Tag Archives: wild life

Serendipity and the Private Life of Rabbits

100_0379I don’t know what made me ask. Serendipity. A visiting friend had said his wife hadn’t come with him to see us because they had guests from overseas – a palaeontologist and partner.

Out popped the words, “Not Ronald Lockley’s son?”  I’d once been told that his son was a palaeontologist. It was, and he came, and we were a mutual admiration group for his father. Synchronistically I had just been re-reading his father’s autobiographical book ‘Orielton’. Mostly because I wanted to refresh my mind about rabbits!

Ronald Lockley was the brilliant naturalist who did the research on rabbits which was the basis for Richard Adams’ famous book: ‘Watership Down’. Richard Adams made millions out of this book which has never been out of print, while Ronald wrote over sixty five books to keep the wolf from his door!

But in ‘Orielton’ he tells not only how he organised his amazing research into the life and domestic habits of wild rabbits, but how he also gained an insight into rabbit psychology, when he adopted an injured baby rabbit. His son – the one who came to talk – helped to keep it alive overnight and then That Rabbit, or TR as she was called, became part of the household.

The household lived in a remote and rambling beautiful Georgian manor surrounded by parkland of lakes, woodland, farms and gardens in Wales. A succession of other famous naturalists, Spanish domestics and would-be students and helpers passed through it, and the family and its animals lived a rich and lively life. Ronald’s interests and observation ranged over the private life of the large spiders inhabiting his home, to the badgers, birds, bats, rabbits, hares, and stoats, otters, ants and bees ranging the estate. This house which had rung with laughter, music, wit and brilliance from the likes of Ronald and Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch, he finally handed over to the Field Studies Council, before leaving England.

Ronald was already well known among naturalists before he published his four year study of “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, having lived on, and written about the uninhabited island of Stokkum, off the Welsh Coast. Here  from 1928, he pioneered studies of migratory birds, established the first British bird observatory in 1933, and carried out extensive pioneering research on breeding Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins and European Storm-petrels – wonderful names… In the thirties he had made an Oscar winning film on gannets with Julian Huxley, but here at Orielton it was rabbits that took up most of his attention.

That Rabbit – TR – slept in the cat basket by the fireside, and when she was awake was “excessively playful” according to Ronald. She invented a version of hide and seek which she played on the stairs with anyone who would join in, and would chew through the string of s cotton reel Ronald used to roll around for her, seize the reel in her mouth and rush off dodging through the furniture as though playing rugby, enticing Ronald to chase her. If he was busy, she’d chew through his slippers, wreck his socks, and if all else failed, leap onto his type writer and push her face into his to get his attention.

After an unfortunate incident with a stoat, Ronald devised a system of In and Out doors which closed behind TR so the stoat couldn’t chase her inside. She learned immediately how to work this system, just as she had instantly worked out how to organise her toiletry, and never messed inside.

For afternoon tea in the garden with the rest of the family, she enjoyed weak tea with milk and a little sugar … and as time went by, Ronald realised that if he had not had this relationship with TR, he would never, as he said, have understood the soul of a rabbit. Even as an adult, TR sought out his company and showed a deep attachment to him.

The end of the story came when on one of their walks together, TR encountered a young buck rabbit… and then again. She left home and set up house with one of her own kind. But this was not the end of the story.

One night when everyone was sitting round the fire they heard the In-door, and TR came hopping through. She went straight to the cat basket, and grabbed in her teeth the dolls blanket which she used to cuddle up in, and then made a dash for the Out- door.

She had remembered as she prepared her burrow for her first litter of babies, that soft warm rug by the fire-side that she had always used!

Ronald had given me ‘Orielton’, with several others of his books, and I was such an ungrateful insensitive person in my younger days that I’d never got round to reading them. Natural history just didn’t do it for me then, and I was too wrapped up in my teenagers and complicated life generally.

I used to meet him when I was delivering my weekly column to the newspaper, and Ronald was delivering his naturalist column. (no e-mail copy then!) He had come to this country to live, because he felt that the UK was not committed to looking after the environment. We loved each other, and yet when I left Auckland to live in the country, we lost touch. It makes me sad now, Ronald was never really appreciated in this country – no-one really knew or recognised  his work back then in the seventies and eighties.

