Monday, 19 December 2011

A brief winter hibernation

It's just a few days before Christmas, and you may have noticed that things are slowing down a bit on the blogging front here. I'm afraid the usual peri-festive preparations are taking their toll, so it's probably better for everyone if I admit now that I'm unlikely to be writing any more until the schools go back on 9 January 2012.

If you're reading this, or have been reading any of my bloggings (is that the right word?) over the last few months, my heartfelt thanks. I do hope you've enjoyed them, that they've provided some food for thought, and that you'll take another look after 9 January, when I will be putting virtual pen to virtual paper again. There seems to have been an awful lot of depressing news about the environment and biodiversity in 2011 - let's hope 2012 will be the year when the natural world gets the attention, and the action, that it so badly needs.

Here's to a green Christmas and a wild 2012!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A little light relief

It's a classic British winter's day here. Not one of those snow-bound, sapphire-domed, chocolate box days of last winter - they were an anomaly. But one of the leaden-skied, howling wind, driving-rained days of most of the winters I can ever remember. A day to hunker down somewhere warm and batten down the hatches. Except I had promised to walk a friend's dog.

Even the ubiquitous jackdaws and crows had gone to ground when I went out this afternoon - though Jack, the springer spaniel I was walking, managed to flush a couple of disgruntled male goosanders who had taken refuge in the lee of the river bank. The wind was so strong that it was pushing the water back upstream, and white-topped wavelets scudded along against the flow. The goosanders meanwhile fought against the wind in the other direction, struggling to get away despite their slim, streamlined bodies. I'd tugged my hood way down over my face to keep out the stinging rain, so never saw where they ended up.

It's on days like this that I'm grateful for the existence of gorse - for when gorse is not in flower kissing is not in season. In the past gorse was used for all sorts of utilitarian things - brooms, thatch, fires, dyes. Now it's a plant of scrub and waste places, unremarkable and unremarked. But walking back from Dunblane this morning I passed several scraggy grey-green bushes of the stuff - all illuminating the monochrome day with their golden-yellow, fairy-light flowers. No coconut smell this time of year of course - you need warmth and dry days for that - but still so welcome. A tonic in these, the darkest days of winter.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Nice weather for ducks

Rushy marshland now frames the river north of the village, where there are usually grazing meadows. Weeks of rain and snow, gales and floods have drowned the land. Every fresh downpour refills the usually temporary pools, and damp, deep-green flushes are now wide, rush-lined lochans.

It was, as they say, nice weather for ducks again this morning, with heavy overnight rain and lowering clouds stalling the dawn until nearly 9am. And the ducks have proved it by taking up residence, albeit temporarily, in one of the new ponds-that-used-to-be-field. Today I counted eight teal and four mallard, gleefully gliding about on the mirror-still water, whistling and quacking like a pack of noisy children on an icy pond. But the shy, dainty teal are masters of concealment, and as soon as they clocked me they gracefully danced for cover behind the clumps of soft rush that fringe the pools.

Before they melted into the tawny background I had a chance to look at them through my binoculars. They are tiny in comparison with the mallard - about half the size - and are our smallest duck. I was too far away (or too short-sighted) to make out their Zorro-like green eye mask, but the buttery yellow diamond at the base of their tails shone out unmistakeably in the low winter sunshine.

Most of the teal we see at this time of year are refugees from Iceland and northern Europe. In winter teal feed mostly on grass seeds, often in shallow pools and lakes, so it's not surprising that they move south to avoid the freezing weather that would lock up their food source. Some do stay here all year round, breeding in wild, undisturbed wetlands. Scotland is home to about 2000 pairs, at the last count. At present they're not doing too badly; though hotter, drier summers, predicted through climate change, and losses of wetland habitat through agricultural intensification, could jeopardise that. If  we want to hold on to these lovely, ballerina birds we need to make sure it continues to be nice weather for ducks.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Where the wild things are

We woke to -5C this morning. As soon as a pale line to the south, above the bulk of the Ochil Hills, made it light enough to see I went out to feed the hens. I took a bucket of steaming water with me - their drinkers would be frozen solid. I was bashing noisily at the inch-thick ice when I heard the sound of a fleet of toy bicycles coming towards me, the riders gleefully honking their rubber horns. I stopped and looked up in time to see a squadron of about thirty whooper swans flying low over the roofs of the village. They kept in perfect V formation, ice-white against the dawn-grey sky, though black tipped at beak and feet.

