The Unplanted

Creating a garden meadow is like opening a hotel: you have some idea of who your guests might be, but there’s always a surprise or two. Not everything that’s moved into my restored garden rectangle has flown or hopped there –  this is musk mallow, a native wild plant very popular with bees that decided to plant itself.

Musk mallow July 2022

And near to it, a field poppy, a familiar splash of crimson across Norfolk’s arable farms and road verges but also at home in a garden.

Poppy July 2022

The poppy is the child of ‘seed rain’ – the natural dispersal of seeds by wind and wild things. The mallow may have been dormant in the soil when it arrived. Around them, white and bladder campion, wild carrot and ribwort plantain are now also in bloom, flanked by basal rosettes of many other species that won’t flower until next summer.

There’s already a buzz of bees, moths and butterflies, and occasionally something rather rarer. My biggest celebrity so far is this red-brown longhorn beetle Stictoleptura rubra, an uncommon species that spends three years as a larva feeding on conifer wood and fungi before emerging as a nectar-seeking adult.

Red brown longhorn beetle

As for the mammals, they seem to have coped with the drought. Hedgehogs are still visiting the garden, but I also saw one on my walk this morning, scurrying across a lawn. A hedgehog active in daylight can be a cause for concern, but it seemed in robust health and to have a clear idea of where it was heading.

Hedgehog 31 July 2022

And so, inevitably, do foxes. My trailcam has caught two cubs nosing about in the garden, about four months old and very curious.

The Saint and his Seabirds

More from my trip to Northumberland back in the spring, AKA another respite from this burning summer in the south.

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About 1,300 years ago, a middle-aged man moved to Inner Farne, seeking hermitage in the buildings where Aidan – Apostle to England – had dwelt not long before. So great was Cuthbert’s need for solitude that he grew his own food rather than accept supplies, but he accepted the friendship of the island’s wildlife, and sheltered eider ducks when the weather turned raw.

Eider duck2

Cuthbert passed some of the world’s first conservation laws to protect these exquisite sea ducks on the Farne Islands. When he died, his body was moved to Holy Island (Lindisfarne), and after the Vikings invaded, monks faithfully carried it inland. His eventual burial place by the River Wear is now Durham Cathedral.

Cuthburt statue

That is the drama of many lifetimes ago. But Cuthbert’s ducks – still nicknamed Cuddy ducks in his honour – continue to grace Northumberland, and they are far from alone.

Grey heron, eating a brown trout

Grey heron trout

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail

Oystercatcher bathing on the shoreline

Oystercatcher

And resting.

Oystercatcher2

Dipper

Dipper Cragside

Sedge warbler

Sedge warbler

Rock pipit, perched on the whin sill

Sea pipit

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Back in Norfolk, it is 32c and the fields are sandy-brown. Roll on autumn.

Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

Hot, hot. The grass is brown, skies soft and deep, and the river rolls on slowly. A Met Office warning of extreme heat has been announced for a large slice of England, and having worked in 40c+ abroad, I hope that people realise that this isn’t the kind of friendly sunshine that invites sunbathing on the beach.

But there is another type of hot, and it underlies northern England like the blackened bones of an old dragon. Back in the spring, I travelled up to it, and saw what both people and nature have built on its back.

Bambough castle

Whin sill: leftovers from yesterday’s cauldron. It is volcanic rock that bubbled up as magma, cooking its neighbouring limestone into marble, and contracting into columns as it cooled. It props up the northern Pennines and holds aloft Bambaugh Castle, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

Whin means dark and hard in old local dialect, and tough it certainly is: eons of glaciers, plants, rain, waterfalls and even the sea itself have struggled to scratch it.

Farne Islands

But life, as usual, sees an angle to exploit. What was once glowing and molten is now bright with puffins instead.

Puffin2 Farne

And a few other birds. The Farne Islands are in a class by themselves for seabirds, supporting an internationally significant frenzy of guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and many other species.

Farne Islands2

You do not simply see the Farne Islands. You hear them, and smell them, and watch in disbelief as the sea crashes helplessly against the whin sill while tens of thousands of living things raise their voices.

This is a razorbill, otherwise known as the lesser auk.

Razorbill

And these, Arctic terns, famed as the greatest travellers on Earth. Some migrate each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, an annual mileage of 30,000.

Arctic terns

A northern gannet, our largest seabird.

Northern gannet

Grey seals rest on the island edges.

Grey seals Farne

Keeping cool, whatever the fires that birthed these rocks.

Hope we all do the same.

Adventures in the Garden

It was a fish pond, but that was many lifetimes ago – well, lifetimes of insects, at least. By the time that I purchased this house, it was nothing but woodchips and invasive non-native plants like buddleja, sporting little wildlife and shaded by a crumbling wooden canopy.

Garden before

Down it came. And out with it the wood decking, cracked concrete, a carpet lining, and enough plastic to wrap a small car. I also found a gardening knife, a forgotten water butt, a beer can and two jigsaw pieces – but inch by gruelling inch, the rectangle was cleaned into a blank page.

Garden2

Still not much use for wildlife. Next step: rebuild the soil profile. While gardeners and farmers generally want well-fertilised soil, wildflowers thrive on the opposite. No hope of restoring them on woodchips, so I purchased 700 kilograms of low nutrient sandy soil, typical of this corner of East Anglia.

Garden4

On which was sprinkled a seed mix that was a good match for those found locally, and it was nature’s turn to get to work.

Garden5

The months have rolled on. Wild things have sprung up from the dust.

Garden6

Most of them are perennials and will not show their flowers until next summer, but they have subtly revealed themselves by their leaves: cowslip, yarrow, knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, and many more. Birdsfoot trefoil has jumped the schedule and sprinkled tiny beaks of sunshine amidst the green.

Garden7

Most days, it is abuzz. Bees, hoverflies and butterflies have begun to visit. Perhaps the hedgehogs waddle through too.

We are not there yet, because nature is never truly ‘there’ – it changes with the seasons and with age, playing to pioneers when young, supporting rarities when old. I will be watching as this little newborn meadow continues its journey.