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.

Raindrops

Not many of them – yet – but they are beautiful.

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Cracked leaves, dusty footpaths, yellowed fields: they’re all waiting. 

Fox in grass 27 Jul 2018

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.)

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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.

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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.

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They’re clinging on. The rest of us are watching the sky in hope.

Dawn sky 27 Jul 2018

Spain: Pieces of the Puzzle

Andújar practically means lynx to the travelling wildlife watcher. But wild cats can only stand balanced on top of an ecosystem. Lynx fall and rise in sync with their rabbits, and the rest of the natural web dances nearby.

Looking for wild cats is a painstaking, perplexing and humbling business, but as the hours pass in waiting, other stories whisper from the rocks. Look closer, and even in this thin carpet between cold rock and fickle sky, life wins a foothold.

Lizard

Lizard Sp 1

Natterjack toad

Natterjack toad 2 Feb 2018

Some of it is in the water – a carp of this size is a handsome prize for an otter.

Otter Andujar 6 Feb 2018

I heard it eating, eating, munching and crunching, long after it vanished from sight into the rocks.

Some of it is in the sky, on massive wings. Griffon vultures circle lazily in thermals, or rest with kingly distain on cliffs.

Griffon vultures1

Vulture in Andujar2

Some of it is more controversial; numbers of deer are artificially held at absurdly high numbers by deer hunting estates, which must be having a significant impact of the rest of the ecosystem through overgrazing. That is a political problem; it is hardly the fault of the deer. Magnificent red deer abound.

Red deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Fallow deer are also a common sight.

Fallow deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Just occasionally, a third hoofed mammal shows itself: Andújar is home to the mouflon, the rare wild ancestor of the ubiquitous domestic sheep. This ram was travelling with two red deer.

Mouflon and red deer

Their wariness is instinctive, but the real ruler of this ecosystem – the Iberian wolf – has sadly vanished despite strict legal protection; the suspicion has fallen on illegal killing by deer hunters.

But one more predator does survive in the mountains’ quieter corners. I put out a couple of trailcams on the off-chance, and was thrilled to catch an Iberian wildcat! This is related to the Scottish wildcat but is noticeably larger.

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Spain clearly has serious conservation challenges, but the battle to save them will be worth the fight.

Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

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Red fox

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Wild boar

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Roe deer

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Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

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Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

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And…

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After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Malancrav – The Woods Today…

June – August 2016

Everyone who’s set up a trail camera has had a ‘what in the name of all wonders is that?!’ moment. Malancrav is up there with the best of them.

It is not that there is no wildlife; we even have a blurry clip of red deer, the largest mammal in Transylvania.

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And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.

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It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.

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And then the monster strolls by.

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In the mammal book? No. Wikipedia tells me that it is a corb, also known as a Romanian raven shepherd dog, best described as a gigantic, rambling, black St Bernard. It is indigenous to Brasov where it has been driving bears away from cattle for centuries. What it is doing roaming around Malancrav’s outback by itself is a mystery. Romania has a serious stray dog problem that is not only a hazard to people, but also to wildlife – in fact sadly we see one guard dog run down and kill a hare on the outskirts of the village.

The corb is a little strange, but Trailcam 7 wins the prize. I’ve been having arguments with this camera all season; it seems to have some kind of power leakage and is chomping through 10 AA batteries a week. It buzzes, glitters and goes flat. One of my colleagues has kindly offered to leave it in front of a moving bus. But, alas, first it is stolen…by ants.

Snapshot_6

The photograph does not do the crisis justice – there is a video clip on YouTube here.

Gingerly, very gingerly, we put Trailcam 7 into a Ziploc bag, spray it with mosquito repellent – the only weapon at hand – and carry it three miles back to camp.

Thieves, corbs and ants – who would be a trail camera?

But our next stop is the remote village of Daia, where cams keep the royal company of bears.