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It was with some excitement I clicked through on the link, ‘giant big cat spotted in Sevenoaks’ from the local paper’s Twitter feed last Thursday. The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported a sighting within Knole Park, roughly on its northern border with the golf club and towards the Hollybush area. This immediately got my interest, as there is a water feature in this part of the park and it is one of the better areas for approaching the deer who gather along the gallops. These famous former hunting corridors around the estate provide thick cover, with wooded banks and dense bushes on either side. It would be a perfect ambush site and the presence of food and water lends merit to the reported sighting.

The animal itself was described as “giant, about six foot long, jet black with a long tail.” Its movement was also described as fluid and fast by the eye-witness, who also clarified “there was no chance it was a dog or a horse or anything.”

As somebody who studied zoology at university and a lifelong naturalist with an unhealthy interest in the relationship between man and apex predators, the sighting of a big cat in my own town was bound to get my juices flowing. I also possess a vivid imagination fuelled by cryptid creatures such as these British big cats, Bigfoot and so forth. Indeed, watch this space for my first novel, coming soon, set in the Highlands of Scotland and featuring a big black cat all of its own.

The second report was a little baffling location wise. This one was of a similarly described animal seen the next day on Blindhouse Lane, towards Stone Street. A large black cat was glimpsed trotting down the middle of the road by a motorist. As he approached, it leapt the roadside bank and entered a field before disappearing from sight. Now, there is a Stone Street Road in Sevenoaks and it isn’t far from Knole’s borders, but I’m not aware of a Blindhouse Lane. There is though, a Blindhouse Lane that joins a Stone Street in Ashford, over 40 miles away. This is a little far to be the same animal, but obviously lends credence to the idea that Kent is home to a number of these animals.

The third report came in on March 31st and was considered an early April Fools, but its genuineness was protested by the paper. It is unfortunate the eye-witness made a flippant remark about carrying Kitekat with her in future, adding further speculation about its authenticity, but her account is thus. Again, in Knole Park, she saw a large black “cat-like animal,” crossing a path, apparently disturbed by a local ladies jogging group whom she was marshalling for. The witness also recollected finding large pools of blood near the 14th hole of the golf course in the past and speculated it could be the work of the mysterious animal.

The deer keeper at Knole has alternatively suggested the blood could be from culls and also voiced his doubts that a cat was making a meal of his stock, suggesting the deer would be more elusive. Personally, although I would expect a change in behaviour in the deer, I would expect them to move more into the open, where they can see a predator coming, as well as to instinctively move towards people. I would also expect them to be more skittish around dusk and dawn and move around the park more regularly rather than stay in one place. This is well documented behaviour in prey animals, from deer herds reacting to the newly introduced wolves of Yellowstone, to Puffins in the Hebrides relying on tourists to scare off crows and gulls from their burrows. Perhaps he can keep us posted!

Personally, it’s easy for me to believe, having seen a similar animal in the area a few years ago. In December 2011, at approximately 11.30pm I came up Riverhill onto the Tonbridge Road, and as I came through the second bend on the brow of the hill, before you get to Gracious Lane, I had to brake hard as three roe deer does ran across the road. The deer seemed panicked and were moving very fast. They didn’t hesitate to disappear into the bank on my left. As I moved off, I caught a momentary glimpse of a large black animal crossing the road further up. It was beyond the reach of my headlights, but I picked up the greenish eye shine of the animal, was aware of its slinking, fluid gate and made out a clear silhouette. It was about the size of a Great Dane dog, had a long thick tail almost as long as its body and it appeared black in colour. My immediate thought was leopard, as it didn’t seem to have the bulk or heft of a jaguar, but any identification under such circumstances is speculative at best. All I will say, is that I reported it in the morning and wasn’t treated like a mad man, but neither was the presence of the green berets requested either.

I also personally have a theory that these animals regularly use roads as ambush sites, learning that deer often hesitate before crossing or become injured or killed in doing so. Leopards in their more natural environments have been shown to lie by a roadside, waiting for safari vehicles to flush game towards them. I don’t see any reason why the same instincts wouldn’t be in tact in our own, albeit out-of-place population if it exists.

So let’s clear a few things up whilst we’re on my favourite subject. First, let’s look at species. The animal in the report is described as possibly being a puma, panther, lynx or jaguar. Although ‘black panther’ is a common description, no such species exists. It in fact refers to the melanistic form of the leopard in most cases, or more dubiously to the jaguar, also in melanistic form. Melanism is the genetic mutation of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin. When viewed closely, the spots of the leopard or jaguar usually can still be seen against the dark coat. Melanism is documented in 11 of 37 cat species and is most common in leopards, jaguars and bobcats. Although statistically speaking melanism could potentially occur in any species, no black lions, tigers, pumas or lynxes have ever been documented. Dismissing for the moment notions of hybridisation and so forth, that suggests that a large black cat is likely to only be either a jaguar or leopard. So no more puma talk until we see something tawny or golden please, and the lynx has a characteristically bobbed tail (as does its smaller bobcat cousin), and therefore doesn’t match the eye-witness descriptions physically or by colouration.

As to where they came from, most people point to the passing of the Dangerous Wild Animal’s Act in 1976. Most people are familiar with the story of the lion from Harrods and so forth. It’s less well known that big cats were a popular fashion accessory and pet choice, with no licensing requirements or restrictions on owning or purchasing them. Black leopards were very popular as you can imagine. They capture the imagination like no other big cat and they are incredibly beautiful animals up close. They were also a popular choice with entertainers of the time and television programmes, boosting their appeal further. When the 1976 act was passed, licenses were required and appropriate housing and security was needed. It is suggested and documented to a certain extent that a large number of animals were simply released into the wild to avoid the expense of keeping them. So their presence, especially in the South East and South West has merit at the very least.

If you are interested in just how many sightings there are and whereabouts, I recommend Neil Arnold’s no nonsense blog at that looks at Kent reports.

There are other explanations offered by some, involving anything from hybrids to inter-dimensional beings. One mystical acquaintance even suggested my concentration in writing a novel on big cats could have created a tulpa-like entity, a manifestation of the imagination given form by the reported sightings and interest. Personally, I prefer my cryptids a little more mainstream and rationally explained, but I do admit, there’s plenty of room for the unknown, especially in the 1,000 acres of Knole Park and even among the suitably snooty streets of Sevenoaks.

