Nature Notes

The Wild Other.


‘Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school,

that’s how birds enter my life’.

This quote from writer and poet Kathleen Jamie, orbits my more reflective, mindful moments. Especially when I find myself in, when I’d perhaps rather be out. It’s a wry reminder and a comfort that actually, this is how nature and the ‘wild other’ is in my life; on an ordinary, everyday basis and in myriad forms.

And so it goes: the week sometimes is a little series of vignettes – of conversations, or articles read, of observations, passionate protests or poems on Twitter – or a delightful doorstep conversation with the birder who delivered my shopping, and talked about Poole Harbour’s Ospreys. My phone pings with sightings from the hill: a peregrine hunting red-legged partridge or the arrival of short eared owls. Going down to do the horses, a sweet chestnut leaf comes bounding over the stubble like a stoat, mesmerising me for a moment; a wren whirs through the mouldboards of the red and green plough. There are scarlet hips against fresh-turned earth (and its evocative scent) where, just half a year since, there was a confetti waterfall of marshmallow-coloured dog roses. The piebald gulls are back.


Late for work, I duck back under the apple tree for something forgotten and am waylaid by the amplified buzz of a queen hornet in the auditorium of a hollowed orange pippin.

On another morning walking the dog, a hare lollops right by, the big cog of its hindquarters barely engaged, so slow and close I can see its dew-soaked paws; its eye like a new pound coin.


On a busy Sunday, an adder coiled in the workshop gives Will the farmer a shock. I break from what I’m doing for a glimpse and love the stories of our remnant population when it was stronger (and Will was tasked to hunt them with a forked stick and a sack) and I wish for that population back (but not the hunting) and tales of sloughed snakeskin under the Rayburn.

At night, a roe doe is illuminated like a garden centre statue in the headlamps of a wet October evening.

I make a cake for my entomologist daughter’s tenth birthday in the (taxonomically accurate) shape and colours of a scarlet tiger moth. It wouldn’t win Bake Off, but she recognises it and we are both delighted.

This is how the wild life enters my own: in all ways, all of the time. It is a presence and an awareness I cannot switch off, anymore than I could stop breathing, or seeing, or knowing, or feeling. It is inked in. I carry it with me like grass seeds on the soles of my boots, or when I arrive at work, with the morning’s found owl feather still in my hair.



Nature Notes

A Common Playground.


I did a lot of my growing up on Greenham Common. A place William Cobbett (farmer, journalist, champion of the rural poor) described in 1830 as ‘a villainous tract of rascally heath’; and Victor Bonham-Carter (farmer, author, publisher) as ‘a mighty wilderness … threaded by a single dust road’, seventy years later. Greenham was my wild playground. I knew it before the fences went up. I saw the nuclear bunkers being built and was there when 96 cruise missiles (+ 4 ‘spares’) were flown in by supersized Galaxy Starlifter planes. The haunting wail of the siren ‘test’ was part of school life – as was the pointlessness of the 4-minute warning, where we lived. School holidays were spent on horseback (often without a saddle) racing American soldiers in jeeps around the perimeter fence. There were guns. And all the while, the edifying force, gentleness and persistence of the Peace Women.


Re-enactment of Peace Camp, Greenham War & Peace, 2017

Our wild places are also people places and it is hard to think that certain spots do not absorb human history, strong passions and lives and exhale it. A spirit of place, perhaps? Greenham Common exudes this in a shimmering haze, through every pore and each pop of a gorze pod. Every woodlark rising will be singing a song listened and attended to by people connected to extraordinary moments in time, in this place. A woodlark’s allelu-lu-luia becomes a hymn for this common ground, an individual weight of meaning we might all recognise and claim.


