The Hills are Alive…

Remember the snow?

Snowy winter Jan 19

Now the hills are waking up, shaking off wintry lethargy with a sprinkle of early flowers. Wild primrose is amongst the first, brightening road verges and old meadows.

Wild primrose at Quarrydean1 Mar 2019

But mostly, this is the moment of the violet. We have a purple carpet this year, tiny exquisite flowers marking nearly every patch of undamaged grass.

Violet2 Mar 2019

Violet1 Mar 2019

‘Undamaged’ being the operative word, of course. Once, most of the UK had traditional meadows that supported abundant native plants and animals. Nearly all of them have been destroyed by modern agriculture, and while the laws have improved over time, things could still be better. 

Patches of old grassland also occur on private land – in particularly old mature gardens. If you have a mossy lawn, please be kind to it. It’s more interesting than a flat, bland bed of rye grass and supports far, far more life, including rare fungi. Avoiding fertilisers and unnecessary tilling is key.

Back on the hills, animals are also waking up. Roman snails are Britain’s largest species and are strictly protected. This one might have appreciated a little rain to wash its shell.

Roman snail Mar 2019

It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.

Canada: Scaling down

September 2018

There are days that you remember for the smallest possible reasons. I honestly thought it was a beetle, scootling across a forest road, but, no. It’s a mammal. The smallest mammal that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

american pygmy shrew2 rmnp sept 18

It’s about the size of a £2 coin. Definitely a shrew, possibly an American pygmy shrew Sorex hoyi, the second smallest mammal on Earth. There are hummingbirds that would dwarf this bundle of whiskers and fur. Uncaring of the two-legged giants and their cameras, it predates invertebrates amongst pebbles that must seem like monoliths.

american pygmy shrew3 rmnp sept 18

It’s easy to see a forest in only the big pieces – clouds, trees, lakes. But this wonderland at the autumn-winter boundary continues to enchant with surprises.

I used to watch belted kingfishers when I lived on Vancouver Island. This one cuts a fine figure against Manitoba trees sprinkled with white.

belted kingfisher rmnp sept 18

And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.

rmnp road sept 18

rmnp road2 sept 18

Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.

bear2 rmnp sept 18

Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.

Canada: Christmas in September

September 2018

We’ve stumbled into a place of magic. Autumn and winter built a palace, and look at their art!

RMNP snow4

It’s quiet now, with skies lightening after last night’s snow. Spruce grouse wander the roads.

Spruce grouse Sept 18

…roads: pathways past miraculous beauty.

RMNP snow3

And – this!

Bears3 Sept 18

A bear! Three bears in fact; mama and two cubs of the year. They must be wondering who has repainted their forest, but seeing these wonderful creatures contrast the white is spellbinding.

Bears2 Sept 18

Black bears are a special species to me after all the time I spent with them out west. I’ve travelled so far driven by the hope of seeing one again, and here there are three! Christmas come early, I think.

A good moment. A special moment. The type of moment that makes you realise how precious our wild neighbours are.

Canada: Directions to Winter

September 2018

The land is ready. It has dressed in mist.

Roadtrip1 Sept 18

The GPS says we have 700 kilometres to go. I’ve never tried this route before – Val Marie to the wild forests of Manitoba – and yes, the road is long and lonely, but I am not sure we will be the only travellers today. Weather is also on the move: clearing, misting, restless, drifting…

Misty church

It douses living things with dewdrops and runs away down a rolling road, laughing. We shall meet again, I fear.

Endless road

This is Canada, with quiet prairie towns and towering churches.

Canadian church

This is Canada, with prairie potholes adorned with living things.

Prairie pothole Sept 18

This is September, which is supposed to be autumn. Not a chance!

Road lost

Prairie snow. It paints road and field with the same brush, and a fox stands in the grass, wondering.

I’m uncertain too. Contrary to popular belief, prairie is not flat. Approaching a riverside town invariably means descending into a steep-sided valley. And getting out…you get the idea.

It is not as if there is another road. We have to simply continue, down, down, down. So here we are, stranded in the valley of Fort Qu’Appelle between two snow-laced slopes. I wonder how the Hudson Bay Company’s merchants coped with similar weather when this little town was a 19th century trading post. Perhaps they were sensible enough not to try.

Hudson Bay Company Sept 18

There has been much human drama here over millennia. Not much today, however; the snowstorm knocked out the electricity. We debate abandoning our journey in a chilly hotel but cars begin inching up the slope. Onward we go, and winter around dances autumn with glee.

Autumn and winter

It is dark yet bright as we approach the Manitoba hamlet of Onanole. Weather catches its breath. All await the fiery morn.

Sunrise1 23 Sept 2018

Signatures

Snow is a bit like a mime: it has a lot to say, but speaks no words. Instead it is signed by creatures in passing, and the watcher guesses at their onward travels.

Fox tracks 27 Feb 2018

This is a fox, of course; their tracks are not hard to find in the North Downs in any season. Something about this scene intrigued me – a journey from barbed wire into the sunlight – but for the fox, it is simply another small moment on a winter’s day.

