Finders Keepers Blog

Next to of course newts, I love you

This week the first cache went live for Finders Keepers. So how does it work?

1. First, use our map to find a cache. This one is located at 51°10’31” N 3°21’2” W. You can type them into you phone or GPS or click this link.

2. Once you’ve trod the path, and found the cache, you can open it up and write a message in the logbook inside for others to find.

It might be messy, the idea is that each cache, unlike conventional caches, will degrade in the elements.

3. Post us a tweet to @keeperfinder with a photo of your find and we’ll feature it here on the website.

The first fifty people to do this will receive a free copy of the book. Simple.

We looked into using conventional caches, but we weren’t keen on having something plastic, metal or glass or otherwise unbiodgradeable. So we’ve opted for eggboxes instead.

Each cache contains a logbook with a poem inside. We hope to add some hay, or similar materials to future caches which will encourage the biodegrading process without potentially harming the local ecosystem.

This cache was buried along the Old Mineral Line, which itself has poems tucked away en route by artist and poet Christopher Jelley.

Chris runs something called ‘Poetry Pin’ which is a local trail which takes up several paths along the northern Somerset Coast. As you walk the path, you hold your phone in front of you, and a screen of padlocks slowly turn into numbers, each of which reveal a poem, and if you’re feeling brave, you can submit your own.

Along the way, we stopped and Chris read us one of his poems about camping, another a stranger had submitted about rabbits crossing the railway track. It was a bright, warm autumn day, and the poems were unexpected, poignant, special to find out in the elements, like turning a corner and remembering the line from a song you thought you might have forgotten, and someone stepping into the foreground of your dream, only to remind you.

This particular cache can be found under the witch’s tree, amongst charms, spells, seashells, and small pieces of ribbon. It’s a peaceful place, hopefully out of the rain, and not far from the statue of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s the Ancient Mariner on the coast.

Dormice - A Little Reintroduction

Snapping through the twigs and criss-crossed brambles, every now and then we get to a small glade. I’m following the survey team, and periodically I have to stop to remove tiny spines from my socks. Among the the trees that I’m particularly interested in are hazels. Hazels typically live about eighty years. Many have been coppiced – a traditional technique of hacking the tree back to its stump in order to generate more offshoots. The more offshoots you have, the more wrist-think trunks will grow and the more wood you can harvest from the same tree. This was technique was used throughout England to generate firewood, thatching rods and wood for fencing. As well as prolonging the tree’s life, coppicing also breaks up the canopy coverage, allowing more light to spill across the woodland floor, giving plants a chance to flourish there. From a distance hazel looks almost like an exotic bamboo with its thin, straight tentacle-like trunks and thousands of rounded leaves. Close up, each leaf is extraordinarily soft, almost like lambs wool and you can see why a creature would want to use it for nesting.

Among the trunks, at chest height, a thin strip of white wire keeps a small wooden box tethered to the tree. I looks like an out of place roadside telephone, or something from a Hardy Boys adventure. Each box has a number written on it in thick boardmarker. These numbers correspond to those on our survey map, only adding to the sense of this being a treasure hunt for something very special indeed.

Bluebells in Briddlesford Wood

Approaching the box quietly, you can use a ‘bung’ - usually a plastic bag from the Co-Op - and use it to close off the entry hole at the back of the box. Turning a small hook on the front, you push the roof aside for peak inside, or if nobody’s home, this can be lifted away completely for a better view. Most of the time there are few dried leaves and little else.

Boxes have been placed in rows, twenty metres apart from one another, often surrounded by dense leaf-fall, a flash of bluebells and sawn hazel trunks stacked from earlier in the season. You can stand and close your eyes, and hear the chitter of birds and the misty rain whish of a light breeze skiffling through the branches. For a Londoner like me, living under Heathrow airspace, and hearing the local street preacher compete with ambulance sirens outside Specsavers, it feels exceptionally peaceful. There’s a kind of fairy tale beauty to these woods which is easy to succumb to, pushing away thick twists of brush and imagining the blind prince in Rapunzel scrambling through the thorns for his lost love, even though the spell is quickly broken when you slip in two inches of marshy mud, or you hear the chitter-chutter of the local steam train.

