Nature Notes

Love & Comets: A Brother’s Re-Leaving.

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My brother and his family came home for Christmas. And by home, I mean where our parents are. He lives in Australia. My nieces have not seen (nor the eldest remember) an English winter.

We want snow for them or at least, a lasting, Narnian hoar frost; but instead, we have bone-damp weather and mud to the doorstep.

My city-living eldest niece loves horses and this we can give her. But we worry ours are not the sun-glossed animals of Australia as they come schlocking through mud past their fetlocks, with burrs tangled in manes stiff with mud. We groom them, and wear their mud.

We ride into a swirly, vanishing mist that mingles with steam from the horses’ flanks and nostrils. The sun strobes through freshly smashed hedges that smell of Christmas, but look like hell: especially to the birds that have come (like Waitrose’s robin) from Scandinavia to find them.

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My brother talks of exotic wildlife the other side of the world: flying foxes big as kites, possums, parakeets and light too bright to look at. His clothes’ labels read ‘dry in the shade’, which makes us fall about. Our trees are bare, our colours a mud palette; a patina of wood-browns and dead grasses, long folklore and the subtle, cryptic colours of tawny owl’s wings. But shafts from a weak winter sun are mirrored by wet holly leaves and the wood glimmers with a billion tiny suns.

This is no pastoral, but I’m bound to it all the same. I trespass a frost-cornered field to avoid the indiscriminate flail’s deepest, unkindest cuts. At night, poachers leave the entrails of a field-gutted deer, and a cairn of dead hares piled like mockery. Worse, a barn owl is found shot with a .22 rifle, off a fence post. It is a bird I know.

We walk. On the edge of my brother’s hearing, blackbirds shrill a ‘pink, pink’ with voices like knapped flints. There is a predator, I say, an aerial one, from their alarm, chipped out like flint flakes. I expect blue sparks. There is the scent of fox, the sugar beet smell of decaying sycamore leaves, and the particular crunch of chestnut leaves, frosting up. If I were led here blindfold, I tell him, I’d know where I was, and that it was January.

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The Narnian frost comes after all and is breathtaking. My brother runs for miles over the hills.  On his last evening here, my youngest daughter and I spot a solitary figure on the hill, silhouetted next to the gibbet on its high long barrow – and I know it is him. I am driving the two miles from Mum’s and flash my lights. He knows it is me. Above him, the pink comet of a contrail makes an arc and becomes a black javelin as it clears the down’s shoulder. The sky, cobalt at its height, fades to snow-blue, then lemon.

On Twelfth Night, it hurts to take the tree and all its decorations down after such a wonderful, memorable Christmas. Through the short days, we leave a few lights for the dark.

On the morning he is gone, the vapour trails of his and other journeys are rose-gold in the sunrise. And a little snow is forecast.img_5269

 

Nature Notes

Fond Hornlight, Wild Hoarlight.

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When the mercury dipped, the frost stayed for days along the field edge under the wood; hoary fingers making a frost shadow, where the sun didn’t penetrate. Sunrise and sunset bookend the shortening days in aurora colours of yellow, orange, blue, green.

In the morning, birds sit on the highest branches that can bear their featherweight, fluffed and warming the minute the sun breaks the horizon. Kestrels’ thrush-speckled breasts uplit in tawny-rosy tints; wrens, robins and dunnocks singing in defiance of the cold night, little puffs of breath purling onto air like curlicues condensing off a morning cup of tea.

In a bank of ratholes, below leafless elders, the occupied holes steamed.

Elsewhere, the romantic, rambling, damson-coloured vines of ‘bedwine’ or Old Man’s Beard is the ‘flower’ of the moment. Wreathing through woods and hedges, I mistake its fluffy seedheads as woodsmoke; close to, the individual misted globes hold twinkling, jewelled drops, like little Victorian gaslamps lit early on a winters evening. Woodbine or wild clematis has many names, but for these few weeks, when we bring it into the house, it is Father Christmas.

Lunchtime, I sit with a book, orientated to the sun and the downs. The sycamore leaves at my feet relax and unfurl from their frosty grip with a ticking and crackling, in the sun’s brief warmth. In the next hour, the sun will dip and the leaves will curl back up in frost that has barely left them.

