Monday, October 11, 2021

Goshawk Summer - James Aldred

I started reading this book this morning, and have read it every moment I could since until I finished it. It was only about 50 pages from the end that it struck me that a book written by a photographer, which describes scene after scene, had no pictures in it.

'Goshawk Summer' is a sort of diary from James of his experience of 2020 - coming back from a work trip in East Africa filming cheetahs just before the first lockdown, he ends up on another assignment in the New Forest following Goshawks and other wildlife for the spring and early summer. It's an odd time to read about, not least because my lockdown was endlessly extended by being in Leicester where restrictions remained in place for almost all of last year.

When I did get out of the city and moved in with my mother to help her post-op (almost exactly a year ago) it was just before the second lockdown. We were in a quiet Leicestershire village which has its pretty bits, but also a lot of pig farms and mud - it's not any kind of tourist destination, very unlike the New Forest. For James, there's the sense of being an interloper first in the Goshawk's territory, and then as restrictions lifted, in the human territory of the forest where the residents got increasingly fed up with the hoards of visitors that descended as soon as they legally could. 

It's an excellent book about observing, changing baselines, and what the future might hold. Goshawk's in the UK are a success story of illicit reintroduction - it's likely that most of the growing wild population are escaped or deliberately released birts bought in by falconers. There are other species recolonising spaces in the same way - pine martens are another predator making their way back into the forest, and there's a steady stream of stories in the news about beavers successfully doing their win thing too. What we don't know is the effect they'll have on ecosystems, and how we might have to learn to live with some of these animals.

Most of us will remember the strangeness of Spring 2020 - the subduing of human noise and activity contrasted by a burst of noise and activity from, around here particularly, the birdlife which suddenly and wonderfully seemed to have the parks to themselves. How those first weeks had an otherworldly, out of time feeling, when everything was uncertain, but also we had no idea how many people would die or how long we would be living with covid for. Also how they were followed by people colonising previously quiet spaces with no thought for anything g or anybody who had been using it before. My park became unusable due to the number of drinkers and drug users who moved into it.

There's a lot to think about in all this about how we need green spaces, how we need to better distribute them, take some of the pressure off of the national parks and well known beauty spots and consider if the pattern of land use and ownership that we currently have is working for enough people. The indications are that it is not - selfish behaviour is both frustrating and understandable (to an extent). There are the younger people denied the festivals that would normally punctuate their summer treating the forest, in the same way, they would campsites, oblivious to the reality that there isn't an army of people to clean up after them. The dog owners who fail to keep their animals on a lead or under control around nesting sights and resent any commentary. The people who park in gateways and driveways, who block the roads and mow down an endless array of roadkill. The angry locals who are all out of empathy for people desperate to get out of their houses.

All of it needs to be part of a wider national conversation. Aldred makes no bones about how he feels about it all, but he doesn't overburden the reader with his commentary either - it's very much about what he observes. There's hope here as well as worries for the future, and specifically the future of the forest. Plenty that can be fixed with only a little thought and education, and just maybe a greater awareness would help us approach some of the bigger systemic issues for which there are no quick fixes. 

There's also an endearing insight into a life (wildlife photographer who travels the world) that might sound glamorous, but also involves a lot of time standing in a wet ditch being bitten by midges, and a deep appreciation for the things we still have, whilst we still have them. This would also be an excellent book to read with Stephen Rutt's 'The Eternal Season' and James Rebanks 'English Pastoral'. All three cover the particular moment we find ourselves in, in practical and accessible ways. Aldred and Rutt particularly encourage observation, and once you start to see what's happening, and begin to grasp the complexity of these natural systems, I for one find I desperately want to be part of the answer before it's entirely too late. 


  1. This sounds like a very engaging book and one which a lot of people ought to read. I can see a lot of resonance between the New Forest (which I do know a bit from numerous visits to friends) and the island off the coast of Massachusetts where I live. I think that this is a must buy book! Thanks Hayley.

  2. It's very good, a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about.