Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 8.7.15

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The proposition for listeners to the radio phone-in was either hug or hunt the fox! Not that most listeners to BBC Five Live programmes are ever very likely to have either choice! The reason behind this curious choice was the latest story involving a ‘ferocious’ fox on the loose, a modern day favourite of some elements in the media. The story went that a ‘vicious’ fox had been found wandering around a sports centre. It was apparently so menacing that the assembled gathering of people were forced to retreat into an office. One of the assembled company attempted to offer the beast some food and got bitten for her pains.

A gentleman on a bike was then pursued into a field by this ravenous beast, where he fell off his bicycle and lost his glasses! Another claimed to have been chased around the car park. This, may I remind you, was a fox, not a man-eating Bengal tiger on the loose. An attempt was made by a ‘pest controller’ to apprehend the beast but he was forced to retreat to his car. In the end, the poor beast was put down, a sad end to what had otherwise become an hilarious story (albeit perhaps not for those involved!). So, there was the proposition to radio listeners; to hug or hunt!

The response was interesting. Apart from one lady who roundly condemned all foxes because one had entered her garden and slaughtered all her chickens, the foxes it seemed were well supported by the radio audience. I was tempted to call in and say that I never yet met a fox that carried a key to get into a hen house! Curiously, there was, throughout the broadcast, no mention whatsoever of the controversial subject of fox hunting! No takers there then! In general, the listening audience came down very heavily on the fox’s side.

Our relationship with foxes has changed. Once regarded as a wild, country dwelling creature, the fox has indeed become a familiar figure in urban and suburban Britain. Perhaps we have in many ways, invaded the fox’s rural domain, covered the countryside with motorways, allowed human settlements to swallow up more and more of the countryside and thus forced the fox to seek out a new, less rural homeland?

And it isn’t just foxes that these changes have effected. There are plenty of suburbanised badgers and increasingly deer too as we continue to commandeer more of the countryside. But the fox has probably adapted to these changes more effectively than most other creatures. And, as a result, new kinds of relationships between fox and mankind have developed. The number of people, who phoned in to the programme, telling of the regular trysts they enjoy with foxes, told its own story. Many for instance, related the fact that they regularly fed foxes in their gardens.

I have witnessed such acts of benevolence myself. A relative based in Britain’s capital city, was a regular feeder of her neighbourhood foxes. Indeed her generosity extended to such a degree that a vixen (and sometimes her cubs) would turn up regularly at the French windows, expecting a nightly feast which, if not delivered on time would prompt a rattling of the said windows by means of vigorous pawing, until food was delivered!

The result of course, was that these foxes have lost their natural fear of people. And that is why nowadays, so many suburban areas are populated by foxes, which seem to have shed their natural caution.  We, of course, make living easier for urbanised foxes. Our city streets sadly, are littered with the remains of various kinds of ‘take-aways’, a gift for animals, which enjoy the most catholic of diets. Country dwelling foxes enjoy a remarkably varied diet which needless to say does not comprise entirely of lambs and chickens but which includes every variety of rodent, a surprising amount of vegetable matter and worms … by the bucket load!

City living may not produce the ideal balanced diet for foxes but the fox’s versatility when it comes to making a living for itself seems to know no bounds. I remember talking to some visitors who told me that they had recently moved to a new house on an estate, to be horrified to discover that the area was seething with rats. However, they reported that foxes has moved into their new garden, built an earth under the shed and had proceeded to demolish the rat population.

However, the urbanised diet can have its down side. Mange is sometimes a problem but even worse (for the foxes) are the activities of those who purport to control urban fox populations by trapping them and releasing them far out into the countryside. If the trapped animals have been urbanised for generations, when they are released into a countryside environment, their hunting instincts have become so dulled that they struggle to survive.

Relationships between wild animals and people sometimes surprise however. In recent years, there has been a welcome expansion of the pine marten population. Once heavily persecuted, these attractive arboreal members of the weasel clan are now protected and their spread into many Lowland areas has been welcomed for their predation upon grey squirrels, which in many cases has enabled our native red squirrels to re-establish themselves.

