Zagori and Lake Prespa, highlights of northern Greece

Wed 25 May- Wed 1 June 2022

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Zagori and Lake Prespa are two equally glorious but totally different landscapes of northern Greece. They are united in one detail. They are as steeped in wildlife abundance as they are rich in cultural history. This holiday will explore both places, capturing the best of them in one week. The outline presented here is very much shaped to be read in conjunction with separate, but detailed accounts of our Zagori (here) and Prespa (here) holidays in 2022.

Zagori

Zagori is a distinct region within Epirus and located close to the tallest peaks of the northern Pindos mountains. It is characterised by extensive new-growth oak forests interspersed with vast areas of grazed montane pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer even more dramatic vistas. We will have four nights at our customary hotel Archontiko Dilofo, which is perfectly placed for us to reach both Beloi, the look-out that commands the most spectacular views over the Vikos Gorge, that is said to be the deepest in the world. We are also close to the tiny village of Vikos, giving us access to the gorge bottom and the exquisite Voidomatis springs, which are the origins of one of Europe’s most pristine river systems. Wildlife is present in abundance and the plan is to sample it all: birds, butterflies, flowers, insects, reptiles and mammals. Please note there is some fairly serious walking when we descend to the gorge bottom but it will be at an extremely comfortable pace and we can provide everyone with double sticks if required.

Prespa Lakes

Encircled by Balkan montains including those of Northern Macedonia and Albania, Lesser and Greater Prespa are part of the oldest lake system in Europe and one of the continent’s finest wetlands. Our week includes three nights staying at our customary hotel on the small island of Aghios Achillios. It is almost perfectly located to capture the never-ending traffic of large waterbirds as they move to feed in other parts of the lake from the main nest colonies nearby. It is immensely birdy at Lesser Prespa but the joy of this place is the completeness of its ecosystem, which is crowned by some of the healthiest bear and wolf populations in Europe. In late May the spring is in its pomp. The evenings are loud with the chorus of marsh frogs and nightingales (and great reed warblers), the insects are at their peak and the tortoises are breeding. Prespa could not be more different to Epirus and Zagori, but there is one key similarity: remarkable wildlife abundance.

The week is structured to give a sense of leisure in both places, to explore the deep contrasts between these radically different ecosystems and to see as much as we can of their remarkable wildlife.

Itinerary (this could vary a little with weather forecasts etc and wildlife news)

25 May Day 1: Wed, a pick up at Hotel Avalon and a morning and probably lunch at the superb wetlands of Kalichori close to Thessaloniki. These can be smothered in spring migrant waders, gulls, terns, ducks and flamingos. It is often the perfect start to our holiday and we then drive to Zagori for a late-afternoon exploration of Dilofo around the hotel. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

26 May Day 2: Thurs, a day out to the Beloi lookout over Vikos and then the afternoon around the bridges at Kipi. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

27 May Day 3: Fri a day exploring the lookout at Oxyia and the afternoon around Monodendri with a visit to the Rizario centre and Paraskevi Monastery. Night at Archontiko Dilofo.

28 May Day 4: Sat our day long walk into the Vikos gorge with a visit to Papigo if there is time in late afternoon. Night at Archontiko Dilofo

29 May Day 5: Sun, drive to Prespa stopping en route in the Pindos for black woodpeckers and cliff-nesting house martins. Late afternoon and evening around Krina and the causeway. Night on Aghios Achillios.

30 May Day 6: Mon, Prespa all day including visits to Panagyia Porphyria and Kula woods between Greater and Lesser Prespa Lakes. Night on Aghios Achillios.

31 May Day 7: Tues, boat trip our to the hermitages on the shore of Greater Prespa. Afternoon around Psarades and the juniper forest and return to Kula and Krina. Night on Aghios Achillios.

1 June Day 8: Wed, Last morning along the causeway and leisurely breakfast before heading back to Thessaloniki for the drop off.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for seven years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece nearly 20 times since the 1970s. Our shared approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Prespa and Ohrid are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun.

We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or wall paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the week.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our PlaceBirds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and spending time with the local shepherds or fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotels

In Zagori we stay (25-28 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Our Greek Prespa base (29-31 May) is on the little island of Aghios Achillios at its eponymous hotel (below). It is hard to imagine a location that more completely immerses you in a sense of natural abundance. Even after dark, when the ‘rush hour’ traffic of the herons and pelicans has ended, there is a night shift of frogs and great reed warblers to remind us that we are surrounded by one of Europe’s great wildlife locations. We must underline that the hotel is a simple, clean establishment with varied menu, excellent food, decent wifi connection & spectacular views. But it is chosen for its unparalleled location, not for its luxuries. The rooms are spacious and have en suite facilities but they are simple. It has a Greek website (www.agiosahilios.gr).

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1595  Shared: £1495                  Dates:   Wed 25 – Wed 1 June May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of ten. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

If you wish to go straight to making a booking you can do that here. To contact MC for advice on wildlife, places, equipment and other aspects of the tour click here. To email Chris concerning logistics and advice on accommodation, click here.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

Lester Hartmann: the man with many arms

Imagine climbing a ladder so that you are resting against the gable end of a two-storey house a cool 4m above the ground, but a full 10m above the level of the road on which the house stands. In one arm you’re carrying a nine-pair swift nest-box that’s over a metre across and weighs about 10 kg. Then you have to place a backing panel against the wall, drill the securing holes to fix that with your handheld electric drill, hold the screws in place and tighten the whole structure home. It is the sort of technical, practical task I would struggle to achieve while standing on terra firma. And not before a lot of swearing. Lester Hartmann is the sort of friend who does these things in his sleep. I think of him as one of those Hindu deities, Vishnu perhaps, with more limbs than the average mortal.

On another occasion I had him 6m up our extension ladders against a big sycamore near the house while doing much the same trick with a 70x50x40 cm double-storey owl box. In fact most of my pictures of Lester are from behind and at angle of c65 degrees while he is balanced on a ladder step 50mm across. But then he is my go-to man for all things bird box.

Lester is the founder of Peak Boxes which has expanded its production and delivery almost exponentially in the last few years. Based near his home village of Hathersage, Derbyshire, he has just assembled a state-of-the-art workshop to a design of his own making out of the wonder product that he uses in the bird houses, a enormously longlasting material called duraply. Lester’s speciality is swift boxes. It is how I got to meet him, courtesy of a fabulous scheme to boost the bird’s fortunes Buxton-wide, which is overseen by a friend Simon Fussell and financed by Simon’s employers the Buxton Civic Association.

