Ghost Hills

Did they know that they would become this?

Thompson Common skies 29 Jul 21

Breckland, after the ice sheets.

The most formidable glacial advance in the entire Pleistocene is named ‘Anglian’. The East Anglian peninsula was swallowed by it – this meadow once looked like Greenland. As the climate warmed, standing blocks of ‘dead’ ice were left behind, eventually to be topped with soil and grass like surviving examples in polar regions. The Inuit word pingo is used to describe such hillocks with a heart of ice. They would have stood tall over the flat Breckland landscape, but they pressed into the soil like a knee. 

But they melted, in time. Now, their legacy is ponds. The ghosts of lost hills, water-filled depressions carved by ancient glacial games.

Pingo pond 29 Jul 21

Breckland is rich in pingo ponds, also known as kettle ponds. It is also very rich in dragonflies, rare beetles, great crested newts and other species that appreciate wet habitats. Northern clade pool frogs, the UK’s rarest amphibian, made its last stand in the pingo ponds, and has recently been reintroduced.

Away from the water, other species exploit the meadows. Six spot burnet moths are hard to overlook.

Six spot burnet

I heard many birds calling, but didn’t get any good photos of them today. Here’s a couple from another Breckland visit a couple of weeks back: goldfinch…

Goldfinch Jul 21

And a juvenile blue tit.

Blue tit Jul 21

Two very common British species, but the Brecks can do far better; it has stone curlew, turtle dove and many other specialities. In total, nearly 13,000 different species of wild things have been identified, and many have comfortably rubbed shoulders with farming for millennia. Poppies on the edge of an arable field are a reminder of that.

Poppies Thompson Common 29 Jul 21

And all of it, from the soil to the sky, is a reminder of the ice.

Wild East

Agrimony and burdock: plants that cling to you. Their seeds have hooks that love fur and clothes. The parents of these plants, in fact, clung to my dog, and fell off her somewhere on the front drive. So they grew.

Agrimony and burdock Jul 21

Places can cling to you too. I moved from Norfolk – England’s wide-skied east – in 2012 after finishing my MSc, but never really left it behind. Now I’m back, and the Yare is still flowing. In its own way, so subtly it reflects the clouds.

Meadow cranesbill 27 Jul 21

Norfolk is wetter, drier, colder, flatter than nearly anything in England available for comparison. It is the gateway to the sunken plains of Doggerland – a land bridge to the continent long since snapped. Mammoths, hyenas, Romans, Vikings and Iceni rebels; they’ve all called the sprawling Norfolk landscape their own. So did many of my own ancestors, who farmed Breckland for centuries and must have often heard stone curlews wailing under the stars.

I have heard something else: a deer with the voice of a fox.

Muntjac munching 26 Jul 21

She was literally two feet from me, right below my window; I had to switch to my macro lens to take the photo. She is a Reeves’ muntjac, a preposterously tiny deer about the dimensions of a border collie. Not a British native, but firmly established – they were introduced to Bedfordshire in the 19th century, and further releases or escapes cemented their presence. Like water deer, they are indigenous to China. 

Norfolk is most famous as the best birding county in England, but it is also very rich in wild mammals. I heard a water vole this morning. That is, a plop as something small dived into a ditch near the Yare. Otters, foxes, and harvest mice are also around and I will try to catch up with more of them over the summer.

Fly and campion 28 Jul 21

Ground-blue

Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.

Bluebells1 May 21

Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.

Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.

Bluebells2 May 21

Or frames a passing fox.

Fox in bluebells May 2021

England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.

Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.

Bluebells3 May 21

Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.

The Artist’s Laboratory

That artist being the Sea, of course, playing some kind of experiment on southern Kent. For the last 5,500 years, it has been building a bizarre headland of chunky shingle at Dungeness. Arid, harsh and flat, whisked by wind with attitude and flanked by nuclear power plants, you know when you’re there, and you never quite forget it.

Dungeness1

Spacious, but hardly lonely; an incredible 600 species of plants occupy Dungeness, supporting some extremely rare invertebrates. Bitterns boom from the reeds and warblers sing in the scrub.

Colour is everywhere.

Dungeness2

Blossom

Even in the legs and beak of a redshank.

Redshank Dungeness Apr 21

Birds must have been here since the sea started experimenting with the shingle. Dungeness is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the geology that underpins its wildlife as well as the species themselves. For the last few thousand years, shingle has been shoved into ridges by storm waves that form the flanks of a triangle, one that is still changing shape. Shingle forelands are uncommon globally and Dungeness is one of the best examples anywhere.

