Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1

The Elders

What would they say to us and our hasty lives?

Yew forest2 Oct 20

No one knows how old the yews of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve might be. Local legend says that they were planted after a battle with the Vikings in the 9th century; other estimates vary from 500 years to 2,000. In country where most ancient yews haunt churchyards as solitary wardens, in a continent where the 15th century craze for longbows drove a insatiable demand for yew-wood, a grove like this is exceptional.

Yew forest1 Oct 20

Age adds to the atmosphere of tangled boughs and trunks that bulge and burst into impossible shapes, like a clay pot being worked on a very slow wheel.

Yew forest3 Oct 20

The yew has special significant to us; people have been building with its wood since the Palaeolithic. Their presence in churchyards may date to the bubonic plague – they were allegedly planted on the graves of victims to purify them. It is also said that they were a deterrent to locals looking for a place to graze cattle; their extremely toxic fruit is deadly to livestock and to much else.

Birds get by with the yew, however, swallowing the fresh and excreting the stone. Their dense structure gives protection to small species like goldcrests. But a yew grove can be silent, still, a place where thoughts grow and are left to hang in the air.

Yew forest4 Oct 20

Beyond the yews, Kingley Vale opens into chalk downland.

Kingley Vale

A riot of colour in the summer, but the flowers are sleeping now. They will return.

The yews have seen it all before.

Turning Seasons

Strange thing, September. For the last two years, autumn has appeared to start precisely on the 1st. The air cools, the mornings are sweeter, and the last swallows hunt over dewy fields. And woodlands acquire that watercolour glow.

Autumn comes

Water – rainwater – is what fungi need, but last year’s switch from dryness to extreme undying rain produced few. I hope we have more of a show this year, and the boletes have already fruited, carpeting the road verge with otherworldly glory.

Bolete 5 Sept 20

And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.

Fox stepping WF 31 Aug 20

Changing Tenants

Juniper: passport to prehistory. It survived in a Surrey that people have forgotten except when pollen is teased from fossil deposits. Juniper was here when woolly mammoths came trampling, growing alongside plantain and birch, and Arctic foxes sheltered under it. It was one of the first trees to recolonise after the ice sheets thawed, growing slowly, smelling sweetly.

People found it later, and wrapped many stories around its sharp spines.

Juniper 20 Aug 20

Is nature a fixed state? Juniper says no. Its range retreated as the ice grew, and expanded as it died. The same is true of red foxes, roe deer and fungi. It is a pattern – a re-weaving of the tapestry – that occurs on scales so grand and slow that we struggle to visualise them.

It is true, of course, that entirely natural change is now vastly overshadowed by the humans in the equation. Juniper is listed as near-threatened, not because a new ice age looms but as a casualty of the farming revolution. Overgrazing by livestock is its bane – or alternatively, not enough grazing, for this child of mammoth-country needs some disturbance by herbivores to protect it against competing plants, and yet cannot survive where that pressure is too high.

In Riddlesdown, ‘Goldilocks’ grazing is provided by Hebridean sheep, a primitive breed from the Scottish north. Conservation groups often use rare breeds to support these kinds of ecosystems.

Hebridian sheep 20 Aug 20

While we worry about losing some species, certain newcomers have made themselves less than welcome. Grey squirrels, Japanese knotweed and floating pennywort are major threats to our native wildlife, and all were introduced by rash or careless games of humanity.

But that doesn’t mean that all new species are here because of us. Juniper was a pioneer ten thousand years ago, and a few – a very few – species still spread quite naturally. Our meadows know this, for they now host something big and striped!

Wasp spider 20 Aug 20

It’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s harmless – it’s a wasp spider, a dazzling newcomer to the British wild. It was first recorded in 1922 at Rye on the south coast, and has gradually spread northwards. Unlike the noble false widow, which hitched a lift on bananas and has now colonised much of southern England, the wasp spider seems to have floated over the channel entirely on its own threads.

Spiders can exploit airborne currents, but many other species don’t have that option. Fragmenting nature into tiny, isolated reserves hurts the chances of wildlife that should be on the move. Let’s try to keep our wild habitats linked together so they can continue to write their changing stories.

Riddlesdown 20 Aug 20

Dog Days

It’s hot.

Hot haze

Who is the villain? Sirius, said the ancients: the Dog Star, guiding light of Canis Major. In high summer, it is behind the Sun, just visible in the east at dawn. Sticky, sultry days like the ones currently leaning on southern England were the fault of Sirius shoring up the Sun’s power.

Of course, we know now that Sirius is far too distant to affect our weather, but I look forward to seeing the brilliant blue fireball when it finds its way back to wintry skies. It is by far the brightest star in the night sky and follows Orion as the Earth turns.

Canis Major mar 2011

In the meantime, Luna steals the morning light.

Luna 8 Aug 20

And down on overheated terra firma, fleabane is not entirely living up to its reputation as an insect repellent.

Fleabane and friend 5 Aug 20

I gather its visitor is a species of solitary wasp, travelling slowly, seeing what there is to find in the meadows.

Chalk trails

Slow and steady, head out early and watch the sullen skies. Dog days do pass. Soon there will be ‘dog nights’: crisp and wintry, and full of brilliant stars.

Orion and Canis Major march 2011

The Wayfinder

There is a bright red beacon beside our wilder footpaths. Its berries light up after midsummer, pointing the way home.

