September 16, 2016


I've been blogging here for many years now – since before I had anything published; before I even started writing a book. Fragments of things I wrote here found their way into Clay; I've mined these blog posts, too, to help me remember what the natural world was doing at various times of the year. And all the time I was learning: practicing how to write.

For the last two years I've been writing a monthly Nature Notebook in The Times and a lot of the things I would once have written about here now get saved up for my column, with the result that I don't always have the same sense of wanting or needing to blog. A while back I dropped the frequency of my posts from weekly to fortnightly; now, though, I think it's time to take it off my ever-lengthening 'to do' list.

I'll still post the odd rant here occasionally, I'm sure – but it won't be such a regular thing. Not that I think anyone will miss me, but various websites still direct here, so I wanted to park something explaining where I've gone. There's nothing sadder than a mysteriously abandoned blog!

You can find me on Twitter (@m_z_harrison) or via my agent, Jenny Hewson at Rogers, Coleridge and White.

A la prochaine, nature lovers...

Mel x

August 22, 2016

In the night garden

Last night, a fox came and took one of the four hens I've been looking after in Dorset. It wasn't a surprise; he'd already paid a daylight visit, in which he'd been unsuccessful, and the hen he took was injured and had chosen to spend the night in the hedge rather than in the coop. Even so, I feel upset: they were in my care, and I failed to protect them. The knowledge that the fox needed to eat isn't helping me to feel better about the chicken's death.

We identify so readily with animals. In nature documentaries it's easy to get behind a creature and want to see it succeed. Sometimes that's a prey species, under attack from a wily predator; sometimes we really want to see the predator secure its next meal. Identification with animals can be a powerful driver for conservation, prompting whole streets to come together to protect 'their' hedgehogs, for example; but it can also lead us to interfere in ways that aren't ideal.

Recently I stayed somewhere that had two Larsen traps on the lawn, with live magpies in to act as 'call birds'. The call birds attract other magpies, who can then be trapped and killed. The reason for the traps was a nesting moorhen, and blue tits who had occupied a garden nest box. Neither of these are scarce species. All three are native, going about their natural business. But the homeowner did not want to see 'their' baby moorhens or blue tits killed, and so was killing magpies instead.

The legality of this is a grey area. There were no financial interests at stake and it would not be possible to make the case that it was 'conservation', as you could with setting a mink trap, say, to protect rare water voles. It was a case of deciding on 'goodies' and 'baddies', nothing more.

The fox isn't 'bad' for taking a hen – far from it, however upsetting or inconvenient it may be. Likewise the sparrowhawk that patrols the bird feeders here, and the hen harriers who should be predating grouse moors. If we we want vibrant, working ecosystems we must to learn to accept that we won't get our own way all the time.

July 24, 2016

On sides, and the choosing of them

Earlier this week I was told, on Twitter, to "choose a side". We're awash with sides at the moment, aren't we? Leave vs Remain, Corbynista vs social democrat, radical vs liberal feminism, new Ghostbusters vs old Ghostbusters... the list goes on.

This, though, was in relation to one of the most complex and divisive issues in UK conservation, namely hen harriers and driven grouse shooting. I am not going to rehearse the landscape of this conflict here – partly because to do so would doubtless be to invite vicious criticism from one 'side' or the other, determined to show that I have deliberately misrepresented the situation somehow – but I do encourage everyone who cares about wildlife and the countryside to find out more.

Although being told to "choose a side" (with all the implied criticism it contains) was unwelcome, it came as no surprise. I follow a wide range of people on Twitter, including those whose opinions differ from mine, and I try to interact with people as human beings and treat them with respect. Given how poisonously polarised the hen harrier/DGS debate has become, I knew that this might be causing discomfort. And so it has proved.

Moreover, I've learned not to join in with Twitter pile-ons, or insult or mock people I disagree with. This is partly because I have no wish to add to the febrile atmosphere that permeates social media at the moment, and which I think is poisoning so much of our public debate. It's also because the moment that you insult or belittle someone, the opportunity for progress in the discussion is lost because they're not going to be open to anything else you say. Why should they?

I also choose, for the most part, not to comment publicly many of the issues that give off the most heat on social media. This is because I have discovered, over the past six years, that except in very rare cases it is usually pointless. A cycle is in place in which every event sparks a million 'hot takes', which themselves spark critiques, memes and takedowns, which spark pile-ons, polemics and the taking of sides – until something else comes along, a new set of flags for everyone to rally sanctimoniously around.

