Heather-Heathland

Small copper Sept 21

Why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? – William Shakespeare

Heather: the plant of spaciousness. Lonely moors, winding roads and harsh weather bind to it. It crept into our place names (Heathfield, Hothfield) and leapt into our ancestors’ lives, serving as brooms, bedding or roofing thatch. It is oddly ambiguous to us: considered good luck in Scotland, at least in its rare white morph, and a reminder of bloodstains in Germany. 

It needs us – like Eurasian grasslands, it is a habitat made by people interacting with the land over thousands of years, and the collapse of traditional industries like turf cutting imperilled it to invasions of birch. But it also needs us not to build upon it, overstock sheep, or set fire to it with BBQs. Conservation of heathland is basically replicating what the ancients inadvertently did to it while scratching a living.

Heather is not everywhere, but in parts of the North, you could be forgiven for wondering if it is.

Northumberland Sept 21

Northumberland National Park – northern moor, wild and free. Or not; sadly, that’s another thread in heather’s paradox. These beautiful hillsides are an industrial-scale red grouse production factory, the source of so much friction between conservationists, gamekeepers and rewilding advocates. 

I’m more familiar with southern heath. Its fragmented lowland remnants look unforgiving, but are abuzz with tough, magical wildlife. Surrey and Dorset have smooth snakes and sand lizards; the East Anglian Brecks have their stone curlews and military orchids. And there’s a bit of it on the north Norfolk coast, too, in the unusual condition – for East Anglia – of being on a hill.

Beeston Regis2 Sept 21

But when is a hill not a hill? The chalk dome that became the North Downs was made the conventional way; it was forced upwards by the same collision of the Eurasian and African plates that raised the Alps. But the ridge under this north Norfolk heathland – here dominated by bracken – is a present from the Pleistocene ice. It’s old glacial moraine, stacked up to hundreds of feet. 

Beeston Regis1 Sept 21

Poor, sandy soils: rich for heather and gorse, its frequent companion. Of course, if they really were rich in an agricultural sense, they would be far poorer in heathland wildlife.

Let’s just call heather the topsy-turvy type.

 

 

Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

***

This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

***

We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

***

Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

Travels of a Spider

Cancelled. My train, that is. Approximately two minutes before it is due. Not uncommon for this particular rail franchise and commuters mutter on the platform, wonder why they aren’t working from home, and replay time-worn mental maps of the network to plot alternative routes. Well, except for this would-be passenger.

False widow 10 Sept 21

A male false widow spider Steatoda nobilis, perhaps fallen off an earlier train, now on the platform where the service to Gatwick was supposed to arrive. I don’t think anyone’s noticed except me – which is just as well considering this species’ garish presentation in the press. All those headlines caused by this? Guilt by mistaken association; false widow evokes black widow. False widows can bite, but serious reactions are rare and they’re not really out to get us.

They came with bananas from the Canary Islands in the 1870s. Hitching a ride in food is common – I’ve found Caribbean woodlice in Tesco banana bags, and sometimes the genuinely dangerous Brazilian wandering spider also makes the journey. Coronavirus has shown how quickly humanity can transport viruses around the globe, but we are a passenger service for many, many other things, not always to our benefit or theirs.

False widows are really an urban species. Out in the wild, spiders have a different drama: dew and light.

Dawn spider Aug 21

And watch as the madness of summer is smoothed out by the first autumnal mists.

Foggy dawn Aug 21

Storyteller Willow

There’s a panther in the willow tree. At least, in the mind of a six year old me, holding the family cat against the wrinkled old bark and my imagination fired into the exotic. Willows will do that to you – maybe it is their limbs, waterfalls of grey-green leaves tumbling earthward like plaited hair, or their voices, crack of old bark and rustle in the wind.

Crack willow is abundant in wetter parts of Norfolk, and is rather more at home here than my old companion was in the dry chalky North Downs. It is a grey trim along the riverbanks like a furry coat lining, leaning towards the water, reflected back towards the sky.

Crack willow2 4 Sept 21

Willows always retain one limb inside the human imagination. Perhaps JRR Tolkien saw a hollowed shell such as this before the hobbits had their misadventure with Old Man Willow?

Crack willow3 4 Sept 21

And as for the Wind in the Willows – Ratty, my favourite character, is properly called a water vole, and he still stars in Norfolk’s waterworlds.

Water vole2 21 Aug 21

A rushed photo admittedly, but I was thrilled to glimpse it at all. These large aquatic rodents have had a catastrophic decline in the UK due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Bizarrely, a few days later I saw another mammal swimming up the river.

Squirrel swimming 25 Aug 21

Yes, that is a grey squirrel, and it was swimming well enough and making for the bank. It probably fell out of a willow. Is it just my imagination that the tree could jettison a climber so easily?

Keep listening to willows. They must have many more stories.

Crack willow 4 Sept 21

An Ecosystem of Boxes

Everything in nature is in orbit around something: foxes around rabbits, rabbits tugged by sandy soil, sand towards – well, wherever the ferocious Pleistocene winds heaped it back in the days when ice sheets were driving East Anglia’s climate. Ecologists, too, can be found where their favoured species live, usually being attacked by thorn-laced vegetation while tracking their target.

Dormice like bramble and low tangled branches. Surveys are seldom painless. But it is always worth it.

Dormouse2 15 Aug 21

I went back to Surrey last weekend to join the monthly box check. The nest boxes are basically backwards-facing bird boxes, usually fifty per site, and checked under licence due to the dormouse’s strict legal protections. Results for August: three adults, including two mothers with very young litters – an excellent total of ten dormice.

They are put briefly in bags to be weighed before being returned to their nests.

Dormouse1 15 Aug 21

Hazel leaves and strips of honeysuckle bark are a dormouse’s favoured materials; the birds that sometimes take over the nest boxes are bolder in their experiments. This long-abandoned nest is woven with moss, feathers and badger fur!

Bird nest Aug 21

But birds and dormice are far from the only woodland creatures that take an interest in the boxes. Despite their name, dormice are not ‘mice’ at all, but distant relations of squirrels. Real mice, such as wood mice, have hairless tails.

Wood mouse 15 Aug 21

Also unlike dormice, wood mice are lively and inclined to nip, although less so than the yellow-necked mouse, their large cousin, also in the boxes this month.

Yellow necked mouse 15 Aug 21

Shrews, toads and even snakes have been found in dormouse boxes on occasion. But mostly it is about the ones that they are put out for, raising their families and sleeping in honeysuckle bark until winter brings hibernation.

Dormouse3 15 Aug 21

Hopefully many of this month’s babies will enjoying the blackberries and hazelnuts soon.

Inside the Sky

Yes, inside. You don’t feel like you’re under it in Norfolk; it is a part of the day, for it is everywhere. In the rivers:

Reflections2 8 Aug 21

In the lakes.

Reflections 8 Aug 21

Hosting some birds.

Buzzard and gull 8 Aug 21

Teasing the colours from others.

Rook portrait 8 Aug 21

The last photo is of a rook, a very sociable member of the crow family. As the evening progresses, they drift towards their rookeries. 

And then the sun falls below the horizon, and when dawn comes, sky is part of the land again.

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.