Sunday, 24 December 2017

Local patch 23

On a bright and brittle December morning, fortified by hot chocolate and wearing not quite enough clothes, we made our way along the high street. It was the week before Christmas and Topsham was twinkling. But we weren't Christmas shopping, we were going on a cruise! The water of the estuary glittered as we stepped onto the little ferry. It was very cold.

As we headed down the river our expert RSPB guides, both conveniently called John, talked about the Exe Estuary: an internationally important area which is protected because of the waders and water fowl that flock there in their thousands during the winter. It is all about the nutrient-rich mud, apparently. And the mild climate! A chill wind whipped off the water, icing fingers to binoculars and tugging at loose scarves and hats, but the birds from the High Arctic, from frozen northern Europe, Siberia and Iceland and were happy in the ice-free waters.

The Johns were able to give clear and practical hints to help with spotting and identification and so we chugged contentedly between shining banks of silt. Curlew spiked their long beaks into the soft mud for worms; bright turnstones turned stones, sanderling and dunlin fussed and rushed across the surface. There were large groups of godwits - black tailed and bar tailed - resting. Flocks of lapwing flipped and dipped in the air; their calls were shredded by the wind and bounced back to us along with the curlew's haunting cry and the piping of the oyster catcher. The mud smelled of salt and minerals. From our vantage point in the middle of the river we had fantastic views of grey plover, redshank and greenshank And there were avocets everywhere in large feeding flocks. The emblematic bird is smart and elegant. The tall black and white wader has steel blue legs and a long, slender bill which turns up at the end. They swoosh this perfectly shaped tool through the sediment on the edge of a rising tide to find worms and tiny crustaceans. We gazed, entranced.

After such a satisfying haul of waders, two very special ducks caught our attention. A spectacular male pintail stood proudly as we cruised slowly by, cameras clicking. As we neared the turn in the river, we were accompanied by a small group of red-breasted merganser - the fabulous diving duck. Its tousled bottle-green head and slender, red saw-bill were unmistakable.

The Exe Estuary is a rich feeding ground for so many species of watery bird and getting out onto the river affords excellent views of many of them, without causing disturbance. But don't be fooled by talk of a mild climate: I was chilled to the marrow for hours afterwards. Do go. Do wear lots of clothes!

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Local patch 22

Bilbo and I ran across Aller Moor yesterday morning in the pink pearl dawn. The winter sky was ice cream colours as the sun rose. Ice clicked and crunched under my boots. As we reached the end of the drove road, a dozen little egrets took flight from the rhyne where they were fishing. Their pure white feathers glowed rose in the rising sun. These beautiful white herons are a recent addition to our landscape with some 700 breeding pairs here now. They have spread along the south coast and their territory is gradually pushing northwards. We are accustomed to seeing them. Numbers swell to more than 4000 birds during the winter. And they have been joined in Britain, much more recently, by two other white herons: the great egret and the rarer cattle egret. Their presence must be a sign of our changing climate, and that is worrying. But they do add an exotic elegance to our waterways!

Other winter visitors made their presence known too. Redwings called 'tseep tseep' overhead and the fieldfares chuckled. They are feasting on the hawthorn and rosehips. A small group of green sandpipers shot away from Bilbo on the water meadows. Their piping call is typical of the winter countryside. A pair of raven cronked as they passed, and along the Sowy River there were grey wagtail flitting and hunting.

The trees are bare now and they have revealed their hidden treasure: huge globes of mistletoe. In this land of apple trees, it is widespread. It hangs in perfect spheres of bright lime green leaves and ice coloured berries. The trees have their own baubles. We associate it with Christmas and bring it into our homes to hang above our doorways. We enjoy bringing the outside indoors during this darkest season of the year. Linked with ancient fertility rituals, we welcome friends and family with a kiss. But this hemiparasite is not a good neighbour; dense infestation eventually damages the host trees. Many berry eating birds feast on it and pass the seeds to other sites. Our mistle thrush takes its name from the mistletoe - but today, among the other winter thrushes, the mistle thrush was absent.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Local patch 21

As it weaves through the storybox of the Levels, willow (Salix) is part of this ancient landscape. Preserved deep in the peat, willows have been discovered along the tracks and trails of prehistory. For as long as we have needed something to put stuff in - willow has been woven into baskets. It has its own language: spiling and stripple and withy. And you find it in unlooked for places: under the bearskins of the Guardsmen; transporting racing pigeons; batting at Lords; catching eel and lobster. Living willow sculptures grace our schoolyards and support our river banks. As velvety charcoal it is used by artists. Ground into tea or aspirin tablets it is effective against pain and fever. We can sit on it and shelter under it. And at the end of days, it can carry us to the grave and cradle us in the earth. We, too, are woven in willow.

The Somerset willow harvest starts in November, as soon as the first frosts have stripped the leaves from the stems. Fresh green willow can be used by artists and garden designers to make their living domes and tunnels and wigwams. Other willow is graded, dried and stored in bundles. The brown keeps its bark, the buff is boiled and stripped. Spring harvested willow is stripped and sold as white willow - the finest and most expensive. 

