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.