It was the perfect day to see these harbingers of Arctic weather. Yesterday's snow is still clinging to every branch and stem here. Sixteen thousand whooper swans arrive in the UK each autumn, most of them from Iceland - truly wild swans bringing a taste of the tundra in their wake. They head south when their summer lakes and pools begin to freeze over for the winter. Their numbers peak at about four thousand in Scotland in early winter, before some continue further south to feast on the rich arable pickings of East Anglia and the West Country. Since the 1940s they've developed a taste for sugar beet and stubble fields, and latterly oil seed rape, to supplement the sometimes scarcer aquatic vegetation they used to rely on.

Now I often see large flocks of whoopers grazing on the Carse of Stirling, wandering among the stubble like feathered sheep. It seems strange to see these icons of wilderness in such domestic settings as villages and fields. But isn't it good to think that here is where at least some of the wild things are.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Advent of snow

'And some to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy's infant ecstasy,
Laughing with superstitious love,
O'er visions wild that youth supplyes,
Of people pulling geese above,
And keeping Christmas in the skies.'
John Clare, from The Shepherd's Calendar

The snow arrived this weekend. Someone up there must have read my blog about the unseasonal greenery and decided to put things right. Don't know where they got the geese from this early in December.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to put in my favourite snow description. I discovered it when a friend wrote it on a Christmas card he sent a few years ago. Now whenever it snows I imagine those Georgian farmers' wives hunched over a roaring fire, frantically plucking their fat farmhouse geese somewhere in the clouds. Which is strange really, as I always feel that snow brings not that sense of bucolic contentment, but a sense of unpredicatable wildness.

In fact after nearly three months of ice and feet-deep snow last winter I vowed I never wanted to see the stuff again. But a walk in the ankle-deep, powder-light snow in the woods above Dunblane this morning has cured me. After more early morning flurries the sky cleared, the air was gin-clear, and the sun etched the trees as black silhouettes against the blue-washed sky. In the town the rooks seemed especially vocal, perched in the crowns of the snow-spattered trees yelling complaints at the passers-by. Perhaps they remembered the privations of last year's freeze better than I.

But my friend and I headed out up the road to the hills. In 1715 these moors were carpetted with the dead of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, now much of the hillside is shrouded with conifers. Here the snow was deeper, the sunlight sharper, and the views of the mountains to the north and south spectacular. I am hooked again.

The tracks through the trees were wide and sun-filled. We'd come to walk Jake, my friend's handsome, rangy, black-and-white collie. As he wove in and out of the dark trees he looked almost wolf-like, and I imagined how it would feel if there were really wolves lurking in the forest. So much of our landscape has been tamed since the last wolf was killed in Scotland in 1680, and their reintroduction would be hugely controversial. But I can't help thinking that bringing back our top predator, restoring our sense that something in the wild is bigger and stronger than us (even if the chance of an actual wolf attack is minuscule), would help us all get back in contact with the natural world and our place in it. Let's hope we'll find out one day soon.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Does the World needs natural buddies?

The first day of December. Yet instead of the usual sepia-dominated winter palette, everything here is still very much in glorious Technicolor.

The warm, wet autumn, and the lack of frosts, have allowed many plants to keep living and growing well beyond their usual span. In the woodland by the river to the south of the village the young, fresh leaves of violet, water avens and ferns are bright green. They bask in the low, buttery sunlight now that the birch and hawthorns above them have lost their leaves. A small, still-copper-leaved beech tree is growing on the steep cliffs of the opposite bank like an outstretched hand. It catches a stray beam of sun and flames out against the dark grey rocks as I walk by. In the River Field there are still some meadow buttercups in flower. Some of their petals are pale and translucent where the morning's light frost has caught them, but most still have that solid, waxy, bright yellow shine of children's crayons. As usual I feel very lucky to be able to step out of my house to see all this.

It wasn't so glorious earlier this morning, when a series of cold, squally showers strafed the village on their way east. I sat inside reading an interview with David Attenborough in The Times. It was sobering stuff, and reminded me that not many are as lucky as I am.

'We have lost all touch with nature, says Attenborough', said the headline. This wasn't quite accurate. What Attenborough said was that now, according to UN figures, over 50% of us live in urban environments. That means that over 50% of the Earth's population 'is to some extent out of touch with the natural world'. He went on to comment that unless action is taken to help bring people back into some kind of contact with nature (in his case through making natural history programmes) we have little chance of convincing people - or politicians - to take action to protect it.