We gathered nervously at Musgrove Willows on a bright, raw November morning and listened to the safety briefing: the secateurs are very sharp; the withies are long and whippy. Be careful you don't poke someone in the eye or slip on the cuttings. Who knew willow weaving was so dangerous? We smiled encouragingly at each other. It feels brave to try a new skill: children do it all the time but somehow, during the hurry of adult life, we forget to try new things. Our tutor was confident and clear and generous with his help and advice. Gradually we found a rhythm. It is a lovely material to work with. Forgiving. Natural. We tied and twisted, went with the flow. The workshop was quiet, filled with sunlight and thoughts. We bent to collect bundles of 6' brown withies and our spirals grew from the floor. The weave got tighter and neater as our movements became more automatic. The butt goes here, the tip goes there, follow the line, this one under that one ... 
Our thoughts stretch and twine with the rhythm and the movement. We are woven in the willow.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Local patch 20

In this week of All Souls and All Saints, the Levels and Moors have worn their own shroud. Thick fog hugs the land and gathers along the waterways. It is shape shifting and sense changing. Sound perspectives alter. Is the hooting owl close by? How far away is that barking dog?

Bilbo and I ran along the deep lanes in the early morning. There is a lot of mud. The rooks circled above us, their rough voices loud in the thick air. The trees are newly nude, showing their bare bones again. Bill dodged around a patch of strong scent where the fox had recently paused. A broad flick of white above a glossy black tail revealed the bullfinch deep in the hawthorn. There was a kerfuffle in the spindly top of the hedge and a sparrowhawk appeared above us, twisted and plunged into the lane. Barred chocolate and cream, its strong, sharp wings shot it along the hedgerow, low - like a bullet. Blackbirds called alarm from their prickly lookouts and the squabbling sparrows stilled. It punched a hole through the air and the fog closed up around it, as if it had never existed. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Local patch 19

O open up your heartwood to us will you, willow, 
show your deep within, your rough without, 
your water-brushing bough, your shoot, your grain, your knot?
(Macfarlane & Morris, 2017)

Back home, with our feet firmly on the ground again, I drive across the misty Somerset Levels. Her pollard willows are a feature of this flat iron landscape. Traces of the ancient craft survive and willow beds are tended and harvested for fences and hampers and coffins. It is a renewable, sustainable raw material. The stubby trunks line the ditches and rhynes that march across the levels and moors. They sprout bright new growth: gelled up hair, standing in surprise. 

And between the willows, small gangs of 'ghostly swirling surging whirling melting' starlings (Macfarlane & Morris, 2017) are arrowing to their feeding or roosting grounds. They are gathering on the wires and in the trees, expectant. 
Let the murmurations begin!

(Macfarlane, R & Morris, J, 2017, The Lost Words, Penguin Random House UK)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Back there - again!

Autumn half term and we are back in God's own country. The Yorkshire Dales pull us and we make an annual pilgrimage. Briefly, we exchange the wonderful flatlands of the Somerset Levels for the harsh and high ground of the Howgill Fells and Western Dales. It is a time to visit old haunts and dear friends, to climb familiar fells and try some new ones. We remind ourselves that we still feel comfortable in the hills and explore the tension between here and there; where shall we settle?

Autumn has outpaced us up here; her colours are already bright and fiery. Ophelia crashed through at the beginning of the week, and started the stripping and piling of loose leaves. The next day was bright and ragged and we climbed Arant Haw (605m), behind Sedbergh, heading for The Calf (676m). But Ophelia still ruled the high places, howling up the dale and threatening to toss us from the ridge. We retreated over Winder (473m) and back to safety. Raven cronked and shouted in spirals, mocked and mobbed by crow and jackdaw. A stoat, in bright chestnut, shot across the path and Bilbo hunted and pounced on voles in the hissing grasses.

Under a red hurricane sun, we topped Great Knoutberry (672m), high above Dentdale. We ate a brief picnic in swirling, sepia cloud and squelched down through thigh-deep, sucky mud. Golly, there has been a lot of rain up there!

On a gin-clear day we were above Barbondale on Calf Top (609m) - England's newest mountain. On top of the world, we could see the Lakeland fells and Morecombe Bay. Pipits accompanied us across the rocky top; buzzard and kestrel tipped and swung on the breeze.

In a suntrap in the garden of our stone cottage, a red squirrel watched us with large, bright eyes. We could see his flame-coloured fur, cream belly and sharp, tufted ears. People love their red squirrels. They are proud of them here; tin signs on tree trunks throughout the valleys alert us to their presence. Drive carefully - look out - let's protect them.

At the end of the week there was an endless walk (23km) out of Dent and up onto the mighty Whernside (736m) which left us feeling accomplished and wanting more, but we could see nothing from the top.I have never seen the view from the top of Whernside; I will just have to keep going back.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Local patch 18

The large walnut tree in the garden is gnarled and looks ancient. It is too close to the house and its spreading shade causes problems in the veg patch and salad beds. But we love it. It makes its presence known all year. Its kinked twigs are brittle and lichen covered. The rooks crash around in the spring, breaking off chunks and dragging them back to their tangled nests in the churchyard. At leaf burst and when the pollen flies, the tree is alive with finches and tits, clambering and picking their way around the canopy, feasting. In the summer the woodpecker families hammer into its branches and trunk, or use it as a staging post before they approach the peanut feeders. In early summer the first crop of small, green walnuts fall. These are the walnuts that you pickle. They are collected whole, complete with their leathery green jackets, before the shell has formed inside. They are pricked and brined for a fortnight and then spread in the sun to dry. Once they turn black, they can be packed into jars and topped up with vinegar. They are great in a venison casserole!

