Footsteps in the Wood

Fox, sporting the sleek fur of summer.

And defying a myth with every footstep. Long painted as a night-loving creature, foxes take a relaxed approach to the idea of ‘nocturnal’ – which is to say, they will be active whenever they feel like it. I’ve seen more foxes in sunshine than I can possibly recall, from the urban fringe to quieter corners in the countryside, the deserts of India to the boggy forests of the Canadian east.

In some seasons, being up in daylight is a real advantage. Field voles, which foxes are very fond of hunting, are more active during the day in frosty weather, and their predators follow suit. Other food sources like berries are of course available around the clock. There are subtle social pressures too; I’ve known several low-ranking foxes who visited gardens in daytime to avoid domineering peers. However, a sunny greenhouse roof is a quite sufficient excuse for most foxes to be visible in daylight.

And on an artistic note, day and night give different shows on the trailcam.

Badgers are a different matter. They embody dusk; only rarely I have seen them leave the vicinity of their sett before it, and then in circumstances far removed from the easy mood of a diurnal fox – looking for food in extreme drought, or on the run from other badgers. I’m pleased that the badgers in the wood have been coping with the extreme weather, and as you can see, no leaf cover will stop them extracting their invertebrate prey.

As for the roe deer: in quiet corners, they too can be found at any hour. Admittedly not usually this close.

Woodland Kip

Roe deer: subtle colours and sharp points.

Roebuck 18 Aug 20

This is one from the archives; I’ve photographed many over the years. Some old, some young, and one playing you-cannot-see-me with a completely oblivious dog.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

They’re a small species (admittedly, not small enough to hide behind grass that low), but full of surprises. Rutting in the summer, the only deer that has delayed implantation of the embryo, and locked in a strange relationship with the human species that has variously eradicated and reintroduced them. But the point of this post is that you don’t have to see roe to know what they’re up to. They’re one of my favourite species to track.

Roe deer tracks 28 Jan 2018

Their hoofprints are small and neat, and so are the bucks’ territorial markers. They push their heads against narrow trunks, rubbing off the bark and scraping at the base with their hooves.

Roe deer territorial post

Roe also create beds, of a sort. An experienced eye can easily pick out the bare oval patches on the woodland floor where a roe has scraped aside all leaves and twigs, and settled down for a rest. My trailcam has just caught this behaviour.

The brown blur on part of the lens is quite possibly a stray deer hair.

This buck rested for many minutes, closing his eyes as he chewed the cud. A moment of peace, but tracking goes both ways. For every deer we see, there must be many more who quietly watch us.

The Saint and his Seabirds

More from my trip to Northumberland back in the spring, AKA another respite from this burning summer in the south.

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About 1,300 years ago, a middle-aged man moved to Inner Farne, seeking hermitage in the buildings where Aidan – Apostle to England – had dwelt not long before. So great was Cuthbert’s need for solitude that he grew his own food rather than accept supplies, but he accepted the friendship of the island’s wildlife, and sheltered eider ducks when the weather turned raw.

Eider duck2

Cuthbert passed some of the world’s first conservation laws to protect these exquisite sea ducks on the Farne Islands. When he died, his body was moved to Holy Island (Lindisfarne), and after the Vikings invaded, monks faithfully carried it inland. His eventual burial place by the River Wear is now Durham Cathedral.

Cuthburt statue

That is the drama of many lifetimes ago. But Cuthbert’s ducks – still nicknamed Cuddy ducks in his honour – continue to grace Northumberland, and they are far from alone.

Grey heron, eating a brown trout

Grey heron trout

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail

Oystercatcher bathing on the shoreline

Oystercatcher

And resting.

Oystercatcher2

Dipper

Dipper Cragside

Sedge warbler

Sedge warbler

Rock pipit, perched on the whin sill

Sea pipit

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Back in Norfolk, it is 32c and the fields are sandy-brown. Roll on autumn.

Adventures in the Garden

It was a fish pond, but that was many lifetimes ago – well, lifetimes of insects, at least. By the time that I purchased this house, it was nothing but woodchips and invasive non-native plants like buddleja, sporting little wildlife and shaded by a crumbling wooden canopy.

Garden before

Down it came. And out with it the wood decking, cracked concrete, a carpet lining, and enough plastic to wrap a small car. I also found a gardening knife, a forgotten water butt, a beer can and two jigsaw pieces – but inch by gruelling inch, the rectangle was cleaned into a blank page.

Garden2

Still not much use for wildlife. Next step: rebuild the soil profile. While gardeners and farmers generally want well-fertilised soil, wildflowers thrive on the opposite. No hope of restoring them on woodchips, so I purchased 700 kilograms of low nutrient sandy soil, typical of this corner of East Anglia.

