|Mike Barker, who lives in Swaffham Prior, has had a lifelong interest in both art and ecology and uses his interest in the natural world to inspire his paintings. He regularly cycles from his home to the National Trust-managed fen, armed with his art materials and camera, and spends his time observing the wildlife, taking photographs and making detailed sketches of unusual plants, insects, landscapes or other features of interest.
In a period where biodiversity is being squeezed out of the UK, with the huge threats of climate change and multiple extinctions creating global issues, Wicken Fen remains an area teeming with rare bird and insect species. Despite being only a fragment of the 1% of East Anglia’s original undrained fenland, it is still over 2000 acres in size, and has been described by a National Trust spokesperson as a “mosaic of natural habitats.” The Trust is now 20 years into its 100-year conservation and development plan, the Wicken Fen Vision, which aims to significantly increase the overall area of the site and continue to enhance the resident habitats through a variety of conservation methods.
Described as the UK’s most species-rich area with over 9300 recorded species, it is home to at least 188 endangered species and has seen over 25 completely new species identified there since records began in 1899, including a flat bark beetle called silvanus recticollis.
In May of this year, notably, a common crane chick hatched at Wicken, the first of its kind to do so there since the fifteenth century. Common cranes are on the Amber Conservation list and it is estimated that only 54 pairs of the bird are nesting in the UK each year.
Martin Lester, countryside manager at Wicken Fen, said: “The successful breeding of this chick is a reflection on the conservation work that we have been carrying out, particularly over the last 20 years. This work includes extending the reserve and allowing diverse habitats to evolve that have resulted in the return of other species such as otters and water vole.”
As an ecologist, Mike studies the interplay of natural and human factors required in the complicated process of maintaining biodiversity, particularly in the face of ongoing property development, agricultural demands and globally changing climate.
“Every part in the chain has a role,” he says. “The symbiosis of plants, insects, birds – everything – is a delicate balance. Maintaining water levels, for example, is more complex than you might think, because the 2pH balance and nutrient content has to be just right for the plant and insect life, so it can’t just be pumped in from anywhere. There are so many challenges in maintaining these habitats, and with the threat of many mass extinctions thanks to climate change and human developments, it’s more crucial than ever for initiatives like this to be supported and sites like this to be conserved for future generations.”
Rediscovering a love of art
Although interested in art at school, mainly doing detailed ink drawings of dissections and other scientific diagrams in his studies of biology, Mike didn’t pursue this particular passion until his late 40s. He is largely self-taught; after some introductory lessons with another local artist as part of his 50th birthday present, he rediscovered his passion for art, combining it with his fascination with the natural world.
“Having this amazing place practically on my doorstep is a constant inspiration,” he says. “There is always some new detail to discover, something that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s a whole scene, often just a detail of the ditches and dykes, or a particular insect. I’m certainly never short of subjects!”
Discovering Cambridge Open Studios
Although well aware of the long-running Cambridge Open Studios initiative, Mike didn’t consider participating until recently. It was only when visiting other artists’ studios in both Brighton and Cambridge that he started to realise the interest there was in local art, and began to gain confidence that perhaps there might be an audience interested in his ecology-inspired work.
His own studio was too small to exhibit however, and the cost and availability of public space was prohibitive. But when he met other local artists and formed the Prior Arts Group, they hatched a plan to join forces and exhibit together, giving him the opportunity to share his love of the local region with a likeminded and receptive audience.
Form and Process
Each piece usually begins with a photograph or sketch captured on one of his many visits to Wicken Fen, or the nearby Brecks. He will later elaborate with pen and ink sketches and works with watercolours and pastels, though says his favourite medium is oil.
His exhibition will therefore show a combination of all of these, plus his notebooks, allowing visitors to experience his process and see work at each stage.
Mike is exhibiting as part of the Prior Arts Group, a collective of five local artists with different specialisms all living in and around Swaffham Prior. In addition to Mike the group comprises textile artists Debs Richardson and Celia Tyler, ceramicist Ian Siragher and oil painter Karen Fisher; their work will be displayed at a pop-up gallery at Swaffham Village Hall on the weekend of 13/14 July and at 3 Fosters Road, Swaffham Prior for the weekend of 20/21 July 2019.