And right now it is doing what it does best - dropping mature walnuts onto the lawn. We stamp on them to remove the outer jackets and shake the nuts onto a tray by the fire to dry and keep until Christmas. We bag some up and share with neighbours - a fair swap for their bramleys and figs. Our walnuts are small and I don't know why. Perhaps the tree is old or needs pruning. But there are plenty of them and they taste great in a blue cheese salad or smashed together with handfuls of basil and grated Parmesan to make pesto.

The rooks come back at this time of year, curving in to the top of the tree. They fly away with a whole nut in their great beaks; they always take the same route out - diagonally down the garden and straight out across the moor behind the house. I wonder whether they are burying a stash ready for the winter. Perhaps one day a grove of young walnut trees will rise up through the mist out on the moor - tended and watched over by their rooky gardeners.

Squirrels feast in its branches too. They dart along the willow fence and make a dash for the trunk before the dog notices them. And they dig their treasure into the lawn, carefully memorising the pattern and position of their precious hoard.

How good then, that in this generous harvest there is enough for everybody!

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Local patch 17

Westhay Moor NNR, on the northern edge of the Avalon Marshes, is one of those gentle places. We go to stretch our eyes and rest our minds.Pencil straight tracks cut through wet woodland and raised bogs. The precious and rare lowland acid mire is home to our carnivorous sundews as well as bog myrtle, marsh pennywort, sphagnum moss, reeds and sedges. Sometimes there are groups of students there, surveying the scarce habitat. Armed with quadrants, they count the species: reeds are round and sedges have edges.

The old peat workings have been replanted and remade into acres of reedbed and quiet, mirrored pools. There is the sound of waterfowl fussing from deep among the stems, dipping and dabbling and dousing. The wind is a long in-drawn hiss of breath in the reeds - always. Their plumy heads are bruise purple now, fading to cream as the year draws to a close.

The air is gentle with the promise of rain on the breeze and pillows of cloud soften the sky. Autumn is lurking in the woodland, beginning to gild the leaves and fattening the fruit. I can smell it approaching. Large metallic dragonflies with sugar spun wings glitter and and hunt over the water and there are still some late swallows in the sky. We watch a couple of sparrowhawks spiral upwards above the tree line. A kingfisher sits up on a stump and we are captured, breathless and immobile until it buzzes away.

This week we are hunting for the bearded tit or reedling. We have looked for them often but they are elusive. They are always present at Westhay, but in the spring and summer they stay hidden, hunting for insects and spiders to feed their young in nests built low in the reeds.They are easiest to see in the autumn when they band together in big groups and swing from the reed heads picking at the seeds. They need to eat grit at this time of year to help grind up their seedy diet and so we scan the paths and tracks in hope. Reserves put grit trays near the paths to encourage them.

A flurry in the reeds ahead makes us crunch to a halt, swiveling our binoculars. We can hear the radar-ping of the beardies as they flutter through. A flash of bright chestnut is all I get; there is no time to focus on the pale grey head, striking black moustache and yellow beak. But what a splendid bird!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Local patch 16

I quietened bouncing Bilbo and pulled him to me as the horse approached. From her lofty position, the rider hailed me, "I'm scrumping!", she hooted. "I have been riding these lanes for 20 years and I have tried the apples from all the gardens. The apples here are the best - by a country mile." From her vantage point she was ideally placed to check out the harvest in each garden. She picked one from the top of the tree and took a bite. "Actually", she continued, "I insist that you try this". She threw it down to me and I obediently munched and we agreed that it was good. In the county of apples and cider, it was very, very good.

Apples and orchards are a vital part of the landscape and culture of the Somerset Levels. Cider making is big business and corporate, but also traditional and small scale. You can take your plastic bottle to the cider farm and have it refilled with scrumpy for a few pounds. The cider is rough and cloudy, it tastes of pith and pip; it tastes of the land.

The wild winter hedgerows shine with red and gold apples. I used to think that they were old, wild varieties but an orchard-man told me that they were there because apple cores had been thrown from cars. Nevertheless, they hang in the autumn fog like Christmas baubles between the tinsel of Old man's beard (Clematis vitalba) and our native honeysuckle or woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum). The hedgerows are stuffed full this month. Closely related to apples, hips and haws have been part of our landscape and medicine boxes for hundreds of years. Now, they provide a winter feast for blackbirds and flocks of visiting thrushes. 

Once, I made rosehip syrup for my new baby. It is packed full of vitamin C and I was enchanted by the idea of natural food, no preservatives and zero food miles. But I read about the irritant fibres in the rosehips and, despite my careful muslin straining, I was too timid to give it too him! On safer ground, I reach for sloes and brambles and wild plums. We stack our kitchens with chutneys, syrups, jams and jellies which glow from the larder shelves in jewel colours.

