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

A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.

Sabretooth of the Marshes

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.

Strumpshaw 15 Oct 20

Acle rainbow

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?

Chinese water deer tusk

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 deer1 15 Oct 20

Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach. 

Water deer2 15 Oct 20

This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.

Water deer3 15 Oct 20

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.

Grey heron 15 Oct 20

And the skies keep tripping over themselves.

Hickling Broad

Now You See Me

Or maybe not.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

Let’s start at the beginning, or at least as close to it as I can fit in a single blog post. The Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire glow honey-yellow with oolite, a Jurassic limestone that brightens paths and hides people – the latter within England’s prettiest houses, the former extending thousands of miles through what is likely to become a new national park.

Cotswolds footpath

I was walking one of those paths earlier this week, winding through slate-capped villages, admiring hedgerows crammed with wild fruit, evading curious farm animals, seeing an apple tree or two. 

House Cotswolds

But there came a moment when my friend and I, plus a large dog, were carefully navigating the boggy ground near a spring. I looked up, and there it was.

Roe deer fawn 10 Sept 20

A roe deer fawn – four months old and still spotted, and still doing precisely what its mother would ask of it: bed down and pretend to be a statue. This is a photo with my iPhone! Despite both being highly experienced wildlife trackers, we were that close before we were aware of it. And astonishingly, the dog was entirely oblivious to his company.

We moved past swiftly and quietly, coming within four feet – we had no choice, the stile forced us that way – yet the baby did not abandon its strategy, and still the dog failed to see it. Navigation successful, we left it to Mother’s return.

Roe deer fawn2 10 Sept 20

It seems incredible, but it is a strategy that deer deploy all over the world to avoid wolves, foxes and other wild canids. Very young roe deer are odourless, but this one must be past that stage. Dogs are extremely sensitive to movement, but have more difficulty in identifying stationary objects. That said, I have seen my own dog spot sleeping cats on several occasions. 

Regardless, it was a strange and beautiful insight into the roe deer’s world of dewy fields and tangled copses.

Cotswolds

Window on the Wild

Fox intense 22 Aug 20

Judging books by their covers, or something like that. They say that eyes are windows into the soul, and there’s a jolt in the raw intensity of a fox. But this one’s apparent mood is misleading; he has diluted pupils due to low light levels, not because he feels as sharp as a cat that has spied its favourite ball.

The fox physique is often misunderstood. Trotting across a road, they seem much bigger than their 14in high selves. And what about their fur? We are taught the fox uniform from childhood: fluffy, sleek, maybe dusted with snow.

Fox in snow

Not at the moment, that’s for certain. The male fox with his intense eyes is sporting the almost skin-tight fur of late summer, although the weather is cooling fast and his sleekness will soon abandon him.

Fox in summer 22 Aug 20

The adaptability of foxes is a multidimensional marvel. Not only can they live from the Arctic circle to Saudi Arabia, and eat everything from earthworms to hackberries to wolf-killed deer, they also react to the seasons in a way that our lives in climate-controlled houses find alien. True, our outdoor clothing thickens as the year grows old, but generally we change our whole outfits at once, not from the toes upward.

Half a moult

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has some of the most extreme seasons on Earth, and this fox – who I met some years ago – has to cope with anything between -50c and +45c. In England, their moults are a little less ragged, but it is still not uncommon for a fox losing its winter coat to be incorrectly suspected of having mange.

Conversely, these perfectly healthy foxes in Croatia (where I worked in 2017) look skinny because the unbearable heat of Dalmatia denies them a thick coat.

For every season, there is a fox, and it wears its own fashion.

Fox-Orange

While wondering why WordPress has enforced a change upon us of creating blog posts in ‘blocks’, I can also reflect on how nature simmers soft orange in the still days of late summer, colours daubed on a landscape of fading flowers and moulting birds.

Chicken-of-the-woods has a full sample of that orange.

Chicken of the Woods 18 Aug 20

This year has been a lesson in living without things that were taken for granted for so long, some trivial, some far less so. But could we live at all without fungi? They grow the trees that breathe oxygen – they form symbiotic relationships with so many plants that the world would be unrecognisable without them. Some species, including chicken-of-the-woods, tidy our landscapes through consuming deadwood. Some sprinkle orchids in meadows through bonding with seeds. 

Fungi are the gardeners we do not notice, growing a little, pruning a little. And in the world that they hold together, bigger liveforms wander. Roe deer, too, have assumed a fox-orange pelt which become grey when the nights draw in.

Roebuck 18 Aug 20

And the foxes themselves – they are growing, wandering, questioning what the land can provide for them.

Foxcub2 TH 18 Aug 20

This is a ‘teenager’ cub; it is nearly adult height, but its long limbs, smooth coat and small proportions give its youth away.

They stray into places heavily changed by people, but dressed in a nature fit for late summer. 

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

Soon they will disperse to pastures new, and many more fungi will brighten up the woods.

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.

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

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 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.