Pine marten usually build their nests either in trees or among rocks but the choice of a few free meals can it seems, persuade these otherwise shy and retiring creatures to bunk up close to or even in human habitation. Thus the offer by a friend of eggs and a few other assorted treats (peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches) has persuaded one female marten to co-habit with humans, to the extent that she found a way into the roof space of the house, where she has successfully reared a family.

It’s amazing what a free meal can do to change attitudes, even in such a naturally wild and retiring animal. Food is probably what that ‘ ferocious fox’ was looking for. Foxes eat many things but they don’t eat people!   

Country View 7.7.15

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Once upon a time, this land was trodden by the likes of dinosaurs, sabre toothed tigers and mammoths. These were perhaps the almost mythical beasts of a history, which has been recorded by archaeologists rather than by historians. We only know of their presence because from time to time, the landscape gives up its secrets to those who dig! There are other creatures however, that both oral and written history tells us once lived here rather more recently.

Most famously perhaps, the wolf hung lasted here until a mere two or three hundred years ago, despite its chilling reputation as a slayer of small children, evidence of which, by the way, is scant. Little Red Riding Hood has much to answer for! And there are of course, those who advocate the restoration of the wolf to parts of our native heath. History however, tells of the fear generated by their presence and the edicts that were regularly proclaimed by a succession of monarchs, in their stringent efforts to rid Scotland of its wolf packs.

Even as recently as the mid-sixteenth century, during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, a veritable plague of wolves was recorded across the country with people forced to bury their dead on islands to prevent them being disinterred and consumed. Two hundred years later, or so historians claim, the last Scottish wolf had been eliminated. Indeed, there are various places that claim to be the location of that final act. That late, great student of wolf life, David Stephen however, firmly believed that the wolf lived on in Scotland into the 1780s.

Other creatures that once roamed this landscape include the brown bear, known to have been present during the Roman occupation but probably extinct by the time the Normans arrived. Giant cattle – aurochs – formidable beasts known to have been the size of elephants also roamed lowland Scotland and lynx too, much prized for their fur, probably became extinct during the same period as the bears.

Reindeer, folklore from the far north of the country tells us, were still present during the twelfth century and beavers, now re-established as part of our fauna, probably lasted a little longer. Wild boar, some would say, have now inadvertently been re-introduced up and down the country as hunting quarries, following their probable demise in the Middle Ages. History also relates, probably inaccurately, that the red squirrel also became extinct, to be re-introduced in the seventeenth century.

These are the beasts we have at some time lost, partially perhaps because they were literally hunted to extinction and partially because our activities down the centuries, had changed the landscape so much, that it was no longer able to support some of these animals. It was certainly the very deliberate activities of man that caused the demise of sea eagles and red kites, both now happily restored to be a proud part of our fauna again.

However, there have also been additions to our catalogue of wild creatures, not all of them welcome! Notoriously, the grey squirrel, introduced from North America, to decorate estate policies and municipal parks, was sadly all too successfully established to the distinct disadvantage of our native red. And mink, imported by fur farmers, either escaped or were released to often create havoc amongst other kinds of wildlife.

Further back in time, pheasants were first brought to these islands by the Roman legions and although each and every year, millions of them are reared and released into the landscape to be subsequently lined up by the guns, many have established a wild presence. And rabbits of course, came courtesy of the Normans.

The sight therefore, of a veritable armada of Canada geese, replete with a substantial nursery of this year’s goslings, hoving into view across the waters of the loch, was a further reminder of the folly of introducing alien species to these islands. For ages, the only geese seen on these waters was during the winter months, the bulk of them pink-footed geese, winter guests from the Arctic, natives of Iceland and Greenland.

A few years ago however, a flock of Canadas, numbering perhaps forty or so, took up temporary residence, flitting between several of the local lochs until eventually taking up permanent residence here. Over the past few years, they have met with such breeding success that they now number well over a hundred. They have something of a reputation for bullying other waterfowl. However, recent observations seem to suggest that not to be the case in an environment that is relatively spacious, for as I watched the armada sail by, moorhens, great crested grebes, mallard and various kinds of gull sailed nonchalantly close by, without the geese showing any aggression towards them.

