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.