Walking from Bath to Cambridge

I recently walked and ran from my house near Bath, to Cambridge (to start my final year at uni), a distance of around 160 miles over 4 days.

Before starting, I did not feel in top form because I’d just got back from a month away in Singapore and Malaysia, where I didn’t do any exercise. However, I had decided that I definitely wanted to run to Cambridge at some point, and the only other opportunity would be at the start of the summer term (the start of the spring term would be too dark and miserable). Therefore, if I left it until the summer and ended up being injured at that time, there would be no other opportunities.

Although I was planning to do the run anyway, I thought I might as well raise money for a charity. I’ve been obsessed with beavers for some time, after first reading about their incredible ecological impacts, and in the easter holiday visiting a beaver swamp in Devon, which was probably the most incredible wildlife site I have ever visited in the UK. About a week before the start of the run, I found out about the Beaver Trust on facebook, and decided that, since they were a brand new charity specifically about beavers, this was too good an opportunity to miss. I set up a fund-raising page, packed my stuff for the term in Cambridge (my dad drove it there after I had arrived), and left 4 days after committing to doing it.

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The kit I took with me – sleeping bag, sleeping mat, bivvy bag, jumper, waterproof, water bottles, head torch, compass, chlorine tablets, battery pack, cable, first aid kit, wallet, snacks.

The route was broken into 3 convenient sections. Firstly, the Kennet and Avon canal could take me all the way from Bath to Newbury, a distance of about 57 miles. After that, there would be about 15 miles of roads and footpaths to connect to the Ridgeway, a long distance trail. This would take me about 45 miles to within a few miles of Luton and from there it was another 38 miles to Cambridge, again along a mixture of roads and footpaths. My ambitious plan was to complete this in 3 days – day 1 along the canal, day 2 the connecting bit and most of the ridgeway, and day 3 the last few miles of the ridgeway and the final trek to Cambridge. More realistically, I was confident that if I could nail the canal on day 1, then I could easily finish it in 4 days (you can easily cover 33 miles a day by just walking).

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The first part of the route – (almost) the length of the Kennet and Avon canal

The first half of day 1 was pretty nice. I was running at about 6-7 miles per hour, stopping about every 2 hours to have a drink or eat a cereal bar. After “lunchtime” (which, because I didn’t feel hungry, didn’t actually involve any more food than another cereal bar), I alternated between walking and jogging. At around 6pm, I asked someone how far it was to Newbury, and he said 6 miles. This made me feel great, so I speeded up and decided to push on and wait to get some proper food once I arrived. However, this must have been a mistake, because after a few hours I had still not arrived. Looking at google maps, I reckon he must have meant 16 miles. By the time I arrived, I was only walking, with huge blisters around the base of my toes, and very hungry and tired. I also realised that I had only sat down once all day. I found a pub in Newbury that had a special meal deal to share between 2 people, and ordered one just for myself. Unfortunately, I was so tired that I couldn’t eat most of it, so packed it into a box and left to find somewhere to sleep. It was around 11pm by the time I fell asleep in some bushes in a park next to a road, and I didn’t sleep well due to the noise of the traffic.

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A massive meal on the first night, after only eating a few cereal bars all day.

The next morning, it was painful to move my legs to get out of the sleeping bag, and walking through Newbury I was overtaken by an old granny. I decided to ditch any idea of going on nice footpaths and take the most direct route along the road to Goring, where I would pick up the ridgeway. This was only about 15 miles, but took me around 6 hours. The blisters were a big problem. With blisters around the front of your foot, you automatically put your weight on the outside edge of your foot, however, this can shift the problem to the muscles in your leg and ankle. The solution is to pop the blisters so that the fluid can drain out (I did it with my teeth to ensure that the hole was big enough to not seal up again), and focus on pressing the blisters into the ground and feeling the pain every time you step, so that you are pushing off the ground normally with your forefoot and toes. In the short term this is more painful but compared to hurting your legs and ankles (which could actually prevent you from completing the challenge) the blister pain doesn’t matter that much. A side effect is that the socks I wore for the whole trip were soaked in slimy pus by the end.

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Good advice for covering long distances

After getting some cheese toasties for lunch and buying some mars bars and energy drinks, I spent the afternoon navigating quite inefficiently to join the Ridgeway path. Having finally reached it at around 6:30, I was feeling pretty tired, but I still had at least 2 hours left to fill my allocated time of at least 12 hours a day on the move (it seems excessive to spend 12 hours not moving when there is basically nothing else to do apart from move, eat, and sleep, and you only need about 8 hours of sleep). I set a timer on my phone for 3 hours, put my head torch on, and jogged and power walked along the trail. The terrain was gently undulating and it was more peaceful and easier to focus in the dark. I think that, although sticking to main roads might seem like the quickest option, running along trails can actually be quicker, because the variation in topography, scenery, and surface underfoot can keep you motivated (and also make it easier on the blisters). Although the scenery was quite picturesque, one thing I didn’t like was the absolutely vast numbers of pheasants in this area. People who support pheasant shooting often argue that the management associated with it can benefit other wildlife, but I increasingly feel that this is mostly rubbish. When there are such crazily high densities of pheasants (according to one estimate, there is almost one pheasant released every year for each person in the UK) the devastation they cause to invertebrate populations (the food source for so much wildlife higher up the food chain) is probably immense. In addition, releasing pheasants (and some of them getting run over) is like handing out free food parcels for foxes, crows, and buzzards, so could well be artificially inflating the populations of these predators, which in turn reduces the populations of songbirds and small mammals, the very species which the game shooting community often claims to be protecting. As for habitat creation, most of the cover crops for pheasants just consists of blocks of maize at the edges of arable fields, which is pretty crap for wildlife. The hedges in these places are no less trashed than everywhere else.

