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.

Eye in the Wood

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.

Snapshot_1

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.

 

Grassland Paintbox

There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.

Golden waxcap1 30 Oct 20

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, overgrazing 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.

Golden waxcap2 30 Oct 20

Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.

Blackening waxcap2 30 Oct 20

But it soon changes.

Blackening waxcap 30 Oct 20

Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.

Scarlet waxcap 30 Oct 20

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.

Fly agaric 30 Oct 20

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.

The Elders

What would they say to us and our hasty lives?

Yew forest2 Oct 20

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.

Yew forest1 Oct 20

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.

Yew forest3 Oct 20

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.

Yew forest4 Oct 20

Beyond the yews, Kingley Vale opens into chalk downland.

Kingley Vale

A riot of colour in the summer, but the flowers are sleeping now. They will return.

The yews have seen it all before.

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

Turning Seasons

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.

Autumn comes

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.

Bolete 5 Sept 20

And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.

Fox stepping WF 31 Aug 20