Friday 17 September 2021

The Giant Rat of Rusper (PART 2)


Five months ago I wrote my last blog. In it I shared the news that I had recently purchased a 12 acre woodland in deepest darkest East Sussex. I mentioned that a strange ‘giant rat’ had been spotted lurking outside one of the abandoned badger setts. I closed the blog with a promise that I would keep investigating until I found out what it was…


As it happens, just 24 hours after my blog was posted I downloaded 4 truly glorious seconds of video footage from the camera I had positioned directly outside the badger sett entrance. As seen here, I had captured my ‘strange creature’ waddling into the badger sett. Unfortunately it was just its back-end, but it was enough to confirm that our strange beast was not a badger (tail too long), nor a rat. It was clearly a mustelid of some sort, but which? I shared the video with all the ecology experts in my black book. Eventually it was narrowed down to being either an American Mink - not native to the UK, can cause lots of damage, would probably need to be trapped and destroyed - or a Polecat  - native to UK, can cause lots of damage, should be encouraged and nurtured. (Read into that what you will). The only way we could tell for certain was to get a face-shot since Polecats have ‘bandit-type’ markings whereas American Mink don’t.


About the only hard fact we could determine was that it was a male (watch the video, its very obvious…).


I felt that whilst the above news was quite exciting, it was not blog-noteworthy. The mystery needed resolving. From that day to this the entrance to the badger sett has been closely monitored. In my desire to capture a shot of the elusive animal I even briefly broke my (self-imposed) rule of not using bait. This resulted in me capturing an almost perfect shot of a very happy squirrel eating peanut butter from the end of a stick.  


Last Friday I finally decided it was time to abandon my search and finally move my camera to another part of the woodland (we have 4 positioned in various positions across the site). I removed the SD card and late that evening as I sat in bed watching the 58 videos which had been captured over the previous few days. As usual, most were of the squirrels, rabbits and deer which seem to live happily in the woodland. However clips 56 and 57 were of a beautiful stoat, surely the fastest moving animal in the UK!  


Imagine my excitement however when, having worked my way through my badger sett SD card, I moved onto the memory cards from the other cameras. Suddenly I was looking at a 10 second video of a mature majestic Buzzard, with half a bloodied pigeon in its gruesome talon, positioned perfectly in front of my camera. It was a shot professional nature photographers would sell their grandmothers to achieve. The video of both the stoat and the buzzard are here.


In this file you will also see some of the other creatures we have observed, including bats (if anyone ever invites you to attend a bat survey SAY YES IMMEDIATELY; it is the best fun ever!), a slow worm, foxes, badgers (my favourite animal), mice and owls. The owls are particularly difficult to record. I swear they work out where the cameras are and then deliberately sit with their backs to them.


My dream is to record an owl hunting and capturing one of the mice. When I get that shot I will write my next blog, irrespective of whether we have identified the mysterious ‘rat’ by then!

Saturday 24 April 2021

No 189: The Giant Rat of Rusper

I have fallen in love.

The object of my desire is a 12 acre woodland, 3 miles west of Gatwick, just outside the picturesque West Sussex village of Rusper.

She is beautiful. I saw her on January 1st 2021 and made an offer that afternoon. Three weeks ago she finally became mine. The woodland is on the southern border of a much larger ancient broadleaf woodland, and contains a glorious mix of oaks, birches and hornbeam, all surrounded by a deep carpet of bluebells. There is a powerline running across it which provides a wonderful east-west opening in which rare orchids grow and wildlife surely abounds.  It is no exaggeration to say that this woodland occupies my every waking moment (and most of my sleeping ones). Our plan is to create a mini wildlife reserve, working from the soil invertebrates upwards. We have identified 14 habitats we want to nurture, including a wildflower meadow, properly-thick hedgerows and standing deadwood (one of the rarest yet most important habitats for woodland birds and beetles). We are writing a formal 300 year Woodland Management Plan which we will submit to the appropriate authorities. My intention is to be the ‘custodian’ for the first few decades, before handing it on to others to manage and preserve.