But as usual he made his mark on the place. He was involved in setting up the bird sanctuary at Miranda where every year, hundreds of thousands of godwits gather to begin their stupendous flight to the other side of the world – Siberia – to breed. He also created a little protected reserve around the house on the cliff where he lived, overlooking the sea on the edge of Auckland. I still have the book he gave me about his life in that: “House Above The Sea”, as it was called.

If fame means having an obituary in the New York Times, an entry in Wikipaedia and in various biographical tomes, Ronald does have fame. But I actually feel that the words from Ecclesiasticus describe him best: “and some there be which have no memorial…. these were merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”

Richard Adams, who made a fortune out of Ronald’s research – which he acknowledged – said of Ronald that he was a “sensitive and clear-sighted lover of this beautiful earth.” The gentle humorous man I knew was also a lover of all beauty. He died in 2000 at ninety-six, and as I wrote this, these words came into my mind: “Swim with the dolphins deep in the sea, Soar in the sky with the birds and be free…”

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake in a hurry the other day, and it was serendipitous too, because there was enough left for coffee when my expected visitors arrived the next day to talk of Ronald Lockley.

For this easy lemon cake you need 225 g each of soft butter, caster sugar and SR flour, four eggs and a lemon. Just beat the butter, sugar, eggs and grated lemon rind. When creamy, add the flour and beat gently. When blended pour into a medium sized greased and floured loaf tin and bake for fifty minutes at 160 deg C. I make a glaze of the juice of the lemon, a tablesp of caster sugar, and a teasp of butter. Melt and stir together and brush over the loaf when cooked.

 

Food for Thought

In a Bath Teashop

“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –

Let us hold hands and look.”

She, such a very ordinary little woman;

He, such a thumping crook;

But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

John Betjeman  1906 -1984  Much loved and much read Poet Laureate, and eccentric. As an under-graduate he took his teddy-bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford with him, which was immortalised in the book: ‘ Brideshead Revisited’  by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Elephants Wept and Gorillas danced

Kiwis are not just New Zealanders. They are the a rare and unique breed of bird. And a few weeks ago after heavy rain in the South Island, a kiwi’s nest was threatened by floods pouring through its enclosure. The male and female kiwi had been conscientiously nursing their egg, a precious one, since they are an endangered species.

As the water began surge through, threatening to wash their nest and egg away, the male kiwi sprang into action. He seized twigs and grass and any materials he could find to stuff under the nest to raise it above water level. Outside, conservation staff began digging drainage too.

What this told me is that that kiwi father understood the principles of engineering.  Knowing that by levering his nest up with whatever he could find, he could try to save his offspring. He did.

The week before, I had seen some amazing pictures in an English newspaper. Two gorillas who had been born in a zoo and had grown up together, were parted, when the elder was sent to another zoo for a breeding programme. After three years, coming to the conclusion that the giant black gorilla was infertile, the zoo decided to send him back to join his brother, who during this time had been shuttled off to another zoo.

The pictures were of their re-union. Recognising each other straight away, they ran to each other, making sounds, hugging each other, rolling on the ground together in ecstasy, and dancing with joy.

What this told me is that separating animals and shunting them around to zoos and breeding programmes is as cruel as it was to break up slave families and sell mothers away from their children, and split up fathers and brothers in the days before Abolition. I read many years ago of a woman who decided to make feta cheese, and began breeding a small flock of sheep. As each generation was born, mothers, grannies, great grannies and children all remained in their family groups, and when she banged on the pail each day to gather them in for milking, they came in their family groups.

And yet we take lambs and calves from their mothers all the time, and foals from their mothers to race them as yearlings before their bones have matured, which is why so many young racehorses come to grief. Horses are not fully grown for six to seven years. Treating animals with no regard to their rights is called speciesism, a term coined by Australian philosopher and animal campaigner Peter Singer. He likens it to sexism, and racism.

In March this year, legendary conservationist Lawrence Anthony died in Africa. He was known as ‘The Elephant Whisperer’. He had learned to calm and heal traumatized elephants who were sent to Thula Thula where he lived. The first herd arrived enraged from the death of a mother and her calf. The fifteen year old son of the dead mother charged him and his rangers, trumpeting his rage, his mother and baby sister having been shot in front of his eyes; a heartbreakingly brave teenager, defending his herd.

