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.

Inside the Sky

Yes, inside. You don’t feel like you’re under it in Norfolk; it is a part of the day, for it is everywhere. In the rivers:

Reflections2 8 Aug 21

In the lakes.

Reflections 8 Aug 21

Hosting some birds.

Buzzard and gull 8 Aug 21

Teasing the colours from others.

Rook portrait 8 Aug 21

The last photo is of a rook, a very sociable member of the crow family. As the evening progresses, they drift towards their rookeries. 

And then the sun falls below the horizon, and when dawn comes, sky is part of the land again.

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 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. 

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.

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.

Sabretooth of the Marshes

Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.

Strumpshaw 15 Oct 20

Acle rainbow

Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?

Chinese water deer tusk

Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.

Water deer1 15 Oct 20

Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach. 

Water deer2 15 Oct 20

This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.

Water deer3 15 Oct 20

They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.

And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.

Grey heron 15 Oct 20

And the skies keep tripping over themselves.

Hickling Broad

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

Changing Tenants

Juniper: passport to prehistory. It survived in a Surrey that people have forgotten except when pollen is teased from fossil deposits. Juniper was here when woolly mammoths came trampling, growing alongside plantain and birch, and Arctic foxes sheltered under it. It was one of the first trees to recolonise after the ice sheets thawed, growing slowly, smelling sweetly.

People found it later, and wrapped many stories around its sharp spines.

Juniper 20 Aug 20

Is nature a fixed state? Juniper says no. Its range retreated as the ice grew, and expanded as it died. The same is true of red foxes, roe deer and fungi. It is a pattern – a re-weaving of the tapestry – that occurs on scales so grand and slow that we struggle to visualise them.

It is true, of course, that entirely natural change is now vastly overshadowed by the humans in the equation. Juniper is listed as near-threatened, not because a new ice age looms but as a casualty of the farming revolution. Overgrazing by livestock is its bane – or alternatively, not enough grazing, for this child of mammoth-country needs some disturbance by herbivores to protect it against competing plants, and yet cannot survive where that pressure is too high.

In Riddlesdown, ‘Goldilocks’ grazing is provided by Hebridean sheep, a primitive breed from the Scottish north. Conservation groups often use rare breeds to support these kinds of ecosystems.

Hebridian sheep 20 Aug 20

While we worry about losing some species, certain newcomers have made themselves less than welcome. Grey squirrels, Japanese knotweed and floating pennywort are major threats to our native wildlife, and all were introduced by rash or careless games of humanity.

But that doesn’t mean that all new species are here because of us. Juniper was a pioneer ten thousand years ago, and a few – a very few – species still spread quite naturally. Our meadows know this, for they now host something big and striped!

Wasp spider 20 Aug 20

It’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s harmless – it’s a wasp spider, a dazzling newcomer to the British wild. It was first recorded in 1922 at Rye on the south coast, and has gradually spread northwards. Unlike the noble false widow, which hitched a lift on bananas and has now colonised much of southern England, the wasp spider seems to have floated over the channel entirely on its own threads.

Spiders can exploit airborne currents, but many other species don’t have that option. Fragmenting nature into tiny, isolated reserves hurts the chances of wildlife that should be on the move. Let’s try to keep our wild habitats linked together so they can continue to write their changing stories.

Riddlesdown 20 Aug 20