Ancient hedges are rich and diverse. They provide food and shelter for wildlife: green corridors, rotting logs, pollen, berries. The Barbie-pink spindle (Euonymus europaeus) berries are bright this month. Deadly, beautiful and fascinating the small trees grow very hard wood - once used for making wool spindles. The more familiar sloes (Prunus spinosa) are fattening nicely. The foliage is a valuable food source for many moths and the savage thorns make the wood useful for spiny, inpenetrable fences. Now, we wait for the first frosts to bloom the skins and sweeten the flesh, before we pierce them and marinate them in gin.

A recent ramble also brought me to this beauty: chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphurous) or sulphur shelf fungus. This gorgeous bracket fungus was nearly a metre in height and shone amber and gold in the late summer sunshine. This one looked young and fresh; the fanlike layers were plump and flexible. Some say that it tastes like chicken but I left it intact. Maybe next time?

Monday, 28 August 2017

Local patch 15

In between the squally showers that we are enjoying in August, I crunch down the path to the washing line with a basket. It is a tedious task. The house has been full this summer and the laundry is constant. The washing machine complains and rocks when it spins; invisible parts grind and groan - it is on its last legs. As am I, I think. Until I remember that I haven't scrubbed and rinsed and mangled any of this by hand, as my grandmother would have done.

This morning I paused by the giant sunflower which has seeded itself from the bird feeders and watched a wren creep up its thick, hairy stem, picking and pecking at the tiny mites and spiders. She was so confident that she moved on to the sweet pea tower. I could see her fierce beak and bright eye. Every tawny colour and stripe was clear, especially that russet tail angling away from her body, as she quickly explored the pea vines and flowers. The wren is a scurrying bird, often seen dashing across the road and disappearing into the safety of the hedge, like a fizzing, busy mouse. And so I focused tightly and totally. To the right, a huge pink hebe has taken over one of the beds; this morning it was buzzing with furry bees. I stood still and breathed deeply, engrossed in the tiny things. The beauty of holidays is not that the chores go away, but that there is also time to stop and notice. There is time to breathe and think, and time to acknowledge and celebrate the secret life that is always busy around us.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Local patch 14

Bilbo, the labradoodle, and I do a last patrol of the garden at night. He needs to sniff and pee and check his territory. I need to lock up the chickens. We love the warm evenings, but there haven't been many of those recently, have there?

We look for the bats above the garden. Somerset is home to 15 of the 17 resident UK bat species. And we have seen several varieties above the garden, acrobatting around the walnut tree. A few years ago we bought a small bat detector - little more than a toy - and have had fun trying to judge who is making which noise! A tawny owl often calls from the trees on the field edge and last year there was a family of barn owls branching out in the neighbouring barns. But this year's washout summer has curtailed our night time wildlife watching. However, last week I noticed Bilbo behaving strangely on the moonlit lawn. He was dancing around the leaves and stems and I thought perhaps he was chasing moths. As I swivelled the torch I saw his prickly problem, he had found a large hedgehog. It balled up under the giant scabious, and by the time I had run in to call the (sleeping) family, it had trundled off. A couple of nights later, Bilbo found it again. I scooted him out of reach and watched quietly. Its sides heaved rhythmically and it slowly uncurled and tested the air. I saw its furry face and shiny blackberry nose. What a delight. Hedgehog numbers have declined so sharply in recent decades that they are now on our list of most endangered species. We have never seen one in the garden before but we are now on hog alert. We are quickly auditing the garden to make sure it is hedgehog friendly: now we have an excuse for all those untidy corners! It needs undisturbed places to rest and roost. We are glad that we have not used any toxic slug pellets his year. This one looked large and healthy - I hope he comes back soon.

Bilbo, the hedgehog hunter!

Local patch 13

Over a couple of weekends, in the dog days of summer, Ham Wall arranges canoe trips through its watery rhynes and channels. It is a chance to peer deep into the reed beds and experience parts of the reserve that are usually closed. They are popular trips and the 256 slots book up quickly. It is a quiet time in the reed beds. Mating rituals are a distant memory, populations are reasonably stable, chicks have hatched, and young have fledged or swum away. The swallows are still with us and we have not started to think (very much) about autumn migrations and our whirling, wintering starlings.

Canoeists are met at the visitor centre and welcomed to the reserve. We walk the small groups (about 16 per time) along the disused railway line beside the canal. As we pass the first viewing platform we note the moorhen and coot families on the reduced pools. A marsh harrier quarters above the reeds. There is always a marsh harrier. We turn across the canal. A large group of mute swans, perhaps 40 or 50 have moved in and the banks are slippery with mud and feathers from their group preening. As we chat, several visitors confess to feeling nervous - mostly about getting in and out of the canoes! Deep in the reserve, we are met at the jetty by the Reserve Warden who accompanies the trips and describes the wildlife and habitats, and by the canoe instructor. After a quick guide to paddling, visitors are clicked into buoyancy aids and loaded into the large, stable Canadian canoes. There is the slap of water against hull. The large wooden paddles clunk against the sides and splash on the water; canoes bump gently against each other as everyone finds their balance and rhythm. Excited chatter and nervous laughter quietens as they concentrate on moving forwards. Some people paddle off confidently, others turn in gentle circles or head resolutely into the reeds. Gradually the group moves away, leaving small waves and increasingly wide ripples. Fish flip on the surface, ducks hoot and gabble in the stems. 

