Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

***

This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

***

We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

***

Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.

Travels of a Spider

Cancelled. My train, that is. Approximately two minutes before it is due. Not uncommon for this particular rail franchise and commuters mutter on the platform, wonder why they aren’t working from home, and replay time-worn mental maps of the network to plot alternative routes. Well, except for this would-be passenger.

False widow 10 Sept 21

A male false widow spider Steatoda nobilis, perhaps fallen off an earlier train, now on the platform where the service to Gatwick was supposed to arrive. I don’t think anyone’s noticed except me – which is just as well considering this species’ garish presentation in the press. All those headlines caused by this? Guilt by mistaken association; false widow evokes black widow. False widows can bite, but serious reactions are rare and they’re not really out to get us.

They came with bananas from the Canary Islands in the 1870s. Hitching a ride in food is common – I’ve found Caribbean woodlice in Tesco banana bags, and sometimes the genuinely dangerous Brazilian wandering spider also makes the journey. Coronavirus has shown how quickly humanity can transport viruses around the globe, but we are a passenger service for many, many other things, not always to our benefit or theirs.

False widows are really an urban species. Out in the wild, spiders have a different drama: dew and light.

Dawn spider Aug 21

And watch as the madness of summer is smoothed out by the first autumnal mists.

Foggy dawn Aug 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 Artist’s Laboratory

That artist being the Sea, of course, playing some kind of experiment on southern Kent. For the last 5,500 years, it has been building a bizarre headland of chunky shingle at Dungeness. Arid, harsh and flat, whisked by wind with attitude and flanked by nuclear power plants, you know when you’re there, and you never quite forget it.

Dungeness1

Spacious, but hardly lonely; an incredible 600 species of plants occupy Dungeness, supporting some extremely rare invertebrates. Bitterns boom from the reeds and warblers sing in the scrub.

Colour is everywhere.

Dungeness2

Blossom

Even in the legs and beak of a redshank.

Redshank Dungeness Apr 21

Birds must have been here since the sea started experimenting with the shingle. Dungeness is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the geology that underpins its wildlife as well as the species themselves. For the last few thousand years, shingle has been shoved into ridges by storm waves that form the flanks of a triangle, one that is still changing shape. Shingle forelands are uncommon globally and Dungeness is one of the best examples anywhere.

And yet, when you visit this wild and surreal place, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the rest of the world is even there.

Dungeness3

Letter from the Deadnettle

A red dead-nettle. I photographed it last year when it ended winter by brightening the verges. Now it’s here again – nothing has changed. 

Red deadnettle 28 Feb 21

Well, really. More has changed than we would ever have conceived possible. But not this flower, this tiny leftover from the whims of our Neolithic forebears, who inadvertently introduced a palette of wild flowers along with early agriculture. Dead-nettle reminds us that as we work, play upon or explore wild places, we are writing a story whether we wish it or not – and pages from it can be read 4,000 years after their authors are gone. 

Read, that is, in the flowers, and more: in even the folds of fields. Ridge-and-furrow is the insignia of the Middle Ages: this field has not been ploughed for centuries. When the ancient historic landscape survives, so often does a rich community of wild things. Such places are alive, as well as a tangible link to what came before.

Ridge and furrow

In the trees, too: via coppicing, the art of felling a tree yet keeping it alive. Stumps sprout new straight stems that were useful for many things, including the supports for the Sweet Track – a causeway built across boggy ground in Somerset almost 6,000 years ago. Hazel was one of the species used, and it continued to produce many useful goods until coppice was finally overtaken by modern industry. Woods remember the past with clustered stems of old coppice.

Medieval bank

Dormice love them: hazelnuts to eat and safe places to hide. Many conservation groups encourage coppicing to keep this habitat alive. But there is a little more in the photo above – see the bank in the foreground? That, too, is a relic – post-medieval earthworks of unknown purpose. Whoever built them, whoever designed them, we do not know; but their legacy lives on, even with bluebells emerging upon it.

And pages from the past – and present – are written in the birds, too, and none as bright as the gorgeous yellowhammer, a bunting that thrived for so long in the hedgerows that the Enclosure Acts promoted, and suffered of course as agriculture industrialised. Their cry of a little bit of bread and No cheese is not as familiar as it once was, so I was delighted to see four of them on my walk yesterday.

