Dog Days

It’s hot.

Hot haze

Who is the villain? Sirius, said the ancients: the Dog Star, guiding light of Canis Major. In high summer, it is behind the Sun, just visible in the east at dawn. Sticky, sultry days like the ones currently leaning on southern England were the fault of Sirius shoring up the Sun’s power.

Of course, we know now that Sirius is far too distant to affect our weather, but I look forward to seeing the brilliant blue fireball when it finds its way back to wintry skies. It is by far the brightest star in the night sky and follows Orion as the Earth turns.

Canis Major mar 2011

In the meantime, Luna steals the morning light.

Luna 8 Aug 20

And down on overheated terra firma, fleabane is not entirely living up to its reputation as an insect repellent.

Fleabane and friend 5 Aug 20

I gather its visitor is a species of solitary wasp, travelling slowly, seeing what there is to find in the meadows.

Chalk trails

Slow and steady, head out early and watch the sullen skies. Dog days do pass. Soon there will be ‘dog nights’: crisp and wintry, and full of brilliant stars.

Orion and Canis Major march 2011

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

Teenagers

Not the human type.

Foxes teenagers 25 Jun 20

Approaching the four month mark, these fox cubs are lanky, lean and confident. Having spotted one learn about woodpigeons yesterday, I ventured out very early again this morning with my big 600mm lens. They took some finding, and before them I stumbled across rabbits, nibbling in meadows in the pre-dawn light.

Rabbit 25 Jun 20

Britain has only one native member of the rabbit family: the shy and beautiful mountain hare, an upland species these days. Brown hares and European rabbits were both introduced by the Romans. Last year, a rabbit bone was found in Fishbourne Palace, built in 75AD. In the two millennia since, rabbits have become a naturalised part of our landscapes.

In their native Spain as much as in England, rabbits need to be alert to foxes. But the cubs were more interested in me.

Foxes teenagers4 25 Jun 20

I had a press interview for my book yesterday, and was asked what foxes do when they see me. I said: they sit down. Like this.

Foxes teenagers5 25 Jun 20

Sitting is such a big part of a fox’s character that I named my first blog after it. But of course, they are alert and watching, whatever their posture. And waiting to see what the day will bring.

Foxes teenagers3 25 Jun 20

The Scribe in the Fields

New Hill 24 Jun 20

There’s only one way to beat the heat. I ventured outside at 4:15am this morning with a dog who was surprised but instantly approving. With the mist in the valley and the sun still hiding, we spent time with the foxes – notably an ambitious cub who hopefully charged a woodpigeon, and ruefully learned that birds can fly.

But the grand sweep of chalk grassland to the north of my village holds other lessons – of  the mind-boggling variety of small wild things. This wolf spider carries her young with her on her travels. The Russians say that wolves are fed by their feet, and the eight legs of this spider will let her catch her next meal.

Wolf spider 24 Jun 20

But other stories are of people, and the names that we have found for plants. Fragrant-orchid makes literal sense, although there was no perfume that early in the day.

Fragrant orchid 24 Jun 20

As does greater yellow-rattle. One of the UK’s rarest plants, the seed pods will rattle as they mature.

GYR 24 Jun 20

It is the worts that are most human. St John’s wort, still used in traditional medicine – albeit with limited evidence – is said to flower around the feast day of St John the Baptist. Which is today, as it happens: June 24th. It was named in 1551 by William Turner, a botanist and reformer.

St Johns Wort 24 Jun 20

Much less famous is dropwort. Wort is an old English name for a herb, and ‘drop’ in this case refers to tubers on its roots. It is no relation to hemlock water-dropwort, which unlike this innocent cluster of white petals is extremely poisonous.

Dropwort 24 Jun 20

But to finish, another orchid, and one whose name of pyramidal needs no explanation.

Pyramidal 24 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.

Conductors

Over us, under us, giving instructions to the natural world’s chorus. The first is one that no human can fail to note.

Storm 13 Jun 20

Or maybe some can; I don’t know. Cities are good at pretending that the sky isn’t there, obscuring it with skyscrapers and masking stars with light. Rain is the grime on the pavement, the warning in train stations announcements that passengers might slip – but in the real world, it is life, teasing beautiful things from the soil.

Spotted orchid 14 Jun 20

Orchid season has finally sprinkled pink and purple beauties for the watchful to see. Rain has grown them, and it looks like we should get plenty more showers this week.

Other species are in bloom too, not least foxgloves.

Foxglove 14 Jun 20

And invertebrates take advantage of the suddenly lush vegetation. Small skippers lay their eggs on Yorkshire-fog and other grasses.

Small skipper 14 Jun 20

Grasses: we take them for granted. But the reality is that most of England has seen its plant cover severely degraded by recent changes in land use. This second conductor, the land, isn’t always easy for people to comprehend. A field that is overgrazed by horses can still look pretty, but it supports far, far fewer species than an old haymeadow.

