One thing I hope comes through from my work online – both on this blog, and on my 365daysofbiking journal – is my huge passion for being outdoors. Pretty much everything I write is somehow related to turning the computer off, and going outside and exploring the best of whats around. This is true for my photography, cycling, local history and cartography themes. I believe that it’s only by exploration and studying our surroundings that we can understand our place in the world, society and history.
My love of the outdoors came from my father, who used to take me walking as a young lad, and show me the plants and wildlife around where we lived, and from the childhood I had roaming free around the commons, copses and countryside that surround our town. A a teenager I cycled miles, exploring lanes, tracks and places I’d never before heard of. As I grew older, I came to find peace and resolution in the outdoors, which I still find inspiring, energising and addictive.
I hope this comes through in the material I present, be it photography or writing. I’m no expert on wildlife or history, or indeed, my area, but I’ve learned from others. The passion I have is shared with so many people on and offline that now, I only have to photograph and post a plant, bird, or a toadstool, and before long someone is telling me all about it. As the shared knowledge deepens, so does the understanding, respect, and dare I say it, love.
The love I have is shared by other local writers whose work I adore and appreciate. Local wildlife types like Roger ‘Ziksby’ Jones, who takes the most amazing photographs; Chaz Mason, writer of the best wildlife blog I know; George ‘The Mushroom’ Makin, who has written passionately of his love for birdwatching and Park Lime Pits, a subject dear also to Linda Mason and her partner Aiden McHaffie, who both curate fascinating and emotional journals of their experiences. Over in Staffordshire, Graham Evans and The Chasewater Wildlife Group work incredibly hard to protect and document a challenging, post industrial Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Linda Mason recently appeared on BBC Radio WM and spoke passionately and eloquently of her love for Walsall’s greenspace, particularly Park Lime Pits, and how vital she considers the work of Walsall Countryside Services.
You can hear what she had to say by listening to the recording below.
Download link if the above player doesn’t work: Linda on BBCWM
One of the key factors in all this is the dedicated work carried out by local authority Countryside Services teams. In Walsall, we are blessed with an amazing team of rangers, the most prominent of which to the online community are bat-mad Morgan Bowers and birding whizz Kevin Clements, but these two excellent naturalists are part of a larger team who look after Walsall’s remarkable commonwealth of greenspace and waterscape.
Walsall isn’t commonly thought to be a wildlife haven, but the assumption that the conurbation has nothing to offer is quickly countered. Last year, red deer were seen meandering through The Butts, barely half a mile from Walsall Town centre. We have peregrines hunting among the tower blocks, chimneys and bellcotes of the town centre. Foxes and badgers populate the streets by night. Inbetween the urban population centres are acres of woodland, common and heath – from Moorcroft Wood in the south, to Brownhills Common in the north; from Park Lime Pits in the east to Fibbersley nature reserve in the west.
Morgan featured in the ‘Raising the Barr’ promotional film . She’s a natural teacher. Contrast with the specimen of deadwood from the chamber…
There is major diversity of habitat, giving rise to huge biodiversity. Former sandpits like Shire Oak Quarry offer an utterly different resource to the limestone geology of Park Lime pits. The lofty heights of Barr Beacon are completely different to the heathland of Pelsall Common. All of this is maintained, promoted and interpreted by a very small team of dedicated experts. Morgan has organised events as varied as Peregrine Watch to newt trapping, from meteor watching to woodland foraging. Very often these wildlife dynamos work for free in their spare time.
The rangers take time to work with residents – and most importantly, the children of the borough – to show them the world that might otherwise go unknown to them. The slimy fascination of amphibia; the drama of observing hunting raptors. The horror, then cuteness of bats, to the joy of planting, tending and watching things grow. Enthusiastic adults teaching the joy and respect for the outdoors they themselves know, love and embody.
Sadly, there are clouds gathering over our landscape which are troubling and promise stormy weather to come. Cuts apparently have to be made, and to many of the narrow minds currently populating the Walsall Council Chamber, Countryside Services is an easy, soft target. I’d tenure that many of the political and intellectual pygmies who pontificate about cuts have no idea about the quiet, gentle revolution happening in the greenspace around the borough. They don’t know or care about the adults and kids that volunteer to plant bulbs, clean up reserves and work for free to keep their local patch in prime condition. With a cheese-parers attitude to funding, they’re ready to cut what they see as superfluous. They look for easy targets that’ll go down without a fight, all the while preaching austerity and the Big Society, with an eye to their own self preservation.
The irony is that Walsall Countryside Services are the living embodiment of the voluntary community that the idealists wish for us; good-hearted locals like Roger, George, Linda and Aiden – as well as a host of others – regularly can be found working voluntarily to keep their countryside open to all. The people who do this don’t do so out of some idealistic sense of civic duty, pricked into action by some red-faced bluster from hypocritical civic elders; they do it out of love for their place. Out of good heartedness, and pride. And no small amount of love.
It is therefore essential that we as a community shout loud and clear about the great asset we have here. We need to cry from the rooftops that we can’t afford to lose the few staff we have, when they’re coordinating so much extra for free. If only Paul Sheehan, Walsall Council Chief Executive, on a salary in the neighbourhood of £200,000 was capable of rallying people to the same degree as the rangers, he might be worth half of his salary, instead of a tenth. In an age where we’re wasting fortunes funding an employment agency to supply a head of Children’s Services and throwing hundreds of thousands at lifeless, doomed projects like the Gigaport, we can still afford the countryside.
Over the years, huge swathes of Walsall have been lost to pollution, decay and neglect, overlooked by a political class that knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I know Walsall has a few excellent councillors who understand the importance of this issue: I beg them to fight with us to protect our commonwealth. For every kid that gazes open-mouthed at a handful of toads, there’s one less who’s likely to destroy their environment. It’s only by learning about what’s around us that we can appreciate our duty of care.
Clearly a lesson missing from the education of many of our local politicians. You’re either with us, or against us.