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

Chosen!

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.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Local patch 3

The spring equinox has passed and this weekend we have put our clocks forward and jumped into British Summer Time.  We are looking forward to longer evenings and an opportunity to be outside at the end of the working day. It was a perfect Mothering Sunday, with a celeste-blue sky all day and warmth in the sun. We walked in the Quantock Hills.  Wills Neck is the highest summit (1261 feet). From the top you can see as far as the Brecon Beacons and over to Dartmoor and Exmoor. There is a long, slow pull to the meadows at the top and there was a bright, blustery breeze which tore our voices from our mouths and quickly chilled our cheeks. The woodlands were full of primroses and the first Chiffchaffs were shouting their arrival from the trees.

Back home, I spent a long time searching the skies for further swallows and am beginning to doubt my early (10 March) sighting.  But that joyous, swooping flight is really distinctive, isn't it? I couldn't wish one into the sky today, but over the sunny, tumbledown wall on the edge of the garden there was another herald of Spring: a first Brimstone butterfly. Sharp as lemon against the terracotta bricks, he was unmistakable.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Local patch 2

All of a sudden, the countryside is colourful again.  New leaves and new grass are citrus bright. There is a green haze on the trees, and blossom and bloom compete to be noticed: pink, cream, yellow, purple, orange, red, blue.  We walked the field paths around NT Lytes Carey on Saturday.  Lots of mud remains but the blustery air was soft with Spring.  As we turned the corner of a large field, a patch of clear sky was lit by bright sunlight and the first skylark of the season was tipping his liquid song into the sky.  It's a reminder of better days and a sound full of great promise.  What joy.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Local patch 1

I saw my first swallow over the garden on Friday - 10th March!  Last year, the first one I spotted was on 16 April.  It didn't stay around and I haven't seen another one, but I know that house martins were recorded by visitors to RSPB Ham Wall last weekend.

Can we believe in Spring again now? It has happened in a couple of short weeks.  The daffodils are in full flood, I have seen my first sweet violets, there are primroses on the banks and we have blossom, finally.  The blackthorn was followed by the pink cherries, and in the village this morning: two magnolias - glowing. Tiny leaves are bursting from buds; the young plants in our new native hedge looks like they might thicken up a bit this year.

The pond that we dug and filled last autumn was immediately adopted as a bathing spot for the clouds of starlings that cross the house on the way to and from their feeding and roosting spots. The house sparrows love it too. A surprising number of invertebrates have already made a home there. On Sunday we found a Great Diving Beetle.  We can't wait to plant it up and get that water clear.

Birdsong in the garden seems to get louder every day.  The male blackbird has reclaimed his singing tree, a silver birch above the pond.  The walnut tree is being visited by hordes of rooks who crash around, breaking off the brittle twigs and dragging them back to their shaggy stick piles in the high trees by the Church. The nest boxes in the garden have been explored, I think at least one is already being used by blue tits.  So far, our owl box remains empty though.