And yet, when you visit this wild and surreal place, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the rest of the world is even there.

Dungeness3

Letter from the Deadnettle

A red dead-nettle. I photographed it last year when it ended winter by brightening the verges. Now it’s here again – nothing has changed. 

Red deadnettle 28 Feb 21

Well, really. More has changed than we would ever have conceived possible. But not this flower, this tiny leftover from the whims of our Neolithic forebears, who inadvertently introduced a palette of wild flowers along with early agriculture. Dead-nettle reminds us that as we work, play upon or explore wild places, we are writing a story whether we wish it or not – and pages from it can be read 4,000 years after their authors are gone. 

Read, that is, in the flowers, and more: in even the folds of fields. Ridge-and-furrow is the insignia of the Middle Ages: this field has not been ploughed for centuries. When the ancient historic landscape survives, so often does a rich community of wild things. Such places are alive, as well as a tangible link to what came before.

Ridge and furrow

In the trees, too: via coppicing, the art of felling a tree yet keeping it alive. Stumps sprout new straight stems that were useful for many things, including the supports for the Sweet Track – a causeway built across boggy ground in Somerset almost 6,000 years ago. Hazel was one of the species used, and it continued to produce many useful goods until coppice was finally overtaken by modern industry. Woods remember the past with clustered stems of old coppice.

Medieval bank

Dormice love them: hazelnuts to eat and safe places to hide. Many conservation groups encourage coppicing to keep this habitat alive. But there is a little more in the photo above – see the bank in the foreground? That, too, is a relic – post-medieval earthworks of unknown purpose. Whoever built them, whoever designed them, we do not know; but their legacy lives on, even with bluebells emerging upon it.

And pages from the past – and present – are written in the birds, too, and none as bright as the gorgeous yellowhammer, a bunting that thrived for so long in the hedgerows that the Enclosure Acts promoted, and suffered of course as agriculture industrialised. Their cry of a little bit of bread and No cheese is not as familiar as it once was, so I was delighted to see four of them on my walk yesterday.

Yellowhammer 27 Feb 21

We are still writing stories in nature. Future generations will learn far more about us than we might want them to know simply through reading the land, and it will not lie to save our blushes. Let us make sure that the stories we leave are honourable ones.

The Unseen

“Quite so,” Sherlock Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe…That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” – A Scandal in Bohemia

And I know that there were two foxes beside a lane busy with walkers and cyclists last week, because, well, I was looking for them, and one tends to see what one is looking for.

Fox snow rest 7 Jan 20

Here’s the first, a very large male fox which I didn’t recognise. Almost certainly, he is a visitor from outside the parish who is wandering in hope of meeting a vixen or two; we are right at the peak of the breeding season. He saw many people that afternoon, but they were oblivious to him.

And here’s the second, a much younger male who is a local resident.

Fox watching at dusk2 7 Jan 20

He, too, went unnoticed by the family cycling by, and a walker with music buds in her ears. And if people want to walk through the countryside glued to their phones, they have every right to do so of course; but what is the accumulative effect of missing so much? 

We see, in the spirit of Dr Watson, that the Surrey Hills are green and pretty. We do not observe, as Holmes would have us, that goldfinches sing from the telephone wires and herb-robert brightens roadsides in the spring, that roe deer have left footprints in the mud and woodcock display over quiet fields at night. Therefore, we also do not notice how ‘tidiness’, over-mowing, over grazing and hedgerow cutting are impoverishing us. It doesn’t matter if we cannot put names to all the species we see; simply observing them and acknowledging their uniqueness is the key to their world.

When we do slow down, take a break from social media, turn off the music, we observe the most marvellous things.

Spider web 10 Jan 21

It may be a bit late for a New Year resolution, but here is a challenge: every time you go out for a lockdown walk, find just one natural thing – even as small as a spider’s web – and think about how it fits into the grander tapestry. 

Of Work and Play

Foxes personify elegant mystery, a touch of the alien in our familiar streets. That photo of the ‘ghost’ in the mist in my last post has become one of the most popular that I’ve ever shared on Facebook, but there is another side to Fox: whimsical, obsessive…shoe-loving.

“Why?” is the thought that comes to many minds. Science cannot interview foxes to ascertain their motives. It can, however, confirm that foxes adore shoes, all shoes, everywhere in the world it seems. Some, like the vixen jokingly called ‘Imelda’ in Germany, become specialists in it and collect hundreds. A couple of winters ago, one fox in my village took five wellington boots.

