Archives for posts with tag: conservation

The Thunderbird, ©JK Rowling and ©Warner Bros Pictures

Newt Scamander is on a mission. The central character of JK Rowling’s new film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is passionate about protecting rare and special creatures that are threatened because of their magical powers. He has created a sanctuary for a collection of amazing animals, ranging from the enormous Thunderbird and the galumphing Erumpent to the tiny, leafy Bowtruckle that lives in his breast pocket.

These creatures have qualities of many animals we recognise.  The first creature we see, a Niffler, is very like a platypus with soft fur and a duck-like beak. It has magpie tendencies as it can’t resist shiny things and collects them in its pouch. The Demiguise is a grey, long-haired ape similar to the Japanese macaque. The Erumpent is like a glowing, inflated rhinoceros. There are blue, snake-like creatures and something that looks like a cross between a lion and a blowfish.


A guide to some of the beasts, ©

Newt is determined to save as many of these creatures as he can, and he gathers detailed  information about their characteristics, behaviour and habitats to put in his book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Above all, he wants to protect them from being destroyed by thoughtless and sometimes cruel humans who mistakenly believe they are dangerous.

Does this sound familiar? Here in the real world we have all sorts of beautiful and amazing creatures that are being threatened in the same way. Compared to humans they have incredible powers: of flight, super strength, powerful vision, amazing agility and speed. They have adapted perfectly to their environments, and are often portrayed by humans as posing a terrible threat to us. In reality, we are the ones who threaten their existence, and now an ever-lengthening list of these fantastic beasts is endangered.



Like the Erumpent, the black rhino in Africa is critically endangered as a result of habitat loss and poaching. They and other species of rhino are being protected in sanctuaries in Africa and Asia, but there are still very few that live in the wild. Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund have worked for decades to raise awareness of endangered animals.


Photo ©

Despite their universal appeal and worldwide fame, giant pandas are very rare. These were the first animals to be protected by the World Wildlife Fund since its inception in 1961. Happily, the giant panda has moved from being ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ as numbers of the animals in the wild increase.

There are so many endangered animals that we take for granted. Most of us only ever see such amazing creatures in zoos or on television, but without some effort being made to save them, we may not have gorillas, tigers, orang-utans or elephants for future generations of humans to learn about and appreciate. I hope the passion and determination of Newt Scamander will inspire fans of all fantastic beasts to look after them while we still can.

David Lindo

Unlike many countries around the world, the UK doesn’t have an official national bird. Broadcaster and bird enthusiast David Lindo, otherwise known as the Urban Birder, has launched a campaign to get people voting for the bird they think should represent Britain. He’s written a great article about choosing a national bird HERE.

The choice of bird has been whittled down to ten candidates: the mute swan, kingfisher, robin, blue tit, puffin, red kite, wren, blackbird, barn owl and hen harrier. If you want to hear what each of these birds sounds like, click HERE for a BBC Radio 4 recording of them all. You might be surprised by some of them!

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird! Photo ©Peter Trimming

Harry Potter fans might well choose the barn owl as our national bird!
Photo ©Peter Trimming

So which of these lovely birds do you think deserves the title? They are all very different, ranging from the tiny blue tit to the imposing swan. Each one is beautiful in its own way, and while some are very familiar, like the robin and blackbird, others are rare and special, like the red kite and the kingfisher.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland. The photo above was taken in Wales by Tim Felce.

The red kite is a bird of prey that has recently been reintroduced in England and Scotland.   The photo above was taken in Wales. Photo ©Tim Felce.

Some of them are birds of prey, like the owl and hen harrier, which hunt small animals or other birds. Kingfishers, of course, eat fish. Other smaller birds eat only berries and seeds, so they are vegetarian and peaceful creatures. Should this be a consideration as we choose a bird to represent our nation?

Kingfishers are very striking, but there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK. Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Kingfishers are very striking, and there are seven different sub-species around the world in a wide range of colours. This is the common kingfisher which we see in the UK.
Photo ©Andreas Trepte

Setting the issue of character aside, should we choose the bird that is most widely seen across the UK, or one that is distinctive and rare? Until now, the robin has held a special place in people’s hearts, and has been our unofficial national bird. Will the public make this official?

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s they were voted Britain's unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

The Victorians loved to put robins on Christmas cards. In the 1960s the robin was voted Britain’s unofficial national bird. Photo ©Francis C. Franklin

I haven’t decided which one I’ll vote for yet. If I were choosing on the basis of looks, I would go for the sweet little blue tit, or the handsome kingfisher.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants.

The blue tit is not only pretty, it also eats aphids and other insect pests that destroy our plants. Photo ©Maximilian Dorsch

As you may have noticed from some of my books, I am also a big fan of the puffin. (I seem to write quite a lot about birds, including penguins and flamingos, but neither of those is very British!)