Re-enactment, Greenham War & Peace 2017

Last weekend, in celebration of the Common being returned to its wildlife and people twenty years ago, a stirring community theatrical event was staged on the remaining runway of this former RAF and USAAF Airbase. Involving music, drama, dance, mass choirs, live painting, banner processions and re-enactors, it was a fitting, moving and emotional tribute to our Common – and what it meant for the eyes of the world to be turned upon it. The central character ‘Peggy’s’ narrative was my story too: and poet Steve Wallis’ muse in last year’s telling of Greenham’s story. For me, too, ‘Peggy’ is also the spirit of this paper’s first female journalist, aptly named Peggy Cruse. Peggy lived in my downland village and would have witnessed its closing off to the public when secret, earnest practices for D-Day took place up the big hill, shortly before Eisenhower delivered his famous speech, from Greenham below. Peggy was all of us. Greenham Common, its sunset-gravels, alder gulleys, heath & view of the downs, part of my narrative landscape. And Peggy’s story was shot through with birds and birdsong, too. This is where I come in spring to hear nightingales – and in summer, nightjars. A bird that, for me, pulsed out sultry lullabies on warm, crackling, heathland evenings and once upon a time, made the sound of a Geiger counter.


Nature Notes

Dust Devil, Raven Devil.


A green woodpecker rolls and dips through the lower air like a paper plane folded from a page of colour supplement. His ‘yaffle’ laugh is slowed-down and languorous. He seem to wear spring’s colours in that season – all lime, lemon and sunlight-through-beech-leaves, but now, those same colours are of the coming autumn: the yellow fade of spent ash-leaves, a flash of scarlet, shades of milk chocolate.

Young buzzards are mewing constantly and adults are appearing alternately gap-winged in their moult. It is a good time to hunt for feathers. In flight, buzzards’ gleaming undersides are the same silver as the tin-foil paper-suns of knapweed, reflecting light after the thistledown has been teased out. A juvenile bird sits on the noticeboard of our little village green, eagle-eyeing the sward of drying hay. Concerted effort from villagers has brought this tiny mown oasis back for wildlife. Hand scythed and turned over with hay forks, it is a delight to see.



On a still-hot day, acres of wild bird cover are in full flower. Tall, thick and joyfully full of scent, colour and life, we wade through phacelia plants bent low by enormous bumble bees. There are honey bees and hoverflies among kale and vetches, brimstone, red admiral, peacock and tortoisehell butterflies, small skippers and speckled woods everywhere. And hummingbirds from France – or possibly Africa: hovering on a blur of wings, proboscis like a long bill, hummingbird-hawk moths are every inch a tiny exotic bird. Here too is another exciting migrant; a clouded yellow butterfly on dark-bordered, marmalade wings.

Then, above the escarpment, the bewildering spectacle of a white mini-tornado, coming from the ground up, spinning fast. There is no wind. The ripe wheat-ears, bent meekly against their own swan-necks, shimmer, crackle, but do not move. Hot air has risen speedily from the bare stubble-ground below, through a pocket of cooler, low-pressure air and begun to turn, pulling in more hot air as it does so. It has quickened rapidly into a spinning vortex: a dust-devil! Something of an uncommon harvest phenomenon, I have seen them stir up hay or straw into a travelling chimney as the ‘straw-devil’ tracks along between windrows – but this one, this one is made of thistledown and has whipped up like a swarm of silver bees, rotating rapidly to a blur. The column widens, tilts forward and walks along the ridge before stopping abruptly. The thistle-seed parachutes are released from the dance and, in the absence of any wind, hang suspended like the ghost of a whirlwind – a tall, chalky smudge of an apparition – before the ravished down ‘fairies’, by slow increments, drift away.


Along the down, later in the week, a wide chimney of ravens has formed, rotating in the updraft off the steep slope. We count twenty, then thirty; a handful of buzzards and kites spiralling up among them. The ravens pair up, mirror each other’s flight, rise to the top of the chimney, then dive, tumbling back down through the cooling tower of its centre. More birds arrive, and more; we count and recount, then spot others, so high as to be just pairs of simple black crosses, only the direction of flight indicating which end is which, their thick necks and long anvil beaks stuck out as much as their long diamond wedge tails. There are 50, 65, 70. They speak to each other in soft September ‘gowps’ and ‘cawps’ and we stand mesmerized, watching. A vortex of birds above the harvest, a dust devil of ravens. A season’s turning.


Nature Notes

Harvest, home.


Patchy holiday weather, patchy harvest weather. The two go hand in hand of course – harvest and a holiday from school – a relic from when everyone was needed in the fields. We rush out to pull the washing in as the combine roars into the field as if it were on fire.