It may feel, when one is penning one's latest think piece, or coming up with a really scathing 140-character response to a high-profile tweeter's shockingly outrageous and utterly evil throwaway comment, that one is partaking in the life of the nation, the vital to-and-fro of events. But this is not the case. The future of the Labour party is not currently being decided by any of the extremely certain and morally outraged people who are currently filling my timeline with playground-level propaganda; it is being decided elsewhere, out in the real world, by people doing real things. All that frenzied comment – all of it – is just static; and harmful, divisive static, at that.

But to believe that someone who chooses not to tweet about politics has no political beliefs is to commit a great error. Similarly, to believe that I am indifferent to the problems facing hen harriers would be a mistake. But do I think the way the conflict is currently being enacted on social media is actually doing anything to help hen harriers? No. No I don't.

What I see on Twitter is an issue of huge importance being reduced to name-calling, endless straw-man arguments, deliberate disingenuousness, childish provocation and passing of blame – on BOTH 'sides' – instead of the intelligent, impassioned, productive discussion that could, and should, be taking place.

Why does this matter, though, if everyone involved is actually enjoying the conflict at some slightly fucked-up level, or at the very least, finds themselves unable to stop?

It matters because it is public, it is pointless, and it is driving people away who might otherwise have something useful to contribute to the situation.

Debate the issues you care about openly and kindly, online and offline. Take action in the real world that makes a difference and supports your beliefs. Try to live your principles. 

I am a writer: primarily, though not only, a novelist. That is my job, my life's work; it's how I choose to contribute to the world, and I believe the contribution I make – including to how we connect with nature – has value. My job is not to be a mouthpiece or a campaigner or an idealogue. I leave those roles to others.

To do my job well – to affect people somehow, and maybe challenge their prejudices and beliefs – requires imagination, empathy, and the willingness to tolerate and explore complexity rather than reduce the world (or other people) to black and white, good and bad. Albert Camus said, "To feel absolutely right is the beginning of the end." I never feel absolutely right! I am always open to learning more and having my view on something changed.

What's more, half the time I just don't know how to solve things, or what's the best thing to do. And the older I get, the more comfortable I feel about admitting that, because often, when you go into a subject with an open mind, the more complex you see that it is, and the greater you perceive the consequences of any one course of action to be. Online, though, the pressure is to curate a persona that includes a set of firm opinions and political stances – maybe via a Twibbon on your avatar so everyone knows which 'side' you're on, whether you're 'them' or 'us', and whether to follow you or not.

But you know what? For most of us lay people, it's OK not to be 100% sure what you think should happen next. "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd," wrote Voltaire. To forego certainty and partisanship isn't easy, because for one thing, certainty feels safe. To tolerate doubt means never giving a tub-thumping speech about the issues du jour when you've had a couple of pints. It means questioning every newspaper article you read and weighing it up against other sources. It means listening to views that are surprising to you, or even repellent, and trying to understand them. On Twitter, it can mean taking shit from both 'sides' of a debate, as has happened to me many times, and never having the comfort of a 'team', a group of people who will unquestioningly like or retweet what you say, or rush to your defence if you're under attack.

It is by no means the easy choice.

A Record of Killing, my piece about Northumbrian grouse moors (among other things) will be published soon by @HexhamBookFest

July 06, 2016

Britain in bloom

It's variously known as cow-weed or cow parsnip, alderdrots, bilder, caddy, eltrot or old-rot; kirk, chirk or keks; and rather delightfully, limperscrimps, and it's in flower right now on roadsides, hedgerows and field margins right across the country:

White-tailed bumblebee on hogweed

Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) gets its most common name from the apparently piggy smell of its blooms, which are far less lace-like in appearance than its cousin the cow parsley that flowers earlier in the year. A sturdy, architectural umbellifer, it's related to the tiny pignut I saw in bloom across swathes of Cumbria last month, and also to poisonous hemlock; angelica, with its huge, more globe-like flower-heads; and wild carrot, which often has a single red flower in the centre of its umbels.