Let sleeping cats lie!

Let sleeping cats lie!

Knole HouseDelicious Deer!

The Real Tigers

A short story in celebration of World Wildlife Day

This was madness and the horrid twist in my gut was telling me it would soon escalate to bloody madness. Raaka, the elephant I was riding with the Mahout Bhavin seemed to share my concerns as she rumbled a warning and flapped her ears forward, a clear sign she was uncomfortable.

Earlier in the day, I had found the paw prints of a tigress with at least two cubs in tow. As we had followed her trail through the thinning trees, the soft yowling ‘bharuu’ calls, tiger talk for “I’m here, where are you?” had given her away on the outskirts of the park. As we had crossed from the Kaziranga border into the fields beyond, the forest rangers had suddenly become incredibly agitated, jabbering at each other and shouting excitedly as they drove the elephants forward into the tall grass and cane. In the far distance I could see the beautiful and striking magenta pink, marigold orange and kingfisher greens of the women’s dresses, intermingled with the dark khaki of the army soldiers and the cornflower blue of the police. The noise of banging pots and pans and what I hoped were just fire crackers popping drifted over the fields towards us.

This after all, was what I was meant to be here to stop. Kaziranga had become famous in the last few years in conservation circles for being the prime example of how not to do it. The national park represented the largest concentration of tigers anywhere in the world, something of which the Indian government were very proud. The reality though, was that the park was far too small to house the growing number of tigers and certainly couldn’t sustain the additional animals being dumped here on a regular basis through a poorly conceived relocation programme.

When tigers got close to villages, left the park borders or attacked livestock as this tigress was suspected of doing, the forest rangers would organise these ridiculous, anarchic, Raj-like drives. Tigers were driven into a bottle neck between the park and local villages where they supposedly would then be easier to tranquilise and remove. Unfortunately the tigers rarely co-operated and more worryingly, the forest rangers were not great shots. All too often, scared and cornered tigers turned on the approaching elephants and rangers. When this happened, the tiger instantly became a ‘problem animal’ and all thoughts of simply subduing it evaporated. The result was often a mauled ranger and a dead tiger. Just this morning we had shown the rangers videos of tigers attacking elephant riders, but apparently to no avail.

Raaka decided now was as good a time as any to satisfy her sweet tooth and ripped a clump of cane from the ground. I went to tap Bhavin on the shoulder to remind him this wasn’t a good idea when I noticed the silence. The elephants had all stopped and were rolling back and forth on their feet. I could see Chahna ahead swishing her head back and forth, tusks low to the ground. They were instinctively clumping together. Then it came, the deafening roar. It started and ended with spitted snarls. A flame of orange had appeared just ahead of Chahna and then it came at us like a forest fire, dancing over the ground in maddened hops of rage. Manish, Chahna’s Mahout fired the tranquiliser rifle. The tigress only hesitated for a second before she bellowed in utter outrage, then she was flying. I was still recovering from being hit in the chest by the roar itself as I watched the tigress’s paw swipe at Manish and make contact as she barreled over Chahna’s side and disappeared again into the grass, this time back towards the forest. Gun’s blazed, panicked cries echoed and Manish was sitting on the ground, holding his mangled hand high above him to stop the blood flow.

We calmed the elephants as best we could. Manish was put back on Chahna with another Mahout and sent off towards the village. But now Samir and I had to persuade our Mahouts to help us find a rather upset tigress. Raaka rumbled her own concerns again as we moved off towards the forest. We didn’t have to go far. Sprawled over the roots of a semal tree on the edge of the forest lay our tigress. Samir was already on the radio, but I was watching the clump of elephant grass that was shaking uncontrollably behind her. A bobbing head holding two piercing amber eyes appeared, and then another. I smiled. The tigress had been my first tiger, her fury and power had been raw, uncontrollable and intensely frightening. I knew how the forest guards and villagers felt. But these cubs were precious, quiet and meek shadows of the wild that needed protection. These were the real tigers and how we needed to make India and the rest of the world see them.


Sightings of great white sharks off the coast of Western Australia have sparked a fierce debate by local politicians and communities alike and a possible cull has been announced. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know how many great whites are left or that they are an endangered species, they represent a clear and present danger to man. We all know that sharks are man-eaters and scores of people lose their lives to jaws every year. So when the same local communities started protesting against any proposed cull, fishermen and politicians who were relying on the public safety tagline to get their proposals through were forced to think again. Then, there were the actual figures.

So let’s start there shall we. Of the 360 or so species, only three are known to attack and occasionally kill people, the great white, the tiger and the bull shark. Other species such as oceanic white tips and so forth can be opportunistic man-munchers, but very rarely do so and therefore we can generally forget them. Worldwide, the average number of human deaths attributed to shark attack per year is six. That’s it, six. In 2012, CITES scientists writing in the journal for Marine Policy estimated the number of sharks killed by humans for purposes ranging from food to medicine to simple by-catch was a staggering 97 million. Those kinds of odds are not in Jaws’ favour.

Hunters and politicians in the United States are proposing the removal of the grey wolf from the endangered species list. In Ohio and Wisconsin, hunting and culling is already being sanctioned or considered to ‘protect’ deer herds and public safety. Again though, the figures don’t quite add up. Wisconsin for instance has a population of approximately 630 wolves, who might kill 20 or so deer a year. This equates to 13,000 deer a year being consumed by Wisconsin wolves per annum, presuming they eat nothing but venison. In 2012, Wisconsin hunters bagged themselves a total of 243,779 Bambi. A further 40,000 were killed by cars. For the last few years, the hunting records for deer in Wisconsin have grown on average by 7% per annum. Without a doubt, a serious impact is being made on the deer population in Wisconsin by a cold and cunning killer, but it isn’t the grey wolf. Again, scientists declare that the biggest factors effecting deer populations are hunting, road-kill and winter. They almost suggest at times that predators and prey have some kind of symbiotic relationship, that their success or failure is somehow linked, but this of course must be simple science fiction.

