Shad does a boat ride along the Thames

Well folks, Shad’s back, and there’ll be no more baby talk!  Instead I’d like to tell you about the time I took a trip down the River with John.  Initially I was apprehensive about the idea given that boats don’t have brakes and I had visions of drifting down the Thames out of control, crashing into the lions that line the embankment (I’ll tell you about those in a minute) and coming a cropper across the Thames Barrier.  A daring helicopter rescue would ensue and the newspapers would be hot on our trail, no doubt ending with embarrassing pictures of me in a life jacket clinging to the captain’s trouser leg.  John assured me that this scenario was very unlikely as the crew were experienced at parking boats by using reverse thrust from the engines and drag from the water before securing the boat with ropes to the pier.

 

So let me tell you about the lions along the embankment.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were actual lions from Africa patrolling the banks of the River Thames, stopping bad guys from committing crimes and roaring whenever a boat passed by, may be wearing capes to indicate their super hero status!  Sadly they are not that kind of lion, although I don’t suppose real lions from Africa would be that keen on hanging around the streets of London!  No these lions hold mooring rings in their mouths and keep watch along the river as a flood warning system from a time before the Thames Barrier was built. It was said that if the water hit the lions’ mouths, the underground should be evacuated.  The captain of the boat told us a few fun rhymes that local people say including, “If the lions will drink, London will sink”.  “When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains”.  “If the lions are ducked, London is … out of luck”.

 

If you’re wondering about the pirate ship in the photographs, it’s the Cutty Sark – a 19th century sailing vessel called a ‘clipper’ ship with wooden hull planks and an iron framework used to carry tea from China and wool from Australia before steam powered boats became the new master of the seas.  There are many bridges over the River Thames and the unique construction of each one of them tells a story.  We passed under Blackfriars Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge, Charing Cross Railway Bridge and Waterloo Bridge which was constructed by women while the nation’s men were sent to fight in the Second World War.  Go girls!  Another monument of interest on our river boat cruise is Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3,500 year old obelisk made in Egypt and shipped to Britain in 1878 to commemorate the victory over Napoleon, at the peril of many of the sailors who navigated the treacherous seas in a cigar-shaped container ship to convey this treasure to England’s shores.  The things some people will do to show off! 

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Shad’s big cousins on the Isle of Wight

Regular readers will know that John and I have visited the Isle of Wight Zoo before and enjoyed taking some fab pictures of the big cats that live there.  Remember Casper the white lion and Zena the one-eyed white tiger?  Don’t get me started about the unethical practice that surrounds the breeding of white tigers!  Anyway, the Zoo on Sandown’s chalky coast is well known for its lemurs and rescued big cats, some of which come from circus and entertainment backgrounds, having been rejected by the industry once they served their purpose.
This trip was a Really Wild Photography Workshop that is offered by the Zoo and hosted by professional wildlife photographer Karen-Jane Dudley.  Karen-Jane was excited to see a domestic cat like me in the group and said the big cats would be very curious to see me.  We exchanged tips on the art of wildlife photography and she told me some stories from her experiences in South Africa where she travels every year to capture beautiful images of the animals, like the zebras, leopards and birds of prey.

The workshop included lunch (I had fish pie, one of my favourites) and ‘behind the scenes’ access to a number of specially designed photography stations so that we could view the cats close-up.  As I peered through one of the lens ports, my feline senses tingled as the stunningly striped Aysha came trotting through the water towards me.  She was very inquisitive when she picked up my scent and looked enquiringly at me with her bold black and orange eyes before deciding that the water was far more interesting and splashing off in another direction.   Aysha is a playful 16 year old currently enjoying her retirement at the Zoo along with her brother Diamond, a laid-back boy like me.

 

Lions are one of the most iconic animals in the world and they are quite sociable in comparison to many of the other big cats that roam the plains of Africa.  I tried to get a few shots of Casper but he was being quite standoffish that day so I turned my attention to Charlie Brown, a tawny lion with a gentle spirit who gazed idly towards me before turning his attention to a noise coming from across the way.  It was Aysha huffing and chuffing with joy as she scampered towards a jet of water flowing from a hosepipe.  The keepers were in the enclosure playing with the tigers who seemed to love the sound and feel of the water being splattered around.  Then it was feeding time and the keepers placed whole pieces of meat tied to various items such as a barrel or a log into the enclosure, making mealtime a bit more of a challenge for these hungry hunters and helping to keep them stimulated.

 

We also had a special treat when we got the opportunity to actually go inside one of the enclosures.  Not with the tigers though!  Probably not a good idea!  But with the ring-tailed lemurs, a good-natured bunch of primates that come from Southern Madagascar and spend most of their time in trees.  It was quite funny being in the pen and looking out at the on-lookers looking in!  One of the visitors was overheard saying that the lemurs must be a type of monkey and Michelle (one of the alpha females of the group) was not amused.  Apparently lemurs are prosimians, a sub-group of primates that include tarsiers and bushbabies.  They lack the dexterity of monkeys and apes but they do have specially adapted eyes that enhance their night vision.  They certainly considered themselves to be more evolved, but I’m not so sure.  Don’t tell Michelle!