The boxes not only look splendid – and I like to watch passing folk stop to admire ours – but they are very effective. Lester loves to ponder how a box can actually be made to meet the birds precise needs. Much of the information has come from one of the gurus on breeding swifts in Britain Mark Glanville (here). Together they have devised a structure with the entrance, as in our unit, on the underside. This mimics natural rock cavities and has so far served to exclude starlings, which are competitors-in-chief for these sorts of manmade swift sites.

The owl box is similarly innovative because the upper hole has an S-shaped entrance ‘lobby’ that is sufficiently narrow to prevent jackdaws – equally keen to occupy boxes made for owls – transporting their long nest sticks to the interior of the box. The baffle, in effect, stops them. Another smart innovation is that the box has a lower floor with separate entrance. You could think of it as a ‘bachelor pad’, because female owls with chicks will bar entry to a partner in case he takes to eating his own young. The male is vulnerable in these circumstances, especially in wet conditions, given that the birds have little weatherproofing against rain. The annex meets his needs as well as those of the owl family, when weather stops the adults from hunting.

Lester has already made huge changes to how things are ‘done’ in the realm of nest boxes..He’s now looking at self-assembly flat-pack boxes for a range of birds. However his next wave of innovations promises to be very exciting. I will be fascinated to see his proposed multiple-nest structures that mimic the colonial conditions beloved of birds such as sparrows. Another speculative project could be luring house martins and swifts back to cliff-face nest sites.

It is interesting to reflect that nest-box technology has been pretty much static from the time I first got interested in birds 50 years ago. Since then things have been much the same, except perhaps for innovations in the material used for construction. May be what we needed was someone like Lester, someone with more arms than the average designer.

Zagori through 360 Degrees

Monday 16-23 May 2022

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Zagori is a distinct area of the northern Pindos mountains in Greece close to the western city of Ioannina, the regional capital. It is a landscape of high peaks, extensive new-growth oak forest and grazed pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer a more dramatic vista. At Zagori’s heart is the Vikos Gorge, reputedly the deepest in the world and certainly one of the most spectacular natural features I have seen anywhere in Europe.

The encircling mountains now support important populations of wolf and brown bear, yet the northern Pindos also hold some of the highest levels of biodiversity enjoyed by any European region. As an example, the Vikos-Aoos national park, on which we focus for the week, has as many plant species and more mammals than in the entire British Isles. It is to boot among the most natural river systems found on the continent.

As if that this were not enough, Zagori has a remarkable human story. Remittance payments from its historical Greek communities, who travelled and worked all over Europe and the Near East, supported the creation of some of the most striking vernacular architecture you will find anywhere in the Mediterranean. The life of the villages was also interwoven with the yearly migrations of transhumance pastoralists – the Vlachs and Sarakatsani herders – whose sheep flocks kept the slopes open and the flowers in abundance.

Now some of this has gone and Zagori has endured a long period of abandonment, which has led to forest encroachment and a period of inadvertent ‘rewilding’. Yet it has also been the focus of some of the most sympathetic eco-tourism you will find anywhere. With a total population of under 1000 people it feels like a place where nature is in charge. Our holiday is shaped to ensure we enjoy an encounter with all of Zagori’s elements: mountains, rivers, forest trails, meadows, soaring crags, eagles, orchids, insects,  butterflies, tortoises, yellow-bellied toads, leopard snakes and snakes’ head fritillaries.

There are some fixtures which we make sure we include in the week: such as the cultural centre at Monodendri, the cliff-edge Paraskevi monastery; the old stone bridges near Kipi; the viewpoints of Oxyia and Beloi, which offer the defining images of this whole landscape; the glorious vernacular architecture at Dilofo (where we stay) and Papigo; the slow descent to the shrine at Vikos to see the waters pouring out of the Voidomatis springs, which are so pure and preternaturally aquamarine-blue that you could almost imagine Naiads bathing on their banks. So much of Zagori is breathtakingly beautiful and the sense of wildlife abundance can be exhilarating. If you wish to read a little more about it and the wildlife then see my blogpost here.

We also spend an entire day in and around Ioannina. It’s a busy city but set amid the most dramatic scenery on the northern shores of Lake Pamvotis. It also has several lovely museums, including Ali Pasha’s mausoleum (below left) and just a ten minute ferry ride is a small island in the lake. It is the location for several monasteries and the sixteenth century images in Philanthropiki monastery are some of the most beautiful Orthodox paintings you will see anywhere in Greece. The island is an excellent wildlife locality with a huge number of breeding great crested grebes and often the odd visiting pelican …

Another goal for our combined day of culture and nature is a visit to the ancient oracular shrine of Dodona close to Ioannina. We also have our lunch near these fifth century BC ruins, perched high above the site with spectacular views over the shrine and the encircling mountains. It seems almost a rule of the Hellenic world that these archeological sites are also great for wildlife. Dodona is full of singing nightingales and turtle doves, and the open spaces between the remaining stonework, including a rather beautifully restored open-air theatre, can be superb for flowers and butterflies.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece 20 times since the 1970s. Our joint approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Epirus are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or al fresco paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the holiday.

The week includes moderate walking, some of it involving quite steep climbs and descents (especially the walk into Vikos). However we will provide everyone with walking sticks and really take our time, so all the walks should be perfectly achievable for a reasonably fit person of any age.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country, have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In 2019 A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Book Award. Mark led wildlife holidays all over the world in a previous life and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and having dinner and drinks with the local shepherds and fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotel

In Zagoria we stay (16-22 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1495  Shared: £1395                  Dates:   Mon 16- Mon 23 May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of ten. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”

Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”

Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”

Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019

Saving Hogshaw

This fabulous local site in Buxton is threatened with development for housing. This is the text of a Guardian piece I published last year which explains in part why this place should not be destroyed.

“Buxton, Derbyshire: I have long pondered the word ‘Hogshaw’, which describes a small area of the town that is centred by a tributary of the River Wye. Aside from the clear, if intriguing, pig-related associations, the name always conjures childhood memories of old dustcarts brimming with rubbish and adding to Hogshaw’s small mountain of bottles and tins, topped latterly by wind-shredded plastic. Until the early 1980s Hogshaw was the town tip and while it might once have been unbeautiful it has been the site of my botanical encounter of 2020.