These evenings, there is not much time, the days at their shortest. I go out, anyway. A little owl yelps from Oldlands Wood. The down is a long, black paper cut-out against a blue and orange sky. To my north, the ancient barn roof echoes the shape of the down and I am reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem The Barn and the Down. Each could be mistaken for the other, ‘until the gable’s precipice proved it impossible’ and were it not for the weathervane on the end of the barn and the gibbet at the end of the down, storing all the black dark within, ‘full to the ridge’.

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Above the barn-down, a fingernail moon hangs like the curved bevelled edge of a clockface, venus swinging below. More biblical and more pagan, come lines beloved from Hopkins’s Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves. ‘Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height’.

A profoundly beautiful mist forms in the combe and there is the frosty courtship call of a fox. Stars are held in the bare-fingered branches of the dying oak and the first of the Geminid meteors fall in slow-dives, in bauble colours. I feel then I do not want for much. Only for things to stay the way they are. This is my realm of magic. The seasons’ change are enough, in all their dappled variousness.

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Nature Notes

Winter Gold.

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Golden plover (thank you, James Sadler)

The ninety-acre field could be a bleak prospect. High and exposed, it can appear a vast expanse of tilled mud: six-inch high rape leaves, little else.

Squally showers come on biting gusts, shaking the new leaves to silver with a loud pattering. The mud is heavy on our boots. It seems an incredible, crazy prospect that anything (or anyone) would choose to be up here – but this field is a draw to exciting winter birds – so here we are.

Hares lift from shallow clay forms, to canter, long-eared over the horizon, leading our eyes to a long line of bobbing heads: golden plover. They lift like an ethereal, shape-shifting shadow. An apparition making dizzying, fast passes, before settling like a net cast for fish.

Another shower sends us dancing back to the Landrover and no sooner than we’ve slammed the doors, a tight flock of 40 plover skim the bonnet at a probable 60mph. They whistle like wind through a metal gate.

We drive alongside a loose, restless flock of hundreds of fieldfare and redwing, their flint grey, chalk and haw berry colours, reflecting the winter landscape. From a leafless hedge, bright yellow leaves have blown out in a long line; I mistake them for a beam of light.

The storm clears and dusk is set back half an hour. In precarious light, dozens of lapwing are scattered like violets over the field.

We head for the dewpond in the spinney. The little mixed wood covets the disc of water; a mirror to the sky, its tall pines and gothic hawthorns castellate it like a fortress. All that’s visible of the sky is an upturned pale blue bowl and early stars; an Italianate frescoed dome above a rotunda, the remnant sunset gilding angelic clouds. We wait for the wild duck to come home.

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A raven signals end of day. An owl calls. A vaulted arch of bramble frames the pond, festooned among its own round red leaves with others that have been pierced on its thorns. Under a maple, a year’s worth of sunlight lies caramelised in fallen leaves, pooled like lamplight. It makes a buttercup glow under our chins.

Seven mallard come in quacking, stalling steeply into the wind and water-skiing onto the water. They are quickly followed by more, braking with back peddling wings. Dozens more come. Then lighter, smaller teal arrive, whistling round once to float down with the leaves. More mallard, more teal, and then only teal. Before we leave them to feed and settle, a woodcock flies through them, long, earthbound bill pointed down, seriously, on wings of last year’s leafmeal.

Nature Notes

Hotchi Witchi. An Apology.

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Near-dark, and I am trying to point out a small, still hedgehog under a hedge by the Scout hut to my son. He only sees it when it trots off, a conker on fast little legs. He is astonished I spotted it.

But I have a special eye for hedgehogs. And it is because I have an apology to make, a confession to absolve: a dirty little secret.

You see, years ago, I mistook a hedgehog for a football. One late summer night with friends, in the dusk-near-dark, barefoot and in a dress, I ran from the touchline that ran parallel with a badgers’ boundary, pitted at intervals with blackberry-filled latrines, and swung a kick at the ball. Only, it wasn’t. I yelped in surprise and pain as the inside of my right foot connected with an immovable pin cushion as my short-sighted, low-light vision clocked the actual ball. Over-wintered itself under a hedge, and partially-deflated, it had long lost its white leather gleam.

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Horrified, we sat in solemn vigil around the bristling, sizable ball. A full five minutes later, it unrolled, snuffed the air, stood up via a press-up in reverse and trotted off. I cried with relief.