We are enveloped in a gold-grey dust-cloud.  Straw lines the gutters all the way to Hungerford, through it and beyond, festooning hedges all the way: the shining gold days of June and July stored in each fluttering yellow ribbon. At night, we go gleaning straw from windrows lying thick as gold plaits across the stubble. The uniform straws rudely spurt accumulated dew up the insides of our bare legs. John Barleycorn has the last word.

There are grain spills on the bends of the lanes, for the last of the farmland birds. Modern farming has become ‘an ecological holocaust’ (according to John Lewis-Stempel in The Running Hare) and harvest for me is a bitter-sweet romantic time when the recent rural past is perhaps at its most tangible. On this farm, the wild bird cover, nectar strips, beetle banks, grassy headlands, widening field margins and chalk grassland break up the chemical aggregation of the arable: rich seams of life and colour, joy and hope holding the patchwork together.

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The secret combe radiates the sun’s heat. The soil over chalk in this deep hidden valley is thin and dry and the plants are specialists; low growing, mat forming: even the thistles don’t bother with stems. Lie down in this fragrant, wild kitchen garden and your clothes keep the scent for days. Wild basil, calamint, cucumbery salad burnet, thyme on the raised castle mounds of anthills and wild marjoram all tremble with the life on them. Embroidered through are trefoils and bedstraws, a heather-haze of red bartsia, blue-violet self-heal, and eyebright: pansyish, purple veined, white with a splash of egg yolk. Scabious and harebells are sky-coloured. There are waves of butterflies, moths and bees with every jubilant step. The silhouettes of buzzards and kites rotate over it all with the shadowy arms of a windmill.

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We count the days down now and on a hot day, bookended by rainy ones, make a mad day-trip to beloved Bude. A bank of slate-grey cloud is mistaken prematurely for the sea and a hedgerow cloud of blue sloes for a patch of summer sky. The treat of a pretty beach hut with a yellow door helps us pack a week at the beach into one day. We swim in the sea-pool until the tide overwhelms it.


Then one morning, the air is fresher with the tang of the sea in it, though we are miles from it – and the light has a softer, nostalgic quality. As my hand reaches for its practised turn on the smooth-worn handle of the kissing-gate, it is chill and damp on my palm; the gate wrapped and spun shut with spider silk that crackles when I open it.  The August-absence of birdsong slips into September and a robin sings its autumn lament. It makes such a catch in my heart and falters my steps.

Nature Notes

Seams, ridges, holes, pellets.


In the park by the footpath, two big old ash trees are felled. They dropped branches in storms and sometimes, on still, benign days. I inspect their prone forms, paying my respects, investigating a canopy I wouldn’t normally have access to. Their deep grooved trunks and branches supported lichens and insects, sought after by the thin, curved bill of treecreepers. Hazelnuts are jammed in the grooves, posted like coins, by nuthatches.

The broad trunks are stepped with the sloping, ridged roofs of southern bracket fungus – a village upended by the fall; the dusky, spore-powdered angle of them protects the thick white lip beneath, so it gleams in contrast, like a horse’s shod hoof.


One tree had been compromised by lightning strike, a black plumb line scorched down a major upright. Woodpeckers had made inroads, leaving a series of giant, neatly spaced needle holes down the black seam. The other tree had been de-stabilised from the north by a lone badger, tunnelling in between the toes of its roots, burrowing under its foundations. But felling the tree also exposed the extent of rot: the undersides of more bracket fungus, growing in the space where the heartwood had been, glow like small moons or flying saucers all the way up the close, warm, velvet-dark of the hollow trunk. There are still leaves on both trees. The smell of chainsaw exhaust lingers, curdles with the flowers of neighbouring sweet chestnuts; a distinctive scent of ivy bloom, unwashed linen and something else …


There are owl pellets on the ground, below where the birds have roosted. I tease one apart – it appears to have blackbird feathers in it. Perhaps I know the bird that coughed up this cylindrical sarcophagus? One late, sultry night, with the bedroom windows flung wide, there was a sudden whumpf of a soft-buffered landing against glass and sill – then the frantic beating of wings and distress of a blackbird. By morning, it was obvious the hen bird had gone from the nest in the jasmine, along with her second brood.


