Nature Writer of the Year 2013: The winners revealed
Read the winning entries of the BBC Wildlife Nature Writer of the Year competition 2013.
BBC Wildlife’s sixth nature-writing contest attracted more than 150 entries.
The judging panel – Miriam Darlington, Paul Evans, Ben Hoare, Kate Humble and Rob Stringer – debated hard to separate the final shortlisted entries, but in the end Aggie Rothon’s evocative essay about a quest for an unusual crustacean on the Norfolk coast won through.
Many thanks to everyone who entered.
Lost and Found by Aggie Rothon, Norfolk
The Lane by Jackie Garner, Dumfries
Joint third place
Common Ground by David Callahan, London
St Martin’s, Scilly by Jennifer Hunt, Dorset
A Greek myth about giant crustaceans inspires Aggie Rothon to join a crabbing boat off the Norfolk coast on a numbingly cold March day. But she finds her real treasure back at the yard.
The anchor, a mosaic of white and gold, was encrusted with the chalky hollows of acorn barnacles, and pitted with rust.
It had been lost last season, torn from its shank of crab pots and only just recovered. I thought of it snagged among the wreckage of boats sunk close to shore, many of which still lie salt-decaying beneath the waves.
It was the end of March, traditionally the start of the crab season on the North Norfolk coast.
In previous years, I had seen crabs lying belly-up in fish shops and in wave-battered segments strewn along the beach. Recently, I had scoured the library for seashore guides.
I read about the devil-eyed velvet swimming crab and the porcelain crab with its mammoth, craggy claws. From Greek myths I learned that the jealous goddess Hera sent a giant crab to slay her stepson Hercules and that later she cast the crab in a constellation of stars.
Crabs were beasts of legend, possessed of the sea and sky. This year, I wanted to see some for real.
I found Andy Williamson, a crab fisherman of more than 20 years, drinking tea in his yard. Crab pots and buoys were stacked multi-coloured along the fence.
“The crabs start moving when the daffodils are showing full yellow,” he said. “This time last year, I’d have been at sea for a few weeks by now, but in weather like this the crabs will be hidden, dug into the mud on the seafloor.”
It had been bitter weather. With the spring equinox just past, a spasmodic easterly wind still gripped the coastline.
Fierce gusts would stir up a dust of grey sand to settle in a gritty film over the village during any brief, frigid lull. Yet in spite of the cold, Andy wanted to be at sea. “Once it’s in you, that’s it. You’ll never turn your back on the sea. It draws you in.”
So we found ourselves drawn to the sea and inched our way over the seawall in Andy’s pick-up. Its wheels spun on concrete coated with sand blown from the beach but, as we breached the ramp, there was the sea beneath us.
Pounding waves were laced with white foam like the marbling of fat through the muscle of a good steak.
To the left a flock of more than a hundred frenzied gulls fed from a strandline heaped with razorshells. Metallic-grey boulders brought in as sea defences had been picked up by the high tide and hurled across the beach leaving gaping holes in the seawall. No, there would be no crabs today.
Back at the yard, I dutifully admired the boat and her two outboard motors. I was told that she could go 22 knots but Andy liked to keep her at 15.
He showed me the little donkey engine that hauled the crab pots up from the sea floor. There again was a box of crab
parts. “It might stink a bit,” Andy said.
At first I caught a glimpse of an inch-long carapace ridged brown, then two claws edged with spines. Secreted among the rags of hornwrack and the anchor’s coiled ropes was a squat lobster. ‘Rock lobsters’ Norfolk fishermen call them, for their habit of struggling back to the chalk reefs the minute they sense disturbance.
Actually, squat lobsters shouldn’t be called lobsters at all. In the 1600s, warrior helmets shaped like lobster tails were said to immortalise the true lobster’s strength.
Yet a squat lobster’s tail is tucked tightly under its body, like a dog cowering when it’s embarrassed or afraid. What’s more, while a true lobster can swim some distance when alarmed, a squat lobster resorts to panicked scrambling, half-swimming and half-crawling to the nearest rocky crevice.
