Conductors

Over us, under us, giving instructions to the natural world’s chorus. The first is one that no human can fail to note.

Storm 13 Jun 20

Or maybe some can; I don’t know. Cities are good at pretending that the sky isn’t there, obscuring it with skyscrapers and masking stars with light. Rain is the grime on the pavement, the warning in train stations announcements that passengers might slip – but in the real world, it is life, teasing beautiful things from the soil.

Spotted orchid 14 Jun 20

Orchid season has finally sprinkled pink and purple beauties for the watchful to see. Rain has grown them, and it looks like we should get plenty more showers this week.

Other species are in bloom too, not least foxgloves.

Foxglove 14 Jun 20

And invertebrates take advantage of the suddenly lush vegetation. Small skippers lay their eggs on Yorkshire-fog and other grasses.

Small skipper 14 Jun 20

Grasses: we take them for granted. But the reality is that most of England has seen its plant cover severely degraded by recent changes in land use. This second conductor, the land, isn’t always easy for people to comprehend. A field that is overgrazed by horses can still look pretty, but it supports far, far fewer species than an old haymeadow.

Over us is the weather, and under us is the soil. Between them, they conduct remarkable things.

Fox resting 13 Jun 20

A Farm Like This

Agriculture.

Farmland TF 8 Jul 19

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.

060408 yellowhammer

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.

Meadows at Daia

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 🙂

Arable wildflowers

Ranscombe arable meadow Jul 19

Greater knapweed

Greater knapweed Ranscombe Jul 19

Toadflax

Toadflax Ranscombe Jul 19

Bugloss and poppies Ranscombe Jul 19

Romania: Viscri – Changing Paces

June – August 2016

Something is different; the price to enter the latest fortified church, for starters. Viscri is still very ‘out there’ for a British traveller, but there is a change of tone after three weeks in the remote lanes of Richis and Mesendorf. Viscri has tourists, German mostly, come to celebrate the land of their ancestors, or buy traditional Viscri socks, or pull up on the roadside and ask me directions to Prince Charles’ house.

Yes, he keeps a property here. Somewhere. I am never quite sure which one it is, but the church itself is grand and timeless.

Viscri church

Tourism has not ruined Viscri by any standards, but it has some subtle impact. My routine post-survey survival kit of chocolate and melon-favoured icecream is more expensive here. More seriously, the local farms are sliding towards modernisation, which is already showing signs of throttling Viscri’s biodiversity. I’m expecting to find far less on the transects than in the first three villages.

First, though, I need to explore the village itself. Here puppies greet horses.

The Watching Puppy

And tourists or no, milk is still gathered in the traditional way.

Milk run

Every evening the cows bring themselves home, right home, each turning into her own gate. Swallows swoop over the water provided for livestock right in the centre of town.

Viscri drinking trough

Home for the week is a room, not a tent. I’m staying in one of the many guesthouses, a short walk from the heart of all things: Gerda’s lovely farm. A small army of ducks, geese and guinea fowl wander noisily out of her gate every morning, and back again every night.

Morning at Gerda's

Guarding them is the smallest of watchdogs, and he seems far more interested in playing with the nets used by the butterfly survey team.

Blackie and the butterfly nets

As for wild mammals – one is very close at hand. Livestock and puppy are joined in this farmyard by a wild hedgehog!

Hedgehog

It is a very peaceful hoggie, but causes a taxonomic debate. Officially, there are only eastern hedgehogs Erinaceus concolor here, but this individual, and all others that we’ve glimpsed, are clearly the western species Erinaceus europaeus. The mammal information book has erred.

It remains to be seen what surprises Viscri’s transects will bring.