The first Canada geese to grace these shores did not fly in from their native North America. They were imported in much the same way as grey squirrels were imported, to grace, as one noted ornithologist of the seventeenth century remarked, ‘gentleman’s seats’! In other words they were brought in as decorative embellishments to the lakes and ponds created for the nouveau riche of the seventeenth century.

As is inevitably always the case, some of these Canada geese thus implanted, duly decided to spread their wings and seek a truly wild existence. It is perhaps when they are confined to the small-scale waters of country estates and municipal parks, that they tend to bully other wildfowl.

Most such imports were to the grand estates of England’s south and east. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, they had become very numerous and commonplace, especially in many London parks. However, during the rationing days of the Second World War, many of the geese that had spread their wings more ambitiously, were seen to represent a valuable and readily available supplementary food source and their population accordingly fell sharply. Thus, of the fifteen hundred Canada geese known to inhabit Britain in 1953, a mere two hundred were then resident in Scotland.

In most geese, there is an ingrained instinct to migrate during the spring and autumn months but in Canada geese, that instinct seems to have become subdued although there are groups of them that do move north towards the Moray Firth to moult towards the end of the summer. Once the moult is completed, they move back south for the winter. It is thought that the increasing Scottish population has come from some of these birds which, instead of flying back to the south, dropped off to settle here.

Being comfortably the largest of the various species of geese that spend all or part of their lives here, Canada geese are heavy grazers. It is said that three Canada geese, eat as much as two sheep! In park situations, some authorities complain that large numbers of them become a polluting factor.

Handsome black and white birds though they are, their increasing presence certainly offends some eyes and I suspect therefore, that for some of them, it won’t be long before their goose is cooked! 

Country View 24.6.15

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Graceful, sedate, fabled, fabulous, regal and sometimes belligerent, the mute swan is known by all, in town or country, inland or by the seashore. Artists, poets, painters, musicians and even sculptors have all been inspired by these unmistakable birds and indeed, in times long gone, appetites have been satisfied by swans too! Many a medieval banquet, we are told, had as its centrepiece a lavishly decorated roasted swan.

Mute swans are constant, pairing for life. That is not to say that if a mishap occurs and one partner dies, that its mate will not seek to find a new partner.  Some pairs have been known to spend many long years together. But are these truly wild birds? There are some I’m sure, that give the impression that they are happiest in the company of human kind. Swans feed largely upon underwater vegetation but they also have a sharp and opportunistic eye for offerings made by doting humans, who seem always willing to sacrifice a crust or two for the pleasure of feeding swans.

Water is of course, the environment best suited to swans. There they glide silently, propelled effortlessly by two hefty webbed feet. Sometimes they tip up in the shallows, revealing no more than their pointed tail ends, which comically point skywards. In such mode, a swan is utilising the asset of its long, sinuous neck, as it reaches down to plunder water-weed growing on the bed of river or loch. But when a cob is intent on defending territory against intruders, he sails forth with purpose, neck deeply curved, head lowered and wings raised, like some galleon sailing into battle.

On the loch during the winter months, the local cobs take exception to the arrival of migrating whooper swans and accordingly charge forth intent on prosecuting trespassers. Whoopers, truly wild swans in every sense, are considerably more agile than mute swans. Whereas it takes much effort, great paddling of feet and whooshing of mighty wings for a mute swan to get airborne, whoopers, by comparison, are infinitely more athletic, veritable spring chickens.

Thus, when these migrating interlopers first arrive from Iceland in the autumn, the old cob gets furious, sailing into battle, paddling menacingly towards them, only to see the whoopers calmly and easily take to the air and fly to another part of the loch. Off he goes again in vain pursuit and when he gets near to them again, the whoopers simply take off again and often return to the part of the loch where this comic relay began in the first place. Much energy is accordingly wasted in what, for the cob, is a totally futile exercise. However, it does provide some mildly amusing activity for the bystander.

Although we may be familiar with mute swans on many of our lochs, they also nest on public park ponds with impunity and perhaps the most urbanised nest I have seen was on an old canal right in a city centre. But if that induces us to suggest that these are in reality, domesticated and thus tame birds, it should be remembered that there are some mute swans which, like wild whoopers, can be found in the most outlandish and remote parts of for instance, Russia. No-one could possibly accuse these swans of being anything but truly wild birds!

