New Year, Old Year

I couldn’t blame the sun for looking like it wanted to turn in early. It’s been a long twelve months.

Afternoon sun 31 Dec 21

But whatever upheavals 2021 brought to people, the wildlife of the Broads continues its business. Water deer patrol marshes bustling with ducks and geese. This is a buck – you can just see his tusks. Water deer are not sociable, and although half a dozen were in view, they kept apart.

Water deer SF 31 Dec 21

What does a lapwing sound like to a water deer? We transcribe their call as peewit, peewit, to the point where that is an alternative name for the species. Elegant, cleanly marked and with preposterous feathers on their heads, these sweet-voiced waders have become internationally threatened – here’s a close up from Sussex, several years ago. 

Lapwing2

But nowhere in the south have I seen flocks like Norfolk’s. In fact, there were more lapwings in view yesterday than I’ve seen in the last decade put together. The vast Broads sky filled with a lapwing murmuration, swirling smoke trails of feathered hope. Not easy to photograph, but good to think about.

Another rarity swooped over the reeds. Marsh harriers – the signature bird of the Broads – are unmistakable.

Marsh harrier SF 31 Dec 21

And buzzards flew a little higher.

Buzzard SF 31 Dec 21

Otters kept lower, and quieter, leaving their five-toed footprints in the mud.

Otter track SF 31 Dec 21

And so onwards, into 2022. I’ve already seen my first wild mammal: on the pavement, just after lunchtime, threading between walkers and families. A small squat dog-like deer – a muntjac. With an all too real dog pounding after it, and I am grateful that the deer is unhurt after it bolted across the main road, skidded over, and finally lost its pursuer in a construction site. The dog was last seen running back into the open countryside valley; I walked around for a while, seeking its owner, but drew a blank.

People do many things that aren’t malicious but have consequences for our wild neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances of why this particular dog was loose, but it goes without saying that chasers should really stay on the lead. 

But I didn’t want to start the year with a grumble. Let us have an ambition to tread lightly, and walk a little more slowly and listen to the land a little more. Its stories are wonderful things.

Under the Fogbow

If a rainbow stands guard over a pot of gold, what treasures does this ethereal archway hide?

Fogbow

Fogbow, mistbow, white rainbow – a sailor might call it a sea-dog. It is created by light refracting through mist, and there was no shortage of that in Norfolk yesterday, as if the clouds had wearied of the heavens and slumped onto the land to wait out the dying embers of the year.

Misty dunes

Fogbows are uncommon; I’ve never seen one before. And in a twist of magic, it did have white gold at its feet – but of fur, not precious stones. The seal haul-out beach that I last visited in October is now a nursery for over a thousand babies.

Seal pups4 18 Dec 2021

Many terrestrial carnivores give birth to helpless young and nurse them for months, if not years, but grey seals have no such leisurely schedules. After just three weeks of intensive feeding on milk that is over 50% fat (compared to 4.5% in human breast milk and 6% in fox milk), they are done and weaned.

Seal pups3 18 Dec 2021

This little one tried to explore the beach by itself, and its mother lumbered after it, putting the breaks on its travels.

Seal pups5 18 Dec 2021

But they leave her soon enough, living in the dunes for a week or two, their white fur taking on the speckled hues of the adults.

Seal pups1 18 Dec 2021

Their mothers, meanwhile, mate with the bulls. Eleven months from now, new pups will be born.

Maybe the fogbow will return to greet them.

Peddars Way: Timekeepers

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” – Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Peddars Way 2nd stage3

This is a village, an old, busy village, with streets, moats and people. Houses of wood coated with clay and capped with thatched roofs clump in any old direction, shepherds and dogs passing by. Reeves inspect fields, villeins and free workers sweat as they thresh grain, and disagreeable types languish in the stocks. Oxen pull ploughs – but they are gone.

The thought remains. Great Palgrave is the ridges under the clouds in the above photo; the village failed in the 15th century, leaving only the bones of its roads and structures behind. Elongated bumps in old English fields almost always indicate archaeology, but some of it is much bigger.

Peddars Way 2nd stage4

St Mary’s Church is a treasured survivor of another lost ancient village. Houghton-on-the-Hill reached the 19th century before its population drifted elsewhere. The church dates from 1090 AD or possibly earlier, and its walls wear bricks crafted by the Romans, no doubt recycled by later peoples from a nearby ruined villa. Inside are 11th century wall paintings.

