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COLUMN: The highs and lows of a decade of writing wildlife tales

THIS year I celebrate my 10th anniversary as a columnist for the Gazette Herald. As I look back over a decade of articles about watching wildlife, it’s funny to think when I first started and was worried I wouldn’t have enough material.

But then there is always something new to observe in the natural world. Just in the last year I’ve seen a wild eagle owl and a flock of hawfinches for the first time right here in Yorkshire.

My articles have ranged the globe. There have been pieces about elephants in Namibia, marine iguanas in the Galapagos, and king penguins in Antarctica.

But among the most popular have been about the wildlife I’ve watched on my doorstep. A recent piece on endangered tree sparrows in my garden was even picked up by the BBC’s Look North.

Yet, what few realise is how challenging writing each article is for me. Although I consider myself pretty competent with a paint brush, I had little skill with a pen.

I have severe dyslexia and left school with few academic qualifications. In the 20 years that followed, I avoided anything that involved writing – even filling in a cheque book.

I decided to face up to my fears after becoming a father in my mid-30s and found myself struggling just to read my children a bed time story. So, as my daughter learned to recite the alphabet, I joined her – little did she know I was learning too.

I was also keen to discover more about wildlife. At night I sat up in bed and forced myself to follow the words on a page, using a ruler to keep my place. It was slow work, but “practice makes perfect” or so they say, and I can quite happily tackle a book now – so long as it is about wildlife.

The turning point came in May 2008 when I travelled down to a garden in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, to watch a family of urban foxes. I was there for a week and needed a record of my observations so I started jotting down everything I saw. When I read what I had written back to myself, I was quite surprised – it was actually quite good.

Back at home, I handed my scrawled notes to Lara, an employee who helps to promote my paintings and liaise with the press, or to my wife, Victoria, to type up.

I discovered that they were so interested in the wildlife stories I had to tell that the poor spelling and grammar didn’t matter so much. And encouraged by their interest the words soon began to tumble out.

Now, whenever I’m in a hide waiting for a wild creature to appear, I have a notebook and diary to hand so I can jot down my thoughts.

Initially, I found structuring the order of a story a challenge, especially coming up with beginnings and endings. But I’ve discovered that while others might simply see a bird flying overhead or a deer running across a moor, my mind will go into overdrive as I unpick the secret story that this creature is sharing with me.

These close observations dictate the story – I don’t need to find one – I just watch and let the wildlife do the talking.

My readers have faithfully followed my experiences, sharing both my sadness when my local barn owl population was virtually wiped out during the savage winter of 2010 and my joy of being one of the few to film kingfisher chicks inside their nest in colour.

They couldn’t have known that my passion for wildlife helped me escape the embarrassment of not being able to read or write.

Thankfully, my knack of finding creatures wherever I go means I’ve yet to run out of wildlife stories. I’ve been known to get distracted by pied wagtails while shopping in York and once persuaded my family to abandon their Christmas lunch to watch a flock of waxwings feasting on berries in my parent-in-laws’ garden.

And it’s always a joy to be able to share my paintings and photographs as well.

So, thank you for reading my tales and here’s to more wildlife stories ahead.