Nature Notes

Deep Summer

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The ground hardens like lime mortar and holds the flints fast at whatever angle they were last tumbled into. Some stick up like ancient weapons, stropped edges like axe heads, freshly knapped by the clink of horses hoofs, but never our boots or tractor tyres. It is the time for the slicing of welly boot soles; one whole winter lasted, and worn now not for mud, but with shorts for the sting of nettles, the painful prod of thistles and the scratch of green brambles reaching for space and light. As we cross the field, a haze of purple pink pollen blooms behind us like smoke, as the heathery puff of Yorkshire fog grass mingles with the dust. Cocksfoot and fescue plait through trailing fingers.

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Sparrows come down to bathe in the farmyard dust imprinted by badgers’ feet. With earth this hard, the badgers abandon nightly hunts for earthworms and diversify, hunting wasp and bee’s nests in banks. Their broad, pigeon-toed prints are briefly recorded in chalky earth so fine, it whirls away like sieved flour when the tractor passes, to coat the windows.

Later, a roe doe and her dappled, leggy, twin fawns cross the path, all hocks, angles, ears and sunlight. Their joints are too big for them and they ride them awkwardly away like big springs.

Haymaking is still in full swing and kites and buzzards hunt the shorn meadows. There are tall, still, stands of foxgloves on the Common: thimblefuls of nectar, freckled honeyguides on each lower lip, signposting a landing strip and crazy-paving the way to nectar at the back. But they are motionless. No bees tremble their bells. They are advertising their best wares to the empty high street of a ghost town.

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Equally, the comfrey. There are bees on the blue-purple flowers, flies resting on the big, scratchy, knitbone leaves; but no garden tiger moths. In the silent heat, a wasp chews the wood of the fence, audibly.

We villagers meet at the old barn for a midsummer’s evening walk. The black barn oozes honey from its warped boards. Through gaps and popped out knots, there are glimpses of the perfect, mathematical intricacy of honeycomb. It drips. The bees fan one entrance with a thrumming like a combine harvester, whose progress has just begun, and enter and exit another point below the comb.

Midsummer Walk

Our walk, on a deep-summer, honey-gold evening takes in hares, skylarks, yellowhammers, sun-scorched fields and a herd of fallow deer bucks in velvet, breast high in the thistles. We reach the hill fort that crowns the highest hill at sunset, for fizz and homemade cake on the Land Rover tailgate. The hill fort was dug, by hand, antler and flint, some 2,500 years ago. The sun goes down on the neighbouring hill behind its gibbet from 350 years ago, on top of a 6,000 year-old long barrow; far older than the standing stones and lintels of Stonehenge or Avebury, 30 miles hence. The years seem to stretch across a vast plain, then concertina: standing in the sun’s glow, they seem not so many.

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We walk back to the barn down the steep escarpment that gets the better of some of us. We slip and roll and all the heady aromatic scents of chalk grassland come rising up to meet us: wild thyme and basil, salad burnet and marjoram among the bedstraws, vetches and orchids.

Back home, we’d left a light on and a window wide. But not a moth has come in. Not one.

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Nature Notes

Signifying Nothing: The Boy, the Fox and Macbeth.

Fox Cubs Janet

Pic by kind permission, Janet Taylor.

A few weeks ago, with the hawthorn in full, flowering waterfalls, my youngest daughter and I sat out to watch six, six-week-old fox cubs playing in the old badger sett they were living in. The dog fox and vixen were off lying up elsewhere, or hunting for them; the cubs old enough to be left alone. They sat out on the anthills and on the ramps of the sett entrance ‘porches’, their too-big triangular ears triangulating sound, swivelling like satellite dishes.

They grew bored and bold. One trotted off to the wood to find food himself, the others began playing like puppies; springing upon each other, biting necks and legs, leaping on all fours, pouncing, stalking, rolling. They chased their own glowstick tails, the little white tips like fireflies in the gathering dusk. They leapt like lambs at nothing. They disappeared down one hole and popped up from another to surprise a sibling with a bite on a tail, before being pounced on themselves. It was a grand, fast moving game of ‘whack-a-mole’, where it was we could do not to laugh out loud, and give our position away.

