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.

Nomads Amongst Us

If we cannot go out into the world, then the world can come to us. Everything wild, travels, from foxes to flowers.

Remember  ‘Spectacles’? He arrived alongside another adolescent male some years ago, but while One-Eye – his probable brother – remained a homebird for lifetime, Spectacles was a nomad. He loitered in the garden, quarrelled with the resident foxes, and took to the road, returning and disappearing apparently at random. Where he went, I do not know; but foxes can easily stray dozens of miles. It’s not unlikely that he voyaged to Kent or even Sussex.

Fox spectacles3 160317

There are a certain proportion of foxes who live like this. Territory is not an exact concept, although a family group will make some effort to evict or at least dominate trespassers. If you can imagine a map with multiple circles on it, Spectacles was the kind of fox who roamed loosely over those zones, knowing many but belonging to none.

I’ve known several other nomadic foxes. This young vixen, who was usually accompanied by a very dark dogfox, seemed perpetually baffled by the world even as she trotted haphazardly around in it.

Scraggles2 190308

And of course, the famous Vixen from Across the Road – whose territory was half-destroyed by construction workers – spent several years crossing the line, despite the best efforts of the neighbouring foxes.

Fox PF2 160327

As for Spectacles, he abandoned my village for good in 2017, after repeated squabbles with the tiny but fierce White Socks Vixen. Here’s one of their soundtracks! Like most fox confrontations, the noise is savage, but it was quite bloodless.

We have other wanderers, of course: redwings from Iceland over the winter, chiffchaffs from Africa in the summer. But on the woodland floor is a different kind of movement – where travel is not a matter for the individual, but something accomplished as a team over a hundred generations.

Wood anenome Apr 20

Most plants stay rooted for life, and wood anemones are no exception. These tiny white banner-bearers of spring are exceptionally slow to spread – a rate of six feet a century is the estimate. As we humans are currently learning for other reasons, tiny steps forward are no reason for any one individual to drop the ball.

And even while still, they travel. Anemones are known as the windflower, and how they bob in a woodland breeze.

Living in their own way, patient in the dappled sun.

The Tree and Thee

Or: the afterlife of a tree.

It was older than me, probably significantly so. It was almost unnoticed in life, tucked behind a conifer – just its roots highlighted by fly agarics, those garish fungi of fairytales.

Fly agaric1 30 Sept 19

And then, Storm Ciara knocked it east.

Silver birch down

Thus perished the silver birch of the garden’s right border. It had its revenge on the conifer from beyond the grave; the tug of its roots unbalanced its rival, which promptly followed it lawn-ward a week later in Storm Dennis. But while conifer wood is of limited value to wildlife and had to be removed, the birch trunk soon acquired a fan club.

Fox Spindle 17 Feb 20

This is Spindle, the garden’s resident comedian. He arrived last autumn as a gangly ‘teenager’ along with two vixens, who may well have been his sisters. His brush really was as thin as a spindle – not only was he suffering from sarcoptic mange (which causes severe fur loss) but he also appeared to have fractured the vertebrae. A few doses of Stronghold cured the mange, and his bones have healed, albeit at a strange angle.

Spindle brush 17 Feb 20

Now healthy, he is full of mischief, and the birch is his innocent accomplice. He sneaks behind it to leap playfully on other foxes – and is also the perfect vantage point for scanning the world.

Spindle4 6 Mar 20

I have slowed down the ‘March in Flower’ idea because unfortunately most of our plants are still firmly asleep, but I will keep posting species as they awake.

March in Flower: Sweet Archangel

Everything in nature is a cog that spins on something else. A little signpost, if you will. Last month, I was visiting a site on the South Coast when a wren trilled and a rabbit bolted from the hedgerow. Not random, not meaningless – they were set in motion by a force unseen.

Then it emerged!

Stoat NF 13 Feb

Stoat, known as short-tailed weasel in North America. I very rarely see these restless little predators.

Today’s flower is also here because of a quiet nudge, albeit a more human one. Back in the Bronze Age, when Stonehenge was built and agriculture was benefiting from new tools, farmers inadvertently introduced a number of new plants into the British wild. Sweet archangel – also known as red deadnettle – was among them.

Red deadnettle 3 Mar 20

Today it grows quietly, finding a niche for itself on forgotten road verges, painting sweet colour in this reluctant spring.

Soon bees will fly here because of it.

Nature’s cogs keep turning.

