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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.
Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?
Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.
Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach.
This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.
They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.
And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.
And the skies keep tripping over themselves.
Few people would consider it a compliment to be called a ‘parasite’. But there is more to the lifestyle than tapeworms and ticks.
This week, I’ve come across two of the UK’s strangest wild things, both of which are parasites of a sort. First up is a small wildflower that is easily overlooked in the glut of ground flora erupting in spring.
It’s a toothwort, which is entirely dependent on other plants for its nutrition. It absorbs everything that it requires through parasitizing roots, often of hazel or beech. With no need to make its own food, it contains no chlorophyll, and pops out of the soil as a rather ghostly flower.
The second species appears even stranger to our land-based lives. Jawless, four-eyed and primeval, lampreys can be mistaken for eels at a glance, but their behaviour is very different. They latch onto fish and drink their blood like leeches.
A tad gruesome? Perhaps, but they’re only making a living, like everything else in the natural world. And lampreys themselves have predators, like this beautiful otter that I saw in Norfolk a few years back.