Anyway, after a few hours of jogging and power walking through the dark my hands and mouth felt weirdly fuzzy and I couldn’t always walk in a straight line, so I kept a look out for any dry places to sleep. When I reached the M40 motorway, the track passed under it through a tunnel, which was perfectly dry. Compared to the previous night’s accommodation, this was luxury! It was calming to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere (in reality I was only about 2 miles from the nearest town), but the downside of this was that I didn’t find anywhere to eat, so only had some peanuts and a mars bar for dinner.

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Luxury accommodation under the motorway

The next morning I downed an energy drink and, after my blisters had numbed down, managed to jog for about 2 hours (in which I covered about 10 miles). At around 11am I ate 2 cheese toasties and bought a few more mars bars and energy drinks, then continued running. Cruising along the trail through woodlands and chalk grasslands, and up and down gentle hills, it was, for the first time in this journey, actually enjoyable. For a couple of hours I tagged along with 2 other runners who looked like they were training for an ultramarathon. However, after they went home, I realised that we had left the main path that I was supposed to be on. I then spent about 2 hours walking through the woods trying to rejoin it, and, when there was only a few hours of daylight left, I decided to ditch finding the trail and take the most direct route along a main road to Luton. Fuelled by another energy drink, I managed to properly run about 6 miles. However, the tendons on the front of my ankles seized up, so I had to walk and limp the last 7-8 miles into Luton. I bought some bread, milk, nuts, and fruit, and went to sleep in an overgrown area of a park. Nestled in some long grass, looking up at the stars, and further from the noise of traffic than I had been on the past two nights, it was very peaceful. Today had been the best day of the journey.

The next morning the tendons on the front of my ankles were incredibly painful whenever I moved my feet, and it was a struggle to get out of my sleeping bag and start walking. I decided that, in order to not do any serious damage, I would not try running today, and would stick to the shortest possible route along the main roads. It was only 38 miles to Cambridge, so I was confident that I could walk this in a day. Taking an extra day would make the overall finishing time of 5 days sound pretty rubbish, so I was determined to simply continue walking until I got there. In the end, it took 16 hours, the last 4 of them in the dark and the rain. For most of the time I was limping because of the pain in my ankles. Taking ibuprofens did make a big difference (or maybe its just the placebo effect), so at some points I could walk fairly normally. I walked past some huge fields covered with solar panels. Because solar panels are very inefficient, this made me wonder whether restoring woodland on this land, rather than covering fields in solar panels, could actually sequester more carbon than the reduction in emissions from using solar panels instead of burning fossil fuels. (I’ve tried some rough calculations but am not sure what the answer would be). The last 10 miles seemed to take forever. My pace slowed down as I got closer to Cambridge, as if I would get infinitely closer but never actually reach it. Reaching the edge of the city, I felt like I was almost there, but it still took an hour or more to walk into the centre. Even when I could actually see the end a few hundred metres away, I couldn’t celebrate, because it would still take a few minutes in the cold and rain to cover that distance. I arrived at 11pm, had an amazing shower, ate some porridge, and went to sleep feeling incredibly happy. 

Here is a breakdown of how far I covered on each day, according to google maps. Estimates for days 2 and 3 are very approximate, because google maps cannot recognise the Ridgeway trail, so I had to drag the route to the nearest roads. I didn’t do any proper training for this challenge, so I’m sure someone else could do it much faster.

Day 1 – 57 miles, 1000 ft ascent, 14 hrs

Day 2 – 30 miles, 1600 ft ascent, 12 hrs

Day 3 – 36 miles, 2200 ft ascent, 11 hrs

Day 4 – 38 miles, 900 ft ascent, 16 hrs

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Is it time to rethink our irrational dislike of invasive species?

Invasive species are present in most ecosystems, and are named as one of the 4 largest drivers of extinctions world-wide. It is therefore unsurprising that many conservationists strongly dislike them, and their eradication is a major focus for conservation. As would be expected, species which cause the most catastrophic damage have received the most attention, yet this gives the impression that all invaders are sprawling weeds, ravenous herbivores, or vicious predators. In reality, many introduced species are harmless or simply do not survive at all when introduced, and a minority may even be beneficial to native wildlife. In general the world’s ecosystems would be in a better state without them, but it is still fascinating to think about the question of whether all invaders should in fact be considered unwelcome.

