In the end, the judges had to resort to a form of the Alternative Vote system to separate the final four entries. Chris Dunn’s piece about an adopted turkey vulture won because it’s an extraordinary story simply and elegantly told, with a great sense of place.
Chris Dunn wins a place on an Earthwatch conservation expedition. He will take part in one of three exciting adventures: South Africa’s Scavenger Species; Amazon Riverboat Exploration; or Mammals of Nova Scotia.
Cutting peat is hard work, but it grows on you. It involves standing in an undrained ditch, carving neat, spade-sized clumps from one of the channel’s walls, and placing each sod in a stack behind you. You get paid by the cubic yard.
Peat covers much of the Falkland Islands, and is still used as a fuel on some farms. Another thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the shepherds’ dislike of turkey vultures. And they have good cause. A sheep lies down to rest or ruminate, but if it stays down for too long it can’t get up – and that is good news for vultures. A flock of these birds can reduce it to a pile of bones and rags of fleece in just a few days.
One day while out walking I came across a looted vulture nest. The egg thief (I know not what) had left one egg behind. I put it in my pocket, under my warm jumper, and ambled off. I made my sweaty way up the mountain and down into the ravine where some rare trees grew (trees are an exotic sight on this wind-blasted island).
Back at the settlement, I emptied my pockets and, as I lifted the egg, I felt it move. I put it in one of my slippers in the plate warmer of the Rayburn and, by the time my supper was ready, I could hear the only survivor of the turkey vulture’s brood cheeping.
But saving it – hatching it even – was only the start of the problem.
Who would want to bring up arguably the ugliest bird in these islands, and certainly the one with the worst press? In fact, it turned out to be easier than I expected: one of the children I taught took it home.
I don’t think she told her parents that it was a turkey vulture, judging by the reception I received when I visited her a few weeks later. It had fledged by then and there was no doubt as to what it was. But who would take away a child’s much-loved pet?
Later that year, I returned to the island to teach and ‘Egg’, as he had become known, came to school, too. He was quite big by then and sat at the back, preening or sleeping.
At break time he went outside, following the children by skipping from fence post to fence post. He never showed any interest in escaping. He was, in his own imprinted mind, a very small, unusually shaped child.
Once a week, when a sheep was killed, Egg became a vulture again and fence-hopped his way to the butchery. Other scavengers waited on the ridge of the roof, but Egg would amble in through the open door and wait for the shepherds to throw him pieces of offal. He would catch the meat in mid-air then wander off and dismember it with his viciously hooked beak.
At the end of the day Egg travelled home on a shepherd’s shoulder, or – if that was denied him – he would hitch a lift on the tractor. The end to a perfect day was to sleep, head under wing, in the rafters of the peat shed. Egg had it made.
Peat-cutting season was his favourite time of year. He would come out to the peat bogs, walking, fluttering, flapping and fence-hopping to keep up. During our ‘smoko’, or tea break, he would visit each digger in turn in the hope of a share of the snacks.
But one thing that Egg never learned to do was fly. He had no motivation. All of the creatures in his world moved at his speed – either that or they carried him (which was even better). To have wings that could soar for miles on a thermal or climb till the farm was a speck far below was of no use to him at all. And that resulted in his demise.
One day as we all trudged from the house to the bog a wind blew up. At first, Egg just hunkered down and let it blow over him. But the wind steadily grew in strength until it was a full gale.
We never knew that he was in trouble until we spotted him tumbling down the hill. Over and over, an inflated bin-liner of a bird, until a gust took him out over the headland. The children ran to rescue him, but by the time they reached the beach there was no sign.
Later that day I picked up a turkey vulture feather. I have no idea if it was Egg’s; probably not. But from that day on, he was always remembered fondly when we cut peat, much to the bemusement of strangers.
