Bird’s Eye View

I love a hedgerow. I mean, a real hedgerow, tangled like a long lean jungle with mysterious flowers and bizarre fungi at its feet, cloaked with white blossom in the spring and stuffed with berries throughout the winter. The Surrey countryside used to be full of such hedgerows, dividing pasture and hay meadows and abuzz with all kinds of life.

A few buttercups

Was. It’s not a coincidence that the gorgeous scene above with its thick hedgerows separating chalk grassland meadows is in a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and thus fully protected – and thankfully also managed by a very good landowner. The more typical state of a hedgerow these days is this:

Hedgerow CF

Mechanical flailing is not only ugly. It wounds the hedgerow and shrinks it, and outright kills any invertebrates or mammals that get in the way – or birds. Breeding birds and their nests are strictly protected by law, but that hasn’t stopped one of my local landowners trying to flail hedges in summer. Flailing also tends to happen every year, which stops the hedgerow producing berries. In the past, hedges were cut by hand once every three to seven years, and only a proportion on any given farm would be cut at a time. That was the practicality of hard work, but it was far better for wildlife – and for local employment, come to that.

And now, it is bitterly cold and migratory birds that have flown over a thousand kilometres to overwinter here are looking for food that’s been flailed out of existence. We cannot carry on abusing the Surrey Hills like this, or accept a situation where residents with 30 foot back gardens are making space for nature while landowners with 200 acre golf courses (or vast horse liveries) do not. But my immediate concern is keeping some birds alive. Food, shelter and water is what they need.

LLT 13 Feb 21

This unreasonably cute bundle of feathers is a long-tailed tit, an extremely social and talkative miracle in miniature. In the summer, they weave bottle-shaped nests out of cobwebs; in the winter, they huddle together and try to keep warm.

LLT2 13 Feb 21

Even smaller is the goldcrest, which at 5.5 grams is about the same as a 20p coin. 

Goldcrest 13 Feb 21

I’m keeping a particular eye on the redwings, our Icelandic guests. They are too nervous to approach the bird feeder but fresh blueberries at the back of the garden seem to have gone down well.

Redwing 13 Feb 21

And their English cousins, the blackbirds, pose against the snow.

Blackbird 13 Feb 21

The temperature seems set to rise this week but I hope greater awareness of the need to tread gently on the countryside grows with it.

Context

Lately, Facebook has besieged me with adverts for photo “editing” software, which I think most of us would classify as something else. Lightening, cropping, removing noise etc is part of being a good photographer, but extreme editing / Photoshopping is not for me. I enjoy digital art that’s clearly labelled as such, but nature wants to be natural and authentic. And sometimes the imperfect photos speak loudest.

Fox behind fence 9 Feb 21

Yesterday’s fox sighting. I’m sure there are photographers who would edit out the fence, but that would strip away the context, the reality in which this fox lives. Once, wild mammals had the run of these islands. Their England – the wildlife-accessible England – has shrunk; simple wire like this won’t keep a fox out, but the modern trend by horse keepers to electrify mile after mile of field boundaries does seriously concern me.

For the luckier foxes, a view over a protected hillside into the Weald.

Wintry hills 10 Feb 21

And for the luckiest small birds, a frame of thorns. Long-tailed tits, like everything else, are having to contend with bitter temperatures this week and seek food to power warmth in their tiny bodies.

LLT 10 Feb 21

While the garden foxes have enough energy to spare on petty squabbles. The left one here is arching his back in assertive dominance, while his gaping rival lowers himself like a nervous cat.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

And the sun runs away from them all. It’s going to be a cold night.

Sunset 10 Feb 21

The Unseen

“Quite so,” Sherlock Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe…That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” – A Scandal in Bohemia

And I know that there were two foxes beside a lane busy with walkers and cyclists last week, because, well, I was looking for them, and one tends to see what one is looking for.

Fox snow rest 7 Jan 20

Here’s the first, a very large male fox which I didn’t recognise. Almost certainly, he is a visitor from outside the parish who is wandering in hope of meeting a vixen or two; we are right at the peak of the breeding season. He saw many people that afternoon, but they were oblivious to him.

And here’s the second, a much younger male who is a local resident.