Although it is commonly thought that all introduced species are ecologically damaging, in fact the majority are not. It has been suggested that invasive species follow the “10s rule”: only 10% of introduced species escape, 10% of those establish, and 10% of those become pests. For example, in France in the 19th century, many invasive plants were introduced accidentally through wool imports. 458 species were present in the wild in 1859, yet by 1950 the number had fallen to just 6, and today only 1 has become a pest. However, in some cases invaders are much more successful, for example if the climate in the introduced range is similar to the native range. Climate is not the only factor which determines whether a species can survive: which species are already present is also important. There are 2 possible scenarios: biotic resistance (which I will come to later) and invasional meltdown. The UK’s freshwater ecosystems are unfortunately spiraling into invasional meltdown caused by invaders from south-eastern Europe. Introduced zebra mussels, which out compete native mussels, provide a food source for invasive round gobies and a habitat for killer shrimps, which indiscriminately kill and maim native animals. The killer shrimps are themselves prey for the round gobies, boosting their population. The whole ecosystem is therefore coming to resemble something from south-eastern Europe rather than a native ecosystem. However, not all invaders are as monstrous as the killer shrimp. Little owls and brown hares were both introduced, yet seem to cause no problems, and have become a cherished part of our fauna. Some invaders may even have slight positive effects. In north America, feral horses grazing on salt marshes have increased crab populations and the diversity of foraging birds. Although not native, the feral horses may be filling the niche of other horse species which were abundant in north America until they were hunted to extinction around 10,000 years ago.

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Killer shrimp – a deadly invader
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Little owl – a benign invader

 

The proportion of invasive species which are pests is often lower if more native species are present, particularly apex predators. In Sweden, where White tailed eagles have recovered, they have eaten invasive American mink. In Ireland, booming populations of pine martens have killed grey squirrels, enabling red squirrels (which are better at evading capture) to thrive. If a species is introduced into a system with many species of predators and competitors, there is a high chance that something will either eat it or out-compete it, whereas if the ecosystem is more empty, the invaders have a field day. This idea is known as biotic resistance, and may also explain why introduced rats, cats, and goats are so devastating to small oceanic islands: small islands tend to naturally lack predators which would control the invaders. Ecosystems which retain keystone species and high native diversity are less likely to become dominated by a single species, either invasive or native. For example, by digging things up and destroying plants, wild boar increase the heterogeneity of forest floor plant communities, preventing a single species from taking over.

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Goats – funky horns but devastating to many small island ecosystems

Attempting to eradicate invasive species may not always be the best option. It is very costly and is unlikely to succeed except on small islands. Reintroducing native species which could predate the invaders and simultaneously benefit other native species could be a better strategy. For example, reintroducing lynx would keep our populations of muntjac and sika deer in check, reducing damage to trees and shrubs. Even if the appropriate native species have gone extinct, ecological interactions can still be restored by using close relatives or ecological proxies. In the Indian ocean, giant tortoises were exterminated on Mauritius a few centuries ago, so conservationists recently introduced another species of tortoise from Aldabra, a nearby island. They have so far been successful at limiting the spread of invasive plants, as well as increasing vegetation heterogeneity by grazing, browsing, fertilizing the soil, and dispersing the trees of ebony seeds. A more outlandish proposal is to introduce giant tortoises to Hawaii (where no giant tortoise species are native) to recreate the browsing and grazing patterns of extinct moa nalos (giant flightless geese). The spiny leaves of some endemic Hawaiian plants are similar to plants adapted to tortoise herbivory on islands in the Indian ocean, suggesting that tortoises and giant flightless geese may have fed in a similar way. These examples suggest that some carefully chosen introductions could in fact be used to benefit native wildlife. Taken to the extreme, the idea of using non native species as ecological proxies for extinct native wildlife has caused some people to suggest ideas as crazy as introducing rhinos to Australia, cheetahs to the USA, and elephants to most of the world! (This is very interesting and controversial but I will not discuss it here. See http://biology.unm.edu/fasmith/Web_Page_PDFs/Donlan%20et%20al.%202006%20Am%20Nat.pdf for more info).

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Sika deer – an invasive species which could be controlled by reintroducing apex predators?

Although only a small proportion of introduced species actually become pests, those that do can cause irreparable damage to native ecosystems, and are a major threat to biodiversity and economies worldwide. But, whether we like it or not, in many places invasive species are here to stay, so we should consider whether focusing solely on eradicating them is the best strategy. Instead, reintroducing native species or carefully selected substitutions for extinct species may be a better way to restore biodiversity and improve ecosystem services. However, where this is not possible or not ecologically appropriate (for example in the case of invasive rats in seabird colonies), we should still definitely have a strong dislike for invaders.

 

References:

Claim in intro: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053019615591020

Wild boar: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1526-100X.2012.00903.x

Lynx / sika deer: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3807969.pdf

Feral horses: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01167.x

Tortoises: http://www.torreyaguardians.org/articles/hansen-2010.pdf

Does the loss of biodiversity matter?

Humans have been altering the natural world for millennia, and today our impact is felt in every corner of the globe. Due to our disconnection with nature, the devastation of “the environment” is often seen as a price to pay for continued economic growth and human progress. However, in reality the erasure of biological diversity threatens not only our physical and mental wellbeing, but also undermines the sustainability of our civilisation.