This little bird has a special place in my heart! Photo ©Richard Bartz

This little bird has a special place in my heart!
Photo ©Richard Bartz

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

Lewis the puffin, illustrated by Gabby Grant.

Check out Lewis Clowns Around, Harris the Hero and Skye the Puffling for more puffin fun!

Photo © Rob McDougall

The Scottish Seabird Centre Puffin Fest is launched! Photo © Rob McDougall

I’ve just had a lovely day in sunny North Berwick, a pretty seaside town northeast of Edinburgh on the south shore of the Firth of Forth. I had been invited as one of the “opening acts” at the first Puffin Fest celebrating all things puffin at the Scottish Seabird Centre.

Arriving by train from Edinburgh, I strolled along towards the harbour admiring the town’s charming stone cottages and handsome Victorian houses. When I reached the harbour I was impressed by the long sweep of the bay and the striking view of several rocky islands offshore.

From North Berwick you can see the Bass Rock, Fidra, Craigleith and The Lamb. These are ancient volcanic islands that are home to thousands of seabirds including puffins, gannets, razorbills, cormorants, shags, guillemots, eider ducks and various types of gull.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

Craigleith is the nearest island to North Berwick, and for many years it was home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the UK with 28,000 breeding pairs. By 1999 the puffins had become endangered because of a plant called tree mallow that grew rapidly and choked the areas where puffins made their burrows. Unable to raise their pufflings, the birds started to abandon Craigleith. It was the sharp observational skills of one Scottish Seabird Centre volunteer, Maggie Sheddon, that alerted people to the dwindling population of puffins, and SOS Puffin was launched. Since 2007 hundreds of volunteers have gone out by ferry in the winter months while the puffins are at sea to “weed” the island’s invasive tree mallow. This has helped the puffin colony reestablish itself on Craigleith.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The other well-known island in this group is the Bass Rock, which is distinctive in appearance because it is white with 150,000 gannets and their droppings! The lighthouse you can see in the photo above is the only human habitation now, but around it you can see the ruins of a castle from the 15th century which was later used by various Scottish kings as a prison for their enemies.

The Scottish Seabird Centre invited me to take part in their very first Puffin Fest because I have written two books about puffins: Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero. I had a great time sharing these two stories of heroic puffins with a lovely audience of children who had lots to contribute to our discussion.

Lewis and Harris

My storytelling event was only one of a long list of exciting activities for the whole family that made up the Puffin Fest programme between 16 and 26 May. The events included puffin trails, boat cruises to the islands, expert wildlife talks, puffin parties, a puffin-themed art exhibition and the chance to see puffins in action on the Scottish Seabird Centre’s live interactive cameras. If you love puffins as much as I do, it was a festival not to be missed!

Mull Calgary

One of my favourite islands on the west coast of Scotland is the Isle of Mull. It has everything you could ask for – white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, ancient castles, beautiful wildlife and even a whisky distillery. The photo above shows Calgary Bay, a fantastic stretch of sand facing west which always looks amazing in the late afternoon sunshine.

Tobermory harbour

Recently we spent a week on Mull and stayed in a self-catering cottage up the hill from Tobermory harbour. It was a great place to explore with all its brightly coloured houses and quirky shopfronts. The local handicrafts reflect strong wildlife and nautical themes, and you can find puffins, eagles and all sorts of sea creatures on tea towels, greeting cards, paintings and ceramics.

Tobermory blue shop

This blue shop was displaying a puffin tea towel, sailboats made of shells and an elaborate chart of sailors’ knots. Another shop was painted bright pink and had lots of tempting holiday treats on display.

Tobermory pink shop

In the window of the Tobermory Corner Shop was a poster showing the cast of the BBC children’s programme Balamory which was filmed here. I remember watching that show with my kids when they were small. My favourite character was PC Plum because he had a great singing voice!

Balamory poster

As I wandered around the other shops I came across one called the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. This was a lovely place full of crafts and toys, and its purpose was to raise awareness (and funds) to support research, education and conservation of Scottish whales, dolphins and porpoises. Perhaps they are interested in promoting puffins as well, because I came across a small selection of books at the back of the shop which included my two Picture Kelpies, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero! What a nice surprise!

puffin book display The town of Tobermory is perched on a steep hill overlooking the harbour. We climbed up one afternoon to look down across the whole area, and explored the grounds of Tobermory High School and a local park up on the hill.

top of Tobermory

From Mull there are excursions to other nearby islands. We decided to take a boat trip to Staffa and Iona, which are two very different islands. Staffa (which means “Pillar Island” in Norse) is a strange and wonderful volcanic formation that rises from the sea like a whale’s mouth.

approaching cave

Most famous for its dramatic caves, Staffa gets lots of visitors every summer. Fingal’s Cave (shown above) is the subject of an overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 that you can listen to HERE. After his music was played in public, Staffa became very popular as a tourist destination. Even Queen Victoria wanted to see it!

