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How my passion for wildlife helped me overcome dyslexia

I overcame dyslexia and clocked up 10 years as a newspaper columnist in spite of my spelling

I am celebrating my 10th anniversary as a columnist for the Yorkshire Post. Since beginning my monthly column for this newspaper’s ‘Country Week’ insert, I have penned over 120 articles. This is quite incredible if you consider that I am severely dyslexic

Overcoming dyslexia with stories of wildlife

When I first started the column, I worried I wouldn’t have enough material. But it turns out that there is always something new to observe in the natural world. Just in the last year, for instance, I’ve seen a wild eagle owl and a flock of hawfinches for the first time right here in Yorkshire. Both became subjects for my column. Click on the links above to read each one.

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I am lucky enough to have travelled to every continent to watch animals and birds. As a result, my articles have recalled tales of watching elephants drinking at waterholes in Namibia, snorkelling with marine iguanas in the Galapagos and marvelling at king penguins in Antarctica.overcoming dyslexia

overcoming dyslexiaYet my favourite moments have been right here at home. A recent piece on the endangered tree sparrows that live in my garden was so popular it was even picked up by BBC Look North! Click here to read it.

Overcoming dyslexia has meant reaching out to other wildlife lovers

I love being able to share these special animal encounters with so many people. I tend to spend a lot of time alone in my hide waiting for wild creatures to appear. Often when I witness a spectacular moment I get the urge to turn to someone and say: “Wow did you see that!”, but there is no one to share it with. So my column – and this blog – gives me that chance to connect.

And my stories have enthused others to appreciate the wildlife on their own doorsteps. After writing about watching peregrines on an industrial site near Hull there was an outpouring of tales from visitors to my gallery in Thixendale who wanted to share their unusual peregrine sightings too.

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When the bough breaks, acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller
overcoming dyslexia
Peregrine of Salt End, painted by Robert E Fuller
To overcome dyslexia I had to first conquer my fear of literacy

Yet, what few realise is how challenging writing each article is for me. When I was first commissioned by the Yorkshire Post’s former Country Week editor, Michael Hickling, I was both delighted to have been asked and panic-stricken by the prospect. 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 and a reading and writing age of an eight-year-old. In the 20 years that followed, I avoided anything that involved writing: even filling in a cheque book!

And I was so daunted by the prospect of reading: I simply didn’t bother. With no school to enforce practice, my meagre literacy skills worsened and continued to be a personal embarrassment.

But I was now in my mid 30s and a father. It was time to face up to my fears – even if only to be able to read my children a bedtime story.

Overcoming dyslexia and learning to read again

I realised that in order to discover more about wildlife, I needed to be able to read. And so my eldest child and I began to recite the alphabet together. Little did my daughter know as we sounded out our letters that I was learning too!

At night I would sit up in bed and force myself to read. I used a ruler to keep the words from dancing over the page, which is one of the most disconcerting things about my dyslexia. I find it very difficult to see the words in order as they seem to jump around the page and I lose my place quickly. A ruler helps me to keep the pesky letters in line!

It was slow work, but because of my interest in wildlife, I read more and more, beginning with short articles to longer magazine features.  ‘Practice makes perfect’ or so they say. I can quite happily tackle a book now: if it is about wildlife, of course.

As for writing, I would write solely in capital letters with what could be described as ‘imaginative’ spelling.

Overcoming dyslexia and learning to write in the quiet of a wildlife hide.

The turning point came in May 2008 in a suburban garden in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. I was there watching a family of urban foxes, using the garden’s Wendy House as a wildlife hide. As I sat there, crammed into the child-sized space for up to 16 hours a day waiting for foxes to appear, I began to see the sense of writing things down.

I was on my own for a week and most of the time nothing happened at all, but I wanted to remember exactly what had happened when it did. So I made notes on my observations, jotting down the times the foxes appeared and what happened. When I read what I had written back to myself, I was quite surprised: it was actually an interesting read.overcoming dyslexia, writing in my hide

overcoming dyslexia writing in my hideFrom then on, whenever I was in a hide waiting for a wild creature to appear, I would scribble down my observations. Now, I always keep a notebook and diary to hand so I can jot down my thoughts.