In close up, a fox’s tracks resemble those of a dog, but there are subtle differences. A fox’s inner toes are set well ahead of the rest of the foot, leaving a long, narrow track. Most dog prints are rounded. My video describing the differences in detail is here.

Fox track perfect 3 Mar 2018

Sometimes the story is more complex. This fox may have strayed too close to thorns – notice the drop of blood in the top right? Only a little, and the tracks lead away. Crossing them are the five-toed prints of a badger. Foxes and badgers rarely show overt violence to each other, although there is no question that the badger is always in charge.

Badger, fox, blood

And this is a roe deer, with a bird in attendance. Probably a magpie or crow.

Deer and bird 3 Mar 2018

Rabbits keep close to cover.

Rabbit tracks2 3 Mar 2018

And the sun keeps close to the seasons.

Snowy lane 27 Feb 2018

The mime has left us. We are close to spring equinox now and snow has been replaced by flowers.

The Painter

It’s all Russia’s fault, apparently. They say a giant painter was sploshing whitewash over Siberia and stopped to shake out his brush over Britain – or something like that.

Spring rolled into the calendar to be greeted with -10C (14F) and snow so powdery that it danced in the wind like leaves.

Snowscape2 3 Mar 2018

We have snow every winter in the North Downs, but this ‘beast from the east’ has been unusually greedy in swallowing the entire country just when the birds and flowers were coming alive. For the foxes, it is business as usual: dig up buried supplies and seek small rodents under the snow.

Fox 28 Feb 2018

They hardly seem to notice the fierce windchill.

Dun Male2 27 Feb 2018

Roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, and blend into the leafless branches.

Roe deer 28 Feb 2018

Snow is a beautiful challenge. It starts by painting the paths, and ends in waterfalls dripping through the trees.

Path 27 Feb 2018

But the grass is returning. Spring is ready to restart.

Brothers: The Horse Meadow Foxes

I live on a boundary-line unknown to human diplomats: the frontier of two wildly different fox families runs straight through my back garden.

To the north live the Across the Road group. They are maverick, street-smart survivors who have had to navigate not only a dangerous main road but also serious habitat loss.

The Horse Meadows Group come from the south. Bold, curious and enduring, they are headed up by this chap, a one-eyed fox known locally as Nelson. I have always called him ‘One-Eye’.

Fox One-Eye sunshine 5 Nov 2017

Like all foxes, he has a terrible weakness for sunshine. Even a bit of brightness in November sends him sunbathing.

Fox One-Eye sleeping 5 Nov 2017

The Horse Meadow vixens include ‘Pretty Face’, another well-known fox who has given me some of my favourite photography moments – and cubs some of their favourite games. She is the perfect auntie.

Fox HMG cubs16 26 May 2017

Fox HMG cubs11 26 May 2017

Unlike One-Eye, she rarely visits the garden, although she did surprise me last week.

Fox Pretty Face 12 Nov 2017

One-Eye’s family have carved out a lofty niche for themselves. Their territory includes dozens of gardens, parts of three roads and, of course, the horse paddocks that give this group their name.

Foxes6 with magpie 180715

I often find them relaxing near the horses on sunny days, but I’ve also met them during the snow. And then they show the world how to play!

foxes snow7 210215

foxes snow12 210215

The Horse Meadows Group have a pretty easy life. Yes, intruding foxes are always a hazard, but they defend their territory with gusto – I’ve witnessed some jaw-dropping confrontations. They thrive upon years of knowledge of their land: safe footpaths and good hunting grounds, dry corners for shelter. A fox who has settled down, so to speak, is often very wise.

But there are other ways to make a living.

This is Spectacles. I’m certain he’s One-Eye’s brother. They materialised in my parish together about three years ago, distinctive from the outset in their dark russet hues across their flanks.

Fox Spectacles 160827

For a while, they were inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other.

That friendship never seemed likely to last. There is normally only one breeding male per group, and fights can be fierce. One-Eye took the Horse Meadows territory, Spectacles strayed. He is a transient – a homeless wanderer. Many young male foxes fall into the vagabond life, travelling fast as they hunt through the landscape to find a mate and territory of their own.

Spectacles is one of the few whose progress I have been able to monitor, and he has surprised me. We imagine dispersal as a straight line, but Spectacles has indulged in something entirely different. He leaves, then re-appears in the garden, lingering by the pond like a handsome black-footed ghost – and vanishes again, typically for months at a time.

Where does he go? The next village? The next hill? Or even across the human boundary into Kent?

Fox Intruder 170122

Without putting a GPS collar on him, it’s hard to be sure. He did loiter in the Across the Road group’s territory for a while last year, but that, too, did not last. The current breeding vixen of that group is extremely hostile to intruders, and you can hear the sound effects from one of her quarrels with Spectacles here.

So, he’s currently on the road again, travelling.

Does he know what he is looking for, or is he simply the prisoner of an instinct that compels him to roam?

I wish it was possible to ask him.