Nature Notes

The Sea and the Butterfly.

On the Pembrokeshire coast path with my daughter, on the first evening of our holiday, we walk right up the aisle of an ant wedding, taking place either side of the dusty path.  Choosing the warmest, most still of summer days, the ants have grown wings for their nuptial flight, as will those in many other colonies in this particular micro climate at this precise moment in time. This strategy lessens the chance of inbreeding and maximises that of mating. We walk through the wildflowers: our hair, bridal veils of twinkling silver and gold wings. Swallows swoop on the opportunity, above.

The following day, we travel back across the cliff path. The sea is a sparkling draw and the cove our aim, but we dawdle, distracted again by the meadows. Goldfinches tease clumps of drifting thistledown with temporary moustaches, and bees and hoverflies rest on knapweed, vetches, sea campion and marjoram. But it is the butterflies that really catch our attention. There seems a relative abundance of little gatekeepers this year and here, on the coast, wall browns. The name does not do these small, chequered-orange insects justice, dancing up at our feet in spiralling ‘leks’ like tiny fritillaries.  I have not seen one for years. They are almost extinct in Southern and Central England, victims of climate heating. Rather than overwintering as caterpillars, the warmer weather encourages them to hatch into butterflies and, meeting the inevitable cold and absence of food plants, the generation is lost; they can’t survive. But on the coastal margins, where the climate is on average 1.2 degrees cooler, wall browns winter through as caterpillars, as they always have done.  

We are in the sea when the much-talked of ‘influx’ of painted lady butterflies arrives here. Once a decade, numbers of this migratory butterfly build to a spectacular crescendo. Coloured like rich Victorian floor tiles, in tortoiseshell-orange, black and white, these powerful butterflies complete a 7,500 mile journey, in an annual, generational relay from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle and back. Travelling at around 30mph, half a mile up and staging around 100 miles a day, the butterfly goes through several different generations of themselves in a journey of constant renewal and metamorphoses. Our butterflies are a mix of those that have hatched here and those that have come across the sea from continental Europe.

We launch into the sea and relish the cold water closing around our necks. The sea is flat calm between a succession of building rollers. There is a warmish wind and spots of warm, fat rain fall onto our shoulders. A flock of oystercatchers blink black and white above us and gulls glance the surface and our ears. And then suddenly, there are butterflies coming in off the ocean, flying towards us. We treadwater, marvelling at them. That such a fragile-seeming creature could come all that way – a bit of printed silk, really; some of them tattered and faded as our summer grasses, sun and weather burnished, like battered old travelling cases. But then – they are a creature all wings and flying mechanism and little else. Light, and buoyed by the wind, why would we ever doubt them?

When we walk out of the sea, they are all over the little village’s buddleia bushes, balancing on glinting pint glasses, probing spilt droplets of lemonade. Our hair, briney and sea-salted, spiralled and tousled by the wind into ringlets, dries like snakelocks anemones. 

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Nature Notes

A Bed of Bedstraw.

Ham Hill Nature Reserve is a tiny, caterpillar-shaped, remnant of chalk grassland on the edge of West Berkshire and Wiltshire. Its high spine rises above steep plunging banks and a Saxon holloway, running parallel with the road to Buttermere.

Facing the sun, its slopes are full of wildflowers, insects and butterflies. Although quickly walked through, it is a place to look long and linger. The afternoon is cracklingly hot and reassuringly full of the buzz and high pylon whine of insects.  

There is an understorey of spent cowslips, yellow rattle and the oat-coloured ‘hops’ of quaking grass beneath the white umbellifers of burnet-saxifrage and wild carrot. A badger run acts as a dusty white staircase, and I go up carefully, just halfway, not wanting to impact on any plantlife.  The anthill tumps form fragrant, herb-rich pillows, knitted so tightly with tiny green leaves and the delicate flowers of fairy flax, chalk milkwort and squinancywort, they look to have been embroidered by fairies.  

Spikes of purple-blue clustered bellflowers stand among brown broomrapes and orchids that the place is known for. Pyramid and burnt orchids are easy to spot. I have to look hard for pale green twayblade but find similar musk orchid by its honey, unmusky scent alone.

It’s impossible to ignore the butterflies. There are marbled whites, meadow browns and possible chalkhill blues and orange skippers I struggle to identify as they bowl along.  It is too late in the year for Duke of Burgundy but the big, blowsy oranges of dark green fritillary are mesmerising, tumbling over the flowers.