Just three years later, driving home, a hedgehog emerged from the shadowed kerbside undercliff and I struck it unavoidably with my near side wheel, killing it. More recently, another got stuck in the cage of our live rat trap. For 40 minutes it defied efforts to free it, rolling into a defensive ball too big to fit back out. We released it unharmed eventually, only to catch a furious polecat in the same trap a week later.

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We seem to have 50 regrettable ways to kill hedgehogs, finding them dead at the bottom of cattle grids or drains, drowned in steep-sided ponds, strangled in garden netting, flattened on roads, burnt in bonfires, or mangled horribly by mowers, strimmers or tractor flails. And more sinisterly, blithely, we thank them for eating slugs by poisoning them with pellets, often in industrial quantities over our farmfields. We do not mean to harm. But we do.

Dead hedgehogs are tragedies – as well as indicators of a wider population. Now, like the moth snowstorms in car headlights of the seventies, they are rarer: declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers globally – around 5% a year.

So, I am good at spotting hedgehogs; I have ground to make up. This summer, I rescued two from the road, weighing their heavy prickliness in my two hands with due reverence for these most marvellous and ancient of beasts. The lines of Philip Larkin’s poem The Mower, ran through my head: ‘we should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time.’

Nature Notes

Fallow and Chestnuts.

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Such still, quiet weather; the sky is an oatmeal-grey. Two muntjac are having a bark-off at either end of the wood. Rhythmic barks at different pitches, each delivered six seconds apart, on a count of three after the last one, in a game of aural tennis. But here, exiting the middle of the wood, are the fresh, neat prints of a muntjac doe, and beside her, the diminutive, 1.5cm prints of her fawn.

I’m hoping to find fallow deer. It is the rut, but these deer are highly mobile: elusive, for an animal so big, hyper-alert, constantly moving. In the stalls created by the boughs of a fallen tree, are flattened areas where their bodies have lain, overlaid with grey, black and russet hairs. Nearby, piles of shiny, acorn-shaped ‘fewmets’.

I settle against the tall barley twist of a sweet chestnut. Midges are biting and it is hard to stay still. Pheasants move over dry, fallen leaves, making the sound of rain. Squirrels working among conkers, acorns and chestnuts scold like querulous, wheezy jays. The only other sound is the smack and patter of chestnut leaves – that fall in great orange licks – and the clonk and clatter of chestnuts pinballing through the branches. The spiky green hedgehogs spring open to reveal glossy, heart-shaped nuts. Once sprung, the nuts are presented like jewels, cushioned on cream velvet. Although small, they make good eating. And the deer love them.

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Off in the wood somewhere, the lid of a pheasant feed hopper bangs. A deer is lifting the tin with its muzzle, to lick corn. I try another tactic, skirting the wood from the outside.
Near the feed station, I duck to peer into the dark cave of the wood. In a skewed, half-hexagon of light from a gap in the canopy, I catch the turn of a palmate antler. As if against a window, there is the thorny silhouette of a brow tine, recurved against the broad, flat, moose-like wing of the blade. A big buck in his prime! I could fit my spread hand along the blade, my fingers reaching down the pointed ‘spellers’ of the antler.

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I find them sometimes, fallow deer antlers; cast off and stained brown with earth, or bleached by sun and winters. Sometimes it is possible to trace the dry channels left by the veins branching down the palm, that fed the living velvet covering the antlers as they grew.

I crawl closer. In the semi-dark, there is the long, swan curve of a neck, a straight foreleg among saplings and coppice poles, the angle of a hock. And then a sudden bolt and leap: the heavy thudding of four hooves hitting the ground at the same time, ‘pronking’ and propelling this big buck away so powerfully, I am sure I can feel it through my chest and feet. He leaves a warm, wet swirl of strong, animal scent in his wake: of urine, pawed earth, musty ammonia and frayed bark.

The mist comes down and falls like sieved rain. The cacophony of the pheasant roost starts then and increases, until the racket is overwhelming, coming in waves, ricocheting off the combes and hills. As it will again and again later, the pheasants pre-empting the pop of fireworks, like they do the thunder of the guns on Salisbury Plain, their alarm given seconds ahead of the bang.

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Nature Notes

A Confusion of Raptors.

img_4679I am listening hard in the wind that comes off the downs; trying to silence the rustle of my ill-chosen coat with shallow breathing, directing cupped hands held behind my ears to the sky. Five woodlark are singing over Windmill Field. Still here, pouring their melancholy, heartbreaker alleluias over the earth. I stare hard at the white sky, trying to separate and blink away the glides of motes and floaters in my eyes from the flicker and glide of spiralling birds. There. But then the bell-bong from a raven in the high wood seems to signify something – they silence and are gone.

