Guest Blog: Influences – Natalie Welden

My next “influences” blog post comes from the lovely Natalie Welden (@NatalieACWelden), someone I was lucky enough to meet for the first time on a twitch in Aberdeenshire last year. Natalie is a research associate at SEI York, an OPAL community scientist and a dedicated academic, currently studying the effects of micro-plastics on the marine environment. Here she touches upon her influences and why she ended up in her current position. Enjoy and if you would like to contribute to this series of guest blogs do drop me a message.

When I was little we had a rubbish T.V, it was small, and black and white, and I’m probably letting on too much about my age. Thankfully we had a very big picture window and a pond in the garden; both of which were much more interesting. When the weather was nice I would haunt the garden, turning over the compost heap or searching for the hedgehogs that snuffled under the buddleia. Frogs were my gate way to a new world, and I would lie on my stomach for hours and peer into their cool, deep homes.

On the weekends my mum and dad volunteered as canoeing instructors. When I wasn’t in a boat I would hang over the bank, my face as close to the water as possible, looking for minnows and damselfly larvae; or I would climb the large sycamore tree just outside the campsite. Later I graduated to a pink fishing rod and could sit for hours staring at a float. My cousins and I used a boat filled with water as a paddling pool; and this doubled as a keep-net for my catch. On a good day the sight of a little blonde girl with a quarter length fishing rod and a fibreglass boat full of perch would drive the local anglers to distraction.
I remember the first time I saw a peregrine falcon. My family and I had been on a camping holiday in Wales. I don’t remember much, on one of the evenings we had walked in the woods in search of calling tawny owls, it was the trip home that proved momentous. We paused on the drive home for a walk around Symond’s Yat. We wandered through wooded slopes (if I’m remembering correctly) to the viewpoint, and there I met birders. RSPB birders, monitoring the nest to protect it from thieves.

They would have had to be determined burglars, because the nest was very high up what was – to my pre-teen eyes – a sheer insurmountable cliff. The adult birds were far too high for my binoculars (which were bought using Esso fuel tokens). It was frustrating, but then came my first magical moment. One of the locals stepped back from his eyepiece and lowered his tripod to my height, re-sighting so I could get a good view of the incubating bird. As I watched there was a change-over, one bird coming into land and the other dropping away like a stone to skim over the treeline. I can’t say if it was the catalyst for me – I had always been surrounded by wildlife – but this was a gift, a sudden closing of the gap between my world and that of the bird.

My next great epiphany came whilst studying ecology at Derby University, for about six months before I applied I wanted to be a forensic psychologist but thankfully I came to my senses in time. During my studies I continued to look to the water; for my dissertation I spent a summer paddling between outfalls on the River Trent. During the day I sampled invertebrates to test the impact of power station effluent, in the evenings I camped on the river bank with whichever friends were acting as field buddy that week.

One afternoon we watched a dragonfly larvae emerge as a full grown adult whilst resting on my drying canoeing kit. It sat pumping fluid into its wings to inflate them, before sitting in the weak sun to harden. It started to rain heavily, and before running inside I moved the shorts the soft, new dragonfly was resting on to dry ground under a bench. A simple act and one I have regretted ever since. When we came out from the shelter of the port-a-cabin the dragonfly was being swarmed by ants. The scene was gruesome and I will spare you the details, but the winged insect did not survive. I was distraught, but I learned a valuable lesson; even the most well-meaning interference can do immeasurable harm.

It was two years later that I had my greatest revelation, one that would set the tone of my weekends for years to come. As an MSc student, I went to stay at the obs. at Spurn. I already watched birds, and could identify the usual suspects, but I wasn’t a birder. I was there to monitor patterns of visitor access, tallying visitor numbers and interviewing as many people as I could. But there were birds, so many birds. And the keenness of the local birders to share this world was just as apparent as it had been with my first peregrine. I would sit at the gate and chat to the birders as they arrived or at seawatch in the evenings with a curry, enjoying the passage of terns. I would alternately join in with the twitches, feeling the buzz of the people around me, or remain entirely unmoved, once sleeping soundly through a the appearance of a citrine wagtail. The weeks I was there were a sensory overload of dull wave sound, calling sandwich terns, the smell of shoreline and sea buckthorn, and the constantly changing weather.

After I completed my master’s the new experiences rolled think and fast; the summer spent monitoring marine mammals in Cardigan Bay, moving to the Isle of Cumbrae to start my PhD, the time assisting on the field courses on Mull, my first white tailed eagle, my first self-found bird, and the evening spent alone with a beer and a pine martin. Alongside this were the people. Old friends that I had known for years suddenly revealed their own interest in birding, and I reconnected with them for trips and twitches. The stream of students, one of which would always show the inquisitiveness of a real nature lover. Or simply the people I meet whilst out and about birding.

Every new project allowed me to pick up a few like-minded people to add to my circle, and by surrounding myself with keen conservationists and a constant stream of natural phenomenon I have grown to understand why I was shown my first peregrine. There is a desire to communicate that comes along with the spectacle, an instinctive need to share the moment with others. In a time when so many people live in a world detached from nature, the work of an inspired naturalist can engage people with environmental issues over many hundreds of miles. Just look at the programmes of Sir David, the books of Rachel Carson, or the consistent ire of George Monbiot! They represent the world in a manner that inspires and motivates in equal measure; gently pressing essence of the most prescient Pratchett-ism, “Even if it’s not your fault, it’s your responsibility.”

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