Matt Adam Williams Youth, Change, Nature and Climate Tue, 08 Nov 2016 13:38:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A reflection on jays Sun, 02 Oct 2016 09:51:34 +0000 There’s one bird whose very heart is a beating contradiction. As I walk through the wood I can hear their dry-throated screams. The sound dodges between bare branches. Perhaps their call is them expressing anger at their cover being taken away. In Autumn, when the trees become bare, these birds are suddenly revealed. They’ve spent the rest of the year hiding in plain sight. But even the most avid birdwatcher barely sees them in the Spring and Summer months.

One flies to a nearby tree and lands a few metres from me. A second follows close behind: they often move in pairs like this. Beneath my feet the trees have mostly cast their colourful Autumn foliage to the floor. The ground has taken on the appearance of a giant Jackson Pollock canvas. But this pair of birds returns some colour to the bare branches.

One hops down to the floor, busying itself among the hummus. It ferrets beneath the shrivelling leaves, searching for food. These birds are keenly intelligent. They forage for food like squirrels and even store it. They know when a shortfall might be coming, and gather food to compensate for it in advance. This kind of planning in advance is known among some of the cleverest of creatures, including primates like orangutans. This jay is on the lookout for food, perhaps acorns – the first of up to 5000 it might find and then hide away. Denied the secrecy of their own presence, they remain faithful to the idea at least by secreting away their food for the Winter.

Overhead a flock of redwings and fieldfares chacks and trills as it flies over, having arrived from Scandinavia to spend the relatively warmer Winter here. And while the Sun has come out it has lost its Summer passion. On this October morning it still hasn’t burnt away all the frost that formed overnight.

In Spring jays’ breeding and rearing are all conducted under our noses in woods and parks up and down the country, but we never see this part of their lives. They skulk. Hidden amongst dense foliage. Very occasionally a bold one may venture out to a bird table. Or you might see one dart across a road, identified by its big white band at the base of its tail, if by nothing else.

In Autumn though, these birds come into their own. Jays are like magpies, slightly more compact and stockier, with shorter tails. They are in fact part of the crow family, but they look almost nothing like their darker cousins. While some of them have come to symbolise forboding and death the jay’s colourful plumage might augur glitz and decadence.

But, their beauty juxtaposes their modesty in behaviour. They reveal themselves in Autumn only out of necessity. They would, I sense, much rather remain hidden away. Strange for a bird so beautiful to want to hide its good looks. Their wings and tail are black and white, as is the crown of their head. They sport a fetching, hipster black moustache. In their pale heads are seated keen and piercing eyes. Their bodies are an ancient and dusty pinky-orange, like the sands of a distant land. But perhaps to top it off are their army-style bright blue epaulettes. To stumble upon a feather from this part of a jay is to find a true treasure to add to the naturalist’s shoebox trove. This kind of bling is unusual in our countryside. You could be forgiven for thinking they migrate here, particularly when they hide away for so much of the year.

The jay I’m watching flies back up to a branch, clutching an acorn in its beak. The pair of them depart, flying off between the trees. Retreating into the background. I wander on slowly through the wood, continuing to hear the distant screeches of the jays. Beckoned by the jays, my mind casts itself forward into the future. The glasses of Pimm’s of Summer are long behind me now. Instead I look forward to a warming glass of sloe gin when I return home, a deep pink that even a jay might envy.

Vision for Nature Tue, 16 Aug 2016 13:55:24 +0000 The Vision for Nature report, published on 25 July 2016, sets out young people’s visions for the future of wildlife and nature in the UK. I helped to manage the production of this report over the course of two years.

Back in 2013 I argued that we needed this vision, and how it is out there in the world. Our top recommendation is for a 250-year plan for to restore nature and then protect it for generations to come.

You can read the full report here.

This is the Earth Sun, 24 Jul 2016 09:47:56 +0000 The world. Makes you think of a blue and green blob floating in blackness, perhaps glimpsed from the moon or the international space station right? Perhaps a photo taken by Tim Peake?

Often the world means that other, distant place. World News, the ‘Orient’, the ‘Occident’. The globe. Our own planet often feels far away from here, from this chair, this table, this cup of tea, this tiny glowing screen in a room in Cambridgeshire of Tucson or Indonesia.

But this is also the Earth, right here. It’s pulsing and growing and breathing around you right now. That ant crawling between a crack in the paving slabs on the drive. The pigeons in the park down the road.

The creatures and plants in this tiny corner of our sphere of rock and air bubbles and water are also in need of a loving home. The stream in front of me as I think, patiently and consistently ploughing this piece of land, for decades; its drops like a family of farmers. The tiny bird, a mottled chestnut and snow white treecreeper, waltzing its way up the trunk of the tree next to me. It is also the Earth. Cirque du soleil, vertical ice skating. Defying gravity; like Tim Peake.

