The Unseen

“Quite so,” Sherlock Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe…That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” – A Scandal in Bohemia

And I know that there were two foxes beside a lane busy with walkers and cyclists last week, because, well, I was looking for them, and one tends to see what one is looking for.

Fox snow rest 7 Jan 20

Here’s the first, a very large male fox which I didn’t recognise. Almost certainly, he is a visitor from outside the parish who is wandering in hope of meeting a vixen or two; we are right at the peak of the breeding season. He saw many people that afternoon, but they were oblivious to him.

And here’s the second, a much younger male who is a local resident.

Fox watching at dusk2 7 Jan 20

He, too, went unnoticed by the family cycling by, and a walker with music buds in her ears. And if people want to walk through the countryside glued to their phones, they have every right to do so of course; but what is the accumulative effect of missing so much? 

We see, in the spirit of Dr Watson, that the Surrey Hills are green and pretty. We do not observe, as Holmes would have us, that goldfinches sing from the telephone wires and herb-robert brightens roadsides in the spring, that roe deer have left footprints in the mud and woodcock display over quiet fields at night. Therefore, we also do not notice how ‘tidiness’, over-mowing, over grazing and hedgerow cutting are impoverishing us. It doesn’t matter if we cannot put names to all the species we see; simply observing them and acknowledging their uniqueness is the key to their world.

When we do slow down, take a break from social media, turn off the music, we observe the most marvellous things.

Spider web 10 Jan 21

It may be a bit late for a New Year resolution, but here is a challenge: every time you go out for a lockdown walk, find just one natural thing – even as small as a spider’s web – and think about how it fits into the grander tapestry. 

Of Work and Play

Foxes personify elegant mystery, a touch of the alien in our familiar streets. That photo of the ‘ghost’ in the mist in my last post has become one of the most popular that I’ve ever shared on Facebook, but there is another side to Fox: whimsical, obsessive…shoe-loving.

“Why?” is the thought that comes to many minds. Science cannot interview foxes to ascertain their motives. It can, however, confirm that foxes adore shoes, all shoes, everywhere in the world it seems. Some, like the vixen jokingly called ‘Imelda’ in Germany, become specialists in it and collect hundreds. A couple of winters ago, one fox in my village took five wellington boots.

And even in remote corners of the world, in lands like India’s Thar Desert – where people blend with mirages over the salty flats – there are thefts.

p1c desert fox shoe

Because there are foxes.

p1 desert fox1

A captured shoe is typically chewed, tossed about, urinated on and abandoned. Adults are at least as prone to this behaviour as cubs. The leathery texture might be pleasant for their mouths, but in truth they readily snatch any ‘toy’ that we leave within their grasp. Gloves, dog toys, footballs – if they can lift it, they will play with it. The portrayal of Swiper in Dora the Explorer is not really unreasonable.

They retain their moments of frivolity, even as the breeding season peaks. Scent-marking continues in the woods, and their barks echo through the chill damp at night.

Our world has ground to a standstill again, but theirs keeps on turning.

Ghost

Fox mist 1 Jan 21

The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.

January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.

Squirrel breakfast 1 Jan 21

They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.

I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.

Red squirrel IoW 23 May 2019

Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.

Albino squirrel 1 Jan 21

We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.

I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.

Eye in the Wood

Yesterday, I nearly overtook a stubbornly tinkling ice cream van while walking down a lane feathered with shed leaves. And today it rained from a clear-ish sky before the west was underlit with pink as if the clouds were full of rosewater. Windy? Sunny? Puddles? The seasons seem uncertain where they are heading, like so many of the people wandering beneath them.

I’ve got a couple of trail cams out at the moment, and they too are having unpredictable times. As the temperature drops, so does the activity of our summer specialists: bats, hedgehogs, and above all dormice. I don’t know what kind of summer dormice have had; covid put paid to the nestbox surveys. This one at least looks well fed and ready for a good winter’s hibernation.

I catch footage of dormice every now and again, but it’s not easy. Not only are they a nationally threatened species that exists at low numbers even in the best habitat, but they also tend to keep high in the trees. This one was relatively low down on a fallen trunk, possibly searching for a hibernation spot. They weave winter nests at ground level where the temperature stays steadier.

At the other end of the size scale, this ghost of a deer.

Fallow deer. I did a double take but no, it’s a definitely a fallow deer, of what’s called the ‘menil’ colour type. Fallows can in fact be almost white, almost black, or (more commonly) sandy-brown with white spots, but they are very rare visitors to my part of the hills. A mature buck sports massive palmate antlers but this is only a ‘teenager’, and he’s probably on his way out of the valley by now. 

Not to be outdone, kingdom bird offered a woodcock in the fallow’s wake. This desperately shy woodland wader is another species that I stumble across only rarely. Like dormice, they are mostly active at night, and like fallow deer, they are on the move; this one probably flew in from the continent. 