Then again, if squat lobsters aren’t really lobsters, they can’t be said to be true crabs, either; squat lobsters are primitive in structure compared with those more specialised crustaceans.
In truth, squat lobsters seem to exist in some kind of taxonomic no man’s land, boasting neither the habit nor the morphology to be entirely true to crab or lobster.
I took the creature in my hand and watched the black pinheads at the end of its telescopic eyes. A pair of whip-like antennae was twined around its mouthparts and then slicked along its back. Three pairs of walking legs felt needle-sharp. Its weight barely registered in my palm.
“You’ll find some funny old bits in there,” Andy said, nodding towards the corner of the boat where the anchor leaned.
I smiled and looked again at the squat lobster. No Greek goddess would eternalise this beast, or fisherman set out to catch it. But today I had found a hero for my own story. My symbol of what lay beneath the bellowing sea, right in the palm of my hand.
Aggie lives surrounded by woodland in rural Norfolk. A zoologist by training, she is happiest exploring the countryside with her young son, enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer.
Aggie wins a place on an Earthwatch expedition. She will take part in one of three exciting conservation adventures: Dolphins of Greece, Carnivores of Madagascar or Mammal Conservation in South Africa. Earthwatch supports scientific research and conservation worldwide.
It had become so commonplace to me that I had ceased to notice it, until the radio report reminded me.
Every day I drive this short stretch of lane before turning onto the main road, and half way along it there is a beautiful specimen ash.
This morning I stop the car, pulling over so that I do not block the road. The radio and television news is full of it – a new threat to the British countryside and the potential loss of the majority of our ash trees. So, today I walk slowly along this lane.
There is a line of mature trees either side of me set in a gappy hedge slowly giving way to rylock. The brittle stems of hogweed stake themselves into the bushes and a narrow grass verge had already been cut by the council.
Spring speeds along this lane, once the green buds show I know we are well on the way, then a running stitch of scattered May blossoms appear, where it has survived last year’s hedge trimming.
Autumn is less obvious, it meanders through the vegetation, touching a few leaves here and there, slowly accumulating impact.
I can be driving home in November and the oak trees will still be holding on to remnants of their canopy; mat-brown in low winter light.
After a hard frost in early autumn I know that the grey tarmac will have turned yellow beneath the ash as it drops it leaves, suddenly and almost completely, as if in shock. I am loath to drive over these as if they were still alive and I was the one causing their death.
I can hear the traffic on the main road and a few birds in the trees, mostly blue tits and great tits. Further away, rooks discuss their plans for the day.
I trace a small path across the road, the earth bare and smooth where something repeatedly pushes under the fence – a badger probably, I see them occasionally in my headlights.
There is nothing unusual or rare about this lane, its plants and animals: this is my common place. It is so close to the beginning or end of my journey that I usually have my mind on other things, what I have to do that day or what’s for tea.
But this short stretch has also provided me with some of my most memorable wildlife experiences, the barn owl that kept pace with me as I slowed the car to watch it gliding just above the hedge and it turning its head to look at me so that I met its sharp eyes and I was no longer sure who was watching who.
The evening I walked home from being dropped off at the main road and was stopped in my tracks by the perfume of honeysuckle, it was growing through one of the oak trees and its smell was intense and sudden, like walking into a rain storm.
The mature trees are mostly oaks – I collect a leaf, trying to drag out of my memory the difference between patraea and robur, lower lobes on the leaf and acorn stalks, but which way around? But I am here to look again at the ash, in detail this time, not to glance at it as I pass by, but to really appreciate it.
Its bark is smoother than the oaks, fewer wrinkles despite being the same age. Its branches held up and away from the trunk and in the winter its shape has an elegance that the slightly frizzy mass of the oak canopy lacks.