Fox watching at dusk2 7 Jan 20

He, too, went unnoticed by the family cycling by, and a walker with music buds in her ears. And if people want to walk through the countryside glued to their phones, they have every right to do so of course; but what is the accumulative effect of missing so much? 

We see, in the spirit of Dr Watson, that the Surrey Hills are green and pretty. We do not observe, as Holmes would have us, that goldfinches sing from the telephone wires and herb-robert brightens roadsides in the spring, that roe deer have left footprints in the mud and woodcock display over quiet fields at night. Therefore, we also do not notice how ‘tidiness’, over-mowing, horse grazing and hedgerow cutting are impoverishing us. It doesn’t matter if we cannot put names to all the species we see; simply observing them and acknowledging their uniqueness is the key to their world.

When we do slow down, take a break from social media, turn off the music, we observe the most marvellous things.

Spider web 10 Jan 21

It may be a bit late for a New Year resolution, but here is a challenge: every time you go out for a lockdown walk, find just one natural thing – even as small as a spider’s web – and think about how it fits into the grander tapestry. 

Of Work and Play

Foxes personify elegant mystery, a touch of the alien in our familiar streets. That photo of the ‘ghost’ in the mist in my last post has become one of the most popular that I’ve ever shared on Facebook, but there is another side to Fox: whimsical, obsessive…shoe-loving.

“Why?” is the thought that comes to many minds. Science cannot interview foxes to ascertain their motives. It can, however, confirm that foxes adore shoes, all shoes, everywhere in the world it seems. Some, like the vixen jokingly called ‘Imelda’ in Germany, become specialists in it and collect hundreds. A couple of winters ago, one fox in my village took five wellington boots.

And even in remote corners of the world, in lands like India’s Thar Desert – where people blend with mirages over the salty flats – there are thefts.

p1c desert fox shoe

Because there are foxes.

p1 desert fox1

A captured shoe is typically chewed, tossed about, urinated on and abandoned. Adults are at least as prone to this behaviour as cubs. The leathery texture might be pleasant for their mouths, but in truth they readily snatch any ‘toy’ that we leave within their grasp. Gloves, dog toys, footballs – if they can lift it, they will play with it. The portrayal of Swiper in Dora the Explorer is not really unreasonable.

They retain their moments of frivolity, even as the breeding season peaks. Scent-marking continues in the woods, and their barks echo through the chill damp at night.

Our world has ground to a standstill again, but theirs keeps on turning.

Ghost

Fox mist 1 Jan 21

The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.

January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.

Squirrel breakfast 1 Jan 21

They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.

I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.

Red squirrel IoW 23 May 2019

Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.

Albino squirrel 1 Jan 21

We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.

I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.

Starlights

Christmas has rolled by, short and sweet for most of us, perhaps mingled with some gratitude that 2020 is almost over. This year has been hard for people and bleak for wildlife, but the stars are still bright – and the planets, when the clouds have deigned to let us see them. Our closest star looks on through the haze.

Sunrise Dec 20

Down on terra firma, I’m seeing a few foxes as they quarter the chilled roads in search of mates, but the trailcam has obtained better views. Scent-marking, scent-marking – the woods reek of it, even to us humans; foxes must find it as ‘loud’ as a high street draped in advertising banners. And everyone is trying to shout out their message over the top of the neighbour’s!

The first three clips here tell of intense rivalry and trespass:

1) Trespasser: a male fox urinates on a tree;

2) Trespasser: a second, very assertive male (just look at how he is holding his brush!) rubs himself in it, perhaps to disguise his own scent;

3) the territory owner finally arrives, and stands bemused.

For roe deer, that drama is long since over – they mate in summer, much earlier than most deer, but the foetus only starts to develop about now. Even the weather seems to fall off them, literally, as they shake out the rain.

I hope to spend more time on this blog next year; with one thing and another, it’s fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. I hope everyone has a peaceful new year. 

Love Me, Love Me Not

Zoo wolf

Yes, that’s me, and a wolf behind glass. When I was young, I spent a fair amount of time with the wolves of Colchester Zoo. Putting wildlife in captivity has its ups and downs, but it is educational. Or is it?

There came a moment at Colchester when I stopped watching the wolves and starting thinking about visitors. And what I saw bothered me. They didn’t read the educational panels. They weren’t moved by the incredible power and beauty of the species that is the beating pulse of the wildwood. They sniggered, pointed at the wolves, and nudged their children. “Scary!” they said. “He’ll eat you!”

