Guests on a Swirling Carpet

Autumn: when a cold artist is awake before the sun.

The season of mists and fruit, and also birds, some tall and familiar.

Misty heron Oct 22

Others lively, but more easily overlooked. Reed buntings warm the marshes.

Reed bunting Oct 2022

Dunnocks take to the hedges.

Dunnock Sept 22

And waterbirds of all sizes scurry across mudflats.

Goose and stints Titchwell 2022

These are ruff, absurd and ceremonial in their summer breeding plumage but relatively low key now.

Ruff Titchwell 2022

Except for one – this ruff is partly leucistic, hence the white feathers on its head and neck. 

Redshank leucistic Sept 22

They are visitors here; very few ruff breed in England, and most will continue on to Africa.

The mists will continue to grow.

Misty lake Oct 22

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.

Surprise Dessert

Rain has finally remembered us, but it’ll take a long time to refill the ditches out on the grazing marshes. My local river is still running, or ambling, whatever a Norfolk river does. I caught a rare glimpse of a water shrew scurrying between lake and river the other afternoon, but on the whole wildlife seems to be taking the weather as it finds it.

The shock is in the hedgerow. This summer of fierce heat and little rain has grown a fruit garden of banquet proportions.

Haws Aug 22

These are haws, the fruit of the hawthorn. The blackthorn, its notoriously prickly companion, produces sloes that dangling from the gnarled twigs like so many plums.

Sloe Aug 22

Blackthorn was once thought to be ancestral to the domestic plum, but genetic analysis has pointed elsewhere. In fairness, sloes warrant the inverse of whatever kindly adjectives might be given to plums. Dry, dry, dry, sharp and sour. But they are traditionally picked after the first frost to flavour various drinks.

Then there is elder, also having a bumper year.

Elderberries Aug 22

And snowberry, which may catch the eye with its ghostly fruit, but unlike the others, is far from a welcome sight; in the UK, it’s an invasive species, threading its way across native scrubby habitats. I don’t really understand why known problem plants like snowberry and cherry laurel are still available for people to plant in their gardens – they do not stay there.

Snowberry Aug 22

But most of my attention has been on crab apples. To be precise, the hundreds that have rained on my garden from a single crab apple tree, turning the parched lawn into a mosaic of yellow and pink.

Crab apple Aug 22

I gathered a few and mixed them with some local blackberries. That’s my jam supplies sorted for a while.

Jam jars Aug 22

It’ll be interesting to see how wildlife exploits the bounty that’s still outside.

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 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.

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.

A Word to Spring

I do not generally use the read more below style when writing blog posts, but in this case, I am going to say: read more about blackthorn and roe deer in my recent articles in BBC Countryfile.

Blackthorn article

Deer article

The deer have been keeping me busy on the trailcam as well as in print. I’ve been seeing this roe doe and her twin fawns for the last eleven months, but they will leave her very soon. There is still time for a spot of mutual grooming, a group hug if you will.

Roe deer stand about 70cm at the shoulder, which is positively a giraffe compared to the Reeves’ muntjac. A pair of those have been exploring my garden in Norfolk lately.

Sometimes I hear their harsh barks at night. It is true that there are more deer in England at present than at any time in living memory, and their numbers continue to rise. It is often claimed that this is because humans exterminated wolves and lynx, but the reality is more complex. They do still have a natural predator: foxes readily consume fawns, but it is questionable whether that offsets the survival-enhancing banquet that we have provided through arable farming and other habitat changes.

Regardless, like all our wildlife, they will be noting Spring – which has now settled on us in a more convincing form.

Peddars Way: Almost Roman

Peddars7 25 March 22

Black oil beetle, wandering in the north Norfolk dust. As a larva, this beetle climbed into a flower and waited for a solitary bee, hooking itself onto its unwitting host and hitching a ride to its nest. There it ate the eggs, pollen and nectar and slowly grew into an adult, ready to emerge on the Peddars Way.

Peddars Way

Back on the trail after a winter hiatus. The final quarter of the 46 miles is quiet save for skylarks, and you can imagine, if you choose, the legionnaires’ feet of 2,000 years ago. Where were they heading? To a coast of fitful weather and colourful cliffs?

Some have called it the Roman road to nowhere; it was built to intimidate the rebellious Iceni, rather than to obviously link towns. Today it is flanked by blackthorn, one of our fiercest shrubs – albeit its thorns are cloaked with beauty in springtime.

Peddars1 25 March 22

Norfolk has no mountains, but in the north the trail rises through arable fields and falls once more, rolling over the bumps of moraine dumped by the icesheets long ago. In little villages, ducks sleep and chickens keep watch.

Peddars3 25 March 22

Peddars4 25 March 22

And then the road ends in a glory of sand and salt.

Peddars6 25 March 22

Or does it? The coast has eroded southwards in the last two millennia and Romans would have had to march a little further to glimpse the North Sea. We do not know what was at the end; possibly a ferry port across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

But back to the south for me.

****

A few comments about Peddars Way for anyone else considering walking the National Trail. The first leg starting from the south includes a very dangerous road crossing (over the A11!) which should be avoided, possibly by beginning at Stonebridge. In general it is an easy trail to walk and well-signposted, and wildlife and historic landscapes are abundant.

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