Hoo am I?

To get inspiration for ideas I generally need to be out in the wild, to places that connect with me and very often I find myself drawn to the lost and forgotten landscapes of our countryside.

The Thames Estuary at Grain village found on the end of the Hoo Peninsular

The Thames Estuary at Grain village found on the end of the Hoo Peninsular

They're a common theme in my work. So yesterday i went off to a very strange place indeed - the Hoo Peninsular in North Kent. There are a couple of nature reserves there but I chose to head to its farthest point, the village of Grain and it's beach. This is a desolate place. surrounded by the trappings of industry past and present. It also a fantastic part of the Thames Estuary for bird life, which in the winter abounds.

Stretching out before me the mud flats were alive with curlew, dunlin, sanderling, oystercatchers, turnstones and brent geese. A classic set of estuary birds to enjoy. My son was with me, slopping about in the mud, and my wife was mesmerised by the beach that seemed to be made entirely of shells; cockles mostly with some oysters and muscles thrown in. This was a beautiful place, framed by the concrete, the iron, the decay and the brutality of the industrial underbelly of British life. 

Why do I like these places so much? Well I guess they remind me of two things.

Firstly that the lovely cosy lives we live with flat screen tellys' central heating and double glazed windows all relies on the dirty, hard and brutal industry that wrecks the environment in which we live. Very few people visit places like The Hoo, because they feel depressing. Much nicer to go to Exmoor or the New Forest. But The Hoo and all it's industry is exactly who we are, it is the truth of what we are doing to the planet and the vast resources we consume day in and day out. I find it important to remind myself of that. I think we should all do that. Seek the truth. And act if we are not happy with it.

Secondly, I go to these places because so few people come here, and so the irony is that these places can often be very good for wildlife outside of the factory walls. A reminder that nature, against all that we throw at it, tries to find a way to survive, to battle the adversity we chuck at it. And I find comfort in that. Nature finds a way to live side by side despite us. 

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Looking at all the giant gas storage centres, towering cranes and concrete walls I wondered yesterday what is this all about. What are we as human beings trying to achieve, whats the grand plan with all this consumption of stuff we seem to need to survive? Where are we going? I don't think we know do we. But we march on anyway, mostly oblivious to the nature around us. And nature battles on, very aware of us. (And we are supposed to be the sentient beings) 

So how did this trip The Hoo help me with ideas for the TV? Well, its reminded me that what I want to do is tell the stories of that edge between humans and nature, to tell stories of how we want to belong in the natural world, but must continue to find a way in which we can grow with it, not against it.  Basically The Hoo reminded me of Who I am and the type of films I make and others don't or won't.

My films are often a far cry from the endless series about baby animals that BBC commissioners so seem to love, or pure animal behaviour that look stunning but tell us little about the truth of what is happening to the environment. But perhaps if I can be clever enough to combine these popular themes with the essence of what I am about, then maybe there is something fresh and new to explore. 

(usual apology for spelling and grammar mistakes)

The Battle for The Sands

 

I am not usually one to steer clear of important environmental issues but there is one big one happening outside my house at the moment that I have kept very quiet about. The dredging of the Goodwin Sands.  I have kept quiet because I want to make sure I say exactly the right thing in what is a very complicated situation.

 

Over the past few months I’ve spoken to some very knowledgeable people and I feel a little better prepared to say my bit. It's a rather lengthy and its complicated, and it does only looks at environmental concerns as that is my area of interest, not historical ones, but I've done my best to outline the siutation as I see it, so please bare with me.

 

The Goodwin Sands are intertidal sand banks stretching 12 miles down the English Channel. They are an important haul out site for grey seals and a breeding habitat for fish species and marine invertebrates. I’ve known them all my life, made films about them for Autumnwatch and can see them from my house. I care about them.

 

Recently Dover Harbour Board (DHB) has applied to dredge a relatively small area of the total sands for the aggregate they need to re-develop the harbour.  It is a cheap source of what they need and its close by.

 

An initial reaction to this is – no way!

