Peace Crane by Hilary Taylor

Peace Crane by Hilary Taylor
Picture by Justin Wyatt
To read Hilary's story buy this special book...

This magical story has a touch of the supernatural. When an injured crane is found and nursed, something happens, something magical and inspiring...

Gentle Footprints launched- AS SEEN ON TV

Gentle Footprints was officially launched Fri June 4th at the Hay Festival with guest speaker Virginia McKenna and some of the authors

Buy from Bridge House Publishing by clicking on the link BUY:


Virginia McKenna at Hay Launch

Virginia McKenna at Hay Launch

Animal Anthology To Raise Funds for Born Free

Bridge House Publishing announce new book coming Spring 2010. For more about Bridge House please see their website.
This book is the annual charity book for Born Free...if you want to get involved with promoting and selling this book- email me!

Visit the Born Free Website to find out more about their valuable work...

Visit the Born Free Website to find out more about their valuable work...

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The chough in Cornwall

Cornwall was once a perfect place for choughs. Its wild, remote cliffs were grazed by sheep, ponies and cattle from many smallholdings, creating vast areas of suitable habitat - choughs need short, open vegetation, as they feed primarily on soil invertebrates which they find by probing the soil with their long beak. They are particularly partial to insect larvae found in cattle dung and the loss of livestock grazing the cliffs as farms became abandoned and agriculture intensified was a major reason for their decline in Cornwall and elsewhere.
The species also suffered at the hands of trophy hunters. There was great demand for chough eggs and skins for natural history collections, while their intelligence and engaging nature made them popular as pets, fuelling their demise.
As their numbers dropped, choughs became even more sought after and, by the 19th century, a decline in the species was being noticed. Their range continued to decrease and, in the early 1920s, a book on birds included the comment that: 'A melancholy interest surrounds the chough, whose black dress, long curved bill and red legs distinguish it from all other birds, it is a species that is going under.'
By 1951, only four birds were seen in Cornwall and, by 1957, just a single pair remained. This couple stayed together for another decade, each year attempting to breed without success. Then, in spring 1968, one bird was found dead, though its mate continued to be seen for another six years. When this last bird disappeared in June 1973 it was at least 26 years old.
The image of this last chough, carrying out its lonely cliff patrols with no hope of finding a mate, was one that haunted many in Cornwall.
One author wrote: 'Those of us who remember its characteristic 'chawk' and recall how it swept around Stem Point on outstretched wings, feel we belong to a race apart - superior beings with a close affinity to ancient gnarled Indians who remember the vast herds of stampeding bison, and skies black with flocks of passenger Pigeons.'

Tomorrow: the return of the chough

Friday, 28 May 2010


So what's so special about choughs (pronounced 'chuffs')? Well, amid the unremittingly depressing news about the haemorrhaging of biodiversity throughout the UK and the world, the story of the chough in Cornwall is in many ways an encouraging one.

The chough is a member of the crow family which, in the UK, also includes the raven, carrion/hooded crow, jackdaw, rook, jay and magpie. I love this group, known as 'corvids', because they are birds with real 'attitude'. I was going to say they are characterised by an almost-human intelligence, but perhaps that is being rather too kind to our species.

Its fair to say that the chough is easily the most classy member of the corvid squad, with a refined, self-assured air, rather than the downright cockiness of some of their kin. It also has an undeniable charisma with its spectacular aerial flying displays, blue-black plumage and blood-red curved beak. Sadly this 'star-quality' has, to a great extent, been the chough's downfall - vast numbers were trapped or shot to feed a voracious market for skins and pets.

These magical birds have a particular significance for the people of Cornwall, being found on the county coat of arms and they have often been known as the Cornish Chough or Daw. In Cornish they are known as 'Palores' meaning 'digger' in reference to their habit turning over the soil to find invertebrates but there are numerous vernacular names throughout the county including chow, cliff daw, hermit crow and sea crow.

There are two types of true chough, the red-billed variety (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and the Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculas), with a shorter yellow bill, which is not found in the UK - if you are lucky enough to see a chough with a yellowy-orange bill in this country it will be a juvenile red-billed chough as the eponymous crimson colour develops with age.

In fact, despite its association with Cornwall, the chough was once fairly widespread along the UK coastline. Persecution and changes in farming - the chough is associated with extensive livestock grazing and has suffered from the abandonment of such traditional farms and the move to more intensive regimes - led to a great contraction in its range. In the UK today the chough is restricted to maritime regions of the far-west in Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man - a truly celtic race.