Another pellet lying on the fallen tree is not so easy to decipher. It looks like a classic owl pellet, grey, full of fur, feather, bone and beetle wing cases; yet it is far bigger than anything a tawny owl would cough up. Short-eared owls are here in winter and long-eared owls pass through at any time. Could it be? I pocket it, get out my books, search the internet, tweet. When the answer ricochets back instantly from my phone, it is from a friend who knows: foxy loxy. Sat on my writing desk is a fox poo. Old, unsmelling, but nevertheless … I just can’t fathom how it ended up on the side of a recently felled tree. Such mysteries, such connections.

Nature Notes

The Long Twilight.


The domed hill is shedding chalk rivers of rain. Chains of bubbles slide past either side of the raised camber, as if there were otters beneath the slick, wet surface of this river-road. Yet, after another 12 hour deluge, the late evening is quiet and still.

Blackbirds are piping alarms from the wood. Urgent chinks of sound chipped off like flint-knapped sparks, catching fire into shrill screams. There are waves and volleys of other avian urgency: chaffinches, robins, the loud ticking-off of wrens and the repeated, crest-raising churring of tits. A tawny owl is under siege, half way up an oak, eyes tight shut. It hears me and floats silently off, like a chunk of bark detached from the tree, taking an unshakeable veil of tenacious little birds with it.


I walk on though the grainy mugginess of the evening and hear two or three more groups of birds mobbing owls. By now, the calls belong less and less to the tits and finches and more to those singers with the largest, light-gathering eyes; the early risers and late-stayers, the blackbirds, thrushes, robins and wrens. The mobs become more mobile as the owls wake to hunt. The songbirds are late to relinquish the day – perhaps on second or third broods – and the owls are impatient to begin hunting; the nights are short enough. There is a fraught, fractious overlap: an uneasy twilight that lengthens inexorably into undefined boundaries.

A stoat appears ahead like a perky, too-long train. It hesitates to cross the open road, then bolts back, tail up like an unlit match on the last carriage, a stretch-limo streak of red, a fired elastic band: exit, pursued by blackbirds.

I climb to the fence between the field and wood, bordering the badger sett. Cobnuts gleam like milky fairy lights against dark hazel leaves. There is not a breath of wind to stir them. Before me is a great ski-slope of powdery chalk spoil, white as washing powder. I don’t have to wait long for the badgers; they crash and thump about and the growing cubs yikker in rough play – all unseen behind a wall of waggling nettles.

Then in full view, 5m away, one reverses out, hugging and scraping a pile of chalk as he comes, then powering it out behind with great, bear-like feet. My bare legs are showered in dust, and chalk cobbles roll down to my feet. I can hear his long claws clicking together. He looks up once – his black nose completely whitened, black stripes powdered out. The owls call now in earnest. Not a blackbird speaks. When I get home and take my boots off, they are white with chalkdust.


Nature Notes

An Almanac of Anger & Hope.


I don’t know at what point the melancholy strikes and despair seeps in, but I am sure there is a pattern: a seasonal almanac of frustration and bitterness.

Chalk grassland, rarer than rainforest, has been overgrazed for another year, resulting in no flowers so far, since April:  fewer butterflies, bees and other insects and all the birds that hunt them.

Only the first roadside metre of verges are being mown – a welcome concession. Yet still it is done where it is not needed, where natural growth is low and visibility good.  Pyramidal orchids, twayblade, broomrape and scabious (plants it is illegal to pick) lie in severed swathes. A self-heating mulch that kills twice over: the heaped sward encourages more nettles and docks that outcompete those remaining on the bank.


The agronomist walks the crop with the farmer, planning further spraying. Nothing flies up around them as they walk into the silent wobble of a heat-haze. Around most fields there are 9m stewardship strips of glorious wildflowers. But around each field too, is a 10 or 20m strip of close-mown grass, formerly swaying with insects. It is not made for hay. It is not a gallop, no one has access to it or uses it. Again, the mulch sits on top, feeding nettles so that next year, a spray will be needed. It’s a stupid, pointless, damaging cycle.

