With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.
It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.
The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.
Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.
I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.
Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.
Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.
Remember the snow?
Now the hills are waking up, shaking off wintry lethargy with a sprinkle of early flowers. Wild primrose is amongst the first, brightening road verges and old meadows.
But mostly, this is the moment of the violet. We have a purple carpet this year, tiny exquisite flowers marking nearly every patch of undamaged grass.
‘Undamaged’ being the operative word, of course. Once, most of the UK had traditional meadows that supported abundant native plants and animals. Nearly all of them have been destroyed by modern agriculture, and while the laws have improved over time, things could still be better.
Patches of old grassland also occur on private land – in particularly old mature gardens. If you have a mossy lawn, please be kind to it. It’s more interesting than a flat, bland bed of rye grass and supports far, far more life, including rare fungi. Avoiding fertilisers and unnecessary tilling is key.
Back on the hills, animals are also waking up. Roman snails are Britain’s largest species and are strictly protected. This one might have appreciated a little rain to wash its shell.
It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.
Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.
Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?
Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.
But there is a ray of hope.
Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.
Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.
I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.
And maybe – just maybe – some of these.
Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.
All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.
My original blog on the much-missed Opera Community was called ‘The Sitting Fox’ in honour of a vulpine cliché: when watching something that they’re not sure about, they sit down.
But outright relaxation is not unknown. This vixen from the Across the Road Group dozed peacefully in the garden last week while her mate and a low-ranking male raged in mock battle – biting the hedgerow, half-chasing, talking with their tails like cats.
It didn’t turn violent. The younger male even turned his back on his rival between their squabbles.
The vixen hardly batted an eye. We’re coming towards the end of the breeding season, and she is almost certainly pregnant by now. Her mate is the Dun Male, here on the right. Apologies for the quality of this picture; it’s a still off the movie camera.
The Across the Road Group. Of all the fox groups in my village, they’re the ones whom I know the best. Six years of drama, and no sign of slowing. So many unforgettable characters have lived in this group: the original Vixen from Across the Road, who raised her cubs despite losing half her territory to builders; the White Socks Vixen, tiny, nervous and unquenchable; the Cavalier Cub, White Socks’ son, whose domineering, bombastic personality disrupted the fox territory network in multiple streets.
Let’s hope these two have some cubs and we can see what chapter comes next.
White Socks Vixen – 2017
Cold: the frost is as thick as grease. Windows feathered into impossible patterns. Soil like iron. As the winter stars slide into the west, a red eye blinks.
The Earth is unique in the solar system for having such a moon of such proportions. Others are bigger, like Jupiter’s Ganymede, but their parent planet dwarfs them. Not our moon, which is about a quarter the diameter of the Earth. Cold, airless and silent, it circles us, amazing us, and just occasionally falling into Earth’s shadow. We had a full lunar eclipse last night, and it was well worth a very early vigil with the camera.
Luna chased the stars into the west, and left us; daylight began with frozen fog. By afternoon, it had burned through, and roe deer were wandering.
This is the only deer species that is frequently encountered in my part of England, and much less social than its bigger relatives.
I saw the male fox from the ‘courting couple’ of the sheep pasture, but he was in a rush and there was little chance for a photo. Slightly more of a view yesterday, when he trotted through the mist.
I haven’t seen the vixen, but no doubt she’s around.
I wonder if they saw Luna last night.
January has two meanings for foxes: the breeding season, and voles. Subzero days coax field voles into daylight foraging, and their predators hurriedly follow suit. Happily for the fox-watcher, they are highly visible while questing for lunch.
And when they’re not thinking about food, they’re concentrating on each other!
Foxes have a complicated social life. Groups consist of a breeding pair, their cubs, and sometimes offspring from previous years. They do not hunt together like wolves, but protect a common boundary. But between – and sometimes within – these territorial homelands are a significant number of free-ranging, nomadic foxes, including dispersers searching for a vacant home.
Moreover, many large males trespass freely during the breeding season, sometimes triggering fights. We’ve had an interesting situation here this winter with an exceptionally high number of big roaming males, most of whom I don’t recognise. Doubtless they’ll disappear again before the spring.
Meanwhile, the courting pairs stay close, more or less ignoring their neighbours in the pasture.
The sheep seem to care little about fox territories.
But the grass knows – foxes have scent glands on the edges of their mouths, transmitting information that other vulpines will note.
Hopefully this pair will produces cubs. We’ll find out in the spring.