I am celebrating my shrew’s 30th birthday this year, for that is the time that it has lain unchanged – plump, velvety, whiskers splayed – near perfect within its sealed jar of formalin. From Leigh Woods in Bristol, it now takes its place in a display cabinet (much more recently acquired) in my kitchen – a talking point for visitors and a constant reminder for me.
In the ‘living’ room is Brocky, the stuffed badger (of course, though he did originate from Brockenhurst). Already faded from black to insipid brown in 1975, Brocky is otherwise robust and exceptionally well mounted. He stands for a lot.
The wardrobe in the guest room houses bones – lots of them – including whole skeletons of adult and juvenile roe deer, squirrel, badger and polecat. These are three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles awaiting reconstruction and articulation when the time, patience and knowledge required coincide.
There will always be the jibes, the "get stuffed!" jokes, the ethical concerns, even accusations of cruelty (no specimen to my knowledge was deliberately killed or illegally obtained), worries about hygiene, evocations of the macabre, and assumptions of obsolescence.
But to me they illustrate and reflect so much, be it the simplicity or the intricacy, of anatomy, adaptation, ecology, evolution, survival and, yes – perhaps above all – the need for conservation. Sometimes elements of their story are fairly well known, such as with road casualties that I have found, prepared and preserved, at least in part – the unblemished stoat, the flattened mink, the barely cold dog fox.
The origin of others is lost – the hedgehog bought in the Portobello market; the grey squirrel from Wimborne flea market (restored to dignity once the empty whisky glass had been removed from its grasp); the worn, fragmented Asian elephant molar. These invite speculation and contemplation.
The circumstances of a lion cub being brought to my primary school are now blurred but I was able to obtain, and have proudly kept, a single guard hair. Easier to recall is the episode of lugging a glass-cased, mounted fox home on the train. Even I felt compelled to keep it wrapped up in a curtain. Then there was the rudimentary deer antler, so nearly thrown away owing to its close resemblance to a stone.
The specimens’ uniqueness appeals. Sometimes it is aesthetic, artistic fascination, other times scientific curiosity. Does the width of that post-orbital constriction (the narrowing of the skull behind the eye sockets) make it a pure polecat or a likely polecat-ferret hybrid? Did the exposed sagittal crest on a badger skull once inspire the design of a human helmet?
And then there is the challenge, in abundance, dosed with luck. A teenage holiday on the Brittany coast yielded the intact exoskeleton of a large Norway lobster requiring no further treatment, just careful transport. I still have my first mounted mammal effort: a mole – a relatively easy subject given the simplicity of shape and lack of the need for glass eyes.
It was a privilege to extend its usefulness, its ability to raise our awareness, to give it an afterlife. There followed a mature hob polecat with luxuriant winter pelage; the initial elation of that success was tempered by the subsequent alopecic insect attack. Better use of borax next time.
Skulls subjected to flesh-dissolving caustic soda followed by hydrogen peroxide bleaching have usually turned out well – the pristine whiteness really is a thing of beauty – but haste or forgetfulness have sometimes resulted in a soapy, flaking mess.
The dissection required for preservation can teach a lot. As an olfactory experience, it typically has less to recommend it: polecat anal glands and fox stomach contents, for example. With access to private woodland, I used an ‘animal graveyard’ to prepare skeletons – not so much a case of interring as pegging out on the surface with a covering of chicken wire to thwart the larger scavengers.
The smell could be bad but as a dynamic lesson in natural decomposition and recycling it could not be bettered. Fallen leaves return to their roots. The resultant skeletons have a distinctly off-white hue and some of the smaller bones may go astray but there is a lot to be said for letting nature have its way (up to a point).
It gladdens me when I see fellow visitors relishing the traditional nature exhibits in the Horniman Museum or the Natural History Museum. If only they could share in the behind-the-scenes delights I was treated to during a vacation studentship at the latter.
Reactions to the specimens produced on BBC’s Autumnwatch show that people do still want to connect. So, as I gaze up at my mounted jay, seemingly recently prepared but by hand unknown and rescued from the local charity shop, I find him as uplifting as Hardy’s Darkling Thrush.