Homeward, up the wide hedge through the arable, a bird of prey is hunting. It drops from the hedge to move up a space; sits, then does the same again. I don’t recognise it. I catch a black edge on a long tail, the hint of more bars perhaps, a white rump: and then it glides, very low across the open field, putting up the partridge. Long-tailed, wings held in a shallow ‘v’, it is gone into a far, favourite beech that lost its crown in a storm some years ago. I feel like I have grasped at something wonderful and missed. What was it? Could it have been our sometime-resident goshawk? Or a female hen harrier?

From my somewhat contradictory descriptions, a more knowledgeable friend thinks the former, another, the latter. Both birds are seen here, especially in this season of movements and migration. The topography and height of the place, it’s collision of geography acts as a draw; a pause for birds en route.

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Two days later, I walk the route again. Woodlark are still singing. On a hunch, I divert through the wood, towards a plucking post used by a large raptor at intervals; likely, by the size of the birds plucked here, a goshawk.

But before the post is in sight, a large bird of prey flies up from the ground and into a tree just 20m away. I freeze, heart hammering in my chest. Again, I do not know it. It has a greyish appearance, pale chest, a light-coloured, rather small head and is looking right at me. It fiddles on its perch and gives away a dark edged, possibly banded tail, too long for a buzzards’. The dusk is muting the light that might help me.

I rock forward on one foot to stalk closer, but as I do, the bird leans forward to take off. I straighten slowly. So does my mystery raptor. I try again, but the bird mirrors my movement. We repeat the dance until I step forward and the bird takes off. It doesn’t go far. Kites and buzzards swoop over, unhappy at its presence. It cannot be a buzzard, and yet … And then the bird utters a buzzard-like pe-ooo, but higher, purer, clearer. For comparison, two of the circling buzzards mew back. Pheasants racket the wood with waves of angrily spat throat-clearing at this most sensitive roost time. The strange raptor calls again, moving between the trees in a circle around me, feathered legs hanging down. I have ruled out goshawk by now – that would have left the wood as I entered – but this bird seems reluctant to leave. And then, risking looking down and away, to take another step, I see something that seems to make the scales fall from my eyes, that turns the almost-certainty of my identification on its head with a vertiginous swoop.

An unearthed, papery honeycomb lies broken on the ground at my feet. A wasp’s nest, dug up and grubbed out by resident badgers has been recently messed with. Ragged chunks of hexagonal cells are scattered like building blocks around the hole in the ground and a few drowsy wasps (late for the season) remain.

img_4674When I look up, the bird has gone. I stumble out of the wood in the near dark, exhilarated, but with my questions unanswered. One mystery has led to another. Perhaps I have just had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a honey buzzard, a late-migrating juvenile? And after a possible hen harrier or goshawk at that: such potential rarities within days! But then, this is special landscape at a particularly thrilling part of the year. Anything could turn up, and does. The place is alive – and I don’t think we know the half of it.

Nature Notes

Chalk Hills & Woodlarks

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My son’s first cycle race recently, was up our 974ft Walbury Hill. More than 130 cyclists took on the time trial up our usually lonely down, powering up the incline between hill fort, scarp and its ‘moon field’ below. We were given sticks of coloured chalk to write competitors’ names on the road for support – but instead, we picked a nugget of the hill itself, from the old chalk pit and wrote his name with that.

On the way up, a peregrine falcon hunted partridge off the summit. On the way down, badger tracks (a hidden secret until harvest revealed them) gleamed like a confluence of silver streams through the stubble, where the animals beat the standing corn into paths.

The season turns.

Thistles have hardened into black, pufferfish pouts, whilst tiny tin foil suns are all that remains of others, the thistledown long blown away. The pom-poms of wild basil seedheads are still fragrant when walked on, or a sprig is picked for a pocket. The miniature, inverted urns of agrimony seeds stick in spaniels’ ears and, after a gallop up the holloway on the horse, burdock Velcro’s to the mare’s mane and my knees like tiny, hooked planets.

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Riding home provides a slower conveyance past high hedges of seeds, nuts and berries. Among hips and haws are damson and bullace, strung with necklaces of bryony, nightshade and the little green cones of hops. Then, in a presentiment of rain to come, the curled brown and silver cigarillos of whitebeam leaves roll down the road behind us. The dry, ticketty sound chasing autumn on at our heels.

