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A field study of adversity

A nature expedition through dystopia


For decades Derek has been studying and depicting the migration of birds and has followed them from Africa to the Arctic through their migration routes across the Mediterranean and their home ranges in Europe. Birds are used as warning indicators of environmental change - the changes we now observe in their migration patterns reflect significant climate and habitat changes.


The flightways of birds have become the routes of flight for refugees.


Our responses to the issues of environmental change and the refugee crisis in the coming few decades will define who we are, the societies we create and how we live. These issues are extremely complex, but are linked.  Studies by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other institutions have indicated causal links between climate change, civil war and refugee disasters.


Derek's observations of wildlife and his choice of nature as a subject of study are influenced by the direct and elemental character of these creatures and focuses on questions of what our place is in the environment and what it means to be alive. Grievously, the experience of refugees and migrants is often to be reduced to the same brutal and immediate question of survival.

"A project that is sensitive, thoughtful, provocative and compassionate."

The project has entailed researching and creating a collection of work from studies in the Jungle camp in Calais and Scotland, in the Mediterranean, Sicily, Cyprus and Jordan where his paintings overlay depictions of refugees and migrants with studies of migrating birds. The paintings blend stories, song, tradition and acute, personal observation. Video documentaries of the project and the paintings can be viewed on Derek's You Tube channel by clicking this link.

Something quite extraordinary...Artists And Illustrators Magazine

Like walking through a personal experience...The Herald

Nature's dark underbelly... The Herald

The Jungle Camp Calais                                                                                           Art activities and sketching people and birds around the migrant camp.

"I did a series of sketches around Calais and the Jungle migrant camp there over a number of days as the camp was pulled down and the remaining sections were smouldering or on fire. I accompanied members of the charities Calaid and Care4Calais and did some art activities with the unaccompanied children in the camp who were still being registered for settlement in official camps or for asylum in the UK. I completed a lot of sketches of birds migrating as well as general views around camp with small crowds of Sudanese and Afghani children watching over my shoulder. The imagery of birds migrating through a smouldering wasteland and over razorwire fences was profound and moving."

"Les Petits" was sketched on site in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Migrating birds such as goldcrests were flying through the scrub bordering the camp and a sparrowhawk was hunting them. The sparrowhawks also migrate with the smaller birds - predating them on their journey. "Later that day I was taking part in an art activity with refugee children when there was a sudden flurry as first the few girls in the camp and then the smaller children crouched and darted away behind the taller men. It was a like a predator response. All at once, there was a hail of stones and a riot broke out. A crowd ran past us, away from trouble and then another group rushed forward brandishing knives and iron bars." Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. SOLD

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"Les Predateurs". Painted from sketches made in and around Calais, this piece depicts the detritus Derek found around the docklands - knives, crowbars and chisels used to try and break into the backs of lorries; piles of wet, discarded clothing abandoned after unsuccessful attempts to swim across to the port landing. Men would swim with a plastic bag filled with spare clothes to change into but if they were deterred by the guards and their dogs, they would return, change into their dry stuff and abandon the wet clothes. You can also see an owl which Derek sketched in the scrub along the side of the camp. These owls migrate with the smaller birds and prey upon them as they travel. The figures in the background are people smugglers. "I sat in the beautiful Parc Richelieu and watched as individuals arrived with a rucksack and sat in the park. Two or three men would appear on bikes - always racing bikes, never mountain bikes- and there would be a lot of business transacted on mobile phones, they would then race off and return later, more phones and a deal done." Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. SOLD.

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"Cold Crossing, Dover".  Worked up from sketches in Calais and the south of England, this piece was inspired by the increasing numbers of small-boat crossings across the English channel in increasingly dangerous conditions and even in desperate, Winter weather. Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. £860

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"Les Voyageurs". Sketched on site in the Jungle refugee camp while watching diggers flatten the tents and clear the ground. There were still over 500 adults milling around the edge of the camp being watched or stopped and interrogated by the French Special Police. At that time, there were large flocks of migratory thrushes flying over the camp and through the bushes bordering the roads and edges of the industrial park. "It was very strange to be working on these sketches in the camp, drawing the birds and what was going on around me -  as I was painting this study I had a group of about 7 Sudanese boys behind me, watching over my shoulder and asking me questions". Watercolour       45 x 55cm framed. £890.

