Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.

The Living is Easy

Few people would consider it a compliment to be called a ‘parasite’. But there is more to the lifestyle than tapeworms and ticks.

This week, I’ve come across two of the UK’s strangest wild things, both of which are parasites of a sort. First up is a small wildflower that is easily overlooked in the glut of ground flora erupting in spring.

Toothwort 19 Apr 2018

It’s a toothwort, which is entirely dependent on other plants for its nutrition. It absorbs everything that it requires through parasitizing roots, often of hazel or beech. With no need to make its own food, it contains no chlorophyll, and pops out of the soil as a rather ghostly flower.

Toothwort2 19 Apr 2018

The second species appears even stranger to our land-based lives. Jawless, four-eyed and primeval, lampreys can be mistaken for eels at a glance, but their behaviour is very different. They latch onto fish and drink their blood like leeches.

Lamprey2

Lamprey1

A tad gruesome? Perhaps, but they’re only making a living, like everything else in the natural world. And lampreys themselves have predators, like this beautiful otter that I saw in Norfolk a few years back.

Otter with lamprey

The Returnee

RK1

Henry VIII was not a nice man. Apart from his well-documented personal life, he embraced a crusade against ‘bad’ British wildlife. He was hardly original – wolves at least were being exterminated by royal decree as far back as Norman times – but Tudor law eventually placed one of our most spectacular and harmless raptors firmly in the bounty hunter’s sights.

But most madness does end. The red kite – this forked-tailed scavenger that clears up carrion and delights birdwatchers everywhere – is once again widespread in British skies. Reintroductions have been highly successful in England, although rather less so in Scotland where illegal poisoning of wildlife sadly continues.

The North Downs has been adopted by kites reintroduced to the Chilterns. They follow tractors across the hills like outsized gulls.

Tractor and kite NDW 24 May 2017

Strange, really, to look at the kite through the eyes of a 16th century countryman who probably genuinely believed that it was harmful to livestock. In an era when there were so many real dangers, human nature seemingly demanded that people imagine more.

Today, kites make most people smile. I often meet hikers on the North Downs Way who pause in their long journeys to admire the acrobat in the sky.

Red kites3 14 Apr 2018

Red kites2 14 Apr 2018

The hills are a better place with them dancing above us.

At the Crossroads

Fiveways sign 24 Sept 2017

That was late summer, early autumn, call it what you will.

Today the road is filled with leaves and there is a bite in the skies that makes everything feel that little bit more alive. That is nature’s paradox: it is more vivid and yet far more soothing than the world built of bricks and glass.

I’ve been indoors for much of the day, however, dealing with the final technical hurdles before getting my book on the ‘why and how’ of foxes uploaded onto Amazon. It’s now living¬†here.

Fox book cover copy

Books are more than paper. You close them, but they do not leave you.  In a small way, a fox sighting can also be like that; it passes, but it has lodged itself in your mind.

One encounter that I will not forget gave me this photograph back in the summer. This vixen is known locally as ‘Pretty Face’, but whatever she calls herself, she is one of my favourite foxes. She is a non-breeding adult in the Horse Meadows Group – the family that call a large part of my parish their territory.

Fox Pretty Face2 26 May 2017

She had been playing, playing – auntie as she was that day to four cubs explosively alive in the evening sunshine. She washed them, she checked on them, she guarded them. I merely photographed them. Eight (yes, eight) foxes were in front of my camera; I will leave the total number of photos to your imagination.

There came a moment when she sat up, light painting gold highlights into her fur. She was watching me from perhaps 50 metres away. She had been aware of me for the past hour, but now, without a care in the world, she began trotting towards me.

At 15 metres she stopped, still studying me with quiet curiosity, standing at the crossroads of confidence and caution, before continuing her journey out of the field with relaxed aplomb.

Turn the page. The journey goes on.