Sounds reach us from fields below: clapping from a cricket game in Shalbourne and the thump of a baler and the rattle of a tedder turning hay. There is the sound of a glider cutting through air and the disconnect of its winch cable. The weight falling through the air on its tiny parachute seems to stop time. 

I sit, gazing at Ham Hill itself, searching for a trace of the lost white horse beneath it. Cut in the 1860s for Mr Wright of Ham Spray House, it was not packed with chalk and probably invisible by the time the Bloomsbury Set came to live at the house in the 1920s, scandalising the locals, picnicking naked on the orchidy slopes. The horse only exists on a map of 1877.

Back home, in the evening, I find I can’t settle in the house and wander up to the other end of the down. Lady’s bedstraw glows in the sunset and I settle down in it for a while.

I’m not sure what I notice first: the twitter of swallows coming down lower to feed or the sky behind me prickle and darken. Either way, rain is coming and I head home. In the morning, my skin is still fragrant with the scent of Lady’s bedstraw.

Nature Notes

Driving Away.

My son has a car. We pick it up with him from a former farmyard in Aldermaston where it sits beside a newly roofed grain barn. There are swallows on the wires like a musical score and enough room in the boot for a bass guitar and amp. The swallows fly in and out of the barn and house martins circle above the white, chalk-dusted yard. I watch them to distract myself from a thumping mixture of emotions and the fear of letting go.

Tractors are carting straw and newly made hay up the road and turning the windrows in the fields beyond. I think of the money I earnt haymaking, waitressing and at the counter in Our Price Records to save up for my first car – a cherry-red mini metro.  

His first car is as old as he is, has a cassette tape deck and is the colour of a dark green fritillary butterfly’s hind wings in the shade. It has the iridescent gloss of ivy leaves.

 A woodlark is singing above fresh stubble as we leave. And, as we wait at the train crossing at Thatcham Station, a Cetti’s warbler is loud in the reeds beside the platform; crossing Greenham Common, there are skylarks.

I think then of the wild places cars have got me and the wildlife I’ve seen by car. The late-night badger clans, herds of fallow deer, the stuttered, red, dash-and-dot streak of a stoat family, the goshawk sat on a branch overhanging the road, and fields and hills spreading away like a wild, embroidered map. I try not to think of the roadkill. Especially the very few casualties I’ve caused myself. Only recently, a midnight tawny owl came at my windscreen, wings spread right across it, talons outstretched to my face behind it. Neither of us had a chance; my car had swopped places with a wood mouse that, last moment, had run between my wheels.

Risking a talon through my thumbs, I scooped up the stunned owl, folded the feathered, wooded fan of its wingspan back in and tucked it under the 30mph sign until it recovered and flew off.

The car will give him freedom, independence and opportunity – especially living out here, in a small village where friends are miles and miles away and the bus and train routes are impossibly limited and the village shop is a board on a bucket selling fresh eggs and courgettes next to an honesty box.

All this comes with a huge burden of guilt, of course. It always has done. At University, house-sharing beside the new M4 extension at Twyford Down  and taking time out to protest at Newbury Bypass, I used my car once a week to go home to work, frustrating my younger housemates by insisting on walking or biking everywhere else and, to their bemusement, slogging up the hill with bags of shopping. I owned a car, but didn’t want to drive it.

On a recent mountain bike ride in The Alps, my son was astonished by the abundance of wildflowers, birds and insects – and remarked on the amount of flies splattered on the car windscreen and the moth snowstorm in front of the headlamps of the car that got them there. He knows it is not like that here anymore. That it was. That it could be again.

He will walk and bike where he can, get the train when he can; but the buses have been cut beyond all usefulness or affordability, for a 17yr old.  

He knows his freedom comes at a price and is humbled by that. I know, as I must let him go, that he will make amends as best he can.  

Nature Notes

Telling a Grandfather from a Heronshaw.

There is a heaped pile of grey-blue serge on the edge of the road ahead. Like a discarded RAF uniform perhaps. I try and puzzle it out as I walk nearer. Things aren’t often what they seem, and it pays to pay attention. Once, on this very spot, a sable faux-fur hat, dropped unseasonably on the road in July, unfurled itself into three polecat kits.

Nearer, and the pile appears to be a heap of shot, discarded woodpigeons. Not until I am four steps away comes the shock of a dead heron, killed on the road. A thunder-cloud fall of sky. I voice my dismay out loud, though there is no one to hear me.

