In praise of Boris’s nemesis: the great crested newt

Britain is not blessed with an abundance of amphibians. There are just seven native varieties. The loss of ponds – whether in gardens, farmland or in areas earmarked for development – has seen a dramatic decline in habitat for one of the seven in particular, the great crested newt (or GCN for short). Its rarity means it is protected by law, making it an offence to kill, injure or capture one, or damage its habitat. That is why for construction firms, road builders and, most recently, Boris Johnson, no newts is good news. The discovery of GCNs at Johnson’s Oxfordshire pile meant planning permission for a swimming pool was refused.

Where to go to hear a nightingale sing

The first cuckoos are audible, skylarks are singing their hearts out, the dawn chorus is in full, joyous effect and more bitterns are booming than in decades. But the real highlight of the birdsong calendar is only now beginning in earnest: nightingale season. Nightingales have been winging their way from sub-Saharan Africa across Spain and France and into the wilder fringes of the southern part of England, where they are beginning their attempts to seduce each other by means of song. And it’s this seductive sound that has given this tiny bird such a huge place in our culture.  There are two guaranteed reference points for any discussion about nightingales.

How to see Costa Rica’s true colours

If you’re going to visit Costa Rica, my advice is to steer clear of all the stuff that looks most exciting in the brochure: the zip-wires, the thermal springs and the white-water rafting. I’m not saying you won’t enjoy it. Nor realistically – especially if you’ve kids in tow – are you likely to be able to avoid it. Just be aware, though, that the best bits, as always, are the ones most tourists don’t see. Corcovado National Park in the remote south-west, for example. Well, I say ‘remote’. But actually, oddly enough for a country swathed in rainforest, hardly anywhere is truly inaccessible because of the remarkably good roads

Red kites should never have been reintroduced to Britain

I own a grass farm in the Chilterns which provides grazing for horses and haymaking. It also provides habitat for hares, skylarks, lapwings and field voles (the staple diet of my resident pair of barn owls) – which is why I am so set against the red kites. Between 1989 and 1994, red kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and Natural England. The population here had dwindled and the RSPB describes the reintroduction programme as ‘one of the UK’s biggest conservation success stories’. But it’s only a success story if you ignore the devastating effect red kites have had on other wildlife. The

The man-eating leopard of Laikipia

Laikipia Plateau, Kenya Until only a few years ago, the constellations blazed across the sky above the farm at night and there was not a single electric light on any horizon. On many evenings I found myself with my rangers sleeping on the tracks of cattle rustlers heading into Kenya’s wild north with no fences between us and the Ethiopian frontier. Today the wildness is gone, the tarmac almost reaches our farmstead, the phone network reaches everywhere and the good old days of gunfire and adventures and great dances of warriors with their beads and flashing spears will survive only in memory. And so it is quite surprising when even

In defence of badgers

My dog was bitten by an adder last week. Jessie had been snuffling around in bracken a few yards from where I was walking when I suddenly heard this anguished yelp, followed by still more disquieting, even harrowing yelps. I knew immediately exactly what had happened. I have been boring my family for months with warnings about where not to take Jessie for a walk, because of the adders. They think adders are a manifestation of my warped imagination and do not really exist, possibly something dreamed up by the QAnon people. They never believe me when I tell them anything about animals and yet – ironically, you might think

Kill badgers to save hedgehogs

Until last month I hadn’t seen a hedgehog for close to 30 years, though they were part of everyday life when I was a child. In the school holidays, we’d rush first thing to the nearby cattle grids to check for animals who’d fallen in overnight. It’s what passed for fun back then: picking damp critters out of concrete prisons. Sometimes there were lambs, wedged in up to their woolly armpits; sometimes there were angry, pulsing toads. But it was hedgehog rescue that was our sacred duty. We’d pick them up in towels and take them to the hedgehog spa in the boiler room, where they’d spend the day lounging

What we can all learn from Jim Corbett’s tiger tales

‘The word “Terror” is so generally and universally used in connection with everyday trivial matters that it is apt to fail to convey, when intended to do so, its real meaning.’ Thus begins the third chapter of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1947), part of the Man-Eater series by the great Anglo-Indian hunter and naturalist Jim Corbett. I was reminded of Corbett and his wonderful books when reading last week that human-assaulting tigers are once again on the prowl in Nepal, with 104 attacks and 62 people killed in the past three years. Conservation efforts have seen tiger numbers rise three-fold since 2010, but with that good news comes the

How much of a litre of fuel is now tax?

Common knowledge Tensions in the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Jamaica led some to speculate that the Commonwealth might not long survive the present Queen’s reign. Who came up with the idea of naming the successor organisation to the British Empire after a term first used by Oliver Cromwell? – Lord Rosebery is recorded as referring to a ‘Commonwealth of nations’ in 1884, a decade before he became prime minister. – The term was first used officially in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900, which established a federation of British colonies. – The idea of a British Commonwealth first surfaced at the 1926 Imperial Conference.

The scourge of urban gulls

Early this year, five dead herring gulls were discovered on a Cornish beach, and when tested it was found they had bird flu. This should have provoked serious concern: these were the first gulls to be found carrying bird flu in Britain. But because of the war and because we’re sick of epidemics, it was largely ignored. The dead gulls matter because gulls live among us. Some 75 per cent of our herring gulls are now urban. There are 100,000 to 180,000 breeding on rooftops in England, according to the 2020 national census. Tim Newark sounded the alarm in these pages that year, but since then the problem has grown

Are wolves stalking us on the school run?

