a video where I tell the story of ‘The Wild Treehouse of Borneo’ about palm oil and the rainforests and animals. It was given to us from a friend who visited the island.

We can help!! We can cook food that doesn’t contain palm oil. We can also stop buying palm oil. Palm oil is in all sorts of foods from bread, to shampoo, to pizzas, to stock cubes. But some companies are removing it from their products.

Can you help us by telling us about foods and products that don’t contain palm oil? Then we can be sure to avoid them and all help save these amazing forests and their stunning animal species.

So far we have found out that Divine chocolate, Cadbury’s Bounty, Essentials peanut butter, Doritos original and tangy cheese, Morrison’s Sourdough mozzarella, tomato and pesto pizza and KP honey roast peanuts don’t contain palm oil. All Iceland home-brand food does not contain palm oil.

Here is a video to illustrate!

Cyril’s Big Adventure

Posted by on Apr 26, 2020 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Cyril is a cirl bunting who decides to go on a BIG adventure.  But his adventure quickly turns into a perilous quest when he discovers The Nothing…

Based on a true story about how we nearly lost these precious little birds, but that through the work of farmers and conservationists, the tiny Devon population began to bloom again.

Listen to Katharine reading the tale in four parts here:

PART 1 Watch Here

PART 2 Watch Here

PART 3 Watch Here

PART 4 Watch Here

50p from each copy sold goes to the RSPB’s Cirl Bunting Project

To buy a signed and dedicated copy click here.

Also available from RSPB shops, NHBS, & all good book shops.

World Book Day Reading & Competition

Posted by on Apr 23, 2020 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

To celebrate world book day I have read a couple of extracts from my book ”Running South America with my Husband and other Animals’. I am also giving away two signed and dedicated copies of the book to anyone who signs up to our mailing list and/ or can share my competition post on twitter / facebook. Closing date 30th April.

The book chronicles David and my world first run for wildlife and wilderness. It’s packed full of wildlife and shares the stories of the people who are saving South America’s natural treasures. Including the late Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris McDivitt Tompkins who have restored vast tracts of South America for wildlife, rewilding at an enormous scale and returning species such as puma, jaguar and huemul to their native habitat.

Running through cloud forest, Catamarca, Argentina

David and I ran 1/3 of the run barefoot or in barefoot shoes. We learned the new ‘minimalist’ technique a couple of months before the expedition and have never looked back. Running allowed us to slip under the skin of South America’s extraordinary landscapes. Whether parrots, anteaters, armadillos or tarantulas: running provided surprise encounters with animals that many South Americans haven’t even seen.

Running also unlocked doors. People shared their food, homes, ideas and thoughts. Now we have to repay the debt, even if it is to folk on the other side of the world…

Other running and wildlife books that have inspired me recently include:

Richard Askwith, Feet in the Clouds Fantastic book about the fell running legends of the Lake District and Richard’s own incredible quest to conquer the Bob Graham round.

Scott Jurek, Eat and Run Extraordinary ultra runner who runs on plant-based fuel.

Benedict Macdonald, Rebirding; George Monbiot, Feral, Isabella Tree, Wilding and BTO’s Red Sixty Seven which I have written about here.

You can buy a signed and dedicated copy of Running South America here, also at all good shops/online.

For reviews please see here & please write one if you enjoyed reading it!

Returning the Great to Britain

Posted by on Apr 23, 2020 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Whether mountain, fen, woodland, scrubland, heath, marsh or coast, Britain has so much diversity in such a tiny area. I have lived and worked in all kinds of incredible habitats around the world, but this little island relentlessly pulls me back.

There is, however, one hitch. Life, wildlife is draining from it. Its ecological potential, once great abundance and diversity of wildlife and habitats are vanishing.

The yellow hammer’s plea for a, ‘Little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeeeese’ has been binned. The corn bunting’s jangling keys have been lost. Wellies can no longer be flung at the rasping corncrake. That most evocative of Spring calls, ‘Cuckoo’, is vanquished to a few uplands. Even the starlings, house sparrows and robber of chips; the herring gulls, are losing their beak-hold.

Hedgehogs, grass snakes, bumblebees, butterflies, wild flowers, glow worms, dormice, harvest mice, bats: the role call goes on and on.

So what on earth is happening? Well if you read, ‘Feral’, by George Monbiot, ‘Rebirding’ by Benedict MacDonald and ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, you will find out. All three books brilliantly explain why our countryside is denuded and depauperate.

Monbiot reminds us of the mega fauna that once inhabited and shaped out countryside before Homo sapien hunter-gatherers and then settlers wiped them out. How key-stone species like the wolf, beaver and aurochs could be reintroduced to our country to breath life back into it.

Macdonald maps out a fantastic future where our national parks and windswept uplands morph from grouse, deer and sheep nibbled factories into landscapes heaving with life. That there is space in our little island to bring back the ghosts of our past; from lynx to elk to bison.

Argyll: Cuckoos, grass hopper warblers & sand martins sing. Occasionally a white-tailed eagle flies over. But imagine this without sheep? With wild boar, beavers, lynx and bison. Where the herds of deer are controlled by wolves? Where redstarts and pied-flycatchers sing again.

Tree reminds us fossil records suggest that Britain was not the dense wooded landscape depicted in fairy tales, but a hedonistic mass of scrub, woodland and pasture all jostling for autonomy as it was grazed, browsed and snouted by hoards of wild boar, cattle and ponies.

A rare valley on Exmoor where wood warblers, pied flycatchers and all our bat species still cling on.

As Macdonald reminds us, we are a nation who uniquely cares about our wildlife. Subscription numbers to our nature charities attest to this, yet we are living in a country whose wildlife is disappearing at an extraordinary rate. We are in an Ecological Crisis. We cannot accept this. Add your voice for the return of large scale functioning ecosystems that sustain wildlife in the UK here.

