40th Anniversary – Nature stories

A few weeks ago, we sent you an email asking for your nature stories and experiences as part of the build up to our 40th anniversary.

A warm thank you to everyone who submitted a story. We received many responses, and it has been a joy to read them all. From saving owls from car engines to trekking amongst gorillas, we received all sorts of stories and experiences, and we have learned more about you all in the process.

We were tasked with choosing just three stories and experiences to share with you all, and it has not been easy to choose!

The first story features an unlikely hippo and rhino friendship, and a close encounter! The second, a short but sweet interaction with wild deer, and the third, lockdown brings unexpected parenthood.

You can read them below.



Back in 2005, I was working in a wildlife rehabilitation clinic in South Africa, taking care of injured animals from honey badgers, vultures, hyenas to hippos!

One day I was approached by one of the young game rangers, who required some help to go out, find, and feed a young hippo that had recently been released back into the wild. The hippo was quite a size now and they had been caring for her for since she was a baby. Having lost her own mother and having recently been released, she was still needing help with food until she became totally self-sufficient.

Two of us volunteers jumped in the back of an open truck and headed out into the bush to find her.

The plan was to find her, and she would then run up to the back of the pickup truck. We would drop the back and she would literally jump up with her front feet on the back of the truck, and fully open her mouth ready to be fed.  We would then pour a dustbin full of hippo nuts into her mouth, as quickly as possible, then drive off! Simple…..However, the young hippo had befriended a wild rhino, and the rhino would always follow the hippo and would be running some 50m behind, so we needed to feed the hippo quickly and move out before the rhino arrived, as the rhino would not be so friendly and they did not want a ‘run in’ with a wild rhino!…OK!

We drove around the bush looking for the hippo and suddenly a voice shouted from within, “she’s coming!’ Get the back down”.

We looked back and could see this huge hippo bounding towards us at full speed, about 70m away, down the track. We put the back down and watched and waited for what would happen next.  The hippo arrived at the truck and literally jumped on the back with her two front feet, as the truck suspension shrunk to the ground. We could not quite comprehend what was now staring us in the face from very close quarters.

“Quick, hurry up and feed her” came a shout from within the truck “the rhino is coming!”

We looked up and could see the rhino some 60m away running at speed towards the truck, which by now had a huge hippo hanging off the back, with her jaws fully open, right in front of us, waiting to be fed.  Without thinking too much about it, we picked up the bin full of hippo nuts and poured them into her huge gaping mouth, as quickly as we could.

“Ok, we have got to go now, the rhino is getting closer” came an anxious voice from within the truck.

“Hold on!” The truck then pulled away as the feet of the hippo slid off the back of the truck, the suspension bouncing back into place, and the rhino now only meters away. The hippo was fed, the job was done, and we were still in one piece to tell the tale.

We drove off into the bush and back to camp, not quite comprehending what we had just experienced and completed, which was undoubtedly one of the weirdest natural experiences of my life.

John Bell

Oh deer, I fell asleep

I wanted somewhere quiet and peaceful to sit and read my book. It was a lovely warm sunny afternoon and I knew of a wood that I had never seen anyone else in before, so I decided to climb the steep hill to get there.

As I wondered through the wood, I came to a clearing and as it turned out to be a real sun trap, I decided to sit down on the grass and read my book. After a while I became sleepy. The sun was beating down on me which made me even more sleepy, so I put my book to one side and lay down.

I don’t know how long I was asleep, but I began to rouse when I felt myself being nudged in various parts of my body. I opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by deer nudging and sniffing me to see what this was lying down in their sunny glade. I lay quite still for a while and then began to sit up very slowly. The deer gradually moved away to different parts of the glade and began to graze the fresh green grass. They were not bothered by me at all. They had finished trying to identify what was lying there in their sunny glad and just carried on with their afternoon snack.

It was getting late. I must have slept for quite a while and now needed to get home as my mother would be wandering where I was. I scrambled to my feet and set off for home, leaving the deer, the glade and the wood behind.

