Derbyshire Break 1

with

Mark Cocker

Mon 25 April – Thurs 28 April 2022

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. If you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

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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 more than 70 years ago. 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 320 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 break is also timed to catch the region at its spring best.

Our Westminster Hotel is a five minute drive from the high moorland and on our first evening we will make an excursion to enjoy some of its special breeding birds including short-eared owl and golden plover. They arrive back in late winter and take up breeding territories and should be well into their nest season by late April. The presence of owls is dependent upon the quality of the habitat for voles and they move year to year so it is hard to predict. But a displaying short-eared owl is one of the most beautiful sights offered by the avifauna in these islands.

images from left: short-eared owl, golden plover and common wheatear

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 deep limestone canyons are a perfect resonating surface against which the breeding jackdaws fire a cacophony of their joyous calls.

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 brimming up with colour and beauty. Willow warblers will now be singing and common redstart returns from the African Sahel to take up territory. One of the pleasures of arguably Britain’s most beautiful migrant is working out the mimickry embedded in the male’s wonderful little ditty. My most prized ‘spot’ was the sound of a calling ‘bee-eater’ which was all the weirder for being in a Derbyshire dale. We also meet some of the other avian specialities such as grey wagtail and dipper and, more recently, the dramatically 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.

images from top left: mandarin duck family, dipper, mountain pansy, wood anemones

Spring is late to arrive in this high plateau area but there is a huge amount of colour and scent to enjoy: the kitchen tang of the ramsons, the star-like beauty of celandines, the patches of primroses and wood avens and the early flowers of the scarce spring cinquefoil. Yet it is the wider atmosphere of the Wye Valley in this section which is also captivating, especially its sense of astonishing greenness. Here is a brief slideshow sense of the place.

images: Wye Dale, flowering cowslips, common redstart singing, lesser celandines in flower, flowering ramsons, hazel catkins, limestone formations in Chee Dale, River Wye in evening mist

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.

images top right then clockwise: moorland near Axe Edge, common snipe, Eurasian curlew, male stonechat, red grouse.

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 often peregrines and ravens in the same area. If time allows we will run down into the Gradbach 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 determined by weather and wildlife as the season unfolds. But it will capture something special about that particular spring. One spot we may visit is among my favourite in the area: Beeston Torr in the Manifold Valley. It is in Staffordshire and is dominated by a huge domed bloc of limestone that is often visited by peregrines. The surrounding woodlands are some of the best in the area and are a great place to catch up with two of the area’s rarest speciality birds – marsh and willow tit. Wherever we go it will be chosen to offer you the fullest sense of this place and to capture the essence of the Peak District.

images Beeston Torr with a resting peregrine, Beeston torr and marsh tit

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 34 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 family-run restaurant called La Brasserie Bar, where the food and atsmopshere are first class. 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:   Mon 25 – Thurs 28 April 2022

Price £795 (plus £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 eight participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 5pm 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.

Derbyshire Break 2

with

Mark Cocker

Mon 4 July – Thurs 7 July 2022

A four-day all-inclusive summer break to experience the hills and dales of north Derbyshire with multi-award-winning naturalist and author in his home patch. If you would like to go straight to the booking form, click here.

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 320 million years ago is never far from the surface and has shaped the region’s environmental present, as well as its industrial past.

July is a great time of year to visit the Peak District and the break is timed to capture some of the area’s most distinctive wildlife at its best. The real beauty of the season is that we get a full sense of the area’s wildlife abundance with the minimum of travel. Time spent travelling to the sites is kept to an absolute minimum.

Once we have gathered early on Monday afternoon we intend to be among it all in a matter of few minutes. Buxton itself is a great place for wildlife and we will visit one of the local hotspots to begin the holiday. Willow warblers, whitethroats and spotted flycatchers are all feeding their nestlings or embarking on a second brood in the local woods, while ravens and buzzards are common locally and often fly directly over the town. Wherever there are flowers there are always insects and local specialities include bilberry bumblebee and the elm-loving white-lettered hairstreak.

(images below, clockwise from top left: southern marsh orchid and kidney vetch; white-lettered hairstreak, dark green fritillary; bilberry bumblebee and golden-ringed dragonfly).

North Derbyshire in high summer is one of the most botanically rich areas in England and enjoying this festival of colour will be a key part of our four-day break. The dales also have real specialities at this time of year and both dark red helleborine and dune helleborine should be in full bloom. We have about a dozen fabulous dales to choose from and I may adjust the programme to take advantage of nuances and local information at the time. A common denominator, wherever we choose, is the sheer floral abundance: the riverbanks forested with triffid-like stands of butterbur, the banks of betony and lady’s bedstraw, harebells and knapweed climbing up the sides of Hay Dale; the stands of eyebright and thyme that crown the endless nests of yellow meadow ants, with which they are ecologically entwined. All of these will be encountered at some point over the four days and we are not averse to recommendations.