"Singing Under The Same Sky". Watercolour painting worked up from sketches made in Calais.

Framed 45 x 55 cm  £860

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"The Snow Blows Where It Will". Derek studies snow buntings near his home in Fife. He catches and fits rings to the birds to see where they go a spart of long term studies of migratory behaviour. Environmental change has caused a rapid shift in the migration pattern of this species. These birds migrate from the Arctic to England and France in the winter but now more of them stay further north. Another researcher in Calais studies the snow buntings there and there is an exchange of these ringed birds seen moving between Fife and Calais. "You can see the diggers flattening the camp and the newly erected high fences paid for by the UK government silhouetted in the background." Watercolour       45 x 55cm framed. £860.

"We Were Never So Cold." Watercolour, acrylic and collage inspired by studies of refugees and migrant birds in and around the Jungle camp in Calais. As November closed in the weather became colder and colder for the ill-provisioned refugees who were attempting to avoid registration in official camps. It was to prove the coldest winter for decades across some parts of Europe. Documentary of this painting on this You Tube Channel.

Watercolour framed 85 x 105cm SOLD

Derek traveled to Jordan where he visited and interviewed Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi families who had settled there. He taught a series of art classes to children at a refugee school and accompanied a team of ecologists through the desert. The population of Jordan has doubled in recent years and over-extraction of water has led to reversion of oasis towns to desert. The effect has been measured immediately in a dramatic change in breeding bird populations and the consequences on migrating birds which now have to try and cross larger areas of arid ground.

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"The Desert is Full of Promises". A watercolour study completed in Jordan. The horned larks manage to thrive in very dry desert. Migrating birds now struggle to cross desert areas where the oases have turned to desert. Water extraction has increased as the population doubled over the last few years because of the influx of refugees. " We saw a small group of Bedouin children who had found a bee-eater. I think it had come down to the roof of the abandoned blue, bus thinking it was water. The children got a saucer of water and some cardboard boxes to make a little shade for the bird. It rested, drank some water, and recuperated enough to fly off." There is an Arabic saying which is "Do good and throw it in the river and you will be rewarded in the desert." - a documentary of another version of this painting is on You Tube here. 

Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. SOLD

"Dancing With The Soldier". A painting that was worked up in the studio from sketches of desert birds and  visits with refugee families in Jordan. This was inspired by a series of personal stories, travels through the desert and the generous hospitality of people who had been traumatised and displaced from their home and communities.

Watercolour, framed 60 x 75 cm £1950.

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"For The Wayfarer That You Meet". Field study completed in the Jordanian desert. Derek traveled through the desert with Jordanian biologists and ecologists who were monitoring changes in bird populations and observing how these indicated desertification and ecological change.   "The generosity of the Jordanian people was overwhelming - both at a personal level and nationally, in giving shelter to millions of refugees." 

The painting incorporates

some of the story of the "The

Desert is Full Of Promises" with

sketches from a number of

picnic-stops in the desert to

drink tea and eat. The studies

refer to the courtesies and

hospitalities exchanged between

guests and hosts. Watercolour.                                    45 x 55cm framed. SOLD

"Bee-eaters". Field study completed in the Jordanian desert and complementing the above painting. Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. £860.

"Ice In The Desert". Field study completed in the Jordanian desert. I was shocked by the frost I experienced overnight in the desert and how cold it was before the rising sun suddenly became unbearably hot. One day, I encountered a palm-fringed oasis where the frost was melting off the sand and the trees were full of redwings (which I think of as winter thrushes only associated with ice and snow). Watercolour, framed. 45 x 55cm £860.