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It was a welcome relief from a house under a cloud of GCSE’s. Just five years ago, I was here on the hill with my son in his last days at Primary School, as a fox cub approached us. Sat companionably beside each other, the fox we were waiting for left his earth at an exit above us, and we unwittingly found ourselves sitting on his path. With a bit of careful backwards shuffling, the curious, cautious and leggy –grown cub stalked past us. It was a magical moment. A moment of fledging.

Five years on, and a new fledging. He has almost finished a month of intense exams, where all the goal posts have been moved – as they were for me, when I did mine. Lines from Macbeth still ring through the house, though. None of us can help it. I get out my old margin-marked and doodled copy from 32 years away, and lay it beside his. He compliments me on my drawings and asks who the boy was, whose name is repeated in each Act in elaborate fountain pen. I shrug, nonchalantly. It wasn’t your father, I say, signifying nothing. He smirks. And goes up to his small bedroom to revise Chemistry, Biology, Geography. The night is richly and evocatively scented with the climbing rose and wild honeysuckle; scents that intensify with the onset of night. The first of the year’s blue tits, jackdaws, starlings and sparrows fledge from the house’s airbricks, chimney pots, eaves and the jasmine that curls around the house, planted 14 years ago, when my middle daughter was born.

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At the weekend, he plays with his band at the Beer Festival in Froxfield, where the boy, whose name is written in Macbeth, also played, 32 years away. The village green is sandwiched between a hawthorn hedge, cottage gardens and the A4 to Marlborough. They are so good, these young people. Braver than I ever was, talented, tight, together. A little self-conscious. The swifts scream and scythe the sky above them like a carnival.
An evening walk and everything is so beautiful it hurts. All is softly illuminated: elderflower heads float, beheaded in the dark, hogweed umbellifers succeed the cow parsley and the glow from the cowls of cuckoo pint. Always, the chalk tracks are white as moonlight; the flints clinking like broken china reflect any residual light. The scent of burnet, field and dog rose perfumes the air.

And when the midsummer moon comes up, it is breathtaking.

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The candles on the horse chestnut have snuffed out and are already forming tiny green conkers. I want to stop it all. Press pause. Hold onto it ‘til the last syllable of recorded time. It is too beautiful and there is not enough time to live it all.

We kick through the farmyard, dust settling on our boots. The dust that has risen and dampened and muddied and dried and risen again since time immemorial. The seasons roll around, feeling each time as fresh and new as they are familiar. Circling us on our trajectory forwards.

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A favourite poem by Alan Kent has been nagging at me, so I find it out and read it to my son, who rolls his eyes as I delight in the Shakespearean title ’Signyfing Nothing’. But it is as if I’ve never read it before. The lines take on new meaning:

‘We stupid Celts see symbols in everything.
So I’m told, we sentimentalise the air from 7 seconds ago
And lament the dust shook from a backdoor mat.
Only the nostalgic and romantic fills our minds
There’s a deep longing for the homestead, see.
They say we see things that aren’t there
And always read into things too much.
Each rock, stone, sea, moor, plant, creature
Becomes tale, story, epic, poem, play, chronicle’

Each fox, with its comet tail, I think. He smiles. Pats my shoulder. Leaves.

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Nature Notes

The Time of the Singing of Birds.

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Dawn after a night of thunderless lightning, and the blackbird’s song breaks like an aural form of liquid honey.

Thrushes join in after minutes, followed by robins, dunnocks, woodpigeons and then all the birds of the air, wood, earth and hedgerow until the gaps are filled to create a complete wall of sound. An hour gone and the birdsong separates out to find space of its own and become distinct again.

The starlings begin their relentless commute from our houses’ eaves to the farm pasture and back with beakfuls of leatherjackets, grubs and flies. They follow the same flight path so directly that occasionally they have to twist to avoid collision. One of the males takes a ‘break’ to sing. He is an accomplished singer, tuned in to the world around him and transmitting it all back like the World Service: here is the news. His oiled, pixelated sheen, like scaled sequins; his glossy throat feathers tremble with the effort of his sky-blue, unique and localised repertoire. I detect the yaffle of the green woodpecker’s laugh, the incorporation of the red-legged partridge’s chook-a-chook-chook, the gamekeeper’s whistle to his dog and the particular tantrum of the little girl down the lane. There is also the ghosted yodelling loop of lapwings that last nested here two years ago and the first drawn out phrases of nightingale song – that sometimes the song thrush echoes too. This section of his (and the thrushes song) must have come down through generations, as there hasn’t been a nightingale singing here for thirty years. Perhaps one bird borrowed from the other? But it seems, most cruelly, the starling mimics the lone little owl who lost its mate last year and calls night and day for another; wanting urgently now, to begin nesting.