BTO’s Red Sixty Seven lists the species of birds declining in the UK. It’s a beautiful book of poems, writing and illustrations evoked by authors and artists. Each species has its own prose or poem and art work. A mix of magic, tears and hope.

Competition!

Posted by on Apr 1, 2020 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

You may not be able to travel at the moment, but you can travel vicariously from your armchair through your mind to distant worlds.

So sit back, turn the pages and delve into South America. A continent of superlatives; with the highest waterfall, the longest mountain chain, the highest biodiversity on earth. Run with David and I, screaming, crying, laughing and joking from the freezer to the oven. Running with parrots, anteaters, armadillos and South Americans.

Two copies of, ‘Running South America with my Husband and other Animals‘ are free to wherever you are in the world. All you have to do to be entered is to answer this question:-

1. What is the biggest raptor in South America? And post me the answer here or on facebook / twitter below.

2. Like FB @Running Nature & Adventure and 5000mileproject (if you’re on FB)

3. Like TW @5000mileproject (if you’re on TW)

And please Share this post far and wide!

Last day to enter Thursday 30 April 2020.

To see and/ post a review on Amazon click here. Thank you!

Running Barefoot

Posted by on Apr 1, 2020 in Running, Running Techniques | 0 comments

A friend of mine, Sarah, has just taken up running- couch to 5km. She wanted some tips. I’m not a coach, but I love running ‘barefoot’. David and I have been running in minimalist shoes or nothing at all for eight years. Now is a great a time as ever, while ‘locked-down’ in your house, to plunge into the world of BAREFOOT. So here goes…

We were about to run the length of South America and our ‘virtual’ running coach, Jonno Gibbins, said our technique was rotten! We were heavy footed, heel-striking, with a slow cadence. The likeliness of injury was high. He suggested we try running barefoot or at least try out the technique. We had nothing to lose.

‘Like no other form of passage, running would allow us to penetrate the moods of the land and its creatures. With only a couple of millimetres of ‘barefoot’ shoe-soles separating us from the earth’s heartbeat, often only our unshod skin we would move silently, stealthily, creeping up on wildlife, a whisper away from discovery, a step from the unknown and unexpected.’ (From ‘Running South America’, Katharine Lowrie)

View of the beach I ran to today in the shimmering sun with sky larks and linnets singing.

So first thing to do is to pad around at home or in your garden barefoot. Walk, run, hop, stand: barefoot. Be barefoot as much as you can. This will start the process of re-awakening your muscles and strengthening your Achiles tendon.

Practice extending your Achilles and centring your posture with ‘third-world squats’. Exercise and ‘ground’ your big toe with ‘toega‘. Jump on the spot or hop and skip- think Masai Mara- again all to 180 beats per minute.

If you can get out for a run, set your phone or a metronome to 180 beats per minute so you get your running rhythm right. Think quick, light steps and an upright posture; as if someone’s stabbing you in the back with a carving knife.

I run off-road; I think this is important, if you can, it means your foot is constantly finding a different plain to land on and searching for something to get a toe-hold on.

View from my run today- following deer paths.

After each run I do a quick yoga routine. Poses like: downward dog, pigeon, warrior, tree etcetera feel lovely. Check out Aimee Fuller’s 6 min yoga routine here.

I run in vivobarefoot shoes because they’re light and with masses of room in the ‘toe box’ allowing my toes and the hundreds of muscles inside them to work. And I run in no shoes at all. That’s the great thing about running, you don’t have to have any kit.

My vivobarefoot shoes. Love them!

We ran 6,504 miles through South America from south to north. We ran self-supported, taking it in turn to pull a trailer. We ran 1/3 barefoot, because we quickly worked out that running pulling a trailer isn’t natural at all! We both feel that running barefoot or concentrating on a minimalist technique helped us achieve our goal of running the continent.

We now live on the West Coast of Scotland and today on my run I saw: two adders, a slow worm, a roe deer, heard linnets and skylarks singing and a buzzard soaring. That’s why I run and because running, wildlife and wildernesses make me feel alive.

A female adder with her young under her and beside her. Stunning.
The slow worm I found sunning itself close to the adder.

BOOKS

You’re stuck at home… what better then to read about running.

Here are some books that have inspired me:

‘Running South America with my Husband and other Animals’ Katharine Lowrie– Had to mention my own (again!) because it’s about our barefoot running journey, travelling at a trot through some incredible wildernesses, living with my husband for 15 months (!) and the amazing wild animals we met. You can buy a signed copy here or in bookshops / Amazon – which also has reviews (please add one if you haven’t) and the kindle version.

Richard Askwith’s Feet in the Clouds. I was totally absorbed by this wonderful book about the history, passion, love and life of fell running. Richard undertakes to do a Bob Graham Round during it too. Brilliant. And while you’re imbibing Richard’s words, check out Running Free about running barefoot, through mud, nettles, undergrowth, in his diary of running the tracks and paths around his Northampstonshire home. Lovely.

Mike Stroud’s Survival of the Fittest. Fantastic book that weaves runing and extreme endurance adventures with the fundamentals of how our bodies operate during such gruelling conditions- from a medic and record-breaking, adventurer. Couldn’t put it down.

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall. I loved this book. Totally inspiring and set us off on the idea of barefoot running. Makes sense- that we were born to run, to chase down our prey or run away from predators. That our bodies have evolved to do this with sweat glands and our bio-mechanics and Achiles hele all help. Nothing much has changed…

Eat and Run, Scott Jurek is a fascinating read about endurance running and the vegetable based food that powered Scott, an elite, extraordinary runner.

Dean Karnazes, Run definitely makes you itch to get out there and start your own running adventures. Another incredible athlete.