So what about the threat to livestock and people from wolves? On average, in the U.S, 60-70 livestock complaints are made each year and approximately 100 wolves a year are dispatched by the government in response. In the whole of the U.S, Europe and Russia, wolf attacks on people average one every six years. In Asia, things are a little different and wolves take on average 250 people a year, but figures are being reduced. It’s hard to estimate the number of wolves killed globally each year, but in the U.S alone, the unstable population of 17,000 animals is reduced by anything between 1,397 and 2,000 animals alone. How long a population of apex predators can stand losing between 8 and 9% of their numbers annually remains to be seen.

Bears fare little better. Stable populations of black bear and more fragile populations of brown bear in U.S National Parks are often being moved due to public safety concerns, usually brought about by people feeding the animals or approaching them to photograph, habituating the bears to human presence as they do so. Again, there is a complete reluctance on our own part to take responsibility for our own actions. Bears in the U.S kill approximately 1-2 people a year. Globally, this grows to about 6 humans getting taken down by polar, grizzly or other Ursus family members per annum. The U.S responds with approximately 50,000 bears killed per year and a likely 100,000 bears killed globally either also by hunting or through poaching, bear baiting and the  black-market medicine trade.

Clearly, a great and powerful, self-serving predator is out there and putting the lives of millions of animals at risk without apparent refrain or reason. Unfortunately though, it turns out to be us.

Hunting is a $21 billion dollar industry in the U.S alone. Threats to livestock have to be taken seriously not because of the huge numbers of animals being lost, but because farmers and their associated unions have huge sway on votes and to a smaller extent, public opinion. But the point is, this is simple corruption. A minority of people are influencing the demise and destruction of the natural world as we watch from the sidelines in exchange for wealth and power. Now, we have a choice. We can either continue to swallow the soundbites we are given about our wildlife and it’s so called management, or we can question and investigate for ourselves the facts, which seems the only option when we are turning to politicians, farmers, hunters and politicians to make our decisions for us whilst expecting them to never serve their own interests whilst doing so.

Otherwise, what happens is this. A whaling body set up and funded by nations that hunt whales will rarely if ever, take action to stop whaling and may even seem sympathetic to nations that continue to do so. Fish and game departments will lift hunting restrictions in 27 states, seeing immediate declines in black bear and grey wolf and the possible extinction of the puma in the eastern states entirely. Closer to home, a government may spend millions of pounds killing just over a 1,000 badgers to reassure farmers, fail to enforce hunting laws and restrictions because it is something they sympathise with or openly bribe councils to allow fracking within their districts. After all, it’s not like we’re going to say anything, is it?

You may be surprised to learn that just recently three vicious man-eating predators were hunted down by the Essex Police and shot in the name of public safety. The last of the three was eventually cornered in a quiet field and gunned down in a barrage of several shots into the dense undergrowth. We can imagine the thermal imager in the helicopter overhead recorded the red glow below as it slowly dulled and faded from sight. The Essex countryside was safe once more.

Previously to these events, the last wolf to be officially killed in Great Britain was around 1743, although this is a bone of some contention as unfortunately, even our historical records of wolves contain more fairy tale than fact. Both the Highland Wildlife Park and Colchester Zoo have had wolves escape their boundaries before though. Douglas Richardson, the animal collections manager at the Highland Wildlife Park said, following his animal’s recapture, “There is so much mythology about how dangerous wolves are. Your average hamster is more dangerous”. Colchester’s previous escapee was helped by a misguided animal rights activist and bit the intruder, then returned to its enclosure.

When a gang of five wolves escaped from Colchester again, the zoo issued a statement about the natural timidity of wolves. Yet a lethal force order was issued for the three that made it past the boundary fence. At best, this is a somewhat mixed message to send to a public that is generally misinformed and apprehensive about wolves as it is, given the aforementioned mythology. At worst, it is the unnecessary slaughter of three animals that should never have been in captivity in the first place.

Up until now, I have been a supporter of good zoos and I considered Colchester to be one. Certainly, it is one of the best in this country. I think captivity has its place if conservation is an integral part of the zoological programme. Unfortunately, the natural world is seriously threatened and the utopia where animals can live wild and free from human threat and mindless obliteration simply doesn’t exist. Zoos do play a part in the protection and continuation of some of our most endangered species, but this incident has left me feeling very cold about the repercussions of captivity.

There is of course, scientific value in protecting species from extinction via captivity. Zoos use the display and entertainment value of their animals to drive revenue that by default then plays a part in the conservation of those animals. But where the entertainment value becomes more important than conservation, we have to question the morality of captivity. If the price to be paid for keeping apex predators in confinement is the expected use of lethal force as a contingency plan, then the cost is simply too high. I am not convinced the public were ever in danger or near the animals at the time and I think lethal force should be the last resort rather than the accepted result of an escape.

Wolves are known to be cunning, belligerent and literally doggedly determined animals when they want something. They have complex social structures and are highly intelligent. You can’t train a wolf the same way you do a dog for example, as the wolf gets bored and doesn’t want to do the trick twice once it’s grasped the concept. This is something reported in captive whales and dolphins as well and is recognised as a hallmark of a sentient being. The press statement from Colchester Zoo stated they were surprised that given the time they had, the animals were able to mobilise and take advantage so quickly. Nobody with an ounce of familiarity with wolf behaviour should be surprised, certainly not by animals that usually hold a territory of anything between 15 and 1,000 square miles and have built a reputation for being nature’s greatest opportunists. The statement and the situation again should force us to ask ourselves how much keepers really know about the wild counterparts of their animals and their behaviour.

In ‘Never Cry Wolf’, Farley Mowat describes his encounters and observations of a wolf family formed of an alpha pair, a few sub-adults and newly born cubs. Their strong bond is well illustrated by the ‘uncle’ figure of the black wolf that steps in one afternoon to look after the cubs and give the alpha female a break. This ‘babysitting’ hints at emotions such as compassion and empathy. The very nature of the act implies an understanding of the pressures of constantly supervising the cubs.

In ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’, author and said philosopher Mark Rowlands puts it more simply and provides a reality check for the human race at the same time; “Some of the things we think they can’t do, they can. Some of the things we think we can do, we can’t”. We used to gauge animal intelligence on brain size and weight in conjunction with body size. As we make more and more in-roads into neurology and animal behaviour, it is becoming clear that this has less and less scientific merit and to be honest, the underpinnings of the whole argument are inexcusable excuses; we can treat animals how we like if we can reassure ourselves somehow they are stupid, don’t know any better or are less worthy of their planetary place than we are.

In The Last Wolf, author Jim Crumley describes why we are not qualified to look at the subject of wolf captivity subjectively. “There can be no reliable history of the wolf. Histories after all are written by people and there is no species less qualified and entitled than yours and mine to write that particular history. Our relationship with the wolf has lurched between reverence and revulsion depending on time, geography and religion and a few other variables and human feelings less easy to pin down.”

In our past we have either been so scared of wolves or held them in such awe that we made up our own stories of deed and dread and have filled in the very large gaps in our knowledge with fireside stories. There once was a time when we looked to the wolf as a teacher, as a skilled hunter whom we could learn from. This is still very much the case for certain Lapp and First Nation tribes, both of which see them as sacred animals along with eagle, raven and whale – all of which share incredible intelligence in common. The respect, reverence and understanding these native nations show for their wild neighbours is something we can and should learn from. To them, captivity would be unconscionable. To them, asking who owns an animal is like asking who owns the wind.

The reason I wanted to write this article was because Colchester Zoo released a statement after the wolves were shot, asking for distance, respect and a time to grieve their animals away from media intrusion. I on the other hand couldn’t help feel that they asked for distance and a time because three dead wolves was exceptionally bad PR, that the question of carnivore captivity would throw a spotlight on the operation and because at the end of the day, it would harm revenue if given too much attention. An internal investigation will be carried out as well as one by Colchester Borough Council, who would not benefit in any way by a detrimental verdict against one of their biggest cash cows and tourist attractions, so we can expect the official line to be positive and dismissive in equal measure when it comes.

I personally would prefer to one day be able to hear wolves and maybe see them in the wilds of Scotland in a successful reintroduction plan. We have one of the most out-of-kilter ecosystems imaginable with no natural apex predators left. Deer have changed our landscape beyond measure in the Highlands. In The Last Wolf, Jim Crumley describes wolves as the painters of mountains. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and returned naturally to other areas, deer changed their behaviour. They became less brazen, they foraged more nervously and less frequently in the same place. They returned to a more natural behaviour. New shoots, brush and saplings sprouted in their absence and new colours and silhouettes dotted the landscape. This is truly what an apex predator does; it affects the entire ecosystem for good. It is the foundation stone, the true gauge of health and productivity; and we have none.

Farmers will no doubt hate this concept, as they do any that involves predators. Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk farmers recently saw off a reintroduction scheme for white-tailed eagles based on nothing but fear of lost lambs, to which there was no scientific evidence but plenty of folklore. The reintroduction of the beaver has been controversial, as farmers fear a landscape changing animal will swallow up acreage for grazing in flooded fields. Again, the science suggests hugely positive implications for having the beaver back in the ecosystem. Lynx reintroduction is also being met with farmer based concern. The badger cull was taken up to appease farmers despite there being no scientific merit at all and having previously failed (and looks to do so again) and having cost the tax-payer millions of pounds. When, oh when, are we going to stop listening to farmers? Incidentally, first nation and Lapp shepherds would not dream of blaming the wolf for a loss of an animal. If a wolf takes one of their animals, they cannot blame the wolf for being a wolf; they blame themselves for poorly protecting their animals. Interesting perspective isn’t it?

It is important to say not all farmers are against carnivore or native species introduction, but it is not they whose voices are the loudest unfortunately.

In the meantime, as news of the death of three wolves shot in the English countryside spirals away towards a past equally bloodied and burdened with an unquantified fear of all things lupine, we need to keep up the pressure on Colchester Zoo and maintain the focus on carnivores in captivity. Lethal force is just too high a price to pay and I can no longer support any zoo that believes otherwise.

Wolf, Highland Wildlife Park


As I walked out of the old apartment today in an attempt to clear my head, I made a mental note to write an article championing Canadian band Barenaked Ladies and their decision to cancel their upcoming 2014 appearance at SeaWorld’s ‘Bands, Brew & BBQ’, event scheduled for February next year.

This followed a petition that was launched by fellow Canadian and abusement park activist Mike Garrett, whose focus on Marineland has resulted in what is quickly becoming known in the industry as the ‘blackfish effect’.

The petition was picked up by fans of the film and band alike and within one week, the band’s drummer Tyler Stewart responded via Twitter that they had seen the film and no longer felt comfortable performing at the gig. He even made a joke reference to Star Trek IV which features a strong save the whales theme and as all Big Bang Theory fans already know, can only strengthen their somewhat geeky ties. It especially appealed to me as a Trek fan. It was a clear case of making the call and answer that fans wanted.

I for one was really touched that the band listened to their fans, took the time to watch the film and responded so positively and in fact, when I first heard about it, somebody had to pinch me to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I have to say that if I had a $1,000,000, I’d be the first to ask them to perform a concert to herald the story of Blackfish. They are certainly getting nothing but positive PR following their decision.

I wonder if Tilikum still remembers the sensation of swimming wild and free, something akin to falling for the first time I imagine. Instead he merely gets to do a few laps and bows at the end of the show to be told what a good boy, before going back to his lonely pool, always away from the other whales and now people too as we well know.

Now there is a flood of other petitions trying to get in line with this new movement and targeting the remaining bands and artists at the event. So far with Blackfish and spreading the message behind the film, it’s all been done in the most part with powerful use of social media with tweet-storms and Facebook set around broadcasts and network screenings. But now, the actions of the Barenaked Ladies can only bolster the campaign and those remaining on the play-list should be wary of doing too little, too late in the wake of such negative PR.