Garden4

On which was sprinkled a seed mix that was a good match for those found locally, and it was nature’s turn to get to work.

Garden5

The months have rolled on. Wild things have sprung up from the dust.

Garden6

Most of them are perennials and will not show their flowers until next summer, but they have subtly revealed themselves by their leaves: cowslip, yarrow, knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, and many more. Birdsfoot trefoil has jumped the schedule and sprinkled tiny beaks of sunshine amidst the green.

Garden7

Most days, it is abuzz. Bees, hoverflies and butterflies have begun to visit. Perhaps the hedgehogs waddle through too.

We are not there yet, because nature is never truly ‘there’ – it changes with the seasons and with age, playing to pioneers when young, supporting rarities when old. I will be watching as this little newborn meadow continues its journey.

New Year, Old Year

I couldn’t blame the sun for looking like it wanted to turn in early. It’s been a long twelve months.

Afternoon sun 31 Dec 21

But whatever upheavals 2021 brought to people, the wildlife of the Broads continues its business. Water deer patrol marshes bustling with ducks and geese. This is a buck – you can just see his tusks. Water deer are not sociable, and although half a dozen were in view, they kept apart.

Water deer SF 31 Dec 21

What does a lapwing sound like to a water deer? We transcribe their call as peewit, peewit, to the point where that is an alternative name for the species. Elegant, cleanly marked and with preposterous feathers on their heads, these sweet-voiced waders have become internationally threatened – here’s a close up from Sussex, several years ago. 

Lapwing2

But nowhere in the south have I seen flocks like Norfolk’s. In fact, there were more lapwings in view yesterday than I’ve seen in the last decade put together. The vast Broads sky filled with a lapwing murmuration, swirling smoke trails of feathered hope. Not easy to photograph, but good to think about.

Another rarity swooped over the reeds. Marsh harriers – the signature bird of the Broads – are unmistakable.

Marsh harrier SF 31 Dec 21

And buzzards flew a little higher.

Buzzard SF 31 Dec 21

Otters kept lower, and quieter, leaving their five-toed footprints in the mud.

Otter track SF 31 Dec 21

And so onwards, into 2022. I’ve already seen my first wild mammal: on the pavement, just after lunchtime, threading between walkers and families. A small squat dog-like deer – a muntjac. With an all too real dog pounding after it, and I am grateful that the deer is unhurt after it bolted across the main road, skidded over, and finally lost its pursuer in a construction site. The dog was last seen running back into the open countryside valley; I walked around for a while, seeking its owner, but drew a blank.

People do many things that aren’t malicious but have consequences for our wild neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances of why this particular dog was loose, but it goes without saying that chasers should really stay on the lead. 

But I didn’t want to start the year with a grumble. Let us have an ambition to tread lightly, and walk a little more slowly and listen to the land a little more. Its stories are wonderful things.

Hauling Out

There is something indelibly printed on the British psyche that we must, at unpredictable intervals, approach the sea. Our coastline is as jagged as if a child had drawn it – a fair-sized island we might be, but it is still staggering that we’ve have over 10,000 miles of coastline. Icecream, sandcastles, Victorian piers, laughing swimmers taking Christmas dips; all of that is true of course, along with far too many coastal towns struggling with poverty, but none of is the whole story. The coast has its wild too, and it is big!

Grey seals2 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Grey seals. If people head seaward, seals lumber landward, most especially at this time of year when the pupping season is almost upon us.

Grey seals3 Horsey 25 Oct 21

For these magnificent beasts, Britain is defined by its haul-out potential: it is merely a beach just above the sea. In fact we have a good part of the entire global population, and the biggest colonies number in the thousands. Bulls argue half-heartedly in the surf.

Grey seals1 Horsey 25 Oct 21

They can weigh over 800 pounds, or approximately equal to 16,000 dormice. They are inelegant on land – they are built for water, with sensitive whiskers that help them catch sand eels, cod and other marine prey.

Grey seals4 Horsey 25 Oct 21

It is often said that the UK has two species of seal, and it is true that only the grey and the smaller common seal are generally here, but we are occasionally graced by extra guests from the Arctic. Ringed seals and bearded seals aren’t unknown. And, of course, a certain famous walrus. Attracting the crowds. Marine mammals tend to do that.

But it’s not always in their interest, either with walruses in Cornwall or seals in Norfolk. I took all these photos with a 600mm lens in a designated viewing area on the dunes. But every year, there a few people who try to approach them for selfies or allow their dogs to get out of control. The Friends of Horsey Seals have wardens on site to manage the situation for the best benefit of both people and seals.

Oblivious to human fascination, they continue to beautify the sea.