The traumatised elephants were herded into an enclosure to keep them safe until they were calm enough to move out into the reserve. The huge matriarch gathered her clan, and charged the electric fence, getting an 8,000-volt. She stepped back, and with the family in tow strode round the entire perimeter, checking for vibrations from the electric current. That night, the herd somehow found the generator, trampled it, pulled out the concrete embedded posts like matchsticks, and headed out, in danger from waiting poachers with guns at the ready.

Recaptured, Anthony knew it was only a matter of time before they escaped again. He talked to Nana the huge matriarch, telling her they would be killed if they broke out again. He feared he would be killed too, if he didn’t make a connection with them before they charged him. Momentarily he did feel a spark of connection with Nana, and then decided that the only way he could help them was to live with them and get to know them. And this was the start of many troubled elephants being brought to him for healing.

When Anthony died, there were two elephant herds in the reserve. They hadn’t visited Anthony’s house for eighteen months. But when he died in March, both herds made their way to his house. It would have taken them about twelve hours to make the journey, one herd arriving the day after, and the second a day later. The two herds hung around the house for two days, grieving, and then made their way back into the bush.

Feminist and Fulbright scholar Rabbi Leila Gal Berner is reported as saying… ‘If ever there were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephant’s hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.’

Some years ago another herd of elephants descended on a herd of antelopes who’d been penned up preparatory to being transplanted to another part of Africa. The rangers saw this herd of elephants bearing down on them and thought they’d come to kill the antelopes. What they did was trample down the enclosure so that the antelopes could escape.

I find all these stories of animals unbearably moving, because they all illustrate intelligence, emotional depths, and extra consciousnesses that man doesn’t possess. We say we are superior because we can reason – didn’t the kiwi reason – because we are self conscious – has that been a blessing or a curse – because we can use tools – but many animals can, as research is now showing us – because we have souls- why are we so sure that animals don’t?

Maybe American writer Henry Beston, who wrote the classic ‘The Outermost House’, put it best when he wrote: ‘We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they live finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

It seems to me that it’s man who has the splendour of the earth, and animals who have the travail. Maybe, as more and more of us care about them, that will change.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The old chap’s 83rd birthday, and some of the family for lunch to celebrate. I made it an easy one, roast chicken breasts for them, stuffed with sausage meat and sage, and wrapped in bacon – all free range and organic. The usual, a big dish for people to help themselves – roasted parsnips, onions, potatoes boiled in their skins, and then slightly crushed with plenty of butter, spring carrots and Brussels sprouts, plus the famous mushrooms in cream, parsley and garlic instead of gravy. Pudding was easy, using the same oven, and on another shelf, I baked some apples, cored and stuffed with spoonfuls of Christmas mincemeat, placed in a dish with cream and whisky poured over. This juice is heavenly. Serve the apples with crème fraiche or ice cream and a little shortbread biscuit. It was good with coffee served at the same time.

 

Food for Thought

A friend sent me this poem, and I offer it to all my fellow bloggers:

“..a poet/writer is someone

Who can pour light into a spoon

And then raise it

To nourish your parched holy mouth’

Hafez  1315 -1390   Renowned Persian lyric poet

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The Love of A Lion

If I ever need a lift to the spirit, I check out Christian the Lion on Youtube.

His true story is all there on film, a story that many people reading this may already know. It was back in the sixties, when Christian was bought from Harrods by a couple of young Aussies enjoying the swinging London scene. Those were the days when the late John Aspinall walked around town with a tiger on a lead, and girls had snakes coiled rounds their necks instead of scarves. Nowadays I think people realise how unfair this is to animals, and it probably wouldn’t go unchecked.

However, the owners of Christian did their best for the beautiful lion cub, giving him lots of exercise in a walled churchyard in Chelsea, courtesy of a friendly Vicar,  giving him the run of their home and their furniture warehouse, feeding him with all the food and vitamins a lion cub could want! He played ball, turned out chest of drawers, and generally behaved like a kitten, an ingenuous, irresistible, cuddly kitten. He went out to dinner in Chelsea restaurants with them, and travelled in the back seat of their open sports car looking at the people passing on the pavements.

As he grew older his owners realised that life for a full-grown lion on the streets of Chelsea was not going to work. So they explored places they could take him to where he’d be happy. They couldn’t find anywhere in England. Anyone who loves animals wouldn’t want a beloved pet to end up in a zoo.

