Colours in the Carpet

I’ve listened to the wildwood, that song from the old times that still grows in wolf-filled corners of eastern Poland. Black woodpeckers drum there, and red squirrels dodge pine martens in trees that stretch towards the stars.

Dawn reduced 160417

Białowieża Forest is older than any human empire. It is the European Yellowstone: a wildlife metropolis that forms a benchmark of what the wilderness used to be. Nature is not a fixed condition – it is not so very long since huge areas of the continent were under ice – but in the current epoch, the natural climax vegetation of much of lowland Europe is forest.

In Britain, we have a type of Białowieża that exists in a thousand fragments. We call them ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ which, technically, refers to any wood that appears on 17th century maps. They are not wilderness, and many have been coppiced for timber over the centuries, but they are nevertheless relatively natural and support an immense range of living things. For all intents and purposes, they are irreplaceable. You cannot knock down an old native wood and replace it with a few saplings; it will take hundreds of years to regain the same biodiversity. If it ever does.

Surrey’s wildlife-rich grasslands and heathlands are celebrated, but it is also Britain’s most wooded county – and much of it is ancient. The carpets give its age away.

English bluebells

Bluebell wood 25 Apr 20

…which can be white or pink

White on blue 25 Apr 20

Yellow pimpernel

Yellow pimpernel 25 Apr 20

Red campion

Red campion 25 Apr 20

And then, there is the music. Whatever is happening in the human world, the woods continue a conversation all their own.

Somewhere Else

I live on a floor of chalk, and it is not even. Over most of my parish, geology dips and rises into pretty valleys and gentle hills, like a crumpled tablecloth. But the table ends on our southern border, where the North Downs fall with alarming directness into the lowness before the Greensand Hills, themselves a rim around what was once called Andred’sley, a wild, secretive forest of the south.

People did cross it, back in the day; perhaps they climbed up from it into my hills. Perhaps the 11th century church in my village gave refuge to a weary traveller or two.

Church 8 Apr 20

But travel is not the story of 2020’s people. My daily exercise takes me to the steep southern face of the Downs, but no further. You can see seven counties from there – or is it eight? – and a brightening patchwork of fields and hedgerows.

And a fox. I saw a fox. See him to the right of the jetty, just above the rock?

Fox far away 13 Apr 20

Hundreds of feet below me, and in what felt like a different universe – but, a fox. Out of the North Downs, yet observed by me upon them. I don’t find it easy to carry my 600mm lens, but I needed every inch of glass for this sighting. It took a drink from what I presume is a fishing or boating pond – apparently annoying a passing crow – and then trotted away into the evening.

A wild animal, somewhere else. Yet as I looked up, I saw that there was a second fox, only a few tens of metres away from me. Sitting on the scarp slope, and staring intently at rabbits.

Fox near 13 Apr 20

He didn’t catch one, but he did make me think. One of the rallying cries that I regularly issue on the fox’s behalf is that wildlife isn’t ‘somewhere else’. It is right here, fluttering across lawns, dozing by railway lines, trying to navigate our farms and roads, and even barking in the heart of our largest cities.

Wildlife is not only whales, pandas and tigers, special though all of them are. Amidst all the stress and suffering of these times, I hope that an awareness grows that our own local bits of nature are special and important. The vast increase in outdoor recreation does present some challenges when it comes protecting wildlife from disturbance, but by forcing people to stay local and choose footpaths rather than manmade entertainments, the lockdown may direct walkers into corners of their neighbourhoods that they never imagined existed.

Somewhere else, right here with us.

Nomads Amongst Us

If we cannot go out into the world, then the world can come to us. Everything wild, travels, from foxes to flowers.

Remember  ‘Spectacles’? He arrived alongside another adolescent male some years ago, but while One-Eye – his probable brother – remained a homebird for lifetime, Spectacles was a nomad. He loitered in the garden, quarrelled with the resident foxes, and took to the road, returning and disappearing apparently at random. Where he went, I do not know; but foxes can easily stray dozens of miles. It’s not unlikely that he voyaged to Kent or even Sussex.

Fox spectacles3 160317

There are a certain proportion of foxes who live like this. Territory is not an exact concept, although a family group will make some effort to evict or at least dominate trespassers. If you can imagine a map with multiple circles on it, Spectacles was the kind of fox who roamed loosely over those zones, knowing many but belonging to none.