Because of the species' decline in numbers and range, and due to mixed fortunes in sub-populations, it is an amber-listed species (more on this later in the week) and is afforded the highest degree of legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Sadly, despite this, egg collectors remain a major threat to this species' recovery. It is also considered to have an unfavourable population status in the wider Europe being listed 'Vulnerable ' in the 'Species of European Conservation Concern'.

If you fancy seeing these fabulous birds back home in Cornwall, check out this short film 'Return of the Chough' by Peter McMurdie

Coming later in the week: the story of the chough in Cornwall, mining and wildlife (the story of habitat restoration), the alarming general decline in many British bird species, more on the problem of egg collecting and the terrible on-going persecution of our most iconic bird species.

More press

Another article- BBC website


Blog your articles in the press

Gail: Look for page 9


Black Panther Photo Gallery

Next Week: Abi Burns The Week of the Chough and some posts about the Hay Festival

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Day Six - Lyn Fountain

There is no conclusive evidence that escaped or released exotic big cats are living and breeding in the British countryside, but people continue to be fascinated by the possibility. Acres of magazine and newsprint and infinite amounts of webspace have been filled debating the arguments and reporting sightings. Big cat sightings are like UFOs; they seem to arrive in clusters. As soon as one report airs in the news, several more instances then come to light. A few years back, a spate of reported sightings occurred here in Norfolk; one of my husband’s colleagues, driving at night, picked up in his headlights a large, sandy-coloured cat leaping across the road.

Tales of the ‘Beast of Exmoor’, the ‘Beast of Bodmin’, the ‘Surrey Puma’ and others have captured the public imagination and become the stuff of legends. Eye witness reports of large black cats are remarkably similar in their detail: a muscular body, long tail, flashing eyes, coal black coat, springing gait. The description seems to have much in common with spectral black dogs, again prevalent across much of the country. Here in Norfolk we have Black Shuck, the ghostly hound made famous in Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles. There appears to be something in the human psyche that is drawn towards the mystery and power of wild animals. Perhaps it is the tension between the civilisation of humans and the raw state of other animals, which means we are both drawn to and repelled by the idea of a captive animal returned to the wild. It is a human characteristic to try and control nature, thereby neutralising the threat of the unknown and the unpredictable. Unfortunately it is animals that usually come off worse in these encounters, particularly when human population growth is putting so much pressure on habitat.

Tomorrow- Photo Gallery

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

BBC Radio Wales Interview

What a day I've had! BBC Wales phoned this morning wanting to interview Richard Adams about his story in Gentle Footprints but at 90 and not very mobile he just isn't able to get to a radio station early tomorrow morning for a live interview. After several phone calls and the possibility of a telephone pre-recoded interview it then turns out he has broken his hearing aid and wouldn't hear! So there I was thinking this great chance to talk about the book was fading away when the producer says, "Can you come to the studio in the morning and talk about the book?" Well of course I said yes- I'm not quite Richard Adams but hey- I can talk about the book- it's all I've been doing for a year!!! So the answer was of course, "Well yeah, I can talk about the book." But in front of all those people- hmm now not sure- I think it's best not to think about that! Go on, speak slow, remember to breathe and do what I do best- talk about the book!

So tune in at 8.45 ish- it will be on before 9- I know that much. Now I hate my voice and I tend to waffle and have been told to slow down- so let's hope I do okay! Me thinks I will find it hard to sleep. Everything is so exciting!!!

Radio Wales is 93 - 104 FM or you can listen on line

Day Five- Lyn Fountain- Don't go to the Circus

When I was around seven years old, I remember the circus coming to Norwich. The entourage arrived by train, and paraded from the station, up through the city; the circus folk in their performance costumes - walking, unicycling, riding plumed horses; a string of elephants - joined trunk to tail as if drawing comfort from the contact – guided by men and women with sticks; and the big cats, some sitting, some pacing, behind the bars of their wagons, the outsides of which had once been painted with palms and jungle creepers to represent a jungle habitat, but now faded through weeks of British weather. And I remember my mother, crying at the plight of the animals.