Broad-leaved helleborine is a scarce and beautiful flower. The tallest spikes can be 80cm high, the upper third wreathed in blooms. The individual flowerheads vary from ghostly green-white through to deep rose, but all possess, centred in a cup-shaped inner lip, a bowl of dark-flecked lipstick pink.  It may be among the commoner of the Epipactis orchids but I’d never previously seen it and Derbyshire has only about 100 such localised sites.

What’s most intriguing about the orchid is how it has flourished for decades in an unprepossessing patch of wasteground, topped by willow scrub and layered with an understorey of bramble and the fruitiest feral raspberries you’ve ever seen. Just across the fence is a tumulus of Buxton’s historic waste, apparently deep with ancient hoards of asbestos.

This is not the whole story. If the helleborine were an emblem of any aspect of Hogshaw it is the redemptive power of nature once the human leash has been slipped. Across the whole site there have flourished hazy stands of willowherb and sunshine carpets of ragwort. The old railway clinker and cinders from a million coalfires have been carpeted in vetches, knapweed and clover that are busy with butterflies and bumblebees.

The former land-uses make Hogshaw the classic brown-field site, but its unscripted flourishing since the tip was decommissioned has seen it morph into one of Buxton’s best bits of wild ground. How sad that it is now earmarked for major development and for once I am pinning my hopes on historical pollution to halt that destroyer of  urban nature: the often unimaginative and abiotic banality of modern housing.”

Alas the site’s unsuitability as a place for peoples’ homes hasn’t secured it yet and we need your support. Here’s a letter signed by a suite of lead environmentalists.

It puts the case succinctly to High Peak Borough Council.

Dear Madam/Sir

We believe that the development of Hogshaw for housing would be a tragedy for Buxton and its residents. Since industrial activity ceased on the site, nature has smothered it in pioneer sallow and birch woodland, as well as extensive stands of wildflowers: willowherb, knapweed, eyebright and ragwort. The area is superb for pollinating insects, including rare bilberry bumblebees, which come down from the moors to feed there. It has a lovely colony of a scarce orchid (broad-leaved helleborine) and the town’s c300 nesting swifts feed primarily over the area on summer evenings, while the inner town’s last house martins (20 birds) feed there and breed nearby. 

The development of housing at Hogshaw would destroy most of its natural value. Just as important, it will stop local residents from using it for recreation, walking, exercise and pleasure. Most serious, it would obliterate the recreation ground much used by local children. If lockdown and coronavirus have shown us anything it is that green space is vital to peoples’ well-being. Green space of such unscripted, semi-natural character in the very heart of a town is precisely the resource most places lack and which people need for their health and happiness. We ask the council to reconsider the proposals.

The objection to Hogshaw’s destruction is not some romantic holding onto the past or standing in the way of progress. It is progress. It is a way of mapping a future in which local people enjoy the multifarious benefits of open space and wild beauty in their urban area. Hogshaw borders some of the most congested, least privileged parts of Buxton and securing the site in perpetuity would be a way of honouring the needs of those residents.

England has been defined as the 29th most denatured country on Earth. That abysmal record has not been reached by dramatic acts of destruction, but by small incremental local losses such as the housing proposals named above. We hope that Buxton can be a place where that process is reversed.

Yours faithfully


Dr Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of RSPB and Co-founder of Wild Justice

Patrick Barkham author

Professor Tim Birkhead FRS

Prof Jim Crace FRSL

Tim Dee author

Prof Richard Fortey FRS, FRLS

Julian Hoffman author

Kathleen Jamie FRSL

Caroline Lucas MP

Dr Richard Mabey FRS

Dr Robert Macfarlane

Stephen Moss author and naturalist

Chris Packham, TV presenter

Dr Diane Setterfield novelist

Sarah Ward novelist

Iolo Williams, naturalist and TV presenter

It takes a matter of seconds to sign the petition please sign it this week here

Lake Prespa through 360˚

North Macedonia, Albania & Greece

Sun 08 – Sun 15 May 2022

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The Balkans hold some of the oldest and most important freshwater lakes in Europe and this tour is devoted entirely to circumnavigating one of them – Lake Prespa. It stands on an elevated plateau entirely surrounded by mountains and at almost every moment of the holiday you are aware of being immersed in an enormous sense of physical space.

Yet it is no coincidence that in French the word macédoine means mixed fruit or vegetable salad. Throughout Europe the Balkans have long been synonymous with complexity. In a very short distance around this one water body we make a journey through three countries. The week is thus a three-centre holiday, designed to bring you the greatest amount of cultural diversity, alongside the unfolding spectacle of Prespa’s wildlife, but with a minimum of drive-time.

The mixture of habitats – mountains and freshwater marshes, juniper forests and traditional farm fields – offers a glorious blend of birds, butterflies, flowers, reptiles, amphibians and insects, all in remarkable abundance. It is as if the place were tailor-made for the all-encompassing approach of 360 Degrees; and nor should you overlook that the tour takes us to some of the most beautiful, least-visited national parks on the continent.

Before our anti-clockwise tour around Prespa we call at Kalachori on the shores of the Aegean just outside Thessaloniki. The site represents a fragment of the original Axios delta wetlands and gives a glimpse of their former riches. It still serves as a magnet for migrants and Kalachori is always full of surprises. In May at the height of the northward movement of water birds it can be thronging with flocks of flamingos, herons, duck and waders – curlew sandpipers, little stints, marsh and terek sandpipers, spotted redshank – all in gleaming nuptial plumage and full of intensity as many of them feed up in preparation for their journey to the Arctic rim. Dipping and floating over them can be black and white-winged terns, Mediterranean (above) and slender-billed gulls in glorious summer dress. Kalachori is a perfect start to any 360˚ holiday.

North Macedonia

But we begin our Prespa experience proper in North Macedonia, staying on the shore of its sister lake Ohrid, at a former monastery dedicated to St Naum. The hotel has the most beautiful setting with the lake on one side and mature riverine woodland on the other. A series of freshwater springs, where Prespa waters bubble up on the shores of Ohrid, is encircled by the most beautiful lush wood-pasture. It is loud with nightingale and golden oriole songs and Naum is a fabulous spot for woodpeckers, with seven species present, including black and wryneck (below).


However the main destination for our Macedonian stay is the slopes of the Galicica National Park, whose crags loom just to the east of Ohrid. The park holds the rare Balkan chamois and is a wonderful spot for flowers including the rather strange Galicica house-leek (below) and the gorgeous prostrate cherry . It also has around twice as many butterflies as occur in the entire British Isles, with species of blue butterfly often in profusion, like these mazarine & common blues (btm).


