The Second Frost

With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.

It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.

Spring blossom 19 Apr 19

The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.

Bluebell dew drops 19 Apr 19

Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.

Khamsin in bluebells 21 Apr 19

I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.

Cowslip dew drops2 19 Apr 19

Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.

Toothwort and little slug 19 Apr 19

Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.

Ray of Hope

Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.

Dormouse photo2

Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?

Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.

But there is a ray of hope.

Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.

Light beams lane 23 Feb 19

Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.

I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.

Dormouse nest 28 Nov 2017

And maybe – just maybe – some of these.

Dormouse6

Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.

All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.

Raindrops

Not many of them – yet – but they are beautiful.

Raindrops.jpg

Cracked leaves, dusty footpaths, yellowed fields: they’re all waiting. 

Fox in grass 27 Jul 2018

There are always winners and losers with weather. Week after week of exceptionally high temperatures and almost no rainfall have boosted butterfly numbers, but everything that depends on earthworms is having a tough time finding them in iron-hard earth.

Badgers thrive on earthworms, but they are omnivorous and will take insects, bee nests and carrion too. This one was visiting a water dish that I’ve had out in the woods for the last week. (Ignore the date – camera was not set correctly.)

Snapshot_17

Potentially, foxes may be impacted more than badgers – earthworms are a big part of the diet of cubs.

Shrews are surviving at high speed, as they always do. Pygmy shrews need to eat up to 125% of their body weight each day. That’s 125% of not very much, admittedly; at 2 to 6 grams, they’re our smallest terrestrial mammal.

Snapshot_20

One of the most frequent of my thirsty visitors is the bank vole. The trail camera caught one drinking for a full twenty seconds without a pause.

Snapshot_21

They’re clinging on. The rest of us are watching the sky in hope.

Dawn sky 27 Jul 2018

Fox-and-Cubs

The wild species commonly known as ‘fox’ has been represented this afternoon by One-Eye, who never needs a second excuse to recline on the patio.

One Eye2 14 Jul 2018

One Eye1 14 Jul 2018

Or peer into the house, for that matter. Foxes are profoundly curious creatures.

One Eye being nosy 14 Jul 2018

I should stress that he is not ‘tame’. I strongly believe that foxes should never be allowed to enter houses – one householder might enjoy it, but the fox is likely to repeat that behaviour with a neighbour. Indoor foxes cause bad press at best, and serious human-wildlife conflict at worst. One-Eye sits by the glass because he is highly intelligent and understands that humans and dogs cannot reach him even when they are inches away. If the door is opened, he backs off at once.

Anyway, we do have a second species of wild fox here, somewhat. It is orange and very furry, and in its own way, just as adaptable as its namesake.

Fox and cubs flower 14 Jul 2018

Fox-and-cubs is a member of the daisy family. It is not native to Britain but has lived wild here since at least the 17th century. It is quite tenacious and often grows on roadsides. This is the first one that I’ve found in my parish, and I will have to go back next year and photograph it before it goes to seed.

It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the other species of fox have changed by then.

One Eye3 14 Jul 2018

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.