I wonder when, in the evolution of man, it was first thought of to use animals as ‘entertainment’. Circuses are believed to have originated with the Romans, so have been with us for more than two thousand years. At first, exotic animals, including cats, were for display only, then trained to perform ‘tricks’. Ever since, countless animals, either bred in captivity or captured from the wild, have endured lives of imprisonment and degradation for people’s amusement. I hope if you’ve read this far, like me, you’re already deeply concerned about the commodification and exploitation of animals as entertainment and as a means of making profit. Politicians and lobby groups have been discussing this issue for years, and prior to the 2010 election a UK ban on animals in circuses seemed tantalising close. It remains to be seen if the new government finally takes action.

This is what the Born Free Foundation has to say on the use of animals in circuses:

“There are 4 circuses that tour Great Britain with a total of approximately 40 wild animals, which include an Asian elephant, tigers, lions, zebra, pythons and Bactrian camels.

“Circus animals are subjected to a routine of frequent and extended transport for many months of the year, with regular loading and unloading, training and performance, and housing in small, restricted enclosures. These factors are likely to be stressful to the animals and have significant negative impacts on their welfare. Such conditions would not be allowed even in zoos.

“Several countries, including Austria, Croatia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Israel and
Singapore have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. The Czech Republic,
Denmark, Finland, Portugal, India and Sweden have banned the use of certain wild animals in circuses.

“Since 1925 animals in circuses were legislated under the Performing Animals
Act, which was predominantly concerned with licensing and public health issues.
The Animal Welfare Act in England and Wales, and the Animal Health and Welfare
(Scotland) Act, were an opportunity for the welfare of circus animals to be

“Despite Born Free’s diligent campaigning and submission of evidence, and
considerable public and Parliamentary concern, a ban on wild animals in circus
was not put directly into the Animal Welfare Act. Nevertheless, on 8th March
2006, the then Minister for Animal Welfare, Ben Bradshaw, announced his intention to ban the use in travelling circuses of “certain non-domesticated species” using regulations enabled by the Act. Similar intentions were indicated in Scotland and Wales. The Government established the Circus Working Group (of which Born Free was a member) to consult on regulations relating to the use of wild animals in circuses. Despite considerable submissions by Born Free and other animal welfare groups, the personal opinion of the Chairman of the Group, published in a report on 20th November 2007, was there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a ban on wild animals in circuses.

“The Born Free Foundation profoundly disagrees with this view, pointing out that
the Circus Working Group was:
- Advised before the process started that little objective scientific evidence was available.
- Prevented from considering training and performance as part of its remit, two aspects which, for many people, define the circus.
- Precluded from considering extensive footage of the life endured by wild animals in circuses (as gathered by Animal Defenders International and others) as this was deemed inadmissible.

“However, following the statement by the Animal Welfare Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick
(March 2010), perhaps indicates that the English Government has a change of heart, now considering a ban of the use of all wild animals in circuses in England.”

The weight of public feeling against performing animals has been increasing for years, and, in addition to lobbying, our refusal to give our custom to circuses and other ‘entertainments’ featuring animals may prove to be the greatest – financial - motivator for change.

Many circuses have already bowed to public opinion and no longer use animals, although they were exempted from the UK 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which made it illegal for people to keep certain exotic wild animals as captive pets without proper licensing. If big cats are surviving wild in this country, they are thought to be the offspring of cats privately owned and released prior to or after the passing of the Act. Personally, I would have thought that if someone had gone to the expense and trouble of importing and accommodating an exotic wild cat as a pet, then obtaining the correct licence would not necessarily have been a deterrent.
LINKS: The Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) campaigning to end the use of all animals in circuses.

Tomorrow, big cat sightings in the UK.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Day Four - Lyn Fountain

The term ‘black panther’ is used to describe a number of big cats, including the Latin American black jaguar and the North American black cougar or puma. The big cat in my story is most likely to be a melanistic Leopard (panthera pardus), the most common form of black panther exploited in circuses, zoos and the exotic pet industry. Melanism is the result of a recessive gene, producing an excess of the black pigment melanin. This colouring may be an evolutionary development, benefiting animals in terms of camouflage when living in habitats with low light levels. Leopards are native to Africa and Asia, the melanistic form most prevalent in parts of China, particularly the most densely forested areas in the south west, Myanmar, Assam and Nepal, southern India, Java and the south Malay.
Leopards are solitary, nocturnal animals. The females raise their two or three young alone, but fathers will occasionally provide food. Litters can comprise a mixture of melanistic and non-melanistic cubs. They become independent at about two years, and can live up to twelve years. Leopards can be 2-3 metres in length, including the tail, and up 70cm in height to the shoulder, and weigh up to 90 kilos. Melanistic leopards are usually at the smaller end of these ranges, though this may be due to the recording of data from mainly captive bred animals, which are smaller due to selective in-breeding. In their natural habitat, leopards will hunt small antelope, pigs, rabbits, rats and other small mammals, and take their prey up into trees to eat.