The loss of biological diversity inflicts irreparable damage on the tree of life. The mind boggling diversity of species present on the earth today is the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution, and as an intelligent and self-aware species with an unrivalled impact on the planet, we have a moral duty to preserve other species. Rolston (1985) described eradicating species as like “tearing pages out of an unread book, written in a language humans hardly know how to read”. However, it is debatable whether a species can actually have inherent value, other than simply being useful or aesthetically desirable from a human perspective. From a utilitarian viewpoint, “the preservation of species is to be aimed at and commended only in so far as human beings are emotionally and sentimentally interested” (Hampshire 1972). It is widely agreed that we have a moral duty to not harm other human beings, so arguably we also have a moral duty to not harm other species, because there is no fundamental reason to prioritise our own species over others. However, since it is inevitable that we have to kill and displace many organisms in order to survive (and that there is not enough conservation funding to save every species), it is impossible to escape the fact that some species must be prioritised over others. In answering the question of which species to prioritise, we inevitably make a subjective judgement of which species are most important to us, rather than which have a greater inherent value. Furthermore, the flaws of the Biological Species Concept make it harder to justify which groups of organisms we choose to protect. For example, in my opinion, the vast amount of money spent on attempting to save northern white rhinos through IVF would be better spent on other conservation projects. Given that the northern and southern subspecies are very similar physiologically and fill the same ecological niche, southern white rhinos could simply be introduced to the northern white rhino’s former range. The distinction between the subspecies is probably more an arbitrary division than anything ecologically meaningful. If our aim is simply to preserve biodiversity, should this be extended to preserving genetic diversity within common species as well as saving rare species from extinction? On the other hand, if different species with similar ecological functions are seen as interchangeable, we risk homogenising the planet’s ecosystems.

On a more practical level, the loss of biodiversity threatens economic prosperity. Biodiverse ecosystems provide countless benefits such as flood mitigation, pollination of crops, carbon sequestration, and raw materials, which would otherwise be costly to produce. Beavers, by creating leaky dams and spongy wetlands, slow the flow of floodwaters though upland streams and so reduce the likelihood of flash flooding downstream, which in 2000 cost £600 million in England and Wales. Not only would building flood defences be more costly than reintroducing beavers, but beavers also create wonderful diverse habitats full of life such as frogs, water voles, and black storks, and could benefit rural economies by boosting tourism. On a global scale, Costanza et al (1997) estimated the total value of the world’s ecosystem services to be roughly 33 trillion USD. However, the implicit suggestion of this statement is that the loss of these services could be redeemed by 33 trillion USD of money. Although some services may be replaceable, for example crops can be hand pollinated if the insect pollinators have been exterminated, many ecosystem services are simply irreplaceable, so assigning them a monetary value is misleading. This is especially true of the provision of raw materials. Soil erosion in England and Wales is estimated to cost around £1 billion per year, but the consequence of soil erosion is not just a loss of money, it is the end of the food production on which we all depend. The Knepp rewilding project has shown that biodiverse plant communities arising from low intensity mixed grazing increase the nutrient availability and carbon content of the soil far better than monocultures. Furthermore, a greater diversity of mycorrhizae increases nutrient and water uptake by crops. It has been suggested that, by reducing the diversity of pollinating insects and mycorrhizae, pesticides and herbicides make no significant net contribution to increasing overall yields.

As well as the measurable economic impacts, the loss of biodiversity also threatens our physical and mental wellbeing. Children who spend time learning in green space “perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies” according to a report commissioned by Natural England, and patients recovering from surgery had shorter hospital stays if they were allocated a room with a view of foliage than those looking out over a brick wall (Ulrich 1984). What is more interesting and amazing is that it is not just the exposure to any green space which benefits our health, but we are even able to subconsciously assess the level of biodiversity in an area. Fuller et al (2007) found that, among visitors to green spaces in Sheffield, there was a correlation between species richness and number of habitats, and various measures of people’s wellbeing. This is fascinating because, if the study population was representative of the UK population as a whole, their knowledge of natural history was probably very low, yet still they rated the more biodiverse systems as more appealing. A possible explanation is that, in our evolutionary history, a propensity to seek out more biodiverse areas would have been rewarded by the larger numbers of plant food sources and prey species living there. As Darwin stated in The Origin of Species, more biodiverse meadows attain a greater biomass of herbage. In general, more biodiverse ecosystems have greater plant and animal biomass (explained by the adaptation of each species to specific conditions, and the insurance hypothesis), so would have provided more food for our hunter gatherer ancestors. Perhaps this explains our innate attraction to more biodiverse systems.