Nothing wrong with a joke, or warm-hearted teasing. But clearly, the idea that meeting nature invariably instils respect and a desire to protect it is unrealistic.

Colchester

This year has seen quite incredible pressure on the countryside. Conservationists initially seemed thrilled that so many new visitors were standing in woods or having picnics in meadows. The horrific scenes at Wareham Forest, Thursley, Chobham, and other reserves – all burned in wildfires linked to recreation – are painful reminders of the downside. Yes, many tourists have been lovely and I hope they did leave with fresh passion for our natural heritage. Others, sorry to say, hurt wildlife and upset local people.

Nature has rules. We should not be squeamish about that, or fear that it will put people off. Driving a car has rules, and that is why getting a licence has kudos. The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London are protected, and that is why they are fascinating. And simply seeing a wolf or wildflower will move some hearts to great deeds, but other minds need active persuading. And in the worst case, defending against.

It’s like the parable of the sower. The seed is the same where it falls, but only the fertile ground produces a crop. If you see a wolf in a time of food uncertainty and the king offering a bounty, like in medieval England, your thought process is going to be very different from the family who run the little hotel where I often stay in rural Poland, who once told me of their recent sighting with very genuine respect and happiness.

And in the same way, if you go into the countryside thinking it’s a green gym and nothing matters but your own pleasure, being asked to avoid trampling wildflowers and keep your dog on the lead around sheep will seem a burden. But if you arrive with a sense of wonder and hunger for learning, the flowers are precious glimpses of the wild world, and conservation livestock are a link to ancient landscape traditions.

Love can certainly grow with meeting nature, but it needs a spirit capable of supporting it. Let’s all try to encourage society to adopt a respectful attitude to wild things, lockdown crowds or not.

Enough with the human aspect. Here are some Canadian wolves from a few years back, and it raised my spirits to see them free.

Eye in the Wood

Yesterday, I nearly overtook a stubbornly tinkling ice cream van while walking down a lane feathered with shed leaves. And today it rained from a clear-ish sky before the west was underlit with pink as if the clouds were full of rosewater. Windy? Sunny? Puddles? The seasons seem uncertain where they are heading, like so many of the people wandering beneath them.

I’ve got a couple of trail cams out at the moment, and they too are having unpredictable times. As the temperature drops, so does the activity of our summer specialists: bats, hedgehogs, and above all dormice. I don’t know what kind of summer dormice have had; covid put paid to the nestbox surveys. This one at least looks well fed and ready for a good winter’s hibernation.

I catch footage of dormice every now and again, but it’s not easy. Not only are they a nationally threatened species that exists at low numbers even in the best habitat, but they also tend to keep high in the trees. This one was relatively low down on a fallen trunk, possibly searching for a hibernation spot. They weave winter nests at ground level where the temperature stays steadier.

At the other end of the size scale, this ghost of a deer.

Fallow deer. I did a double take but no, it’s a definitely a fallow deer, of what’s called the ‘menil’ colour type. Fallows can in fact be almost white, almost black, or (more commonly) sandy-brown with white spots, but they are very rare visitors to my part of the hills. A mature buck sports massive palmate antlers but this is only a ‘teenager’, and he’s probably on his way out of the valley by now. 

Not to be outdone, kingdom bird offered a woodcock in the fallow’s wake. This desperately shy woodland wader is another species that I stumble across only rarely. Like dormice, they are mostly active at night, and like fallow deer, they are on the move; this one probably flew in from the continent. 

Tawny owls, however, stay put.

Snapshot_1

As the trees grow bare and the foxes start courting, owl cries echo in the night – they search for mates from autumn onwards. 

Nature tries to keep to some of its old patterns, even as we wonder about ours.

 

Grassland Paintbox

There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.

Golden waxcap1 30 Oct 20

The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, horse grazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.

Golden waxcap is the most common.

Golden waxcap2 30 Oct 20

Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.

Blackening waxcap2 30 Oct 20

But it soon changes.

Blackening waxcap 30 Oct 20

Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.

Scarlet waxcap 30 Oct 20

There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.

Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.

Fly agaric 30 Oct 20

What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.

Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.