In one of those blessed synchronicities, a chap wanted a desk and went to buy one at the furniture warehouse, where he was ambushed by a playful lion cub springing out from behind a chest! The chap was Bill Travers, who with his wife Virginia McKenna was devoted to lions, and had run a charity for them ever since they’d made the film’ Born Free’ about Elsa the Lioness.  

He understood Christian’s dilemma, and contacted George Adamson at his Kora Lion Reserve in Kenya, to ask if they could bring Christian to his place, and set him free. Not an easy goal, to acclimatise a domestic pet to the wild, but finally Adamson agreed.  There are wonderful photos of Christian going off in a Bedford van to stay in the country with the Travers and McKenna, and learning to be an animal outside instead of living in a flat. The young men who loved and owned him, built him an enclosure and a hut, and spent hours sitting with him every day. They left a note on the door of their London flat: “Christian is on holiday in the country”.

To watch the film of each one entering Christian’s enclosure and to see the young lion leaping up into their arms, putting his arms round their necks, is to see absolute love. Finally, in a special cage, Christian flew to Africa, accompanied by his doting owners. They were met by Adamson, who was astounded that Christian sat quietly in the back seat of the land-rover, and got out at regular intervals to relieve himself, and then obediently climbed back in.

The frightening scenes of Christian getting to know other lions, and learning to submit to the king of the jungle were harrowing for his owners and we who watch. Eventually, it was felt he was ready to start his new life, and the chaps went back to London.

A year later, they flew back to visit him, hoping they’d be able to find him. The film of Christian, now a large full grown lion, pacing slowly down the hill, then seeing his old friends,  quickening his pace, and then running full pelt, making  lion weeping sounds is heart-stopping. Then he reaches them and springs at the first man, and puts his huge legs and paws around his neck, and hugs him passionately. He does the same to his other owner, and keeps going back and forth between them, beside himself with joy. He is now so big and heavy that they can hardly stay on their feet, and stagger back. It makes me cry each time I watch it. Then we see on the film, a lioness gently sniffing the two men – Christian’s wife, a completely wild lioness, who seeing her mate connecting with these men, does the same herself.

They go back again a few years later, and this time Christian is a magnificent huge maned lion king, who greets them with great dignity and leads them to his cave up in the hills, and the men sit there all day communing with Christian and his lioness wife and his cubs.

They never saw him again. As people encroached on the land, Christian took his family far away from the presence of men. He was now completely wild, his early beginnings in a miserable zoo, and his cage in Harrods not even a memory. But he took with him into the wild a huge capacity to love, which could be seen in his nuzzling of his wife and cubs. Is this the legacy he has handed down to his progeny?

No-one had ever seen such a huge lion before – testament to the fine food and good diet his owners had given him as a cub. And no-one has ever seen such love between a lion and a man before. The tragedy of it all is that if one lion can develop that capacity to love, so can all lions, and probably all creatures. Worse still, in South Africa they are now breeding lions in enclosures, where people can shoot them for fun through the wire, and they are also being sold for medicines to Asian countries. Along with many others, I hope, I’ve just signed a petition to try to stop this cruelty.

And the hope of the story of Christian is that he shows us that the capacity to love, to be faithful, to feel all the emotions that we claim for human beings, is also inbuilt in all living creatures.  We see it in the videos of dogs rescuing other dogs, of the stories of animals rescuing and protecting human beings, even of a rat leading another blind rat with a straw in each of their mouths. Scientists have just discovered the God/Higgs Particle, but I wonder if we will all discover that love matters as much or more than the Higgs Particle. Apparently after this scientific break-through we now Know more about the universe, but does this make us Feel more loving towards our own planet and all beings on it?

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

This is dinner party fodder, for when you need a fancy pudding in a hurry. Lemon cream is the answer. All you need is the same amount of plain yogurt as of thick cream, and the same amount of lemon curd, or lemon butter as it’s sometimes called. Whip the cream until stiff, stir in the yogurt and then the lemon curd, and pour into small glass or parfait dishes. It’s particularly good with some grated orange peel sprinkled on the top. Chill in the fridge, and serve with a shortbread or other crisp biscuit. Looks are everything, so I usually put a tiny hearts-ease or daisy blossom in the middle of each dish.

Food for Thought                                     When we do dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way; and all in too short a measure.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Thomas Traherne,  17th century poet and mystic who died at 38. The son of a shoemaker, he went to a Cathedral school and Oxford, and became an Anglican divine.

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