 

The sands are on the list to become a designated Marine Conservation Zone and their importance for helping create joined up protected ecosystem around our coast is really important.  As climate change takes hold we need large marine protected areas, with corridors between them to help wildlife move about and cope with the changes. We need a strong robust ecosystem for all life.

 

However, climate change is a pivotal point here because Dover Harbour Board argue that if they do not get the aggregate from there, it will have to come from somewhere else. The development is after all going ahead no matter what, it has passed planning.

 

That “somewhere else” will be further away and it will create a much bigger carbon footprint for the development. A bigger carbon footprint will mean a bigger impact on climate change.

 

The more climate change we have, the bigger challenge our wildlife faces, particularly somewhere like the Goodwin Sands which are likely to disappear under the rising waters of a warming world.

 

In short, DHB seem to say the long-term goals of reducing climate change out rank protecting wildlife in the immediate. It is also cheaper for them, which is very convenient.

 

In response, it could be argued that in this case the sands are just too important and that the wildlife needs of today, right now, out ranks climate change of tomorrow and what difference really will this moving the dredge make to reducing CO2 output? Save the Sands!

 

The divisions are set.

 

But how and where do you draw the line here between local needs and global ones?

 

If everyone thinks their case is more important than climate change, then we push everyone to shunt the problem elsewhere and ramp up global carbon footprint regardless. Just to save our patch.

 

And do the sands really need saving?

 

The Goodwin Sands have been dredged before and they have seemingly recovered. Could the same not apply now? It is a constantly shifting and mobile habitat this is used to disturbance. A big storm could be as disturbing as a dredger to a sand bank and the sand dwelling species that live there are evolved to cope with this, to a degree.

 

What about the seals? Will they not suffer?

 

In reality, probably not. They will more than likely be disturbed very little, being used to heavy shipping traffic and marine noise, perhaps they will move a few miles away, to another haul out site of which there are plenty, and return once the work is done.

 

I’ve spoken to independent environmental consultants that have nothing to do with this argument. They see these above thoughts as sound statements. And they see the reduced CO2 emissions important.

 

These ideas are also ones that Dover Harbour Board has been keen to promote.

 

Does this mean OK -  go ahead - dredge?

 

No. It does not.

 

There has been a big problem with HOW Dover Harbour Board have made conclusions to dredge the sands.

 

From what I understand from more learned people than myself, they have rather jumped to this conclusion of “it will all be ok, and think of climate change” rather too easily.  Their environmental assessment has been “glib” to quote a high up conservation source.

 

Basically their environmental assessments have not been rigorous enough.

 

Have they fully explored every single other option to get their aggregate? Could there be an even closer source of aggregate to reduce CO2 even more and have less impact for wildlife? Have they properly surveyed as much of the dredging area as possible in the most detail? Have divers been down to look at what lives beneath the waves? Just how much life is there?

 

I don’t know, they don’t know. We need to know. We need more information. These questions are hard, very serious and very important.

 

I do not believe that any big business like Dover Harbour Board can just make assumptions about what is best for the environment without being scrutinized in every way possible.  That would send a terrible message to the world of global corporate power that has scant regard for the planet it depends on. Especially when dealing with an area that is set to become a Marine Conservation Zone. They simply must ensure their environmental process is as detailed as it can possibly be.

 

Of course, eventually, if all the right people, with right knowledge say that the sands are the place do this dredge, then we should not let sentiment get in the way of the right outcome helping prevent the huge challenge of climate change.  We need to learn to make practical decisions, as much as heart felt protest, in a world where human development is always going to cause conflict with natural environments.

 

Indeed the outcome may well be that the sands are dredged and the battle to "save them" may feel lost, but if proper diligent process can be truly enforced, the larger war to force all industry to take their responsibilities towards the environment seriously will be a step closer to being won. And that is a bigger battle by far. 

 

Just Add Water.....

If ever I had a motto for how to increase the biodiversity of a place it would be "Just add water..."