A corporation that has been somewhat stunned and surprised by the backlash of such negative PR and for ignoring public opinion is Macy’s, the famous US retail corporation that also own Bloomingdales. Why, oh why given Blackfish’s huge news value at the moment and exposure they decided to let SeaWorld participate for the first time ever in the annual thanks-giving parade is beyond me. Don’t these multi-million dollar organisations have PR and marketing gurus onboard to advise them on this kind of public image disaster? Suddenly, Macy’s appear to be not just participating in SeaWorld’s image crisis plan, but joint villains in promoting captivity. The parade itself was subject to a hard-hitting protest from PETA, led by a 12-year old who seemed more in touch with public opinion than the 162 year old ‘family-focused’ store can now ever be. If Macy’s plan was to show the stock-market they are a cold-hearted corporation that puts $ before patrons just like everyone else before Black Friday, then this was definitely successful. On the other hand, tweets of people cutting up their store cards throughout parade day probably not so good a message for the investors. It’s a little similar to SeaWorld forgetting to mention Blackfish when they originally floated a few months after its release, only to have to back-track recently and update their investor notes significantly when their parent announced they wouldn’t be against getting rid of their majority share. Ignore social media campaigns and public opinion at your peril is the message here. It only takes a few clicks and follows for something to go viral, especially if it’s negative and stupidly ironic, like featuring a SeaWorld float in your parade that depicts free-swimming killer whales in open-ocean.

And that’s the message I also send to Martina McBride and Willie Nelson who are still on the books to play at the Bands, Brew & BBQ SeaWorld gig next year. I only mention them as I am a genuine, album-buying, concert-going fan of both. I actually saw Martina McBride at Indigo 2 last year. She was fantastic and seems a genuinely lovely person when she interacts with fans. Plus, you know, green eyes and red-hair – I was a fan before I’d even heard her sing. But I wouldn’t be being myself if I didn’t urge her to follow BNL’s example. In the case of Morgan and Lolita, we need to free these born wild angels and surrender to our moral conscious. Tilikum on the other hand is consigned to being a concrete angel, trapped in a pool with drilled out teeth and a floppy fin. Like a bird with a broken wing, he sits unmoving and wounded for hours at a time. Nobody can watch Morgan being pestered and followed by Keto almost twice her size and call her a happy girl. Would we dare look into Lolita’s eyes and ask her where would you be, if you could be anywhere? We know the answer wouldn’t be an illegally sized tank Miami Seaquarium, whatever you say. Anyway, the idea of one of my favourite singers performing at SeaWorld chills me, straight to the bone.

To a certain extent, I understand the extra hill that Martina McBride and especially Willie Nelson has to climb here. It’s easy to joke that a good old’ boy like Willie wouldn’t want to be seen as part of any kind of green or environmental movement with a typical country and western fan-base that might consist of any number of meat-eating red necks and liberal hating cowboys. But that’s a huge tar-brushing that does little good and bares little truth. For instance, I believe that Martina McBride is a good-hearted woman and will respond to the call. I just happen to be a county and western fan for whom the story and message of Blackfish is simply always on my mind at the moment, call me ‘crazy’ if you will. Tilikum probably doesn’t appreciate that it’s funny how time slips by when you spend your day saying hello walls under a blue sky for instance, but Willie might. Maybe it’s time for him to get on the road again and skip the SeaWorld gig too.

And it’s worth reminding everyone that Willie is a well-known activist in his own right. He has supported family-run farms, pioneered bio-diesel plants and usage, is an advocate for the better treatment of horses alongside the Animal Welfare Institute as well as speaking out against the cruelty in the lives of dairy calves. He is of course probably most well known for his support of the LGBT movement and the legalisation of marijuana. This guy is not a typical cowboy and not immune to the plight of animals in captivity. Let’s just encourage him and all other bands and artists on the Bands, Brews & BBQ playlist gently and with love to watch Blackfish and make up their own minds, just like BNL did.

I have recently returned from a week’s worth of sublime sunshine and soul soaking in the Charente region in France. Based a little more than eight miles north-east of the town of Ruffec, our home for seven days was a lovely converted dairy barn and farmhouse with fig trees in the garden and a natural salt water swimming pool that we appreciated almost as much as the inbuilt mosquito blinds.

 Surrounding the gardens were wild meadows, arable farmland and sunflower fields with patches of woodland and hedgerows that wove them all together in a tapestry of bright corn gold and forest green across the landscape.

 After nearly ten hours in the car the previous day, in the spirit of Laurie Lee, I walked out on the very next midsummer morning armed with a bottle of water, my camera and my binoculars.

 The sun was welcomingly warm and constant. Dry, hot winds stirred the meadows and even the sunflowers were too lazy in the late August heat to raise their heads to their namesake.

 A short while into my stroll, a small, salmon pinkish bird rose up from the field to my left with a single call of alarm. It’s black and white tail and wing bars along with its flattened crest gave it away before it dropped back down amongst the sunflowers further in, for it was a hoopoe. I was thrilled as it wasn’t a bird I was expecting to see and I hadn’t seen one for a couple of years since a trip to Spain some time ago. I was off to a cracking start to my French adventure.

 There were a couple of birds I was really keen on seeing. The Charente is famous for its birds of prey, especially localised populations of black kites and the rare Montagu’s harrier. I was also on the lookout for the butcher bird, the red-backed shrike. During my first walk out I bumbled past a couple of buzzards and bountiful butterflies and even tiptoed through trees searching for unseen but teasingly trilling turtle doves, but didn’t find any of my big three.

 Afternoons by the pool led to lovely encounters with more butterflies with swallowtails, gatekeepers, clouded yellows, peacocks and red admirals idly fluttering a little way off the water. One day we even found the immense green and blue bushed caterpillar of the giant peacock moth navigating its way down from one of the fig trees. Next year will definitely see me putting up a moth trap, much to the delight of my family who no doubt already feel they are travelling with the mobile division of the BBC Natural History Unit.

 After dark the bat detector revealed the not so silent world of the common pipistrelle and noctule bats which we could see hunting as they passed across the heat lamp in the barn that was luring their insect prey and therefore them into view. I was a little baffled by a pipistrelle-like blip that came in at 39kHz but have to my delight discovered that it is quite likely to be a Nathusius’s pipistrelle, a rarely recorded bat in the UK, but a little more widespread in Europe.