The loss of biodiversity is probably the biggest problem facing humanity today. Not only does it threaten the sustainability of our economy, but also undermines the very foundations of our existence. Even if we could survive a massive loss of biodiversity, our lives would be unbelievably diminished. In the words of Attenborough, “The natural world is the greatest source of excitement, the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

References

Rhinos: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2850923/

Soil loss: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0502 and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880906004476

Beavers: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261727410_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Beaver

Children outdoor education: http://www.lotc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/KCL-LINE-benefits-final-version.pdf and https://www.monbiot.com/2013/10/07/rewild-the-child

Biodiversity loss: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/03/stop-biodiversity-loss-or-we-could-face-our-own-extinction-warns-un

Ethics of conserving species: https://www.pdcnet.org/collection/authorizedshow?id=enviroethics_1981_0003_0002_0101_0112&file_type=pdf and https://www.jstor.org/stable/1310053?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents

Running to the sea

Yesterday I ran to the sea. Since returning from Lundy island, I’ve been dreaming of more adventures. On Lundy, it was easy to do crazy things outside my comfort zone: sleeping under rocks away from the village, snorkelling with puffins at sunrise, kayaking through rough waves, and swimming the length of the island. However, in Cambridge and at home near Bath there is less scope for these sort of things (although I did sleep under a hedge a few times in Cambridge), so I decided to do a mini adventure. I’ve never really considered my house to be near the sea, but a quick look at google maps confirms that it is only 27 miles away. Judging from my experience running along the south west coast path last Easter (see a previous blog), this is definitely achievable in one day. To make things more exciting, I decided not to take a map.

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The start

I set off at 8:40 in the morning, having slept under the stars in the garden. The route was pretty simple: Run upstream along the river that passes my house until you reach a big lake. Run west from this lake to another lake. Find the river exiting this second lake, and follow it down to the sea. For the first few miles I was running at a decent pace next to the river. I found a disused canal partially filled with water, ducks, and reeds, and followed it for a bit. I had an amazing close up view of a kingfisher, and found a flooded woodland which looked like the sort of place you could imagine seeing a beaver.

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Disused canal with ducks and black headed gulls
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Swampy woodland

After about an hour, I came across a stream entering the river from a mysterious and ancient looking wood, so decided to do a detour to check it out. I ended up following some more streams and taking a slightly hillier route to the first lake. I was unsure exactly where I was for most of the time, but if you keep moving in roughly the right direction you will probably get there in the end.

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Trees
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Killer sheep added another layer of excitement

Then there was a little bit of running on the flat, to reach the second lake, which involved passing the yeo valley yogurt farm (probably a significant proportion of the atoms in my body originate from these yogurts). At around midday, I reached a sign which said 13 miles to Weston super Mare (the sea). I decided that, with 4 hours of daylight left, I could easily afford to take another scenic detour. Instead of following the river down to the sea, I contoured along the edge of the valley, through some woodland, bracken, and grasslands. There were also 2 very impressive gorges.

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A detour through the woods
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Impressive limestone gorge with rare calcareous grassland habitat

However at this point my legs were hurting and I only had 2 hours left before sunset, so after emerging from the woods I decided to run the last 9 miles along the verge of a main road.

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A random missile next to the road
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A boring route but faster than going on footpaths
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Funky graffiti
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Nearly there, but a bit lost in the urban jungle

My idea was that then I could arrive at the beach in time to photograph the epic sunset reflected in the sea. In reality I got lost in Weston super Mare, photographed some funky graffiti instead, and arrived at the beach at low tide to witness a disappointing sunset with no reflection, and took one photo before my phone died. In hindsight it would have been better to do a slightly longer off-road route. To get home, I got a train back to Bath.

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The beach! But unfortunately no epic sunset

The whole thing took about 7 hours and it was probably around 30 miles (google maps said 27, but I did some detours), so I was not very fast (I also stopped a few times to eat food). However it was definitely a fun adventure that I would recommend – it’s amazing how many different places you can experience and how much you can challenge yourself in just one day.

 

To see some of my wildlife photography and films, please check out my other website http://www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk

Lundy Memories

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This summer I was a long term conservation volunteer on Lundy island. I spent most of my free time photographing and filming the wildlife, mostly underwater, and exploring the coastline. It was an absolutely awesome 3 months, with some truly mind boggling experiences. Here are some of the most memorable (in no particular order):