One great wing is stretched up the bank, the other sweeps the road. The bird’s serpentine neck is folded beneath it and its long, hazel-pole, water bird legs are mid lanky gallop, as if it were trying to take off again. It is an unlikely and unusual road casualty and a terrible shame to see it lying as if someone had cut the strings on the slow, ancient, creaking of this pterodactyl-marionette.

On impulse, I bend down to flex a wing, then lift the long, bent neck to straighten it and get a second shock: it stiffens and vibrates alarmingly in my hand and I jump, assuming it is still alive, until its open bill breathes out a last roaring, rattling gasp of flies; a smoker’s breath of tiny starlings, like words.

I lay its head on the road. The white neck feathers are chevroned with black darts like an ermine stole; but lower down, the breast is marked with red chevrons and I wonder then if the bird had been shot and, after a stricken glide, fell, crashing Icarus-like through branches into this pile of unglued feathers, bamboo legs and stickleback harpoon.

Heron is a talisman bird for me. Spirit of my Grandad, scholar gypsy and Romany Rai, I picture him now, producing his worn copy of The Observer’s Book of Birds from his leather waistcoat pocket for me. Storyteller and something of a poet, artist and unofficial ‘vet’ for those that couldn’t afford one on his pre-fab, post-war council estate, he always told me he’d come back as a heron. It suited him; his hunched wisdom and careful stepping. His windswept, jet mortarboard of hair. I still feel his influence.   

The wood creaks as if haunted. A bright, playful wind has blown up and rubbed or strained branches make the sound of a coach or hunting horn; Herne the hunter. Then there is the small mew of a hungry baby: a young buzzard; a hawk to this handsaw at my feet.

It is strangely hard to leave the bird’s body there. What else can I do, but take one of its long grey feather-fingers home; and write with it?

Nature Notes

Ocksey Daisies & Open Gates.

Trying to clear thoughts muddled by persistent headaches, I go for a little lie down – on the broad open flank of the hill. Evening, and nothing but the sound of skylarks and meadow pipits singing their way up and back down to the grass wigwams of their nests, and the metallic jangle of a corn bunting, right on the edge of my hearing. Above me in the grass, five brown hares groom their long elegant ears and wash their whiskers.

Earlier in the day, I’d been caught in summer thunder and heavy rain on the old flint ‘London Lane’ through the wood. The understorey of privet, box and dog’s mercury quivered under the deluge and lightning flashed off the wet, human-like torsos of the beech trees. A goshawk called repeatedly from the opposite wood to add to the thrilling tension and the rain pummelling the foliage beat up a heady cocktail of scents: elderflower, wild honeysuckle, dog rose and the beaten, spent leaves of wild garlic.

The thunder rolling round the valley brought the number of old lightning trees to my attention; not always the tallest trees, they bore wide, pale, to-the-bone scars on one side, barkless from branch tip to root.

I am wary, too, of the many great, towering ash trees; most seem to have succumbed to ash die-back and are becoming treacherous; the tell-tale diamond shape wounds in their trunks and holes in thick boughs have made them brittle and unstable. Their demise will change the landscape dramatically over the next few years, as the loss of elms did in the 1970s. I can hardly bear to think about it.

As the rain eases to a rising steam and the track becomes a shallow river, I emerge into the light.

Before the rain, I walked up to a favourite, familiar place I know intimately and have been shut out from. A high meadow with a view across the valley into Wiltshire and Hampshire, the field is white with thigh-high ox-eye (or ocksey) daisies. It is a permissive, emotional trespass of sorts and the joy of being here again is irrepressible. All that’s missing is the sweet, walloping, yodelling cry of lapwing & the creak of their broader-at-the-tip owlish wings. I do not know for certain that any nested up here this year.

A hare springs up at my next footfall. I hadn’t seen it at all. In one leap it has gone into the tall stems, vanishingly quick. I put my palm down where it lay, in the understorey of yellow rattle, quaking grass and crested dog’s tail and feel the warmth it has left me.

That night, my husband unfolds a new map, replacing an old one, worn soft as cloth with use. We pore over ground we know intimately, tracing contours & fences, familiar as the head & heart lines on our palms and reveal fresh revelation & prospect; here is a blurred line, a secret kept from me. Some of the old field names are there (not all) but access land is new. And with it, permission. A gate thrown wide as the sky.

Nature Notes

Cowslipping, Part II.

Before the rain, we took a lesson in walking underwater, without getting wet. It is entirely possible to drown in the sensory celebration of a bluebell wood, even as they are almost over: the mist-blue haze floating at calf-height, lapping the trees; the sticky sappiness, the honey scent, the squeak and tangled shock of heads …

And then the rain did come, though it was sorely needed. Every puddle became a bomb-burst of birds on approach; birds bathing, drinking, soaking or collecting nest-building material. Chalky water ran like the spill from a cereal bowl off the fields, transporting the fallen bunting of blossom down the lanes.