 As almost always the case, it was a chance encounter that led to a two out of three for me. As we drove a quiet road, I looked up and saw a buzzard. Then it occurred to me that it didn’t have a fan shaped tail and was a little small. My heart leapt, as I followed the thin, tapered tail shape, realising that it was probably a black kite instead. Then I jumped out of my seat as I lifted my binoculars to glimpse the pale grey body, tapered wings and prominent black tips of a male Montagu’s harrier. It was only a momentary glimpse, but all I needed. It was a bit much to ask the convoy to stop just for me, but a bit further on up the road I couldn’t resist as we passed a little russet coloured bird. I just had a good feeling about it and as we reversed and slid the windows down, the aptly named butcher bird hopped to and fro over a dried out bramble patch that served as his pit stop larder. A small common lizard and a number of winged insects sat perfectly impaled on the thorns. The butcher cried with glee, or more likely alarm at a Renault Espace full of humans looking at it, then disappeared into the dense brambles beyond.

 So in the end, no black kite but there was plenty to make up for it and as the saying goes, two out of three ain’t bad.

Meat Matters

Many people often voice their surprise that I can be so ‘green’ and animal welfare orientated yet still be a self-confessed and willing carnivore. Yep, fraid so, I eat meat. Bacon sandwiches are an essential part of my Saturday mornings. I am willing to travel considerably out of my way every Sunday for my mother’s roast chicken and above all else, I love my seafood. I used to refer to salad as garnish, but actually also love fresh fruit and vegetables. I eat both and don’t think that is a conflict with my green principles.

 I do go out of my way to make sure I know where everything I buy comes from. For me, as good as the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme is, it does include farms that I wouldn’t necessarily want to buy from and I stick to fully free range and organic products, preferably local. And no, I don’t buy ready meals.

This may clearly come as a shock to some people, but quality doesn’t come 20 to the €, as was the case of certain frozen beef burgers. I’ve actually eaten horse in France and Italy, and it was perfectly pleasant, even delicious in the case of Italy especially. But I knew what I was eating as it was clearly labelled, which may not have been the case for those eating budget lasagnes shortly after the Grand National.

I am a real foodie and have a real love affair with great food. I also work on a limited budget, so my meals have to be planned and I have to make my food go as far as possible. I believe there is far too much waste in our current shopping and cooking trends and this has to be reversed. We need to return to when a much greater respect and understanding of our food was second nature.

For that to happen, we also need to start respecting the producers, and yes that does include farmers. There are good farmers out there and there are great ones. The great ones are proving that wildlife and food production can co-exist. They leave land and field borders alone so that natural seeds and weeds are there to feed our dwindling farmland birds like the corn bunting and yellowhammer. They tell the RSPB where stone curlew nests are and keep them protected. They keep hedgerows that act as natural wildlife corridors maintained. More than anything, they love the land, they love nature and they love what they can produce from it and they want to be paid fairly for it.

Our fish stocks are disappearing and the government has decided that instead of over a hundred marine protection zones, we actually need less than thirty. This is in contrast to projects all over the world where it has been proven time and time again that conservation zones mean better fishing prospects and better income and catches for fishermen working outside such zones, which act as safe nurturing nurseries where young fish can grow and mature but then disperse to other waters, and often to the waiting nets.

TB has been in the news recently and we are now in the bizarre situation where a nationally protected animal is being hunted down and culled by the government and again, in direct contrast to the science that suggests other methods will work better. If our greed for mass produced cheap beef and milk wasn’t so much of a factor, would maybe our wildlife be better off, more abundant and better protected?

Recent reports suggest our children don’t know where their food comes from, some not even being able to identify the key ingredient in fish fingers. Chicken was overwhelmingly thought to come from McDonalds. This has all happened in the last fifty years, as our food industry has become industrialised.

Britain is picky about what fish it eats, so we import huge amounts of cod, relying more on more on farmed fish whilst also sending our freshly, local caught spider crabs, gurnard, bream, john dory and countless others to the continent. And we turn our noses up at gorgeous river fish like pike, saying things like it tastes of mud. This kind of lazy, picky, pointless attitude leads to only one thing, starvation. It cannot possibly be sustained.

I have stated before that I have no issue with hunting for the pot and I don’t. When my bag is full then so is my freezer. When I fish or hunt, I know exactly where my food has come from and the same is when I forage for mushrooms, berries or other tasty treats from nature’s larder. What is instinctive to most foragers is a sense of proportion. You take as much as you need and nothing more, usually because if you do, you’re the one who has to clear up the mess or cope with the stench of rotting food or the expense of buying a second freezer. In Britain alone, we produce in the region of 7.2 Mt of food waste. That’s 7.2 million tonnes from household alone. 60% of this is avoidable according to most sources. Want to stop the onslaught of urbanising gulls that are starving at our coasts but thriving in our towns? Stop throwing away the 4.4 Mt of food you don’t need to!

This is a long article, but it’s because as I’ve hinted, many issues I’ve written about on this blog are linked with our industrial scale production and waste of food, a greed which can never be sated sustainably.

We could learn so much from studying aboriginal people like Native Americans and tribal nations of Australia, who respect and love the land, harvest from it seasonally, who use every part of an animal they kill and pay it service and respect when they do so. We should and could do things differently. Try it and see if it works for you. If you don’t know how to section a chicken, get it from your butcher and get them to do it for you. See how many meals you can get from it. Experiment with ingredients and recipes. There are some great websites out there that can advise on seasonal treasures you should source, such as the link below. Don’t buy meat that didn’t have a long, happy, naturally fed life in an environment it didn’t like or prosper in. Put the good stuff in, get the good stuff out. Love food, love nature and love yourself – treat what you eat with the respect it deserves and you’ll be doing amazing good and you’ll feel it too.

