Teenagers

Not the human type.

Foxes teenagers 25 Jun 20

Approaching the four month mark, these fox cubs are lanky, lean and confident. Having spotted one learn about woodpigeons yesterday, I ventured out very early again this morning with my big 600mm lens. They took some finding, and before them I stumbled across rabbits, nibbling in meadows in the pre-dawn light.

Rabbit 25 Jun 20

Britain has only one native member of the rabbit family: the shy and beautiful mountain hare, an upland species these days. Brown hares and European rabbits were both introduced by the Romans. Last year, a rabbit bone was found in Fishbourne Palace, built in 75AD. In the two millennia since, rabbits have become a naturalised part of our landscapes.

In their native Spain as much as in England, rabbits need to be alert to foxes. But the cubs were more interested in me.

Foxes teenagers4 25 Jun 20

I had a press interview for my book yesterday, and was asked what foxes do when they see me. I said: they sit down. Like this.

Foxes teenagers5 25 Jun 20

Sitting is such a big part of a fox’s character that I named my first blog after it. But of course, they are alert and watching, whatever their posture. And waiting to see what the day will bring.

Foxes teenagers3 25 Jun 20

The Scribe in the Fields

New Hill 24 Jun 20

There’s only one way to beat the heat. I ventured outside at 4:15am this morning with a dog who was surprised but instantly approving. With the mist in the valley and the sun still hiding, we spent time with the foxes – notably an ambitious cub who hopefully charged a woodpigeon, and ruefully learned that birds can fly.

But the grand sweep of chalk grassland to the north of my village holds other lessons – of  the mind-boggling variety of small wild things. This wolf spider carries her young with her on her travels. The Russians say that wolves are fed by their feet, and the eight legs of this spider will let her catch her next meal.

Wolf spider 24 Jun 20

But other stories are of people, and the names that we have found for plants. Fragrant-orchid makes literal sense, although there was no perfume that early in the day.

Fragrant orchid 24 Jun 20

As does greater yellow-rattle. One of the UK’s rarest plants, the seed pods will rattle as they mature.

GYR 24 Jun 20

It is the worts that are most human. St John’s wort, still used in traditional medicine – albeit with limited evidence – is said to flower around the feast day of St John the Baptist. Which is today, as it happens: June 24th. It was named in 1551 by William Turner, a botanist and reformer.

St Johns Wort 24 Jun 20

Much less famous is dropwort. Wort is an old English name for a herb, and ‘drop’ in this case refers to tubers on its roots. It is no relation to hemlock water-dropwort, which unlike this innocent cluster of white petals is extremely poisonous.

Dropwort 24 Jun 20

But to finish, another orchid, and one whose name of pyramidal needs no explanation.

Pyramidal 24 Jun 20

The Maverick

We may call it a moment of genius. It takes an object – a rock, a stick, a tool – and applies it to purpose never before imagined. We admire crows that use traffic to crack open nuts, elephants that swat flies with branches, and badgers that convert trailcams into toys.

Okay, maybe the last one is less brilliance than simple mischief. Be that as it may, Trailcam2 is gone. The strap has been chewed through by badger cubs and the camera dragged underground!

Lost camera

And there it will stay, at least until the badgers shove it outwards during their regular sett cleaning forays. I hope I do see it again eventually because I’m sure the footage that it has obtained during its captivity is spellbinding. Otherwise, an archaeologist in a few centuries’ time will ponder the meaning of a small rectangular camera deep inside a Surrey hill.

But even when the path has been trodden before, nature has the feeling of a pioneer. A toadlet venturing from its breeding pond into the wood cannot guess how many generations have preceded it.

Toadlet2 Jun 20

It is the first of its journeys, after all. Not like the rain, which is evaporated and precipitated over and over again.

As for the badgers, they write their stories in rocks as well as on trailcams. Scratch marks on chalk tell of their travels.

Badger scratches on chalk 14 Jun 20

Here’s a still that I got from Trailcam2 last week.

Badger 9 Jun

It was a good camera, and it will be missed – and replaced, of course.

But the badgers will still play whether they are watched or not.

Conductors

Over us, under us, giving instructions to the natural world’s chorus. The first is one that no human can fail to note.

Storm 13 Jun 20

Or maybe some can; I don’t know. Cities are good at pretending that the sky isn’t there, obscuring it with skyscrapers and masking stars with light. Rain is the grime on the pavement, the warning in train stations announcements that passengers might slip – but in the real world, it is life, teasing beautiful things from the soil.

Spotted orchid 14 Jun 20

Orchid season has finally sprinkled pink and purple beauties for the watchful to see. Rain has grown them, and it looks like we should get plenty more showers this week.

Other species are in bloom too, not least foxgloves.

