A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.

Spain: Land of the Lynx

Master of rabbits, slave of rabbits. Live by rabbits, die by rabbits.

The very word ‘Spain’ derives from the Phoenician I-Shpaniameaning quite literally the Land of Rabbits. Here and only here is the European rabbit native, in the dry southwest of our continent, along with a bit of Morocco and Algeria. They have become so familiar on golf courses and road verges in Britain that few of us stop to question what a rabbit’s real land looks like.

Storm rolling in

Or realise that it might be collapsing towards extinction there.

Introduced diseases such as myxomatosis and RHD have decimated the rabbits of Iberia; habitat destruction and intensive hunting have also hurt them. And if the rabbit falls, it takes an entire ecosystem with it. The mighty imperial eagle and the outsize Iberian wildcat are amongst the carnivores dependent on rabbit.

So, above all, is the pardel lynx.

It’s overcast today. We spent the morning in the cobbled streets of Marmolejo, a little town with whitewashed walls and orange trees. The road into the mountains winds away north, flanked with wintry meadows and hillsides speckled with stone pine. Vultures cruise lazily overhead; here and there a hoopoe flies.

That is all forgotten when green eyes shine in the grass.

Iberian lynx10a 5 Feb 2018

A pardel lynx!

I came to Andújar with the vague idea of huddling on a freezing hillside for hours – days – until I glimpsed one half a mile away with a spotting scope. And this cat poses like a lion!

Iberian lynx1 5 Feb 2018

I’ve crossed paths with 13 of the 40 or so species of wild cat. All are unique and precious; but this, the rarest of all, puts on the performance of a lifetime. For five hours we share his company. He sleeps, yawns, pads about and sleeps some more.

Iberian lynx8a 5 Feb 2018

Iberian lynx3a 5 Feb 2018

He is lucky; the Sierra Morena support the largest surviving population of pardel lynx. We have seen a few rabbits here, but fewer than I’d hoped.

And there’s question of where his cubs will live – crossing highways is dangerous. Andalucía asks anyone who finds a wounded lynx to report it to the mainstream emergency services; it has also undertaken an energetic programme of ‘watch out for lynx’ signs. I have been encouraged by the very positive local attitude towards the lynx. Reintroduction efforts have recently boosted their numbers elsewhere.

Iberian lynx4a 5 Feb 2018

There are four species of lynx. The smallest is the bobcat, and the biggest by far is the northern or Eurasian lynx, the spotted ghost of the ancient European wildwood. I’ve tracked that species, occasionally, in the timeless primeval woods of Poland. But the pardel lynx has no such wilderness. The fact that its numbers are creeping upwards is testament to its willingness to live in the human shadow, along with the human desire to save it.

And its rabbits. There simply is no lynx without them.

Iberian lynx11 5 Feb 2018

Long may they both thrive in these mountains.