A Word to Spring

I do not generally use the read more below style when writing blog posts, but in this case, I am going to say: read more about blackthorn and roe deer in my recent articles in BBC Countryfile.

Blackthorn article

Deer article

The deer have been keeping me busy on the trailcam as well as in print. I’ve been seeing this roe doe and her twin fawns for the last eleven months, but they will leave her very soon. There is still time for a spot of mutual grooming, a group hug if you will.

Roe deer stand about 70cm at the shoulder, which is positively a giraffe compared to the Reeves’ muntjac. A pair of those have been exploring my garden in Norfolk lately.

Sometimes I hear their harsh barks at night. It is true that there are more deer in England at present than at any time in living memory, and their numbers continue to rise. It is often claimed that this is because humans exterminated wolves and lynx, but the reality is more complex. They do still have a natural predator: foxes readily consume fawns, but it is questionable whether that offsets the survival-enhancing banquet that we have provided through arable farming and other habitat changes.

Regardless, like all our wildlife, they will be noting Spring – which has now settled on us in a more convincing form.

Game of Chess

Spring. No, it’s winter. Defrosted, then re-frozen. Bright, dull, windy and full of sunshine. April frequently plays games, but this year seems worse than usual. No wonder the daffodils look confused.

Frozen daffodil April 22

Wild plants may have less agency over their lives than animals, but they still have to adapt to forces that, while not actively attempting to oppose them, could be said to be playing a maverick game of chess. The weather, for one; flower early and get bitten by frost; leave it late and be smothered by competing species.

And then, there are people. We have worked this island for thousands of years, bumping into nature and accidentally crafting semi-natural habitats of dazzling sights. Most are rare and fragmented now, kicked away by the much harder footsteps of modern agriculture and development. Many hold wonderful things, but few are prettier than this: the chess flower, more often known as snakeshead fritillary.

Cricklade3

It grows in floodplain meadows, those riverside biodiversity treasure houses that for centuries provided hay and late summer grazing.  Cricklade North Meadow Natural Nature Reserve’s meadow grows where the Thames spills out  – although only a little river here, an infant that has not yet met the concrete banks and busy bridges of London.

Cricklade1 Thames

It is also flanked by the River Churn, and dotted with boundary stones where ancient commoner rights are still upheld. In the summer, it is a sea of flowers, but the purple glow of the snakeshead – this site holds the majority of the UK population – gives the reserve its fame.

Cricklade2

Glamorous, even for a member of the lily family; cryptic in markings, overpowering in the sheer enormity of style. It is no surprise that in former times this flower was much desired indoors as well as nodding in the breeze. Middle-aged country-women with tanned cheek and careworn look daily carry through the streets…large flat baskets of this beautiful flower…in short, there is in Oxford a cult of the fritillary says a newspaper article from 1906. Today, they are safe from being picked because their surviving habitats tend to be Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Every now and again, a white one interrupts the purple.

Cricklade4

A few thousand were out, with many more yet to flower. The snakeshead germinates after exposure to frost, but will not flower until the plant is five or six years old. Fertile for just five days, it is pollinated by bumblebees.

And then the board is set for another round of their show.

The Deer and Hare

Well, it sounds like a good title for a village inn.

I need to brush the dust off this blog. Again. Call it a spring cleaning, since the unseasonably mild weather seems to have England in its grip. It has woken up the hedgehogs.

As well as early flowers such as violets and lesser celandine, but that’s for another post. This one is full of that chubby little deer with a face of a teddy and the teeth of a tiger.

Broads water deer2 22 Mar 22

Chinese water deer are, of course, not native to the Norfolk Broads, but unlike our other introduced deer such as fallow and muntjac, are not considered to be invasive. They graze in tough marshy habitats and do little harm. They are not, strictly speaking, social; you see them dotted along the marsh, like so many readers in a library trying to pretend that they are alone.

But one of these deer had acquired a companion. See it lurking by the reeds?

Broads water deer1 22 Mar 22

Brown hares are rather big, and water deer are rather small, and seeing them together emphasises that point.

Broads hare1 22 Mar 22

It looks like 10c will be shaved off our temperatures next week. Perhaps then the dusk light can stop pretending that it is summer.

