Surprise Dessert

Rain has finally remembered us, but it’ll take a long time to refill the ditches out on the grazing marshes. My local river is still running, or ambling, whatever a Norfolk river does. I caught a rare glimpse of a water shrew scurrying between lake and river the other afternoon, but on the whole wildlife seems to be taking the weather as it finds it.

The shock is in the hedgerow. This summer of fierce heat and little rain has grown a fruit garden of banquet proportions.

Haws Aug 22

These are haws, the fruit of the hawthorn. The blackthorn, its notoriously prickly companion, produces sloes that dangling from the gnarled twigs like so many plums.

Sloe Aug 22

Blackthorn was once thought to be ancestral to the domestic plum, but genetic analysis has pointed elsewhere. In fairness, sloes warrant the inverse of whatever kindly adjectives might be given to plums. Dry, dry, dry, sharp and sour. But they are traditionally picked after the first frost to flavour various drinks.

Then there is elder, also having a bumper year.

Elderberries Aug 22

And snowberry, which may catch the eye with its ghostly fruit, but unlike the others, is far from a welcome sight; in the UK, it’s an invasive species, threading its way across native scrubby habitats. I don’t really understand why known problem plants like snowberry and cherry laurel are still available for people to plant in their gardens – they do not stay there.

Snowberry Aug 22

But most of my attention has been on crab apples. To be precise, the hundreds that have rained on my garden from a single crab apple tree, turning the parched lawn into a mosaic of yellow and pink.

Crab apple Aug 22

I gathered a few and mixed them with some local blackberries. That’s my jam supplies sorted for a while.

Jam jars Aug 22

It’ll be interesting to see how wildlife exploits the bounty that’s still outside.

Seasons

Still summer. Still hot, daubing subtropical hues at dawn.

Sunrise 220811

The river banks are green, but that cannot be said of the wider countryside, which is tawny, flat and thirsty. Not unlike the rabbit’s native range in Spain and France, I suppose.

Rabbit 220811

They seem at peace with it, but other mammals are struggling. Moles and badgers need earthworms, which will now be far underground. Foxes, too, feast on them, but they will adapt to alternatives if any are available. It is unclear what the drought will do to the autumn fruiting season for blackberries, cherries and hazel, but this urban fox – photographed by my brother – appears to be dreaming of an upcoming feast.

Fox and blackberries July 22

There is still water: dewdrops at dawn.

Dewdrops 220811

And even a little frost, if you let your imagination run through the seedheads.

Thistle frost 220810

But mostly, it is dry, hazy and hot. Hopefully next week’s forecast of rain will come true.

Mullein 220810

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.

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.

A Word to Spring

I do not generally use the read more below style when writing blog posts, but in this case, I am going to say: read more about blackthorn and roe deer in my recent articles in BBC Countryfile.

Blackthorn article

Deer article

The deer have been keeping me busy on the trailcam as well as in print. I’ve been seeing this roe doe and her twin fawns for the last eleven months, but they will leave her very soon. There is still time for a spot of mutual grooming, a group hug if you will.

Roe deer stand about 70cm at the shoulder, which is positively a giraffe compared to the Reeves’ muntjac. A pair of those have been exploring my garden in Norfolk lately.

Sometimes I hear their harsh barks at night. It is true that there are more deer in England at present than at any time in living memory, and their numbers continue to rise. It is often claimed that this is because humans exterminated wolves and lynx, but the reality is more complex. They do still have a natural predator: foxes readily consume fawns, but it is questionable whether that offsets the survival-enhancing banquet that we have provided through arable farming and other habitat changes.

Regardless, like all our wildlife, they will be noting Spring – which has now settled on us in a more convincing form.

Game of Chess

Spring. No, it’s winter. Defrosted, then re-frozen. Bright, dull, windy and full of sunshine. April frequently plays games, but this year seems worse than usual. No wonder the daffodils look confused.

Frozen daffodil April 22

Wild plants may have less agency over their lives than animals, but they still have to adapt to forces that, while not actively attempting to oppose them, could be said to be playing a maverick game of chess. The weather, for one; flower early and get bitten by frost; leave it late and be smothered by competing species.

And then, there are people. We have worked this island for thousands of years, bumping into nature and accidentally crafting semi-natural habitats of dazzling sights. Most are rare and fragmented now, kicked away by the much harder footsteps of modern agriculture and development. Many hold wonderful things, but few are prettier than this: the chess flower, more often known as snakeshead fritillary.

Cricklade3

It grows in floodplain meadows, those riverside biodiversity treasure houses that for centuries provided hay and late summer grazing.  Cricklade North Meadow Natural Nature Reserve’s meadow grows where the Thames spills out  – although only a little river here, an infant that has not yet met the concrete banks and busy bridges of London.

Cricklade1 Thames

It is also flanked by the River Churn, and dotted with boundary stones where ancient commoner rights are still upheld. In the summer, it is a sea of flowers, but the purple glow of the snakeshead – this site holds the majority of the UK population – gives the reserve its fame.

Cricklade2

Glamorous, even for a member of the lily family; cryptic in markings, overpowering in the sheer enormity of style. It is no surprise that in former times this flower was much desired indoors as well as nodding in the breeze. Middle-aged country-women with tanned cheek and careworn look daily carry through the streets…large flat baskets of this beautiful flower…in short, there is in Oxford a cult of the fritillary says a newspaper article from 1906. Today, they are safe from being picked because their surviving habitats tend to be Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Every now and again, a white one interrupts the purple.

Cricklade4

A few thousand were out, with many more yet to flower. The snakeshead germinates after exposure to frost, but will not flower until the plant is five or six years old. Fertile for just five days, it is pollinated by bumblebees.

And then the board is set for another round of their show.

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

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

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.

 

 

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