Foxglove 14 Jun 20

And invertebrates take advantage of the suddenly lush vegetation. Small skippers lay their eggs on Yorkshire-fog and other grasses.

Small skipper 14 Jun 20

Grasses: we take them for granted. But the reality is that most of England has seen its plant cover severely degraded by recent changes in land use. This second conductor, the land, isn’t always easy for people to comprehend. A field that is overgrazed by horses can still look pretty, but it supports far, far fewer species than an old haymeadow.

Over us is the weather, and under us is the soil. Between them, they conduct remarkable things.

Fox resting 13 Jun 20

Wild Child

Or wild children, as it happens. Hetty and Dyson continue their visits to the garden, but out in the countryside, another badger family is growing up. Social grooming is an important badger ritual – one presumes that this cub will eventually realise that the idea isn’t to sit on your parents.

A small family, with just two adults and three cubs. Here’s the father on babysitting duties.

The dry May has cooled into an unsettled June, and not a moment too soon. The earthworms that comprise such an important part of badger and young fox diets have been deep underground, and some of the other badgers that I’ve found have been severely underweight.

And rain will help our wildflowers too.

Sainfoin

Sanfoin May 20

Wild mignonette

Mignonette May 20

Wild columbine

Columbine May 20

A Garden Romance

I forget when we decided to call the badger ‘Dyson’. He earned his name, for he is without doubt a hoover: anything edible is swept up in effortless aplomb. He cuts a fine figure against the lamp-lit flowerbeds of night.

Badger Dyson 26 May 20

Yes, this is a night photo. Eurasian badgers –  Meles meles – are nocturnal, or at least they’re supposed to be. Over the past few weeks, there have been an abnormally high number of daylight badger clips circulating on social media, which may or may not relate to the dry weather and the clear difficulty in finding earthworms, their main diet.

Badgers are also sociable. Group size averages six, but Dyson arrived here alone. Dispersal from the family sett is less common in badgers than it is in foxes, and a bite wound on his rump suggested that his departure might not have been by choice. Weeks became months, and he is still a nightly fixture, sharing the garden with mice and owls.

And of course, foxes. For the most part, they ignore him. For the most part. Not always.

But on Tuesday, the tables turned. Pretty Face, the oldest of our foxes, lounged by the path, ignoring Dyson in his hoovering.

Fox Pretty Face 26 May 20

Then her ears twitched. Her eyes darkened. She stared at the gate, her body language flickering between defensive and assertive.

Fox Pretty Face angry cat2 26 May 20

I waited, expecting to see her confront a rival fox. But no: by the gate was a second striped face!

Badger Hetty 26 May 20

So Dyson has a mate. He greeted her with mutual grooming.

Badgers greeting 26 May 20

And they have been here together every night since.

Badgers two1 26 May 20

Perhaps the garden will be full of badger cubs next year.

Both Sides of the Track

Lockdown is bringing people closer to nature.

I hear it a lot. Is it true? People are physically outside far more than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re developing empathy with our wild neighbours. What do people expect nature to be, anyway? After all, it’s not a themepark. It’s not a game, and animals and plants aren’t toys. Nature is exciting, fun, inspiring, unnerving and raw – written by rules much older than us.

Due to my village’s location in the Surrey Hills, I’ve had a front row seat as lockdown has propelled unprecedented crowds into the countryside. Many have been respectful of wild things; some most definitely have not. Visitors who ride bikes in ancient woodlands, gallop horses across wildflower meadows, pick rare flowers, drop litter, fly drones and light BBQs hurt the land, and cause real distress to local people who care for it.

So, I left the house very, very early yesterday, looking for nature as it’s meant to be.

Hillside path 19 May 20

What I found was this: wild strawberry, the sweetest, tiniest little thing.

Wild strawberry 19 May 20

Isn’t that one of the popular messages about nature – that it is good for us? We value it for clean air, working rivers, the ‘green gym’ and its health benefits. That defines ‘good’ as something with a physical or emotional impact. It goes without saying that these are of priceless importance. But there is more, I think.

A little further up the path, there was an altogether different fruiting bush.

Nightshade2 19 May 20

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Devil’s berries, they call its fruit – bright black buttons of death. In Britain, it likes chalky hills like mine, and clings to almost sheer hillsides, beautiful, garish and feared.

Nightshade3 19 May 20

It teaches us something that no strawberry can, lessons that might not be popular in this day and age: that reckless bravado has consequences, that education is better than guessing, that small choices – as small as swallowing a berry – can have major outcomes that are not always possible to put right.

Like volcanoes, like grizzlies, deadly nightshade reminds humanity that we have limits, and should handle life with a certain respect and care.

That is not a bad thing. It is the health in the poison.