(Images 1-8: butterbur in the River Wye; eyebright; one of the two dagger moth species on its food plant; Chee Torr tunnel in Miller Dale; bloody cranesbill; DWT’s Millers Dale Quarry reserve; the rewilded railway sidings near Millers Dale station; green woodpecker.)

Some of the gusto of the spring bird chorus may have been lost by July but there are compensations: such as flocks of newly fledged hirundines – house martins and swallows – that muster over the dales and woods. Adults redstarts are also busy feeding their broods of semi-independent young and they flick in and out the limestone crags and hawthorn bushes flashing their telltale fiery tails. Dippers breed really early and may well be fledging a second brood by July’ so the rivers will never have so many of these wonderfully characterful birds. It seems almost a rule of life on the riverbank: find a dipper and there will be a grey wagtail family too. Another part of summer nowadays is the mandarin duck mothers with their endearing broods of ducklings. Overhead, meanwhile, we keep an eye out for pergrines that are feeding their well-grown chicks at ths time, as well as occasional hobbies or red kites, which are now creeping into the area as breeding birds.

Images clockwise from top left: mandarin duck family, barn swallow fledgling, willow wabler, peregrine male, common whitethroat.

On our last morning, depending on the weather and the group’s fitness we can venture onto Kinder Scout which is the highest part of the Peak District. Defoe infamously wrote it off as a ‘waste and houling wilderness, but it became famous in the twentieth century as the heart of the access movement. This was especially after the Mass Trespass of 1932, which is now celebrated almost annually. Kinder is well known for its grand prospects but it is also a very interesting place for wildlife.

The tops are most famous for their 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.

Images clockwise from top left: heather bee colony, common heather in flower, the view across to Mam Torr from Kinder, mountain hare and hare’s-tail cotton grass.

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 34 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 family-run restaurant called La Brasserie Bar, where the food and atsmopshere are first class. 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:   Mon 4 July – Thurs 07 July 2022

Price £795 (plus £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 eight participants. Our programme is based on 9am – 5pm 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.

Living the (Cretaceous) Dream: or the little things that make the world

I was privileged recently to spend a week at Flamborough on the Yorkshire coast, enjoying the late warmth of a sunny autumn and exploring the deep past and its relationship to the rich wildlife still found in and around this famous cliff-lined headland. Here is Flamborough lighthouse overlooking Selwick’s Bay, which has been ground out of the soft chalk as if a sea god had taken a huge bite out of the coast.

The whole coastline is made of layers of chalk, like this small and beautiful cove that is between North Landing and Flamborough Lighthouse. The cliff is relatively low-lying at this point – about 20m high – but it rises as much as 100 metres at Bempton just to the north. All parts are the product of phytoplankton that drizzled on to the bed of the Tethys Sea during the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago. They have a rather grand name – coccolithophores – but they are unicellular algae and would be minuscule to the naked eye.

You cannot help but be mesmerised by the comings and goings of the seabirds at Bempton, which has long been an RSPB reserve. I cannot believe that I last visited in about 1977. Why have I waited so long? Yet not a lot seems to have changed, except perhaps the big increase in breeding gannets, which are now present in their thousands. When I last came they were numbered in tens. The other big change is in me. Then, I would have seen only the birds. Now I appreciate more fully how life’s basic processes are shaped by tiny little creatures we can’t even see. E O Wilson my favourite naturalist called insects ‘the little things that run the world’. But coccolithophores are perhaps ‘the littler things that make the world’. Those sublime cliffs on which the gannets breed, and whose immense stilless they dramatise with their endless traffic, are the work of algae.

Atlantic gannets at any distance look simply magnificent. But at close quarters, when you can pick out the weird geometry of their lined faces and the steel-blue plastic goggles about their chalky eyes, you realise exactly how strange they are. A dinosaur, perhaps, befitting a Cretaceous landscape.

A drama I really savoured was watching the white-streaked dark immature gannets power up for flight, battering their wings against the sea breeze and preparing for the next stage in their remarkable lives. They jump off the cliffs – they are known as ‘jumpers’ – and then live on the sea surface as they acquire the skills of flight and their plunge-dive feeding technique. The parents have so stuffed them with fresh fish the chicks are heavier than themselves at this point. The surplus fat is what sees through the learning phase of their first independent weeks.