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One of the pied wagtails is lost in the horse paddock. As it rose vertically, on butterfly wings to catch at a cranefly, the graphite-barred breast of the sparrowhawk leans forward and drops silently from the shade in the stag-headed oak to take it clean out of the air, like an osprey with a fish. It disappears into the wood, presumably to take it back to its sitting mate, or chicks as it returns quickly. This time, a volley of swallows alerts us to it, boldly pursuing the deadly predator with the same alarm call they use when we enter the barn, replacing retreat, retreat, with defeat, defeat!

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So many of the birds rely on the insects that live on the weeds and the wildflowers, the now-rare uncut verges, the left-wild corners of gardens, conservation headlands, the hedges cut once-every-three-years to allow them to actually flower, the cow parsley that wets our legs, bowing before us so we have to break its knotted tangle to pass. Those birds that survived that harshest of winters, coming as late as it did, when all natural food had gone – and those birds that fly thousands of miles to get here, that suffered bad weather delays in Africa, in Europe and that were perhaps strafed by hunter’s guns or almost caught by traps, nets and lime sticks – they have made it, some of them, despite being two months late. If we knew what we do, as the poet said, when we hack and rack the growing green, we wouldn’t take away or poison their food supply, just when it is at its most beautiful and most needed, too. But we do know. And it is still happening.

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To paraphrase that most sensual of passages from The Song of Solomon on human love, that was read twice during the recent Royal Wedding: winter is past, the rain over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth and the time of the singing of birds is come; the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. The biblical turtle dove is all but extinct locally and recently so: let there be no silent springs. We are laying waste to the birds and the songs themselves and soon, there will be no more.

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Nature Notes

Swallows and Gold Days.

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There is an absence of Swallows. A solitary bird returned to the wires at Coldharbour Farm a month ago and has only just been joined by another. I’ve seen others passing through, a brief gloss of navy blue, the twitter of several birds issued from one red throat; but the mud cups in the pony barn and tractor shed remain unrepaired. I’m not alone in my concern, locally or country-wide. The pair that returned to a near-neighbour in the cold, wet snap were prevented from feeding by the weather for days in a row – and died – and our chemical-pesticide assault on fly-life is starving exhausted birds. Is this our crisis point?

But the cuckoo has returned and been greeted with such relief, its woodwind notes percussion and salve to the ancient heart of the place. And the countryside is golden: from the intensively-sprayed rape fields, set off against a cornflower blue sky, to the wild suns of dandelions and the wild bird cover crop, where the kale that holds the heavy seedheads up in winter storms, has flowered. The birds are infused by it; goldfinches flash yellow wingbar-epaulettes and yellowhammers sing their light-bulb heads off: canaries in the farmland ‘coalmine’. Whitethroats project their songs from the sunshine-yellow gorse, coconut-vanilla scented and scratchy as the shrub they sing from.

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There is jubilation in the hills. After years of dogged, alternate, haranguing, admonishment and encouragement, a new sheep-grazing regime has been drawn-up, agreed and stuck to. The results are in: the long down is golden with cowslips in a way I can’t remember. With them will come insects, pollinators, other flowers, birds: it glows. There are so many cowslips, you couldn’t sit down without squishing one.

My daughter suggests a late picnic tea on the hill. The entrance to the little copse at its foot is backlit by the pale, green-coved lanterns of cuckoo pint, that promise phosphorescence after dark. Our procession of brown boots along the white flint road scuff puffs of chalk dust that leaves a silky sheen on bare legs and resettles on wayside nettles and garlic mustard. All the mud of winter has gone so quickly to dust, it is hard to think that just weeks ago, the snow here drifted above our heads.

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The sun goes down and we are entirely alone; the lights from this view of seven counties, remarkably few. Skylarks continue to rise, singing and then, small squadrons of huge cockchafer beetles make their way out of the earth around us and zoom into being. All life is coming up from the earth or under it, to fling itself to the first early stars. A barn owl hunts from the fenceposts below our feet, starlight on its moth-light wings.