Groups return with huge grins and usually paddling confidently. Time spent on the water has been peaceful and relaxing. Some have close encounters with kingfishers, several see bitterns and some groups are lucky enough to be accompanied by clans of bearded tits. But most comment on the quiet rhythms of the water and the hiss of the wind in the reeds.

This year's canoe trips have been popular and fun. The 'dog days' of summer have not been hot and sultry yet but our canoeists have enjoyed themselves, whatever the weather.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Other people's wilds - somewhere new

We drove North until the road ran out, heading to an ancient and windswept realm. 
Caithness ends at the Pentland Firth, with its eddies and swirls and tidal races. It is treacherous and violent water. Viking lore says that when the sea witch turns her grinding-wheels, the Swelkie whirlpool swallows small craft and careless seamen. Even large ships can be tossed and turned and pushed off course.

There are about 70 Orkney Islands, most of which are tiny and uninhabited. Little ferries connect some of the most remote. The main islands are linked by giant stone causeways, built by prisoners of war to protect the naval fleet in the great natural harbour at Scapa Flow. By blocking and redirecting the tides, the barriers have created rich dune and beach habitats. Colonies of little terns nest on the pebbles among the thrift and sea lavender, and hunt in the shallows with their Arctic cousins. Little ringed plover and sanderling dance on the shore, flighty and reactive.


It is a place of ancient stones and stories. Mesolithic nomads left behind their traces; neolithic people settled and farmed. They created sacred spaces: great stone rings, ceremonial tombs and drinking halls. Marking the movement of the sun, they saw the moon grow fat and charted the spinning stars. They felt the earth grow warm and watched the seasons change. And they made sense of it in their story and song and art. And now, for eight weeks every summer, their homes are uncovered and our archaeologists try to make sense of their world.

We were absorbed by pre-history, myth and legend. We walked around the precious sites to hear the whispers in the shadows. It felt strange and wild and very far away. Around every headland there was a beach of silver sand, fragrant with bracken and dog rose and seaside herbs. A million seabirds cried to the wind. Fulmar turned and angled along the shore. Guillemot, kittiwake and puffin clung to the cliffs and great skuas patrolled. They flew at our heads and tried to keep us away, swooping in steep dipping dives; they pivoted on the air and came again, and again. Hen harriers, precious and rare, were mobbed by lapwing. The short eared owl, cat-faced and easy to see, breeds well on Orkney. There are around 70 breeding pairs hunting above the grassy meadows, gorging themselves on the successful vole population. But for us, the honey-coloured owl stayed hidden. A reason, perhaps, to return. Orkney is a place full of stories. It is very windy and very, very far away. It is definitely worth the journey.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Other people's wilds - somewhere old

For several years we lived  within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. We left our hearts there and visit often. Excitement rises as we get closer - those first breaths of mountain air are (nearly) better than champagne. Some places just feel like home; we breathe easily and sleep deeply there. And we wake to the sound of the swallows chattering under the eaves. Normal, daily attire is walking boots and waterproofs. I love that.
It feels like a place to stay fit in; it feels like a place to stay fit for. During the first few miles we feel our calves and thighs burning. Hearts thud and then steady as we find a rhythm. Boots slip and grip: peat hag, gritstone path, close-contoured climbs and breezy, springy tops. Amid the much loved names and places we try some new peaks. We climb Great Shunner Fell in the cloud, quickly eating a picnic in the windbreak with cold, damp fingers. Great Whernside is a gorgeous steep climb out of Kettlewell, we are quickly on the top and then rewarded by a meandering return and spectacular descent. From Nine Standards Rigg there is a 360 degree view: we see Blencathra in the Lakes and as far as the Northern Pennines. We stretch our eyes and unravel our minds.

Smartly black and white, with vermillion lacquered bills and legs, oystercatchers are nesting. They feed in the high pastures and line up on the stone walls to call a warning. Curlew cry in the wind and lapwing dip and dive. There are red grouse and sandpipers too. Yellowhammer, skylark, wheatear and ring ousel complete our upland itinerary. Along the tea-coloured rivers, we look for our favourite locals: a dipper, a grey wagtail; and is it too soon for goosander?

We talk away the miles. The stomp of boots on the ground seems to free the tongue and the mind. We remind ourselves how much we love it here. We ask each other why we left. We plot and plan our return.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Local patch 12

An early July day dawned bright and sunny. But by the time the yellow coach arrived at the car park, the sky was many shades of grey and the air was wet. Everything was wet. But none of this dampened the enthusiasm of the fifty-three 6&7 year-olds who scrambled out of their school bus and crunched across our wildflower-filled car park.

They were dressed for the occasion: sunhats served as rain-visors and they unpacked waterproofs from their bright backpacks. Year 2 was here for mini-beasts and pond dipping and a rainy start was not going to put anyone off!

In the mini-marshes they sat under a temporary event shelter and heard about the basic needs of plants and animals. They agreed that animals needed food, water, air and shelter. They used words like habitat, herbivore and predator and thought about the best places to find their mini-beasts. Then, armed with beaters, trays, magnifiers and identification keys they were off. 'The big question, guys, is has it got legs?' and then 'has it got 6 legs?'. They learnt how to identify insects and molluscs, beetles and spiders.