Albania

The heart of our Prespa holiday is devoted to Albania, where we stay for three nights, based in the historic city of Korce, with its beautiful Ottoman architecture, its old-world charm and fossil-rich cobbled streets. Although Albania was once completely politically isolated, the country is very much forging a new identity and surging ahead in economic terms.

Yet for now Albania retains an older system of agriculture. The fields are often full of people working, ploughing with horse-drawn implements or hoeing and weeding by hand. The cultivated fields on the shores of Lake Prespa are managed without chemical additives, while the grazed slopes above are dotted with scrub and thickly wooded in parts. Together they create wonderful wildlife landscapes. In some meadows the flowers are so dense, like these lax-flowered orchids, that they create a purple haze of blooms. It is not uncommon to hear in one arable setting a mixed chorus of quail, corn buntings, turtle doves, nightingales and red-backed shrikes, all of which have declined by more than 90 per cent in Britain


GREECE

Greek Prespa is our last port of call and the perfect place to conclude the holiday. Our hotel is on a small island (Aghios Achillios) 700m from the shores of Little Prespa and immediately adjacent to the region’s biggest colony of waterbirds.

 

Here the overhead flow of Dalmatian ( top) and great white pelicans, night herons, egrets and cormorants is unceasing. The surrounding reeds are alive with great reed warblers, little bitterns and bearded reedlings. Even the causeway is a great place to see wildlife, especially the snakes that love to sun themselves by the water’s edge (all are harmless even though the four-striped snake can grow to 2m long!).

The visit is timed to coincide with the height of the breeding season for many of the water birds. The dawn chorus is at its loudest while the flowers can be spectacular. Not surprisingly it is a great place to enjoy butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, not to mention lizards and Hermann’s tortoises. There is a short article mainly on Prespa’s birds on my Blackwater Blog here.

The 360 Degree Approach

The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for seven years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece nearly 20 times since the 1970s. Our shared approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Prespa and Ohrid are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun.

We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or wall paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the week.

Your Guides

Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and spending time with the local shepherds or fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.

Our Hotels

In North Macedonia our base is inside the monastery compound of St Naum, the ninth-century cleric and co-creator of the Slavs’ Cyrillic script. The complex is on the shore of Ohrid and offers us our main encounter with the other great Balkan lake. One speciality we will definitely seek out is barbecued local trout!

The hotel has recently been refurbished but it is a wonderfully atmospheric spot, with great wildlife around the adjacent springs and gardens. Both black woodpeckers and scops owls visit the area. The place is also very convenient for Galicica and within 30 minutes we can be at 1600m among the national park’s flowers and butterflies. The hotel was developed in Tito’s times and part of its charm is the faded chic of the old communist regime.

Butjina e Bardhe in Korce

Our Albanian base is the ‘White House’ (below). Despite its rather grand title it is a small friendly guesthouse, recently refurbished by a local family and right in the heart of the old town. The breakfasts are excellent with fresh seasonal fruit (cherries and strawberries) and fresh baked bread and pastries. Korce is full of characterful villas from the late Ottoman period and this is a good example. We are in the heart of the city and close to some terrific restaurants and coffeeshops.

Our Greek Prespa base is on the little island of Aghios Achillios at its eponymous hotel (below). It is hard to imagine a location that more completely immerses you in a sense of natural abundance. Even after dark, when the ‘rush hour’ traffic of the herons and pelicans has ended, there is a night shift of frogs and great reed warblers to remind us that we are surrounded by one of Europe’s great wildlife locations. We must underline that the hotel is a simple, clean establishment with varied menu, excellent food, decent wifi connection & spectacular views. But it is chosen for its unparalleled location, not for its luxuries. The rooms are spacious and have en suite facilities but they are simple. It has a Greek website (www.agiosahilios.gr).

Prices and Arrangements

Single    £1495  Shared: £1395 Dates:   Sun 08-15 May 2022

Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Mark and Chris will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The tour will have a maximum of ten participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a great regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holiday. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.

Thank you so much for a wonderful week – it was nourishing on every level – the wildlife, the great company,  the beauty, the food and your hugely generous sharing of your time and expertise.”

Sheila on the Summer Writing Course, Lake Prespa in June 2018

Derbyshire Days

with

Mark Cocker

Thursday 22 – Sunday 25 July 2021

and

£750 (single person supplement £100)

STOP PRESS This is noe fully booked. If you wish to sign up for a newsletter notifying you of all future holidays, please email me HERE!

A four-day all-inclusive break to experience the hills and dales of north Derbyshire with multi-award-winning naturalist and author in his home patch.

Late July is high summer season in north Derbyshire

Buxton and the High Peak

North Derbyshire is a fabulous area for natural history with a distinctive rural culture and a proud record as the site of the UK’s first-ever national park – The Peak District, which was designated exactly 70 years ago this year. Our wildlife breaks are centred in historic Buxton. The town stands atop the thermal springs for which it has been renowned since Roman times, but it also straddles the two characteristic geological formations of the High Peak, the limestone plateau and the gritstone uplands. The life of 350 million years ago is never far from the surface and has shaped the region’s environmental present, as well as its industrial past. Only a single English spot to the south of here is higher than Axe Edge, the ridge running just west of Buxton. This formation is a central watershed for English rivers (ie those flowing off one side join the North Sea, those heading west from Axe Edge flow to the Irish Sea). For our purposes Buxton is perfectly placed because it is so close to a range of great wildlife areas and our excursions will involve minimal driving. The breaks are also timed to catch the region at its summer best.

Our Westminster Hotel is a five minute drive from Lightwood and on our first evening we will make an excursion to enjoy its flowers and insects, although the place is drenched in willow warbler song and holds a numbr of upland birds including golden plovers. Lightwood is a blaze of colour at this time with orchids and foxgloves set against banks of fiercely yellow horseshoe vetch. Depending on its precise flowering season we will also search for a beautiful, scarce orchid broad-leaved helleborine that grows nearby.

Our first day will be spent in the fabulous Chee and Millers Dales, where the River Wye cuts a steep-sided gorge into the limestone valley and the old railway line provides a perfect broad track through what is otherwise difficult terrain. The area is celebrated for its flora and we will visit at least two Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserves to enjoy the limestone gardens that are thick with colour and beauty. If we are blessed with sunshine the area is a great place for butterflies (eg common blue, dark green fritillary and small copper), lizards and grasshoppers. We also meet some of Derbyshire’s avian specialities such as common redstart, spotted flycatcher, dipper and, more recently, the gloriously colourful mandarin ducks. This Asiatic import has taken very well to the tree cavities in the ash and sycamore woods that line the steep valley sides.