cave approach

To get to the cave you have to walk around the edge of the island. Because the approach is slippery and uneven (and you might fall into the sea) there is a strong handrail to hold onto. When you get around the corner to the cave mouth, this is what you see:

cave mouth

The unusual column formation of the basalt rock was produced 60 million years ago when continental plates on the earth’s crust shifted and pulled apart, and volcanic lava rose up from the ocean floor. As the molten rock cooled it shrank and fractured into geometric columns as it hardened.

basalt columns

You can actually climb some way into the cave, and the picture above shows the rock at the cave mouth. As I walked further in I could see water crashing down below, with glowing blue jellyfish floating near the surface. Once in a while the waves would make a low, thundering noise as they hit the far end of the cave and echoed around the walls.

inside cave

The further in you go, the darker and scarier it gets! The hardest part was getting back out, as there were lots of people holding onto the handrail for dear life!

Photo ©

Photo ©

The second island we visited was Iona, which couldn’t be more different. While Staffa is only inhabited by seabirds on its grassy top and steep cliffs, Iona has been a settled community since 563 AD when Columba, an Irish missionary priest, came to the island and established the first Christian community there.

Iona Abbey

The many visitors to Iona today are drawn by its peaceful atmosphere and the spiritual legacy embodied by Iona Abbey. This is the site where St Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD, and from that time Iona became a focal point for Christian practice and missionary work. The buildings you see above were built over a period of several hundred years. The original abbey was developed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and then substantially rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Turus Mara boat

We had two hours to explore the island and learn about all the ancient Scottish kings buried at the abbey (including Macbeth, they say!) Then it was time to get back on our boat and chug back to Tobermory.

Lip Na Cloiche

On our last day as we headed for the ferry home, we stopped at a charming garden called Lip Na Cloiche (Gaelic for “Edge of the Rock”). The little cottage stands near the road, and the garden climbs up the hill behind in an amazing jumble of exotic and beautiful plants, decorative pathways, wooden bridges and weather-beaten driftwood and iron implements.

Lip Na C bridge

One woman, Lucy Mackenzie, has created this unique garden over a number of years and she allows the public to wander around it at no charge. You can buy potted plants, crafts and cards, and even stay in the house for bed and breakfast if you like!

Lip Na C garden

If we hadn’t been booked on our ferry home, we might have been tempted! It will have to wait until our next visit.

When my family and I visited some friends in Belem in Brazil, we were not expecting to be whisked off to all sorts of remote locations to take part in musical events – but that is exactly what happened! Our friend Diego Carneiro is a talented musician who plays the cello. He is also the founder of AmaZonArt, a special charity which brings music and support to the poorest and most isolated people in the Amazon region.

I have already written about the school his charity helped to build on the island of Combu. We felt very lucky to be able to help bring water filters and mosquito nets (not to mention toothbrushes) to people who needed them. While we were there, Diego gave a little cello concert and we all took part, making the sounds of wind and rain to accompany his playing. For some of the children it was the first time they had ever seen such a musical instrument, and they were amazed at the sounds Diego could make with it!

The next day Diego and his friends took us inland to a small ecological farm where all the food is grown organically and waste is recycled into compost to be used on the crops. The buildings are made from local wood and dried grasses, and everyone works together to make the farm run smoothly.

First we had a delicious meal made from fruits and vegetables grown on the farm, including pineapples, papayas, rice and black beans in a rich sauce (called feijoada). Normally this traditional bean stew is made with lots of meat, but the eco farm serves only vegetarian meals.

After lunch we took a tour of the farm to see all the crops being grown, the composting area and the special dry toilet where instead of being flushed away, the waste is collected and turned into compost as well. Amazingly, it wasn’t even smelly!

Something else I learned while we were there was how a pineapple grows. I took a picture of one to show you the little bush which sprouts a single pineapple at the top. Most of the pineapples we buy in the UK come from Brazil, so the next time you see one in a supermarket you can imagine it growing just like this one in the Amazon jungle!

Another plant they showed us was citronella, which is a big bush that smells lemony. This plant is used to make natural insect repellent, something that is very useful in the Amazon. Luckily there weren’t too many mosquitos at the farm. Perhaps they don’t like the citronella bushes either!

While some of us were learning about sustainable farming, others were just relaxing in the lovely atmosphere of this peaceful place. Anna took this picture of a little boy swinging gently under a tree.

After our tour of the farm, we all got chairs and benches set up for a little open air concert. Diego got out his cello and a friend set up her keyboard to accompany him. Lots of children from the area gathered to listen, and they were very entertained by a clever story told with an oboe by another musician friend of Diego’s, Paulinho Maia. Diego then played lots of beautiful classical pieces which we all loved.

To top off the day, we all piled into a collection of cars and motorbikes and rode down a tangled forest track to the local water hole, where some of us went for a swim. I stayed safely on the shore taking pictures. Well, someone had to take care of the clothes!