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"Kingfisher, Yarls Wood". The names of the different parts of the detention centre at Yarl's Wood are named after birds. I have spoken to a few people who have worked there or had dealings with the centre and this painting about the Kingfisher "wing" is a response to those conversations. There are more paintings from this series further down the page.  Watercolour. 39 x 39cm framed. £450

"What Colour Are The Wheatears". A study painted in the desert over a colour mixing demonstration sheet. Derek held a series of art classes for schoolchildren at a refugee school in the desert where he talked about his artwork and the links between artwork, environment, animals and the people who live and work in the landscape. "The children called out the names of the colours for me in Arabic - which are scribbled into the sketches. Later that day, we drove through the desert and I sketched migratory and resident species of wheatears." Watercolour. 45 x 55cm framed. SOLD

"The Gardens of The Desert"

Watercolour and collage. Inspired by visits to refugee camps, gardens and farms in the oasis villages of the desert in Jordan. "The hospitality of the Jordanian people was overwhelming. They were  joyous, generous and welcoming in a way that continually impressed and surprised you." Watercolour, framed 85 x 105cm £4,950.

"Day Trip To Syria". Watercolour on paper. A bullet -riddled car in the desert on the road out to Syria. In the hot expanse of open ground, this was the only shade for miles and larks sheltered in the shade below it. Category award winner Plein Air Salon. Highly Commended award, David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year awards. Watercolour, framed 85 x 105cm SOLD private collection USA.

"What We Lost In The Desert"  

Watercolour and collage inspired by interviews with Syrian refugee families in Jordan. " I met, ate and drank tea with people who had fled from their homes - sometimes with resources and their possessions, but often with nothing at all. I spoke to teachers, taxi drivers and even men who had served in the Syrian army. The tales I heard were inspiring, harrowing and unimaginable but these accounts were so often interspersed with laughter, games, singing and dancing. These were tales of loss, of lives put on hold, but the sense of determination, achievement and hope was disarming and inspiring." Finalist, Royal Institute of Watercolour Artists exhibition, London. RSW Annual Exhibition, Edinburgh. Watercolour, framed 85 x 105cm  £4,950.

"Whispers From The Desert"

Mixed media and collage on paper. Framed, 85 x 105cm £4,950

"The Wounded Lands"

Watercolour and collage on paper. "These two paintings were worked up from little sketches made during break times at the refugee school in the desert in Syria where I was teaching art classes. There were only a couple of swings for the kids to play on and the boys were playing football. This was considered inappropriate for the girls who mostly chatted and laughed in small groups. I saw this girl in a patched and ragged shawl playing alone in the dust- drawing shapes in the sand that were scattered by other children running around." Framed, 85 x 105cm £4,950.

Site Title

Above. From left to right. "Between The Refuge And The Fire" 48 x 46cm framed £1500, "Refuge Box" 80 x 48 cm framed £2250, "The Narrow Way" 48 x 46 cm framed SOLD. Assemblage boxes made from collage of wood, paper and fabric scavenged from discarded material around refugee camps and transit points in Calais, Jordan and Sicily.

Below. From left to right. "Refuge of Fences" sold, Refuge of Thorns 30 x 40 cm framed £1200, "Compass Box" sold. "I swapped my artist pencil case with a broken pencil/compasses box from a Syrian boy in Jordan. It became the material for the "Compass Box" assemblage depicting a whinchat that was hopping in the scrub beside the school."

Between study trips overseas, Derek visited refugee families and people working with refugee communities in Scotland to try and get an insight into their experiences here. This also led to a series of paintings referencing the Scottish social history of emigration and depopulation of the land. -  a documentary is on You Tube here

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"There's No Place" Watercolour. This interior of a thatched and ruined black house on Berneray in North Harris was from an area where the township had been depopulated during the Highland Clearances before people had been able to return and establish crofts. Many of the houses and crofts had then been abandoned in the 60s and 70s due to social and economic pressures. Some have been recently renovated as holiday homes but there is a continuing crisis in affordable residential housing to allow young families to stay and the result is a fracturing of communities and services that threaten the viability of the crofting townships  85 x 105 cm Framed £4950

"Beach Of The Nine Living". Shellfish are not generally eaten by the Highlanders. Perhaps because they have a social history as starvation food. There is a beach on Tiree with the name of this painting because a widow and her 8 children survived a winter there during a famine living only on shellfish and seaweed. The Highlands and Islands have a strong tradition of peoples'  flight from starvation and eviction. "As a child, my wife was taught to sing the Gaelic song 'S Trusaidh mi na Coilleagan (I will gather the cockles) which describes a clamour on the shore.  Many evicted men were forced to the dangerous subsistence of fishing which took it's toll of deaths. This joyful song seemed to me to echo something darker and deeper." Watercolour, framed 85 x 105 cm £4,950