However it is the flowers for which the area is most famous and at this time they are in their pomp with riotous banks of colour and life everywhere, created by the abundant bloody cranesbills, wild marjoram, thyme, dark mulleins, knapweeds, scabious, St John’s-wort, fragrant and bee orchids, twayblade and vetches. For all its flora diversity, the preponderant colour in Millers Dale is often green. It is probably the most chlorophyll-saturated landscape I know.

After the lush almost subtropical photosynthesing power of the dales we head on our second full day for the more austere, open character of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire tops. In fact Dane Bower quarry is just over the border into Cheshire and in a short walk we will take in all three counties. The whole area is one of the best moorland landscapes for all the birds traditionally associated with the uplands – curlews, golden plovers, lapwings and common snipe. It also holds a small number of breeding ring ousels as well as the more numerous stonechats and wheatears.

The walk runs through an old abandoned quarry and we will plan to have our picnic overlooking the wonderfully named Wolf Edge, near Flash, the highest village in England. If it is a good vole year this is a great place for breeding short-eared owls and there are breeding hobbies nearby. If time allows we will run down into the Gradbach area and follow the River Dane through the woods to visit Lud Church, a rather eery cleft in the rocks, where the persecuted Lollard sect was said to gather in the fifteenth century. The site is also credited as a key location in the anonymous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But Gradbach is just a lovely spot for wildlife and will add to the day’s full mix.

Our last day in England’s most landlocked county will be at its most iconic location – Kinder Scout –  where the Pennine Way starts, where the famous 1932 Mass Trespass unfolded, and where Britain’s national parks began 70 years ago. Its summit is the highest part of Derbyshire and from Hayfield involves a 300m climb. We will save that for another day but we will get to see the area’s beautiful scenery and wildlife, including red grouse, redstarts, ravens, spotted flycatchers and hopefully peregrines. The area also holds a small population of mountain hares, which may have adopted their drab summer pelt but are still beautiful creatures.

Kinder is most famous for its blanket bog but the Kinder valley into the lovely village of Hayfield holds great oak woods and these are excellent for wildlife. Purple hairstreak butterfly is one of its scarcer resident insects and the local abundance of three flowering heathers is a major draw for a range of bumblebee species. Another local speciality is the solitary heather bee, whose colonies riddle the exposed shaly outcrops with their tiny burrows. We may not get the health benefits of a full Kinder climb but the foot of the Scout is a great spot for our picnic, while the panoramic views are a perfect finale for our Derbyshire break.

The 360 Degree Approach

Our Derbyshire breaks are co-organised by Mark Cocker and Chris Mounsey of Balkan Tracks. Chris will make all arrangements, handle bookings and oversee finances. Our approach has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The break is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Derbyshire are a stimulation for reflection, thought and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while I am not expert in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is peregrines or periwinkles. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of our holidays.

The 360 Degrees team

Mark Cocker is an author and naturalist born and brought up in Buxton. He has contributed to the Guardian country diary for 33 years and his 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country,  have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008, while A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Books Awards in 2019. In a previous life he led wildlife holidays all over the world and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.

Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Prespa in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated ‘responsible tourism’ company, which is devoted to connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finestnature and, importantly, the people who live among it. Chris is currently exploring newforms of flight-free holidays in the UK and other parts of Europe.

Our Accommodation

Our base is the four-star Westminster Hotel, a family-run 12-room establishment on Broad Walk at the heart of the town, with lovely views over the Pavilion Gardens’ lakes. The breakfasts and packed lunches are hearty and based on locally sourced produce. In the evenings we have three-course dinners at a small privately-owned and -run restaurant called La Brasserie Bar. It is just ten-minutes walk from the hotel and located in the most vibrant part of Buxton’s scenic centre. There are terrific micro-brewery pubs around this area and our hotel is chosen to give you easy access to Buxton’s famous historical architecture, such as the St Anne’s Crescent and the Devonshire Dome. You can find out more about your accommodation at their respective websites: www.westminsterhotel.co.uk and www.thebarbrasseriebuxton.co.uk.

Prices and Arrangements

Dates:   Thurs 22 July – Sun 25 July 2021

Price £750 (£100 for single supplement) Included are all transport, guiding (entry fees), all meals including daily packed lunches and accommodation. Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your travel to/from Buxton, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The tour will have a maximum of seven participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. A £200 deposit is payable on booking. See my website for additional details. if you want more information about the programme please email me here. If you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

The unofficial book club review no 1

I receive on average a book every week and manage usually a review for a mainstream publication once a month. Yet some of these books are superb and deserve attention, so I have decided to post occasional pieces about books that I think deserve coverage.

Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta, by Mark-Anthony Falzon (MAF), Vol 25 Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology, Berghahn, Oxford. £99

MAF is a birder but also an anthropologist and he has tried what few attempt: to understand the other side in the debate. Hunting and conservation in Malta are highly polarised spheres and yet theoretically there should be common ground between naturalists and shooters everywhere. Why?

Because both are deeply embedded in a relationship with nature. Both suffer great privations to fulfil this encounter. Both are deeply attached to the lives of their chosen objects – birds, mammals etc – and experience their ‘target species’ mediated by expensive equipment to which they devote substantial resources. Both are increasingly anxious about sustainable populations of, say, birds and mammals. Both are profoundly opposed to the extinction-by-neglect that threatens the biosphere, because of the massive increase in human indifference to the natural world. In short hunters and conservationists care about other species and the full repertoire of connections should be a source of shared ground.

Yet the two camps are fundamentally divided. Their relationship is really based on anatagonism. In the case of Malta, hunters have committed acts of shocking violence upon their opponents to defend their pastime.

I have always felt that entrenched attitudes but especially among my ‘own’ side (my side: since i have shot a single bird in my life and devoted half a century to enjoying and celebrating wildlife) are counter productive. So why are the two sides so siloed and antagonistic?

MAF draws out an interesting socio-economic overlay that informs the conflict. Maltese conservationists tend to see hunters as regressive, rooted in nature relations of the past, and largely of a lower socio-economic background – labourers and tradespeople. Conservationists by contrast are middle class, educated professionals and fell they occupy a moral high ground that has increasingly informed wider public opinion. This is impacting upon hunters and there is evidence of its effect, as MAF points out, in the decline of hunting not only in Malta but in mainland Italy, where it has halved in the last few decades.