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In the morning, a single swallow sits on the wire in the farmyard, tail-streamers a taut telemetry of highly strung antennae, its magnetic compass needles trembling between the planet and the human race.

 

Nature Notes

Felling Sticks Walk.

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Bird nesting season and they’re chainsawing the wood.

And not any old wood (is there such a thing?) but ours. Our wood. And they are not just chainsawing it. They are eating it up and spitting it out in random patterns with enormous forestry machinery that looks apocalyptic: giant grabs, shears and winches on huge caterpillar tracks.

They came unannounced, without approach, consideration or enquiry to the wood in the centre of our village, all the way from Frome in Somerset. The wood has many names: Post Office Woods, Greater Great Common, The Sticks Walk (our own personal name) and, perhaps more ominously, The Plantation or The Firs. Once common land, the remnant heath and mixed, deciduous woodland has just two official footpaths running through it. Yet, over decades and generations, the whole wood has been explored, ‘desire paths’ have been created, spots within it named and known. The whole wood has become a much loved, much used heart of the village. Children, children’s children and their children have grown up here, built dens, climbed trees, watched badgers, built bridges over and dammed the stream. My own children included.

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By the time anyone realised what was going on, the entrance to the wood had been clear-felled, the trees dangerous, apparently. All of them? A kite’s nest in an ash tree had gone with it too. I challenged the foresters. All other villagers had been lied to, up till this point; told they were just felling dangerous trees at the front and that the owner was kind enough to plant new ones. I was more persistent. I know how this works. I asked the foreman where the ash tree had gone, with the kite’s nest in it. No birds nesting here, he said, no ash tree, just some dodgy beech trees, holly and a wonky old oak. I pointed the ash tree out to him. I can tell oak from ash as well as I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, even when it is lying on the ground, branchless. Had I known they were coming, I could have gathered evidence. Taken a picture. But I didn’t. No one did.

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There are dormice in this wood. Alerted by a resident in 2011, I recorded their presence, then. But apparently, that record is too old; it needs to be within five years to stop any work that would wreck their habitat. There are adders too – the wood was famous for them years ago and villagers who have been here longer, regale me with tales of ‘adderpits’ of hibernating vipers. There aren’t even those (or dormice) on the Wildlife Trust owned Little Great Common on the other side of the road. But again, all records are anecdotal. I can’t produce them to show the foresters, like a magic trick.

I feel small and insignificant, standing in front of them with my daughter and these wild, bold claims. She, aged ten, has just finished reading the brilliant The Wilderness War by Julia Green and she’s primed for action: ‘we can build dens, treehouses, throw water bombs at them!’ she cries, in her deep conviction that this cannot be allowed to happen. And I have to turn away. I, who have brought her up with such stories. Of how I lay in front of cherry-pickers and breached police lines, stood in front of men wielding chainsaws inches from my face and wrists. But what can I do here?

The foreman urges me to ‘take care of myself’ pointedly, as I leave. I smile a ‘you too’, back at him. He’s been here before, I think. But then. So have I.

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My son and older daughter spot the devastation from the school bus window – take pictures, text me urgently. They too are deeply upset and angry. The beech trees formed a stained glass, vaulted, cathedral-like tunnel here, across the road and my son loved to cycle under it. It was one of his favourite places. The beeches opposite remain, undangerously, breaking into leaf, like grief. The lane looks like the aisle of a bombed out, broken half of a church.

The village and Parish Council get together to see what can be done, but there is nothing. It is a private wood. The forestry company has bought the timber and felling rights legitimately. I am told they will not be clear felling the rest, that a percentage of trees will be removed, that it will be thinned and there will be replanting of a mix of hard and soft woods. For what? For felling when my children have children?

The footpath is not closed. Signs go up telling people to keep to the official paths. At the weekend, I go in with my husband for support to have a look. The wood is unrecognisable. Paths formed and followed for at least sixty years, according to one resident (and certainly, much longer) have gone. Favourite trees too, whilst others remain. There is the smell of rising sap, greenwood and mashed foliage. I look mournfully in the trees and at my feet for bird’s nests. The wood is uncharacteristically quiet. Few birds sing. There is no cuckoo.

I watch as a pair of treecreepers shin up the side of an old birch tree and try to be philosophical. The wood may benefit from thinning, woods do: though it is actually quite ‘open woodland’. They haven’t clear felled the lot. They have left particular trees and will replant and put right some of it. It will recover. And we can reclaim it again. Perhaps, I think ambitiously, perhaps we could buy it for the village, in perpetuity? Reclaim the old Common?

