Seasons

Still summer. Still hot, daubing subtropical hues at dawn.

Sunrise 220811

The river banks are green, but that cannot be said of the wider countryside, which is tawny, flat and thirsty. Not unlike the rabbit’s native range in Spain and France, I suppose.

Rabbit 220811

They seem at peace with it, but other mammals are struggling. Moles and badgers need earthworms, which will now be far underground. Foxes, too, feast on them, but they will adapt to alternatives if any are available. It is unclear what the drought will do to the autumn fruiting season for blackberries, cherries and hazel, but this urban fox – photographed by my brother – appears to be dreaming of an upcoming feast.

Fox and blackberries July 22

There is still water: dewdrops at dawn.

Dewdrops 220811

And even a little frost, if you let your imagination run through the seedheads.

Thistle frost 220810

But mostly, it is dry, hazy and hot. Hopefully next week’s forecast of rain will come true.

Mullein 220810

The Saint and his Seabirds

More from my trip to Northumberland back in the spring, AKA another respite from this burning summer in the south.

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About 1,300 years ago, a middle-aged man moved to Inner Farne, seeking hermitage in the buildings where Aidan – Apostle to England – had dwelt not long before. So great was Cuthbert’s need for solitude that he grew his own food rather than accept supplies, but he accepted the friendship of the island’s wildlife, and sheltered eider ducks when the weather turned raw.

Eider duck2

Cuthbert passed some of the world’s first conservation laws to protect these exquisite sea ducks on the Farne Islands. When he died, his body was moved to Holy Island (Lindisfarne), and after the Vikings invaded, monks faithfully carried it inland. His eventual burial place by the River Wear is now Durham Cathedral.

Cuthburt statue

That is the drama of many lifetimes ago. But Cuthbert’s ducks – still nicknamed Cuddy ducks in his honour – continue to grace Northumberland, and they are far from alone.

Grey heron, eating a brown trout

Grey heron trout

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail

Oystercatcher bathing on the shoreline

Oystercatcher

And resting.

Oystercatcher2

Dipper

Dipper Cragside

Sedge warbler

Sedge warbler

Rock pipit, perched on the whin sill

Sea pipit

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Back in Norfolk, it is 32c and the fields are sandy-brown. Roll on autumn.

Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

Hot, hot. The grass is brown, skies soft and deep, and the river rolls on slowly. A Met Office warning of extreme heat has been announced for a large slice of England, and having worked in 40c+ abroad, I hope that people realise that this isn’t the kind of friendly sunshine that invites sunbathing on the beach.

But there is another type of hot, and it underlies northern England like the blackened bones of an old dragon. Back in the spring, I travelled up to it, and saw what both people and nature have built on its back.

Bambough castle

Whin sill: leftovers from yesterday’s cauldron. It is volcanic rock that bubbled up as magma, cooking its neighbouring limestone into marble, and contracting into columns as it cooled. It props up the northern Pennines and holds aloft Bambaugh Castle, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

Whin means dark and hard in old local dialect, and tough it certainly is: eons of glaciers, plants, rain, waterfalls and even the sea itself have struggled to scratch it.

Farne Islands

But life, as usual, sees an angle to exploit. What was once glowing and molten is now bright with puffins instead.

Puffin2 Farne

And a few other birds. The Farne Islands are in a class by themselves for seabirds, supporting an internationally significant frenzy of guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and many other species.

Farne Islands2

You do not simply see the Farne Islands. You hear them, and smell them, and watch in disbelief as the sea crashes helplessly against the whin sill while tens of thousands of living things raise their voices.

This is a razorbill, otherwise known as the lesser auk.

Razorbill

And these, Arctic terns, famed as the greatest travellers on Earth. Some migrate each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, an annual mileage of 30,000.

Arctic terns

A northern gannet, our largest seabird.

Northern gannet

Grey seals rest on the island edges.

Grey seals Farne

Keeping cool, whatever the fires that birthed these rocks.

Hope we all do the same.

Adventures in the Garden

It was a fish pond, but that was many lifetimes ago – well, lifetimes of insects, at least. By the time that I purchased this house, it was nothing but woodchips and invasive non-native plants like buddleja, sporting little wildlife and shaded by a crumbling wooden canopy.

Garden before

Down it came. And out with it the wood decking, cracked concrete, a carpet lining, and enough plastic to wrap a small car. I also found a gardening knife, a forgotten water butt, a beer can and two jigsaw pieces – but inch by gruelling inch, the rectangle was cleaned into a blank page.

Garden2

Still not much use for wildlife. Next step: rebuild the soil profile. While gardeners and farmers generally want well-fertilised soil, wildflowers thrive on the opposite. No hope of restoring them on woodchips, so I purchased 700 kilograms of low nutrient sandy soil, typical of this corner of East Anglia.

Garden4

On which was sprinkled a seed mix that was a good match for those found locally, and it was nature’s turn to get to work.