On a walk, visiting family declare the landscape stunning (it is).  How green! There must be harvest mice in the fields! No, I say. This field, like most others, is a factory floor, a sterile laboratory!  I love the country here, profoundly. But it is broken.


I rally, showing them 4sqm of thistles and knapweed around a gateway, by way of explanation. It boils with bees, hoverflies, scarlet tiger moths, skippers, marbled white, meadow brown, comma, tortoiseshell and even brown argus butterflies. Yet by the following afternoon, that too is gone. Chopped, tidied away – and all the bright insects gone with it.

These fragments are scattered like the last pieces of a jigsaw we’ve lost the picture to and can’t make sense of, too many of the pieces lost. The picture, if we remember it, might look like something out of an old Ladybird book, from the ‘50’s or 60’s; just after things began to go so wrong. All hail then, the farmers who do things well. Do a difficult balancing act of providing food with a light touch on pest and herbicides, that leave or create areas for wildlife, that prove that it can be done.



An evening walk on Lambourn downs and fish and chips between the gallops and Sheepdrove’s organic, poppied fields sets me right again. A pair of barn owls the colour of wheatfields are hunting; their flight light as moths in the cool air.

While we have nature left, and good people who care for it, allow for it, know its value and encourage it in myriad ways, there is hope.

And hope is the thing with feathers after all.



Nature Notes

Nightjar Nights.


On Greenham Common, the heat shimmers off the heathland, blurring the horizon, and the cows gather to stand in the pools. We seek the shade of the alder gullies that fold off the flat, gravel plateau like creases in a tablecloth.

In the evening, my daughters and I walk on a smaller fragment of heath. It is still hot and the scent of summer heath is warm in our nostrils; the pines melting sweet amber sap between the flakes of their bark-skin. The flowering grasses dust a heathery haze on our bare legs. I have come to show them nightjars – but we are too early. I take them off on a familiar route, but before long, have taken a wrong turn in this place I know so well. We end up short-cutting across yards of peaty-wet mire. We manage the first upended log stepping-stones, but soon run out of those. There is nothing for it, but to hitch up our summer skirts, and walk through with shrieks and laughter. I smile inwardly in the glow of winning an argument with my newly-teenage daughter over wearing her birthday-fresh trainers, but say nothing. The black peat- mud oozes through the lace holes in my boots, finds the gaps in my almost gone soles and finally, pours over the tops.


But we come onto the open heath at just the right time: gone sunset on a sultry night, the strange, warm, mechanical sound of a nightjar already churring. It is the sound of the very engine generating the pine-resined, energy-sapping, languid heat of this midsummer night. The bird comes to investigate us. Silently, its outline hawkish, wings snapping up in jerky, puppety flight, white wing spots visible like two moons.

It lands in slender outline on a pine bough, characteristically sideways-on, and calls again. Another appears and the two go off around our heads, lower and lower until we can see the wide open, moth-catching gape of one, its tiny bill open. We twist and turn about, trying not to fall over as they dance around our heads, as if suspended on invisible strings. Another begins to churr from deeper within the common – and a fourth calls ‘cooic, cooic’ near the lane. At that moment, the froggy call of a roding woodcock lifts our eyes and a muntjac barks.


It is 10pm on a school night. But the light holds as if it will not go dark tonight. No–one can sleep anyway. We make our way back across earth that radiates heat against the palms of our hands, the bone-white birches gleaming like coral, the sound of the nightjars filling our heads. We can still hear them when we get home in the hum of the fridge and our electric toothbrushes before we go to bed.

Nights in Long Grass.


Nights like these, I find it almost impossible to be a functioning member of the family. All I want to be is out. More often than not, we all go. June nights are intoxicating, romantic, sensual affairs full of birdsong, big moons, moths, long grass and wildflowers that scent the nocturnal air. To immerse yourself in it is such a sensual experience it feels illicit; a guilty pleasure. There are leverets and fawns in the grass, fox and badger cubs to watch and owls hunting to feed their ever growing, increasingly mobile chicks.