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But I am angry. I am angry at the way in which it’s been done. The subterfuge. The sudden arrival for which no one could prepare. The complete disregard for local people. They have cynically driven down one of the oldest, most established paths with signs up that say ‘Forestry operations, please stick to the official footpaths’. Most of all, I am angry at the timing. Why now? Why, in bird nesting season, when the migrant birds are arriving? Surely, that is illegal? It’s not. There are ways around what we all believe is the law.

‘The Law allows birds which are not specially protected to be disturbed, or their eggs or nests to be destroyed, provided it is incidental to a lawful operation and could not have been reasonably avoided’. 

Over the hill, another example of this is taking place. A little acre of ash, hawthorn and cherry has been completely clear-felled this same week. It is home to one of the last two remaining populations of willow tits in the whole of Berkshire. Felling this wood, at this time of year is an act of extinguishing the almost-extinct. The other willow tit area, just a field away is protected ancient woodland, a SSSI and I hope, safe. I do wonder. It’s remote. The owner (no connection to ‘our’ village wood) owns whole villages and thousands of acres across our three border counties, and is no doubt oblivious (as his Foresters probably are) of the existence of this rare little bird, hanging on by a thread.

I hurt for the children and all our memories of this place and I hurt because I can’t stop it for them. It will recover, yes. But the wood, its familiar paths and the way they swing this way and that, over that old fallen tree, past the one struck by lightning, the way another is worn by so many hands swinging round it – all this is in their blood, set down in their making like rings of grain and rooted here.

Just when the tenderest leaves are unfurling.

Everything is sacred. Nothing is safe.

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Nature Notes

An Almost-Hoopoe.

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.My ten-year-old daughter described this reluctant spring perfectly as we passed a bank of wood anemones, their petals pursed tight, like lips withholding a secret: ‘it’s like the ground knows it’s spring, but the sky won’t have it’.

There were patchy reports of spring migrant birds coming through – wheatear and ring ouzel. I briefly see two of the latter on the southern flank of the hill, below the Iron Age hill fort. The white torcs across the birds’ breasts glow through the mist: they could be identical scars of chalk in the turf – mezzalunas of crescent moons. They are like little Celtic goddesses.

Grooming the horses sets clumps of hair floating off for birds’ nests. A hen blackbird bristles with an orange moustache of it. Then there is a commotion in the wood.
I hear the harsh rattle and protest of jays and what I take to be the squeezy wheeze of an indignant squirrel. A reaction to a predator perhaps; a sparrowhawk, or an owl? I resume currying the horse. Then, the low human-like whistle that has persisted on the edge of my curiosity piques it: it is like the louder, deeper whistle of a bullfinch. Or a pump. Or an unoiled wheel – something human going on in the farmyard. The commotion strikes up again and I know I must investigate. I am an inexpert and very local birder – but this means I know a strange bird when I hear one.

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A whole woodful of jays is mobbing something. There are shrieks, chacks and the wheeze I could hear (though no squirrel) some clucks and that low ‘hoop, poo, poo’. In poor light I can make out a flurry of salmon-pink jay bodies, black and white wings and the slightly raised crests of jays – but why so many, reacting so strongly? They follow a winged creature, an indistinguishable something of their colour to another tree and then another and I follow it deeper into the wood. I can’t take my eye off this strange sight. There is the glimpse of something dove-like, butterfly-flighting, part-jay – is it a jay? Something of a zebra’s colouring flashes, a bird pieced together from pictures in books, with the wings of a Jersey tiger moth.

Behind me, in the yard, the mare has impatiently pulled at her rope, undone it and is making for the field. I have to double back on myself, looking over my shoulder until I reach the gate. The golden ticket of certainty flutters just out of reach, gets snagged on a thorn bush – and is gone.

What have I almost seen? Tick, tick, tick. And then it dawns. The sound, the suggestion of possibility, time of year … I am stitching an almost-mythical bird together from scraps of retina-printed fabric and a confused soundtrack. But it couldn’t be anything else. I put two and two together and get 50 points for an I-Spy hoopoe. A hoopoe. A bird that has the brilliant scientific name of Upupa epops. A bird so rare and exotic that its possibility hadn’t occurred to me: up to 100 are spotted each year, as passage migrants generally overshooting Southern Europe. But can you count a bird you haven’t quite seen? That nobody else saw? That has already gone?