Although leopards have the widest range of any species of cat in Africa and Asia, this is decreasing and becoming more fragmented because of hunting and habitat loss. The leopard is classified by the World Conservation Union as ‘near threatened’.

Born Free Foundation rescues leopards from lives of misery in poor captive conditions from Africa and Europe, raising awareness and providing lifetime care in spacious natural habitat sanctuaries in Africa.


Tomorrow, I’ll be thinking back to the day the circus came to Norwich.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Day Three Lyn Fountain

The Last Big Cat is the story of a black panther struggling to survive an exceptional drought, after living wild in the Norfolk countryside a year after being released from a travelling circus. Driven by thirst, the cat is drawn back by familiar sights and sounds when the circus returns. The animal trainer-turned-clown, George, puts out water, unthinkingly luring the cat out from the woods and into the gun sights of Jackson, a man obsessed with killing the big cat.


“Curling his lip and wrinkling his nose to taste the air, the big cat lifted his angular head to the sky. Some of the migratory pink-footed geese, who’d arrived to find their usual over-wintering freshwater lakes bone dry, were taking to the air again to try further inland. Small confused squadrons of unfamiliar individuals, splitting and reforming, attempting to forge a cohesive unit, passed over the big cat’s head. His eyes, coal black pin-prick pupils within glowing emeralds, followed the birds’ chaotic progress and lingered on the spot where they dissolved into the amber arc on the south-eastern horizon. oAs silently as the falling leaves, as the rising of the sun and the lifting of the night, the big cat turned around and dissolved back into the woods.
In the village, a man called Jackson was standing at an upstairs window, his binoculars trained on the landscape. Like a bird honing in on its prey, his line of vision travelled along the temporary perimeter fence erected to guard the travelling circus, up the pale gradient of the dry field, its ridges now baked hard into the landscape, and to the abrupt edge of Middle Wood. The faintest of movements held his attention. The barest shifting of a shape, black against black.
“You’re there,” he murmured intensely. “I know you’re there all right.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at some black panther details.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Day two- Lyn Fountain

My very good friend Teresa told me about Bridge House Publishing, and I particularly liked the idea of the animal anthology. For several weeks I couldn’t think of anything to write. Having just moved out of Norwich and into the Norfolk countryside I was exploring the woods on my doorstep, racking my brains, and suddenly I realised the story was there; all around me. It was early autumn and there’d been no rain for weeks and weeks. Every single dew pond, ditch and stream, around which in the spring I’d seen frogs, toads, grass snakes, deer, foxes and birds gather and drink, had completely dried up. Now all the wildlife seemed to have disappeared, and it worried me terribly how the creatures were managing for water. Swarms of angry buzzing insects had driven walkers from the woods in the summer, and when it was finally safe to go back in, the undisturbed vegetation had run riot. What a wonderful secret place, I thought, for a wild creature to live in peace and security. It might even be home to a wild big cat…

But why would a big cat be roaming in the woods? How had it got there? Would local people be delighted (like me), or would they be scared? I’d seen marksmen in the area carrying rifles, and sometimes the woods are closed for deer culls. It was all too easy to imagine someone hunting ‘my’ big cat. Tomorrow I’ll be publishing an extract from my story, ‘The Last Big Cat’.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Day one- Lyn Fountain

My childhood comprised the classic elements to produce a writer; family tragedies, insecurity and solitude. The biggest catalyst was my mother, a voracious reader and daydreamer. A day out was a day spent in the library, and every evening was an evening in with a book. The other constant in my life was the animals: the dogs; Trixie Trot, Whiskey, Prince and Kerry: the cats; Tiger, Ted. Looking back now at photographs of grandparents I never met, they all pose with animals by their side.