In rainstormy weather, hares show up in unexpected places and the deep whickering rumble of a horse can sound like thunder. I’d gone to see the cowslips on the hill and even in dull, metallic light, they glowed. Careening hares slipped down the wet flank of the hill like out-of-control dragsters, all big end over front. Another appeared at the church crossroads, standing tall as a thoroughbred, straight-backed, long-legged, ears pricked.

In the days inbetween, drifts of birdsong came through like a feverish dream. Loud and clear, then indistinct; perhaps, imagined. A woodlark stopped me in my tracks once, and then a cuckoo. Songs to shock a heart desperate to hear them, before restarting it into a steadier rhythm. Birds as defibrillators.  

On the down in the sun at last, the cowslips form a sunshine haze. Millions of butter-yellow bells cover the broad expanse, resurgent from a long period of enforced dormancy from springtime overgrazing. Here is meadow saxifrage, too, and anthills; newly-worked castles of fine-sieved soil, transformed into blue pillows of speedwell and chalk milkwort. 

I expected the nectar-filled hill to be loud with insects and console myself that it will take time. There are whitethroats, yellowhammers, meadow pipits and the tented nests of skylarks, but my ears strain for the remembered key-jangle of corn bunting or long-gone turtle doves. There are swallows in the farmyard below, but just 2 pairs, not 12 like there were. When will there be none?

There is sad news that the last male nightingale on Salisbury Plain has failed to return. There were 10 in 2012. The last turtle dove was heard there in 2008. 

Unless we do something fast, these are our last years with the birds, as well as everything else. When the United Nations delivered their report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems recently, the news was grim and undeniable. It wasn’t just depressing, it was devastating.

Up to one million species, more than ever before in human history, are threatened with extinction. Some, within decades. Due to human activities, there is simply not the habitat for their long-term survival.

I think about my own ‘local extinctions’ since I started writing this column fifteen years ago. Roding woodcock, greenfinch in the garden, lapwing in the village fields, spotted flycatchers. House martins.

The UN calls for bold, collaborative action. But we can also act alone. Speaking up at any opportunity, threading the need for healthy ecosystems through everything we do. 

I stand among the cowslips and desperately want the volume back up. The range, subtlety, variation and loudness of spring is all diminished. I played a bit-part in bringing the cowslips back. Spoke up with a persistant, gentle insistence. A softer kind of activism, but an activism, all the same. Because, where the bee sucks, there suck I.

Nature Notes

Cowslips, Part I.

Through an open gateway, the wide expanse of Hippenscombe valley is full of flowering oil seed rape that glows against my skin – a buttercup under the chin. Yellowhammers spill onto the road, their lightbulb heads bright as the flowers and among them (almost missed) a thrilling glimpse of a yellow wagtail. A fast declining farmland bird, box-fresh from Africa in sunshine yellow, it calls three times, runs into the buttery crop and vanishes.

Washing-white cloud galleons sail over the hill like an endless flotilla of tall ships. In the small wood below the big hill, a cuckoo calls. Its voice catches in the thorns at intervals. Chased by cloud shadows, I realise it is still travelling.

A storm comes through and turns the barleyfield into a heaving, blue-green ocean. The wind curves and combs it into swirls and eddies, and races it up the slope towards the dog and I in waves of silver surf, to crash into the hedge. It is mesmerising. I try to film it but struggle to hold the phone steady.  It ripples like the pelt of a moving animal and is infectious. The dog and I run; her ears flying, my arms windmilling.  

Blossom strews the lane and salts the nettles. Flowers of the oak and miniature posies  of hawthorn flowers lie like the aftermath of a wedding. There is a sad, dead lamb. But also, a new foal, rain-freshened birdsong, mud to build nests with and the heady scent of lilac enhanced by thundercrack.

Back beneath the hill, the fast-changing cloudscape alters the light again and again, as if I am being shown a speeded-up, time-lapse panorama. It illuminates the linen folds and creases I know so well, only to hide them and reveal others in quick succession. I can’t take my eyes off it.

There is a yellow-green haze on the hill that I haven’t seen in ten years.

At the bottom, where it seems sheep go to die, there are vertebrae and a sprung ribcage, chalk bones springing cowslips. On the grassy pillow-tump of an anthill, a sheep’s skull rests as if it has just breathed its last, herb-scented breath.

