Mixed Basket

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.

Blackberries 8 Sept 19

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.

Bryony berries 8 Sept 19

And on high chalky slopes grows the most infamous plant of them all: deadly nightshade or belladonna. Thankfully, its giant berries are unmistakable.

Deadly nightshade2 QH 4 Aug 19

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.

Dormouse hazelnut 16 Sept 2018

And, there are sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn tree, used for jellies and jam.

Sloes 8 Sept 19

It is good to reach autumn. Looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.

High Summer

Maybe. Sometimes. It was 38c, and now it’s raining again. But the sun still blazes whether we feel it or not.

Sunrise1 22 Jul 19

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.

Sunrise2 22 Jul 19

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.

NDW5 24 May 2017

Thurnham Castle

History is a major theme. People have been travelling here for a long time.

James II

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.

Khamsin in sunshine Jul 19

Antiquity

Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.

British_Pleistocene_Mammalia_(1866)_Red_Fox_Cranium

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.

Fox PF 5 Jul 19

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.

Fox PF2 5 Jul 19

And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.

Fox and Cubs2 Jul 19

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.

A Farm Like This

Agriculture.

Farmland TF 8 Jul 19

We define human epochs by it. Why is it in my blog? Because nothing – absolutely nothing – has more impact on the environment than how we produce food. We solve the dilemma of how to farm without wrecking nature, or conservationists may as well give up. In the UK, 70% of land is used for agriculture. That’s 70% of our potential wildlife habitat.

060408 yellowhammer

Once upon a time, British farms were small, and mixed crops and livestock. You can still see that style in Transylvania. This is an economically viable landscape that is home to bears, wildcats and shrikes. These hay meadows work for people and wildlife.

Meadows at Daia

It’s been a long time since anyone could say that about most British farms. Our farmers have been under decades of pressure from both UK governments and the EU to maximise production at the expense of all else. Hedgerows removed, crops planted to the field edges, herbicides and pesticides in full flow. All those corners where native flowers sparkled and cirl buntings sang have been sacrificed. Dormice, hedgehogs, lapwings, yellowhammers – they’re on their way out, not on purpose, but as collateral to our diets.

Is it hopeless? Of course not. Natural England’s podcasts give an insight into how farmers are supporting conservation in the Hampshire Downs.

One day, hopefully, all farms will include wildflower margins and healthy hedgerows as standard. In the here and now, our rarest species thrive in a few special places, and one of the best is Ranscombe – a working arable farm owned by the Plantlife charity. Enough words. Time to enjoy the show 🙂

Arable wildflowers

Ranscombe arable meadow Jul 19

Greater knapweed

Greater knapweed Ranscombe Jul 19

Toadflax

Toadflax Ranscombe Jul 19

Bugloss and poppies Ranscombe Jul 19

Of Flies, Bees and Men

That kind of title can only mean that it’s wild orchid season. Enchanting, bizarre, complicated – some of them are also very rare, but where the chalky fields of the North Downs have escaped modern agriculture, they host a strange and wonderful show.

Of wild men, for starters. This is a man orchid, an endangered species in the UK which acquired its name from the little long-armed figures dangling from each flower.

Man orchid 3 Jun 19

Then, there are the replica flies.

Fly orchid2 6 Jun 19

It’s hard not to wonder what the spider is concluding as it encounters a make-believe version of its traditional prey.

Fly orchid with spider 6 Jun 19

While fly orchids are rare, bee orchids are more widespread. But a single flower is the culmination of up to eight years of growth, so their appearance in specific sites is unpredictable.

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017.jpg

Our most familiar orchid, however, is the beautiful common spotted-orchid, which sprinkles old meadows with pink blooms.

Spotted orchids 6 Jun 19

Not that all orchids are bright; the twayblade is easily overlooked.

Common twayblade 7 Jun 19

Many do score high on the conspicuous scale, however. The rare green-winged orchid is another species typically found on chalk. And like all its relatives, it only survives because of fungi. Orchid seeds contain almost no energy and cannot germinate without forming symbiotic relationships with their less lauded partners.

Green-winged orchard North Solent NNR 13 May 19

Fungi are very sensitive to ‘improvements’ such as fertilisers, ploughing and reseeding. So orchids are more than just a pretty show: they also reveal where soils are still undisturbed.

We use flowers to symbolise so much human emotion. It is fair to say that these ones are symbols of our gentleness upon the land too.

Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

Blue Carpet

You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.

Bluebells woods 2019a

They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.

Bluebells woods 2019c

Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.

Bluebells woods 2019d

And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.

Red campion

Red campion 4 May 2019

Buttercup

Buttercup 4 May 2019

Bugle

Bugle 4 May 2019