Water, even the tiniest amount, brings huge benefits to wildlife.

For the wildlife already in-situ, a pond or lake provides somewhere to drink and bathe. And it then creates a new habitat for new species to move into. The likes of frogs, newts and dragonflies will very soon find a new patch of water to colonise. So, yes, "just add water" is a very simple thing we can all do to help wildlife. But recently I've come across a whole new meaning to the phrase. 

Kingsdown Water are a bottled water company. They extract rain water from a chalk aquifer that simply drains water into the sea. So the water they take out does not effect any local rivers, its so deep it doesn't effect the largely monoculture farming fields 100ft above. The bottles they use are glass not plastic and they are certified as carbon neutral. You may not agree with bottled water, but as bottled water companies go, these guys are trying hard to get it right when it comes to the environment.

They're doing well as a business too and want to build a bigger factory. This means buying up a local Garden Centre and its land. A number of local residents are horrified by this and some claiming wildlife will be threatened, but I am not sure that is the case. I know many developments see concrete pouring all over a site, but I've just been to talk to the company, looked at the site and actually, I think there plans could well increase diversity, not lower it. 

Of the five acre site, only about a third will be turned over to factory and car park. The rest consists of scrub, an over grazed field and some low grade newly planted woodland. They've asked me to help look at the land and increase its biodiversity. 

The first thing to sping to mind is of course build a pond, there is plenty of room for that and I am sure it will be a first up. Secondly, the field has been grazed by horses for an age, its pretty rubbish for wildlife, but it is a field based on chalk, and it could be chalk grassland which can be tremendous for wild flowers and insects; not far away Blue Adonis butterflies can be found for instance. So Kingstown Water want to manage the field to bring it back to top class wild chalk grassland, one of our rarest UK habitats. 

Around what will be the factory borders are hedgerows of bramble and hawthorn, a bit of ash and elder. It's messy looking scrub basically. Whilst the temptation of most companies would be bring the "tidy up brigade" in and stick in load of non-native ornamentals of little or no value to wildlife, Kingsdown Water have agreed that the place should stay untidy, let some nettles grow, allow dead wood to build up. This is ideal.

Between what will be the car parking bays, there is the idea to create rows of apple trees, a mini orchard, instead of the usual low privet hedge look. Blossoms in Spring will be good food for insects and the fruit in the autumn a harvest for all. 

In the far corner of the site lies a small area of newish woodland. Here they will help thin it out, let some light in and plant native bluebells and snowdrops. They are also looking at nest boxes. Most of the trees for some distance around are very young and haven't had the time to develop holes, so nesting places are limited. At least a dozen or more nest boxes could go up across the whole site and lend the likes of tits and robins a hand. Tawny Owl boxes will go up too. 

Most ambitious of all is getting a Barn Owl box up. The new field will create ideal hunting habitat and there are Barn Owls within a few miles. The trouble is the surrounding farmland in between is monoculture and not farmed for wildllife in anyway. Could corridors be created to help bring the Barn Owls over to the factory site? Well, there's no harm asking and Kingsdown Water will ask some their neighbouring land owners if they can help but allowing some rough strips of grassland to grow.

Lastly, there are badgers on the site, which will be well protected from the building works, and it sound like the company will be happy to build a badger watching hide that local school children could come and visit. So educating kids about the natural world, one of the most important things we can all do, is very much on the cards.

In my first post of the year, I bemoaned the spread of development, and I still think the vast majority is dreadful, especially housing. But in some cases, where people choose to care about nature, it can be a good thing. I think what Kingstown Water are hoping to achieve should be a case more companies could follow.

From a garden centre full of polly tunnels, rubbish and an overgrazed field could come what is essentially a mini nature reserve. Of course, Kingstown Water have to go through with it yet, but the determination seems to be there and if all goes to plan I will help them achieve their wildlife goals. So, yes, "Just add water" and you will be surprised at what you can achieve.