Grazing sheep are essential to this flower-rich landscape, though in past years, they have been left on the down too long, the flowers grazed off and the insects and birds declined. This year, though, a grazing rotation is in place. In the evening light, the hill emanates gold; a heap of piled treasure and nectar. The impression of millions of tiny trembling yellow bells visible from the A4.

Nature Notes

Golden Valleys & Black Hills.

Two days in to a week’s stay at a farmhouse in Herefordshire and the low, white, obscuring cloud finally lifted, like a blindfold coming off. I began to orient myself.

Sunnybank Farm didn’t disappoint. Its big, comfortably shabby rooms and sash windows opened out onto a rushing stream and birdsong and absorbed and occupied all eight of us, as it must have done so many families in the past. We began to count and welcome the migrant birds back in: a couple of swallows, a whitethroat, the laughing, lifting lilt of a willow warbler; and chiff chaffs, mis-chiming like frustrated conductors trying to count in and regulate the blackcap’s wild, lovely, all-over-the-place notes. A hopeless task. The song, babbly and freeform as the stream.

On a soft, chilly spring day, we climbed the high, long whale back mountain of Hatterrall Ridge that, from a blue distance, reminded us of our big, half-height hill at home, if only in shape and not geology.

The ten-mile-long ridge of Offa’s Dyke divides England and Wales in this Marches country. We started from the small, linear settlement of Longtown below, with its Marcher Lord castle ruin, primary school and Mountain Rescue Centre, peppered along the ‘winter road’ to Hay-On-Wye’s book town.

We walked under the red sandstone landslip and vertical bedrock of Black Darren, stepping over tadpoles squiggling in a mountain rill. I wondered if they washed and wriggled down, or hatched here?

The view and climb are breathtaking. The knife edge skew path up was vertiginous and slippery with red clay. Nuthatches called from the small, cherry-frilled woods we left behind and a raven flew leisurely past, making the sound of a wooden spoon hitting a half-filled bottle. For added measure, he hugged his own body into a barrel-roll smooch as he went past.

And then we were on top of the world. To the north-east, The Black Hill curved around like the Cat’s Back it is also named for, as the ridge extended on to Hay Bluff. Opposite were the huge, mown circles of the grouse moor; misplaced Olympic Rings, or the home scars of giant limpets on some blackened, barnacled rock the sea had long left behind.

Below, the Vale of Ewyas; the deep valley falling away on the Welsh side, with its remote priory at Llanthony and farm, ‘The Vision’, that inspired Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 book On The Black Hill. The Olchon Valley fell away on our eastern, English side. Acres of dry, rufous bracken descending to small, deep-hedged, apple-green fields.

We walked along the flat spine of Offa’s Dyke, balancing between England and Wales, past peat-dark moor pools of drowned sundew, riffled with a light breeze. Skylarks sang above wheatear and wild ponies with long, wind-plaited manes.  

The pinched cone of Monmouthshire’s Sugar Loaf mountain rose ahead of us. But we had gone too far; far longer than agreed, looking for a different way down. The mountain side was unyielding and we were forced to retrace our steps.

The steep, narrow path required our full attention. The dog dropped the tennis ball she’d found and we watched it fall and bounce and fall away to the farms and their collies below, our hearts in our mouth. I sat back, hanging on to her lead, digging my heels in, just in case temptation overwhelmed her.

That evening, the Golden Valley came into its own. The name is a possible, delightful confusion of Welsh and French-Norman etymology. The River Dore (from the Welsh dwr for water) is remarkably similar to the French d’or, for gold.

But in the still-novel extra hour of syrupy light, the streamside celandines and banks of golden saxifrage opened to the sun; the great green-gold mistletoe balls weighted the perry pear and cider apple trees – all was golden, all was possible. I thought I heard an otter’s whistle from the stream. And when we approached tiny St Margaret’s church, with its intricately carved rood screen, wooden tower and gravestones marked with the farms that had grown the people there, I saw the barns and farm I’ve dreamt of since I was small. I could have driven my Britain’s Farm Land Rover through it. And when I leant on the five-bar gate next to its pleached and laid blackthorn hedge, and the horses raised their heads, I held out an apple for Black Beauty and Merrylegs.  We walked home, glowing.

Nature Notes

Lunch with an Otter.