Wayfayer

The wayfaring tree is more like a shrub, a short, gangly thing unduly loaded with either flowers or fruit, depending on the season. It does indeed have a habit of growing beside paths, but built a relationship with people long before waymarking posts and National Trail guides. Its wood made the arrows carried by Otzi the Iceman, and when he died in the Alps thousands of years ago, they rested alongside him.

Most of nature is really a map. Stinging nettles point to corners that have known the human footprint, because they’re ‘enriched’ with nutrients or otherwise disturbed. Waxcap fungi say the opposite; some of their species take 80 years to colonise a disrupted field.

Fleabane, on the other hand, points to spots that are damp. It reputedly deters insects with a smell that is described as ‘carbolic soap’.

Fleabane 28 Jul 20

Rain causes damp, of course, and it is noted by the scarlet pimpernel, the shepherd’s weather-glass. This tiny flower only opens in the sunshine.

Scarlet pimpernel 28 Jul 20

But maps are for travelling, which is what agrimony does. A tall, thin, very sticky flower of meadows, its seeds hitch rides – and one must have found my dog. Last year. It quietly planted itself, and now I have an agrimony of my own in the front drive.

Agrimony 27 Jul 20

Or it could have been a fox I suppose, although that is less likely considering the distance to the nearest traditional meadow.

Vixen 28 Jul 20

I expect that she has carried a few grass seeds, all the same.

Weaving Gently

Nature is always a mixture of ingredients, like colours combining on an artist’s brush. I sometimes feel that this reality is lost in zoos; a lion or even a tree neatly separated from its ecosystem and labelled within a cage is out of context and makes very limited sense. But it does not take much exploring of the unhuman world to see subtle links.

Spider and rain, perhaps – quiet evidence of how this summer has seesawed between sun and cloud.

Droplets in web 11 Jul 20

Then there is agrimony, the clock that strikes yellow at midsummer. It links physically to animals, its softly barbed seeds latching onto fur and travelling miles – I remove many each year from my dog. Perhaps this one is growing where a fox once stopped to pull agrimony seeds from its brush.

Agrinomy Jul 20

Its peers are often pinkish at this season. Pyramidal orchids, like all of this glorious family, have a secret: their seeds have no energy, and are dependent on fungi to germinate. These fungi form lifelong symbiotic relationships with orchids, are still little understood – we just know where there are thriving, because there the grasslands are bright.

Pyramidal 11 Jul 20

Meanwhile field scabious, the graceful queen of old meadows, supports everything that requires nectar.

Scabious 11 Jul 20

And poppies thrive best where the land is disturbed.

Poppies 11 Jul 20

Everything is a map to everything else.

Picnic Thistle

A name that needs no imagination. It’s very sharp, very short, and, well, very easy to lean into during a picnic.

Picnic thistle 29 Jun 20

Thistles can hurt, as all students of Scottish folklore know. If a party of Scottish soldiers really were alerted to a Norse invader by his anguished step upon a thistle, it wasn’t this species, which is only found in England and Wales. Even here, it has quite a localised distribution. It likes chalk or limestone meadows where grass has been kept short by grazing.

The North Downs have bones of chalk. Where the slopes have escaped modern agriculture, a dazzling variety of wild things grow. Field scabious peaks at this time of year, and here has been found by a marbled white butterfly.

Scabious and marbled white 29 Jun 20

Centaury continues the colour theme. It is named after Chiron, a centaur in Greek myth. Like pimpernel, it closes in uncertain weather.

Centuary 29 Jun 20

It can have up to fifty flowers on a single plant. Scabious offers one, but grows in company.

Scabious 29 Jun 20

And summer wanders on.

One Red Stable

One cold, cold morning when I was a student in Norwich, I grabbed a dog and a camera and went for a stroll. I didn’t know that I was about to experience one of my most bizarre wildlife sightings – a perfect performance of the comic-drama that is magpie vs fox. Actually, magpies: nine of them. And one very puzzled little fox who hid in a stable.

Fox and magpies7 111016

Before, well, being cornered.

Fox and magpies6 111016

On Saturday, I walked that path again as summer rain and warmth battled without clear victor. No fox this weekend, but the stable is still there, albeit repainted.

Stable Norwich 27 Jun 20

And the Yare is still running, or slowly shuffling, whatever Norfolk rivers do.

Yare1 Norwich 27 Jun 20

Its personality is worlds apart from the frothy energy of a Yorkshire stream, or the seasonal extremes in North Downs winterbournes. For its size, Britain is the most geologically diverse place in the world, which feeds through into astonishingly varied landscapes. Maybe that was in the mind of the sculpture as he created the Man of Stones who stands guard by the river.

Man of Stones

The northern half of the East Anglian peninsula is like nowhere else in England – a vast, open landscape of arable farms, marshland and reeds, turning into crumbling cliffs or very wild saltmarshes on the coast. Not surprisingly, it supports some of our rarest wildlife. And none is more iconic than the mighty marsh harrier.

p26 marsh harrier

Occasionally, they are joined by white-tailed eagles flying across from the continent. I saw neither this weekend, but the boardwalk where I’ve watched so many songbirds over the years was briefly shadowed by a reed bunting.

Boardwalk

And field edges were brightened with poppies.

Poppy 27 Jun 20

And then the rain returned, reminding all that although Norfolk might be land, it is really all about sky and water.

Broad Norwich 27 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