The Peddars Way goes forward, yet time drifts backwards, and the road that the Romans built 2,000 years ago points remorselessly on.

Peddars Way 3rd stage4

But some may call it young. A watcher rests beside it: a longbarrow that was already 1,700 years old when the legionnaires arrived.

Peddars Way 3rd stage1

Inside this mound are bones of Neolithic people – the earliest farmers, they who set in motion changes to the British landscape that evolved into a dazzling mosaic of semi-natural habitats, inadvertently supporting such a rich community of animals and plants.

It is a sobering thing to look at this barrow and know that the Romans and Iceni – perhaps Boudica herself – saw it, even as they must also have seen the bracken turn gold.

Peddars Way 2nd stage2

I can only guess at their memories of their walks, and their thoughts as the trail led onwards towards the sea.

Peddars Way: A Walk, With Wildlife

Peddars Way 1st stage1

Path: a society that never meets. Its walkers share a citizenship linked by the thinnest line; their footsteps overlap, and thoughts of travel bind them.

Peddars Way has witnessed human doings for thousands of years. Like so much in northern East Anglia, it is entangled with the life of Boudica – queen of the Breckland-based Iceni. Her ferocious revolt against the Roman invaders in AD60 shook the British world as it then was. The Balkerne Gate down in Colchester (then called Camulodunum) has stood for nearly 2,000 years as a reminder of how the town was rebuilt after Boudica’s forces obliterated it.

Roman gate Colchester

In Breckland, too, the Romans clearly wished to build something new: a road of order, rather than a tribal land of rebellion. Peddars Way is drawn with classic Roman straightness between Knettishall Heath and the wild northern coast.

That path still lives. But today you hear no hobnailed Roman sandals on the march. Buzzards cry over an autumn putting on its golden coat.

Peddars Way 1st stage2

And spindle berries brighten the hedgerow.

Peddars Way 1st stage3

England and Wales are threaded through with a mind-boggling 140,000 miles of rights of way, and a select few have been waymarked as our showcase National Trails. Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path form one of them: 129 miles from the harshly grand Brecks to marshes and saltwater.

The Brecks is everything: farmland, military range, commercial forest, beech plantation. Chalky, sandy, hot and cold, open and shadowed – Neolithic mines and modern conservation. Whatever light forest grew on the sand at the end of the Pleistocene was cleared into steppe thousands of years ago, and endured by generations of farmers. My own ancestors are part of that story: they worked a small part of the Brecks from at least the 1400s onwards, inadvertently helping to create the tumbling mosaic of habitats that support such an incredible array of wildlife.

I don’t know precisely where their land was, but like much of the Brecks, it was acquired by the Ministry of Defence after World War II, and today probably lies within the huge Stanford Training Area Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Peddars Way 1st stage7

And the path goes forever on. Ten miles done, and much more of the Peddars Way lies ahead.

Peddars Way 1st stage5

Thursday Thoughts: Fox

Mersey with book

Rescued fox Mersey modelling my book courtesy of the Highland Fox Sanctuary

A fox has trotted past the George Orwell statue that guards the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Its image is on paper, and its soul is – I trust – glimpsed through my words. It’s October 2018, and The Hidden World of the Fox has brought to the wild to the city, and me to the media.

These foxes – nature’s orange thread woven through puddled streets that we presume to know – enchant us, puzzle us, and occasionally frighten us. I wrote Fox because their stories were worthy to be heard. I wanted to share my observations and unlock the science from the inaccessible journals where it often hides. And also, of course, to reflect on the occasional public concerns about a raw wild animal loose in a world designed for people, and promote the idea that we can find constructive ways to share space.

Three years on, and Fox is now sold across multiple continents and languages, a reminder of the species’ staggering natural range – and unshakable hold on our thoughts. Sometimes they stare at me, and I could fantasise that they know of their wider fame: Ylvis, Aesop, The Animals of Farthing Wood, modern takes on aurora myths, and so much more. But they are too busy bothering magpies, stealing dog toys and shrieking cold wrath at each other.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

Foxes may ignore authors and scientists, but the feeling is not mutual. Research continues apace. A recent study from Spain concludes that foxes can help the beleaguered Eurasian wildcat by separating it from free-roaming domestic cats, with which it is prone to hybridise (although there will be many things that affect wildcat survival, and the study seems limited). Research in Germany examines social perception and tolerance of foxes, as did a paper that I co-authored in the UK. In the media, the likely connection between foxes and the so-called M25 Cat Killer continues to do the rounds in waves of misunderstanding.