A text came from my son at college, whilst I was at work. ‘You’ll never guess what I’m having lunch with!’ There followed the most exquisite video clip, taken on his phone. An otter, hunting the shallow stream at one of the entrances to Andover College, rolling, roiling and revelling in its element, stirring up chalk sediment, a crisp packet and riffling the thickening mat of watercress bobbing on the surface. In broad daylight, between a busy roundabout, car parks and classrooms.

I tweeted it (with his permission of course) and, with over 57K views, it went viral.

(NB, video below not playable, find it on Twitter @nicolawriting)

He’d walked right past it at first, glimpsing it before he realised what it was and stopped, in the midst of his long, countryman’s lope and walked backwards. Otter.

He watched it move under the gin-clear, chalkstream, fluent as a water snake, spiralling and turning on itself with the ease of a gymnast’s ribbon, writing itself in cursive flourishes through the water. He glimpsed a paw; a hindfoot kicking off, a thick, Labradorian tail working hard in a tight spot. He described how it swam thorough the pipe-tunnel of a road bridge and went up the bank: water thickening into fur, dissolving back into water. He saw the champagne belt of bubbles, fizzing in its wake, a bubbling galaxy of stars exploding in the dark water behind it. 

He enjoyed the spectacle for as long as he could. An unlikely wildlife watcher, perhaps; bass guitar in hand, leather jacket and Dr Martens on, a lad in need of a haircut, grinning, texting his Mum.

It’s not his first otter, but it might have been his best. He has spent a lot of time tracking otters with me, overwhelmingly fruitlessly (though not always). Even now, we cannot go near a body of water without ‘a quick look’. So his reward, a naturalist’s dream of a ‘walkaway view’ was richly deserved. He left and went to band practice.

The otters on the Andover’s River Anton are remarkable. A female with three grown cubs lives in its tributaries and lakes around the town, well-monitored, cocking a snook at what we think we know about otters. They remain tricksy animals to watch, predictably unpredictable, keeping to their own unroutine, napping at will. Any sighting of them largely given to chance.

But what is incredible is how this large predator, back from the brink, will adapt to live alongside us, given half a chance. As so much wildlife is willing to do.

Much like that other recovering top predator, the peregrine falcon, whose fortune echoes that of otters. The BBC cameras trained on Parliament, cut away to focus on a falcon tearing at its prey among the pinnacles of Westminster, while things fell apart inside. They panned away again. Another walkaway view.

Nature Notes

Running Wild

Weeks like these, I get my wildlife fix on the run.

Meeting my son off the bus fifteen minutes early, means quarter of an hour’s birdwatching on the hill inbetween. Or at school, helping students with their GCSE Speaking and Listening exams, I am delighted that some have chosen water vole conservation, plastic in the seas, or the subject of foxhunting to speak on. I watch the bare-faced cheek of rooks on the end-of-break bell, pulling litter out the bins for crisps and crusts.

On another trip to the bus stop, I fit in a run. It is a dun, damson and brown afternoon, rain-soaked and tractor flailed. But there are mauve and blue flashes of jays, white-bottomed as bullfinches in plum colours.

I run slowly, quietly, and discover I’m not the only one seeking the flat shelter of the valley bottom. Suddenly, I am running with hares, peeling off from potential boxing matches to join the chase for a few strides. Two muntjac deer are swept along, bumping shoulders, white flag tails up and waving, like the aerials on bumper cars. Roe deer jump the ditch ahead. Then, flowing through the wood and out into open pasture, the cream and brown gallop of a herd of fallow deer. They come loose from the wood as if a ribbon weft of them has been pulled through the warp of the upright wood; a fabric unravelling, a wood unspooling. They are the same colour as the trees and the earth, rain-darkened flanks running to pale bellies like cave paintings of themselves. There must be forty of them, just fifty metres away. I can hear the snick of the toes of their splayed, cloven hooves coming together, the rumble of a gallop slowing to a trot. They are not running from me and I wonder if they are running from what I might be running from?  It’s a profound, uncanny experience. They melt into the wood ahead and I discover that I’ve run for a full half hour.

Back in the car, I think how nature adapts to live and run alongside us quite well, if we let it.

I raised my voice this week in protest at the new trend of netting trees and whole hedgerows, to prevent birds nesting in them – and scupper plans for development, whether planning permission has been granted or not. And to a Tesco store in Norwich, netting off a trolley park that swallows had nested in in previous years, to prevent them returning there and making a mess of the trolley handles. Nature is a wraparound, intrinsic thing, woven through our daily lives and our shopping. Deer joining in with my Couch to 5K efforts, and swallows at the supermarket should be celebrated for the wonders and joys that they are.