I was thinking about this on my walk. If 50% live in urban environments, that still leaves 50% in the countryside. What if everyone in the city had a virtual, rural (or at least nature-savvy) 'buddy' to communicate with, to tell them what was going on in the natural world? With all the social media at our disposal surely it's not beyond the bounds of possibility - a tweet, a Facebook page, a LinkedIn network? If every one of the million RSPB members, for example, agreed to put something on Twitter once a week - how many people would that connect with wildlife? Do you think it would work? Would you give it a try?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

It's poured down here ever since I wrote yesterday's blog, welcoming the rain. I went out first thing this morning to see how the Allan Water was looking. I found it had morphed from Mr Hyde to Gargantua, consuming the fields on either side of its banks to become a vast, writhing body of water at least a quarter of a mile wide.

In the submerged field opposite there were a group of black-faced sheep marooned on two small hummocks of higher ground, but still up to their bellies in mud-thick water. They were so densely huddled together that at a distance I had thought they were a couple of large straw bales that had been washed down the river. It took the binoculars to pick out their bedraggled bodies and anxious fidgetting. The river must have risen pretty swiftly to trap them like that.

When I got back to the house I phoned a friend who knows the farmer, and caught him just as he was driving off to let him know. So later this morning I went back to see if the sheep had been rescued. It was still raining. A small digger and quad bike were down by the edge of the water. Most of the sheep were safely back on higher ground, still clinging together as if traumatised by their ordeal.

But I arrived just in time to see a small drama unfold. Black-faced sheep are, apparently, very flighty, and one sheep had obviously taken fright when the farmer and his helpers had tried to coax it off the rapidly disappearing island. It was heading towards me, struggling along the submerged fenceline on the opposite bank. It seemed to be pushed along by the flow, getting deeper into the water as it went, until it was actually swimming, its heavy fleece dragging it down. Someone - I guessed the farmer - was following it at the lapping edge of the water, trying to turn it back, until eventually he was forced to wade across to it, thigh deep in the roiling water. The pair disappeared behind trees for a few heartstopping moments, before the farmer reappeared gripping the sheep by the horn with one hand, while picking his way along the fence line with a stout stick in the other. It looked a dangerous place to be. I was glad when he managed to lift the sheep over the fence before climbing over himself and wading back to the 'shore'. I heard later that one of the sheep had been drowned, and I felt guilty for wishing for the rain.

Of course flooding is a natural part of the seasonal cycle. It's vital for wetland birds and plants. It has been used for centuries by farmers for water meadows. What's not natural is the speed with which water courses like the Allan Water now change from gentle lowland river to destructive tide. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) can explain why better than I:

'Alterations to the course and morphology of the River Allan and its tributaries have changed its character. These have changed the natural dynamics of the watercourse, in many cases affecting the ecological processes important for sustaining biodiversity. In places, alterations to the catchment and watercourses have increased the rate at which rainfall reaches the river by increasing the speed of overland flow. This is a common aim of land drainage practices. However this results in higher river levels. Additionally straightening and dredging of channels associated with improvements to agricultural production on floodplains and the construction and upgrade of transport links. Combined, these changes result in fast accumulation of water in low gradient areas or where flow is constricted including both rural and urban areas such as Greenloaning, Dunblane and Bridge of Allan.'

Basically, we've been mucking around with the land surrounding the river for agricultural and commercial gain, and the river has bitten back, affecting farmers further down the line, and making flooding much more likely in properties in towns and villages built before the 'improvements' were made.

SEPA has been working with the Centre for River EcoSysyems Science (CRESS) at Stirling University on a scoping exercise to establish the best way to rectify the chaos this has caused. Unsurprisingly solutions include putting back the trees, damming up the drains, restoring the channel meanders and allowing the river to flood again where it won't damage properties. It's great that they are looking at ways to redress the problem - let's hope they can translate the planning into action.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Dancing in the rain

Last Friday was the first anniversary of the day the Big Snow came to Ashfield. The start of over two months of sub-zero temperatures, record-deep snowfalls, blocked roads, buried pavements, school closures, life chaos. It was the winter that put me off snow.