Tawny owls, however, stay put.

Snapshot_1

As the trees grow bare and the foxes start courting, owl cries echo in the night – they search for mates from autumn onwards. 

Nature tries to keep to some of its old patterns, even as we wonder about ours.

 

Grassland Paintbox

There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.

Golden waxcap1 30 Oct 20

The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, overgrazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.

Golden waxcap is the most common.

Golden waxcap2 30 Oct 20

Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.

Blackening waxcap2 30 Oct 20

But it soon changes.

Blackening waxcap 30 Oct 20

Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.

Scarlet waxcap 30 Oct 20

There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.

Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.

Fly agaric 30 Oct 20

What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.

Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.

Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1

Sabretooth of the Marshes

Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.

Strumpshaw 15 Oct 20

Acle rainbow

Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?

Chinese water deer tusk

Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.

Water deer1 15 Oct 20

Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach. 

Water deer2 15 Oct 20

This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.

Water deer3 15 Oct 20

They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.

And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.

Grey heron 15 Oct 20

And the skies keep tripping over themselves.

Hickling Broad

Now You See Me

Or maybe not.

Fawn and Bran 10 Sept 20

Let’s start at the beginning, or at least as close to it as I can fit in a single blog post. The Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire glow honey-yellow with oolite, a Jurassic limestone that brightens paths and hides people – the latter within England’s prettiest houses, the former extending thousands of miles through what is likely to become a new national park.

Cotswolds footpath

I was walking one of those paths earlier this week, winding through slate-capped villages, admiring hedgerows crammed with wild fruit, evading curious farm animals, seeing an apple tree or two. 

House Cotswolds

But there came a moment when my friend and I, plus a large dog, were carefully navigating the boggy ground near a spring. I looked up, and there it was.

Roe deer fawn 10 Sept 20

A roe deer fawn – four months old and still spotted, and still doing precisely what its mother would ask of it: bed down and pretend to be a statue. This is a photo with my iPhone! Despite both being highly experienced wildlife trackers, we were that close before we were aware of it. And astonishingly, the dog was entirely oblivious to his company.

We moved past swiftly and quietly, coming within four feet – we had no choice, the stile forced us that way – yet the baby did not abandon its strategy, and still the dog failed to see it. Navigation successful, we left it to Mother’s return.

Roe deer fawn2 10 Sept 20

It seems incredible, but it is a strategy that deer deploy all over the world to avoid wolves, foxes and other wild canids. Very young roe deer are odourless, but this one must be past that stage. Dogs are extremely sensitive to movement, but have more difficulty in identifying stationary objects. That said, I have seen my own dog spot sleeping cats on several occasions. 

Regardless, it was a strange and beautiful insight into the roe deer’s world of dewy fields and tangled copses.

Cotswolds

Turning Seasons

Strange thing, September. For the last two years, autumn has appeared to start precisely on the 1st. The air cools, the mornings are sweeter, and the last swallows hunt over dewy fields. And woodlands acquire that watercolour glow.

Autumn comes

Water – rainwater – is what fungi need, but last year’s switch from dryness to extreme undying rain produced few. I hope we have more of a show this year, and the boletes have already fruited, carpeting the road verge with otherworldly glory.

Bolete 5 Sept 20

And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.

Fox stepping WF 31 Aug 20

Window on the Wild

Fox intense 22 Aug 20

Judging books by their covers, or something like that. They say that eyes are windows into the soul, and there’s a jolt in the raw intensity of a fox. But this one’s apparent mood is misleading; he has diluted pupils due to low light levels, not because he feels as sharp as a cat that has spied its favourite ball.

The fox physique is often misunderstood. Trotting across a road, they seem much bigger than their 14in high selves. And what about their fur? We are taught the fox uniform from childhood: fluffy, sleek, maybe dusted with snow.

Fox in snow

Not at the moment, that’s for certain. The male fox with his intense eyes is sporting the almost skin-tight fur of late summer, although the weather is cooling fast and his sleekness will soon abandon him.

Fox in summer 22 Aug 20

The adaptability of foxes is a multidimensional marvel. Not only can they live from the Arctic circle to Saudi Arabia, and eat everything from earthworms to hackberries to wolf-killed deer, they also react to the seasons in a way that our lives in climate-controlled houses find alien. True, our outdoor clothing thickens as the year grows old, but generally we change our whole outfits at once, not from the toes upward.

Half a moult

The Canadian province of Saskatchewan has some of the most extreme seasons on Earth, and this fox – who I met some years ago – has to cope with anything between -50c and +45c. In England, their moults are a little less ragged, but it is still not uncommon for a fox losing its winter coat to be incorrectly suspected of having mange.

Conversely, these perfectly healthy foxes in Croatia (where I worked in 2017) look skinny because the unbearable heat of Dalmatia denies them a thick coat.

For every season, there is a fox, and it wears its own fashion.