"A' Chaim" was inspired by another Gaelic song of that name, written by a gamekeeper who is snow-trapped in a bothy in the hills. The song is an exchange of verses between him, stuck inside, and a stag singing back to him from outside. The interior is a real place - the inside of the bothy on the Shiant Isles between Skye and the Outer Hebrides where Derek has stayed, painted and helped to research the seabirds. The snow buntings are a link to Derek's visits to Calais and the painting reflects on ideas of belonging, loss and dislocation as well as our place in and responsibilities to the environment. The name can mean a corner, a place of refuge, but also is the Gaelic version of the biblical name of Cain . Watercolour, framed. 85 x 105 cm £4,950.

Above are Derek's watercolour field studies done of the Syrian refugee community in Bute, which has the largest percentage refugee population in the UK. Clockwise. "Something Biblical", a recently arrived Syrian couple and their Scottish baby. (45 x 55cm framed £860) "The Way Home" (sold), Children coming back from playing at the park and harbour. "Alloted Land" (sold), digging in the community allotments. "Mr Disarani's Shop" (45 x 55 cm framed £860), barber's shop in Rothesay.

"We Fly At Night". Watercolour. Inspired by a conversation with a man in Edinburgh who had fled Aleppo. One night he grabbed a rucksack and ran, leaving his parents and brother, and his home, forever. virtually nothing of the city remains. Aleppo stems from the word white and has the same root as the Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba. 105 x 85 cm framed, SOLD

Left- "The Welcoming" in Edinburgh provides language classes and support for refugees and some of the students have set up a reciprocal Arabic class. "I was very kindly invited to a couple of these and sat in the classroom, learning some Arabic while birds sang in the trees and bushes outside the window. The tutors were from Somalia, Syria and Iraq with an infectious and humorous enthusiasm for language".

Top. "Saying Welcome In Arabic" 45 x 55 cm framed £860

Bottom. "The Arabic Class" 45 x 55 cm framed £860

Sketching and traveling in Bute

Derek traveled to Sicily. A well known stopping point for migrating birds, the island has become a transit route for people crossing from Libya. Boats are very often intercepted by the Italian Navy or coastguard and taken to processing centres where people are registered. Those from countries considered "safe" - often questionably so- are forcibly returned without appeal. Once registered, they cannot travel to other European countries. Consequently, anyone landing tries to go underground and travel further onward. 

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"The Graveyard Of Refugee Boats". Pozallo Harbour. The boats only travel one way and are abandoned. They are towed ashore as a danger to shipping and there are a number of these "graveyards" next to the ports. "I wandered into the compound and painted these all day - you can see the x and letter marks with which they have been recorded by the port authority. some had holes knocked in them to make them un-seaworthy. I didn't realise this area was out of bounds and was (very politely) escorted off the site by a caretaker and two armed customs police." Watercolour framed

45 x 55cm £860

"The Fire Is In The Cornfield". A field study painted at Puertopaulo. Some of the boats had been set on fire, burning an adjoining cornfield. Masked shrikes scavenged insects that had fled the blaze. "The charred wheat heads were strangely ominous. A smell of smoke still lingered around the charred hulk of the ship that was painted in a very strange colour scheme.

The Arabic script for "Hopeful

Pilgrimage" and an eye were

painted along her bow. Inside,

the wood was charred and the

heads of thousands of nails

-like nails in a coffin- were

exposed and rusting." Watercolour

framed 45 x 55 cm £860.

"Nesting Sparrows, Graveyard of Boats."

A field study of the refugee boats at Pozallo. The Sicilian sparrows are  a hybrid mix of migrant Spanish and resident Italian sparrows. These Spanish- looking ones were nesting in one of the abandoned refugee boats. Watercolour, framed 44 x 45 cm £860.

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"The Sparrows". A second study of the above sketches worked up in the studio when I returned home. Watercolour framed 44 x 45 cm £860.