 

N.B. I am not being paid by Kingstown Water, I have no arrangement with them, I have nothing to gain personally, other than to see wildlife benefit what seems a like a case of positive development, and development, whether we like it or not, will always happen, that is the nature of things.

Nature's New Year of Challenges....

It feels like daunting times for nature as we march into 2016. It faces many many challenges in the UK. I like to try and be positive in life, but at the moment I see little joy in the big issues ahead.

The recent flooding will have great impacts to wildlife, not only in the immediate after effects suffered by the animals living in the flooded regions, but also in the likely outcomes of the resulting dredging and concrete defences I fear are likely to be instructed by the current government.

The politicians seem blind to environmentalists call for a more thoughtful approach to upland management, despite the fact that creating natural barriers, a porous landscape filled with trees and bogs, and allowing flood plains to operate naturally, can reduce water levels down stream by a considerable degree, enough to prevent the over topping of current defences.

None of this seems to figure on what we hear from Ministers or indeed the one group of land owners who could really make a difference - those members of the NFU. 

Dredging and clearing rivers will be a disaster for the communities flooded and for the wildlife that lives in them. Lets re-wild our uplands, lets allow farmers flood plains to operate as just that. Let's help nature help us.

I don't like the way the badger cull seems to march on either. It will be expanding across England despite every creditable source pronouncing it unfair, unscientific and ultimately ineffective.

Once again the finger points to a government that is looking for short term fixes that appease the votes of the land owning community. How people working on the cull, from those in the offices pushing the papers to the shooters out at night, can honestly believe in what they are doing i don't know. This new year, for them, should be made as difficult and uncomfortable as possible by those passionate about a fair deal for nature in this country. The Badger cull above all seems to sum up this governments ideals on the relationship it has with wildlife.

With new marine conservation zones on the agenda you might hope that things may be looking up for the marine environment? Best stay off twitter at the moment then as you see images of hundreds of pink bottles full of bleach being washed up on the coast of the West Country. Marine conservation zones are an important step but plastic pollution is a global threat we must do more to tackle.

Hats off to Obama in the US who has got micro-plastics banned this week. When will our government do the same?

I looked down a microscope at a plankton research laboratory last year and saw the micro plastics sitting amongst the plankton. Invisible to the naked eye this plastic plankton will be being eaten by fish, and eaten by us. If we can't persuade the public to care about the wildlife it effects, perhaps they will care more about themselves and ask for micro plastics to be banned. Who knows what havoc the plastics will be playing with our bodies. 

The amount of building currently underway in this country also scares me. We are constantly told we need more homes - but who for? There are no new jobs to attract all the people to live in these new homes I am seeing built in my part of the word. 

The only people i know buying houses are wealthy middle class people buying second and third properties to have as investment properties to rent out. You might say thats because I only know wealthy middle class people. Perhaps, but I also meet many young people who say they just can't afford them. Why are we building so many new homes in unsuitable places? Because the government has an economy that relies on housebuilding? Build them, employ people to build them, who cares who buys them. Many new homes around me are empty. They need to build in cities not in the countryside.

However, London is where endless far east investors buy up new flats as investments. As people are pushed out of London then perhaps they will need houses elsewhere - driving building on greenbelt. And adding to carbon footprint as these people then commute back into London every day. If they are lucky they will be able to buy one of these commuter houses, but more likely rent. Things seem wrong with housing to me, very wrong, and nature will be the one to pay.

If this country started making things again other than houses, perhaps we wouldn't rely on housing industry to keep our economy going and we can stop building on every last bit of green space available. I know little about these things and should probably keep my gob shut, but I'd love to see an inner city solution to what seems a city based problem. No doubt people can educate me otherwise and I will gladly listen.

I could just go on and on really about the threats nature faces. Terrible isn't it. But if I didn't believe things can be changed, well then I wouldn't bother doing what I do.

Yet having said that, when do I ever get to rant about any of this on TV? Never. Our natural history television could be much more aggressive in its defence of nature. The trouble is that so much of UK wildlife is on the BBC and the likes of Springwatch have their hands tied by the BBC Controllers fear of upsetting politicians who hold an axe over their license fee funded heads. Really, BBC wildlife programmes can do little more than nod their head at such issues and give balanced discussion. They are not places to crusade.