I lost the woodland with the divorce. Now, five years later, I miss it. Kingston Plantation was about three acres, and I knew it in all its moods and seasons. When I first saw the strip of woodland in 1992, it still bore the scars of the hurricane of 1987.
The trees, mostly beech, had been planted in Victorian times as a windbreak on the top of the hill facing the house, and bore the full force of any gales. A huge tree had been blown over and lay, splayed root ball pointing skywards. Beneath the broken roots yawned a cavern of shorn white chalk. The children immediately made it their den.
Every spring, the small, yellow stars of celandines would shine out from the dark leaf mould. On the edge of the wood, almost hidden at the base of a large beech, clumps of tiny violets grew. Every March I would look daily until they appeared.
I’d glimpse the first yellow brimstone butterfly of the year in a shaft of sun piercing the budding branches as I stood in the middle of the wood, feeling safe and invisible.
Stinging nettles were springing up in a swathe around the perimeter of the wood, interspersed with mounds of brambles, the air tangy with the peppery green smell of new sap.
By the end of April I had to follow the narrow tracks of foxes through the high nettles to get into the wood. Pale green light filtered through the vaults of new leaves and I would tread quietly, whispering to the dogs and children as though in a cathedral.
Mosquitoes whirled like motes of dust in the stained-glass light, and the cries of newborn lambs in the fields sounded faraway and muffled.
In the school summer holidays, Kingston Plantation became the territory of children and sheep. The latter used to break in on a regular basis and spread out among the trees feasting on new tastes and basking in the shade. The children would spend all day making dens, playing on the makeshift swing deep amongst the trees and devising games incomprehensible to adults.
The wood was also a refuge in times of stress and emotion. I still have a note written by my son, aged nine, after he accidentally broke an antique glass dome: I know you don’t want me around the house at the moment, so I’ve gone to the woods for the rest of the day, love Tig.
At the end of the day the sun went down like a beach ball among the trees and I would ring the bell outside the front door to bring the children in for supper. The sound echoed around the fields, the acoustics such that an ordinary conversation carried clearly from the house to the woods over about four acres.
An opera singer friend once felt compelled to stand in the field below the woods and sing an aria just for the pleasure of hearing the sound filling the valley.
The trees didn’t let go of their leaves willingly in the crisp autumn sun. Beech nuts littered the ground like small purses, and buzzards mewed plaintively as they circled above the wood, often being mobbed by gangs of rooks.
When the children went back to school, badgers dug a sett in the den beneath the fallen tree. The palisade of nettles died down and the trees became skeletons, the west wind tearing off the remaining shreds of foliage.
The first winter, we planted about fifty beech saplings. Friends came to help and we battled with the January-hard soil which barely covered the chalk. Flints as big as skulls surfaced as our spades rebounded, the sound of metal against stone ringing out across the hills.
We buried my mother’s ashes in a clearing one grey February day. The family came and we trekked up to the woods, with spades, forks, compost and a Bird Cherry tree to plant as a memorial.
The wind stung our eyes as we once more battled with the hostile ground, pouring the ashes around the roots of the tree. I planted bulbs which made a splash of colour every spring among the still-bare trees.
As the children got older, the woods became a source of inspiration for natural history projects and artwork. My son created sculptures in clearings from dead wood, flints and old bits of salvaged metal fence. The youngest made up stories as she sat on the swing.
Not long before we sold the house and wood, one of my daughters took a photo at night, using a long exposure, of the stars arcing over the plantation. In it the trees seemed to be part of the earth’s spinning motion, pulled by the stars as they travelled overhead.
Ashes by Paul McGranaghan
This is the overhang from which, fleeing mitred Redcoats, Hamilton leapt; or, rather, from which leapt Hamilton’s horse, with Hamilton spurring it on.