After the high winds and heavy rain tested trees in full leaf, everything settles again. Banking the sides of the lanes are torn leaves, whole, leafy branches and small, hard unripe fruits: tiny green conkers, soft, green beechnuts, pliable ashkeys and bird cherries without a flush of red on them.

The white umbels of hogweed follow cow parsley, and twiggy, pithy elderflower comes into its own, offering up great, showy, creamy plates of heady scent to the air, like a juggling waiter. Whitebeam, wayfaring tree and guelder rose are all in blossom, lightening the green, and rambled all over with bramble roses and dog rose briars. The marshmallow-hued, heart-shaped petals are scattered all over the earth. My daughter’s friend asks if there has been a wedding.


Lambs are growing strongly away and more than once, the white, woolly caterpillars of lambstails land in the garden, or at our feet, picked up from the fields by kites, buzzards and corvids – and dropped. Sometimes there are aerial skirmishes – sometimes, they seem dropped deliberately, just so the bird can practice its agility in catching them before they hit the ground.


The fresh evenings of big, backlit cumulous clouds are gold-gilded. After the astonishing heatwave, castellanus clouds predict a possible riot of storms. We walk through fields of moon-daisies, stirring up moths with our feet: lie down for a hare’s eye view of the landscape. Tawny owlets begin calling for food, awake now, and hungry. We seem to push the chicks ahead of us in a wave of calling ‘chisseek, chisseek’ as they part-fly, part scramble unseen through the understorey. A large roebuck pronks out of the wood and rides through the green corn with great leaps and guttural barks.


And as we follow out of the wood a barn owl floats into view, its big, satellite-dish head turning, heart-shaped, to the ground. It stalls like a paper plane hitting a head wind, folds itself up like a white page of origami and dives into the blue-green sea of wheat like a gannet.

Somewhere off, out there on the inhospitable, bare-knuckled flint rubble of the down – where there seems to be no soil at all – comes the haunting, thrilling wail of a stone curlew luring me away from the path home.


Nature Notes

Digger on the hill.


We go out just before sunset on a glorious day where the sky is swimming-pool blue. A warm breeze provokes whitebeam leaves into light. It is not strong, but it is a portent of the weather to come and enough to turn the wind turbine on the far hill, so I hear it in my head like blood pulsing: whump, whump, whump.

The grass camber between flint wheel tracks is soft underfoot and flows like a stream with feathery silverweed cinquefoil. Away from the menace of the hedgecutter, hawthorn has been allowed to flower in great, clotted-cream waterfalls, alive with all manner of bees, hoverflies, moths and other insects. Its petals polka-dot the nettles.
We three generations of women – mum, my eldest daughter and me – creep along the ride through the woods, lush grass brushing our fingertips as we carefully avoid the snap of dry pine twigs and brittle beech mast. A glimpse of the deep combe below is heavenly, the light casting deep and lovely shadows.


We reach the centre of the badger sett. Under dappled beech and nettle-light are piles of white chalk rubble. The birdsong is rich and full. We settle to wait.

The sun is molten on the ridge. Eventually, the light leaves the wood and the birdsong quietens. Blackbirds chip and pink their anxiety to roost and pheasants cough nervously. There is a change in the atmosphere and the wood takes on a grainy, cinematic quality. Very close by, disturbed flints rattle quietly over chalk cobbles and the nettles wag: the badgers are out.

Half a striped face appears, then disappears. Then above the nettles on a mound of chalk, two sets of ears, like mirrored crescent moons. Another badger emerges from a hole to our right like a silver invisibility cloak; an animated piece of night, silent, grey, long tail sweeping, exquisite dished face concentrating on the ground. To our left, another appears in a last pool of light, its fur beautifully backlit, a smudge of chalk drying on its nose, the pale claws of pigeon-toed paws so long, they almost overlap. We hold our breath. It shifts its head up, down, appraises us and bolts. But does not seem to disturb the others. Right in their midst, we are afforded more views of disembodied badgers – the glint of an eye, a head that seems to float in the gloom, a powerful, silver-grey shoulder pulling a roll of bedding out to air.

Badger, becheur, brock, digger: we are immersed in their world where they are half-seen, mysterious and almost silent; piecing together a jigsaw of badgers, like the shards of a landscape: light, chalk and the night.