Dormouse Nestbox in a Special Survey Bag

The nest boxes we’ve come to look at have been put here by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species. There are about five hundred boxes in this wood, and they’re designed to attract a once-common sight: the hazel dormouse. The unusual spelling of the word ‘dormouse’ shares its origin with the French dormir, from the Latin, dormire, ‘to sleep’. Dormice are famous for being found fast asleep, hibernating for up to six months, and in states of torpor even on summer days, reducing their heart rates to conserve energy for an evening’s outing.

Jo and Kat carefully weigh a dormouse

Jo and Kat carefully weigh a dormouse.

Each adult dormouse weighs around 15-25g (about the same as five sugar cubes) and they have sandy, ginger fur and rose-petal pink paws. When in torpor, the dormouse will tuck itself into a ball, eyes squeezed closed, with a fine bushy tail wound over its head. For an animal with such a reputation for sleeping on the job, you would have thought they would make for terrible builders, but their tooth and paw spun whorls of hazel leaves honeysuckle bark are brilliantly neat. Females are better builders than males, who are sometimes found trying to get a good afternoon’s kip under a two twigs and a leaf over the face – probably one found just by the back door. Where we find an occupied box, this must be placed into a special nest box bag. Here any would-be escapees can be captured, checked (Are they male or female? Are they in good health?), weighed and returned safely home.

Dormice used to be abundant in England. The Elizabethans used their body fat as a remedy for insomnia, and the Victorians, admiring their natural reticence to bite, kept dormice as pets. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, rest their elbows on the back of a sleeping dormouse as it snoozes.

‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; ‘only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind.’

With the encouragement of a couple of pinches from the Hatter, the Dormouse tells a somniloquent story about three girls who “lived on treacle... and they’re names were Elsie, Lacie and Tillie” and that were based on the real life Alice Liddell and her sisters.

‘They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbingits eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; ‘and they drew all manner of things– everything that begins with an M… mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness--you know you say things are "much of a muchness"--did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?’

Dormice live predominantly above the forest floor in the branches, barely, if ever touching the ground. Their nests are neatly made whorls of hazel leaves and twigs, and they live off pollen and honeysuckle, berries and small insects. They’ve gone from being a household pet of the Victorians to being on the verge of extinction. In the last 25 years dormice have seen a 70% decline. They are so rare that a special licence is required to handle them.

Dormouse Being Weighed

The decline in dormice is due to the three big killers: a warmer climate, habitat destruction and ‘fragmentation’ the splitting up of the dormouse’s back garden with roads, walls, apartment blocks or railway lines. Cutting down hedgerows and disturbing populations of dormice, with construction and poor forest management can bring dangers of their own, as can a change in climate. Dormice now come out of hibernation thirty eight days earlier than used to be the case, when food is scarce, and competition with other woodland-dwelling animals, stiff. This has driven dormice further afield in search of food into back gardens and fields where they face predation from most of the cast of The Animals of Farthing Wood including, owls, squirrels, weasels, badgers, stoats and domestic cats. Recently a group were found in a plant pot bought at a local garden centre. The dormouse, with its cutesy black eyes and harmless tea towel image, is a poster child for the less photogenic animals and plants, the seaweeds and the mosses, the river lampreys, the mayflies and the snails that are also in decline.