For years I've gone along with this stuff because its my job, but I find it increasingly frustrating that the only place to air concerns is on the web. We need to be making hard hitting programs about these issues, how they effect nature, how they effect us. Sadly, I think that this is one 2016 nature challenge too far for the channels I work with, but i will darn well give it go.

Behind the life of a Wildlife Filmmaker

Part of what I'd like to do with this blog is give you a bit of an inside angle on what its life being a freelance wildlife filmmaker. All you ever really get to see is the few minutes of telly we produce, and the odd highly edited "making of" film here and there. But what is it really like? 

Our jobs don't just start and stop when the cameras are turning. 99% of our lives happen off camera and i thought it might be interesting to hear about some of that.

So, whats going on in my life right now? Well I finished filming Big Blue UK a couple of weeks back and I've had a week or two not thinking about telly at all. Just setting up this new website and running my gallery at home here in Deal. But now its time to get back to work. The only problem is, I haven't got any! This is a usual situation for me and many other film makers, cameramen and presenter out there. The work is intimmitent and you get times when the diary is totally empty, sometime for weeks on end. The supposed "best job in the world" turns into no job at all and its pretty scary when you have a mortgage to pay etc etc. In this respect its no different to anyone out there that is self employed. You live job to job. So, how do I go about getting the next job, because right now i need one?

The answer is ideas. Almost everything I present is the result of an idea that I've come up with. So where do I get my ideas from? Well, that can vary hugely. I've spent almost 20 years in this job and in that time you meet a lot of people and film a lot of stories. Sometimes those people drop you a line and let you know what they've been up to and it clearly a good new story. Other times its just a question of sitting down and having a good think about species and whats not been done before with them. That is a hard one because most things have been done before!

The arrival of twitter has been really interesting for me in this respect because of the huge volume of content that wildlife enthusiasts are generating on it.  One local chap @ramsgatebirds started posting shots of Kingfishers living along the coast locally. I realised Springwatch had never covered coastal Kingfishers and I managed to turn it into an idea about a coastal winter walk, the highlight being kingfishers. A new idea that wouldn't have happened with out twitter. 

So this week its ideas time for me. I met the chairman of the Kent Mammal Group at the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory fair last week and she had some interesting thoughts about using thermal imaging cameras to identify bats without disturbing them. Could make a nice One Show film that  so I stuck that one in, lets see what happens. It's time for Autumnwatch very soon too and I know people really enjoy the more lyrical films I do for "The Watches", so I'm playing around with an idea I've had for a long time about how its the "edges" in life that are the most interesting places to watch wildlife. It's been one of those more philosophical ideas that just needs the right time and place to work. Those sorts of more "arty" ideas are harder for a commissioner to say yes to as they don't know what they'll get. But I've done plenty of these over the years now so fingers crossed i can get that away. If not I'll being looking to an atmospheric piece about one of many many landscapes I'd love to film but not had the chance, The North Kent Marshes may come into play here.

Anyway, it's ideas week for me, ideas so that i can get a job and pay the bills like everyone else. I do have a bigger series idea brewing too, one that I may need your help with on social media. I'll let you know about that very soon and if you do want to help make sure you leave your twitter handle in the comment box below, i'll make sure you get tweeted directly.

Thanks for stopping by.

RTJ

New Website

I've spent the last couple of days designing a new website, and here it is. You're on the blog page. It's been an "interesting" experience trying to gather together everything i do as a photographer, cameraman, director and presenter, so I've done my best to keep it clear and simple. I've included my current photography projects and some of my favourite films which people often ask if they can see again.  I'll be adding to it as often as I can and certainly trying to blog regularly about what I've been up to. There is always a lot to learn on each new job I do and I'l try and share that. Please do keep visiting and i will do my best to keep it interesting. Hope you enjoy it.