Swimming as fast as I could along the east side of Lundy, feeling the water rushing past and looking down at the amazing patterns of many different seaweeds. Sleeping out near the north end of the island (away from all the people) amongst a cacophony of manx shearwaters flying in to feed their chicks. Listening to the screaming of peregrines as I woke up (flashback to Cambridge). Watching storm petrels flitting across the sky just above my head in the dark. Capsizing a leaky kayak in rough waves (was actually quite dangerous at the time, but I was ok in the end). A seal hugging my leg for about a minute. Me and my 2 housemates watching an absolutely giant beetle crawling around in someone’s dirty pants. Being chased by an absolutely massive bull seal when kayaking. Snorkelling through spectacular sea caves with seals. Peering over the cliff edge to see 2 female seals with pups on a secluded beach below. Walking past a seal pup about 2 metres away when it hauled out on the road near the jetty. Swimming far out from the west side of the island to photograph seabirds underwater. Swimming the length of the island. Meeting an angry seal in a remote cave. Sneaking up on turnstones, oystercatchers, and common sandpipers to within a few metres by kayak (it is definitely easier to sneak up in a kayak than if you are on the shore). Attempting to climb up a bramble covered cliff, wearing only shorts. Trying to kayak through the narrow gap between 2 rocks as the tide rushed through in the opposite direction. Getting heat stroke during the 14 mile Lundy race. Walking up to the north end at 3:30am the next morning, with just a bit of orange light in the sky. Getting drunk (x3). Swimming in complete darkness with bioluminescent plankton lighting up silver as I disturbed the water. Walking around in the dark, and in the moonlight. Sleeping behind a random rock at the top of a cliff, and waking up with no memory of where I was. Watching the sun go down over the horizon countless times. Watching the sun go down over the horizon with puffins silhouetted in front just a few metres away, swimming around in the reflection of the sunset. Fulmars flying past my head closer than 1 metre whilst I was swimming. Fulmars flying past me when I was sitting on the cliff edge, close enough that I could have touched them. Hating myself when I didn’t wake up for the sunrise. Watching and photographing shags just a few metres away at the bottom of the cliffs at the north end as the sun went down over the horizon. Glimpsing deer running like ghosts silhouetted against the blue glow after a cloudy sunset, as I was walking up the island to sleep. Being forced to kiss a guy who worked in the pub as part of a drinking game (would not recommend). Looking into the eyes of guillemots underwater as close as 1 metre (definitely would recommend). Swimming with puffins and guillemots for up to 5 hours a day for several weeks. Eating mouldy food from the depths of the fridge. Being surrounded by the bubble trails produced by guillemots and puffins underwater. Falling in love with a seal (it repeatedly nuzzled the camera and nibbled my fins and wetsuit). Seeing the most awesome stars. Putting on a wet wetsuit at 4:30am. Snorkelling with 3 incredibly inquisitive seals at sunrise in absolutely unreal visibility and the most epic light. Being smashed around by big waves whilst photographing guillemots underwater, and also when trying to get out onto the rocks (pretty edgy but certainly very exciting!) Swimming around in the bay beneath a seabird colony at sunset, with all the birds wheeling around overhead. Watching a peregrine hunt kittiwake chicks inside a cave. Listening to kittiwakes calling in the dark as I fell asleep.

Underwater seabird madness

Welcome to the second of my blogs. Recently, instead of damaging my feet on some crazy adventure (see previous blog), I have been a long term conservation volunteer on Lundy island in north devon, one of my favourite places. One of my ideas for this summer on Lundy was to try to photograph and film puffins, guillemots, and razorbills underwater. I’d seen a few photographers do this before, but as far as I know none of them had thought of doing it at sunset, and no one had done it on Lundy. I got the idea of photographing underwater at sunset from seeing an epic shot of a killer whale in the wildlife photographer of the year by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen, with golden sunlight bursting through the water. Although I think this image was taken just before the polar winter (when the sun is very low in the sky), I couldn’t see why the effect should be any different to a normal sunrise or sunset, so I was surprised that more photographers had not thought of doing this.

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The killer whale photo by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen which inspired me to photograph guillemots at sunset.

 

So, before going to Lundy, I had the dream shot in my head: a puffin / guillemot / razorbill swimming down through golden rays of sunlight, with the bubble trail backlit by the sun.

When I arrived on Lundy there were loads of seabirds still around, and conditions were perfect (hot and sunny every day, so rubbish light during the day but a guaranteed awesome sunrise and sunset). On the first evening, I got in the water at around 6, was absolutely blown away by the beauty and awesomeness of seeing the auks diving underwater, and so used up all the camera battery by 9, at which point the light was getting seriously hot. So although it was a crazy experience, this first attempt did not produce the images I was after (I got some cool film though).

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One of the early pictures. The light is not as good as later in the evening, but you can see the “snorkelling” behaviour – swimming around on the surface with it’s head in the water to look for fish / investigate me.

For the first few weeks it was an absolute dream: I would slip into the calm water, swim around with the seabirds in absolutely unreal light, look into their eyes underwater, and watch the sun dip down over the horizon, with the birds silhouetted in front. The sunrise sessions were even better: I slept out under the stars (there is low light pollution on Lundy) in my bivvy bag near the north end of the island, was kept awake by manx shearwaters calling as they fly in to their burrows, woken up by peregrine falcons calling and the wailing sound of seals, and saw some deer before sunrise. I got in the water before 5am, and watched the sun rise whilst surrounded by puffins and guillemots (the razorbills were always far rarer, I think overall I only have a couple of images of them). Later on, when the wind changed to the west (the big seabird colony is on the west side) things became a bit dodgy in the evenings: climbing out onto the rocks amongst big waves, with one hand holding the camera and wearing flippers, was certainly an exciting, sometimes scary, and adrenaline fuelled experience, and it was incredibly lucky I didn’t smash the glass dome of the camera housing on the rocks. It was then even more annoying that I scratched it in an entirely non dangerous situation a few weeks later.

It was an absolutely mind bogglingly awesome and beautiful experience to swim with the seabirds. Watching them on the water at sunset is pretty cool, but beneath the water it is a whole new world. The low sun filters down through the waves, the guillemots swim towards me out of the gloom, through the golden rays of light, their bubble trails lighting up in the sun. Sometimes when I approached a large group, they would all dive at once, and there were as many as 20 all swimming around me. When they disappeared, I was surrounded by their criss-crossed bubble trails floating up to the surface. The groups often moved away from the shore throughout the evening, so I followed them out, reaching several hundred metres from the shore, in water too deep to see the bottom. There was no point of reference in the water, so it was absolutely incredible (apart from on some evenings there were actually massive swarms of jellyfish which got in the way of the photos, which was very annoying). The birds were so at home underwater, using their wings to fly underwater far more gracefully than they fly through the air. It was mental!