"Abandoned Lifejackets". Some of the abandoned material in one of the refugee boats at Pozallo. Watercolour, framed 45 x 55cm £860.

"Bird Studies In Dystopia". One of the unofficial shanty-camps which had sprung up all over Sicily. This one was on the edge of town below a motorway. It was a small camp but squalid and chaotic. Derek sketched shrikes and wagtails that were migrating through the scrub around the camp while he spoke to some of the men who lived there. "I was there for a few hours and everything was friendly. I worked on this painting while I spoke to them. I had given some of the guys there some food and water and handed out some cigarettes while we talked but then I was asked for some money . It was very polite, but I suddenly noticed that three of the men were holding knives. After some haggling they took my money, watch and phone and I managed to get to a spot where - frankly - I was able to run away." Watercolour framed 45 x 55 cm SOLD

Dark Tides. Refugee processing centre at Pozallo. Refugee boats are towed to designated ports by the navy and coastguards (and by NGO boats) where people are disembarked and processed behind gated compounds. "When I was at the port,a boat came in with 600 Africans. I couldn't get into the compound but spoke to some of the officials there and was able to sketch through the fence. The migrants were each wearing a new, white t-shirt that they had been given. They were huddled in the shade like one, dark shadow. They had marathon-number sheets pinned to their shirts and were herded into lines to tables (where their details were taken) by soldiers brandishing guns and wearing surgical masks. Their possessions were all laid out in a line on the concrete for inspection. Off in the corner, 3 soldiers had laid aside their guns and masks and were playing a game of football with some of the children. " Watercolour framed 45 x 55 cm £860.

Back in the studio. Once the research and field studies have been completed, Derek began working on a series of paintings that tie together some of the main themes of the project.

"Lines of Flight". Small watercolours on paper. Bald ibis were once relatively common and migrated seasonally from Europe to Africa. Environmental change, water extraction and draining of the marshes wiped out these populations until just a tiny colony of non-migratory birds remained in Morocco. Then, three birds were discovered breeding in Turkey. They were thought to migrate to winter in the Arabian peninsula, perhaps staging in the marshes of Syria and Iraq. Shortly after their discovery, Isis took control of these areas and the birds disappeared. The birds would teach their chicks the safe migration routes and stop-overs. Now that this population has gone, that transferred knowledge has disappeared too. You can still see bald ibis in captivity. They are being bred so that they might be released back into the wild if conditions improve and there is a program with a colony of these birds at Camperdown Wildlife Park in my home city of Dundee. Sadly the heritable memory of their migration routes is lost. Each 30 x 30 cm framed. all SOLD

"Where Three Roads Meet". Watercolour based on sketches from Sicily. These studies of tree pipits were worked up from birds I saw around an unofficial refugee camp in the centre of the island. Many of the people staying there had arrived without being intercepted by the authorities and had avoided mandatory registration. Framed 65 x 85 £2,500

"Three In Lago". Watercolour based on sketches from Sicily. The camp was under a  roadway where three roads met. There were shrikes and wagtails migrating through the scrub around the camp but  three tree pipits flew through the site. "The scientific name for these birds is Anthus trivialis. It was only while researching for the painting I discovered that trivialis derives from Latin for a place that three roads meet, coming to mean commonplace and then transferring into English as the word trivial". Framed 65 x 85 cm £2500

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"The Last Bus Calais". Watercolour composed from sketches made on site in Calais as the camp was emptied on the last day and families and children taken to official camps elsewhere in France. Framed 60 x 75 cm £1950.

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"When You Have So Much" Watercolour based on sketches made in Jordan. "At the end of a long day I was stopped by a Syrian boy about 12 years old who was hassling me to give him money and aggressively trying to sell cheaply made wooden whistles. He had  a long and dramatic story about what his family had suffered and how he was trying to support them as the only man in the family.  I was exhausted, a bit unwell, felt pressured and cornered, and responded angrily by telling him to clear off. The title is his response as I stormed off with a heavy wallet and a pocket full of change on the rest of  a journey that probably cost enough to feed his family for a year. I have reflected on this exchange and my own, personal shortcomings, a lot in the work I have done on this project since". Framed 68 x 57 cm SOLD.