The world keeps turning Sat, 25 Jun 2016 15:13:16 +0000 I’ve cried. I’ve barely slept. When I have slept I’ve dreamed dreams I didn’t want to. No matter what the events of the past few days though, a sense of relief, comfort and detachment washed over me like a wave as I watched the juvenile kestrels practising to fly opposite our house.

The world keeps turning and the creatures on my doorstep, in my garden, in the fields nearby were singing, flying, feeding and acting as if nothing had happened. Their tiny gestures of steadfastness in the face of the elements and predators inspired me. Windhovers keep hovering and butterflies keep flying. Those of us who care about our non-human neighbours on this earth will also keep working to help them. The context has changed but the reasons to do so are the just as, nay more, pressing. Like an old friend, a shoulder to cry on, their unfaltering presence today was a gentle reminder that I can carry on despite feeling like a huge part of my life has been ripped away. There won’t be closure, but there can be coping and adaptation.

Tiny windhovers Tue, 21 Jun 2016 16:33:46 +0000 Gazing out of our window today I spotted a thin-winged, fan-tailed shape circling above the ears of corn. Against a blue sky it was dark and speckled, difficult to pick out against a bright sun. It lured the eye to white patches of cloud that left the pupil disoriented and drunk on light. One of the pair of kestrels that live in the tree on the opposite side of the road.

It pulled up, into a midair halt, and hovered. Head stone still, wings a-blur. Giving up, it alighted on the distant telephone wires. The second adult joined it. Unusual, I thought. At least one of the adults was usually tending to the young in the nest. But for both to be sitting so far away, leaving their young ones unguarded… careless at best, negligent at worst.

Were these two kestrels suffering from parental-abandonment heatstroke? Had they given up being responsible and decided to escape for an afternoon out. Had the nest been taken over by a gang of adders or polecats? That *would* be exciting.

But the explanation was far less dramatic. I spotted it. A third, far less elegant hovering shape alighted on the wires next to them. Then it jumped off and flung itself upon the mercy of the wind, drifting backwards and down the wires before managing to flap back to them. Their baby kestrel has fledged the nest and they were out teaching it to fly and hunt. Like human adults teach a toddler to ride a bike this kestrel was in need of some stabilisers. But its efforts were adorable. I hope that they’ll all come back to the tree and practise a bit closer by. Maybe we’ll get to see the baby kestrel catching tiny baby wood mice and field voles. That’ll be fun!

Power companies to receive renewable energy subsidy for burning kittens Fri, 29 Apr 2016 14:13:34 +0000 Environmental organisations have criticised new revelations that power stations, including Cremat-em Ltd, are burning kittens for energy.

Kitten burning policies are being incentivised by renewable energy policies, as kittens are officially classed as a renewable energy, thanks to a ruling by the EU’s Directorate on Energy-Climate-Domestic Animal matters.

Chris Heartfelt, a spokesperson for the Catwood Alliance, said ‘energy companies have tried to claim that they are only using heads and tails of kittens, or even just the waste furballs. But we’ve got photos man, we can see the piles of whole kittens waiting to be burned in their boilers.’ The local vacuuming industry has already expressed concerns about the decreasing amounts of furballs cutting demand for vacuum cleaners.

William Smoothcharm, head of Reputation Distortion Control for Cremat-em Ltd said ‘we’re only using kittens no one wants, and every time we burn one, we make sure that three new kittens are bred in its place. This means it’s cute neutral. The overall amount of cuteness in the world is actually increased because of us burning kittens. I mean if people start complaining about our practices you just hand them a kitten or a baby ocelot and they’re so distracted that they forget what they were upset about. QED. And this is science – I checked it with my friend Bob at the pub the other night, and he visited a lab once, so he knows.

‘Sure, the local residents are a bit irritated by the screeching and howling, but it’s better than burning coal, or oil or sharks. Burning sharks is bad for the environment because prior to combustion you have to keep them in huge tanks full of gallons of water. With kittens we just pack ‘em in there real tight.’

Far from home Sun, 13 Mar 2016 09:39:07 +0000 Last weekend I watched a female hen harrier drift past my front window. It has now been a week and I still haven’t seen another hen harrier from the comfort of the sofa. You might call me spoiled but I’m starting to get impatient with the lack of birding action I can enjoy without getting up out of my chair.

I’m starting to think I might have to go out of the house to see wildlife. But yesterday, I was reassured that I didn’t have to go too far.

As I drove off to the supermarket we spotted a pair of little owls perched in a tree just 20 metres from the house. Postponing our shopping, we stopped to take a look. It felt like the first true day of Spring – it was warm in the Sun and skylarks sung high above the fields.

On a distant telegraph pole, one kestrel perched ontop of another. They briefly mated, with their kree kree calls, then separated. New life was definitely in the air.

If a birdwatcher must leave the house to see amazing birds, at least he doesn’t have to go too far.