Shad visits the otters

Otters are one of my favourite kinds of animals because of their happy disposition and kind-hearted attitudes towards each other.  I defy even the grumpiest of humans to watch them and not smile at their playful antics.  They obviously have their duties to perform such as hunting for food, feeding their young, building dens and protecting their environments, but they also engage in lots of fun behaviours just for the sheer enjoyment.

The Asian Short-Clawed otters (the smallest species of otter) were super sociable, chattering constantly to each other and gobbling up their food with gusto.  Apparently they can vocalise 14 different sounds to communicate with each other and they use their feet to find food under the rocks on the river beds where they live in the wild.  We watched the keepers try to replicate this at feeding time by throwing food in places where the otters had to dig using their sensitive webbed feet and those cheeky rascals didn’t miss a single morsel!  They happily chased each other around their enclosure, playing catch with a pebble and juggling a bit of fruit, squawking at the keepers every time they went by.

Different species will vary in their social structure, and the Eurasian otter is a more solitary animal, like rescue otter Millie.  The keepers have tried to introduce her to a companion on a couple of occasions but Millie prefers to be a singleton, making friends with the keepers instead, so she will remain in her safe permanent home at the Park.  The keepers also care for around 15 to 20 rescue otters every year, often orphaned young, using minimal human intervention and clandestine means to ensure their needs are met so that they can be released back into the wild.

The giant otter lives in family groups and is the most vocal of the otters, keeping in contact with its group through continuous barking and squeaking.  Habitat destruction and hunting for their fur are the major causes of their decline.  We watched Simuni and Akuri charging around their enclosure, posing for the cameras and diving into their water with ease and grace.

The North American River otter is the only river otter found north of Mexico and was at the brink of extinction due to its beautiful coat being used in the 1700-1800s in the fur trade which saw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of these precious animals.  Thanks to the efforts of conservation and wildlife rehabilitation centres, their numbers are slowly increasing.  River otters are mostly active at night which might be why Hudson and Jasper were sleeping in their shelters when we visited.

Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park

John took me on a forest adventure this weekend to a wildlife park near Ashurst in Southampton.  It’s part of the New Forest, an ecologically rich area of grassland, heathland and woodland in the south-east of England which provides habitats for all kinds of rare and unusual plants, insects, birds and mammals.  The wildlife park is set deep in the forest and surrounded by tall trees that looked to me like giant fortresses topped with emerald-green and nut-brown foliage.  I could feel the eyes of the multitude of shy forest creatures that were hiding in the trees watching me as I trotted along next to John.

We followed the moss-veiled trails that led to some animals that I don’t often get the chance to photograph.  Like the big beefy bison that was lazily munching on some grass.  He appeared peaceful and unconcerned but I had no doubt that one insolent flick of my tail might cause him to lower his solid horned head and charge towards us.  I was pleased to see the lynx, with its short tail and tufts of black hair on its ear-tips, it had large paws and all the characteristics of a finely-tuned stealth survivor.  Then there were the gregarious and industrious giant otters, highly sociable animals who live in extended family groups.  They were most entertaining, sleeping happily together in huddles and playing noisily, barking, snorting and whistling at each other with enthusiasm.

All of these animals are highly endangered, struggling to adapt to habitat loss and fighting for their lives when they are hunted, the bison for their meat and skins, the otters for their velvety pelts and the lynx for their fluffy patterned fur coats.  Despite the humans that are willing to inflict suffering and even wipe out an entire species for the sake of fashion or status, there are many more humans willing to protect what nature has provided us and teach others to do the same.  The New Forest Wildlife Park actively promotes the conservation of animals through rescue work as well as participation in breeding programmes to protect the future of many endangered species, from our native orphaned and injured otters, owls and deer, to the European bison, the little harvest mouse and the rarely seen Scottish wildcat.

This natural forest environment was the perfect area for us to spot much local indigenous wildlife and, when I stopped to listen, I could hear the occasional drumming woodpecker or the scurrying of a squirrel crunching twigs and rustling leaves as it busied itself looking for its next meal.  Also looking for meals were the birds, like the bold robin who landed right in front of us hoping for a bit of John’s sandwich.  Don’t worry, regular readers know I like birds and I’m well in control of my hunting instincts, so the birds are safe with me (although John keeps an eye on me as a precaution)!

http://www.newforestwildlifepark.co.uk/

Shad does Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

Situated at the former Battle of Britain RAF airfield in West Sussex, the museum is home to a number of historic aircraft and exhibits and is a fitting tribute to those who flew and served from Tangmere during its active past.  Its purpose is to promote public awareness of the UK’s military aviation heritage and serve as a memorial to the air men and women who gave their lives in the service of this country.

 

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the pilots of the Spitfires as they headed towards Dunkirk in the autumn of 1940.  Perhaps the growling sound of the Rolls-Royce engine and morale boosting government propaganda filled them with confidence for a cast-iron victory.  Perhaps this newly designed powerful fighter hid apprehension and fear at the thought of leaving their pals and kinfolk at home for situations unknown.  Sadly, we cats also faced the horror of war as many family pets were killed during those dark days due to misconceptions about what was the patriotic and humane thing to do.  The slaughter of animals was also apparently driven by a panic-fuelled government who even allowed one unfortunate woman to be fined £5 (the equivalent of around £230 in today’s money) for giving bread to her pet white mice.  This information is from a book called ‘Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire’ about the animal experience in World War II.