The following day, the hill is lost in low cloud and columns of steam. On the way to work, I think I see my first redwing where my first swallow came in, though from different points of the compass.

Clear skies follow rain with a china-blue fragility. More birds are moving through. A whinchat grips the wire. Its long claws overlap, mimicking the barley twist of the barbs it sits between. Wheatear bounce over anthill tumps, white bottoms visible as a bullfinch’s. The country vernacular, ‘whitearse’ (sweetened to a Victorian ‘wheatear’) comes back to haunt me when I smile about it later: walking down the chalk track, treacherous after rain, I slip and land on my bottom.

img_4577Crossing the stubble, an arresting song tumbles from the sky. Something in me stirs like an old memory before I recognise it, or its source. The first few notes are like a nightingale’s – and then the cadence, lilting slow and quickening downwards, falls into place: a woodlark! Two! Lullula arborea are rare enough, particularly over stubble or plough fields as they are here. The pair sing into sight with undulating, fluttering flight. Then three more birds materialise. Their song has a lyrical musicality; the loveliest, saddest alleluia; a lullaby in a minor key with several key changes. It is beautiful. Lovelier, I think, than skylarks. For now, it seems like even they have stopped to listen.

Nature Notes

Harvest Home.

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The last-but-one field on the Estate has been harvested. The straw lies in great wide windrows like yellow plaits across the stubble; all the gold of summer days laid out in thick, shining tresses.

I get to ride up in the combine through the last of the oats, the lights and the sunset illuminating the dust cloud like a fire. The header and reel row the crop under my feet into blades that threaten to clitter the tops of the big flints and spark them.

Past the dewpoint, I go out the garden gate, intent on gleaning an armful of straw for the hens, but instead, keep going. The evening is full of owls, the encroaching night, feather edged. Bats clicker past and a covey of partridge take off with a whirr.

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In the ink black of the wood, unseen and very close, a deer ‘pronks’ away from me, its four hooves hitting the ground at the same time with some force: a big, heavy fallow buck.
The owls call all around as I walk through several held and contested territories. There is quite a conversation, from the kewicks, shrieks and wails to the drawn out, wavering toowhoos: I also hear the low, ‘ocarina’ warble from the throats of one or two. The night is an amphitheatre. The phone in my pocket buzzes. I read and return the text and in doing so, ruin an hour’s worth of accumulated night vision.

The following evening, the forecast storm focuses our attention. We gather our straw as the rhythmic thump of the baler in the next field provides a countdown. It leaves the field minutes before the first spectacular whipcrack of lightning. We stand in the field watching the lightshow for as long as we dare. Owls call, thinking it is night. The horses bolt for their field shelter and the lights blink off in the house. The hiss and sizzle of rain across the shorn field fills the upright straws, so that, in the morning, water flicks up my calves and runs down the inside of my boots.

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Then, the world smells different. There is the first lemon-and-hay scent of ivy flowers, the smell of ploughed earth and the almondy-scent of old man’s beard, its flowers like sea anemones. The last swallows make heart-and-dart shapes against a lumpy, porridgy sky.
Cobnuts soft as milk teeth, white as a peeled hazel stick begin to colour. Ravens, rooks and jackdaws fly like black ash above the last field in Berkshire to burn, when they used to fire the stubble. For now, the curved brow of the hill remains yellow as a choirboys head. Summer slips inexorably through our fingers like handfuls of silky oats. Still gold.

Nature Notes

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Hanging out the washing against a hot, blue still-summer sky, I was suddenly aware of birds. On the aerials above the house: house martins. Our house eaves (and that of my three neighbours) still bear the ghosted imprints of former nests; but the house martins had already gone before we moved in, over a dozen years ago. A builder knocked them off to make repairs and a tawny owl pulled the rest down over several nights one summer, to get at the chicks. I have tried tempting them back, creating mud-puddles in dry springs for building, and putting up a woodcrete nest. The sparrows use it, and I am grateful for that; but I still dream of house martins swooping up to the bedroom windows.

A dozen flutter onto the aerial, and then more, until there are twenty on each, and more on the roofs. Then, there are hundreds in the air, flashing white rumps and a glossy blue-blackness at the sun. I call my neighbour and then we are all out our houses, witnessing this visitation of 1,000 sweet little hirundines on migration. They circle and bank, their contact calls a soft, wet, ‘beep beep’ among the twitter of a handful of swallows.