Yarls Wood. At a series of conferences and events I met a number of people who had connections with Yarls Wood - lawyers and campaigners, a couple of ex-detainees and even an ex-security officer. The information I heard about the centre - the largest immigration detention centre in Europe - were shocking, with accusations of mistreatment, sexual assault, lack of due process and the unlawful detention of children. This contrasted with the folksy name of the institution and cynically comforting names of the different accommodation wings which were named after birds. Bunting, Dove, Avocet and Kingfisher.

"Dove II" Watercolour Framed 34 x 34 cm £450

Migrations - Fragments. At the back of my sketchbook I always keep a few square off-cuts of coloured paper. While I am waiting for my field sketches to dry, or for rain to pass, I do small studies on these squares and often work them up into finished paintings back in the studio. 

"Avocet" Watercolour Framed 34 x 34 cm £450

"Dove I" Watercolour Framed 34 x 34 cm £450

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"Across Another Shore" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm £380

"Between Sand And Snow" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm Sold

"We Lost Our Way" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm £380

"Red Marshes" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm Sold

"No Place" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm £380

"What Was Left On The Shore" Watercolour Framed 30 x 30cm £380

"When We Crossed The Desert" Oil on Canvas - a documentary of this painting is on display on You Tube here

Framed 80 x 100 cm SOLD

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"Children Of The Clouds" Oil on collage and canvas. Video about this painting - follow link here.

Framed 120 x 160 cm £12,000

"How Shall We Find Our Way". Composed from sketches made in Sicily and Jordan. Oil on canvas. 80 x 100 cm SOLD.

"For Every One That We Left Behind". Oil and collage on canvas composed from sketches made in Jordan and inspired by incidents in the deserts and refugee camps while I was there. The painting incorporates scraps of material and paper that I picked up from transit points and camps during my travels. Unframed 120 x 160 cm £12,000.

The Migrations project was launched at the Lush 2018 Summit in London

Individual paintings from the collection have already been shown in the USA, London, Edinburgh and Italy.

The collection was exhibited and I delivered a series of talks at the Scottish Parliament in May 2018 at a reception sponsored by Christina McKelvie MSP, Convenor of the Human Rights Committee.

Exhibitions to date have also included invited artist at the Pittenweem Arts Festival where the Migrations show was reviewed as Critics' Choice in the Scotsman and the Independent. Other exhibitions include Nature in Art in Gloucester 2019 and Glasgow University 2019. Further talks and presentations included the National Watercolor Society in the USA, New Networks for Nature in Stamford and the annual BTO Conference as well as numerous local charity and school events. Individual paintings from the collection have been shown in shows in London, Edinburgh, Italy, the USA, France and China.

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Exhibitions, Talks and Presentations

Lush Summit, London February 2018

Glasgow University March 2018

Scottish Parliament, April 2018

OSME Blog 2018

Pittenweem Arts Festival August 2018

New Networks for Nature, Lincoln 2018

BTO Conference Swanwick December 2018

Glasgow University March 2019

Nature in Art May 2019

National Watercolor Society  International Exhibition, California USA 2018

RSW Exhibition Edinburgh 2018, 2019

Society of Wildlife Artists Exhibition London 2018, 2019

David Shepherd WAY Exhibition London 2018, 2019

Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour Exhibition London 2021

OSME Conference June 2019

The Meffan Gallery, Forfar - 30 April to 26 October 2022

The Smith Gallery, Stirling - 10th March to 17 April 2022

Stanford University, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere blog 2022

Duff House Gallery, Banff, Aberdeenshire. 18th Oct 2023 - 11th Jan 2024

Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, 24 Feb - 4 Apr 2024

Papers and Publications

Forced Migration Review, Oxford University Press Jun 2018 in assoc. Glasgow University

Birdlife Magazine Jan 2019

Artists And Illustrators Magazine, March 2019

British Trust for Ornithology News, March 2019

Ornithological Society for The Middle East. June 2018

The Sound Approach podcast June 2018

Critics Choice - The Scotsman 2018

Critic's choice - The Independent 2018

Glasgow University, Naturally Speaking podcast/Linked Migrations June 2018

Feature. The Scotsman. 2020.

Feature. Artists Magazine 2020

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