Garden5

The months have rolled on. Wild things have sprung up from the dust.

Garden6

Most of them are perennials and will not show their flowers until next summer, but they have subtly revealed themselves by their leaves: cowslip, yarrow, knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, and many more. Birdsfoot trefoil has jumped the schedule and sprinkled tiny beaks of sunshine amidst the green.

Garden7

Most days, it is abuzz. Bees, hoverflies and butterflies have begun to visit. Perhaps the hedgehogs waddle through too.

We are not there yet, because nature is never truly ‘there’ – it changes with the seasons and with age, playing to pioneers when young, supporting rarities when old. I will be watching as this little newborn meadow continues its journey.

Game of Chess

Spring. No, it’s winter. Defrosted, then re-frozen. Bright, dull, windy and full of sunshine. April frequently plays games, but this year seems worse than usual. No wonder the daffodils look confused.

Frozen daffodil April 22

Wild plants may have less agency over their lives than animals, but they still have to adapt to forces that, while not actively attempting to oppose them, could be said to be playing a maverick game of chess. The weather, for one; flower early and get bitten by frost; leave it late and be smothered by competing species.

And then, there are people. We have worked this island for thousands of years, bumping into nature and accidentally crafting semi-natural habitats of dazzling sights. Most are rare and fragmented now, kicked away by the much harder footsteps of modern agriculture and development. Many hold wonderful things, but few are prettier than this: the chess flower, more often known as snakeshead fritillary.

Cricklade3

It grows in floodplain meadows, those riverside biodiversity treasure houses that for centuries provided hay and late summer grazing.  Cricklade North Meadow Natural Nature Reserve’s meadow grows where the Thames spills out  – although only a little river here, an infant that has not yet met the concrete banks and busy bridges of London.

Cricklade1 Thames

It is also flanked by the River Churn, and dotted with boundary stones where ancient commoner rights are still upheld. In the summer, it is a sea of flowers, but the purple glow of the snakeshead – this site holds the majority of the UK population – gives the reserve its fame.

Cricklade2

Glamorous, even for a member of the lily family; cryptic in markings, overpowering in the sheer enormity of style. It is no surprise that in former times this flower was much desired indoors as well as nodding in the breeze. Middle-aged country-women with tanned cheek and careworn look daily carry through the streets…large flat baskets of this beautiful flower…in short, there is in Oxford a cult of the fritillary says a newspaper article from 1906. Today, they are safe from being picked because their surviving habitats tend to be Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Every now and again, a white one interrupts the purple.

Cricklade4

A few thousand were out, with many more yet to flower. The snakeshead germinates after exposure to frost, but will not flower until the plant is five or six years old. Fertile for just five days, it is pollinated by bumblebees.

And then the board is set for another round of their show.

Peddars Way: Almost Roman

Peddars7 25 March 22

Black oil beetle, wandering in the north Norfolk dust. As a larva, this beetle climbed into a flower and waited for a solitary bee, hooking itself onto its unwitting host and hitching a ride to its nest. There it ate the eggs, pollen and nectar and slowly grew into an adult, ready to emerge on the Peddars Way.

Peddars Way

Back on the trail after a winter hiatus. The final quarter of the 46 miles is quiet save for skylarks, and you can imagine, if you choose, the legionnaires’ feet of 2,000 years ago. Where were they heading? To a coast of fitful weather and colourful cliffs?

Some have called it the Roman road to nowhere; it was built to intimidate the rebellious Iceni, rather than to obviously link towns. Today it is flanked by blackthorn, one of our fiercest shrubs – albeit its thorns are cloaked with beauty in springtime.

Peddars1 25 March 22

Norfolk has no mountains, but in the north the trail rises through arable fields and falls once more, rolling over the bumps of moraine dumped by the icesheets long ago. In little villages, ducks sleep and chickens keep watch.

Peddars3 25 March 22

Peddars4 25 March 22

And then the road ends in a glory of sand and salt.

Peddars6 25 March 22

Or does it? The coast has eroded southwards in the last two millennia and Romans would have had to march a little further to glimpse the North Sea. We do not know what was at the end; possibly a ferry port across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

But back to the south for me.

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A few comments about Peddars Way for anyone else considering walking the National Trail. The first leg starting from the south includes a very dangerous road crossing (over the A11!) which should be avoided, possibly by beginning at Stonebridge. In general it is an easy trail to walk and well-signposted, and wildlife and historic landscapes are abundant.

The Deer and Hare

Well, it sounds like a good title for a village inn.

I need to brush the dust off this blog. Again. Call it a spring cleaning, since the unseasonably mild weather seems to have England in its grip. It has woken up the hedgehogs.

As well as early flowers such as violets and lesser celandine, but that’s for another post. This one is full of that chubby little deer with a face of a teddy and the teeth of a tiger.

