Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Local patch 26

Hunched over the keyboard all morning, I have to get outside to stretch my eyes and uncrack my spine. From Burrow Mump we take the Parrrett Trail. At 79ft above sea level, the Mump stands high above the surrounding levels and moors at the meeting of the Rivers Tone and Parrett.  Along the Parrett there are diggers again. Heaps of shining, slippery mud have been scooped out and the banks are being shored up, propped and packed. Four winters ago these precious defences were overcome. Even on this flood plain, which has been managed and ordered for a thousand years, there was too much water with nowhere to go. The moors became an ocean and for weeks the landscape was returned to its ancient ways. Crops and animals and livelihoods were lost. Roads disappeared. People used boats to move between the lake villages. Salt Moor and Curry Moor sank beneath the floodwaters of the Tone and the Parrett and they dried out only very slowly. Politicians, farmers, conservationists and the rivers authority were all blamed. Blamed each other. Fear has a long memory.

Today, the rivers look tame as they slide between their dredged and bunkered banks. We turn our backs on the Parrett and take the Shepherd's Drove, boots ringing on the ground. The mud is frozen and glitters. The skeleton hedges are bright with winter thrushes. They are snaffling the last of the berries and surround us in clucking, cackling groups. The redwings will soon depart and by next month the fieldfares will follow them north. There are still great clouds of lapwing on the watery meadows. How good it is to see them. Their numbers have declined by 80% since the 1960s and they are a species of conservation concern. But here on the Somerset Levels they overwinter in good numbers. Their cries carry on the breeze as they practise their tumbling, flipping displays in round-winged flight, flashing black and white.

Along the rhyne a bird explodes from beneath our feet and hauls itself into the sky in a sharp, steep trajectory. The snipe relies on its perfect camouflage-plumage to stay hidden, only revealing its bright belly and long, long bill as it shoots skywards.

We turn towards the village and the hedgerows are alive and chattering with tiny birds. Robins sing loud and long. Sparrows fuss and fidget deep within the blackthorn. There are buds and petals and catkins - and a haze of green at the base of the stems. Large clumps of snowdrops are well established in the bank and the first primroses are opening in the sun. Here is a sense of spring. She is zinging through the lanes, waiting to arrive. The beast from the East might be roaring across the land this week, but he won't stay for long. The birds know it.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Local patch 25

We ran across the Moor early on Friday. The sun had risen. It was light but it was a dull, resentful light. The pewter sky was reflected in the rhynes and flooded meadows. Some days the flood plain shimmers in a series of glittering pools and lakes, like silver and pearls. Today the landscape was lead and steel. The sky was endless and the wind nagged and tugged. Rain needled my face.

The birds were quiet, hiding from the wind. It seemed like a bleak and empty place. But ahead on the road there was a streak of fire. A stoat (mustela erminea) stopped and sat up, staring. During the BBC's Winterwatch last week there were stories and pictures of ermine, winter-white stoats, out of place in the warmer southern counties. They stand out in our landscape of mud and no one seems to know why they have broken their camouflage so completely. This animal, however, was brilliantly chestnut with a long, black-tipped tail. There was time to note its creamy bib, large dark eyes, neat ears and pointy chin before it hurried away towards the ditch. It flowed between the stems like a thick, furred snake.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Local patch 24

I think there was a streak of pearl in the sky on the way home from work this week, a slight lessening of the night. Perhaps it's the first hint that the shortest days are behind us. This morning I ran across Aller Moor, my boots skating on the black ice, dawn had definitely moved on. There was a raven, that great, raggedy bird of the high and wild places, cronking its hoarse song in the meadow. What are you doing down here in the flatlands? In the distance I could hear the cranes bugling as they rose from their roost. They circled and gathered before heading off to their feeding grounds, leaving their haunting cries on the wind. A thrush dashed ahead of me, chattering its alarm as it dipped and twisted away. And at intervals along the rhyne there were robins. Some sat high on lookout trees and others had settled deep in secret thickets. They were all singing their loud, rich songs.

Robins sing their loudest songs at this time of year. All robins sing, but the males are fiercely territorial and try to defend their local patch all year. Before the other birds join the dawn chorus, and late into the evenings, the robins are singing. There is one that sits high above the chicken coop and when I wade out through the mud to open up in the barely-there dawn, or hurry out late at night to lock up, he is singing. It is an extraordinarily powerful song for such a small bird. Short, sweet passages and trills are punctuated by silence as he listens for rivals or mates. I find it hypnotic and always stop to listen: a private moment shared on my local, local patch.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Local Patch Reporters

I am thrilled that this blog has been chosen as one of BBC Wildlife magazine's blogs of 2017! The Local Patch Reporters' forum is a sparkling place of wonder and marvel; there are so many great commentaries on the wildlife that we love and cherish, much of it close to home. It is a rich fund of brilliant words and amazing images.

So, many congratulations to the winner, Heather, for her fascinating close-up of Cornish rock pools (https://cornishrockpools.com/). It reminds me of so many hours spent slipping and sliding across the rocks with our boys when they were younger! And to all my fellow local patch reporters: thank you for sharing your amazing worlds with us.

Go on - leap in! You never know where your reading might take you.

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.