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.