I’ve known several other nomadic foxes. This young vixen, who was usually accompanied by a very dark dogfox, seemed perpetually baffled by the world even as she trotted haphazardly around in it.

Scraggles2 190308

And of course, the famous Vixen from Across the Road – whose territory was half-destroyed by construction workers – spent several years crossing the line, despite the best efforts of the neighbouring foxes.

Fox PF2 160327

As for Spectacles, he abandoned my village for good in 2017, after repeated squabbles with the tiny but fierce White Socks Vixen. Here’s one of their soundtracks! Like most fox confrontations, the noise is savage, but it was quite bloodless.

We have other wanderers, of course: redwings from Iceland over the winter, chiffchaffs from Africa in the summer. But on the woodland floor is a different kind of movement – where travel is not a matter for the individual, but something accomplished as a team over a hundred generations.

Wood anenome Apr 20

Most plants stay rooted for life, and wood anemones are no exception. These tiny white banner-bearers of spring are exceptionally slow to spread – a rate of six feet a century is the estimate. As we humans are currently learning for other reasons, tiny steps forward are no reason for any one individual to drop the ball.

And even while still, they travel. Anemones are known as the windflower, and how they bob in a woodland breeze.

Living in their own way, patient in the dappled sun.

Light and Dark

Ray of hope

The world is changing. Flowers are opening and birds are singing.

But no, the world is changing. Daily. The relative normality of my last post feels far away. I am certain that no one wants to hear more about coronavirus but I do have a thought and a challenge – then back to wildlife, I promise.

The thought: viruses spread fast, but information and disinformation have never spread faster. Science travels cautiously, but for certain sure, it tells us that this virus is not a laboratory product. Coronaviruses are typically hosted by bats, and SARS showed that they can jump into people via trade in wildlife; palm civets in that case, but there is some evidence that the critically endangered Malayan pangolin was the unwilling bridge for Covid-19. Or maybe it was turtles.

Truth matters. Whatever the origin of this particular virus – from the wildlife trade or not – there can be no more tolerance for criminals exploiting wildlife, anywhere in the world, for whatever motive. As this Chinese conservation group explains, ‘traditional medicine’ sometimes isn’t even traditional, not that market demand for pangolin scales and tiger bones is the only problem; the UK recently convicted an individual who illegally smuggled eels worth £53 million, and incredulously he didn’t even get a jail sentence.

Enough is enough. If novel diseases and a global extinction crisis aren’t sufficient for the entire planet to take wildlife trafficking seriously, perhaps we should at least remember the hundreds of brave rangers who have been murdered by the poachers who supply these criminal syndicates.

Let’s keep an eye on the science and keep informed.

The challenge: last week I was travelling in northern England, as I often do, or did before non-essential travel was stopped, when I woke up one morning to a window overlooking the Royal Border Bridge. It is hard enough to believe that the Victorians built this giddying viaduct with the technology available in the 1840s. But we have forgotten, perhaps, that the workers’ thoughts must have sometimes drifted to the global cholera pandemic then raging, not to mention smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. Some may even have known that southern Europe had recently experienced several waves of plague.

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I’m not, of course, suggesting that we fight coronavirus with viaducts. For almost all of us, the heroic thing in this war is staying home, as I now am like millions of others. But I do like the idea that a pandemic cannot stop us doing amazing things.

This is the only version of 2020 that we’re getting, so let’s make the most of it even while we stay in our houses. Read books, write books, play music, learn a language, study history, look out the window and watch some birds. Learn the stars, listen to foxes and owls, watch butterflies visit a flower-filled windowbox. Find creative ways to protect and help the most vulnerable. Build links and friendships. Remember to pray and breathe.

The world is still there. Let’s use this time to learn how to appreciate it – and each other – more wisely.

And keep faith that the light will be given back to us.

Luna 29 Feb 20

The Tree and Thee

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.

Fly agaric1 30 Sept 19

And then, Storm Ciara knocked it east.

Silver birch down

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.

Fox Spindle 17 Feb 20

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.

Spindle brush 17 Feb 20

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.

Spindle4 6 Mar 20

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.

March in Flower: Lesser Celandine

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.

Lesser celandine March 20

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!

Badger garden 26 Feb 20

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.

Pretty Face 26 Feb 20

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.

 

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