The nests themselves, often built in reed beds, are untidy heaps of vegetation, reeds, rushes and curious bits of detritus such as strips of plastic, in which the pen lays her eggs, usually four or five in number. Hers is a patient vigil of some thirty-five days as she incubates her eggs, relieved from time to time by her mate. Anyone approaching a swan’s nest or even allowing their dog to approach it will get a very hostile reception with much angry hissing proving that these swans are not mute at all.

Tales of the singing of dying swans abound. Poets, including Shakespeare, make many references to ‘the song of the dying swan’ – the swan song - and Irish folklore dwells lengthily on the same topic. However, such tales seem to have little basis in fact and may be either attributed to mythical sources or perhaps in reality, refer more to the very vocal whooper swan. However, mute swans not only hiss, they also grunt and occasionally, emit a trumpet-like volley.

It is said by some, that a big cob is capable of breaking a man’s arm. My own experience of handling swans, suggests that this tale, too, is dubious, albeit that an angry cob is certainly capable of dealing out some firm physical punishment. A dog or fox, approaching a swan either sitting on eggs or with young, is soon seen off!

On land of course, the swan has a rather clumsy, waddling gait. Although mute swans when in the air are strong flyers, their wings making a tuneful soughing sound, the effort of getting into the air seems laborious in the extreme. Much wing and leg power is needed for take off, the whole process reminiscent perhaps, of a fully laden airliner trundling it seems, forever, along a very long runway,

The suggestion that all mute swans belong to the sovereign is also a myth. However, there is a long standing tradition still adhered to on the River Thames, in which all cygnets are marked during the months of July and August. The event is called ‘swan-upping’ and one nick on a cygnet’s beak means that it is a Dyers’ Company bird, whilst two nicks means that it is claimed as a Vintners’ Company bird. All unmarked swans on the Thames, officially belong to the Queen.

In those medieval days of yore, such ownership was perhaps important, as swans were regarded as an important source of food. They were of course, protected by swan herds, with many of the birds pinioned so that they could not fly away. Nowadays, with the protection of various conservation statutes, the swan-upping tradition is simply that – a tradition. The mute swan is these days, given the full protection of the law.

The cygnets take to the water and cut pretty pictures as they paddle in the wake of the pen. At first, they are destined to become the ‘ugly ducklings’ but eventually as they reach maturity a couple of years on, they become handsome swans, very impressive in size and favourites of the poets. In “Lady of the Lake”, Scott writes; ”So forth the startled swan would swing, So turn to prune his ruffled wing.”  For Burns this handsome bird was; “The swan in majesty and grace, contemplative and still.”

Country View 23.6.15

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The great tit family has flown, their parents doubtless exhausted by their three-week race to get their progeny from the egg into the air. The job has still to be completed of course, for the youngsters will take a week or two to become self –sufficient in terms of finding their own food.

Meanwhile, young lapwings and young curlews are already upwardly mobile and indeed, feeding themselves. The contrast between the young great tits and young curlews is an interesting one. Great tits hatch after an incubation period of just a couple of weeks. But when they emerge from the egg they are helpless, bald and blind. Many chicks of birds that nest in the relative safety of trees or tree holes, like the tits, start their lives in this helpless manner.

Young curlews however, emerge from the egg completely ready within a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes, to be upwardly mobile. They are fully feathered, their eyes are open and within no time at all they are scuttling about with amazing vigour. Other ground nesters are the same. Lapwing chicks, for instance, or those of redshanks, oyster-catchers and sandpipers are also ready for action from almost the moment they hatch.

However, whereas the great tit chicks, fed upon copious numbers of caterpillars, grew at an amazing rate and flew after less than three weeks from hatching, the curlew chicks, despite their mobility on the ground, are not able to take to the air for almost a month.

Curlews of course, along with lapwing, redshank, oyster-catchers and sandpipers are all ground nesters, so being mobile from the start can be equated to the comparative safety enjoyed by the great tits in their tree hole. However, being hatched on the ground does not always necessarily mean that such mobility is guaranteed. Meadow pipit chicks, like great tit chicks, come into the world utterly helpless. Even more amazing is the fact that cuckoos too, when they emerge from their eggs do so as helpless, bald and blind chicks.

