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Interview: Mary Colwell, producer, writer, and conservationist

27 May 2016

‘I’m very tired and I’ve got blisters, but every day has been wonderful’

I have been walking from the west of Ireland to the east of England over six weeks, to draw attention to the plight of curlews in Ireland and Britain. I began in Enniskillen, on Lough Erne, on 21 April, and I will finish in Boston, in Lincolnshire, on 29 May. I’ve been on the road now for five weeks; so I’m very tired, and I’ve got blisters; but every day has been wonderful.

I’ve asked people to put me up as I walked along, and have been offered places to stay everywhere. I put up for crowd funding to begin with, and now I’m asking people to contribute directly to curlew projects. On the front page of my website there are three charities, and soon I will put a specific Shropshire project up, helping curlews in the Shropshire hills.

I have never attempted anything like this before. I had only four months to set everything up; so it was hard work, but I am so glad I ploughed through the difficulties.

My most recent work has been producing Shared Planet, Natural Histories, and Saving Species for Radio 4. Previously, I worked on documentaries for TV on nature and wildlife.

I write on a variety of topics. In 2014, I published a biography of John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist. I hope to make this 500-mile journey into a book.

There’s been a tremendous amount of interest in my walk. Everywhere I’ve gone, people have been fascinated and encouraging.

The curlew inspires me because of its call, and the way it looks. It’s so elegant and graceful, with that evocative call — yet the long bill, small head, and long legs make me smile, too. Curlews also live in places I love: shifting, unknowable estuaries, vibrant hay meadows, rich bogs, and the wildness of mountain slopes. They bring so many things together.

What I’m proud of is that things are definitely happening now, and directly because of the walk. For example, there’s going to be a day conference in Ireland just on curlews and what needs to be done, bringing all the key players together.

A few specific things are destroying the curlew population. These depend on where you go; but the biggest three are the way we farm the land, cutting for silage too early, draining wet places, improving marginal land. All of that takes away habitat for curlews. And predators such as foxes and crows are a massive issue. Planting forests on upland areas, and draining bogs in Ireland, are both devastating for them. The way we use the land has tipped things in favour of predators and against wading birds; so it’s human-made problems that have to be discussed.

Curlews are dramatically affected, more than other birds, which is why they’re the species of highest conservation concern. It’s because they like more marginal habitats, and areas of changed farming practice.

Walking through Ireland was an experience of contrasting emotions. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people and their generosity — I spent most of my time having fun. But that was in contrast to the dire state of the curlew in Ireland, which is only just hanging on in a degraded landscape.

I did, however, meet individuals who are working hard to try to save them. In Wales, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the British Trust for Ornithology are combining with others to try to work out the best way to preserve the curlews that are left. The situation is better in England, but still the decline is very worrying.

The hardest thing has been finding time to write and think, as well as talk, fact-find, and keep up with correspondence.

I’m delighted to discover that I’m fitter than I thought, and value the overwhelming kindness I’ve had from everyone who has put me up, most of them without knowing me. And I owe so much to the scientists and conservationists who have given me their time and knowledge.

My mum was a Roman Catholic from Northern Ireland, and my dad an Anglican from Stoke-on-Trent. When they married in 1958, it was shocking for the Irish community: I realise now how courageous they were. I have two sisters. I am married and have two sons, who are 14 and 19. My husband, Julian Hector, has three girls from his first marriage who are grown up and lovely people. Two of them have children of their own; so our house is often very busy.

To be honest, I’m not sure there was a first experience of God. I went to mass with my mum for years when I was growing up, and saw how God binds communities together, often in a web of kindness and mutual support. The ordinariness of God working in people’s everyday lives struck me from an early age. That hasn’t changed, but it broadened as I experienced more about the natural world, which brought bigger questions about the nature of God.

I hear it so infrequently in real life, but the call of the great northern diver has to be the most evocative and thought-provoking sound in nature. Curlews calling over moors and estuaries is one of my favourite sounds, too. Otherwise, whenever I have a chance, I surround myself with the sound of silence.

The way the bogs of central Ireland have been stripped and thrown into furnaces for inefficient power-production has made me angry. It’s an outrageous and unnecessary destruction of wild places.

The happiest day of my life was my wedding day. More recently, some of the days when I have been walking alone in wild places during this walk for curlews have been truly joyful. But I’ve also found great happiness in being with the people I have met, who have welcomed me into their lives: fun conversations, everywhere.

It is hard to pick out individuals who have inspired me, but I have met many naturalists over the years who really love the natural world, and bring it alive with their enthusiasm and joy. My own interest in the natural world was first inspired, though, by walking with my dad. My husband has been a great influence in my life. And there are many others.

I pray for the confidence to go and to choose wisely. More widely, I pray for justice and kindness for people and non-human life; for a gentle understanding of who and what we are.

If I were locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose to have John Muir as my companion. He’s always been a hero of mine, a huge influence on me because he sees the world spiritually as well as through a naturalist’s eyes. He combines his belief in his God with his appreciation of the natural world. He doesn’t put them in separate places, which so many people do.

Mary Colwell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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