And even in remote corners of the world, in lands like India’s Thar Desert – where people blend with mirages over the salty flats – there are thefts.

p1c desert fox shoe

Because there are foxes.

p1 desert fox1

A captured shoe is typically chewed, tossed about, urinated on and abandoned. Adults are at least as prone to this behaviour as cubs. The leathery texture might be pleasant for their mouths, but in truth they readily snatch any ‘toy’ that we leave within their grasp. Gloves, dog toys, footballs – if they can lift it, they will play with it. The portrayal of Swiper in Dora the Explorer is not really unreasonable.

They retain their moments of frivolity, even as the breeding season peaks. Scent-marking continues in the woods, and their barks echo through the chill damp at night.

Our world has ground to a standstill again, but theirs keeps on turning.

Ghost

Fox mist 1 Jan 21

The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.

January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.

Squirrel breakfast 1 Jan 21

They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.

I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.

Red squirrel IoW 23 May 2019

Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.

Albino squirrel 1 Jan 21

We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.

I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.

Starlights

Christmas has rolled by, short and sweet for most of us, perhaps mingled with some gratitude that 2020 is almost over. This year has been hard for people and bleak for wildlife, but the stars are still bright – and the planets, when the clouds have deigned to let us see them. Our closest star looks on through the haze.

Sunrise Dec 20

Down on terra firma, I’m seeing a few foxes as they quarter the chilled roads in search of mates, but the trailcam has obtained better views. Scent-marking, scent-marking – the woods reek of it, even to us humans; foxes must find it as ‘loud’ as a high street draped in advertising banners. And everyone is trying to shout out their message over the top of the neighbour’s!

The first three clips here tell of intense rivalry and trespass:

1) Trespasser: a male fox urinates on a tree;

2) Trespasser: a second, very assertive male (just look at how he is holding his brush!) rubs himself in it, perhaps to disguise his own scent;

3) the territory owner finally arrives, and stands bemused.

For roe deer, that drama is long since over – they mate in summer, much earlier than most deer, but the foetus only starts to develop about now. Even the weather seems to fall off them, literally, as they shake out the rain.

I hope to spend more time on this blog next year; with one thing and another, it’s fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. I hope everyone has a peaceful new year. 

Love Me, Love Me Not

Zoo wolf

Yes, that’s me, and a wolf behind glass. When I was young, I spent a fair amount of time with the wolves of Colchester Zoo. Putting wildlife in captivity has its ups and downs, but it is educational. Or is it?

There came a moment at Colchester when I stopped watching the wolves and starting thinking about visitors. And what I saw bothered me. They didn’t read the educational panels. They weren’t moved by the incredible power and beauty of the species that is the beating pulse of the wildwood. They sniggered, pointed at the wolves, and nudged their children. “Scary!” they said. “He’ll eat you!”

Nothing wrong with a joke, or warm-hearted teasing. But clearly, the idea that meeting nature invariably instils respect and a desire to protect it is unrealistic.

Colchester

This year has seen quite incredible pressure on the countryside. Conservationists initially seemed thrilled that so many new visitors were standing in woods or having picnics in meadows. The horrific scenes at Wareham Forest, Thursley, Chobham, and other reserves – all burned in wildfires linked to recreation – are painful reminders of the downside. Yes, many tourists have been lovely and I hope they did leave with fresh passion for our natural heritage. Others, sorry to say, hurt wildlife and upset local people.

Nature has rules. We should not be squeamish about that, or fear that it will put people off. Driving a car has rules, and that is why getting a licence has kudos. The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London are protected, and that is why they are fascinating. And simply seeing a wolf or wildflower will move some hearts to great deeds, but other minds need active persuading. And in the worst case, defending against.

It’s like the parable of the sower. The seed is the same where it falls, but only the fertile ground produces a crop. If you see a wolf in a time of food uncertainty and the king offering a bounty, like in medieval England, your thought process is going to be very different from the family who run the little hotel where I often stay in rural Poland, who once told me of their recent sighting with very genuine respect and happiness.

And in the same way, if you go into the countryside thinking it’s a green gym and nothing matters but your own pleasure, being asked to avoid trampling wildflowers and keep your dog on the lead around sheep will seem a burden. But if you arrive with a sense of wonder and hunger for learning, the flowers are precious glimpses of the wild world, and conservation livestock are a link to ancient landscape traditions.

Love can certainly grow with meeting nature, but it needs a spirit capable of supporting it. Let’s all try to encourage society to adopt a respectful attitude to wild things, lockdown crowds or not.

Enough with the human aspect. Here are some Canadian wolves from a few years back, and it raised my spirits to see them free.