Bright Bunting

I’ve been in an air raid shelter. Years ago, in the back garden of the old family house’s elderly next door neighbour – I used to play afternoon Scrabble with her, and she showed me the twisting stairs in the rambling lawn. Down there was the bunker where she had once had to hide.

This week air raid sirens blared again, but in memory rather than anger: Friday saw the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe. Of course, we are still in lockdown and street parties are impossible. But nothing can stop this village decorating its gardens, or indeed its hall, and the show was bright.

VE Day1

VE Day2

We are only a small community, but we lost 14 men in action during the war – one of whom was given a posthumous Victoria Cross.

I have no bunting, but I did find the right colours, more or less, in a fox pausing by flowers planted in our own uncertain times.

Fox in flowers 7 May 20

And then there was the milkwort: a tiny flower of chalk downland that is as varied as the sky.

It grows on the steep southern flanks of my parish, where fields that have escaped modern agriculture still support a rich tapestry of living things. My maternal grandfather walked there too, and photographed bee orchids.

Family2

He served in Burma as an RAF officer; my paternal grandfather was in France.

Now I am here with my own dog, looking for flowers, tracking foxes, watching the world change. We all know that many difficulties are ahead, but that cannot blind our gratitude that we are at least free to rise to that challenge.

The natural world still breathes. Flowers still grow.

Sunset 16 Apr 20

Colours in the Carpet

I’ve listened to the wildwood, that song from the old times that still grows in wolf-filled corners of eastern Poland. Black woodpeckers drum there, and red squirrels dodge pine martens in trees that stretch towards the stars.

Dawn reduced 160417

Białowieża Forest is older than any human empire. It is the European Yellowstone: a wildlife metropolis that forms a benchmark of what the wilderness used to be. Nature is not a fixed condition – it is not so very long since huge areas of the continent were under ice – but in the current epoch, the natural climax vegetation of much of lowland Europe is forest.

In Britain, we have a type of Białowieża that exists in a thousand fragments. We call them ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ which, technically, refers to any wood that appears on 17th century maps. They are not wilderness, and many have been coppiced for timber over the centuries, but they are nevertheless relatively natural and support an immense range of living things. For all intents and purposes, they are irreplaceable. You cannot knock down an old native wood and replace it with a few saplings; it will take hundreds of years to regain the same biodiversity. If it ever does.

Surrey’s wildlife-rich grasslands and heathlands are celebrated, but it is also Britain’s most wooded county – and much of it is ancient. The carpets give its age away.

English bluebells

Bluebell wood 25 Apr 20

…which can be white or pink

White on blue 25 Apr 20

Yellow pimpernel

Yellow pimpernel 25 Apr 20

Red campion

Red campion 25 Apr 20

And then, there is the music. Whatever is happening in the human world, the woods continue a conversation all their own.

Somewhere Else

I live on a floor of chalk, and it is not even. Over most of my parish, geology dips and rises into pretty valleys and gentle hills, like a crumpled tablecloth. But the table ends on our southern border, where the North Downs fall with alarming directness into the lowness before the Greensand Hills, themselves a rim around what was once called Andred’sley, a wild, secretive forest of the south.

People did cross it, back in the day; perhaps they climbed up from it into my hills. Perhaps the 11th century church in my village gave refuge to a weary traveller or two.

Church 8 Apr 20

But travel is not the story of 2020’s people. My daily exercise takes me to the steep southern face of the Downs, but no further. You can see seven counties from there – or is it eight? – and a brightening patchwork of fields and hedgerows.

And a fox. I saw a fox. See him to the right of the jetty, just above the rock?

Fox far away 13 Apr 20

Hundreds of feet below me, and in what felt like a different universe – but, a fox. Out of the North Downs, yet observed by me upon them. I don’t find it easy to carry my 600mm lens, but I needed every inch of glass for this sighting. It took a drink from what I presume is a fishing or boating pond – apparently annoying a passing crow – and then trotted away into the evening.

A wild animal, somewhere else. Yet as I looked up, I saw that there was a second fox, only a few tens of metres away from me. Sitting on the scarp slope, and staring intently at rabbits.

Fox near 13 Apr 20

He didn’t catch one, but he did make me think. One of the rallying cries that I regularly issue on the fox’s behalf is that wildlife isn’t ‘somewhere else’. It is right here, fluttering across lawns, dozing by railway lines, trying to navigate our farms and roads, and even barking in the heart of our largest cities.

Wildlife is not only whales, pandas and tigers, special though all of them are. Amidst all the stress and suffering of these times, I hope that an awareness grows that our own local bits of nature are special and important. The vast increase in outdoor recreation does present some challenges when it comes protecting wildlife from disturbance, but by forcing people to stay local and choose footpaths rather than manmade entertainments, the lockdown may direct walkers into corners of their neighbourhoods that they never imagined existed.

Somewhere else, right here with us.