When I look back along the lane its boundary edges will have to cope with the usual impacts of modern land management. The ash sapling that had grown through the hawthorn to become the possibility of a future tree was flayed in half by the hedge trimmer, to my dismay and anger, but I notice now that a few spindly branches are trying to grow upwards again.
But looking forward this section will change, the radio report I was listening to was clear about that. Ash die-back disease. Where the ash was will become an empty space, gridded out by the shadow of the rylock fencing that will no doubt be put up in its place.
The likelihood is that this common place tree will become a rarity. But maybe – just possibly, this will be the one ash that carries the DNA that provides resistance.
I am standing beneath it now, its black buds the colour of mourning, waiting to see what the future brings.
JOINT THIRD PLACE
The common up the hill above my house was freedom to a boy starved of nature, craving secrets and space.
Pushed unceremoniously out of the door in the summer holidays, packed lunch in binocular case, its proper contents hanging from my neck with compact, reassuring weight – ten minutes later I was swishing through the breeze-blown long grass.
A shallow curve of apparently empty green: wasted land to some.
The details became apparent to anyone with youthfully sharp eyes and a curious spirit – the skylark creeping silently along the ground from its nest and rising several metres away, singing out to obscure the whereabouts of its clutch of eggs; the small lizard baking on an anthill – later, just its bloody-ended tail wriggling in my hand, the exposed muscle strangely translucent and pale, its owner’s curtailed form vanishing between stiff grass stems; the vixen disturbed from her snooze in a makeshift nest behind a hummock, glaring over her shoulder as she loped away ...
Above, swifts and swallows, scythes and crossbow bolts, lunging after ephemeral flies, disappearing en masse at the sight of a bigger sickle: a hobby, a falcon rising at leisure from behind angular oaks and elms against a blinding blue sky.
Me, throwing an apple core and a screwed up brown paper sandwich wrapper into brambles covered with buzzing and butterflies, hiding stonechats and whitethroats.
Deeper, more knotted and tangled scrub threw out the scanning buzz of a grasshopper warbler and, later in the season, actual grasshoppers.
Winter had its own memories, too, its own rewards: the sudden grunt and stiff wings of a snipe flushed up from the iced and overgrown pond; the rapid parabola of a woodcock kicked up from the path between damp birches; the tawny owl that burst from the hawthorns back into the adjacent wood; and the badger that loomed and snarled from below knee level on the path at dusk, spooking both itself and me.
Just once, a trip of golden plover that scurried and stopped, scurried and stopped, in unison across the early frost, on turf closen cropped by knackered horses.
And the now-disappeared: sneezing marsh tits, singing yellowhammers, the tree sparrows that ganged up in the hedges, common as country muck, common as their house-owning cousins. The smoke of just-hatched midges rising from the tree tops.
Grown up, I walked the common again on a cold spring morning while waiting for news of my dying father, lying in mute suspension in a grey-enamelled hospital bed; he who had not really cared where I wandered during the school holidays, who hadn’t complained when I brought trophies back home, newts and slow worms, once a bat with a broken wing. Just keep them out of the house.
Preoccupation led me to sit still in that same small wood at the edge of the waving grass, abstracted as I watched a female sparrowhawk land on a thick oak branch, gripping its floppy headed passerine prey.
Preoccupation – it didn’t notice me as it tore and threw away small yellow feathers, side to side, and selected the breast meat, the flight muscle over the heart.
The common, passively resistant to councils and developers, moulded and lined by grazing and dog walking and scrumping and airgun-wielding pigeon hunters.
It rises gently to the wood, beyond which lies a motorway that didn’t exist just a few decades before.
Despite no longer being local, I have sometimes taken my own children up there on hazy August Sundays, when blackberries and plums are ripe enough to pick.
Along with the wild apples from trees I like to think are descendants of my own discarded cores, thrown with unconscious carelessness thirty years before. They’re just about the right height.
The hayloft is barely big enough to contain a double mattress. This is wedged between the rough granite walls with just enough room to sit up in bed without hitting the cobwebbed beams.