Grey seals5 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

The Unseen

“Quite so,” Sherlock Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe…That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” – A Scandal in Bohemia

And I know that there were two foxes beside a lane busy with walkers and cyclists last week, because, well, I was looking for them, and one tends to see what one is looking for.

Fox snow rest 7 Jan 20

Here’s the first, a very large male fox which I didn’t recognise. Almost certainly, he is a visitor from outside the parish who is wandering in hope of meeting a vixen or two; we are right at the peak of the breeding season. He saw many people that afternoon, but they were oblivious to him.

And here’s the second, a much younger male who is a local resident.

Fox watching at dusk2 7 Jan 20

He, too, went unnoticed by the family cycling by, and a walker with music buds in her ears. And if people want to walk through the countryside glued to their phones, they have every right to do so of course; but what is the accumulative effect of missing so much? 

We see, in the spirit of Dr Watson, that the Surrey Hills are green and pretty. We do not observe, as Holmes would have us, that goldfinches sing from the telephone wires and herb-robert brightens roadsides in the spring, that roe deer have left footprints in the mud and woodcock display over quiet fields at night. Therefore, we also do not notice how ‘tidiness’, over-mowing, over grazing and hedgerow cutting are impoverishing us. It doesn’t matter if we cannot put names to all the species we see; simply observing them and acknowledging their uniqueness is the key to their world.

When we do slow down, take a break from social media, turn off the music, we observe the most marvellous things.

Spider web 10 Jan 21

It may be a bit late for a New Year resolution, but here is a challenge: every time you go out for a lockdown walk, find just one natural thing – even as small as a spider’s web – and think about how it fits into the grander tapestry. 

Starlights

Christmas has rolled by, short and sweet for most of us, perhaps mingled with some gratitude that 2020 is almost over. This year has been hard for people and bleak for wildlife, but the stars are still bright – and the planets, when the clouds have deigned to let us see them. Our closest star looks on through the haze.

Sunrise Dec 20

Down on terra firma, I’m seeing a few foxes as they quarter the chilled roads in search of mates, but the trailcam has obtained better views. Scent-marking, scent-marking – the woods reek of it, even to us humans; foxes must find it as ‘loud’ as a high street draped in advertising banners. And everyone is trying to shout out their message over the top of the neighbour’s!

The first three clips here tell of intense rivalry and trespass:

1) Trespasser: a male fox urinates on a tree;

2) Trespasser: a second, very assertive male (just look at how he is holding his brush!) rubs himself in it, perhaps to disguise his own scent;

3) the territory owner finally arrives, and stands bemused.

For roe deer, that drama is long since over – they mate in summer, much earlier than most deer, but the foetus only starts to develop about now. Even the weather seems to fall off them, literally, as they shake out the rain.

I hope to spend more time on this blog next year; with one thing and another, it’s fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. I hope everyone has a peaceful new year. 

Eye in the Wood

Yesterday, I nearly overtook a stubbornly tinkling ice cream van while walking down a lane feathered with shed leaves. And today it rained from a clear-ish sky before the west was underlit with pink as if the clouds were full of rosewater. Windy? Sunny? Puddles? The seasons seem uncertain where they are heading, like so many of the people wandering beneath them.

I’ve got a couple of trail cams out at the moment, and they too are having unpredictable times. As the temperature drops, so does the activity of our summer specialists: bats, hedgehogs, and above all dormice. I don’t know what kind of summer dormice have had; covid put paid to the nestbox surveys. This one at least looks well fed and ready for a good winter’s hibernation.

I catch footage of dormice every now and again, but it’s not easy. Not only are they a nationally threatened species that exists at low numbers even in the best habitat, but they also tend to keep high in the trees. This one was relatively low down on a fallen trunk, possibly searching for a hibernation spot. They weave winter nests at ground level where the temperature stays steadier.

At the other end of the size scale, this ghost of a deer.

Fallow deer. I did a double take but no, it’s a definitely a fallow deer, of what’s called the ‘menil’ colour type. Fallows can in fact be almost white, almost black, or (more commonly) sandy-brown with white spots, but they are very rare visitors to my part of the hills. A mature buck sports massive palmate antlers but this is only a ‘teenager’, and he’s probably on his way out of the valley by now. 

Not to be outdone, kingdom bird offered a woodcock in the fallow’s wake. This desperately shy woodland wader is another species that I stumble across only rarely. Like dormice, they are mostly active at night, and like fallow deer, they are on the move; this one probably flew in from the continent. 

Tawny owls, however, stay put.

Snapshot_1

As the trees grow bare and the foxes start courting, owl cries echo in the night – they search for mates from autumn onwards. 

Nature tries to keep to some of its old patterns, even as we wonder about ours.