Nature Notes

Rain. Battles. White Violets.

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And so it rains. Mud becomes part of the fabric of living, washing off the fields with little to stop it and slewing into everything else. Hail the size of garden peas hammers down so hard one night, the spider in the corner of my writing hut roof trembles. Adrift from the house like a boat at sea, I am informed that the hail came down the chimney and through the air vents, filled a whole cupboard – and had to be swept up.

It doesn’t melt. It remains, along with the loose vertebrae of dirty drifts, in furrows, ridges, hollows and pots, like an explosion of beanbag polystyrene. It snuggles into the earth, stealing spring’s warmth.

For days, the green woodpecker has been calling incessantly from the wood, laughing hysterically, close to tears. Prospecting nest holes, it flies between trees like a paper plane: an origami flight, folded in green and red paper. His old name? Rainbird.
An owl calls at noon and is answered by two more. Cloud obscures the hill that today, looks like the mountain it was once considered to be. It looms. When I am up there, the clouds are round my ankles.

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My mind keeps returning to environmental pressures that won’t leave me alone. That haunt, nag and provoke me. That are always on the periphery. The flawed badger cull is on its way here. Flower-rich verges of orchids have been destroyed to put cabling in over the hill (before being stopped)**. A hedge has been grubbed up where I know there were hedgehogs and felling has started, unannounced, in the wood the village’s children (including my own) have grown up playing in. It transpires that its timber has been bought by a forestry company, 60 miles away. I put on my best Lois Lane (Breakfast at Tiffany’s trenchcoat, lipstick and wellies) and clump down the road to talk to them. I come away with names, having not given mine, my notebook full of anger – and am called back with a not-uncommon warning: ‘And Miss? You take care now, won’t you?’ There is a history of unrecorded dormice and adders in this wood. And a billion memories. I feel hunted, haunted. And pretty ineffectual.

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I go for a walk in the opposite direction, away from the chainsaws that jangle my nerves. Rainwater pours in a river out of the sheep field. I haul a lamb out of a water-filled hollow. Another newborn lamb stands hump-backed, head down, its umbilical cord tethering it to the wet, cold earth, like a cowboy’s tired, thin, ground-tied horse.

I shlock through wet, sucking fields to watch hares. On the ridge of the arable I catch two boxing, a third squatting, hunkered down like a small grey-wether; a dun-coloured sarsen stone. The match seems short and ill-tempered, rather than exuberant. They do not leap, just scratch violently at each other on their hindlegs, clumps of wet fur flying out with sprays of water. As I pass the wood I see three more out the corner of my eye, sheltering in the wings. I am careful not to turn my head to alert them they’ve been spotted. The furthest stretches like a cat. The other two are butted up against the trunks of trees, parked up in the bays between roots, leathery ears flat along backs. They think I haven’t seen them and freeze. I can’t help but smile.

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Then, the splashed white droppings of a roosting bird upon the dog’s mercury – turn out to be the first white violets. I rally a little more. There are skylarks singing through the rain, high out of sight. And the rain that rattles on the corrugated roof of the long barn, also falls on the bluebell leaves, thickening in the wood. Soon, there will be swallows.

**I am pleased to say that after meeting with contractors, this will be put right. On understanding the situation, they could not have been more apologetic and helpful.   

 

Nature Notes

The Blackthorn Winter & the Hawfinch.

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We are in the midst of a blackthorn winter. The sloe blossom on the low trees and hedges (that have not been flailed) is a frothy surf upon the damson-coloured thorns that pre-empts its leaves and often presages the lion’s roar and bite of March.

I have been haunting churchyards all winter as a reliable source of yew trees and possibly, therefore, hawfinches – as well as ash groves, beech hangars or stands of cherry trees. These large, rare finches are partial to beechmast, ash keys, and the seeds of hornbeam and elm, as well as hips, haws and berries.

Our tiny resident population of hawfinches (500-1,000 birds) is annually swelled by a few hundred from Eastern Europe. Though this year, their numbers have been unprecedented. Wild berry crops have been poor in their home countries and thousands have ‘irrupted’, dispersing westwards to find food. Fortunately, it seems that we have had a good year for fruits and tree seeds.

