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

Thursday Thoughts: Fox

Mersey with book

Rescued fox Mersey modelling my book courtesy of the Highland Fox Sanctuary

A fox has trotted past the George Orwell statue that guards the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Its image is on paper, and its soul is – I trust – glimpsed through my words. It’s October 2018, and The Hidden World of the Fox has brought to the wild to the city, and me to the media.

These foxes – nature’s orange thread woven through puddled streets that we presume to know – enchant us, puzzle us, and occasionally frighten us. I wrote Fox because their stories were worthy to be heard. I wanted to share my observations and unlock the science from the inaccessible journals where it often hides. And also, of course, to reflect on the occasional public concerns about a raw wild animal loose in a world designed for people, and promote the idea that we can find constructive ways to share space.

Three years on, and Fox is now sold across multiple continents and languages, a reminder of the species’ staggering natural range – and unshakable hold on our thoughts. Sometimes they stare at me, and I could fantasise that they know of their wider fame: Ylvis, Aesop, The Animals of Farthing Wood, modern takes on aurora myths, and so much more. But they are too busy bothering magpies, stealing dog toys and shrieking cold wrath at each other.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

Foxes may ignore authors and scientists, but the feeling is not mutual. Research continues apace. A recent study from Spain concludes that foxes can help the beleaguered Eurasian wildcat by separating it from free-roaming domestic cats, with which it is prone to hybridise (although there will be many things that affect wildcat survival, and the study seems limited). Research in Germany examines social perception and tolerance of foxes, as did a paper that I co-authored in the UK. In the media, the likely connection between foxes and the so-called M25 Cat Killer continues to do the rounds in waves of misunderstanding.

They’re doing well enough in towns, expanding into previously scarcely-colonised British cities, but are probably in decline in the countryside. The rabbit collapse is likely to be part of that story, especially given that alternative food like voles, berries and invertebrates are under pressure from agriculture and other intensive land uses.

But there are still foxes on the edge of our world, writing something wild into our shadows.

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

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

Hauling Out

There is something indelibly printed on the British psyche that we must, at unpredictable intervals, approach the sea. Our coastline is as jagged as if a child had drawn it – a fair-sized island we might be, but it is still staggering that we’ve have over 10,000 miles of coastline. Icecream, sandcastles, Victorian piers, laughing swimmers taking Christmas dips; all of that is true of course, along with far too many coastal towns struggling with poverty, but none of is the whole story. The coast has its wild too, and it is big!

Grey seals2 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Grey seals. If people head seaward, seals lumber landward, most especially at this time of year when the pupping season is almost upon us.

Grey seals3 Horsey 25 Oct 21

For these magnificent beasts, Britain is defined by its haul-out potential: it is merely a beach just above the sea. In fact we have a good part of the entire global population, and the biggest colonies number in the thousands. Bulls argue half-heartedly in the surf.

Grey seals1 Horsey 25 Oct 21

They can weigh over 800 pounds, or approximately equal to 16,000 dormice. They are inelegant on land – they are built for water, with sensitive whiskers that help them catch sand eels, cod and other marine prey.

Grey seals4 Horsey 25 Oct 21

It is often said that the UK has two species of seal, and it is true that only the grey and the smaller common seal are generally here, but we are occasionally graced by extra guests from the Arctic. Ringed seals and bearded seals aren’t unknown. And, of course, a certain famous walrus. Attracting the crowds. Marine mammals tend to do that.

But it’s not always in their interest, either with walruses in Cornwall or seals in Norfolk. I took all these photos with a 600mm lens in a designated viewing area on the dunes. But every year, there a few people who try to approach them for selfies or allow their dogs to get out of control. The Friends of Horsey Seals have wardens on site to manage the situation for the best benefit of both people and seals.

Oblivious to human fascination, they continue to beautify the sea.

Grey seals5 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Sleep

Noun:

  1. a condition of body and mind that typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.
  2. a dormouse.

Dormouse1 23 Oct 21

Technically, this little one is in torpor, a kind of day-hibernation that occurs on the edges of their active season. It will soon go to ground properly, heading to the woodland floor to weave a tight nest about itself and disappear until March or even May.

Sleep well.

Dormouse2 23 Oct 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.

 

 

Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

***

This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

***

We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

***

Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

Travels of a Spider

Cancelled. My train, that is. Approximately two minutes before it is due. Not uncommon for this particular rail franchise and commuters mutter on the platform, wonder why they aren’t working from home, and replay time-worn mental maps of the network to plot alternative routes. Well, except for this would-be passenger.

False widow 10 Sept 21

A male false widow spider Steatoda nobilis, perhaps fallen off an earlier train, now on the platform where the service to Gatwick was supposed to arrive. I don’t think anyone’s noticed except me – which is just as well considering this species’ garish presentation in the press. All those headlines caused by this? Guilt by mistaken association; false widow evokes black widow. False widows can bite, but serious reactions are rare and they’re not really out to get us.

They came with bananas from the Canary Islands in the 1870s. Hitching a ride in food is common – I’ve found Caribbean woodlice in Tesco banana bags, and sometimes the genuinely dangerous Brazilian wandering spider also makes the journey. Coronavirus has shown how quickly humanity can transport viruses around the globe, but we are a passenger service for many, many other things, not always to our benefit or theirs.

False widows are really an urban species. Out in the wild, spiders have a different drama: dew and light.

Dawn spider Aug 21

And watch as the madness of summer is smoothed out by the first autumnal mists.

Foggy dawn Aug 21

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