Broads water deer2 22 Mar 22

Chinese water deer are, of course, not native to the Norfolk Broads, but unlike our other introduced deer such as fallow and muntjac, are not considered to be invasive. They graze in tough marshy habitats and do little harm. They are not, strictly speaking, social; you see them dotted along the marsh, like so many readers in a library trying to pretend that they are alone.

But one of these deer had acquired a companion. See it lurking by the reeds?

Broads water deer1 22 Mar 22

Brown hares are rather big, and water deer are rather small, and seeing them together emphasises that point.

Broads hare1 22 Mar 22

It looks like 10c will be shaved off our temperatures next week. Perhaps then the dusk light can stop pretending that it is summer.

Broads dusk1 22 Mar 22

January Lights

Reflected.

Luna Jan 22

Perfected.

Frozen ice Jan 22

It is an icebox, with delicate visitors where the river moves.

Little egret Jan 22

And everything taking a long breath where water has vanished under a glassy lid.

Frozen ice2 Jan 22

The white bird in the photo of the river is a little egret, a graceful relation of herons. Several of them have taken up residence in my local wetlands, while the grey heron itself lurks in the undergrowth.

Grey heron Jan 22

They may consider it cold; siskins, on the other hand, come here to escape. Some do breed in southern England, especially in the New Forest and the Brecks, but most spend their summers in Wales, Scotland or the continent.

Siskin2 22 Jan 22

But the frost in the hedgerows is a reminder that spring is still a fair time away.

Dunnock 22 Jan 22

New Year, Old Year

I couldn’t blame the sun for looking like it wanted to turn in early. It’s been a long twelve months.

Afternoon sun 31 Dec 21

But whatever upheavals 2021 brought to people, the wildlife of the Broads continues its business. Water deer patrol marshes bustling with ducks and geese. This is a buck – you can just see his tusks. Water deer are not sociable, and although half a dozen were in view, they kept apart.

Water deer SF 31 Dec 21

What does a lapwing sound like to a water deer? We transcribe their call as peewit, peewit, to the point where that is an alternative name for the species. Elegant, cleanly marked and with preposterous feathers on their heads, these sweet-voiced waders have become internationally threatened – here’s a close up from Sussex, several years ago. 

Lapwing2

But nowhere in the south have I seen flocks like Norfolk’s. In fact, there were more lapwings in view yesterday than I’ve seen in the last decade put together. The vast Broads sky filled with a lapwing murmuration, swirling smoke trails of feathered hope. Not easy to photograph, but good to think about.

Another rarity swooped over the reeds. Marsh harriers – the signature bird of the Broads – are unmistakable.

Marsh harrier SF 31 Dec 21

And buzzards flew a little higher.

Buzzard SF 31 Dec 21

Otters kept lower, and quieter, leaving their five-toed footprints in the mud.

Otter track SF 31 Dec 21

And so onwards, into 2022. I’ve already seen my first wild mammal: on the pavement, just after lunchtime, threading between walkers and families. A small squat dog-like deer – a muntjac. With an all too real dog pounding after it, and I am grateful that the deer is unhurt after it bolted across the main road, skidded over, and finally lost its pursuer in a construction site. The dog was last seen running back into the open countryside valley; I walked around for a while, seeking its owner, but drew a blank.

People do many things that aren’t malicious but have consequences for our wild neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances of why this particular dog was loose, but it goes without saying that chasers should really stay on the lead. 

But I didn’t want to start the year with a grumble. Let us have an ambition to tread lightly, and walk a little more slowly and listen to the land a little more. Its stories are wonderful things.

Under the Fogbow

If a rainbow stands guard over a pot of gold, what treasures does this ethereal archway hide?

Fogbow

Fogbow, mistbow, white rainbow – a sailor might call it a sea-dog. It is created by light refracting through mist, and there was no shortage of that in Norfolk yesterday, as if the clouds had wearied of the heavens and slumped onto the land to wait out the dying embers of the year.

Misty dunes

Fogbows are uncommon; I’ve never seen one before. And in a twist of magic, it did have white gold at its feet – but of fur, not precious stones. The seal haul-out beach that I last visited in October is now a nursery for over a thousand babies.

Seal pups4 18 Dec 2021

Many terrestrial carnivores give birth to helpless young and nurse them for months, if not years, but grey seals have no such leisurely schedules. After just three weeks of intensive feeding on milk that is over 50% fat (compared to 4.5% in human breast milk and 6% in fox milk), they are done and weaned.

Seal pups3 18 Dec 2021

This little one tried to explore the beach by itself, and its mother lumbered after it, putting the breaks on its travels.

Seal pups5 18 Dec 2021

But they leave her soon enough, living in the dunes for a week or two, their white fur taking on the speckled hues of the adults.

Seal pups1 18 Dec 2021

Their mothers, meanwhile, mate with the bulls. Eleven months from now, new pups will be born.

Maybe the fogbow will return to greet them.