Overcoming dyslexia and discovering the structure of a good story

Back at home, I handed in my notes to Lara, an employee who helps to promote my paintings and liaise with the press on my behalf, or to my wife, Victoria, to type up. These are often scrawled hastily in large exercise books with paragraphs cut out and pasted in elsewhere as I reorganise the structure of my stories, the old-fashioned way.

My two typists were more patient than all my school teachers put together! 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.

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 my stories – I don’t need to find one. I just watch and let the wildlife do the talking.

Overcoming dyslexia to share my wildlife encounters

My columns started off as more general ‘where to see’ pieces. Now I take my readers on my wildlife adventures with me as I roam the countryside to look for rare red squirrels and cheeky pine martens or to find a good spot from which to watch short eared owls.

And some of the most popular of my columns have been the ones about the creatures in my garden. Often a reader will pop into the gallery to ask how my kestrel, nicknamed Kes, or my barn owls are faring.

I’ve noticed the more frustrating or challenging my experiences, the better the stories turn out. Like the time I spent a fruitless week trying to find Scottish wildcats during a bitterly cold blizzard.

Or the time I tracked 51 hares courting across snow fields on the Yorkshire Wolds for 10 days. This story later caught the eye of filmmakers for BBC1’s The One Show who asked me to front a piece for them during last year’s bitter cold snap, the ‘Beast from the East’.

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My readers have faithfully followed my experiences. They’ve shared both sad times, like when my local barn owl population was virtually wiped out in the savage winter of 2010, and happy ones, like when I became one of the few to film kingfishers inside their dark underground nest in colour. These same readers couldn’t have known that I had had to overcome dyslexia in order to share these moments.

And it turns out that my initial concerns of running out of wildlife stories to tell was unfounded since I have a habit of finding creatures wherever I go – 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.

Overcoming dyslexia and developing a growing readership

And as my confidence has grown, so has my readership. In the last year an article I wrote on the weasels and stoats in my garden was published in BBC Countryfile Magazine and a piece I wrote on hawfinches featured in Bird Guides. I am also a Local Patch Reporter for BBC Wildlife Magazine. And of course readers of my blog have burgeoned- I now have 65,000 people reading my stories on here!

Overcoming dyslexia: Getting help

As a child I found reading so difficult I avoided it. But as an adult I have discovered it is possible to learn how to read and write with dyslexia – and even to enjoy it! I have done it the hard way and developed my own strategies, such as using a ruler to guide my sight when reading. But these days people with dyslexia need not struggle like I did. Take a look at the The British Dyslexia Association for some great advice.

And the campaigning body Made by Dyslexia also deserves support. It aims to try to change the way schools teach in order to address dyslexic minds. A dyslexic mind processes information differently, in my case everything is very visual, and Made by Dyslexia hopes to encourage people to value this.

Click on the link to watch Made by Dyslexia’s fascinating video.  There are some really creative and successful people on it – all of whom also struggled at school because their teachers did not understand their dyslexic minds.

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5 comments on How my passion for wildlife helped me overcome dyslexia

  1. I empathize with you. My son had a learning disability and had trouble in school until his art teachers realized how talented he was. He was encouraged to develop his talents and won all of the are prizes that the school district had to offer. Later he became proficient in using computers. The two abilities enabled him to find a job in advertising.

    You are not alone. All too often abilities are lost because only the negative is seen. Continued good luck to you

  2. I for one. Am very glad you persevered, I love your pictures and enthusiasm of telling a story..
    dyslexia is difficult, finding ways to cope is key to overcoming it..
    where you use a ruler, I remember cutting out small lines on pieces of paper.. only allowing one line of writing in a book to be shown at a time.. certainly helped my son ..
    well done to you. And thank you too,
    You have introduced so many people to wildlife

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