Dante’s Beach, Ravenna The other morning, my wife Carla was driving home after the school run in her battered old Renault Trafic people-carrier when through the fog she saw what looked like a wolf. It was ambling across the fields, which were covered in white ice. The wolf was only about 50 metres away, so she pulled over and took a picture, which she texted to the local dog rescue centre. She then followed the animal as it continued on its way, parallel to the road, in the direction of our house. Eventually it vanished in the fog about half a mile from our front door. ‘Yes, it’s a young

The universal appeal of the African savanna

My wife and I were lucky to escape for a long-delayed birdwatching holiday in Kenya over Christmas. To have been warm, sunlit and free while so many in Britain were not won’t endear me to most readers, I realise. Nairobi was rife with Covid and Christmas cancellations devastated the tourism industry. So we had the extraordinary Elephant Watch Camp run by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in the Samburu National Reserve almost to ourselves. Baboons and vervet monkeys wandered freely through the camp, and in the night the river flash-flooded after a storm in the hills to the west, but the tents were safe. Elephants were everywhere, feasting on fresh vegetation after a

My battle of the bulb

The streetlighting engineer walked up and down outside my house trying to work out who was right: me, or my neighbour, the vegan. On the one hand, I was claiming this LED light was lighting nothing of importance on a deserted village green at night while shining through my bedroom window driving me insane, and therefore should be fitted with a shield. On the other hand, my neighbour the vegan was claiming that if the bright white bulb was slightly dimmed on one side, women would be attacked, old people would trip over bins and it would be ‘scary’ to encounter fairground people and travellers in the dark when they

Why it’s boom time for bitterns

Bitterns are booming, both literally and metaphorically. These handsome brown birds from the heron family make a noise quite unlike anything else in Britain and we are lucky to be able to hear it. If there is such a thing as a birding bucket list then hearing a bittern’s ‘boom’ — the loudest bird call in the country — should be on it. Before the bittern starts booming he performs a warm-up ritual called grunting. He strengthens his throat muscles, which expand to turn his gullet into an echo chamber. His powerful muscles make up a fifth of his body weight and can propel the sound of his boom for

The strange magic of the mountain hare

The numbers of the dear old mountain hare in England are becoming perilously depleted. A researcher, Carlos Bedson, has suggested there may be only 2,500 left in the Peak District. Warmer weather seems to be finishing them off. It is time to appreciate them and their cousins, the brown hare, more and to look after them. I was in my thirties when I’d head up on to Saddleworth Moor with my father-in-law to watch the white-furred mountain hares. We didn’t say much, we just took in the old magic of those beautiful creatures. I’m not the only one to love hares. That great English poet and hymnodist William Cowper suffered

In defence of dandelions

Dandelions are one of the cheeriest wild flowers. They are loved by children for their ‘clock’ seed heads, are entirely edible for humans and are a source of food for many insects and birds. And yet many gardeners go to great lengths to get rid of them. This year’s daffodils may have faded, but dandelions — their similarly coloured wild replacements — are in full swing, and it’s a vintage year for them. Road verges, meadows and lawns are covered in thousands of gold polka dots, with each plant bearing half a dozen blooms. They make a boring green sward far more interesting, and are — to my mind at

The cruelty and cunning of the cuckoo

St Tiburtius’ Day, on 14 April, is traditionally when you will hear the first cuckoo. Since at least the Middle Ages, cuckoos have been seen as heralds of spring. They are also often associated with romance, and yet they are some of the cruellest birds found in Britain. The adults arrive in this country at the end of March or the beginning of April and depart in late July or August. They return to central Africa and fly, either via Italy, resting near the River Po and continuing over the Sahara, or stopping in Spain before entering Africa from the far western end. They live mainly in and around the

Is the adder slithering towards extinction?

In early April, when the chiffchaff sings its drab little song in the leafless hawthorns, something is stirring in the dead bracken. Having spent the winter months underground, one of our most fascinating creatures slithers into the weak spring sunshine: the adder. The emerging adders haven’t eaten for six months, but food is not on their minds; it is the mating season. Rival males indulge in spectacular ritual combat, rearing up side by side and twisting and wrestling at great speed. After mating the snakes disperse and spend the summer in solitary pursuit of mice, voles, lizards, frogs and fledglings. Adders never use more energy than is necessary and spend

Why egrets keep making headlines

There’s an unwritten rule in newspaper journalism that any story about egrets must have one of two headlines. Either ‘no egrets’ if numbers are dropping or ‘egrets, we’ve had a few’ if they are booming. At the moment, fortunately, it’s the latter. The little egret (egretta garzetta) can be seen as something of a trailblazer. The first only nested successfully in England as recently as 1997, on Brownsea Island in Dorset, and there are now up to 1,000 pairs in the country, according to the RSPB. They compete for food with herons and cormorants on the Thames and even have been known to venture into cities and towns. What looks

Britain’s wild places: where to escape the crowds this summer

If last year was the one where people started to notice the beauty of the wildlife right on the doorstep during lockdown, this should be the one where we start to get to know some of the best wild places in our own country, rather than presuming that all that is rare and interesting can only be found abroad. Of course, you could head to the famous, crowded and well-trodden nature spots like the New Forest or the Lake District. But then you’d miss out on the joy of really exploring the sort of wild places that naturalists like to keep secret. So here’s a guide to some lesser-spotted wild