Mother’s Day, interrupted Mon, 07 Mar 2016 17:27:26 +0000 I clutched a freshly brewed mug of tea to my chest and turned down the soothing, Geordie tones of Ruth Archer on the wireless. Then, picking up the phone handset I punched in the numbers to phone my Mum. Yesterday was Mother’s Day and I wanted to make sure that I explained that while I had put a card in the post, a freak and isolated snowstorm in the southwest Cambridgeshire area had delayed its arrival on her doormat.

The 1980s grey phone that we had been lent crackled and resisted connecting, but finally began dialling through and ringing. As I stood there, one hand leaning on the back of the sofa, my eyes were drawn out of the window and over the green fields. The last remnants of white frost were just disappearing, turning liquid and staining the grass and the soil dark.

As my mother answered and I began to utter the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day’, I noticed a bird just the other side of the road. It was dipping up and down, flapping quickly once or twice and then taking long, leisurely glides, pivoting and circling gracefully before flapping quickly once or twice again.

Like any birdwatcher, a hundred thoughts went through my mind in a few seconds.

Was this a buzzard? I had seen a buzzard earlier that morning. But this was low to the ground, flapping and circling. It wasn’t behaving at all like a buzzard and the shape wasn’t quite right. And the colour was… just off. Then I saw it.


A flash of white at the base of the tail.

This was a female hen harrier. And it was about 20 feet away from me. It was circling low to the groud (maybe four feet up) over the corner of the field on the other side of the road. It slowly began drifting along the track between the fields.

I like to think that their scientific name, Circus cyaneus, refers to the way they circle and arc through the air, flapping only briefly.

I’m ashamed to admit it but, ‘I’ll phone you back’ I said to my poor mother, on Mother’s Day itself.

I dashed outside with my binoculars in my hand. By the time I had got round to the front of the house the bird was far away over the other side of the field. I watched as it drifted north-eastwards over the brow of the hill.

It turned into a small outline following the line of the top of the field, until it disappeared away to the east, close to the village.

Given their precarious numbers I was pleased to see this bird. It goes down as the best bird I’ve ever seen from a house where I’ve lived in the UK.

I went back inside, closed the back door and mopped up the tea I had spilt when almost dropping my mug.

Then, sheepishly, I phoned my mother back and tried to excuse my sudden departure.

Cambridge Climate and Sustainability Forum 2016 Sun, 21 Feb 2016 08:17:12 +0000 Having helped to organise the 2012 Cambridge Climate and Sustainability Forum, it was an honour to be invited to speak at the 2016 event.

We arrived in time to see the end of the talk by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. He was able to reel off by heart a host of statistics and examples that were reasons to feel optimistic about the chances of fixing the mess we’ve made, and of the role business can play.

One thing I noted was that his company plans to convert 500 of its factories to biomass. I’m keen to find out more about how this is being done.

He described Unilever as the world’s largest NGO. Indeed, with all the charitable and good work they do, you could forget that they’re a multi-million pound company that sells lots of products to make a profit.

Chris Garrard of BP or not BP? ran a fantastic workshop, and he was also one the panel I spoke on, which was a fun discussion of the role of the individual that also featured Brett Scott and Mel Strickland. It was a chance for me to try to bring the theme of nature into the room and to talk about A Focus on Nature.

The afternoon finished off with Emily Dunning speaking about Cambridge University’s Green Impact programme and the Living Lab, and Luke Sussams of Carbon Tracker explaining about the financial risks of future investment in fossil fuels.

It was an amazing day, in the beautiful venue of St John’s Old Divinity School. Everything ran very smoothly and the selection of speakers was fantastic. I’d like to offer my thanks and congratulations to the organisers. If you didn’t make it this year, do go along next year!

Discovering Hope Sun, 21 Feb 2016 07:22:34 +0000 We’ve moved house lately and the village we’ve moved to backs right onto RSPB’s Hope (Grange) Farm. On one of our first weekends in our new house I decided to set out on a long walk. All in all I covered about eight miles or so, on a windy but sunny day in late January.

I had layered up but soon I was removing my jacket and hoodie as I warmed up from the exercise. The countryside I crossed is mostly intensive arable farmland,. Birds were few and far between as it was the middle of the day and most were probably taking cover from the gusts.

But I did meet a great tit perching out on some hawthorn. Its call confused me though as it sounded exactly like a long-tailed tit. I knew great tits were fairly vocally dexterous, but I had never realised it extended so far.

I encountered a party of shooting folk with dogs, and we nodded awkwardly at each other.

I soon reached Hope Farm, and realised that it is much larger than I had previously thought. It is run by the RSPB for a profit, but also with increasing numbers of farmland birds. It’s a demonstration of how farming and wildlife can go together.

There was a large flock of chaffinches, and a couple of kestrels over different bits of it. I expect it will be better on future visits at better times of day and in better weather, and I might see corn buntings or grey partridges. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of the place over the coming months.