After a quick picnic lunch they reconvened at the dipping platform on the pond. Under the watchful eyes of teachers, volunteers and adult helpers they learnt how to kneel sensibly by the pond and dip their nets without flicking each other. Nobody fell in. Again, beasts were collected, observed and identified. The children concentrated hard. They asked lots of sensible questions and were respectful of the environment, although mild hysteria did break out when a large harvestman spider crawled across the groundsheet at lunchtime.

There is great environmental work going on in the Schools on Reserves programme. Sessions are carefully and appropriately planned with strong links to learning objectives in the curriculum. Key vocabulary is reinforced, being used in practical situations, and new skills are learnt and rehearsed. But more than this, the children get to have huge fun outdoors. Wonderful Ham Wall cast its spell and wove its magic once again. Come back soon Year 2!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Local patch 11

In June, when the days are as long as they can be, RSPB Ham Wall hosts its annual yoga evening. Last year we were washed out, postponed to a chilly July evening when we creaked our way through the exercises and wrapped up in warm fleeces at the end.

This year we unroll our mats under a blistering sun and quickly seek out the shadier spots. We meet in a small clearing between the elder and alder and willow. Our gentle-voiced instructor suggests stretches and shapes and we put some of the movements together into routines. It is a quiet and peaceful activity. We focus and breathe deeply and let our minds spin. There is the fresh, green smell of plants and leaves and, once on the ground, the warm, mineral scent of the black earth. Beneath our feet the ground has a forgiving, flexible feel. Peat retains water like a vast, vital sponge. We are standing on precious ground. The peat is the remains of ancient mosses and sedges, laid down thousands of years ago. It is formed very slowly and torn up in a heartbeat, and so the reserves of the Avalon Marshes protect it as an endangered habitat.

The sound of the breeze in the reeds is Ham Wall in an earful! It sighs and scrapes and hisses; there is a rustling in the secret depths as the creatures settle for the night. Watery birds gabble and cluck on the pools and in the rhynes. Coots and ducks are fussing and splashing. A cuckoo calls in the distance and, from time to time, a single booming bittern punches the air. The sedge warbler's rambling conversation is the soundtrack of the evening, with Cetti's warblers joining joyfully. Marsh frogs warm up their voices and start their croaky evening song.

We turn our faces to the sun and concentrate on our senses. I visit Ham Wall often, always keen to know the latest sightings: what is about? What will we see today? Visitors ask, 'what can I see and where can I see it'? We fuss with our binoculars or cameras or telescopes, aiming for better views and sharper pictures. How marvellous, then, to spend time with our eyes shut and our ears and hearts open.

Ham Wall is a feast for all the senses.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Local patch 10

A large green woodpecker was yaffling from deep within our walnut tree yesterday. Welcome friend - we haven't seen you here before. More secretly, a huge family of wrens were being acrobats. In the morning they were winding through the stalks of the broad bean plants, picking and pecking. Later in the day I saw them trapezing in the rampant rose on the old wall. I really must cut that back once the flowers have gone ... and the wrens ... and the hips.

Saturday, 10 June 2017


Thank you BBC Wildlife magazine: Blogger of the week this week! There are so many gorgeous local patch blogs to choose from, it's nice to think someone is reading this one!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Local patch 9

On duty this week at ravishing RSPB Ham Wall. We open up the visitor centre and brew a pot of coffee. The hot drinks are popular, as are the flapjacks and brownies.The car park is full early. The mini marshes area is bristling with long lenses, hopefully scoping for the exotic red footed falcon which is hawking among the hobbies.

Ham Wall is marvellous for all kinds of beasties. Dragonflies emerge as the morning warms up: hawkers and chasers and darters. It is a stronghold of the four-spotted chaser, large and easy to identify: all golden wings and those big black spots. During the morning, I have conversations with lots of dragonfly people and determine to learn more.

The new sightings board makes exciting reading at this time of year. The water rail has chicks on the nest, marsh harriers are commonplace as they dip and tip in the soft air, quartering along the edge of the reeds. And everyone has good views of bitterns today. The great white egret plies backwards and forwards across the car park all morning and our beautiful glossy ibis is a regular tick for lots of happy birders. The cattle egret completes our trio of white egrets; smaller than the little egret, he is much rarer. The yellow legs and yellow beak are distinguishing features.

The warblers continue to make their presence known, Cetti's and chiffchaffs shout loudly from the trees around the car park. There is a cuckoo calling regularly all morning. Goldfinches shimmer and tinkle from the feeders behind the visitor centre.

For many people, the presence of our exotic species is overshadowed by one much loved bird - showing regularly all morning. The barn owl is hunting in full daylight along the rhynes and meadows on the reserve.

Halfway through the morning, a visitor approaches from his car,
'I don't say this often,' he says, ' but you have the most stunning car park!' It's true, the meadow planting between the bays is marvellous; right now full of waist-high ox eye daisies.

Ham Wall is simply the best place to be ...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Local, local patch

After weeks of planning, it was a weekend of preparing and cooking and hospitality as we celebrated 80 years well-lived.It was a privilege to mark the milestone with Mum. Last night we slept deeply and woke slowly.Time today to breath quietly, count our blessings and take stock of our own local, local green patch. 