Autumn is my favourite season. The flowers may have largely taken their leave, but in the wake come things brighter and stranger.
It’s a brittlegill, AKA a member of the Russula family. Something is eating the brittlegills; this is one of the more intact ones that I’ve found. My trailcams caught squirrels tucking into what appeared to be the much greyer charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha, but that is unlikely to be the whole story. Rodents, slugs and even foxes eagerly accept wild mushroom buffet.
Russulas are famously difficult to identify to species level. This could be a beechwood sickener Russula noblis, which might explain why the squirrels haven’t munched on it.
They brighten up the woodland floor, whatever they are. A small spider is resting on this one’s stem.
Jelly-ear fungi decorate branches.
Mower’s mushrooms Panaeolus foenisecii add intrigue to the grass.
And bracket fungi of all kinds form shelves on the dead bones of old trees.
Autumn has much more to give. Most of the leaves are yet to fall.
Not many of them – yet – but they are beautiful.
Cracked leaves, dusty footpaths, yellowed fields: they’re all waiting.
There are always winners and losers with weather. Week after week of exceptionally high temperatures and almost no rainfall have boosted butterfly numbers, but everything that depends on earthworms is having a tough time finding them in iron-hard earth.
Badgers thrive on earthworms, but they are omnivorous and will take insects, bee nests and carrion too. This one was visiting a water dish that I’ve had out in the woods for the last week. (Ignore the date – camera was not set correctly.)
Potentially, foxes may be impacted more than badgers – earthworms are a big part of the diet of cubs.
Shrews are surviving at high speed, as they always do. Pygmy shrews need to eat up to 125% of their body weight each day. That’s 125% of not very much, admittedly; at 2 to 6 grams, they’re our smallest terrestrial mammal.
One of the most frequent of my thirsty visitors is the bank vole. The trail camera caught one drinking for a full twenty seconds without a pause.
They’re clinging on. The rest of us are watching the sky in hope.
The wild species commonly known as ‘fox’ has been represented this afternoon by One-Eye, who never needs a second excuse to recline on the patio.
Or peer into the house, for that matter. Foxes are profoundly curious creatures.
I should stress that he is not ‘tame’. I strongly believe that foxes should never be allowed to enter houses – one householder might enjoy it, but the fox is likely to repeat that behaviour with a neighbour. Indoor foxes cause bad press at best, and serious human-wildlife conflict at worst. One-Eye sits by the glass because he is highly intelligent and understands that humans and dogs cannot reach him even when they are inches away. If the door is opened, he backs off at once.
Anyway, we do have a second species of wild fox here, somewhat. It is orange and very furry, and in its own way, just as adaptable as its namesake.
Fox-and-cubs is a member of the daisy family. It is not native to Britain but has lived wild here since at least the 17th century. It is quite tenacious and often grows on roadsides. This is the first one that I’ve found in my parish, and I will have to go back next year and photograph it before it goes to seed.
It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the other species of fox have changed by then.
I’m trying to remember when One-Eye first appeared in the garden. I can certainly remember my first sighting of him – it was in a local pasture, when he was a slim reddish yearling travelling with his brother. But the date is eluding me.
I didn’t guess then that this sleep-loving visitor would become the top fox of the Horse Meadows Group, whose territory includes my garden. But all kings have rivals. The HMG has a problem: another fox family just overlaps their territorial border.
That second group – I call them the Across the Road foxes – has produced the most irrepressible vulpine characters in my parish. Here’s One-Eye facing off against one of the Across the Road vixens.
He loses, regularly. Any doubt about the Across the Road group’s supremacy was extinguished last year when they produced four of the most bullish cubs that I’ve ever met. At the same time, the HMG suffered habitat loss from overgrazing and development. Then its veteran vixen Pretty Face joined the Across the Road group! It’s like a fox soap opera.
As for One Eye – he vanished in January, no doubt because the AtR cubs were so domineering. None more so than this chap: Cavalier Cub, who has a swagger that a cat would envy.
Weeks turned into months, and still no sign of One-Eye. I was sadly concluding that he was probably dead. But at the end of June, there he was, resting on the parched lawn!
Where did his travels take him? Potentially many miles away, possibly even into Kent or Sussex – foxes can wander far. It is also possible that he was living quietly on the edge of his territory all this time, waiting for the AtR youngsters to release their grip on the garden. Cavalier’s mob are still around, but less fixated on the garden than they used to be.
Anyway, One-Eye is a regular visitor again. But he’s prioritising sleep, and not sharing his mysteries.