I always look forward to the days of June and the return of those longer summer days. Knowing that there are enough daylight hours to fit in a bit of travel and a walk round somewhere more further-a-field than usual always helps put a bit of a skip in my step. For the last few weeks, such plans have been put on hold by the late Spring and the damper than usual weather, but this week it has as the old saying goes, ‘turned out nice again’, and I was able to escape one sunny afternoon and head for the coast to one of my favourite locations, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

One of the nice things about becoming familiar with a reserve is that it becomes easier to spot anything new as well as get a little hopeful as to what you might see. Previous visits to Rye Harbour have seen fields of Stonechats, Redpolls and Linnets as well as Little, Common and Sandwich Terns. On arrival though, it was clear that the landscape had changed and what had been fields before were clearly being extended and transformed into salt marsh lagoons and gravel scrapes, which led to our first surprise encounter of the day. Avocets. As we walked out across the scrapes, our attention was taken by a small fluffy chick dabbling in the water. As it scythed its head from side to side, I instantly knew it was an Avocet and as I scanned further back, I soon found mum and dad. By the time we had searched the rest of the field we had found a further six pairs and the other lagoons presented even more of the RSPB emblem bird and what is still considered a rarity. These were apparently one of 877 breeding pairs in the UK, so we felt especially lucky, especially as most of them are meant to be on the East Coast at this time of year. Honestly, you’d think they don’t even bother reading the guides sometimes.

The Avocet symbolises the bird protection movement in the UK and is one of our most successful conservation and protection projects. They became extinct in Britain, but just over 100 years later they recolonised at Minsmere in Suffolk. Once the habitat was restored and protected, the birds came back and that was clear at Rye too.

They are a beautiful and striking black and white wader, exquisitely elegant with a distinctive upturned beak and pale blue legs. They scythe their bills from side to side and feast on insects and crustaceans.

We then headed to the newish looking hides which in the past gave lovely views of the nesting terns. To some extent, I was a little disappointed that the nesting grounds and rafts were now dominated by Black-Headed Gulls, but there were still terns around and also Mediterranean Gulls, Greater Black-Backed and a few other species sheltering on the lagoons. Brown and black-spotted fluff-balls were everywhere and although not everyone loves them in adult form, it’s hard not to find gull chicks just a little bit adorable.

As we wandered towards the sea, we stopped to watch a small party of birds dust bathe on the path ahead of us. The friend I was with got a little excited and commented that he was surprised to see Twite here, although he knew they favoured coasts. I had to check again just in case, but had to break it to him that unfortunately we were looking at juvenile Lesser Redpolls rather than the exceptionally scare Twite, but it was still nice to see them. Now there will undoubtedly be some birders amongst you chuckling to yourselves tempted to call someone who calls Twite a twit or worse, but at the end of the day, these are all little brown jobs and juveniles are especially tricky with no obvious red bits showing. Okay, I admit, by not being in the Hebrides meant it was fairly unlikely to be Twite if you knew, but if you did know you probably have a collection of anoraks and a beard and all your friends look like you, including your wife.

As we headed along the beach I picked up the distinctive sound of a Cuckoo calling. Having seen TV’s Simon King call in a Cuckoo with a rather skilled impression, I thought why the hell not and thought I’d give it a go. I was pretty unimpressed with my first couple of goes, and I have to admit that I have put a fair bit of practice into my bird impressions. I do an excellent Swift impression after very hot curries for instance.

My friend, who’s eyesight I was beginning to question thought he spotted a sparrowhawk heading towards us from across the field, so I quickly lifted my binoculars. A grey bird with a barred chest and sharp wings was indeed heading our way, but it was in fact the Cuckoo, apparently investigating my feeble attempts. My friend can also be forgiven this common misidentification as Cuckoo’s have evolved their resemblance to the hawk purposefully. Studies have shown the more hawk like a Cuckoo looks, the less aggression they meet from Reed Warblers and other host species they spy out to leave their eggs with. Cool eh?

Even more surprising was the arrival of a second, larger male bird that then landed a bit further up. My feeble impression was quickly forgotten and the smaller bird beat a hasty retreat, but began to call once he reached the far safety of the other side of the reserve. We were able to watch the larger bird hang around and even feed on large hairy caterpillars as the sun began to set. They say in June the Cuckoo forgets its tune, but neither of these two had and the epitome of spring rang in our ears all the way back along the path, albeit somewhat too late to write to The Times I imagine.

Cuckoos on Wire

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As readers of the blog will know, killer whales in captivity are a subject close to my heart and my articles ‘Tilikum’s Tale’ and ‘Death at SeaWorld’ are probably my two most linked and visited, even though the first is at least a couple of years old now. It just goes to show that this is a subject that really touches people’s hearts and can change how they think forever.

I was very lucky to be able to attend the European premier of ‘Blackfish’, a new documentary that opened at the Sundance London Film Festival on Thursday. Produced and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a self-confessed mum who took her kids to SeaWorld, but also a documentary film maker who won’t leave a story alone, she presents a perfect blend of emotion-led first-hand stories and make-up-your-own-mind sequences that left me stunned by their raw beauty and power.

I have been waiting for this film for over a year, but even then, my expectations were exceeded on every level. The truth is told with a delicacy that is hard to fight, although I’m sure SeaWorld will try. The result is a message as graceful and as powerful as the animals at its centre.

I don’t want to give too many details of the film away, as I really want to encourage you to see it when it is released here in July. Please make every effort to do so, you won’t be disappointed. But if you are familiar with the book by David Kirby, then many aspects of the story will not be new to you and there are just a couple of things that I want to mention and underline.

One of the biggest emotional hit-points was the story of Katina, a female Orca who was separated from her calf when taken to another SeaWorld facility at the age of 4. I felt a real pang of anguish for Carol Ray, a former trainer who was mocked for questioning this separation. As is explained in the book and the documentary, killer whales usually form a lifetime inseparable bond with their mother in the wild. As it became clear during the sequence that the high pitched screaming sound the mother whale is constantly making is in fact a long distance searching call, the sobs and gasps of the audience could be clearly heard. What was shocking in the book is so instantly disturbing and moving to experience visually. John Hargrove, another former trainer simply states “this is not okay!” and I could tell everyone watching agreed with him.

Kasatka, a female who has repeatedly had calves removed from her at early stages also has a history of taking her frustration out on her trainers. The now gone viral footage of her attack on trainer Ken Peters is shockingly portrayed in the film and is all the proof you need that these animals are their own boss.

