Seasons

Still summer. Still hot, daubing subtropical hues at dawn.

Sunrise 220811

The river banks are green, but that cannot be said of the wider countryside, which is tawny, flat and thirsty. Not unlike the rabbit’s native range in Spain and France, I suppose.

Rabbit 220811

They seem at peace with it, but other mammals are struggling. Moles and badgers need earthworms, which will now be far underground. Foxes, too, feast on them, but they will adapt to alternatives if any are available. It is unclear what the drought will do to the autumn fruiting season for blackberries, cherries and hazel, but this urban fox – photographed by my brother – appears to be dreaming of an upcoming feast.

Fox and blackberries July 22

There is still water: dewdrops at dawn.

Dewdrops 220811

And even a little frost, if you let your imagination run through the seedheads.

Thistle frost 220810

But mostly, it is dry, hazy and hot. Hopefully next week’s forecast of rain will come true.

Mullein 220810

The Unplanted

Creating a garden meadow is like opening a hotel: you have some idea of who your guests might be, but there’s always a surprise or two. Not everything that’s moved into my restored garden rectangle has flown or hopped there –  this is musk mallow, a native wild plant very popular with bees that decided to plant itself.

Musk mallow July 2022

And near to it, a field poppy, a familiar splash of crimson across Norfolk’s arable farms and road verges but also at home in a garden.

Poppy July 2022

The poppy is the child of ‘seed rain’ – the natural dispersal of seeds by wind and wild things. The mallow may have been dormant in the soil when it arrived. Around them, white and bladder campion, wild carrot and ribwort plantain are now also in bloom, flanked by basal rosettes of many other species that won’t flower until next summer.

There’s already a buzz of bees, moths and butterflies, and occasionally something rather rarer. My biggest celebrity so far is this red-brown longhorn beetle Stictoleptura rubra, an uncommon species that spends three years as a larva feeding on conifer wood and fungi before emerging as a nectar-seeking adult.

Red brown longhorn beetle

As for the mammals, they seem to have coped with the drought. Hedgehogs are still visiting the garden, but I also saw one on my walk this morning, scurrying across a lawn. A hedgehog active in daylight can be a cause for concern, but it seemed in robust health and to have a clear idea of where it was heading.

Hedgehog 31 July 2022

And so, inevitably, do foxes. My trailcam has caught two cubs nosing about in the garden, about four months old and very curious.

Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

Hot, hot. The grass is brown, skies soft and deep, and the river rolls on slowly. A Met Office warning of extreme heat has been announced for a large slice of England, and having worked in 40c+ abroad, I hope that people realise that this isn’t the kind of friendly sunshine that invites sunbathing on the beach.

But there is another type of hot, and it underlies northern England like the blackened bones of an old dragon. Back in the spring, I travelled up to it, and saw what both people and nature have built on its back.

Bambough castle

Whin sill: leftovers from yesterday’s cauldron. It is volcanic rock that bubbled up as magma, cooking its neighbouring limestone into marble, and contracting into columns as it cooled. It props up the northern Pennines and holds aloft Bambaugh Castle, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

Whin means dark and hard in old local dialect, and tough it certainly is: eons of glaciers, plants, rain, waterfalls and even the sea itself have struggled to scratch it.

Farne Islands

But life, as usual, sees an angle to exploit. What was once glowing and molten is now bright with puffins instead.

Puffin2 Farne

And a few other birds. The Farne Islands are in a class by themselves for seabirds, supporting an internationally significant frenzy of guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and many other species.

Farne Islands2

You do not simply see the Farne Islands. You hear them, and smell them, and watch in disbelief as the sea crashes helplessly against the whin sill while tens of thousands of living things raise their voices.

This is a razorbill, otherwise known as the lesser auk.

Razorbill

And these, Arctic terns, famed as the greatest travellers on Earth. Some migrate each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, an annual mileage of 30,000.

Arctic terns

A northern gannet, our largest seabird.

Northern gannet

Grey seals rest on the island edges.

Grey seals Farne

Keeping cool, whatever the fires that birthed these rocks.

Hope we all do the same.

The Deer and Hare

Well, it sounds like a good title for a village inn.

I need to brush the dust off this blog. Again. Call it a spring cleaning, since the unseasonably mild weather seems to have England in its grip. It has woken up the hedgehogs.

As well as early flowers such as violets and lesser celandine, but that’s for another post. This one is full of that chubby little deer with a face of a teddy and the teeth of a tiger.

Broads water deer2 22 Mar 22

Chinese water deer are, of course, not native to the Norfolk Broads, but unlike our other introduced deer such as fallow and muntjac, are not considered to be invasive. They graze in tough marshy habitats and do little harm. They are not, strictly speaking, social; you see them dotted along the marsh, like so many readers in a library trying to pretend that they are alone.

But one of these deer had acquired a companion. See it lurking by the reeds?

Broads water deer1 22 Mar 22

Brown hares are rather big, and water deer are rather small, and seeing them together emphasises that point.

Broads hare1 22 Mar 22

It looks like 10c will be shaved off our temperatures next week. Perhaps then the dusk light can stop pretending that it is summer.

Broads dusk1 22 Mar 22

Thursday Thoughts: Fox

Mersey with book

Rescued fox Mersey modelling my book courtesy of the Highland Fox Sanctuary

A fox has trotted past the George Orwell statue that guards the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Its image is on paper, and its soul is – I trust – glimpsed through my words. It’s October 2018, and The Hidden World of the Fox has brought to the wild to the city, and me to the media.