There is one small dusty window and a low door through which is framed a view of brilliant turquoise water cross-hatched with silver, and glimpses of the Eastern Isles where, legend has it, King Arthur spent his last days.
A homemade ladder from the doorway is the only way in and out. I was to live in this loft with my daughter for the summer while we worked in an art gallery in a neighbouring barn.
We discovered that we also shared this space with a colony of enormous spiders.
During the day they were invisible apart from the occasional leg, poking out from behind a picture or from a crevice in the walls.
However, at night they would rustle out from their hiding places and abseil around the loft, scuttling over the bed and tiptoeing over the rafters, their dry scratching overlaid with other tiny footfalls and squeaks as white-toothed Scilly shrews whisked around the floorboards.
Another sound that disturbed my sleep was a strange almost mechanical noise which seemed to meander round the roof – we called it the vibrating insect and have never identified it - perhaps a large beetle, a bat or one of the birds nesting in the rafters. Maybe one day I shall find out.
Just below the hayloft on the springy turf, sparrows chattered around our feet and thrushes cracked open snails against stones, showing no fear of humans.
Often storm-bound birds would arrive on the islands causing a great deal of excitement – bird-watchers flying in with binoculars, cameras and camouflage jackets, like some exotic species themselves.
On a small blackboard at Lower Town on St Martin’s was chalked up the unusual sightings – hoopoe, red kite, spotted flycatcher, white puffin . . .
We settled happily to our island life, working and painting till late afternoon then walking to the beaches to look for shells.
At low tide I would wander over a spit of white sand extending from the beach through shallow clear waters the colour of pale blue silk, scanning the fine sand for shells – gulls and oystercatchers doing the same.
There were tiny pink scallop shells, candy-striped tellins, top shells gilded with silver and bright yellow dog whelks, like jewels glistening with salt water and sparkling with grains of quartz.
I looked so closely that nothing existed except the cries of the sea birds and the trail of shells. Sometimes I found a cowrie – a tiny closed fistful of luck and wentel traps like delicately carved spirals of ivory.
One day the tide came in while I was absorbed in my shell-seeking and I became stranded on a diminishing island surrounded by vigorous incoming water.
I pulled off my socks and shoes, rolled up my trouser legs and paddled towards the beach, the icy Atlantic waves rocking over my knees and bringing me back to reality. I’d hoped nobody had noticed me being so stupid as to forget something as predictable as the tide.
All summer, starbursts of sapphire agapanthus garlanded the islands then, by September, the alien pink blooms of belladonna appeared incongruously on bare maroon stalks.
Echiums grew like giant weeds everywhere, their scented blue flowers attracting humming bird moths.
Rose beetles, iridescent green and gold, crawled drowsily around like drops of molten sun on the narrow paths.
The island’s road had been surfaced using sand from the beaches mingled with fragments of sea-washed glass and shells. On a moonlit night, the grains of quartz sparkled like the Milky Way as you navigated your way home from the pub.
My favourite place became Old Quay on St Martin’s – a haven for a few local fishing boats.
Huge granite boulders delicately balance where the retreating glacier left them, some looking like seals with rough grainy skin and others like giant speckled eggs.
A stone causeway curves out around the beach, its ancient stones interlocking to form a barrier against the Atlantic storms.
In places the sea breaches the gap relentlessly, trying to demolish this manmade structure. Every so often some repair work is carried out and initials are engraved in the new cement.
Halfway along the top of the quay is an old wooden mooring post. Sea and wind have worn the stump to a skeleton, smoothly burnished and bleached by sun and salt.
When the gales blow through it there is a faint sound like a distant harp and I am enthralled by its fairy music – bewitched and drawn back time and time again to this special place.
Jackie, David and Jennifer each win three books published by Bloomsbury: Extinct Boids by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy; Silent Spring Revisited by Conor Mark Jameson; and a Poyser ornithological title of their choice.
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