Sabretooth of the Marshes

Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.

Strumpshaw 15 Oct 20

Acle rainbow

Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?

Chinese water deer tusk

Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.

Water deer1 15 Oct 20

Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach. 

Water deer2 15 Oct 20

This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.

Water deer3 15 Oct 20

They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.

And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.

Grey heron 15 Oct 20

And the skies keep tripping over themselves.

Hickling Broad

Now You See Me

Or maybe not.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

Let’s start at the beginning, or at least as close to it as I can fit in a single blog post. The Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire glow honey-yellow with oolite, a Jurassic limestone that brightens paths and hides people – the latter within England’s prettiest houses, the former extending thousands of miles through what is likely to become a new national park.

Cotswolds footpath

I was walking one of those paths earlier this week, winding through slate-capped villages, admiring hedgerows crammed with wild fruit, evading curious farm animals, seeing an apple tree or two. 

House Cotswolds

But there came a moment when my friend and I, plus a large dog, were carefully navigating the boggy ground near a spring. I looked up, and there it was.

Roe deer fawn 10 Sept 20

A roe deer fawn – four months old and still spotted, and still doing precisely what its mother would ask of it: bed down and pretend to be a statue. This is a photo with my iPhone! Despite both being highly experienced wildlife trackers, we were that close before we were aware of it. And astonishingly, the dog was entirely oblivious to his company.

We moved past swiftly and quietly, coming within four feet – we had no choice, the stile forced us that way – yet the baby did not abandon its strategy, and still the dog failed to see it. Navigation successful, we left it to Mother’s return.

Roe deer fawn2 10 Sept 20

It seems incredible, but it is a strategy that deer deploy all over the world to avoid wolves, foxes and other wild canids. Very young roe deer are odourless, but this one must be past that stage. Dogs are extremely sensitive to movement, but have more difficulty in identifying stationary objects. That said, I have seen my own dog spot sleeping cats on several occasions. 

Regardless, it was a strange and beautiful insight into the roe deer’s world of dewy fields and tangled copses.

Cotswolds

Window on the Wild

Fox intense 22 Aug 20

Judging books by their covers, or something like that. They say that eyes are windows into the soul, and there’s a jolt in the raw intensity of a fox. But this one’s apparent mood is misleading; he has diluted pupils due to low light levels, not because he feels as sharp as a cat that has spied its favourite ball.

The fox physique is often misunderstood. Trotting across a road, they seem much bigger than their 14in high selves. And what about their fur? We are taught the fox uniform from childhood: fluffy, sleek, maybe dusted with snow.

Fox in snow

Not at the moment, that’s for certain. The male fox with his intense eyes is sporting the almost skin-tight fur of late summer, although the weather is cooling fast and his sleekness will soon abandon him.

Fox in summer 22 Aug 20

The adaptability of foxes is a multidimensional marvel. Not only can they live from the Arctic circle to Saudi Arabia, and eat everything from earthworms to hackberries to wolf-killed deer, they also react to the seasons in a way that our lives in climate-controlled houses find alien. True, our outdoor clothing thickens as the year grows old, but generally we change our whole outfits at once, not from the toes upward.

Half a moult

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has some of the most extreme seasons on Earth, and this fox – who I met some years ago – has to cope with anything between -50c and +45c. In England, their moults are a little less ragged, but it is still not uncommon for a fox losing its winter coat to be incorrectly suspected of having mange.

Conversely, these perfectly healthy foxes in Croatia (where I worked in 2017) look skinny because the unbearable heat of Dalmatia denies them a thick coat.

For every season, there is a fox, and it wears its own fashion.

A Garden Romance

I forget when we decided to call the badger ‘Dyson’. He earned his name, for he is without doubt a hoover: anything edible is swept up in effortless aplomb. He cuts a fine figure against the lamp-lit flowerbeds of night.

Badger Dyson 26 May 20

Yes, this is a night photo. Eurasian badgers –  Meles meles – are nocturnal, or at least they’re supposed to be. Over the past few weeks, there have been an abnormally high number of daylight badger clips circulating on social media, which may or may not relate to the dry weather and the clear difficulty in finding earthworms, their main diet.

Badgers are also sociable. Group size averages six, but Dyson arrived here alone. Dispersal from the family sett is less common in badgers than it is in foxes, and a bite wound on his rump suggested that his departure might not have been by choice. Weeks became months, and he is still a nightly fixture, sharing the garden with mice and owls.