The very first story I remember writing was about a young deer rescuing other woodland creatures. I suspect I was influenced by Bambi. Animal films were the only ones my mum took me to see. On one summer afternoon I remember us going to the ABC cinema in Norwich. We’d taken in fresh cherries to eat, but because we became so engrossed, we forgot about the cherries and all the juice soaked through the brown paper bags and into our laps. It didn’t matter, because I’d fallen in love; with beautiful Virginia McKenna, with handsome Bill Travers, with Elsa and all those other wonderful, wonderful lions. The film, of course, was Born Free.

I didn’t think ordinary people could be writers. I thought they all lived in London and worked in publishing offices. Then I read an article in a teenage magazine about a young writer who wrote from home and submitted her stories by post. After that, there was no stopping me.
My very first short story was accepted for publication by a magazine called “Secrets”. Since then, I’ve had stories published in the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine, Take a Break, Fiction Feast, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special, Chat, best, That’s Life! My Weekly, The People’s Friend and Annabel.
I occasionally write articles, and these have been published in Chat It’s Fate, BBC Homes & Antiques, Organic Gardening and Home & Country.
I was a runner up in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition in 1995 with a story called ‘Change of Heart’. Narrated by Betty Marsden, it was produced on CD and broadcast on the World Service and local BBC radio.
Although writing for magazines is wonderful, my ambition is to write something of more permanence. So far, I’ve had short stories included in a couple of anthologies with satisfyingly solid hardback covers: ‘Welcome to Toad Hall’ appears in The Wind in the Willows Short Stories (published by the Kenneth Grahame Society, 2009), and ‘Change of Heart’ in The Spirit of the Commonwealth (Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, 2005).

Tomorrow, I’ll be explaining how I came to write my story ‘The Last Big Cat’ for Bridge House’s Gentle Footprints anthology.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

An Auk's Drift

Part Three

AT the edge of the ice shelf there is a ship. From their high vantage point, the auk and the penguin can see human figures moving round on the ice. They can hear the roar of skidoos.

The penguin sighs. “More tourists,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. I like being the star of the show. The perks are good…fish, Hollywood royalties, lots of exposure on the Internet. The more they know about us, the more they’ll look after us. Right? But…there’s more and more of them coming now.”

“They’ve quadrupled in the last 10 years,” the auk tells him. “In 2008 alone, 2,000 of them took helicopter flights here.”

“They’re horrible things! They terrify our youngsters.” The penguin pauses and then frowns. “Anyway, how do you know all this?”

“I’m Yoda, remember? The point is, what humans are doing here is just a small sample of what they’ve been doing to the rest of planet for decades. They’re spoiling it.”

“In what way?”

“Lots of ways. But the most important for you emperor penguins is that they’re warming the atmosphere, and the ice in Antarctica is melting.”

“Hmmm. That might explain why the record for the annual ‘Waddle to Get Supper In’ race is broken year after year. Supper’s getting closer.”

“It’s changing your home. The ice is melting in the west. Pine Island Glacier is thinning. It could destabilise the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. That’s more than two million cubic metres of ice. If that happens, you need to move east.”

“But we like where we are. It’s our natural home.”

“Humans do extinction studies now. There was one published in 2009 saying emperor penguins could be pushed to the brink of extinction by 2100 if global warming continues to affect Antarctica. The Americans are already considering putting you on the endangered species list.”

“Endangered…” the penguin repeats in disbelief.

“We were vulnerable, and so are you. Don’t believe in the Hollywood hype. You must extend your range, adapt. If you don’t you’ll find yourselves confined within the walls of zoos. Or end up like us - finished.”

The penguin looks at the humans as they ski over the ice. Then he turns to face the auk for the first time. “Thank you. I will report back. And we’ll do what we can, I promise you.”

“Good,” the auk says. “And now I must be off. According to the sneak preview I had of the script, this is the point where I dissolve into thin air.”

“Wait a minute!” the penguin says suddenly. “I don’t even know your name.”

“No,” the auk says, “and you never will.”

A moment later, the great auk dissolves into thin air.

An Ending

Monday, 17 May 2010

An Auk's Drift

Part Two

AWAY from the colony, the emperor penguin tucks his flippers behind his back and waddles languidly towards a dark, rocky horizon. The great auk shuffles alongside.

“I didn’t catch your name,” the auk says.


