Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

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This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

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We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

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Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

Ghost Hills

Did they know that they would become this?

Thompson Common skies 29 Jul 21

Breckland, after the ice sheets.

The most formidable glacial advance in the entire Pleistocene is named ‘Anglian’. The East Anglian peninsula was swallowed by it – this meadow once looked like Greenland. As the climate warmed, standing blocks of ‘dead’ ice were left behind, eventually to be topped with soil and grass like surviving examples in polar regions. The Inuit word pingo is used to describe such hillocks with a heart of ice. They would have stood tall over the flat Breckland landscape, but they pressed into the soil like a knee. 

But they melted, in time. Now, their legacy is ponds. The ghosts of lost hills, water-filled depressions carved by ancient glacial games.

Pingo pond 29 Jul 21

Breckland is rich in pingo ponds, also known as kettle ponds. It is also very rich in dragonflies, rare beetles, great crested newts and other species that appreciate wet habitats. Northern clade pool frogs, the UK’s rarest amphibian, made its last stand in the pingo ponds, and has recently been reintroduced.

Away from the water, other species exploit the meadows. Six spot burnet moths are hard to overlook.

Six spot burnet

I heard many birds calling, but didn’t get any good photos of them today. Here’s a couple from another Breckland visit a couple of weeks back: goldfinch…

Goldfinch Jul 21

And a juvenile blue tit.

Blue tit Jul 21

Two very common British species, but the Brecks can do far better; it has stone curlew, turtle dove and many other specialities. In total, nearly 13,000 different species of wild things have been identified, and many have comfortably rubbed shoulders with farming for millennia. Poppies on the edge of an arable field are a reminder of that.

Poppies Thompson Common 29 Jul 21

And all of it, from the soil to the sky, is a reminder of the ice.

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

Antiquity

Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.

British_Pleistocene_Mammalia_(1866)_Red_Fox_Cranium

I happened across this drawing on Wikimedia last week, and was immediately struck by the curious thought that Edwardian scientists were drawing Pleistocene red fox bones not so many miles from where I now photograph those foxes’ probable descendants. This particular sketch dates from 1909 and is printed in A monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia, but the animal itself knew these hills many millennia ago.

What did it see on its daily travels? Its England was a kind that no living human has known. Spotted hyenas, straight-tusked elephants and cave lions roamed here, and foxes thrived alongside them all. They truly are a marvel of flexible pragmatism.

Today, of course, they live alongside us instead.

Fox PF 5 Jul 19

This vixen is known as ‘Pretty Face’. She has raised cubs this year, although she has not brought them to the garden. Her daily wanderings involve navigating cars, fences, and potentially dangerous introduced species such as pet cats. Like her ancestors, she survives.

Fox PF2 5 Jul 19

And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.

Fox and Cubs2 Jul 19

And yet, like the conventional fox, it speaks of a hidden story. While flesh-and-blood foxes came to what is now England under their own steam – we were still a peninsula attached to continental Europe at the time – the flower arrived with help. It was brought here by people almost 400 years ago, when the unfortunate Charles I was on the throne. It was thought to be a cure for poor eyesight, but soon escaped into the countryside and has brightened up roadsides ever since.

I wonder if the first gardener who planted it realised that it would long outlast the king.