 

John is the military enthusiast, not me, so he took these pictures and can probably name each of the machines we saw.  I might not know what they’re called, but I know that each engine and instrument and technological advancement created in the development of military aviation was spurred by conflict that affected the lives of humans and animals in countless ways.   I count myself a lucky pussy-cat to be living in the safety and comfort of my home on the south coast of England, pondering the issues of the day and writing my musings in a blog, for smart and discerning readers like you to read and share.

Shad walks along Chichester Canal

Here are a few pictures that John and I took during a leisurely stroll along the Chichester Canal recently.  It was a cold clear day and the sun reflected brightly off the water as people walked their dogs and couples hand-in-hand took their morning constitutionals.  I dipped a paw in just to get a feel for the chilly water and froze in wonder as I caught sight of something small, chestnut-brown and furry.  The chubby little wet face gazed at me for a moment and disappeared under the water before I had time to whip my camera out.  Apparently the canal has a well-established water vole population which is protected by law and reliant on the diverse vegetation along the banks to survive.

Chichester Canal is designated as a site of nature conservation importance due to the value of its wildlife and some sections have reed-beds that are a scarce type of habitat in the county and of importance for certain species of birds.  Canal construction started in 1819 and connected Portsmouth to London mainly for the transport of coal.  In 1906 the last commercial cargo of shingle was carried along the canal before it was abandoned.  Happily, the Chichester Canal Restoration Project aims to restore navigation through the canal and volunteers from the Chichester Ship Canal Trust operate services such as pleasure-boat trips and a shop to support that aim.

We sat down for a rest on one of the benches, inhaling the fresh air and listening to the sounds of the creatures that live along the canal, like the croaking toads and the pretty black and yellow bumble-bees.  My ears were swiveling in every direction as the long grass rustled and the dragonflies whizzed by, their large transparent wings beating swiftly.  I like dragonflies because they eat mosquitos, flies and wasps, some of my least favourite organisms.  John had a chuckle because I can move each ear independently of the other and he seems to find that amusing!  But these super-evolved ear-flaps of mine can judge within 3 inches the location of a sound being made a yard away.  No wonder my tiger senses were tingling!

Shad talks about his home town

I was born and raised in Bognor Regis, a seaside town in the Arun district of West Sussex on the south coast of England.  I was lucky enough to meet John when I was kitten, as I was not looked after properly, under-fed and covered in fleas.  John took me home and cleaned me up and I’m now a rather portly, proud and playful 3 year old boy.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the noble whiskers and satin coat!  I can be a little grumpy from time to time but a headstrong and adventurous cat like me is entitled to the odd mood-swing!

One of my favourite activities is going for a walk along the promenade.  When the tide is low, the wet rippled sand is strewn with rock pools teaming with sea life such as crabs, winkles, algae, and those tiny little fish that live in the rocky shores of the British coastline.  When the tide is high, the water can be still and shimmering blue, or choppy and murky green.

Bognor Regis was originally just named Bognor, being a fishing town, and at one time a smuggling village until the 18th century, until it was developed into a fashionable seaside resort by Sir Richard Hotham.  He came to the area to partake of the ‘beneficial’ sea air and now has a public park named after him.  Tourism gradually took off in Bognor during the 19th century and King George V came to Bognor in 1929 to convalesce.  As a result, the King agreed to bestow the suffix ‘Regis’ (which means ‘of the king’) to the name.  It is located 55 miles south-west of London, 24 miles west of Brighton and 6 miles south-east of the city of Chichester.

Now I can’t talk about Bognor without mentioning the legendary International Bognor Birdman competition.  This is an annual competition for human-powered flying machines which involves crazy contestants launching themselves from the end of the pier, a prize being awarded to the one who glides the furthest distance.  Competitors wear outlandish dress and construct some impressive and improbable machines to take part in the event.  It started in Selsey in 1971 and transferred to Bognor in 1978 when it had outgrown its original location.  The Birdman Event of 2008 was transferred to Worthing following health and safety concerns about the pier.

The pier is 148 years old (almost as old as John!!) and took some 18 months to complete.  It has undergone several transformations over the years, with extensions and restorations, and the addition of a theatre, a cinema and a roof-garden restaurant.  It was used during the Second World War as an observation station and has since succumbed to damage and structural collapse over the years from fire and severe storms.  With increasing maintenance and repair costs, and continued weakening of the seaward end of this Grade II listed structure, the seaward end unfortunately remains derelict.  However, the pier is still popular with locals and tourists and forms part of the town’s character and charm.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my musings about my home town.  John and I have taken lots of photos in the local area over the years and I’ve shared a selection with you here today.  Oh and don’t worry about my little joke at John’s expense earlier.  He knows I think the world of him and have the greatest respect for him as my friend and provider and business partner (even if he is a grouchy old chap like me!!).

http://www.bognorregisbeach.co.uk/