Broads dusk1 22 Mar 22

January Lights

Reflected.

Luna Jan 22

Perfected.

Frozen ice Jan 22

It is an icebox, with delicate visitors where the river moves.

Little egret Jan 22

And everything taking a long breath where water has vanished under a glassy lid.

Frozen ice2 Jan 22

The white bird in the photo of the river is a little egret, a graceful relation of herons. Several of them have taken up residence in my local wetlands, while the grey heron itself lurks in the undergrowth.

Grey heron Jan 22

They may consider it cold; siskins, on the other hand, come here to escape. Some do breed in southern England, especially in the New Forest and the Brecks, but most spend their summers in Wales, Scotland or the continent.

Siskin2 22 Jan 22

But the frost in the hedgerows is a reminder that spring is still a fair time away.

Dunnock 22 Jan 22

Peddars Way: Timekeepers

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” – Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Peddars Way 2nd stage3

This is a village, an old, busy village, with streets, moats and people. Houses of wood coated with clay and capped with thatched roofs clump in any old direction, shepherds and dogs passing by. Reeves inspect fields, villeins and free workers sweat as they thresh grain, and disagreeable types languish in the stocks. Oxen pull ploughs – but they are gone.

The thought remains. Great Palgrave is the ridges under the clouds in the above photo; the village failed in the 15th century, leaving only the bones of its roads and structures behind. Elongated bumps in old English fields almost always indicate archaeology, but some of it is much bigger.

Peddars Way 2nd stage4

St Mary’s Church is a treasured survivor of another lost ancient village. Houghton-on-the-Hill reached the 19th century before its population drifted elsewhere. The church dates from 1090 AD or possibly earlier, and its walls wear bricks crafted by the Romans, no doubt recycled by later peoples from a nearby ruined villa. Inside are 11th century wall paintings.

The Peddars Way goes forward, yet time drifts backwards, and the road that the Romans built 2,000 years ago points remorselessly on.

Peddars Way 3rd stage4

But some may call it young. A watcher rests beside it: a longbarrow that was already 1,700 years old when the legionnaires arrived.

Peddars Way 3rd stage1

Inside this mound are bones of Neolithic people – the earliest farmers, they who set in motion changes to the British landscape that evolved into a dazzling mosaic of semi-natural habitats, inadvertently supporting such a rich community of animals and plants.

It is a sobering thing to look at this barrow and know that the Romans and Iceni – perhaps Boudica herself – saw it, even as they must also have seen the bracken turn gold.

Peddars Way 2nd stage2

I can only guess at their memories of their walks, and their thoughts as the trail led onwards towards the sea.

Peddars Way: A Walk, With Wildlife

Peddars Way 1st stage1

Path: a society that never meets. Its walkers share a citizenship linked by the thinnest line; their footsteps overlap, and thoughts of travel bind them.

Peddars Way has witnessed human doings for thousands of years. Like so much in northern East Anglia, it is entangled with the life of Boudica – queen of the Breckland-based Iceni. Her ferocious revolt against the Roman invaders in AD60 shook the British world as it then was. The Balkerne Gate down in Colchester (then called Camulodunum) has stood for nearly 2,000 years as a reminder of how the town was rebuilt after Boudica’s forces obliterated it.

Roman gate Colchester

In Breckland, too, the Romans clearly wished to build something new: a road of order, rather than a tribal land of rebellion. Peddars Way is drawn with classic Roman straightness between Knettishall Heath and the wild northern coast.

That path still lives. But today you hear no hobnailed Roman sandals on the march. Buzzards cry over an autumn putting on its golden coat.

Peddars Way 1st stage2

And spindle berries brighten the hedgerow.

Peddars Way 1st stage3

England and Wales are threaded through with a mind-boggling 140,000 miles of rights of way, and a select few have been waymarked as our showcase National Trails. Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path form one of them: 129 miles from the harshly grand Brecks to marshes and saltwater.