March in Flower: Lesser Celandine

And some bonus mammals. But to start, here is today’s flower: lesser celandine, the hopeful splash of sunshine on our puddle-strewn roads. Or, as William Wordsworth put it: telling tales about the sun, when we’ve little warmth, or none.

Lesser celandine March 20

This has been a long, wet winter. But as Facebook readers will know, things have become rather exciting in the garden. The foxes have a neighbour!

Badger garden 26 Feb 20

A badger – the first one documented in the garden in forty years! While badgers do not disperse from their families as readily as foxes, they will do so under some circumstances. He has a healing bite scar on his rump, evidence of a family squabble no doubt.

As for the foxes, their breeding season has ended and cubs will be born very soon. Here’s one expectant mother whom I did not expect to see again: ‘Pretty Face’, the grand old lady of the garden. Not only did she stun me with a sudden reappearance after a six month absence, but she is heavily pregnant.

Pretty Face 26 Feb 20

She is very small, but she is a survivor, and she is strong. The younger foxes who have moved into the garden in her absence are rapidly learning that she expects to be in charge.

I hope that her cubs inherit her irrepressible spirit.

 

March in flower

It’s spring, so time to give this old blog a clean and bring some colour onto the pages. For March, I’m going to be looking at our wild plants as they gradually blink open. And I couldn’t resist starting with this: cherry blossom giving breakfast to a greenfinch!

Greenfinch in blossom 26 Feb 20

The greenfinch is almost as much of a surprise as the blue sky. These beautiful birds used to be abundant here but trichomonosis – a disease spread by a protozoan – caused their numbers to crash. Good hygiene at bird tables can help prevent its spread.

Mixed Basket

I seem to have been away from WordPress for a long time, and the seasons have moved on. Autumn is my favourite time of year – it’s almost like a graduation ceremony for nature, where all the plants get to show the goods that their flowers and leaves have been producing during the summer.

Berries and seeds! Blackberries dot the brambles, at least until they find a higher calling as part of a blackberry and apple crumble.

Blackberries 8 Sept 19

They’re so abundant that there is plenty for both people and wildlife. Blackberries appeal to anything with a sweet tooth, including foxes, dormice and badgers. The parent plant is fantastically prickly but is actually more complex than it seems; there are about 300 micro-species of bramble in Britain alone.

Not that everything in the hedgerow is edible for mammals. Bryony berries have a sparkle, but are bitter and toxic.

Bryony berries 8 Sept 19

And on high chalky slopes grows the most infamous plant of them all: deadly nightshade or belladonna. Thankfully, its giant berries are unmistakable.

Deadly nightshade2 QH 4 Aug 19

On the other hand, hazelnuts are good for the health, and are readily consumed by nearly everything. Happily for mammal surveyors, the toothmarks on the nut show who has opened it. This one was chewed by a dormouse.

Dormouse hazelnut 16 Sept 2018

And, there are sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn tree, used for jellies and jam.

Sloes 8 Sept 19

It is good to reach autumn. Looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.

Antiquity

Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.

British_Pleistocene_Mammalia_(1866)_Red_Fox_Cranium

I happened across this drawing on Wikimedia last week, and was immediately struck by the curious thought that Edwardian scientists were drawing Pleistocene red fox bones not so many miles from where I now photograph those foxes’ probable descendants. This particular sketch dates from 1909 and is printed in A monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia, but the animal itself knew these hills many millennia ago.

What did it see on its daily travels? Its England was a kind that no living human has known. Spotted hyenas, straight-tusked elephants and cave lions roamed here, and foxes thrived alongside them all. They truly are a marvel of flexible pragmatism.

Today, of course, they live alongside us instead.

Fox PF 5 Jul 19

This vixen is known as ‘Pretty Face’. She has raised cubs this year, although she has not brought them to the garden. Her daily wanderings involve navigating cars, fences, and potentially dangerous introduced species such as pet cats. Like her ancestors, she survives.

Fox PF2 5 Jul 19

And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.

Fox and Cubs2 Jul 19

And yet, like the conventional fox, it speaks of a hidden story. While flesh-and-blood foxes came to what is now England under their own steam – we were still a peninsula attached to continental Europe at the time – the flower arrived with help. It was brought here by people almost 400 years ago, when the unfortunate Charles I was on the throne. It was thought to be a cure for poor eyesight, but soon escaped into the countryside and has brightened up roadsides ever since.

I wonder if the first gardener who planted it realised that it would long outlast the king.