Look up 'hogweed' online and you'll find far more space devoted to giant hogweed, its non-native relative, than our beautiful common sort – small wonder, I suppose, as contact with the giant kind can cause appalling burns. Our own variety has a specialist invertebrate, the hogweed picture-wing fly, which parasitises it; its open flowers with their exposed nectar are also loved by soldier beetles, hoverflies, bees fruit flies and many other creatures.

Mosquito (rear) and Nomada or cuckoo bee (right) on hogweed

June 18, 2016

Bird on a wire

This week I saw a little owl in Suffolk, where I've just spent five days researching my next book. It was perching on a phone cable in the middle of the afternoon:

Admittedly my photo isn't very good, but it represents about what it looked like to the naked eye as I approached on foot. I could tell from the shape and small size that it wasn't the usual wood pigeon or crow, and looking through my binoculars I could clearly see that unmistakeable, cross-looking face. I watched for several minutes as it raised one foot and closed its eyes as though in sleep; as I moved closer it took off, provoking a series of alarm calls from startled songbirds on the other side of the tree.

Earlier on my walk I'd come across this pellet on a farm gate, but I think it's from a tawny owl or a buzzard rather than a little owl, going by the size. I plan to dissect it this week:

When I got back to my accommodation I recorded my little owl sighting here. Numbers are falling, with the UK population standing at about 5,700 pairs, and this study aims to try and discover more about where they are in order to conserve them.

It's only the second little owl I've ever seen. The first, somewhat surprisingly, was right in the heart of London, in Hyde Park. They were first recorded in the capital in 1758, but as this was before they were even introduced to the UK, in the late Victorian period, it's thought to have been a vagrant. By 1907 they were breeding in the London area; in 1923 one was seen in Battersea Park. By 2007 they were breeding in Regent's Park, the first breeding record in inner London.

Photo from
For many years these lovely little immigrants were persecuted by gamekeepers who believed (wrongly) that they predated the chicks of game birds. Now, changing farming methods leading to a loss of prey species may be behind their current decline (they mostly eat beetles, moths, worms and small mammals). Data from the BTO shows that their numbers have fallen by 65% over a 25-year period, something which has accelerated since 2002. The Little Owl Project welcomes donations to help save our owls here.

May 30, 2016

The chimney egg: a Twitter mystery

On Saturday morning I was sitting up in bed, drinking a cup of tea, when something rattled down the chimney and rolled onto the tiled hearth. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Our house is Edwardian and not in the best of repair and sometimes fragments of flue lining do trickle down – but this sounded BIG.

I got up to see what it was, and at first I thought it was the fossilised sea urchin spine I found when on a fossil-hunting trip in Peterborough with my zoologist friend Jules Howard – but I keep that in a box with my other finds, so how could it have fallen down my chimney? When I picked the object up, I realised that it was different, too: about the same size, cold and hard, slightly lighter than stone (but very solid-feeling) and with what looked like the remains of very faint striations, which to me suggested something organic. Here's a picture:

I posted the image to Twitter and waited for the guesses to come rolling in. There was no response at all, which was surprising; it wasn't until the next day that I realised that in changing over to a new phone my Twitter app had stopped talking to my photo album. On Sunday morning, I tweeted again.

Immediately, replies started coming in, and the tweet began to be retweeted and retweeted. The suggestions ranged from reindeer poo to old putty to a piece of flue lining, a coprolite or a dried-out bread roll dropped down the chimney by a bird (we do get a lot of crows on the roof); the two most frequent guesses were an owl pellet and pumice stone, about which several Tweeters were incredibly insistent, despite the fact that I knew from handling it (and my experience of owl pellets) that it wasn't either.

I decided to hit it with a hammer to see what it was made of; at this stage, more for fun than anything else. I was expecting it to crumble, like the bits of chimney lining or cement that do sometimes fall into the fireplace – though I had no idea why it would be ovoid. But the hammer bounced off.

I kept trying. Eventually, after six big hits, it split; but it didn't crumble.

I began leaning toward the dehydrated putty theory, because of its dense, heavy yet rubbery texture. Someone on Twitter who used to work on chimneys confessed to making putty snails while waiting for layers of chimney lining to dry; perhaps this was an old bit of putty formed into a shape and left in the flue. Meanwhile, the tweets just kept on coming, from Europe, America and then Australia, many with the hashtag #chimneyegg.

