No words today. Only quiet skies and a land growing warm and bright.
No words today. Only quiet skies and a land growing warm and bright.
The world is changing. Flowers are opening and birds are singing.
But no, the world is changing. Daily. The relative normality of my last post feels far away. I am certain that no one wants to hear more about coronavirus but I do have a thought and a challenge – then back to wildlife, I promise.
The thought: viruses spread fast, but information and disinformation have never spread faster. Science travels cautiously, but for certain sure, it tells us that this virus is not a laboratory product. Coronaviruses are typically hosted by bats, and SARS showed that they can jump into people via trade in wildlife; palm civets in that case, but there is some evidence that the critically endangered Malayan pangolin was the unwilling bridge for Covid-19. Or maybe it was turtles.
Truth matters. Whatever the origin of this particular virus – from the wildlife trade or not – there can be no more tolerance for criminals exploiting wildlife, anywhere in the world, for whatever motive. As this Chinese conservation group explains, ‘traditional medicine’ sometimes isn’t even traditional, not that market demand for pangolin scales and tiger bones is the only problem; the UK recently convicted an individual who illegally smuggled eels worth £53 million, and incredulously he didn’t even get a jail sentence.
Enough is enough. If novel diseases and a global extinction crisis aren’t sufficient for the entire planet to take wildlife trafficking seriously, perhaps we should at least remember the hundreds of brave rangers who have been murdered by the poachers who supply these criminal syndicates.
Let’s keep an eye on the science and keep informed.
The challenge: last week I was travelling in northern England, as I often do, or did before non-essential travel was stopped, when I woke up one morning to a window overlooking the Royal Border Bridge. It is hard enough to believe that the Victorians built this giddying viaduct with the technology available in the 1840s. But we have forgotten, perhaps, that the workers’ thoughts must have sometimes drifted to the global cholera pandemic then raging, not to mention smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. Some may even have known that southern Europe had recently experienced several waves of plague.
I’m not, of course, suggesting that we fight coronavirus with viaducts. For almost all of us, the heroic thing in this war is staying home, as I now am like millions of others. But I do like the idea that a pandemic cannot stop us doing amazing things.
This is the only version of 2020 that we’re getting, so let’s make the most of it even while we stay in our houses. Read books, write books, play music, learn a language, study history, look out the window and watch some birds. Learn the stars, listen to foxes and owls, watch butterflies visit a flower-filled windowbox. Find creative ways to protect and help the most vulnerable. Build links and friendships. Remember to pray and breathe.
The world is still there. Let’s use this time to learn how to appreciate it – and each other – more wisely.
And keep faith that the light will be given back to us.
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.
And then, Storm Ciara knocked it east.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
And on high chalky slopes grows the most infamous plant of them all: deadly nightshade or belladonna. Thankfully, its giant berries are unmistakable.
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.
And, there are sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn tree, used for jellies and jam.
It is good to reach autumn. Looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.
Maybe. Sometimes. It was 38c, and now it’s raining again. But the sun still blazes whether we feel it or not.
We have come to that languid not-quite-anything time, past the moment when the flowers are at their peak, yet some way off – one presumes – the edgy energy of autumn. Many birds are enduring their annual moult and are hiding, while foxes trot through the woods in coats so short, they look as tight as skin suits.
And then there’s the clouds. They cannot decide whether to tower over us or augment the scenery down below.
The North Downs Way is arguably south-east England’s premier hike. This happens to be my local part of it, but the whole 153 miles spans the breadth of Surrey and Kent, following what is reputed to be the traditional route of pilgrims visiting Thomas à Becket’s grave at Canterbury Cathedral. I’ve walked a good distance down it, meandering between meadows and downland, vineyards and forgotten castles.
History is a major theme. People have been travelling here for a long time.
But the hills themselves have a past. You can feel a little bit of it standing on the high Surrey ridges – the view stretches from the Chilterns to Tonbridge and Hampshire on good days. It is the ramparts of something older, the crumbling bones of a giant chalk dome which was forced skyward in the same tectonic movements that built the Alps. If I had walked here in the early days, I would have been at the same altitude as Scafell. But time has lowered it, and scooped out the middle, and all that remains are the steep chalky rims: the North and South Downs.
The hills are old. This summer is not. It still has resting to do before autumn can greet it.
Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.
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.
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.
And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.
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.