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Hawfinches have a near-mythical status and on top of that, are among the hardest birds to spot. Hence, my standing in my best coat and heeled boots (instead of wellies) with my binoculars bumping up against my handbag and a shopping list in my pocket, in the middle of a freezing blizzard in town. I’d had a tip-off. Of course! Historic, romantic Shaw House was best viewed from its yew-lined avenues. But as I wandered those without seeing any, I put my head down into the blizzard and drifted towards the church, subconsciously. And there they were. In the tops of the lime trees opposite, a dozen large, cobby hawfinches. Their warm, apricot-autumnal colours – jay, chaffinch or waxwing colours – blanched pale by the monochrome light of winter. A flock of seven goldfinches flew in for convenient comparison and were dwarfed by the bulky birds.

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Twice the size of a greenfinch, and with a much fiercer expression, their magnificent steel-grey conical bill concealed the four hard bosses within, used to distribute the colossal force needed to crush cherry, plum, bullace and damson stones for the kernels within. The massive musculature that supports this action gives them parrot cheeks and a bullish, top and front heavy appearance. The pressure of their bite is legendary; the force exerted 1,000 times greater than the bird’s weight: the human equivalent? Being able to crush 60 tonnes with your jaw. It is enough to crack bird ringer’s knuckles. The hawfinches call sweetly, their song barely that: nothing more than the sound of an icicle plinking into a crystal glass in a snow cave, it is so pure and simple.

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I wondered how many times had they been here in the past? Hawfinches have never been numerous and may have only bred in England from the 1800’s. It’s an unusual way to concertina the years of a grand house built in 1581, that has seen royalty and wealthy families, a Civil War battle literally on its doorstep, with men and horses buried where they fell in the grounds, musket ball holes still visible in its walls and allegedly one inside that narrowly missed Charles 1 as he was dressing. Visitations from these wintery finches would have gone largely unnoticed during Victorian protests over Rights of Way or by billeted soldiers in WWII or teachers and students when it was a state Secondary School. My daughter might have noticed them when she slept the night in its rooms with her Cub pack.

It doesn’t seem so incongruous then, to spot them in the teeth of March’s latest leonine blast, beside the A34, the speculating rooks and the River Lambourn as it flows into town, past all that history, past all those winters. There is currently more brightness in the thawdrops hanging from the blackthorn, than in the whole sky.

 

 

Nature Notes

Blown Snow.

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In the hours and days before the snow, we barrow water round to the horses as tap, trough and water buckets freeze. The temperature falls to -9 at night.

A prelude of snow falls hard and fast, turning the tarmac white in the time it takes to open Mum’s gate.

We go out in the Land Rover to feed the wild birds, piling it onto snow rather than spinning it out, where it would get lost. Flocks of linnets, yellowhammers and chaffinches descend. Displaced lapwings fly over. Ravens sit low in a tree, their enormous, buzzard-size presence magnified by the snow. They drop onto a rabbit carcass; although, when we pass it and they lift, I spot tiny cloven hooves, no bigger than my thumb: a small muntjac fawn, just weeks old. I wonder if the cold killed it.

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Blowing snow is new. The open fields are just skimmed with small hard grains and snow devils spiral up to blow away into Wiltshire. We sledge into it, all five of us crammed into a decommissioned orange rescue stretcher.

Around the badger sett, snow reveals which entrances are in use and which shared by a fox. Overnight, a polecat has bounded between my own footprints: a personal, invisible snow daemon. Here is a map of unseen accompaniment. Where a hare has sprinted away, I measure three of my strides to its one. My son Billy laughs that he and I share the same ratio: at 16, he is the hare.

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After a day and a night of driving snow, the drifts are spectacular, the lanes impassable. The beast has rudely pushed snow through inadequate, flailed hedges and made strange shapes; lips, tongues, strudles, folds, drapes, pleats and ruffles. As if a giant’s linen cupboard has been tipped out.

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At the foot of the down the drifts rear and plunge like surf from a glacier, forcing a kind of pristine, glacial junkyard ahead of it. Wind-carved shapes are knife-edged and animated; here is the prow of an icy cruise liner, the cockpit of a boat plane, the snowboard of The Polar Express, the remains of Franklin’s lost expedition. A flotsam and warning from the sinking Arctic.

