The amazing aerial acrobatics of swifts

It happens usually in the second week of May, between about the 8th and 12th (this year it was earlier, the 2nd): a distant sound, building as it approaches, and then the doppler dip as the first of the returning swifts screeches past the roof of our Cornish farmhouse. It’s the opening bracket of the summer months, one that closes with their departure just 12 weeks later. But it is a reminder, too, that while we might think of our house as home to two adult humans, two teenagers and a dog, it is also the habitat for several nesting swifts, swallows, house sparrows, pipistrelle bats, mice, occasional winter rodents

A mighty river with many names: adventures on the Amur

The Amur is the eighth or tenth longest river in the world, depending on whom you believe. The veteran travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron reckons 2,826 miles the best estimate. In these pages he makes an arc-shaped journey from source to mouth: Mongolia to the Pacific via Russia and China. The author travels on horseback, buses, pontoon rafts, boats, trains and in taxis and the vehicles of strangers. Starting in late August, he breaks off in Khabarovsk, the largest city on the Amur (population 500,000), returning home to London when the river freezes. As book and journey progress, the Amur changes its name and gender. Mongolian horsemen know it

Why has the EU let German car manufacturers off the hook?

Two billion? Five billion? Perhaps ten billion to make it a nice round number? For colluding on diesel emissions you might think the European Union would hand out a pretty stiff fine to the big German auto-manufacturers. After all, it has hit American tech giants with huge penalties for far lesser transgressions.  Yet in the end, its response was predictable: the EU has largely let them off the hook. The reason? It turns out that protecting German auto manufacturers is what the Commission really cares about – and nothing else matters. According to Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s anti-trust chief, German manufacturers ‘possessed the technology to reduce harmful emissions beyond what was legally required under EU

Paradise regained: how the world’s wastelands are regenerating

Ignoring the padlocked gate, my six-year-old son Nicholas and I climbed through a break in the metal fence and pushed into the mesh of undergrowth. This was the site of Ducker, the open-air swimming pool that once belonged to Harrow School. Here the young Winston Churchill romped (naked, since trunks were for prefects), as, in his day, did my dad. When I arrived at Harrow in the 1980s, the pool — far bigger than Tooting Bec Lido, which is now the UK’s largest — had just been abandoned. It was covered with graffiti, the haunt of skateboarders. Returning in 2021, I looked for changes wrought by three decades of neglect.

Why fungi might solve the world’s problems

The biologist Merlin Sheldrake is an intriguing character. In a video promoting the publication of his book Entangled Life, which explores the mysterious world of fungi, he cooks and eats mushrooms that have sprouted from the pages of a copy of the book. In another video, the double bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado ‘duets’ with a recording made by Michael Prime of that fungus eating the book. Readers of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland will recognise Sheldrake from his appearance in that book, where he serves as Macfarlane’s guide to the hidden world of fungi as the two hike around Epping Forest. Sheldrake doesn’t just bring his scientific knowledge to this encounter, but also

The strange case of the everlasting bonfire

The bonfire burned and burned, choking out black smoke, and when my headache got so bad I could barely see straight, I decided I would have to look into it. I say this at every year’s end: I am so tired of fighting. I sometimes wish I could lose this supernatural gift I have for attracting causes, unearthing conspiracies and refusing to take the official line. It’s not a gift, it’s a curse. ‘I see dead people,’ said the boy in that film about ghosts. I see problems, underneath the surface of everything, no matter how shiny. It drives me mad. I wish I could become normal and believe in

Clearing the air

We are, of course, in the midst of an air pollution crisis which, like every other threat to our health these days, is ‘worse than smoking’. According to the Royal College of Physicians, everyone in Britain is effectively smoking at least one cigarette a day, rising to many more in the most polluted cities. What’s more, as Bloomberg once put it, London has a ‘Dirty Secret: Pollution Worse than Beijing’s’. And London’s air pollution has ‘been at illegal levels since 2010’, according to the New York Times. Serious though the problem may be — I’ll take Public Health England’s word for it that air pollution contributes to between 28,000 and

Invasion of the bread-snatchers

Little Toller Books, in Dorset, aims to publish old and new writing on nature by the very best writers and artists, in books of the highest quality at affordable prices. This offering, neat enough to fit an overcoat pocket, ticks every box. Its author, Tim Dee, co-editor of The Poetry of Birds, has been a BBC natural history radio producer, whose first job was in bird conservation. Born and bred in Bristol, notable for its gull population, he has been a dedicated birdwatcher from boyhood. He thus brings expertise as well as broad engagement to his subject. Accordingly, Landfill, like its principal subject, the gulls we see in Britain, ranges

Fire and brimstone

Industrial factories huddle at the very edge of our world view. Most of us have never visited one, but we know what to expect. The ugly buildings. The dull work of the shop floor. The worker reduced to a mere fleshy extension of a machine, his existence condensed into a series of jerks, twists and spasms. A life at best eroded by monotony — an eternal inhabitant of Dickens’s Coketown, ‘to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart to the last and the next’ — or at worst snatched up and tossed onto the sacrificial flames of Fritz Lang’s modern ‘Moloch’ of

Barometer | 1 February 2018

Tight money Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, was worth an estimated £40 billion. Yet the eighth richest man in the world drove an old Volvo, flew economy class, bought his clothes in flea markets and had his wife cut his hair to avoid the cost of a barber. Some other wealthy tight-fists: — The oil entrepreneur J. Paul Getty, worth $6 billion when he died in 1976, famously installed a payphone for guests at Sutton Place, his home in Surrey. — Wall Street financier Hetty Green was worth $200 million when she died in 1951. It would have been a little less had she not lived in a small

What is the T-charge, and how might it affect you?

