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 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.

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.

Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

The Second Frost

With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.

It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.

Spring blossom 19 Apr 19

The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.

Bluebell dew drops 19 Apr 19

Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.

Khamsin in bluebells 21 Apr 19

I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.

Cowslip dew drops2 19 Apr 19

Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.

Toothwort and little slug 19 Apr 19

Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.

Canada: Scaling down

September 2018

There are days that you remember for the smallest possible reasons. I honestly thought it was a beetle, scootling across a forest road, but, no. It’s a mammal. The smallest mammal that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

american pygmy shrew2 rmnp sept 18

It’s about the size of a £2 coin. Definitely a shrew, possibly an American pygmy shrew Sorex hoyi, the second smallest mammal on Earth. There are hummingbirds that would dwarf this bundle of whiskers and fur. Uncaring of the two-legged giants and their cameras, it predates invertebrates amongst pebbles that must seem like monoliths.

american pygmy shrew3 rmnp sept 18

It’s easy to see a forest in only the big pieces – clouds, trees, lakes. But this wonderland at the autumn-winter boundary continues to enchant with surprises.

I used to watch belted kingfishers when I lived on Vancouver Island. This one cuts a fine figure against Manitoba trees sprinkled with white.

belted kingfisher rmnp sept 18

And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.

rmnp road sept 18

rmnp road2 sept 18

Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.

bear2 rmnp sept 18

Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.

Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.

Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.