They’re doing well enough in towns, expanding into previously scarcely-colonised British cities, but are probably in decline in the countryside. The rabbit collapse is likely to be part of that story, especially given that alternative food like voles, berries and invertebrates are under pressure from agriculture and other intensive land uses.

But there are still foxes on the edge of our world, writing something wild into our shadows.

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

The Signposts

Everything growing is a post-it note left there as a hint to the bigger picture.

Waxcaps: You are on undisturbed land

The fungi of a dozen colours, family Waxcap is bright, obvious, and sensitive. They thrive in old mossy grasslands and churchyard edges that haven’t been ploughed, fertilised or otherwise harmed. If disturbed, they might not return to a site within a human lifetime. If watched, they tell their stories. Blackening waxcap begins with a glow of gold.

Blackening waxcap golden

Before turning dark, spreading its spores back to the earth.

Blackening waxcap2 Oct 21

Wall barley: You are on disturbed land

Thriving on the opposite, this grass and its extraordinary bristles (properly known as ‘awns’) like roughed-up areas. It often appears on urban road verges and cracks in pavements. It is related to the barley species grown on farms.

Wall barley 30 Oct 21

Stinging nettle: You are on nutrient-rich ground.

That may sound like a good thing, but most of those nutrients will be run-off from agriculture or be leaking from old iron fences. Too many nettles equals an environmental question-mark. They are also fierce to the touch, as most rural children know. But they have been used by many cultures for various things, from medicine to textiles.

Stinging nettle 2 Nov 21

Mist: You are in November-land.

It is autumn, and that grows mist. And it is beautiful.

Misty morning1 3 Nov 21

Hauling Out

There is something indelibly printed on the British psyche that we must, at unpredictable intervals, approach the sea. Our coastline is as jagged as if a child had drawn it – a fair-sized island we might be, but it is still staggering that we’ve have over 10,000 miles of coastline. Icecream, sandcastles, Victorian piers, laughing swimmers taking Christmas dips; all of that is true of course, along with far too many coastal towns struggling with poverty, but none of is the whole story. The coast has its wild too, and it is big!

Grey seals2 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Grey seals. If people head seaward, seals lumber landward, most especially at this time of year when the pupping season is almost upon us.

Grey seals3 Horsey 25 Oct 21

For these magnificent beasts, Britain is defined by its haul-out potential: it is merely a beach just above the sea. In fact we have a good part of the entire global population, and the biggest colonies number in the thousands. Bulls argue half-heartedly in the surf.

Grey seals1 Horsey 25 Oct 21

They can weigh over 800 pounds, or approximately equal to 16,000 dormice. They are inelegant on land – they are built for water, with sensitive whiskers that help them catch sand eels, cod and other marine prey.

Grey seals4 Horsey 25 Oct 21

It is often said that the UK has two species of seal, and it is true that only the grey and the smaller common seal are generally here, but we are occasionally graced by extra guests from the Arctic. Ringed seals and bearded seals aren’t unknown. And, of course, a certain famous walrus. Attracting the crowds. Marine mammals tend to do that.

But it’s not always in their interest, either with walruses in Cornwall or seals in Norfolk. I took all these photos with a 600mm lens in a designated viewing area on the dunes. But every year, there a few people who try to approach them for selfies or allow their dogs to get out of control. The Friends of Horsey Seals have wardens on site to manage the situation for the best benefit of both people and seals.

Oblivious to human fascination, they continue to beautify the sea.

Grey seals5 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Sleep

Noun:

  1. a condition of body and mind that typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.
  2. a dormouse.

Dormouse1 23 Oct 21

Technically, this little one is in torpor, a kind of day-hibernation that occurs on the edges of their active season. It will soon go to ground properly, heading to the woodland floor to weave a tight nest about itself and disappear until March or even May.

Sleep well.

Dormouse2 23 Oct 21

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.