Since our key aim with the woodland is to enhance the flora and fauna it is necessary to gather data regarding the initial ecological baseline. We have initiated a number of surveys. The West Sussex Bat Society has even agreed to do a detailed bat tagging survey in early May. After some gentle begging they have agreed to let me come along. I have no idea what it will involve, or whether we will find anything (how do you even catch a bat?). It will involve staying up until 3am on a school night (a Thursday), but I can’t wait. Friday 7th May will simply have to be a day when I keep my work diary just a little bit lighter than usual.

We bought (off eBay) a small 1980s caravan. Through some quirk of fate I had never set foot in a caravan until it arrived on our driveway. How can I have missed the excitement of caravans? My wife regarded me with a curious mix of pity, humour and disappointment as I enthusiastically shared every discovery I made of each new ingenious cupboard and hidey-hole. We towed it into the centre of the woodland, painted it grey, covered it with camouflage netting and installed a photovoltaic power supply*. We positioned it such that the view was deep into the woodland, with a badger set just 30m away.

A couple of weeks ago, after a long Saturday ‘woodlanding’ (that should definitely become a new verb!) I shut myself in the caravan at 5pm and settled down to my first serious session of wildlife watching. With the caravan door shut (badgers have a very strong sense of smell) I sat motionless scanning the view. As the temperature dropped my hands froze around my binoculars. My stomach rumbled but I wasn’t going to risk moving or making a noise. Also I was certain that there were numerous animals just beyond my eye-line who were deliberately waiting for me to turn my back so they could come and dance in front of the caravan while I wasn’t looking.

Three hours passed and not one creature of interest appeared. No badgers. No deer. No unicorns. Not even a sodding squirrel. Once the light had finally faded and my eyes were straining to see even a few yards I finally gave up. It was only 830pm but it was a cold early April night and I snuggled into my sleeping bag and lay looking out into the dark, apparently animal-free, woodland. Within minutes there was a loud hoot, followed by an answering call, and then a screech. Suddenly the woodland was alive with a growing glorious cacophony of woodland galumphing and owl calls (or potentially murder victims, it is a little hard to tell the difference). I woke at 430am feeling at more at one with the world than I have done for years. The woodland creatures were definitely present. They were just shy, that was all.

I bought a £25 motion-activated camera and installed it just in front of the badger set. Upon detecting movement it would take a photo, wait a second and then take 4 seconds of video. I left it 5 days and then downloaded the files. I had 44 different photos and videos (ie 88 in total). I was super excited to finally see my resident badgers frolicking in their natural habitat. Perhaps they would already have young? I opened the first file… Forty of the 44 videos were of a squirrel. I swear that he had worked out where the camera was and deliberately performed. It was like watching Scrat from Ice Age. He posed for each individual shot (‘I am ready for my close up Mr DeMille’). Video number 41 was of a fat, indulgent pigeon walking (not flying!) across the woodland floor. Shot number 42 was a fox being foxy in the middle of the night, slinking between the trees. No 43 was a rather beautiful Roe Deer which walked directly in front of the camera.

Finally I came to video number 44. It was taken at 3am on the night a couple of weeks ago when southern England was blanketed with snow. According to the camera sensor it was minus 3 degC. An animal – whatever it was -  came out of the badger set, and the camera snapped. By the time the video kicked in a second later the creature was already disappearing back into the set, with just some faint movements visible on the video. What is clear however is that it is not a badger. It is a mystery creature. Some people have said it is a rat. If it is, then it’s the biggest rat in England...

I have now repositioned the camera directly outside the entrance hole and re-programmed the camera to record video only. This is an ecology mystery that needs solving.