I love to see gannets in fast-powered motion but just as wonderful is to watch the two-metre span merely adrift on air and those great black-paddle feet dropped down to create turbulence as the birds balance and dance like any white-clad angel. And the other reflection is to try to imagine their nonchalance at peering down over a 100-metre precipice when I would be frozen with vertigo and terror. What lives they lead. To imagine their world is to be unleashed from our own.

I cannot help adding, despite the poor quality of the image, a brief mention of the black-browed albatross that has taken up temporary summer residence at Bempton since June. It is possibly the only one on the northern hemisphere and may be doomed never to get back to the Southern Ocean whence it came. Somehow it crossed the tropical doldrums and now is fated to spend its potentially long 50-year life at the wrong end of the planet. It is the sleeping black-winged bird at the centre of the image. Its own flying capabilities make even the gannets look rather ordinary, but that is another story.

Around the corner from Flamborough is the port and seaside resort of Bridlington. It was a strange but fascinating mix of holiday kitsch and northern coastal culture, with the otherness of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle mingled in for good measure. Because Brid is still a major fishing port, especially for local crabs, lobster, prawns and North Sea fish species – herring, mackerel etc. So there were the sound and sights of the fairground big wheel with the deep strange odour of lobster creels fresh from the sea bottom. Here were the taste of tutti-frutti icecream mingled with the sound of herring gulls vomiting up the ‘long call’ (when they throw their heads back and laugh maniacally with wide-open beak).

A favourite in the harbour was turnstone. These little characterful birds were everywhere, busy foraging among the nets and tied-up fishing boats along the various jetties. The difference between their breeding dress and winter plumage is really striking and each one seemed to be different from all its neighbours. Everyone truly is an individual and loaded with personality. It is odd to think that a bird like this adult above could well have arrived recently from the northernmost terra firma on Earth, such as the coast of Svalbard, where its near neighbours could be walruses and polar bears. And here it is among the Victorian stonework surrounded by children lining for crabs and Yorkshire ladies in their Kiss-Me-Quick-style hats.

The main part of the harbour where the fish processing lorries arrived to load their cargo was thronged with birds. Kittiwakes had attempted to nest on the harbour walls and there was a lovely overlooked stretch of stonework where, judging from their accumulated guano underfoot, waders have roosted for decades during high tide. There were about 30 redshanks with a few turnstones.

The one pale eye to rival the gannet’s is that of an adult herring gull. I was interested to see the British race argenteus mingled with the subtly different argentatus race that comes from northern Europe such as Scandinavia. The head of the latter has a different less steeply angled forehead (ie flatter), and flatter rear crown as well as a darker overall cast to the grey mantle. The bird above is a British bird.

Almost as characterful as the turnstones was this lone purple sandpiper. An adult recently arrived back from the Arctic north

The North Sea has recently suffered a wreck of common guillemots during which many have washed up either moribund or dead. The incident has been attributed to a toxic algal bloom and there were certainly several birds around the harbour including this bird of the year. It was probably born around the coast at Bempton. Let’s hope it survives to join the throngs on the ledges next spring.

The unofficial book club review no 2

Looking at those extraordinary anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from 510 years ago, which feature a stillborn child plucked from the womb of its deceased mother, you realise that one of the world’s most celebrated artists seldom felt a demarcation between his aesthetic exploration and what one could broadly call his scientific investigation of life. Art and knowledge were two parts of a single practice and the driving heart of it was one of the most curious, tender and wonder-filled minds ever to have evolved.

It has always struck me that art still has a central part to play in modern natural history. Although the deep connection is partly being broken or, perhaps one should say, continued by photographers, there is still an important place for painters in nature. Illustrations of wildlife have changed the way we see other creatures. The American Roger Tory Peterson, for one, made birds accessible to millions of us in the twentieth century. I think equally of the bird plates of the Swede Lars Jonnson. Theirs isn’t perhaps art in the same vein as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa but, rather like the latter’s anatomical drawings, the work of these naturalist painters enables us to enter worlds and see things that we barely knew.

If I am asked to name a contemporary illustrator who has done an enormous amount to change how we see British nature I immediately think of Richard Lewington. His astonishingly accurate, painstaking depictions of butterflies, latterly of moths and most recently of the 275 species of British bee, are among my favourite paintings by a modern illustrator. His images adorn several key groundbreaking field guides and for many thousands of people they have given access to a whole new world of insects.

And rightly so, you would say, because insects can be beautiful (look at the Atlas moth above). There is now also a deepening and rather belated public recognition that insects are astonishingly important to life. I think there are 24 insect orders and just four of them – flies (diptera), moths and butterflies (lepidoptera), bees, wasps and ants (hymenoptera), and, last but not least, the gargantuan order of beetles (coleoptera alone contains 400,000 species) – include somewhere in the region of 770,000 species and perhaps close to half of all life forms that humans have pinned a name to.