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On the down, we walk above a vanished road stippled with fenceposts. Snow has filled in the hillfort’s deep, deep ditches. The anthills have become a sunk, bare-headed army of wild-haired Celts, lined up to face down the Siberian wind. We hide our faces with our hands, scarves no match for the sting of it.

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On the ridgeway track, walking is hard. One moment we are on new sparkling hills above the hedges, the next, sunk to our waists. Some of the drifts are above head height. The children and dog roll and commando crawl over the tops.

A song thrush sits on a drift as if oblivious to the blast. Its spotted breast and chestnut feathers, the small embers of a fire nearly gone out. It is fluffed and motionless. My husband scoops it up lightly and pockets it. Perhaps we can warm, then feed and water it at home.

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By the time we make the high, turf earthworks, its tiny heart has stopped. I thumb its breastbone and find it sharp and exposed as wind-carved drifts. It is all feather. I place it on the bank of the ramparts and hope it died warm and unafraid of us, or this furious winter rage. Renowned be thy grave, I think.

When we get home, our knee-deep footprints have been filled in and smoothed over as if with a palette knife. There are redwings in the garden.

A week later, post-thaw and there are still Holstein patches of snow – lines demarking footpaths or underscoring hedgerows as if someone tried to highlight a landscape without thought to where the light was coming from. Mini ice floes rinse noisily down the lane.

A raven flies over, calling like a school ruler twanged on a desktop. On the hillfort, the spinal column, knuckles and cartilage of drifts remain, like scattered snow bones among the wings of thrushes. The yellow of a lone flowering gorse bush, the inside of a singing bird’s open bill.

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Nature Notes

Before the Snow.

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Winter-spring holds fast at each end and see-saws. One morning, rain strikes the cold plough at 45 degrees, whilst hail big as garden peas comes down straight as a plumb line: conjoined snowflakes fly up and down through it all. A demonstration of the weight of precipitation. The ditches are overflowing and the village pond, is a saucer brimful. Yet, when the sun comes out, it beams off the holly’s glossy waxed leaves, teases the hazel catkins into loosened, lengthened ringlets and relaxes the blackbird’s hunched, puffiness into an outpouring of rich, honeyed song.

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Frozen ground offers a reprieve from the mud, but freezes up tap, trough and water buckets. We barrow containers filled from the bathroom across the rutted field. A dalliance of snowdrops is wonderful as snowfall against a grey morning, their hardened tips piercing a way to sun and early bees. Some are remnant cottage gardens of homes long since tumbled down. A snipe jinks up with the sound of tearing fabric; as if it were frozen to the earth. In the place where it was, I expect to find feathers, stuck to the soil; instead, the ground is holed by the rhythmic sewing-machine needle of its long bill, the thread ripped out & gone with it on sharp, zip-zag wings.

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I am out on the hill just after dawn. Below, the valley is mist-netted: wreathed in soft, white taffeta. Out in the Land Rover, the untreated stubble is as green with weeds as it is faded gold with short straws. In stark comparison to those empty sprayed fields we cross, skylarks and meadow pipits spring up at our approach and there is the whistle of golden plover. Hares, their haunches coiled like big gear cogs above their low front ends, chase in cautious bursts, raising and lowering their long, sundae spoon ears like crests  in a presentiment of boxing matches. The sun comes up and lights on a pussy willow coming into bud. We are flooded with a warmth that is seen, rather than felt. The rising sun picks out the rose breasts of linnets in the gorse as if it had painted them. They blossom the gorse.

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There is no wind by evening. The smoke from our neighbour’s chimney inverts strangely: puthering out, then curling back in on itself, like a bridled swan, to pour like surf off the roof and diffuse through the fence. From there, it sends out low, person-sized puffs of smokiness to walk across the field (in the manner of smoke rings). I wait for a gap between them to go and feed the horses. Coming back, the strange procession is still traversing the field. In navy, bosky light, they have become a crowd of grey ladies: some with bent heads, others with trailing skirts or loose hair. The hair prickles on the back of my neck. I take care to trace the ghostly women back to their source, several times.

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There is a strange atmosphere that reminds my daughter of the days before the red sun of Storm Ophelia. We watch the sky and the birds for clues.  I am grateful for the snowdrops lighting the path home through the woods. The little owl calls persistently for a new mate. Hers died last year. I can make six measured steps between each call, willing her a new mate with each footfall.