Strabane Glen is narrow, but not so narrow that a highwayman can vault it on horseback. In the course of his fall, legend transformed him from a tóraí into a dullahan: from a highwayman into a headless horseman. Passing beneath Hamilton’s Leap, I feel as though I’m being watched.
It’s midwinter. Last night it was -20°C after a day and a night of heavy snow. This morning I awoke into a marble silence. The beluga hills, swan-curved and silent under a dove-down sky, are as smooth as porcelain and as cool as milk. The glen is buried deep within them, and buried within the glen is a unique wildwood.
By the time I get there the sky has chilled blue; there is ice in my beard and riming my coat. The trees and bushes are winter antlers of albite feldspar, calcite, and quartz. The cold draws all the moisture out of the air. Deep, freeze-dried snow scatters underfoot. My steps sound like wing-beats.
Around me, trees fountain like frozen geysers of blue and white. My footprints pay out like an astronaut’s umbilicus. Ringing in the ice, under snow-covered briars, the sound of trickling water underpins the silence. Its low murmur whispers disembodied music, distant anvils under the earth.
The houndstooth stream runs and chimes against varnished pebbles. For 10,000 years it has carved out the glen. Glaciers once towered above the Sperrin Mountains to the east, waterfalls thundering from their cyan cliffs. Their meltwater created the stream.
Working, wearing, filing the faultline with a 10,000-year-long draw of a rasp, the stream has carried away the ages to the sea. The chasm walls show stone swept smooth as potter’s clay. Having brushed away millennia of schist the stream exposed the ancient igneous rock and, in doing so, set the foundations for an island of ash trees below the surface of the earth.
Ash trees were considered wholesome talismans by the Celts – they would pass a sick child through a split ash. The split was then bound in the belief that the child would heal in tandem with the tree. Travellers’ staves were made from ash.
When Vikings came, they brought their own ash-lore: Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, was an ash. The first man, Askr, was carved and smoothed from ash. Its strength lent it to combat. Ash is named after the Saxon assegai: Æsc.
Today these ash trees are protected by law. No such protection was given to the neighbouring ancient oak wood and it was reduced to rafters and whiskey barrels. No law saved the blackthorns torn up for the bypass. Recently, Rio Tinto Zinc sought to extract gold from the Sperrins by grinding ore with cyanide.
Farmers yoked to those thin, stony highlands surrendered custody of the landscape in exchange for the price of a freer life. But an assay revealed no treasure worth having, so the Gorgon looked away, the farmers remained shackled to the seasons and the soil, and the pine-tanned rivers were spared the poison. As was the glen. So far.
Protected by a signature and a stamp, charmed by disinterest and good luck, the glen has turned feral; the old bridges rot. Fallen trees and their broken limbs set hurdles and barricade the path.
Frozen ivy tresses cascade like fistfuls of chainmail. Trees list like the masts of shipwrecks limescaled with ivy coral. And everywhere, everywhere, white flames of snow cover everything. It drops from boughs in aerosols of hissing frost.
Split trunks reveal time rippling out through the wood just as it ripples through the countless leaves of mica in the cliffs. Life slept through these inconceivable ages until it awoke to this hidden world of crystal and shade. I see the tallest ash trees spanning histories indexed in rock. I see in them the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, still growing, still living. Still.
Millennia above, where the trees touch the skin of the modern world, time races by. Down here, this lost woodland is seasoned with folklore. I remember tales of woodsmen lured away by the secret music, sly and knowing melodies drawing them underground. I imagine walking out of the glen to find that a century has elapsed in the outside world; my town altered, its people replaced, their attitudes incomprehensible: and I, dusted with frost, not aged by a day.
A snow-bound path rising between clotted firs spills onto a hill road of slush the colour and texture of fudge. To either side white fields tile the hillsides. There is my town. Coal smoke tarries over its rooftops, ice paves the river, and the first stars glitter in the cobalt sky.
To read the winners of 2010's nature writing competition, click here
To read the winners of 2011's travel writing competition, click here