It was at this point that my historian friend Lucy Inglis suggested that it was a bezoar stone. Intrigued, I Googled it; animal gastroliths were once believed to have magical properties and she suggested that it may have been secreted in the hearth as a charm (in old houses, objects are often discovered in hearths, including animal hearts stuck with pins, witch bottles, dolls and single shoes). I absolutely loved this idea; I'm writing a new novel which includes folkloric elements including hagstones, so the thought of finding a bezoar stone in my own home seemed too good to be true. The possibility began to be avidly discussed on Twitter; Helen Nott came forward to tell me that she had discovered not only a bezoar stone, but a mummified cat, under the floorboards of her Lincolnshire home, something that greatly interested this chap, compiler of a database of things found under floors and inside walls.

The fact that I had smashed the possibly lucky item with a hammer was obviously not ideal, but someone suggested that if it had fallen out of the chimney, perhaps its mysterious work had been done; another suggestion was to put something else in the flue as a propitiatory offering, to replace it. Either way, I decided that if I could confirm it was a bezoar stone I would lay it to rest in the garden – maybe around the same part of the flowerbed from which I dug up this tiny head of Geoff Hurst several years ago. That felt right.

The suggestions were still flooding in; Gizmodo picked up on it, and ran a story. Someone insisted it was a dried-out cocoon, tweeting me about it over and over and over; when I politely insisted that it wasn't, he somewhat bizarrely blamed feminism rather than accept that, with the object to hand, I might know better:

More interestingly, I was asked to heat a needle and touch it to the object to see if a pleasing aroma was emitted (several people thought it might be valuable whale ambergris, despite my central London location). I was also asked to see if it dissolved in water. It didn't; the next requests were vinegar and Coca-cola, but I didn't get around to performing those tests. I really wanted it to be a bezoar stone, but inside I believed it might just be old putty: I thought about the principle of Occam's Razor, which says that of many possibilities, the simplest is most likely to be true.

And then, this tweet came in, from Abiola Adesope in Lagos, Nigeria, saying that it was bitter kola, which can be chewed as a stimulant. I Googled it, and BINGO. That's exactly what it was. Look at the pale nut in this group:

At last, we had an answer – all down to the amazing power of Twitter! Admittedly it wasn't quite as interesting as a bezoar stone, but it was considerably more exotic and exciting than a bit of old putty; and it made sense, as there is a vibrant West African community around where I live in South London.

The only remaining mystery is this: who (or what) dropped it down my chimney?!

May 15, 2016

The night club

I've been nightingale-hunting again, as I did last year – and with the same lack of success. I'm making it hard for myself, admittedly: I could call on a birder friend or two who would be more than happy to take me to hear one. But I want to do it myself.

A few years ago, Bookham Common in Surrey, very near where I grew up, had 16 singing males; last year (I have since discovered, from speaking on the phone to Ian the warden) there was only one. There's one again this year, singing within hearing distance of Ian's living room; "I'll have to get double glazing, it drowns out the TV!" he said.

I've been going there as the sun sets and circumnavigating the cottage, but I haven't heard it yet: only the cacophony of other birds that forms the evening chorus, the distant roar of the M25 and once some local lads playing music and drinking around a parked car. A birder I ran into had had no success either, while the local horse riders and dog-walkers mostly looked at me blankly, although "We get them on the golf course!" one did tell me. "Oh yes, flying overhead and singing so loudly. Up they go, so high..."

He meant skylarks, of course.

Ian the warden told me that at another Surrey site called Capel, where a retired couple have bought a wood and are managing it for wildlife, numbers have been going up, so my husband and I took the dog there on the  Bank Holiday weekend; there were bluebells in abundance, and at one point we thought we heard what could have been that 'jug-jug-jug-jug' quite distantly – but I don't feel sure enough to say it was a nightingale for certain.

Bookham has  yielded another treasure, though: a cuckoo, calling loudly for several minutes not long after I got off the train. It's been years since I heard one, and that was up in Cumbria; before that, in Dorset, five or six years ago. I don't think I've heard one in the Home Counties since I was a child.

As I turned to leave that night, disappointed not to have heard a nightingale but buoyed up by the unexpected cuckoo, a tawny owl shivered its note from a dim thicket. The strident song thrushes, dunnocks, blackbirds, wrens and warblers quieted one by one as I walked back to the station, night falling around me, the Common guarding its secrets for another time.