They settle in their hundreds, strung like clustered pegs along these zip wires to the south through a gap in the wood and over the downs beyond.  After a few minutes, they bounce off at once; like raindrops sprung from a washing line, to sparkle out over the field. They form a big, glittering flock that rises and spirals south. Come back next year, I implore them silently (I think). We’ve put up boxes where your old ones were!

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The following day, the weather breaks and the house goes dark. Outside, I feel the warm swirl of charged wind, and watch the swallows rise ahead of it like ashes. In the farmyard, they’re tucking up the bale stack in black plastic. The sky has gone the colour of elderberry wine and bruises.  The wood, silhouetted against a thin ribbon of light to the east, becomes a 2D animation of itself, a black-paper cut out, a stage set. There is an unreal, pin sharp, storm clarity. The cornfield glows like gold, then pales as if blanched by moonlight. The sun has been eclipsed by a giant mothership of a cloud. The high, pylon whine of crickets falls silent.  Robins, a wren and a dunnock stop singing. The sparrows fly up from the field to roost.

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The first rain fell from a rent of blue sky in what my Northamptonshire Nan called a ‘fox’s wedding’. She used to say it ‘lightnings each night to ripen the corn’. Hampshire Nan would predict a storm if she could see rabbits on The Isle of Wight from Southsea. The thunder growls away towards the M4 and when the light comes back on, the birds start to sing again as if, at three in the afternoon, it was dawn.

Nature Notes

Chalk for Gritstone.

IMG_4029The high winds blowing through Swaledale and Wensleydale are rumbling and rough; a sharp contrast to the smoothed out, keening swish and wail over the downs of home. This wind rolls gritstone around, buffing limestone scars and the corners of our thick-walled farmhouse at Skellgill. The sheep tuck in to line the bottom of the dry stone walls, like remnant snow from another season. The fledged swallows in the adjoining stone cart shed are sitting this one out, crowding at the edge of their too-small mud-cup nest.

The sun returns. I have fallen in love with this breathtaking landscape. I love the wide open moors and the intimacy of the small, walled fields that cloister wrens and weasels; each with a stone barn, weatherboards at the windows silvered, warped, sere and loose like dirtied nets blowing to catch a ghost.

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I love the lush cow pasture close to the yards and lanes besmirched with grassy cowpats rising to rougher fields full of lapwing that I’ve lost my heart to – and the wild, curved cries of curlew and pied and orange oystercatchers. Sycamores in their summer dark take on a dappled, brindled character when their leaves are turned over in the wind,  like the patterning of the lichen-patched chequered walls.

I learn new geology and language in exploring limestone scars, grykes and clints; the pits and pans of ancient seabeds higher and grittier than our soft, white, rounded chalkbeds. Flame-tailed redstarts bob like robins and there are dippers and broods of spotted flycatchers, wild marjoram, blue cranesbill and the red raspberries of great burnet.
One hot, early morning, I watch a stoat threading through exposed roots on an eroded bank, like a laced ribbon pulled through trellis. It splashes lithely through the gill and loops through walls, pushing out stonechats, a wheatear, scolding wrens and rabbits.

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The last time we were here, I was pregnant with my youngest child and struggled to fit through the gap stone stiles. Now, we have tea on village greens and wild adventures, walking behind waterfalls and being thwarted by a missing central stepping stone in the River Ure, whose winter force had bouldered it away out of line to an unjumpable, unwadeable distance.  Through my binoculars, I spot my son and husband mountainbiking miles away, up a walled track onto the high moor, spokes sparkling. They descend to another river crossing, hoiking bikes and boots onto their shoulders.

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The girls spend days scrambling down the gorge of clear, peat-filtered Skellgill that rushes past the back door like poured tea or cola, fizzing over stones, until they discover a small plunge pool. My eldest daughter dives under in shorts and an ironic Hawaiian T-shirt. The bronzy light is filtered through ash and sycamore onto thick moss-covered rocks capped with grasses, harebells and purple knapweed. I breathe in the sweet, earthy, ottery smell, and feel, below these purple grouse moors and their controversy beyond, that I’ve made a home here in a week. I am the last to lock the door on leaving, and make it take as long as possible.

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