It brings to mind for me the British scenario at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the successful abolition of finch and bird-keeping, song-bird competitions and commercial songbird sales were all achieved. For most conservationists, including me, there is nothing wrong in curbing such practices. At one time finch trapping threatened to inflict localised extinction upon several species including chaffinch.

What I do object to, however, is that we ended the working man’s delight in songbird competition yet it is written into the RSPB’s constitution that they cannot even challenge the sport of the upper classes: driven shooting, which is arguably a far more impactful practice. The truth is that finch keeping was easy prey to the powerful voices of the new middle-class conservation community. Meanwhile the upper class sport of driven shooting and, even worse, the now outlawed fox hunting with dogs persist more or less inviolate, because of the political clout exercised by an upper class cadre.

So I think a book that attempts to portray both sides with equal attention and neutrality is to be hugely welcomed. MAF even, in some sense, leans towards his hunter informants, partly I guess because of the simple human debt he owed to the people who trusted him, but also he was entering a cultural realm that has been, by and large, unacknowledged among naturalists. MAF sees his role as bringing back from across the lines the untold story to a substantial portion of his book’s audience. He is attempting to equalise the relationship a little, mediate and allow reconciliation, and all this has been done in the smoothest, largely jargon-free anthropological voice. It is a model of reasoned argument and I heartily recommend it despite the price. £99! Academic publishers!

The other very positive part of the book is its illustration of the massive changes and adaptations made by hunters’ collectives in Malta as they struggle to make their practices acceptable in a world increasingly dominated by the ethics of environmentalism. Caring for nature, concern for sustainable wild populations, engaging the community in good environmental works – all of these attitudes and actions have been adopted in public, at least, by Maltese hunters. They have shifted massively in response to an onslaught of negative publicity. All sides now agree that the bad old days, as described by the brilliant Natalino Fenech in his various books, have largely gone. I think there are really strong grounds for optimism buried beneath the ongoing rhetoric from both sides in Malta.

However, there is an interesting question that is really unanswered in the book and which cuts to the heart of matter. I have long pondered it and cannot resolve it myself. But it is this.

Both communities clearly feel profound attachment to nature. Both in many ways shape their worlds to live in alignment with this passion for wildlife. Alas, one side rises in the encounter to kill it. It calls to mind the paradoxical Wildean notion that each man kills the thing he loves.

My own thoughts about the shattering moment when the gun explodes centre on the issue of subsistence. If hunting were merely a reenactment of the protein-foraging which stretches back to the very origins of our species – the necessary winning of food from the wild – I really would have no objection. In fact I have no objection to subsistence hunting. A single large or 2-3 medium-sized prey taken for the pot and consumed in their entirety after a full’s day hunting: that, as far as I am concerned, can go until the end of our species.

What I think lies at the heart of the fundamentally irreconcilable division between the two camps is where hunting fulfils some pyschic urge to kill for its own sake. Hunters seem sometimes to need to take life, not because it is providing food, but because it is a consummation of their encounter with life. It may be atavistic, rooted and urgent but it is psychopathological. It comes from a dark place of failure. It is against human nature, although, one should add, that one finds it in nature too. But we are not just natural species. We aspire to something else.

Why would you shoot anything without having some socially acceptable or justifiable rationale? But if the killing comes from a dark and private hole within and nothing more, what are we to conclude? I should add that after someone kills a spring male golden oriole, or guns down a rainbow flock of bee-eaters, or slaughters a male Montagu’s harrier or a honey buzzard on its 7000km migration journey, I don’t doubt that they can still accommodate these destructive urges and emerge from the moment a relatively normal person. Ie the hunter can still integrate their pyschopathological desires with the responsibilites of being a good, kind citizen and a loving family member. But that is not the point. For the other side – for me and for all those who do not take life – this kind of killing will always look like mindless nihilism and a sickness that has to end.

In his exceptionally well written Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta Mark-Anthony Falzon has sent us – through his careful, cautious, open-hearted, even-handed probings – along so many avenues of fresh reflection. But he has not convinced me that anything other than subsistence hunting should have a future.

As well as an author and naturalist Mark Cocker runs wildlife holidays and breaks, and offers bespoke writing support. For the website click here.

For Sale: Six Bedroom Home with 1000 species attached

After 20 years of residence in the village of Claxton, 7 miles & 20 minutes from Norwich, we’re finally leaving and selling our wonderful home at the Hollies. It is a mid-Victorian three-bedroomed country cottage – once the village post office – with a fully integrated 1979 extension that includes 3 extra bedrooms, a downstairs study, a second shower room and toilet, utility room and garage.

In all, the property comprises kitchen with door to the back garden, 8m-long lounge, dining room, downstairs study, shower room, utility room and garage. Upstairs are six bedrooms, bathroom and separate toilet. My 8m-long office is one of the six and overlooks our garden at the back of the house, which offers views towards the marsh. Through the years I’ve seen or heard cranes, osprey, red kites and waxwings from its windows.

The house and location have been a source of inspiration for a great deal of writing, including c700 articles for the Guardian and Guardian Weekly. I also wrote my books Birds Britannica (’05), Crow Country (’07), Birds and People (’13), Claxton (’14) and A Claxton Diary (’19) as well as Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late (’18) in the same period.

Latterly the garden, which has been created with a view to encouraging wildlife, has been a source of creativity both in words and images. In all I guess we have recorded about 1,000 species of all types of organism at the house, including c120 birds and 400 moth species, 20 butterflies including swallowtail and more than 20 bee species. Reporters from Sky Television have been to film and talk about its moths, while Radio 4 Today programme’s Nature Notes has been based on its many residents.

It is wonderful place for birds at all seasons. We feed tits and finches in winter and spring. Fieldfare and mistle thrushes come to feast on fruit if conditions are hard. There are always blackbirds on the lawn and they regularly nest in the hedge at the front. Blue tits nest every year at the back, great tits by the woodshed. Wood pigeons take to the hedges to breed come July and robins are daily. Sparowhawks and pergrines pass overhead in winter, while hobbies and marsh harriers are regular in summer.

Another speciality of the area is the local population of breeding swallows and house martins, which gather outside my office on the telephone wires come early autumn. In high summer, however, the skies above Claxton belong to the swifts. It is one of the joys of living here to sit at breakfast time watching the arrow-lines of 20-30 birds tearing over the rooftops.

