“Ultimately, just how compatible are concepts such as commoners’ rights, unfettered public access and commercial logging, with the encouragement and protection of biodiversity?”
Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other, by James Aldred, was written from field notes the author kept while filming a family of goshawks in the spring and summer of 2020. An experienced wildlife cameraman internationally, Aldred was happy to return to what had been his childhood stomping ground during the first lockdown. As the rest of the world retreated he was able to fully appreciate the creatures of the New Forest and how they behaved when freed from the invasions of people. And then lockdown ended and the public, restless from many weeks of confinement and with few other options, returned to the forest in barely manageable droves.
Aldred’s observations are measured and candid. He films with the help of New Forest Keepers who grant him access to areas where they know the various creatures he seeks are breeding. The author may grow exhausted from the 3am starts and days spent ankle deep in water but footage captured provides him with a new perspective on the forest – its visitors and inhabitants.
“Humans are sensory beings, we all want to feel alive to prove we’re not wasting our short time on this planet, and I find the best way to connect with the here and now is to step into trees and give myself over to the wonder, curiosity and joy that they evoke. They help remind me of who I am, where I’ve come from and where – ultimately – we are all going.”
The New Forest is very much a managed environment, even if now mostly aiming to conserve its biodiversity. There is much in this book on species under threat from multiple sources. Ground nesting birds can have their nests trodden on by careless walkers or disturbed by curious off the lead dogs. When numbers of a bird species decline, their ability to fight off predators as a team effort becomes less viable. Aldred does not focus entirely on goshawks through their breeding season. He also observes amongst other creatures: lapwings, a Dartford warbler, curlews, dragonflies, a family of foxes. He notes not just their behaviours but also the conditions they require to survive. People are an obvious threat to survival but certainly not the only one. For all its endearing beauty, this is nature and it is brutal. In rearing their chicks, goshawks must hunt for the food they require to grow.
“It’s almost impossible to identify most of the corpses that arrive on a goshawk nest, especially since the male usually plucks and butchers them beforehand. It’s like trying to recognise an animal from the inside out.”
To capture his required footage, the author sets up a hide in a tree, fifty feet above ground. On filming days he then brings in his expensive camera equipment, all without scaring away the subjects who are well aware of the dangers man poses. Adult goshawks are particularly wild and wary, and could choose to go elsewhere if a threat is deemed too great. Each arrival and departure must be carefully planned by Aldred to be minimally disruptive.
The forest during lockdown was alive with creatures venturing out where they would normally avoid. The author muses on how amazing this was while recognising his own invasion and the privilege of being there to observe. In the outside world there is fear of dying. The forest is also a scene of regular quietus.
“We tend to celebrate springtime as a joyous period of awakening, fecundity and new beginnings: the season of life. And so it is. But its easy to forget that springtime is defined by death just as much. The pressure placed on parents to bring back a never-ending supply of food results in nothing short of a seasonal killing spree. We just don’t tend to see it”
When lockdown is eased and visitors return, the killing of creatures on the busy roads is added to the more nature driven death toll. Many of the people arriving have little idea how to behave in the forest, risking barbecues on tinder dry surfaces, organising raves and leaving behind litter or other environmental damage. Locals grow incandescent with rage as verges are parked on. Fear of disease being imported leads to othering.
Just as many of the people arriving are not New Forest natives, neither are many of the creatures the author observes. Species of raptors that were once common have been hunted to extinction – many regarded them as vermin. Their cousins exist in the forest now thanks to reintroductions. Goshawks were returned in 2000 and appear to have established a foothold – at a cost to those they feed off.
“you have to accept that when you bring these things back – just like goshawks themselves – it will have an impact. But how do you know what’s the norm? … chuck a new species back into the mix it’s obvious others are going to suffer”
The author welcomes the greater variety of creatures and despairs of the species in decline. He ponders how much man should be doing to bring nature into line with whatever is currently perceived as desirable.
“I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. A helping hand is sometimes welcome, but to think that nature needs constant micromanaging smacks of hubris and to my mind simply reflects our generally elevated sense of self-importance.”
He returns to this theme when filming dragonflies that thrive in and around a mire.
“Dragonflies have lived in perfect harmony with the planet for [280 million years], while the way we treat it makes me sometimes wonder whether we are as sentient as we like to believe.”
Aldred’s knowledge and appreciation of his surroundings are inspiring and instructive. I was, however, somehow pulled up short when he described a visit to a couple who raise birds of prey in captivity. This is done for the purpose of training them to fly alongside a camera. The author states that these birds make regular appearances in David Attenborough documentaries. While much of the footage is skilfully captured wild animal behaviour, it appears some is staged – and this disappointed me.
Not that such revelations are a reflection on the book. It is simply another nugget shared by a man whose work brings life in the wild to a wider audience. If changes are to be made to protect the wild creatures, people must be made aware of the dangers modern developments pose. Goshawk Summer offers a fascinating window into the lives and habitats of many forest visitors and dwellers, and their complex interrelationships. Man doesn’t need to be banned from the benefits of existing alongside but rather to be educated in how to minimise the damage currently wreaked by rapacious usage.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.