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A puffin – awkward on land and inefficient in flight but a swimming machine.

At first I focused solely on photographing them underwater, but when swimming around with them I kept seeing them silhouetted against the sunset. To get an image of this required a very high tech gadget – a raft which I made out of plastic bottles from the recycling. With this raft, and a slightly longer lens (you need a mega wide angle for underwater stuff), it was possible to take photos and video at a water level perspective with the sunset in the background. The issue was that with the longer lens, underwater shots were tricky and almost always looked rubbish, so each evening I would have to decide on one setup, and then later realise that the other would have been better. I also bought a cuddly toy puffin and tied it onto my head as a cunning disguise. Once, when I was swimming in an area with few birds, a puffin landed right next to me, so the trick worked, but most of the time I’m not sure it made much difference as they were very curious anyway.

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The raft for water level shots, and the toy puffin.

Despite some technical issues and a very large number of muck ups (basically an excuse for saying I was a crap photographer), there were a handful of images that I actually liked, and in my opinion they are by far the coolest images I have ever taken.

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Puffins at sunset. It’s annoying that the ones on the right are looking away though.

 

 

 

 

 

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A guillemot diving.
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A puffin as the sun drops over the horizon.
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The guillemot shot I had dreamed of (except that the sun is burnt out and the water is too green).

This experience was also the best ever. It was awesome to be immersed in the seabirds’ world, and experience the colony from their perspective. Often when watching wildlife we just look at the animals from a distance, seeing them in a very different way to how they see each other and how they experience the habitat. I felt that in this case, swimming around with the seabirds, seeing them fly overhead (a few times closer than a meter away), seeing them swim around me underwater, and at times being smashed around by large waves, I had experienced a part of their world. Millions of images must be taken of puffins on land, yet they only have to come to land to breed. Apart from breeding, they are really marine animals, perfectly at home on and under the sea. Hopefully some of the underwater images conveyed this.

I am also making a film about some of the wildlife on Lundy. Keep an eye on my Facebook page (Joshua Harris Wildlife Photography) or Instagram (@joshharriswildphoto) to see a few more of my photos, or check out the gallery on my website www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk/Lundy/ for a larger selection. Also watch out for my future blogs, the next one will be about the best memories of my time on Lundy.

120 mile adventure

I recently ran, jogged, and walked from Newquay in Cornwall to Barnstaple in Devon, along the south west coast path, a distance of 120 miles.

I was inspired to do this by reading abut the adventures of Sean Conway (who ran the length of the UK self supported) and Alastair Humphreys (who thought of Microadventures). I also wanted to do another adventure similar to my Shetland trip last summer, going somewhere I did not know much about and “making things up as I went along”. Although this time I decided that instead of taking my camera and focusing on photographing wildlife, I would do something physically challenging. The south west coast path seemed like a good place for such an adventure, because it would be easy to navigate (you can’t get lost when you just keep the sea on the left), there are plenty of villages where I could stop for food, and, judging from google maps satellite view, the vegetation along the coast was mainly gorse, bracken, and small woods, so it should be easy to be able to find somewhere to sleep where I would not be noticed.

So I booked a train to Newquay, bought a tarp, lightweight sleeping mat, and GoPro to record my adventure, and set off. In my rucksack I had: sleeping bag, bivvy bag, sleeping mat, tarp, small first aid kit, chlorine tablets (there was never actually any need to use these), GoPro, phone, money, base layers, fleece, waterproof, plus a pair of shorts, a t shirt, and trainers to wear.

Arriving at Newquay was a bit weird, since obviously it wasn’t a race so there was no start line or anything. I just walked for a bit, recorded a video of me saying something and looking nervous, and started running. At first I got distracted by the many fulmars which were nesting on the cliffs, and the fact that there were signs that said there were corn buntings breeding in this area (they have become very rare due to intensification of agriculture and here many fields were left aside to provide ideal locations for nesting, because they nest on the ground, and foraging for insects in the rough grassland). Fulmars are one of my favourite bird species. Although they are often mistaken for seagulls, they are in fact related to albatrosses. They fly with stiff wings, superbly using the wind to fly using minimal energy when searching the sea for food, and often very acrobatically around the cliffs. In fact, studies have shown that at wind speeds above 25 miles per hour, flying at sea uses less energy than sitting on the nest, as they never need to flap their wings at all. This energy efficient flight is achieved by a technique known as “Dynamic soaring” that is used by many wide ranging seabirds such as albatrosses. It works in a cycle: Facing into the wind causes the birds to gain height, as the air flowing over their wings generates lift. Then they fly downwards in the direction they want to travel, using the height gained to move forwards. Then they turn to face the wind agin and repeat the process. This allows them to fly in pretty much any direction they want, provided it is windy (which it reliably is in the ocean).