As has now become known, Tilikum has in all likelihood killed three people, two of whom were trainers. Many former trainers have risked backlash from SeaWorld by coming forward in the documentary and their stories and reflections are heart-wrenching to say the least. I think that their bravery and truth telling is something that makes them real heroes and could lead to real change. More importantly though, I think their need to tell the story is born out of an injustice SeaWorld inflicted on their slaughtered trainer, Dawn Brancheau, when they blamed her for her own death. Maybe SeaWorld have grown too used to being able to twist the facts when they know the subjects of the falsehood can’t defend themselves, but to blame Dawn is clearly something that has produced a far greater outcry amongst her loyal friends and former colleagues than the previous deaths.

From what I’ve seen and read, it becomes less and less likely that Dawn was grabbed by her ‘over long’ ponytail as SeaWorld first suggested. Given Tilikum’s proximity to Dawn moments before the incident, it seems much more likely that he grabbed her by the arm as the eye-witnesses claim.

The breakfast with Shamu show prior to the incident and Dawn’s death make up the end chapter of the documentary and I would do it an injustice to go into details about it, but as former trainers lend their eye and expertise to what happened almost frame by frame, it becomes clear that Tilikum responds to what SeaWorld call ‘negative reinforcement’ during the show. Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity, almost by half. I’m not sure how confident I would feel in trying to exert my dominance over a 12,000lb 23 foot male killer whale, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t last long if I tried in any case. There is no explanation why SeaWorld think it’s okay to try. I hope this film is successful, I hope the former-trainers who came forward are championed, supported and vindicated where necessary and I hope that killer whales in captivity become a thing of the past.

Gabriela explains that she would love to see this film brought to schools and to children, and again I really hope she is successful in doing so. It is just one of those films that needs to be seen.

If you are thinking of going to SeaWorld, maybe watch this film first with your children and then ask them if they still want to go. Ask yourself if you do. Then ask Google if there is a whale watching tour operation you could go on instead. Nothing compares to seeing these animals in the wild, and their natural behaviours are far more exhilarating. The animals live nearly three times as long in the wild, the males have full dorsal fins as tall as a man and you’ll never go to a marine park like SeaWorld again. Believe me, I know!

Thank you Sundance for bringing Blackfish to the UK and thank you Gabriela for making it and doing the story such justice.

A little while ago now I discovered that my local country house, Knole in Sevenoaks was going to hold a fallow deer rut walk within it’s 1,000 acres of parkland. I eagerly signed up and looked forward to discovering the rut on my local patch rather than heading to Richmond as I would traditionally.

Knole is a really spectacular National Trust property, home  to the Sackville Family  for 400 years and almost more importantly as far as I am concerned, a collection of fallow and sika deer. It features beautiful sweeping avenues known as the gallops, mature woodland and of course the grand house itself.

Recently, the park has seem some changes to both its landscape and its contents under the new Deer Manager, Tom, who has moved to Knole from Woburn Abbey no less, an absolute deer mecca in the UK. At 3,000 acres and with no less than 9 species of deer, including the famous Pere David’s deer, Woburn has always been regarded as the showcase deer park in the UK. I cannot stress how lucky Knole and Sevenoaks is to have somebody as skilled, experienced and knowledgeable as Tom in charge of the herd.

Tom has already made some big changes. The wooded areas that were fenced off and almost untouched by the deer have now been made more accessible for them. This gives deer the opportunity to escape from the more open areas of the park where traditionally dogs and people have had a negative effect. He has also saved the dwindling sika population that were being needlessly culled due to fears they would interbreed with the fallow, which is not the case.

Tom led our walk, and took us to meet the old boy of the herd, known as the white stag. The stag was calling well in the amusing burp like manner that fallow do as he chased his girls towards us and then away as we neared. Tom led us up what could well be the actual ‘knole’ of Knole, cautiously and carefully, always being respectful of the deer and reminding us to do the same. He pointed out the wallow holes the deer had used and encouraged a close encounter of the smelly kind as we took in the aroma of the fallow deer Chanel No. 5, a heady mix of urine, musk and mud.

Tom also explained that the white stag pretty much had the place to himself for the time being. The fallow population at Knole had been in a poor way for some time and not managed as well as it could have been. There were a large number of bucks in the herd, all genetically similar and most likely related and the genetic quality was being severely effected. A large number of these bucks were culled out and some fresh blood has been recently added to the herd in the form of stock from Norway, Hungary and Romania. These blood lines add bulk, stamina and hardiness to the herd and will make the next few years very interesting in the rutting season. For now though, these teenagers, all used to each other and basically good buddies, didn’t really have the heart to take on the big guy. That said, next year could be very different and I did see them posturing and ‘mirroring’ the odd walker a few days later after, so they are getting their game on if maybe only in practice as far as this year goes.

Knole is a really beautiful place as I have already mentioned, and it is incredibly disrespectful to dismiss the very clear and numerous signs that ask the public not to feed the deer and to keep dogs on leads. People ignoring these signs have caused more headaches for the new deer manager too. At least two deer have recently fallen victim to dog attacks, found horribly mangled and eaten alive after they became caught in the park fences, another reason why many have now been taken down. A message to those dog owners who think the law doesn’t apply to them. Knole is private land and the newly appointed deer manager, who is a crack shot, is perfectly entitled to shoot your dog if he sees it worrying deer. He’d probably prefer to shoot you as an irresponsible owner, but he will settle for your dog if it’s a choice between it and a deer that might have cost the estate £1,000 to purchase and far more to raise and keep. He may also have to cull deer that get too used to being fed by people. It may seem sweet and innocent, but when that wild animal decides to knock your child over because it didn’t get enough quavers (I’ve seen people feeding them these, I didn’t just pick at random), or worse, decides to charge you during the rut because you keep trying to get within arms reach, you will only have yourself to blame. Tom is paid to feed and manage them so you don’t have to. And yes, that still applies even if they are organic carrots from Waitrose madam.

Knole and its deer need your respect and your help to grow into what could be a real treasure amongst Britain’s great deer parks. You can still get fairly close to what are wild animals, see them in a pristine setting in the rolling Kent countryside without the need to feed them. If you need to let your dog off the lead, go to a public park, not a private National Trust property with canine-sensitive residents.

This year’s rut should be very interesting with the park’s new bucks coming of age and the white stag having to defend his patch. Watch this space! 



Knole Park 150411 (8)

Knole Fallows0012


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