“All these documentaries about how brave and loyal and loving you are have clearly gone to your snooty little head,” the auk complains. “Pompous you may be, but hear my story you will.”

“Now he’s getting all Yoda,” the penguin sighs. “But, you’re ugly enough, so go ahead.”

“We great auks had a lot in common with penguins,” the auk says. “Clumsy on land, but great swimmers. We could dive to 250ft. We mated for life. Like you, we nested in dense, social colonies. We trusted humans. But you always had one big advantage over us.”

“Good looks?”

“Antarctica. We lived alongside humans in the northern hemisphere, long before they knew of land and ice at the South Pole. We were a source of food for them for 100,000 years. In Europe and America they used our feathers to make pillows. They ate our eggs and brought rats to our islands that killed our young. When they realised we were disappearing we became prizes for collectors, and the hunting went on.

“The last pair were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, in June 1844. The humans reckon they saw a great auk on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in 1852, but if they did it was a solitary bird. Doomed, in other words.”

“What you say only confirms what I keep telling the colony,” the penguin says. “Always complaining, they are. ‘It’s too cold!’ ‘It’s too far for dinner!’ ‘Let’s move north!’ they whine, and I tell them, ‘We’re not moving north. It’s grim up north.’ Perhaps you should tell them what you’ve told me?”

“No. I can’t do that.”

“My name’s Pete. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please will you tell them?”


“You’re not fat and ugly. I was just teasing.”

“Our limited range made us vulnerable,” the auk says. “We couldn’t move or adapt. We were sitting…er…ducks. And so, Peter Penguin, are you.”

“But humans love us! We’re movie stars! Morgan Freeman said we deserved Oscars and a slap-up fish supper!”

“It won’t matter. Humans are not threatening you directly.”

“So how are they threatening us?”

“Follow me. I’ll show you.”

To be continued…

Sunday, 16 May 2010

An Auk's Drift

Part One

STORM grey fades to frozen white and the great feather pillow of huddled emperor penguins breaks apart. At its centre and greeted by a loud fuss stands a stranger, more squat and with a thicker bill, yet similar to those around it.

“Sorry to intrude,” the stranger says.

“What are you doing here, you fat, ugly penguin!” the colony leader snaps.

“I’m not a penguin,” says the stranger, “nor am I a razorbill, though I share similar characteristics with both. I’m a great auk.”

“You’re still fat and ugly.”

“Charming. I’m here because I’m the subject of a short story and a blog about animals. I have no idea what this means.”

“We’re proper penguins here, my friend,” the leader says. “We’re Attenborough penguins, March of the Penguin penguins. Not those stupid rockhoppers from Surf’s Up. Not Pingu. I mean, really! Pingu! How condescending is that?”

The auk shakes his head. “You’re too stuffy.”

“I’m an emperor. It goes with the job.”

“Bet you don’t even know where the word ‘penguin’ comes from.”

“I don’t need to know.”

“Yes you do. It comes from me. The Welsh called great auks ‘pen gwyn’ meaning ‘white head’, on account of the white patch above my eye. When European explorers discovered you lot down here, that’s what they called you, because they thought you looked like us.”

“They did?” The colony leader prodded a flipper at the auk’s belly. “But we didn’t answer to the song, ‘Who ate all the squid?’”

“You know nothing. We great auks knew nothing. We trusted humans, like you do. Now we’re extinct. And that brings me to the other reason why I’m here. I have to warn you.”

“About becoming extinct? But humans love us! We’ve nothing to fear.”

“Come, waddle with me. I’ll tell you what happened to us. And then I’ll tell you what could happen to you. You must understand. Catch my drift.”

The leader thinks for a moment, then nods. “OK, Mr Auk. But make it quick. I need to go and fetch some tea. And that’s a 60-mile waddle.”

To be continued…

Read the Richard Adams article in The Independent

The Article

Get Blogging- what's your favourite animal book?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Octopus - an amazing creature


Mariners call them devil fish,
noting the eerie symmetry
of those nervy serpentine arms.
They resemble nothing so much
as a man's cowled head and shoulders.
Mostly they are sessile, and shy
as monsters, waiting in rock clefts
or coral for a swimming meal.

They have long since abandoned their
skulls to the depths, and go naked
in this soft element, made of
a brain-sac and elephant eye.
The tenderness of their huge heads
makes them tremble at the shameful
intimacy of the killing
those ropes of sticky muscle do.