Whereas curlew, lapwing and the like, do not fashion much of a nest - little more than a scrape in the ground sufficing - meadow pipits go to a lot of trouble in trying to conceal their nests amongst and within tufts of grass. Such concealment however, does not fool adult cuckoos. The sharp eyes of a female cuckoo, watching the activities of suitable foster parents for her own young, soon identify what is nesting where, so that she can plan her devious operation of laying one of her eggs in each of perhaps a dozen meadow pipit nests.

And the fact is that the young cuckoo when it hatches – usually a day earlier than the other eggs in the nest – despite being bald and blind, still has the instinct to manoeuvre the rest of the eggs, and if they’ve hatched, the chicks, on to its concavely shaped back and thence lever them out of the nest altogether. The real meadow pipit parents of these chicks it would appear, do not seem to understand that their dead and dying natural off-spring, now lying outside the nest, are in fact anything to do with them. Indeed they seem utterly oblivious to the plight of their own progeny

The larger ground nesters, whose chicks are so instantly mobile, besides not making much of a nest at all, lay eggs that are exceedingly well camouflaged and when they hatch, so too are the chicks themselves. Many of these birds nest on moorland and in some cases, with lapwings in particular, social arrangements are such that the parent birds may go away to feed, whilst others of the community act as guardians and baby sitters.

The exception among the birds already mentioned is the sandpiper. Unlike the others, this is a well-travelled bird, sometimes migrating over startlingly long distances. They usually pitch up here in Scotland in mid April. And among the most familiar of summer sounds that grace my local loch shore is the reedy ‘twee-twee-twee’ of the sandpiper as it darts from the shingle out over the water on quivering wings, almost feathering the surface whilst it proscribes a semi-circle and lands further down shore.

Walk towards the bird and it will return to its first take-off point by the same route. When I was young, I used to call it ‘sandpiper tennis’! The shrill little utterance, so familiar along the shores of so many Scottish lochs, has given rise to some curious pseudonyms such as ‘killieleepsie’, from East Lothian, ‘kittie needie’, in the south west and ‘willy wicket’, from the North of England. In Aberdeenshire, where strong dialect almost gives us a separate and very different native tongue, the sandpiper is referred to as a ‘heather peeper’.

Should you wander along a shore where the sandpiper has her nest, a sitting parent will be off and running with a wing trailing to lure you away from her eggs, feigning injury. The young sandpipers usually up to four of them, when they hatch, are a little bundle of fluff but well camouflaged, merging with the background of a pebbly shore. Like curlew and lapwing chicks, the young are quickly mobile but are obviously vulnerable as they are unable to fly until they are between four and five weeks of age.

So this is the time when these little fluffy sandpiper chicks are in the greatest danger. However, once the young have mastered the art of flight, sandpipers do not hang about. Although there are plenty of records of sandpipers wintering in southern Britain, most of them begin heading south in August. Sandpipers are widely distributed across the northern hemisphere, right across northern Europe and northern Asia.

They also breed in North America. Such are the ambitions of some northern breeding birds that they are known for instance, to sometimes breed in northern Asia and migrate in the winter to Australia! Often therefore, young sandpipers will barely have been flying for six or seven weeks when they may be called upon to indulge in a migratory journey of epic proportions across continents, mountain ranges and oceans. 

When the summer begins to decline, the loch shore will become a quieter place, so enjoy their restless piping and movement whilst you can!

Country View 10.6.15

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They are our largest land mammals. For many visitors, the sight of their herds roaming the hills is a holiday highlight; they have been the principal quarry for countless generations of hunters and in more recent times, they have become the most desirable targets for affluent generations of modern, gun toting hunters. Red deer are perhaps as synonymous with the Highlands of Scotland as golden eagles and the uisge-beatha.

Our most ancient ancestors pursued the herds of red deer for meat but they also put the antlers of the stags to good use as tools. Indeed the first hunter gatherer migrants, who arrived here in dug-out canoes and sailed up the sea loch that is now the Forth Valley, clearly utilised deer antlers as tools. Nineteenth century excavations of peat, revealed the skeleton of a whale, which had presumably become stranded, the carcass of which those nomadic people had butchered with the help of tools fashioned from red deer antlers.