Yellowhammer 27 Feb 21

We are still writing stories in nature. Future generations will learn far more about us than we might want them to know simply through reading the land, and it will not lie to save our blushes. Let us make sure that the stories we leave are honourable ones.

Of Work and Play

Foxes personify elegant mystery, a touch of the alien in our familiar streets. That photo of the ‘ghost’ in the mist in my last post has become one of the most popular that I’ve ever shared on Facebook, but there is another side to Fox: whimsical, obsessive…shoe-loving.

“Why?” is the thought that comes to many minds. Science cannot interview foxes to ascertain their motives. It can, however, confirm that foxes adore shoes, all shoes, everywhere in the world it seems. Some, like the vixen jokingly called ‘Imelda’ in Germany, become specialists in it and collect hundreds. A couple of winters ago, one fox in my village took five wellington boots.

And even in remote corners of the world, in lands like India’s Thar Desert – where people blend with mirages over the salty flats – there are thefts.

p1c desert fox shoe

Because there are foxes.

p1 desert fox1

A captured shoe is typically chewed, tossed about, urinated on and abandoned. Adults are at least as prone to this behaviour as cubs. The leathery texture might be pleasant for their mouths, but in truth they readily snatch any ‘toy’ that we leave within their grasp. Gloves, dog toys, footballs – if they can lift it, they will play with it. The portrayal of Swiper in Dora the Explorer is not really unreasonable.

They retain their moments of frivolity, even as the breeding season peaks. Scent-marking continues in the woods, and their barks echo through the chill damp at night.

Our world has ground to a standstill again, but theirs keeps on turning.

Ghost

Fox mist 1 Jan 21

The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.

January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.

Squirrel breakfast 1 Jan 21

They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.

I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.

Red squirrel IoW 23 May 2019

Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.

Albino squirrel 1 Jan 21

We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.

I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.

Love Me, Love Me Not

Zoo wolf

Yes, that’s me, and a wolf behind glass. When I was young, I spent a fair amount of time with the wolves of Colchester Zoo. Putting wildlife in captivity has its ups and downs, but it is educational. Or is it?

There came a moment at Colchester when I stopped watching the wolves and starting thinking about visitors. And what I saw bothered me. They didn’t read the educational panels. They weren’t moved by the incredible power and beauty of the species that is the beating pulse of the wildwood. They sniggered, pointed at the wolves, and nudged their children. “Scary!” they said. “He’ll eat you!”

Nothing wrong with a joke, or warm-hearted teasing. But clearly, the idea that meeting nature invariably instils respect and a desire to protect it is unrealistic.

Colchester

This year has seen quite incredible pressure on the countryside. Conservationists initially seemed thrilled that so many new visitors were standing in woods or having picnics in meadows. The horrific scenes at Wareham Forest, Thursley, Chobham, and other reserves – all burned in wildfires linked to recreation – are painful reminders of the downside. Yes, many tourists have been lovely and I hope they did leave with fresh passion for our natural heritage. Others, sorry to say, hurt wildlife and upset local people.

Nature has rules. We should not be squeamish about that, or fear that it will put people off. Driving a car has rules, and that is why getting a licence has kudos. The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London are protected, and that is why they are fascinating. And simply seeing a wolf or wildflower will move some hearts to great deeds, but other minds need active persuading. And in the worst case, defending against.

It’s like the parable of the sower. The seed is the same where it falls, but only the fertile ground produces a crop. If you see a wolf in a time of food uncertainty and the king offering a bounty, like in medieval England, your thought process is going to be very different from the family who run the little hotel where I often stay in rural Poland, who once told me of their recent sighting with very genuine respect and happiness.

And in the same way, if you go into the countryside thinking it’s a green gym and nothing matters but your own pleasure, being asked to avoid trampling wildflowers and keep your dog on the lead around sheep will seem a burden. But if you arrive with a sense of wonder and hunger for learning, the flowers are precious glimpses of the wild world, and conservation livestock are a link to ancient landscape traditions.

Love can certainly grow with meeting nature, but it needs a spirit capable of supporting it. Let’s all try to encourage society to adopt a respectful attitude to wild things, lockdown crowds or not.

Enough with the human aspect. Here are some Canadian wolves from a few years back, and it raised my spirits to see them free.