Not many words today; I’ll leave that to the owls, calling under the stars and into the dawn.
Just frost and fog and that cold rose of winter light.
Not many words today; I’ll leave that to the owls, calling under the stars and into the dawn.
Just frost and fog and that cold rose of winter light.
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.
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.
There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.
The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, horse grazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.
Golden waxcap is the most common.
Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.
But it soon changes.
Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.
There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.
Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.
What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.
Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.
What would they say to us and our hasty lives?
No one knows how old the yews of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve might be. Local legend says that they were planted after a battle with the Vikings in the 9th century; other estimates vary from 500 years to 2,000. In country where most ancient yews haunt churchyards as solitary wardens, in a continent where the 15th century craze for longbows drove a insatiable demand for yew-wood, a grove like this is exceptional.
Age adds to the atmosphere of tangled boughs and trunks that bulge and burst into impossible shapes, like a clay pot being worked on a very slow wheel.
The yew has special significant to us; people have been building with its wood since the Palaeolithic. Their presence in churchyards may date to the bubonic plague – they were allegedly planted on the graves of victims to purify them. It is also said that they were a deterrent to locals looking for a place to graze cattle; their extremely toxic fruit is deadly to livestock and to much else.
Birds get by with the yew, however, swallowing the fresh and excreting the stone. Their dense structure gives protection to small species like goldcrests. But a yew grove can be silent, still, a place where thoughts grow and are left to hang in the air.
Beyond the yews, Kingley Vale opens into chalk downland.
A riot of colour in the summer, but the flowers are sleeping now. They will return.
The yews have seen it all before.
Or maybe not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strange thing, September. For the last two years, autumn has appeared to start precisely on the 1st. The air cools, the mornings are sweeter, and the last swallows hunt over dewy fields. And woodlands acquire that watercolour glow.
Water – rainwater – is what fungi need, but last year’s switch from dryness to extreme undying rain produced few. I hope we have more of a show this year, and the boletes have already fruited, carpeting the road verge with otherworldly glory.
And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Juniper: passport to prehistory. It survived in a Surrey that people have forgotten except when pollen is teased from fossil deposits. Juniper was here when woolly mammoths came trampling, growing alongside plantain and birch, and Arctic foxes sheltered under it. It was one of the first trees to recolonise after the ice sheets thawed, growing slowly, smelling sweetly.
People found it later, and wrapped many stories around its sharp spines.
Is nature a fixed state? Juniper says no. Its range retreated as the ice grew, and expanded as it died. The same is true of red foxes, roe deer and fungi. It is a pattern – a re-weaving of the tapestry – that occurs on scales so grand and slow that we struggle to visualise them.
It is true, of course, that entirely natural change is now vastly overshadowed by the humans in the equation. Juniper is listed as near-threatened, not because a new ice age looms but as a casualty of the farming revolution. Overgrazing by livestock is its bane – or alternatively, not enough grazing, for this child of mammoth-country needs some disturbance by herbivores to protect it against competing plants, and yet cannot survive where that pressure is too high.
In Riddlesdown, ‘Goldilocks’ grazing is provided by Hebridean sheep, a primitive breed from the Scottish north. Conservation groups often use rare breeds to support these kinds of ecosystems.
While we worry about losing some species, certain newcomers have made themselves less than welcome. Grey squirrels, Japanese knotweed and floating pennywort are major threats to our native wildlife, and all were introduced by rash or careless games of humanity.
But that doesn’t mean that all new species are here because of us. Juniper was a pioneer ten thousand years ago, and a few – a very few – species still spread quite naturally. Our meadows know this, for they now host something big and striped!
It’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s harmless – it’s a wasp spider, a dazzling newcomer to the British wild. It was first recorded in 1922 at Rye on the south coast, and has gradually spread northwards. Unlike the noble false widow, which hitched a lift on bananas and has now colonised much of southern England, the wasp spider seems to have floated over the channel entirely on its own threads.
Spiders can exploit airborne currents, but many other species don’t have that option. Fragmenting nature into tiny, isolated reserves hurts the chances of wildlife that should be on the move. Let’s try to keep our wild habitats linked together so they can continue to write their changing stories.
While wondering why WordPress has enforced a change upon us of creating blog posts in ‘blocks’, I can also reflect on how nature simmers soft orange in the still days of late summer, colours daubed on a landscape of fading flowers and moulting birds.
Chicken-of-the-woods has a full sample of that orange.
This year has been a lesson in living without things that were taken for granted for so long, some trivial, some far less so. But could we live at all without fungi? They grow the trees that breathe oxygen – they form symbiotic relationships with so many plants that the world would be unrecognisable without them. Some species, including chicken-of-the-woods, tidy our landscapes through consuming deadwood. Some sprinkle orchids in meadows through bonding with seeds.
Fungi are the gardeners we do not notice, growing a little, pruning a little. And in the world that they hold together, bigger liveforms wander. Roe deer, too, have assumed a fox-orange pelt which become grey when the nights draw in.
And the foxes themselves – they are growing, wandering, questioning what the land can provide for them.
This is a ‘teenager’ cub; it is nearly adult height, but its long limbs, smooth coat and small proportions give its youth away.
They stray into places heavily changed by people, but dressed in a nature fit for late summer.
Soon they will disperse to pastures new, and many more fungi will brighten up the woods.
Nature is always a mixture of ingredients, like colours combining on an artist’s brush. I sometimes feel that this reality is lost in zoos; a lion or even a tree neatly separated from its ecosystem and labelled within a cage is out of context and makes very limited sense. But it does not take much exploring of the unhuman world to see subtle links.
Spider and rain, perhaps – quiet evidence of how this summer has seesawed between sun and cloud.
Then there is agrimony, the clock that strikes yellow at midsummer. It links physically to animals, its softly barbed seeds latching onto fur and travelling miles – I remove many each year from my dog. Perhaps this one is growing where a fox once stopped to pull agrimony seeds from its brush.
Its peers are often pinkish at this season. Pyramidal orchids, like all of this glorious family, have a secret: their seeds have no energy, and are dependent on fungi to germinate. These fungi form lifelong symbiotic relationships with orchids, are still little understood – we just know where there are thriving, because there the grasslands are bright.
Meanwhile field scabious, the graceful queen of old meadows, supports everything that requires nectar.
And poppies thrive best where the land is disturbed.
Everything is a map to everything else.