These foxes – nature’s orange thread woven through puddled streets that we presume to know – enchant us, puzzle us, and occasionally frighten us. I wrote Fox because their stories were worthy to be heard. I wanted to share my observations and unlock the science from the inaccessible journals where it often hides. And also, of course, to reflect on the occasional public concerns about a raw wild animal loose in a world designed for people, and promote the idea that we can find constructive ways to share space.

Three years on, and Fox is now sold across multiple continents and languages, a reminder of the species’ staggering natural range – and unshakable hold on our thoughts. Sometimes they stare at me, and I could fantasise that they know of their wider fame: Ylvis, Aesop, The Animals of Farthing Wood, modern takes on aurora myths, and so much more. But they are too busy bothering magpies, stealing dog toys and shrieking cold wrath at each other.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

Foxes may ignore authors and scientists, but the feeling is not mutual. Research continues apace. A recent study from Spain concludes that foxes can help the beleaguered Eurasian wildcat by separating it from free-roaming domestic cats, with which it is prone to hybridise (although there will be many things that affect wildcat survival, and the study seems limited). Research in Germany examines social perception and tolerance of foxes, as did a paper that I co-authored in the UK. In the media, the likely connection between foxes and the so-called M25 Cat Killer continues to do the rounds in waves of misunderstanding.

They’re doing well enough in towns, expanding into previously scarcely-colonised British cities, but are probably in decline in the countryside. The rabbit collapse is likely to be part of that story, especially given that alternative food like voles, berries and invertebrates are under pressure from agriculture and other intensive land uses.

But there are still foxes on the edge of our world, writing something wild into our shadows.

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

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

Sleep

Noun:

  1. a condition of body and mind that typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.
  2. a dormouse.

Dormouse1 23 Oct 21

Technically, this little one is in torpor, a kind of day-hibernation that occurs on the edges of their active season. It will soon go to ground properly, heading to the woodland floor to weave a tight nest about itself and disappear until March or even May.

Sleep well.

Dormouse2 23 Oct 21

Storyteller Willow

There’s a panther in the willow tree. At least, in the mind of a six year old me, holding the family cat against the wrinkled old bark and my imagination fired into the exotic. Willows will do that to you – maybe it is their limbs, waterfalls of grey-green leaves tumbling earthward like plaited hair, or their voices, crack of old bark and rustle in the wind.

Crack willow is abundant in wetter parts of Norfolk, and is rather more at home here than my old companion was in the dry chalky North Downs. It is a grey trim along the riverbanks like a furry coat lining, leaning towards the water, reflected back towards the sky.

Crack willow2 4 Sept 21

Willows always retain one limb inside the human imagination. Perhaps JRR Tolkien saw a hollowed shell such as this before the hobbits had their misadventure with Old Man Willow?

Crack willow3 4 Sept 21

And as for the Wind in the Willows – Ratty, my favourite character, is properly called a water vole, and he still stars in Norfolk’s waterworlds.

Water vole2 21 Aug 21

A rushed photo admittedly, but I was thrilled to glimpse it at all. These large aquatic rodents have had a catastrophic decline in the UK due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Bizarrely, a few days later I saw another mammal swimming up the river.

Squirrel swimming 25 Aug 21

Yes, that is a grey squirrel, and it was swimming well enough and making for the bank. It probably fell out of a willow. Is it just my imagination that the tree could jettison a climber so easily?

Keep listening to willows. They must have many more stories.

Crack willow 4 Sept 21

An Ecosystem of Boxes

Everything in nature is in orbit around something: foxes around rabbits, rabbits tugged by sandy soil, sand towards – well, wherever the ferocious Pleistocene winds heaped it back in the days when ice sheets were driving East Anglia’s climate. Ecologists, too, can be found where their favoured species live, usually being attacked by thorn-laced vegetation while tracking their target.

Dormice like bramble and low tangled branches. Surveys are seldom painless. But it is always worth it.

Dormouse2 15 Aug 21

I went back to Surrey last weekend to join the monthly box check. The nest boxes are basically backwards-facing bird boxes, usually fifty per site, and checked under licence due to the dormouse’s strict legal protections. Results for August: three adults, including two mothers with very young litters – an excellent total of ten dormice.

They are put briefly in bags to be weighed before being returned to their nests.

Dormouse1 15 Aug 21

Hazel leaves and strips of honeysuckle bark are a dormouse’s favoured materials; the birds that sometimes take over the nest boxes are bolder in their experiments. This long-abandoned nest is woven with moss, feathers and badger fur!

Bird nest Aug 21

But birds and dormice are far from the only woodland creatures that take an interest in the boxes. Despite their name, dormice are not ‘mice’ at all, but distant relations of squirrels. Real mice, such as wood mice, have hairless tails.

Wood mouse 15 Aug 21

Also unlike dormice, wood mice are lively and inclined to nip, although less so than the yellow-necked mouse, their large cousin, also in the boxes this month.

Yellow necked mouse 15 Aug 21

Shrews, toads and even snakes have been found in dormouse boxes on occasion. But mostly it is about the ones that they are put out for, raising their families and sleeping in honeysuckle bark until winter brings hibernation.

Dormouse3 15 Aug 21

Hopefully many of this month’s babies will enjoying the blackberries and hazelnuts soon.

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.