The Brecks is everything: farmland, military range, commercial forest, beech plantation. Chalky, sandy, hot and cold, open and shadowed – Neolithic mines and modern conservation. Whatever light forest grew on the sand at the end of the Pleistocene was cleared into steppe thousands of years ago, and endured by generations of farmers. My own ancestors are part of that story: they worked a small part of the Brecks from at least the 1400s onwards, inadvertently helping to create the tumbling mosaic of habitats that support such an incredible array of wildlife.

I don’t know precisely where their land was, but like much of the Brecks, it was acquired by the Ministry of Defence after World War II, and today probably lies within the huge Stanford Training Area Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Peddars Way 1st stage7

And the path goes forever on. Ten miles done, and much more of the Peddars Way lies ahead.

Peddars Way 1st stage5

Thursday Thoughts: Fox

Mersey with book

Rescued fox Mersey modelling my book courtesy of the Highland Fox Sanctuary

A fox has trotted past the George Orwell statue that guards the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Its image is on paper, and its soul is – I trust – glimpsed through my words. It’s October 2018, and The Hidden World of the Fox has brought to the wild to the city, and me to the media.

These foxes – nature’s orange thread woven through puddled streets that we presume to know – enchant us, puzzle us, and occasionally frighten us. I wrote Fox because their stories were worthy to be heard. I wanted to share my observations and unlock the science from the inaccessible journals where it often hides. And also, of course, to reflect on the occasional public concerns about a raw wild animal loose in a world designed for people, and promote the idea that we can find constructive ways to share space.

Three years on, and Fox is now sold across multiple continents and languages, a reminder of the species’ staggering natural range – and unshakable hold on our thoughts. Sometimes they stare at me, and I could fantasise that they know of their wider fame: Ylvis, Aesop, The Animals of Farthing Wood, modern takes on aurora myths, and so much more. But they are too busy bothering magpies, stealing dog toys and shrieking cold wrath at each other.

Foxes snow squabble 8 Feb 21

Foxes may ignore authors and scientists, but the feeling is not mutual. Research continues apace. A recent study from Spain concludes that foxes can help the beleaguered Eurasian wildcat by separating it from free-roaming domestic cats, with which it is prone to hybridise (although there will be many things that affect wildcat survival, and the study seems limited). Research in Germany examines social perception and tolerance of foxes, as did a paper that I co-authored in the UK. In the media, the likely connection between foxes and the so-called M25 Cat Killer continues to do the rounds in waves of misunderstanding.

They’re doing well enough in towns, expanding into previously scarcely-colonised British cities, but are probably in decline in the countryside. The rabbit collapse is likely to be part of that story, especially given that alternative food like voles, berries and invertebrates are under pressure from agriculture and other intensive land uses.

But there are still foxes on the edge of our world, writing something wild into our shadows.

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

Sleep

Noun:

  1. a condition of body and mind that typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.
  2. a dormouse.

Dormouse1 23 Oct 21

Technically, this little one is in torpor, a kind of day-hibernation that occurs on the edges of their active season. It will soon go to ground properly, heading to the woodland floor to weave a tight nest about itself and disappear until March or even May.

Sleep well.

Dormouse2 23 Oct 21

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.

***

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

***

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.

***

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.

Year of Deer

It’s been a summer of overcast skies, but such as it was, it is now departing. Hazel leaves have a golden edge and a few fungi are venturing forth. Red deer will be bellowing, fallow deer clashing antlers – but the little roe deer quietly feeding, its own rut long since done. 

I’ve been catching this family on my trailcam all summer. The doe dropped her twin fawns in May, and now they’ve just about outgrown their white spots. Their mother is probably pregnant again, but her embryos will not start to develop until January. Roe deer are the only deer to use this strategy of delayed implantation, but it serves them well. Much better to use autumn fattening up for the winter than fighting over mates. 

Roe deer seek woodland edges; water deer opt for the marsh.

Water deer 12 Sept 21

Water deer are not a social species – the bucks actively dislike each other, and the does loosely congregate at best. Like roe deer, they are small, and they easily melt into the reeds. 

As for muntjac: they accept any habitat. This is one of my garden guests!

They’re all changing with the seasons. Roe deer will moult into sombre grey pelts before long. Hopefully I’ll find their giant cousins before the autumn is done.