Over us is the weather, and under us is the soil. Between them, they conduct remarkable things.

Fox resting 13 Jun 20

A Garden Romance

I forget when we decided to call the badger ‘Dyson’. He earned his name, for he is without doubt a hoover: anything edible is swept up in effortless aplomb. He cuts a fine figure against the lamp-lit flowerbeds of night.

Badger Dyson 26 May 20

Yes, this is a night photo. Eurasian badgers –  Meles meles – are nocturnal, or at least they’re supposed to be. Over the past few weeks, there have been an abnormally high number of daylight badger clips circulating on social media, which may or may not relate to the dry weather and the clear difficulty in finding earthworms, their main diet.

Badgers are also sociable. Group size averages six, but Dyson arrived here alone. Dispersal from the family sett is less common in badgers than it is in foxes, and a bite wound on his rump suggested that his departure might not have been by choice. Weeks became months, and he is still a nightly fixture, sharing the garden with mice and owls.

And of course, foxes. For the most part, they ignore him. For the most part. Not always.

But on Tuesday, the tables turned. Pretty Face, the oldest of our foxes, lounged by the path, ignoring Dyson in his hoovering.

Fox Pretty Face 26 May 20

Then her ears twitched. Her eyes darkened. She stared at the gate, her body language flickering between defensive and assertive.

Fox Pretty Face angry cat2 26 May 20

I waited, expecting to see her confront a rival fox. But no: by the gate was a second striped face!

Badger Hetty 26 May 20

So Dyson has a mate. He greeted her with mutual grooming.

Badgers greeting 26 May 20

And they have been here together every night since.

Badgers two1 26 May 20

Perhaps the garden will be full of badger cubs next year.

Both Sides of the Track

Lockdown is bringing people closer to nature.

I hear it a lot. Is it true? People are physically outside far more than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re developing empathy with our wild neighbours. What do people expect nature to be, anyway? After all, it’s not a themepark. It’s not a game, and animals and plants aren’t toys. Nature is exciting, fun, inspiring, unnerving and raw – written by rules much older than us.

Due to my village’s location in the Surrey Hills, I’ve had a front row seat as lockdown has propelled unprecedented crowds into the countryside. Many have been respectful of wild things; some most definitely have not. Visitors who ride bikes in ancient woodlands, gallop horses across wildflower meadows, pick rare flowers, drop litter, fly drones and light BBQs hurt the land, and cause real distress to local people who care for it.

So, I left the house very, very early yesterday, looking for nature as it’s meant to be.

Hillside path 19 May 20

What I found was this: wild strawberry, the sweetest, tiniest little thing.

Wild strawberry 19 May 20

Isn’t that one of the popular messages about nature – that it is good for us? We value it for clean air, working rivers, the ‘green gym’ and its health benefits. That defines ‘good’ as something with a physical or emotional impact. It goes without saying that these are of priceless importance. But there is more, I think.

A little further up the path, there was an altogether different fruiting bush.

Nightshade2 19 May 20

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Devil’s berries, they call its fruit – bright black buttons of death. In Britain, it likes chalky hills like mine, and clings to almost sheer hillsides, beautiful, garish and feared.

Nightshade3 19 May 20

It teaches us something that no strawberry can, lessons that might not be popular in this day and age: that reckless bravado has consequences, that education is better than guessing, that small choices – as small as swallowing a berry – can have major outcomes that are not always possible to put right.

Like volcanoes, like grizzlies, deadly nightshade reminds humanity that we have limits, and should handle life with a certain respect and care.

That is not a bad thing. It is the health in the poison.

Bright Bunting

I’ve been in an air raid shelter. Years ago, in the back garden of the old family house’s elderly next door neighbour – I used to play afternoon Scrabble with her, and she showed me the twisting stairs in the rambling lawn. Down there was the bunker where she had once had to hide.

This week air raid sirens blared again, but in memory rather than anger: Friday saw the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe. Of course, we are still in lockdown and street parties are impossible. But nothing can stop this village decorating its gardens, or indeed its hall, and the show was bright.

VE Day1

VE Day2

We are only a small community, but we lost 14 men in action during the war – one of whom was given a posthumous Victoria Cross.

I have no bunting, but I did find the right colours, more or less, in a fox pausing by flowers planted in our own uncertain times.

Fox in flowers 7 May 20

And then there was the milkwort: a tiny flower of chalk downland that is as varied as the sky.

It grows on the steep southern flanks of my parish, where fields that have escaped modern agriculture still support a rich tapestry of living things. My maternal grandfather walked there too, and photographed bee orchids.

Family2

He served in Burma as an RAF officer; my paternal grandfather was in France.

Now I am here with my own dog, looking for flowers, tracking foxes, watching the world change. We all know that many difficulties are ahead, but that cannot blind our gratitude that we are at least free to rise to that challenge.

The natural world still breathes. Flowers still grow.

Sunset 16 Apr 20