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A fulmar photographed on Lundy island (not during my run).
A diagram showing the dynamic soaring technique

Anyway, unfortunately I didn’t have time to watch the fulmars all day, so I took a quick video of the on my phone (regretting the lack of long lens), and moved on. This first afternoon was really fun, as I was running at a decent pace considering I had a 10kg rucksack (maybe 6 mph), and it was cool running over beaches (people looked at me like I was a bit weird) and down hills. On this first afternoon, I covered 27 miles in 6 hours, with one cafe stop for a cheese panini, and a few other stops to eat peanuts and drink water. I arrived in the village of Polzeath (just past Padstow in Cornwall) as it was getting dark and went to a cafe where I ate a very large pizza, a flapjack, a cereal bar, more peanuts, and an egg. Then I found a small valley with a dense thicket of trees that looked like a good sleeping spot, set up my tarp, and went to sleep feeling really tired.

Day 1 had gone better than I had hoped, so I decided to try to get to Bude the next day, which I thought was about 40 miles away, but I wasn’t sure cause there was no internet connection. I actually felt alright as I started running, and the weather was really nice. Despite more distraction by fulmars, I ran 7 miles in the first hour, and then pulled into a cafe to get some beans on toast. I then ran a bit slower (probably average 5mph) for a few more hours, ate a beanburger in another cafe around midday, ran a bit more, ate some bread and dates that I had bought, and it seemed like I was doing well. However at some point in the afternoon I rounded a corner and saw in the distance the coastline going on for miles, and realised that to complete the whole thing I would have to cover all that distance. Whereas up till now I had only though about reaching the next village, I was now thinking about the whole journey, which is a bit demoralising really considering its so long. Its much better to break it into many manageable chunks and just focus on each section at a time. Also at this point I was getting tired and the terrain was getting more hilly, so I slowed down quite a lot and was walking up hills and when it was especially muddy. I almost reached Bude after 12 hours and 36 miles (with 3 cafe stops), but it was getting dark so I went to a pub, then slept behind a bush in some sand dunes. It was pretty cool to see 2 snipes and a curlew (both live in marshy areas and are declining in the UK) near to where I was sleeping though.

The next morning I felt pretty dead, and basically walked most of the 2 miles to Bude, where I got a massive breakfast, because judging from google maps there were hardly any villages where I could get food for around the next 30 miles. This day was pretty slow, with an average speed of only 2.4mph (28.5 miles in 12 hrs with 1 cafe stop and many stops to eat dried fruit, take pictures, and generally rest for a few minutes), because it was really muddy, hilly, and my knees hurt when going up and down hills, so I basically only ran on the flat areas. I went through a village that I remembered from English GCSE had some significance for the poet Thomas Hardy, and I was a bit tempted to write some depressing poetry about the meaninglessness of life or something, cause I felt really tired by this point and my feet had blisters. On a brighter note, I saw a peregrine falcon. The coastline of north Cornwall and Devon was the last refuge of peregrines in the UK when they were almost wiped out by persecution and bioaccumulation of pesticides (leading to thinning of the eggshells causing the adult birds to break them accidentally when incubating the eggs) in the late 20th century. In this area there are many large cliffs which are perfect nest sites, and relatively low human disturbance, so its easy to see why they clung on here. They’ve since made an incredible comeback across the UK, and breed in many of our cities (such as Cambridge), where the tall buildings mimic the cliffs that they nest on and urban pigeons are ideal prey.

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A peregrine falcon photographed in Cambridge (not on my run)

 

There were also some pretty cool rock formations, with massive cliffs and lots of folding. Also I found a hairy orange caterpillar (the hairs probably make them very unpleasant for birds to eat) and 2 species of beetle, although I’m not sure what species they were because unfortunately I’m rubbish at identifying invertebrates. I reached Clovelly, a village in north Devon, at 8:45, went to a pub, and went to sleep in a nearby wood. I could have shown a better sleeping spot but, having sat down for a bit, my legs had become really stiff and my feet hurt when I tried to walk up the hill.

Unfortunately it rained a lot in the night and I hadn’t put up the tarp cause I felt so dead, so I got really wet. The next morning it was also raining and very muddy, so I hardly ran at all for the first 7 miles. Also there were no pubs or cafes, so I just ate a 250g bag of salted peanuts and some dates throughout the morning. I reckon its actually inadvisable to eat around 5g of salt and 150g of fat in one morning, but I didn’t have any other food and I was very hungry. I saw a roe deer, which was nice, and there were a lot of funky lichens on the trees (due to the minimal air pollution of this area), but unfortunately I’m not a lichen expert so I didn’t know what species they were. After a while the landscape got flatter and the weather improved, so I actually started running, and the last 10 miles were on a completely flat tarmac cycle path so I ran it non stop, ending with a sprint finish just in time to catch a train home.

The whole thing took 75 hours 38 mins, so just over 3 days, although I actually spent 4 days doing it, as 2 of them were half days.

It was a pretty cool adventure, and I’d definitely recommend trying something similar. Alastair Humphreys’s website has a lot of helpful advice that’s worth reading if you’re deciding what to do. I’d never run more than 16 miles before, so you can probably achieve more than you think, and anyway you can just walk if you feel tired. Just go! It’ll be really fun.

My feet at the end. Maybe do your adventure when it’s not so wet and muddy! It was definitely worth it though.