Females festoon their cavern roofs
with garlands of ripening eggs
and stay to tickle them and die.
Their reproductive holocaust
leaves them pallid and empty. Shoals
of shad and krill, like sheet lightning,
and the ravenous angelfish
consume their flesh before they die.

Catriona O'Reilly

This is the last octopus post, and I have found that the more I've learned about these sea-dwelling cephalopods, the more I'm fascinated by them. I've already described them as having the intelligence of a dog, but some experts would go further and compare them to primates. They are shy and curious, predator and prey. I enjoyed writing the story of Neiroketo, and her life cycle has inspired me to use her as a jumping off point for a science fiction story. Maybe one day if I'm lucky, I'll find someone to publish that as well. I'll leave you now with a few pictures of octopuses and other denizens of the deep.

Caribbean Reef Squid

Island with coral reef

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle


A baby octopus starts its life....

Richard Adams Happy 90th Birthday

What a great day we had yesterday- I am still buzzing! Richard Adams was in great form and really pleased with the way the book turned out. He thanks everyone for his birthday wishes and was surrounded by cards- many of them with rabbits on! I'm afraid the one from us had a dog on the front but then he did write a dog story too!

We all sang Happy Birthday and I hope to have some pics of the cake that Bridge House gave him soon as well.

The interview with Paul Blezard went very well- if my memory is as astute as Richard Adams' at 90 I will be delighted- it's not as astute as that now! Of course he says how sorry he is he can't be at Hay and get to meet you all but we left him with your letters, smiling. So look out for the article in The Independent on Sunday this week or next!

I know- shut up Debz and show us the photos- so here they are...

Enjoying the birthday card and letters and the book!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Octopus and its Environment

The World Below the Brine

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick
tangle openings, and pink turf,Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold the
play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes,
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy
sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed
by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Walt Whitman

Over three quarters of our planet is covered by the oceans. Their biodiversity is unmatched and they contain over 80 percent of all life on earth, mostly unexplored. Millions of people worldwide depend on the oceans for their daily livelihoods. However, overexploitation of this limited resource is leading to problems. Among the dangers are overfishing, with its destructive practice of bottom trawling, a method which damages the habitat as it harvests its catch. Bycatch is a problem in many fisheries, the unwanted species are often thrown back, but rarely survive. Octopus is a frequent victim of bycatch as are other more cuddly animals such as dolphins and seabirds.

It is not too extreme to describe overfishing as a global disaster.

The octopus's habitat stretches from tidal pools on the edge of the sea, to the depths of the ocean, and it is sensitive to changes in that habitat. The marine environment is thought to be changing rapidly now, partly due to human activity. Pollution is a growing problem that everyone is becoming more aware of after the huge oil spill off the coast of the south western USA.

For decades dirty industries have treated the oceans as dustbins for dangerous pollution. Thoughtless dumping of chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins continue to pollute our seas - a direct result of a range of human activities. Once released many of these pollutants accumulate in the marine food chain, posing a major threat to marine ecosystems. The greatest threat to the octopus is from the destruction of its environment and the depletion of its prey animals. It is not listed as threatened, but as very little is known about its numbers and range this doesn't mean a lot. With the increasing popularity of seafood and sushi, the octopus catch is increaing, and this can only be bad news for the species. As the octopus only breeds once in its life, it means that any of these animals which are caught have no chance to reproduce.

Governments are now waking up to the problems of the world's oceans, but they move slowly and have a tendency to ignore what they don't want to hear. Voluntary and charitable organisations are committed campaigners for the seas and the marine environment. Greenpeace is one of the most active and committed campaigners. The marine conservation society has been a voice for the uk's seas for 25 years. Whale and dolphin conservation society

In January 2010, the seas around Lundy island of the coast of Devon became the UK's first marine conservation zone, as part of the government's efforts to create a network of protected areas in our seas. Various national organisations have campaigned for, and worked to conserve our coasts and seas. These include The National Trust and the wildlife trusts.

Tomorrow...Farewell to the Octopus

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Octopus in Literature and Art

The Kraken
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant fins the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battering upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by men and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson's Kraken was probably inspired by a squid, not an octopus, but let's not split hairs.