* The caravan now serves as my new office. Last week I did a number of zoom calls while sitting at a desk in the middle of the woodland. (‘Piers, I love that background screen, it looks so realistic….but could you turn off the distracting background bird noises?’).

Wednesday 6 January 2021

No 188: Four Hundred and Seventeen and Rising

A year ago I wrote a blog outlining my 2020 New Year’s Resolution to achieve a personal carbon footprint of just 3 tonnes for the whole year. I had chosen 3 tonnes as my target simply because it was half the lowest-end of the average footprint of a UK citizen (which ranges between 6 – 10 tonnes/year). It was deliberately a ridiculously stretching target. Global CO2 levels were regularly bumping over 410ppm, significantly above the 380ppm ‘safe’ level and I wanted to see just how difficult/cumbersome/life-changing it would be to significantly reduce my footprint. The answer is: not very much.

A year on I can share that my carbon footprint for 2020 was 3.117 tonnes, rising to 4.631 tonnes if I include all my work-related activities. I missed my target, but not by much. More importantly I really didn’t need to change much in my life to achieve this reduction. It basically came down to just three things: travel, heating and diet.  

Of course, back in January 2020 ‘Covid19’ was a word we were just beginning to hear perhaps as the third item on a TV news report, usually after disheartening items on Brexit and the US election (it is somewhat depressing that the order may have changed but the same three stories still dominate…).  Little did I know back in January 2020 just how much the Covid19 pandemic would helping me hit my Resolution target.  For example, in 2019 I took 104 flights as part of my job. In 2020 I did just two. One might expect such a dramatic change to mean my work-life suffered, but that has not been the case. One of the few positives to come out of this dreadful pandemic is the rapid, almost universal acceptance that most work-related meetings can be done virtually. Either that or all those face-to-face meetings I have been dutifully having with my overseas clients all these years was actually a waste of time. They didn’t want to see me after all. Perhaps I can earn more by getting people to pay me to stay away.  

In early April we bought a 100% electric car. This further helped ensure that my carbon footprint remained low when the lockdown was (temporarily) lifted. Not content with this, I went one step further and in November got myself banned from driving for 6 months. And yes, regular readers, this is my second such driving ban in 4 years. You would think I would learn. You would be wrong.

My second area of focus was on heating my home. In early March, literally 2 days before Lockdown One commenced, an Air-Source Heat pump was installed at our home, taking us completely off the gas grid. The cost was minimal due to government grants, and the heating is just as good, if not better, than a traditional boiler. Slightly worryingly, 9 months after having been disconnected from the gas grid my local gas supply company is still estimating our usage and sending regular bills. When I ring them they acknowledge that this is wrong, say they will sort it, and then send another bill a few weeks later.

Looking at the data for my electricity usage during 2020 it has risen in as we enter winter, but this is because it now includes all our usual home electronics, plus the contribution for powering the Air Source Heat pump, plus the contribution from charging our electric car (my wife still selfishly drives despite me petitioning her to join me in my driving ban). There is a minor off-set to our grid-electricity footprint due to the PV panels we have installed on our rooftop. These panels are almost 10 years old and, rather annoyingly, at the height of the glorious 2020 summer the invertor failed. It took 29 days to get it fixed and I estimate this ‘cost’ me about 100kg of carbon (29 days at 0.28kgCO2/kWh x 12 kWh/day). 

My final focus area was my diet. In 2019 I followed a pretty standard meat based diet, which has a carbon footprint of around 5.6kg/day. From Jan 1st 2020 I started eating more pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan meals. It wasn’t a hardship. It was a pleasure. I am not a vegetarian (I still eat meat every now and then) but I just eat less. I do however feel a little grumpy that it took 51 years for me to discover Oat Milk. How can something that is so irrefutably tastier (and better for you) than any other type of milk still be some sort of grocery secret. Mad. My average food carbon footprint during 2020 was 4.4kg/day, putting me just between a low-meat eater and a pescatarian/vegetarian.