The T-charge – short for Toxicity Charge – comes into force in central London today. It’s part of the London mayor, Sadiq Khan’s, plan to improve air quality in the capital, and it mainly applies to vehicles registered before 2006. Rather than banning ‘high polluting vehicles’, he hopes that the charges will discourage people from driving into central London. The Green Party’s Jenny Jones today urged the London mayor Sadiq Khan to make sure that the revenues from the T-charge are used to improve public transport, and encourage people to opt for the bus or tube instead of their cars. But in reality, that’s not going to happen. Why? Khan

The scandal of privatised water is going to blow

Enough has been written about a Conservative government that knows its electoral success depends on Britain remaining a property-owning democracy, yet offers nothing beyond token gestures to stop the young being priced out of home ownership. Enough, too, has been said about graduates being overcharged, pensioners soaking up the largesse of the tax and benefit systems, the failure to upgrade infrastructure, the obesity crisis, and all the other problems that can’t be tackled because of half-thought-through Tory prejudices. Allow me instead to concentrate on the scandal of the privatised water industry. Journalists and academics have been banging on for what feels like an age about an ‘organised rip-off’, to use

Creature comforts

As naturalist, educator and writer, John Lister-Kaye was for many years a voice in the wilderness. In 1976, when nature conservation was still considered a benign eccentricity, he moved into a crumbling estate in the Scottish highlands. Taking as its credo a text from Gavin Maxwell —‘I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world’ — he set up the Aigas Field Centre. Since then, tens of thousands of people have visited it. Schoolchildren and adults alike have been encouraged to share his wonder for the natural world. He has pioneered the breeding of beavers and wild

Let there be dark

Who’s afraid of the dark? Who now fears shadows and bumps in the night? Where do you even find any dark to be afraid of when your phone is only a pocket away? One swipe and the screen lights up blue-white like the old explorer’s match in a cave. If I wake in the night I don’t bother with the bedside lamp. A bar of light comes under the blinds. Lights from the flats opposite. Fire-escape lights from the hotel next door. The jaundice glow of London light pollution. Even staying with my parents, on the edge of a village, there’s no real darkness. There are lights from the lane,

The gull’s way

In 1978, Adam Nicolson received three Hebridean islands as a 21st birthday present from his father, Nigel. The Shiants, each about a mile long, were uninhabited, with just one rat-infested bothy: not everyone’s idea of paradise. But, precisely because human beings had neglected them, wild life flourished — the islands were ‘thick with the swirl of existence’, thrumming with life and death, suffering and triumph, ferocity and conquest. Sea Room (2002) is Nicolson’s rousing love lilt to the Shiants, for him the most beautiful place on earth. In The Seabird’s Cry he homes in on their seabirds, and the tiny islands become a microcosm from which he moves from the

Killing spree of the fluffy green idiots

Who do you think was responsible for Europe’s biggest environmental disaster of the past three decades; one that caused more widespread damage and killed more people than even the nuclear accident at Chernobyl? Was it a) greedy and selfish capitalists, probably linked to Big Oil, riding roughshod over the stringent health and safety regulations our wise, caring politicians have designed to protect us and our natural environment? Or b) an alliance of fluffy green activists, campaigning journalists and virtue-signalling politicians, united on a noble mission to save the planet from the greatest environmental threat it has ever known? If you guessed b) then you may appreciate why we climate sceptics

Barometer | 2 February 2017

Trump’s rivals More than 1.7m people signed a petition on Parliament’s website demanding that Donald Trump’s state visit be cancelled, and more than 200,000 one calling for it to go ahead. What are the most and least signed of the 2,500 or so other live petitions? Most signed Repeal new surveillance laws 209,000 Ban firework sales to public 150,000 Set £1,200 maximum price on car insurance for 18- to 25-year-olds 148,000 Least signed Offer discounted counselling to housing professionals 6 Plain bottles for alcoholic drinks 6 Scrap juries 6 Visiting rites Which countries have been awarded the most state visits to Britain? 64 countries have had a state visit during

Diary – 26 January 2017

Did you know that if you use the f-word while talking to a BT representative, they hang up on you? Here’s how our conversation went when I finally got through after several abortive attempts and ‘holding’ for at least 15 minutes. Me: ‘I’m ringing because the engineer who was supposed to come between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. has not turned up. I’ve been waiting for over five hours. My name is xxx, my reference number is xxx.’ BT man: ‘Could you give me your date of birth and the first line of your address?’ Me: ‘My date of birth is xxx, my address is xxx. This is the third

Not so cold-blooded

The recent furore over a freakshow ice rink in Japan, with hapless fishes embedded beneath the skaters’ feet, was inexplicable to some. The fish were dead already, weren’t they, bought from the market? What’s the difference between eating them and gliding over their artlessly strewn bodies, posed as if in a frozen shoal like the porpoises Virginia Woolf’s Orlando glimpses in an iced-up Thames? The difference is us. In a world sensitive to every nuance of use and consumption, fishes, like the sea in which most of them swim, are the new frontier. As the queer theorist and Sydney-based academic Elisabeth Probyn notes in her new book, Eating the Ocean

Long life | 8 September 2016

There is no cherished assumption that now goes unchallenged. The latest one is that country air is good for you. Ronald Reagan was much mocked when he said in 1981 that ‘trees cause more pollution than automobiles do’, but scientists later surprised everyone by saying that he was at least partially right. And now it is claimed that if you live near to a pig, cow or chicken farm, you might as well be living in Oxford Street. A study conducted by Utrecht University in Holland has found that more Europeans die from air pollution in the countryside than in cities, mainly from the fumes of manure storage and slurry