This image was based of a creature French sailors reported attacking their ship off the coast of Angola in the nineteenth century.
Octopuses have played the bad guy in fiction for more than a thousand years. Pliny the Elder wrote these words in AD77.
"No animal is more savage in causing the death of man in the water; for it struggles with him by coiling round him and it swallows him with suckercups and drags him asunder by its multiple suction, when it attacks men who have been shipwrecked or are diving."
No one who is familiar with the curious, and retiring nature of the Giant Pacific Octopus would recognise it from this description, but it was probably the first of many subsequent villifications of the much-maligned beast.

Octopuses have played a role in pulp fiction for years, usually as the villain.....

"Satan of the Sea Spreads Evil Tentacles to Guard the Treasures of the Deep"

But not always.....

"Pearl the Octopus" Nemo's friend in "Finding Nemo"

The first film appearance of the Giant octopus was in 1916, when it starred in "20000 Leagues under the Sea". Giant octopuses have starred in disaster movies on and off since then. It was 1955 when the B-movie "It Came From Beneath the Sea" came out . Poor octopus became radioactive after an atomic bomb test, grew to a gargantuan size, and was reduced to trying to feed on The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In 1977 a group of Italian filmakers took advantage of the success of "Jaws" to produce a film called "Tentacoli". Despite having the talents of Henry Fonda and John Huston it was an unqualified disaster.

In 2009 Megashark Versus Giant Octopus came out to less than glowing reviews.

In a slightly more literary example, an octopus fights the hero in Victor Hugo's "Toilers of the Sea". The octopus seems to be universally regarded as a man-killing monster.

Victor Hugo's artwork

Hopefully the octopuses image will improve as more people watch wildlife documentaries and see it in its natural habitat.

Tomorrow...The Octopus and his Environment

Monday, 10 May 2010

Romance and the Octopus

She is pale - now.
Each breath, a strain.
Her cave is hidden,
Dark and secret.
She is alone.

She sways with the current,
Tending her hanging gardens
Of Babylon with infinite care.
Eyes almost human regard me,
They do not ask why.

Her fate she accepts,
And I admire her for that.
Her children won't be unhappy.
I cannot help her - now.
Too much has been given.

This time she doesn't breathe,
Time for the little ones to leave.
Tears well in my eyes,
Time doesn't stop,
And softly she dies.

Alexa Greenwood

Octopuses are solitary creatures, they spend much of their lives avoiding other members of their species. If they do meet, then the larger will often try to eat the smaller.

Giant Pacific octopuses reach sexual maturity at just under three years old. When the female feels ready to mate, she chooses a den and entices males to come to her. It is thought that she does this by releasing a chemical attractant into the sea water. Any male within range will gravitate to her den. Octopuses are rarely seen in close proximity, but as many as ten mature males will be found around a female octopus who is ready to mate. They seem to ignore each other until the time comes to approach the female.

Here two male octopuses are arguing over the favours of a female. The larger one usually wins, but this is one occasion when the loser is allowed to withdraw with his life (although occasionally missing an arm or two). Mating is a risky business for the male octopus, especially if the female is bigger than he is, and it is a huge investment for him. Males may spend days guarding a female's den, chasing off rivals and trying to persuade the female to consider them.

The male octopuses hectocotylus or mating arm is inserted into the females mantle and he uses it to insert packets of sperm. This is the last significant action of the males life and he dies soon afterwards.

The female withdraws to her den, making it as secure as possible, and lays her eggs. These may number hundres of thousands, and she weave them into ropes which she attaches to the roof of her den.

She then spends the next months caring for her eggs, blowing sea water over them, stroking them, ensuring that they stay clean and aerated. During this time she doesn't leave her den other than to chase off potential predators, and she doesn't eat.

She grows weaker and weaker as the eggs mature, and by the time they hatch, she is almost dead. She blows water through her gills to help the hatchlings on their way, and as they leave, she crawls out of her den to die.
Her commitment to her young is immense, and she has given them the best chance she can to survive.

The young octopuses float up through the water to the surface and join the plankton layer. The journey is dangerous, and predators lurk around the den waiting for the thousands of paralarvae. Many of the them never reach the plankton. Those that do, grow until they are too heavy to cling to the surface, and then drift down to the ocean floor, where they start to eat, grow and avoid predators until they too can breed. Only one or two of the huge number of eggs will reach this point in their life.

An octopus paralarvae...isn't it perfect?

Tomorrow...the octopus in legend and literature.