Please click on this link to read my Christmas 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser: Where People & Nature are thriving…
Where People and Nature are thriving…
This time, two years ago, we decided to get a dog. It was a decision that marked the end of a long period of resistance on my part. I was not so much a ‘dog-hater’ as a ‘dog dis-liker’, but a clever pincer movement by the rest of the family left me out-manoeuvred. Added to this, chinks were beginning to appear in my own armour, as I had to concede that recently acquired pups of friends weren’t entirely unlikable.
And so, on Christmas Day, two years ago, we ‘unwrapped’ the decision to the absolute delight of the children. There were shouts of glee, tears of joy and Christmas was made. A month later we collected a tiny black bundle of wobbly fur and our hearts melted, including mine.
Max, as we named him, was here to stay and, though there were occasional early moments when I wished he wasn’t, two years on and he is a fully integrated and accepted member of the family. He brings much needed laughter, energy and madness to our lives that are all the more rich for it.
I think one of my fears as I surveyed the prospect of dog ownership was that my lovely quiet walks in the countryside would come to an end. I had images of a dog routing every form of wildlife that could flee and relieving himself on every part that couldn’t.
Never for a minute did it cross my mind that rather than detract from my enjoyment of nature he would actually add to it. Not only has he proved an excellent companion, warrant- ing the title “a man’s best friend”, but he has also, in subtle but significant ways, helped bridge the gap between the human and the natural.
We are so used to hearing about the negative impact that we as humans have on the natural world that it is easy to assume a chasm exists between us: the needs and habits of humans appearing irreconcilable with those of nature. I think this perception underlay my concerns about getting a dog and that this human habit of dog walking would somehow seal that disconnect with nature.
I was wrong, and walking this domesticated animal has taken me down new paths (literally) and led me to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world. With the need to find suitable dog walks not far from home I have begun to explore what I think of as the “edgelands” of St Albans – the zones where houses and the built environ- ment give way to more rural areas and countryside. There is an intensity about these areas as urban recreation mixes with farming practices and busy paths and roads parcel up the land.
In the past, I had chosen more remote locations for my walks, away from built-up areas, away from people and away from dogs on the assumption that my experience of nature would be that much richer. But, led by the dog, I have discovered these busy ‘edge- lands’, a truly domesticated landscape, to be far wealthier in wildlife than I had ever imagined. In fact, they appear to be more bountiful than the undisturbed and undoubtedly more scenic countryside walks I have done elsewhere.
One of my favourite “edgeland” walks is around Highfield Park and the surrounding farmland on the southeastern edge of St Albans. Prior to owning a dog I hadn’t really explored this corner of suburban St Albans, albeit only a short distance from home, but it has proved itself a treasure trove of wildlife.
Despite the constant roar of the dual carriageway bordering the area, the hedgerows and fields are rich in birdlife. Consequently an array of predators – kites, foxes, buzzards and the occasional peregrine – are regulars here. Two sets of little owls have found a home in old tree holes, one overlooking the noisy games of kids’ football held every weekend. The site is also home to some of the largest populations of breeding yellow- hammers in the area – a species on the conservation Red List due to its rapid decline in the UK.
Clearly the park managers at Highfield and the local farmers are doing something right but what I find most striking is that all of this wildlife is thriving in the midst of busy human activity. When we are so often cast in the role of either the destroy- ers of nature or its saviour it is gratifying to find evidence of a happy co-existence. I wonder if I would have appreciated this had not that domesticated dog, embodying the link between his wild ancestors and his human owners, demanded a walk? Good boy Max!