The Stuart Kings and Queens of Scotland had a burning enthusiasm for the chase and frequently travelled west of their base at Stirling to pursue red deer through the deer forests of the Highland Edge. More recently, Queen Victoria’s Consort Prince Albert, perhaps inspired the kind of deer stalking that has become one of the major upland land uses over the past hundred and fifty years and the creation of a new kind of deer forest which curiously, is bereft of trees!

Indeed, it is almost certain that the universal view is that red deer are residents of the treeless uplands, creatures destined to roam the high, rugged landscapes of Highland Scotland, tough, weather resistant but magnificent. It is certainly in the mountains and glens of the Highlands that most people enjoy the spectacle of great herds of deer dotting the bare hillside and dramatically standing majestically on high rise skylines, true monarchs of glens!

However, as herbivorous, cud-chewing animals, related to cattle and sheep, red deer have to consume and process large volumes of vegetation to build up body tissue. On most Highland hillsides, only during the summer months is such food available in adequate quantity. At other times of the year, especially during the winter months, such hillsides thus yield poor quality and poor quantities of food.

Britain was once a landscape of dense woodland, forest and heath and it is within such forests that the true habitat of deer may be found. The clearance of woodland and forest to make way for agriculture, as Britain’s human population grew, progressively reduced suitable habitat for red deer, a situation considerably exacerbated during the eighteenth and  nineteenth centuries, as demand for timber escalated dramatically.

A combination of wars, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid expansion of the railways and the equally rapid expansion of extensive sheep farming thus denuded much of upland Scotland of its forest and woodland cover. Therefore, red deer were left with little option but to seek out a different, harsher lifestyle on the now open hills. It is interesting to note that a healthy stag from the Scottish Highlands would do well to weigh in at twenty stone, whereas a stag living in the comparative comfort zone of a forest in, for example, Eastern Europe, might well weigh in at forty stone.

 

This latter comparison, gives a clue to the real origin of red deer and to the habitat that given the choice, these creatures much prefer. During these past weeks, the red deer herd has grown as hinds have been giving birth to their calves. And it is the calves that provide another clue to the origins of red deer. Like the forest dwelling but smaller and indeed shyer roe deer kids, red deer calves are born adorned with spotted coats. This is an effective form of camouflage, for a kid or calf dropped in some dell in forest or woodland, is given a degree of anonymity by those spots.

The dappling effect of the sun’s rays penetrating the woodland canopy is precisely the effect this kind of obfuscation is designed to replicate. In some respects, the camouflage of spots is almost as effective on bracken covered hillsides, which is of course, where many red deer hinds now give birth.

Whereas roe deer commonly give birth to twins or even triplets, red deer are more likely to have single calves. Red deer are of course extremely gregarious in lifestyle, albeit that they generally and particularly during the summer months, live in single sex herds, all the stags together and elsewhere, often occupying higher ground, the hinds.

The enthusiasm for deer stalking as it developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, naturally led to higher numbers of red deer – more deer, better sport. That trend has continued and now it is the case that there are too many deer, that is, too many for their own good. It is also the case that as the conservation ethic has developed, there is now much more interest in restoring natural woodland. That has brought red deer into conflict with both foresters of the new generation of forests and with the conservationists who want to see regenerating woodland restored. Red deer and tree regeneration do not generally go together!

Thus, there has been much greater pressure exerted on the need to cull the herds of wild red deer more severely. Some recent culls have shown that in many areas the grazing pressures have been such that huge numbers of deer have been found to be in very poor condition. However, like many others, I do not think it is either necessary or desirable to go down the road of overkill. Corralling wild deer and shooting them en masse, shooting them from helicopters or indeed shooting pregnant hinds is surely unnecessary and wholly excessive. More humane ways, even if they take correspondingly longer, are surely more acceptable.

Of course, wolves were, centuries ago, the natural controllers of deer herds. Now red deer effectively have no predators other than man. In these last few weeks more potential monarchs of the glen have arrived amongst the fast growing brackens. Can you spot the spots?

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods