Ground-blue

Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.

Bluebells1 May 21

Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.

Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.

Bluebells2 May 21

Or frames a passing fox.

Fox in bluebells May 2021

England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.

Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.

Bluebells3 May 21

Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1