Claxton is a village without streetlights and one of the advantages of its distance from the city is the lack of light pollution. We have the clearest views of the stars on many nights and the moon can look spectacular as it rises over the back garden.

Just ten minutes from the house is the southern bank of the River Yare, with walks all the way around Claxton Marshes to Rockland Broad. The place was described by Sir Thomas Browne as a seventeenth-century nest site for spoonbills. Alas they have gone but the marshes are rich in all sorts of nature: deer, herons, winter geese, foxes and owls. The paths have been the basis of our daily walks. They have also been the source of much inspiration. Mary’s instagram images are often inspired by our daily walks from the house. You can see them here. Much of my writing has been similarly shaped. Most memorable was the night, just half a mile from the house, when I encountered a sight that became the subject of Crow Country.

Throughout the winter the skies above Claxton and several of the neighbouring villages are a highway for roosting flocks of rooks and jackdaws. They gather nightly on the other side of the river and the noisy caravans of birds passing overhead in their thousands serve as a kind of hour glass on winter afternoons.

The marshes are atmospheric at any hour but they acquire particular magic in the evenings as the light fades. The sky-scapes can be spectacular. The image below is exactly as it was: no filters, no trickery, no manipulation in photoshop.

The house decor has been uplifted and modernised throughout. We have added a fitted kitchen and woodburning stove in the living room.

The Hollies provides masses of comfortable living space – 12 rooms plus the attached garage/store room – and we know it will really suit someone who wants to be immersed in nature and surrounded by wildlife: in the garden, the village and beyond. The French windows at the front are often open all day in summer and the Hollies really comes into its own, a residence where the indoors and outdoors merge. We would love to think of it giving daily pleasure to someone of like mind. If you think it is you please ring our estate agents here.

Nature Post-Lockdown II

2/3 The House Martins of Chatworth

This is part of the extraordinary flower-rich cultivated machair in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, For my money this archipelago is the British landscape that’s most expressive of a creative partnership between its people and nature. Long may it continue so and congratulations to the Hebrideans.

Last month in the first of three blogposts on Nature post-Lockdown I highlighted what I saw as an egregious failure of two environmental agencies to defend the cause of a British bird in parlous decline. It was about the house martins at Chatsworth, whose nesting places were netted.

The owners argued that the birds were a threat to the Grade I listed building – Chatsworth Palace – but especially to the integrity of recently restored statuary on the walls, where the house martins find highly suitable niches to nest. Who could possibly resist the argument that the acid content in the birds’ droppings will dissolve the stone? Of course it will.

But probably not for 500 years! May be longer. By that time winter rain will have done as much damage as any house martin guano. The main point I want to highlight is the privileging of statuary over something alive!

At the heart of this is a deep Western bias, possibly it is a universally human bias (and my illustrations to accompany this blogpost tell their own very specific story about it), towards the importance of the abiotic. To translate this word bluntly, it means dead. The point is powerfully made by the late John Livingston the Canadian environmentalist in an essay entitled The Fallacy of Nature Conservation, where he argued that humans had no way of valuing what he called life process. I cited it in my book Our Place.

This is Cladh Hallan cemetery nr Kilpheder, which really comprises an extension of the coastal machair flora found on South Uist. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for the human dead in our islands. What more fitting tribute to the departed than this glorious carpet of gold?

Livingston wrote:

‘The nearest thing we seem to have is the appreciation of form in music or poetry or dance – form, as opposed to specific content. This, as a kind of process, we understand and appreciate aesthetically. But we have not developed an aesthetic of life process. This is because our culture is essentially abiotic.’

This predilection for material objects over living essence is writ large in western consciousness since the early modern period and it goes hand in glove with the advance of capitalism. One can see an allied version of the same principles being applied in the arguments of the English philosopher John Locke during the seventeenth century.

Locke’s theories of value and property were deployed in the claim that, since native Americans did not till and cultivate the land, they did not technically own the hills, forests and plains where they had lived for 10,000-15,000 years. They had no title of possession. Implicit in this case was the idea that Euro-Americans, seizing and converting to farmland those very same vast territories, were the rightful owners before the court and before God. Nowadays we see it for what it is – a form of licensed banditry.

A similar version of the same ethical posture was embodied in the several thousand enclosure acts that were passed in this country from the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. These instruments of law levered about 7 million acres, a tenth of the land surface of these islands, of commonly held moorland and pasture across Britain – used for centuries if not thousands of years by subsistence rural communities – into the estate of the landed classes. The general principle on which it functioned was that the wealthier you were the more land you received. My guess is, though I don’t know the details, that a good many acres helping to fill the coffers of the Cavendish family today in Chatsworth, were acquired by this means.

Yet to mark out the cemetery as a cultural space rather than a part of the ‘wild’ flora of the Uist coastline, someone had strimmed completely all the ‘wildflowers’ and made of it a lawn-like ‘monculture’.

John Livingston’s argument was that our failure to accord value, or sufficient value, to a living world before the rights of ownership and the primacy of material objects would defeat conservation as a cultural and political project. Fundamentally, he was saying that human culture is a dead culture. If you prefer to the use the language of Freud and his concept of the anally retentive infant, it is our ‘shit’ that out-ranks everything when it comes to deciding what’s important.

Before going on to my own arguments just ponder a moment these questions. Say the word civilisation and what comes to mind? Big houses? Architecture? Paintings? Books? Statues? Libraries? Of course. Here’s a more challenging question. Which of these is a cultural landscape: the Lake District or the Flow Country? Finally, are the Serengeti and Yosemite or Yellowstone Parks expressions of nature or culture? Are they perhaps, even, outcomes of civilisation?

The truth is the living and the cultural are completely fused, whether we understand this or not. Livingston is wrong when he claims we have no sense of how nature can be cultural. Gardening is the most obvious example of a blending of the two elements. My guess is that visitors to Chatsworth are appreciative of precisely this interpenetration of human agency and the more-than-human parts of life, when they wander the grounds to the big house.

As substitute for that nasty golden carpet of bird’s-foot trefoil the relatives of the dead had placed at intervals these black marble vases holding beautiful bouquets of plastic roses and tulips! I know which i prefer.

Environmentalism is an expansion of the same understanding that nature is a cultural entity. It is not only cultural of course. The living world is entire unto itself and needs no humans to complete or fulfil its processes. The world will continue very well without us. But once we engage with it – through imagining a wolf, through erecting a blue tit box, by creating a nature reserve, or designating a national park – it becomes both things. It is the challenge of environmentalists to expand and substantiate this idea that nature is among the most important parts of our cultural lives.