The new pond is wilding nicely. Very gradually the water is clearing, as nature finds her balance. We have planted with native, or near native, species and taken a step back. Already there are pond skaters, lavae and diving beetles. It is a magnet for the birds. Young starlings, softly brown and speckled, are splashing and dipping in the shallow end, washing their brand new feathers. They clamber on the rocks and hide under the leaves like toddlers at a picnic.

Later this afternoon, I noticed a satisfactory conclusion to a little midweek drama! A pair of great spotted woodpeckers have been constant visitors to the peanut feeder. They must be raising a brood, but I can't find the nest. They are aggressive on the nuts; their stabbing beaks chase off the starlings, finches and tits. But they can't bully the rooks. During a rook-full moment, the GSWs waited in the walnut tree and looked for alternative food sources. The great tit nest in the old ivy drew their attention and I watched as they explored the nestbox, tapping the underside and reaching in through the entrance. 

However, today the great tits had fledged. The walnut tree was full of little birds, pale imitations of their parents. They sat, blinking in the bright light and slightly bemused. But the GSWs were only interested in the peanuts.

I stretched out, briefly, in the late afternoon sun and let the garden do its restorative work. The air was vibrant with noise and movement. Insects zummed and thrummed their busy paths. Sparrows and starlings jostled and chattered in noisy groups and the swifts screamed overhead. 

No time, this weekend, for long walks and big views, but our local, local patch has cast its spell. There is plenty going on right here.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Local patch 8

In the pearl dawn, we are rooked. They clamber and cling in the walnut tree, their chieftains standing sentinel on the telegraph poles outside our bedroom window. They thrust their shoulders forward and stretch out their necks and great bony faces. And they caw and rasp and craa. It is a crackle and racket that gradually fills the room and drags me from sweet, soft dreaming. Their insistent notes drown the dawn chorus; I love it. They meet in the walnut tree where they flap and scramble until they can get a turn on the bird feeders. And then they dangle, hooked and stabbing at the fat balls. Some can remove the lid of the feeder and fly away with a whole fat ball, a high calorie breakfast. Until, as if on command, they rise and circle and are gone. They head out of the village to their feeding grounds on Aller Bank where the soft, peaty fields allow them to stab their sharp bills into the ground in search of worms and other invertebrates. They are sociable animals, communicating constantly in big, ragged groups. There are always jackdaws too. Smaller and silver shawled, they add their soft clucks and yips to the rooky racket. 

I have been trying to take a photo to accompany this post. But I have noticed that, even though they are big, bold, brazen birds, rooks are surprisingly flighty. As soon as I approach the window or door, they are spooked. Even movement or noise inside the house sets them off in alarm. So no photo - not yet ... 

Friday, 28 April 2017

Local patch 7

The large badger sett on the trail between our villages is in the raised bank of the rhyne. The trail is bordered by apple and willow and blackthorn: typical, beautiful Somerset. There is fresh digging around several ancient entrances and lots of snuffle holes in the meadow adjacent. One evening we will go and watch - it just needs to be a little warmer.

That we share our landscape with such a large mammal is quite glorious, but that we see mostly dead ones on the roads is a great sadness. However, maybe we should bear in mind this cautionary tale before we head off on a badger watch ...

Our sons are young men now, they have mostly left home. We love our empty nest, quiet house and fridge that stays full of fresh food! But they return with alarming regularity to reconnect with each other and eat for free. And during the summer they come back to play cricket for the team in the next village. The village cricket ground is bordered by the rhyne where the sett is. The cricketing day finishes in the pub where they celebrate their victories and drown their sorrows. And then, in the singing small hours, our lads weave their way home along the rhyne and across the meadows. Someone always falls in. Sometimes they all do. Often they will lie in the fields and watch the stars spinning across the heavens. Beer has everything to do with it.

One evening last summer as they made their less than impressive way home, they were startled by two badgers that ran past them along the narrow track. Blinking in disbelief, the boys watched as the badgers got to the end of the track, found their way blocked and turned around. Family mythology has it that the badgers then charged our 6ft sons, grunting menacingly. The boys shrieked and jumped into the deep, duckweed-filled rhyne as the badgers held the upper ground - and the upper hand. 
They run surprisingly fast, 'and they looked huge in the moonlight, Mum' I was told.

'You have basically been run off the path by a giant weasel', I said, as I stored up the precious memory in my storybox.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Local Patch 6

I ran across Aller Moor this morning. The weather was perfect but the ground was difficult, sharp under my shoes. It was a tricky stumble rather than a smooth run because the deep ruts of mud had dried hard as cement. I feared for my ankles. We need some rain! From ancient times, the Somerset Levels were designed to be wetlands. We are accustomed to the drains and ditches that cross our paths and order our ways. It is a finely balanced and managed habitat of course. In the Winter of 2013-14 there was far too much rain, the water had nowhere to go and homes and land were inundated for months.

So somewhere in between would be just perfect, because our wildlife is specific to the area too. Many of our species prefer to have their toes in the water. It is particularly important for our famous cranes, who need the watery ground to keep them safe when they roost and nest.