And of course, foxes. For the most part, they ignore him. For the most part. Not always.

But on Tuesday, the tables turned. Pretty Face, the oldest of our foxes, lounged by the path, ignoring Dyson in his hoovering.

Fox Pretty Face 26 May 20

Then her ears twitched. Her eyes darkened. She stared at the gate, her body language flickering between defensive and assertive.

Fox Pretty Face angry cat2 26 May 20

I waited, expecting to see her confront a rival fox. But no: by the gate was a second striped face!

Badger Hetty 26 May 20

So Dyson has a mate. He greeted her with mutual grooming.

Badgers greeting 26 May 20

And they have been here together every night since.

Badgers two1 26 May 20

Perhaps the garden will be full of badger cubs next year.

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.

Out and About

It’s a long while since I caught up with WordPress. In fairness, a unusual number of things have happened lately:

  • My book  Hidden World of the Fox was released in mid-October! 🙂 Lots of excitement and press interviews, and a great opportunity to discuss foxes with a wide audience. You can listen to one of my radio interviews here.

It’s selling well with lots of good feedback, which has been lovely.

Fox in snow

  •  I went outside the known universe in early November. That is, I went to Iceland, the raw, otherworldly, superheated slab of geology that sits atop the North Atlantic Ridge. I should probably write up the experience in normal fashion, but here are a couple of photos for starters.

Iceland3 Nov 19

Aurora3 Iceland Nov 19

  •  Iceland, while dramatic for the mind, is brutal to cameras. My 200-500mm Tamron zoom lens, my long-suffering workhorse of the last 13 years, died in quite spectacular fashion literally seconds before I saw a minke whale. So while I saw plenty of cetaceans, I have no photos. I did manage to take this starling singing on a Christmas wreath…with my iPhone!

IMG_0580

  • Back in the UK, suspecting that iPhones might be insufficient for my future mammal photography, I set about acquiring a new camera lens. I settled on the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary 5 – 6.3, and while it weighs more than the Tamron, I am pleased with it so far. The extra reach makes all the difference when the foxes are on the far side of the meadows.

Fox1 BL 30 Nov 19

And although it’s not as fast as a Canon lens, it’s doing fine with nocturnal garden foxes too. I did consider a Canon prime, but having the flexibility of zoom is nearly essential with wild mammals because they are so mobile.

Big fox 29 Nov 19

Here’s in hope it won’t be another couple of months until my next post!

Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

The Sleeping Fox

fox vixen sleeping 23 jan 19

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.

fox dun rival 23 jan 19

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.

fox dun male and vixen 23 jan 19

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

fox white socks1 19 may 2017

Canada: Song Dog Days

September 2018

Could we ever spend a hour looking through the eyes of a coyote? I think it would overwhelm us. We see the wild in passing, usually from a car these days. The coyote hears it, smells it, lives it. The stories that they could tell!

coyote dog days2 sept 18

It’s the last evening in the park for me. And I could ask for nothing more: a family of coyotes in the fescue prairie west of Riding Mountain, resting and watching, as coyotes do.

And wandering a little.

coyote dog days3 sept 18

Coyotes are omnivorous, just like foxes and bears. Berries are on the menu tonight!

coyote eating berries1 25 sept 2018

Four coyotes? Perhaps more. Certainly three adults and a pup.

coyote dog days4 sept 18

They’re waiting for winter. I’m waiting to travel again. Hard to believe, just eight days and so much wildness. Now we’re bound for Toronto and the long journey home.

I had some concerns about returning here after my long absence, afraid that the old essence had become diluted by relentless over-development and over-tourism. And there are problems, it is true; not on the scale of what Jasper and Banff are enduring, but even the prairie hasn’t escaped commercialism. I was especially concerned at the new road being built in East Block of Grasslands, a highly questionable action that seems to have gone unnoticed by Canadian NGOs. And Canada’s federal and provincial biodiversity protection laws could be tightened up. That is not news. Nor is the bubbling friction between people and large wildlife in some rural districts.

But there is still so much life in the Great Lone Land. Taste of the air or the glow of a lynx’s eyes? Hear it in the coyote’s song and the catch the shadow of an owl on a forgotten farmstead. It is something, intangible and free. Coyote, bears, moose, prairie dogs – they’re still here.

Long may they remain so.

The Mystery Fox

Fox One eye sleeping1 170117

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.

One Eye and White Socks 11 May 2017

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.

Fox Cavalier cub 24 Feb 2018

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!

One Eye 28 June 2018

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.