We still have not come to recognise the extent to which the living world nourishes all parts of our cultural and living selves. Other organisms blended together in ecosystems sustain our bodies, refresh our minds and spirits, maintain our mental health, they also inspire creativity in all its manifold forms. The living world and the maintenance of it in all its astonishing and limitless diversity, should be at the heart of our highest values.

Covid and the partial suspension of capitalism have, in many ways, highlighted this. Lockdown has brought to the fore the essential place of the natural world. No one denies that capitalism is key to the production of wealth, but let’s not succumb again to its white noise which say it’s all that matters.

Reverting finally to Chatsworth. The presence and breeding of a petite, 19-gm pied mouse-like flying dinosaur with a heritage of 150 million years, made of air-filled bone and collagen-engendered feathers – which has visited this country for hundreds of thousands of years and now makes an annual two-way journey of 10,000 km from African winter quarters that are still largely unknown – these are cultural matters. The birds are a part of the integrity of Chatsworth just as much as stonework. The martins’ nesting on the statuary is absolutely entwined with its meaning.

In Macbeth Shakespeare has Banquo propose (ironically as it turns out) of the spirit at Cawdor House  

No jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made her pendent bed and procreant cradle;

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed

The air is delicate.

My guess is the air is now less delicate at Chatsworth. May its occupants come to rue their decision and free the birds from their wretched nets.

Nature post-lockdown

1/3 The House Martins of Chatsworth House

Like almost everyone else in the nature community I have been fascinated to see how wildlife has come to the fore during lockdown. As the human project, with all its deafening white noise has receded, so has the rest of life stepped tentatively forward. Bird song has expanded and wild animals seem to have ventured into our space.

What does it portend for the future? What breakthrough could occur because of this resurgence of interest in nature? Will the British people discover a new relationship, valuing other species – flowers, birds, insects – for the life-enhancing joy that they bring, for their ability to buffer us against stress and enrich our lives when times are tough? But also when times are good? In a three-part post I tackle a number of issues and propose ways in which things could change.

Firstly, however, I want to highlight a local banishing of wildlife that went largely unreported during lockdown. In the late days of April, just as spring migrants were returning to this country, the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust highlighted a deeply sad and, to my mind, regressive measure undertaken at Chatsworth House by its owners.

The latter had sought permission to place nets over parts of their palace to prevent birds nesting in the statuary. They didn’t initially know what species they were dealing with, nor it seems did the ecological consultants, who had been called in to assess the matter (as is legally required when protected birds are to be stopped from nesting). Nor it seems did the Peak Park Planning Board, which passed the decision and approved the netting in the absence of this clear understanding.

As it turned out they were house martins. This is one one of the most charismatic of our summer visitors, famous for its pied plumage, swooping flight, conversational chattering calls and for a mud-cup nest that may have inspired early humans to the possibilities of clay and straw. Who knows?

What I do know is that house martins once nested in Derbyshire cliffs and caves as they must have done for hundreds of thousands of years until they saw the breeding possibilities entailed in our own homes. Their arrival in spring – about the first week of April now – is something of a miracle given that they complete this transcontinental journey and weigh about 19gm. Here’s a little piece I published in the Guardian which subsequently appeared in my book A Claxton Diary: Further Fields Notes from a Small Planet whose paperback version arrives next month click here for more details.

At Chatsworth, house martins have probably nested since the mid seventeenth century when the house was first built. However, when they applied to net their walls it seems as if all parties to the action were not certain if they were swallows, swifts or house martins. What was indisputable was that all three of these candidate birds were summer visitors. Why would you conduct a survey in December, on which you would base your decisions, at precisely the time when the birds were not present? Yet they did.

The nets were approved and legally placed over the statuary and as compensation a series of replacement artificial nests, initially it seems for swallows, and then, later, when it was plain house martins were involved, for those too. No one disputes that all parties acted legally. Yet it does beg questions of whether netting bird sites to prevent them breeding should be sanctioned in law. And Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett thinks it is time to end it. I agree. It is a heartless gesture creeping into British planning procedure. The judgement (attributed to Gandhi) that a nation is measured by the way it treats its animals, seems deeply relevant.

What I challenge most is the meaningfulness of the legal process. That’s what this post is about. The problem with the due process at work in this case is that it always tackles the detail as they pertain to a specific circumstance. It is a process that is essentially ahistorical and blind to context. It assumes that each decision is equal to the last ad infinitum, and yet we know that house-martin numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate and have declined by 60 per cent in 40 years.

Thus, in effect, every time one makes a fresh decision that impacts adversely upon house martins their plight worsens. Every year overall house martins are doing worse in Britain. With each situation the legal guideline becomes less tenable. That is the background picture against which the Chatsworth decision was made. It highlights for me how wrong the decision was, especially by an agency, the Peak Park Planning Board, supposedly tasked with protecting nature in a national park. When will we recognise that in the situation we find ourselves –  where we live among a diminished and diminishing natural environment – this decision-making process is not adequate?

What could be done, as in the case of the house martins, is that where a species has declined by 25 per cent or more in 20 years, then no detrimental action could be taken other than in truly exceptional circumstances. At that point alternatives must be sought. And those could be based on a principle of net gain.

Yes, take action, but in a way that increases house martins at the site while solving your so-called problem with stone damage. It could have been a phased process, based upon a true survey in the correct season (summer), with genuine data of bird numbers and of the ways that they used the target stonework. Then you could make it a publicity campaign that enhances Chatsworth’s reputation for good wildlife practice. Make an opportunity, in short, of your so-called ‘problem’.

Once you had known how many house martins there were, they could have provided artificial nest sites elsewhere and then monitored the adoption of these alternatives. Instead of the ‘we’ve-put-up-boxes-surely-the-birds-will-see-the-need-to-move-from-the-stonework-to-the-new-sites’ approach. Wild animals don’t always know what humans plan for them to do! By a process of trial and error and incremental exclusion the birds could have been coaxed gradually from the house site. By providing more nests than were used previously you could have expanded house martin numbers at Chatsworth, where, as I point out, they have probably bred since the house was first built.

Are these wonderful birds not as as integral to the site and to all its cultural meanings as the very statuary that required such stringent protection? In fact, I would argue that in a land that is the 29th most denatured on Earth, we should privilege the living fabric over the lifeless infrastructure. For me, house martins are more beautiful, more engaging and more culturally significant than dragon-shaped stonework. That’s the issue of my next post.