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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
Then, there are the replica flies.
It’s hard not to wonder what the spider is concluding as it encounters a make-believe version of its traditional prey.
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.
Our most familiar orchid, however, is the beautiful common spotted-orchid, which sprinkles old meadows with pink blooms.
Not that all orchids are bright; the twayblade is easily overlooked.
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.
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.
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.
But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.
You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.
They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.
Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.
And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.