Part of the problem of insects is the sheer size of that taxonomic list. Britain is pretty poor for insects with a modest total of only 24,000+ species. When the animals are this numerous and diverse and taxonomically unstable it means their names and the hypothetical order in which they are arranged change regularly. It also demands that the nomenclature for them is largely based on scientific Latin and Greek. Unfortunately it places one of the planet’s most important classes of life behind a pay wall of near impenetrable complexity. The price you have to fork out is an intense effort to master all the complicated terminology and detail. The result: insects have languished in a place of deep human ignorance and we see them very often as just nasty little bugs that have us reaching for the spray can.

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If you are in any doubt about the terror inspired (I say this humorously: in fact, one of the great cultural gifts made by insects is the inspiration they’ve provided for most of the horror genre in world cinema!) by these creatures then look at the extraordinary jaws on the green tiger beetle that I saw the other day in the Goyt Valley. But I also bid you look again at this completely harmless little fellow and see how stunning are its colours. And those are my finger tips: he or she is tiny and anything but scary.

At a time when there are reports suggesting a 80 per cent collapse in entire European populations of insects we really have to change our attitudes and practices towards them. An idea once falsely attributed to Einstein was the notion that if honey bees were to go extinct, humanity would have about four years before its own demise. It is untrue and he never actually said it, but a world without insects is genuinely one that would suffer monumental disruption. And while life would continue, humans almost certainly would not. Insects are at the very heart of the business of plant pollination. They are the great refuse disposal agents of the planet, recycling nutrients to ensure healthy plant communities in all terrestrial environments. Forests probably would cease to function without insects. This class of life is ultimately the foundation of most food chains and without insects almost every creature on Earth would be adversely affected.

So cometh the hour, cometh the man. Paul Brock has possibly done more to change how we see, recognise, grasp, understand, and, therefore, care about insects than any one else in Britain. His original 2014 book A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland (Pisces publications) was an instant bestseller and changed the landscape of insect recognition overnight. It was partly the beautiful lay out, the inclusion of pretty accurate distribution maps on the same page as the text, the presence of so many really pin-sharp photos, and partly his coverage of more insect species than any previous single volume. He then did a companion A Photographic Guide to Insects of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which widened the geogrphical range of his focus. Now here comes a new improved stab at the whole business.

Britain’s Insects: A Field Guide to the Insects of Great Britain and Ireland by WildGuides (£25, first published on 5 July 2021) is a whopper! It is not perhaps a field guide in the sense that you would carry it around easily in your bag, but you could have it in the car and most all-round naturalists will definitely want it on their shelves. What it does brilliantly in 600 clearly laid out, if busy, pages is to put at your disposal the most comprehensive single text yet produced for British insects, packed with key up-to-the-minute data and with 2,600 superb images of nearly 1500 species.

There are 1-2 innovations and a whole lot that was excellent in the earlier books which Paul has carried over into this new one. One of the most important for me is the inclusion of as many English-language names for species as he possibly can. There’s a famous Spanish-derived adage quoted everywhere by naturalists these days – ‘you cannot love what you do not know’. I would modify it slightly to argue ‘you cannot love what you cannot remember’. English names are pivotal to the dissemination of knowledge and, thus, of real attention and devotion to any branch of natural history. Of course you cannot easily have English names for all 24,000 insects, but you can work on the principle that accessibility is everything. The editors at WildGuides are past masters at this stuff and I could not recommend their collective project more highly.

One detail I must mention before I close and let you go off and pre-order it. I am a passionate devotee of grasshoppers and crickets, partly because, like birds, they up and fly away, making them an enhanced challenge in the field. But they also produce some of the most glorious vocalisations of the British summer. This book has a system of QR codes for every member of the group so you can use your mobile phone to find recordings and thus hear these orthopteran melodies in real time as you are looking and listening to the beast itself. What a great innovation. Congratulations Paul Brock. Congratulations to the team at WildGuides.

Zagori and Lake Prespa, highlights of northern Greece

Wed 25 May- Wed 1 June 2022

STOP PRESS This is now fully booked but if you wish to sign up for a newsletter notifying you of all future holidays, please email me here.

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

STOP PRESS: This tour has two spare places. Please email me if you are interested or wish to be notified about future holidays here.

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

STOP PRESS: This tour has now sold out completely. If you wish to be notified about future holidays or subscribe to my newsletter, please contact me here.

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

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.