So as we enter 2021 I have a new goal: 2.5 tonnes/year. I share this news because today, for the first time since humans first appeared on the planet, our atmospheric carbon levels are at 417ppm, and are rising steadily. We have to change. All of us. If the above shows anything it is that reducing our carbon footprint really isn’t that hard. I honestly wish it had been harder so that I could claim some proper environmental glory. I have written this blog for 5.5 years. Over Christmas the cumulative number of visits to my blogsite finally passed 50,000. I briefly felt rather pleased about this, until my youngest son put a 1 minute music video on TikTok. In 4 days he has had 180,000 hits (that’s 2000 times my blogs frequency).

I need to find a way to get this message into a 30 second music clip, preferably with someone falling over or dancing provocatively. Any volunteers?

Tuesday 11 August 2020

No 187: The Crisis Response Register

Exactly one week ago there was a horrific accidental explosion in the port of Beirut. Current estimates are that more than 200 people have died, 7000 people are injured, 300,000 people have been made homeless. Up to $15bn of damage has been caused. As I watched this terrible event unfold I wondered, as I often do when these crises like this happen, what I could do to help.

There are, of course, many excellent, highly capable and well-equipped organisations and charities who are working hard to address the immediate needs. Supporting these organisations, helping them do what they do best, is a given.

However my thoughts turned to the water and sanitation challenges that this accident has created.  300,000 homeless people in a country which had, even before the accident, an unsatisfactory sanitation infrastructure. For those poor homeless Lebanese families this coming winter is going to be incredibly tough. Ensuring that there is no cholera outbreak is going to be a particular challenge.

I was sure that I was not be alone in wanting to apply my professional knowledge to help, but I didn’t know how to do it. How could I ensure that my well-meaning input would be channelled through the right organisations to ensure it complimented the ongoing relief efforts, rather than frustrated them. On a more practical level, how did I even begin? Who should I talk to? And once I had found them, how would they determine whether my skills were useful and complementary, or redundant and superfluous?

It all felt too difficult, too impenetrable. Perhaps I should do what I always do at times like this: feel a little guilty that I couldn’t do more, but tell myself that sitting back and letting others do the do the heavy lifting was actually the best result.

No damn it. No.

Over the past 72 hours I have spoken to multiple organisations and relief agencies. I had thought (hoped even!) that somewhere there would be a register of global water professionals who could be called upon at times like this and all I would need to do is add my name to that list. But time and again I was told that no such register existed. In fact, I was told, if such a thing did exist it would be hugely valuable. After the 4th time I was told this the penny finally dropped…

With this in mind, we are launching the Crisis Response Register. It is for water professionals who feel they may have something they could contribute – be it for this Beirut disaster or any future disasters. Whether you work within a water utility directly, or are part of the supply chain (contractor, consultant, tech company) your input, and perhaps that of your organisation, could be the thing that makes a difference.

If you feel this strikes a chord then follow this link and register your details. I have no idea if you will be called upon, or if the call comes what it might entail. It will vary depending on the crisis, and the expertise you have to offer. For some it might be that you can provide professional advice from afar, for others it might require getting on a plane. The first step however is creating that register of expertise; an army of willing water-professionals who can be mobilised as and when required.

This is not to take anything away from the excellent organisations who provide support currently. Be it the Red Cross, Unicef, Oxfam, Global Crisis Response or the multitude of others. RedR for example are brilliant. They provide trained people to help during an emergency response. What we are creating here is a register of water professionals who can be called up to support these organisations.

If I discover that someone has already built this Register then brilliant, no one will be happier than I to fold our database into an existing one. But until someone tells me that it exists we are going to create our own. I ask you, I appeal to you, please join me in registering your name and listing the areas where you may be able to help. You may never be called upon. But then again, you just might. And it might be your input which makes a real difference to someone in need.