They live very near to us, but for such a large and noisy bird, they are remarkably elusive. With their necks down to feed, they blend perfectly with the land and look completely at home. At around four feet tall, with pewter pearl plumage and black and white necks and faces, Common Cranes are fairytale birds. They are members of an ancient family that once thrived in our wetlands and shared our history. Spectacular and charismatic, they have extraordinarily good eyesight and a haunting, trumpeting call. They feed on invertebrates and roots in the wet grassland and roost in the safety of shallow, open water. They play in the wind, throwing sticks into the air and chasing after them, they dance a crazy, leaping display and they pair for life. They disappeared from our shores hundreds of years ago

But in recent years the Great Crane Project has managed a successful reintroduction and there is a stable flock of around 70 young birds. Imported as eggs from Germany, they were raised at Slimbridge and released down here. They are learning their life skills and each year gives us more and better breeding success. Each bird has a unique combination of coloured rings on its legs and most have been named by local primary schools. The project has been remarkably successful.

Back on Aller Moor, I could hear the cranes gabbling and bugling beyond the misty lines of willow. And then finally they were up and off: soaring in formation, they cried to the wind. They are distinctive in flight because they are usually in noisy groups. And unlike the heron they stretch out their necks and trail their long, long legs.
I am very glad they have returned to our landscape.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Local Patch 5

At this time of year, there is something lovely about that special pale yellow that our native plants and bulbs produce. I am thinking about the beautiful primula vulgaris, and our native daffodil (narcissus pseudonarcissus). Cultivated species are bright and bold and have their place in our gardens. I love to make up pots and tubs that celebrate their zingy colours. But to come across a clump of native primroses or daffodils is gently and quietly wonderful.

Local Patch 4

Our walnut tree shows its leaves much later than the elder and birch around it. Its bare twigs are brittle and crusted with lichen.  But at this time of year it is full of small birds. Something attracts them.  And yesterday there were three types of finch feeding: Gold, Green and Chaffinch.  It is a long time since we had a Greenfinch in the garden - welcome back!

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Their local patch

A weekend on the surprising Isle of Man, and a chance to explore someone else's local patch.  We walked the coast paths from Peel Hill on the spectacular western edge of the island. The sun shone endlessly. Linnet, skylark and wheatear accompanied us as we climbed. Chough tumbled and wheezed in the celeste-blue sky, there was a single swallow and the cronk of raven. The gorse was coconut on the air. A pair of peregrine hunted along the cliffs, sending the nesting birds swirling out to sea. There were puffins in the bay; fulmar and guillemots turned on the breeze with the gulls. In Peel Harbour, black guillemot paddled among the boats.

We were visiting dear friends, so there was nonstop talk as we ate and worked together, putting the world right and catching up the years. They were generous with their home and time and lives. They helped us pull our first lambs into the world, gently sharing their skills, making it all look so easy.

Of course a weekend was not enough. We can't wait to go back!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

This local patch

Situated between the Mendip and Blackdown Hills, there is an area of rare beauty and even rarer habitats. The watery land is full of history and mystery. The ghosts of Arthur and Alfred rest here, and at Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea’s staff miraculously took root, and created a place of popular pilgrimage.
The Somerset Levels and Moors are approximately 650 square kms of precious, swampy wetland, bi-sected by the gentle Polden Hills and criss-crossed by workaday rhynes. Settled by ancient people who made trackways through the marsh and lived together on the slightly higher ground, most of the land is barely above sea level. It is a place reclaimed and shaped by man; the great monasteries at Muchelney and Glastonbury first started to manage and drain it. Today the water levels are controlled with a complex system of sluices, drains and dykes. In the winter, fields become shining lakes as the water is held, collected and redirected.

The Levels are vitally important for many species of wildlife and are the site of one of Britain’s unmissable wildlife spectacles: the starling murmurations. At dusk, in winter, hundreds of thousands of them swirl above the reeds in shape shifting flocks. They gather in small strands until the heaving mass is roiling overhead. They move in mysterious harmony before dropping to roost in a chattering single motion.

The RSPB controls my favourite places on the Levels. I love the tiny, intimate reserves, such as Greylake, where a short boardwalk leads to a perfect hide. Harriers hunt above the reeds and swans sit tight on their shabby nests as the soft light leaves the day behind. The sedgy fenland, where peat has been cut for centuries, is a safe stronghold for otters and breeding, booming bitterns. The flooded pastures attract important flocks of waterfowl in winter and spring brings migrating hobby hawks who feast on dragonflies before finishing their journeys to the North. In 2010, the Common Crane was reintroduced, after an absence of 400 years. These tall, fairytale birds are learning the secret places of the reeds, their unmistakeable cries and wheeling flight are once again joining the storybox of the land.

It feels like a land to belong to, it is worth exploring. The narrow lanes are sunken and shrouded with hedgerow, or arrow straight above a causeway. Either way they pull you deeper in. Across the flat, flat land, the spires and towers rise up: a solid church in every village. Pollard willows with short trunks and spiky hair, march along the waterways. The withy stems are used to make fine baskets, woven furniture and trendy willow coffins; it is a traditional Somerset craft and not yet a lost art. Old apple orchards line the roads, their gnarly branches full of mistletoe globes. We buy farm cider, sharp and strong and cloudy, from ancient barrels in old barns. It tastes of pith and pip; it tastes of the land.