Blue tits take up residence in an abandoned dormouse nestbox
Blue tits take up residence in an abandoned dormouse nestbox

Unless there is a predictable, measurable, short term economic gain to the conservation of species and habitats, then policies are unlikely to be made to protect them. We have become so ill-attuned to our surroundings that saving a river isn’t newsworthy. This is part of a broader problem with all declining species throughout the British Isles – we humans need more housing, we need more infrastructure, we need more food and water, so the byword is ‘mitigation’ not ‘protection’. Hearing about the £7,000 spent by Hampshire Council on building a bridge for dormice and lizards, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne said, “These are the ridiculous things that get in the way of growth.” Efforts like this are remarkably good value, considering that several million pounds are spent by developers each year for the protection of other species including the Great Crested Newt which has also experienced a steep decline. Back on the Isle of Wight, throughout our survey, most of the boxes we visited were either empty or were occupied by families of blue tits. Every year abandoned boxes are cleared out to make way for new generations to move in.

There are dormice surveys throughout the UK and clips like the one below, from a survey in Surrey, have been shared widely around the internet.

Despite the decline in numbers reintroductions have been successfully carried out in Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire and Buckinghamshire, by groups including PTES, local Wildlife Trusts and Natural England. Among these reintroductions were dormice that had been displaced by the construction work on the Channel Tunnel. If you want to know more about dormice, get involved in the national dormice monitoring programme, then visit the PTES website.

Very special thanks to Lauren Alexander, Ian White and Zoe Roden at the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and to Kat Walter and Joanne Makin.

The Vanishing

"Once upon a time..."

Posted by Harry Man on 1st January, 2015

On a winter’s night, a quiet boy with a passion for inventions slips out of his bedroom while his parents are asleep. He makes his way out through the back door and into the garden. The frosty grass is wet and cold against his feet, as his eyes adjust, he crunches carefully and quickly down to his father’s shed, hoping not to crush a snail. The shed is a rusty, corrugated iron affair, put up some time in the late seventies with a twist of garden string wound around a nail holding the make-shift wooden door in place. In the violet suburban night, the door looks like the wonky tooth of a witch’s head monstrously large, the tree-line of her hair rising like inverted lightning against the streetlights beyond. He works the string away from the nail and with one great heave, he pushes the door, shuddering, aside. Swiping the cobweb from a torch on the shelf, he switches it on, and in its brown glow, the small, cold, space becomes illuminated. There in front of him is what used to be a lawnmower…

So begins a story that I wrote while still in school about how a young boy of eight salvages parts from a scrapyard, and uses them to build a rocket pack. It’s fairly illustrative of where my passion lay as a young boy and, later, as a teenager.

I’m not an ecologist and I haven’t brushed the dust from the wrinkled leather ears of an elephant. What I do have on my side is a fundamental curiosity, and the ability to work in a medium which is memorable…poetry

I wasn’t much of a biologist, and like a lot of people, I was a latecomer to scientific interests which really grew once I had escaped life in education. I’m not an ecologist and I haven’t brushed the dust from the wrinkled leather ears of an elephant. What I do have on my side is a fundamental curiosity, and the ability to work in a medium which is memorable, verbal, and that is the preferred form for magic spells, elegy and oral history - poetry.

Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve managed to kill off 97% of species on the planet.

Finders keepers, losers weepers, goes the old saying, and if we’re to look after life on Earth, then becoming the finders of nature, makes us their keepers. If the headlines are anything to go by then since the dawn of mankind, we’ve managed to kill off 97% of species on the planet. This project is to capture some of the voices of the existing keepers in the UK, whether conservationists, those who grew up around species that are now in danger of extinction, or those who have taken it upon themselves to preserve the habitats and breeding grounds of some of Britain’s most vulnerable animals, birds, plants and fish. This is in one sense a way to raise awareness, as well as an act of memorialising life around us, that, if we are not careful, we might lose altogether.

I am working with the illustrator Sophie Gainsley, whose work acts both as a counterpoint and poignant addition to the poems inside the pamphlet. We have been commissioned by Sidekick Books to work on this project together and many of these poems will continue to live on into life within a longer manuscript. You can find out more about our work by clicking on the links below.

Harry Man

Sophie Gainsley

Text by Harry Man. Illustrations by Sophie Gainsley.