This is a true encounter, one that I shall never forget.

Alyth Allen

A swift decision to help

Locked down. Saturday, July 11th 2020, 2pm to be precise, in the Peak District, Derbyshire.  Our neighbour comes a knocking - at a safe distance - to inform my wife and I that a chick has fallen from its nest.

The chick's nest is in the eaves of a grade II Victorian school converted into six cottages.  The bird, a common swift (Apus apus), is extremely dehydrated and undernourished.

We call ALL veterinary clinics, and animal rescue centres, in and outside the Peak District.  Our calls go to answer machines that are full.  The RSPB main phone number is down.

We know enough to return the chick to its nest, in the hope its parents will continue raising their chick, so up a ladder we go. An hour later the neighbour knocks again, and during the course of the afternoon, we return the chick to its nest three times.

It is a twelve feet drop from the nest to the neighbour's patio, and because the chick is nearly half the weight it should be, we assume the parents are not returning.  This could be due to builders working illegally over the nest, the dwindling UK insect population (their food), or an opportunistic sparrowhawk snatching the parents.

We decide to take the enigmatic chick in, for what turns out to be our FIRST EVER six week, heart wrenching attempt to care of a swift.  A bird that is notoriously difficult to hand-rear.

Scouring the internet for information, and tracking down the one swift expert who is willing to answer their phone - reluctant to talk as they have six swifts in care - we start our steep learning curve.

The first two days from dawn to gone dusk, we figure out how to purchase and kill hundreds of crickets, and on the hour, individually push them down the throat of our swift chick.  For peace and safety, the chick sleeps in a specially made box at the foot of our bed.  Oh, boy does it scrabble around at night, but it is putting on weight!

Tuesday, July 14th 2020, 2pm to be precise, our neighbour comes a knocking to inform us, another swift chick has fallen from the same nest.  So now, we have two swift siblings, and the second one is a right Wriggler.

The first week goes better than expected.  The swifts weighed just over twenty grams when we received them, but are piling on weight fast approaching thirty grams, and heading towards their flight weight of around forty-five grams.

But then, the most dreadful thing happens during a feed. Wriggler's lower beak SNAPS.

Prising open a swift's beak to insert a cricket or wax larvae is a delicate, skilled process, not to be attempted by an amateur.  But we had no choice!  This is death sentence for one of the most acrobatic of birds, that deftly catches insects on the wing at around forty miles an hour.

After we pick our hearts up off the floor, we frantically searched the internet again, and email an expert in Germany.  They reply, telling us not to worry, it happens, and to find a pigeon feather or similar, plus some super glue. What?

There's a healthy corvid population in our village, and we experiment to find the correct size calamus at the end of a jackdaw feather, using the hollow shaft to splint the break.  With some bone realignment, a dab of superglue glue, we are all set.  The splint should naturally fall off in a few days, and the bone will be healed.  Phew!  All we have to do now, is grind up Wriggler's daily cricket ration in our coffee grinder, pour the gunk into a syringe, tickle the thin silicone tube down into the chick's belly, and fill to the gunwales.

Mercifully, the beak heals, with a tiny bump, and over the month, both chicks mature before our eyes to resemble their sleek parents.  We feed, preen and teach them to poop in a waste paper basket, instead of all over our bedroom floor.

Then, one day, the chicks suddenly get that urge to fly, stop feeding, throw up their crickets and start doing press ups - it's a swift thing.  After checking weight, wing length and feather health, we have no choice but to take them outside and let them fly from our open hands.  Both do, successfully, up and over the church, immediately heading due south out of the Peak District.

With swift sized holes in our hearts, we dream of their seven thousand mile journey south over Europe and the Western Sahara to subtropical Africa.

Maybe, this year, they will return to our village, each with a mate, and rear their own chicks.  Builders, insects and climate willing.

Mat Dale