Monday 4 May 2020

No 186: How the water sector can help solve Covid19 (and, in other news, I am growing a Skullet)

Surely no decade was quite a great as the 1980s. The music was better (Squeeze, Madness), films were happier (Ferris Bueller, Back to the Future) and Supermodels really were Super. Yes, I am talking about you Cindy Crawford (she follows this blog, I just know she does). We even lived through the Chernobyl crisis: I remember vividly being advised by the government that we should all stay at home for a week while the radioactive cloud blew over. A week contained in your house with only your family for company! How would we cope?!

This brings us rather neatly to the ongoing Cov19 epidemic. Hopefully dear reader you are safe, well and sane.

Seven weeks ago I, through the company I work for (Isle Ltd), launched a WhatsApp group for water utilities to share their Cov19 experiences. To be honest, I thought this group might attract a dozen or so like-minded organisations. At the time Italy was 2 weeks into their lockdown and the UK was just about to start. There was a brief window I thought where those who were already deep in the pandemic could help those who were just entering. Within 72 hours over 80 utilities had signed up (from Bogota, Colombia to Hobart, Tasmania). 3 weeks on there was just short of 300 utilities involved (we have had to create subgroups as WhatsApp only allows 256 people per chat). Nothing I have ever done previously, including writing 186 of these damned blogs, has ever caught the zeitgeist like this. It seemed cruelly ironic that this simple Whatsapp platform would be the thing that ‘goes viral’.

I have been blown away by the openness with which utilities have shared. Through the telling of honest stories other organisations have undoubtedly avoided repeating mistakes. Lives will inevitably have been saved. At a time when the world feels quite gloomy this is truly worth celebrating.

Some things have been quite simply fascinating: for example, the morning peak in water demand has shifted from 7 – 8am to 10 – 11am. Clearly when isolated at home people – irrespective of culture colour or creed - like to sleep in (although the Germans are, characteristically, a little more precise; their peak is now at 940am). Furthermore, the domestic water demand has increased by about 20%, whereas industrial usage has dropped by up to 50%. The impact varies for each water utility depending on their customer mix, however those utilities with limited domestic water meters find themselves in the extremely uncomfortable position of providing more water for less income.

My favourite fact however is that at 8pm each Thursday in parts of  Spain there is a 10% reduction in water usage due to people going onto the streets to clap, sing and cheer their thanks for local health workers. Now that is something worth smiling about.

Unfortunately however it is becoming increasingly clear that Cov19 is likely to be with us for many years, at least until we have a vaccine AND >3bn+ people have been inoculated. The initial hopes of herd immunity and seasonality appear to have fallen through, unsupported by the empiric evidence. Bearing this in mind, it is increasingly likely countries will be forced to adopt repetitive cycles of lockdown, responding as the virus takes hold, dies down and then resurges again (just as we are seeing right now in Singapore). If this is the New Normal, what can the water sector do to help?

Well, one very exciting area of research has opened up. Over the last few weeks it has been confirmed that the inactive (ie non contagious) part of the Cov19 virus can be detected in wastewater. This potentially offers the possibility of an early warning system for identifying when the virus is present in a local community. The dream is that samples from the sewer network could provide governments with the ability to deliver a precise, local programme of lockdowns, rather than the current approach of a blunt ‘whole nation/state’ lockdown.

Lots of clever people are working hard to make this dream a reality. If you want to know more then you are welcome to join my weekly webinar (I attempt to summarise in 15 minutes the previous weeks WhatsApp discussion). It is held on Thursdays at 730am British Summer Time and repeated at 430pm. Email if you want to join. As an added benefit you will get to see me in my 3-months-since-a-haircut state. I am sure we all have our own little hair-dilemmas, however take pity on me. The few hairs I have left on the top of my head stopped growing many years ago, yet the ones at the side and back seem to have the growth virility of a teenager.

Yes, I am growing that quintessential 1980s hair style: a Mullet.

Or if you are bald, a Skullet.