Wishing a peaceful Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all!
Wishing a peaceful Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all!
Remember the snow?
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.
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.
‘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.
It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.
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.
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.
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.
And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.
Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.
Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.
We’ve stumbled into a place of magic. Autumn and winter built a palace, and look at their art!
It’s quiet now, with skies lightening after last night’s snow. Spruce grouse wander the roads.
…roads: pathways past miraculous beauty.
And – this!
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.
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.
The land is ready. It has dressed in mist.
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…
It douses living things with dewdrops and runs away down a rolling road, laughing. We shall meet again, I fear.
This is Canada, with quiet prairie towns and towering churches.
This is Canada, with prairie potholes adorned with living things.
This is September, which is supposed to be autumn. Not a chance!
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.
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.
It is dark yet bright as we approach the Manitoba hamlet of Onanole. Weather catches its breath. All await the fiery morn.
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.
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.
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.
And this is a roe deer, with a bird in attendance. Probably a magpie or crow.
Rabbits keep close to cover.
And the sun keeps close to the seasons.
The mime has left us. We are close to spring equinox now and snow has been replaced by flowers.
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.
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.
They hardly seem to notice the fierce windchill.
Roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, and blend into the leafless branches.
Snow is a beautiful challenge. It starts by painting the paths, and ends in waterfalls dripping through the trees.
But the grass is returning. Spring is ready to restart.
Wishing a peaceful Christmas to all 🙂
My parish church, which is nearly 1,000 years old
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’.
Like all foxes, he has a terrible weakness for sunshine. Even a bit of brightness in November sends him sunbathing.
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.
Unlike One-Eye, she rarely visits the garden, although she did surprise me last week.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.