This year's anniversary passed without incident. It's been one of the warmest autumns on record, despite dire warnings of an even earlier start to the freeze. Now I feel every snow-free day is a bonus - I never thought I would welcome the gales and the rain with open arms. It's been wet, and windy, as well as warm, and I skid and slide gratefully through inches of mud, slick and slippery as butter. The ground is saturated, and every fresh downpour flushes straight into the Allan Water, which bellows and rips through the River Field like a riparian Mr Hyde.

I took a walk along the bank today hoping for a glimpse of the goldeneye I spotted the other day in the river, but it was far too turbulent for anything but a torrent duck to survive. In the field opposite I caught sight of a flock of starlings in an oak tree, perched at odd angles, like children's drawings of leaves, on its bare branches. There were several hundred of them, and as I passed they lifted and danced a miniature murmuration above me, ignoring the rain and the wind. The amoebic shapes they made reminded me of the pin and thread pictures that were all the rage in the 1970s - twisting and flexing, condensing and stretching. A natural wonder - something else to make me smile.

It's hard to believe that these ubiquitous birds are on the UK's Red List of threatened species. Scotland now holds 22% of the UK's breeding population, despite starlings almost disappearing from mainland Scotland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Now its the South's turn to lose them. The British population crashed by 71% between 1970 and 1999, most of them from south of the border. Changing farming practices have been blamed, just like in the case of the brown hare, and the arable weeds, and the farmland birds. Is it me, or is there a pattern there?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A glimpse of wildness

I put a hare up in the Big Field this morning. As usual it took me a few seconds to focus in and decide it was a hare, not a rabbit. Big rabbit? Black tail tip? Keeps going? Must be a hare. Of course by this time it had nearly disappeared over the hill. I tried to jog after it, wellies slipping clumsily on the wet grass, but inevitably it had gone by the time I reached the brow. It was still a thrill - hares are pretty thin on the ground around here.

I like hares. They have a sense of wildness and danger about them. Just like their lagomorphic cousins the rabbits they were first recorded in this country when the Romans arrived - another tasty addition to the menu perhaps? But unlike the rabbits they have never submitted to the indignities of being 'farmed' - their solitary habits and spartan taste in housing have seen to that. While the rabbits settled down to their cosy-but-tame warren lives, the outlaw hares have toughed it out in their forms - simple hollows in the long grass where they can hole up during the day before making night-time raids on our fields and pastures.

Centuries of hunting - outlaws are always hunted - hit their numbers, but what's really proved their downfall has been the loss of their hiding places. Intensive farming over the last 40-odd years has seriously reduced the number of places hares can hole up. Numbers have plummeted by 80% compared to a century ago.

Luckily, I discovered, over a decade ago the brown hare was put on on the list of species which have a government-backed Biodiversity Action Plan, to help restore its population, with a target of doubling its numbers by 2010. Checking out the Biodiversity Action Plan website (which has now been archived) it's heartening to read that the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC) were all tasked to communicate the declines in brown hare populations and:

'Use the popularity of brown hares to highlight the impact on biodiversity of modern agricultural practices and loss of mixed farms.'

Though strangely I couldn't find any up-to-date communications from them on the subject, or for that matter, information on the success of meeting the 2010 target. This may be because I'm not that great at searching for this kind of thing. If anyone out there has better information I'd be pleased to hear it. We all need a bit of wildness in our lives.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A tale of two gateways...

Just a couple of miles up the road from the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Gateway Centre that I described in the last blog (build budget £3m, I believe) is the gateway to the mainland section of Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (NNR). In case you're not familiar with the term NNR, let me quote Scottish Natural Heritage, which designates and manages them: 'the key purpose of National Nature Reserves is to showcase some of the best wildlife in Scotland for everyone to see and appreciate. This purpose is unique and distinguishes National Nature Reserves from other protected areas.'

I saw no signage to Loch Lomond NNR from the road here. Nor could I see any in the local village hall car park that serves the NNR. There is a small wooden fingerpost at the gate to a muddy field next to the village hall that says 'Aber Path' - which, if you are initiated, is the route you need to take to get to the Reserve. And to be fair there is a small leaflet dispenser with brochures describing the route by the gate.

We walked down the sloping pasture, past a few inquisitive bullocks, sometimes sinking ankle deep in cattle-poached mud. Someone - the farmer or perhaps a Park ranger - had thoughtfully laid some railway sleepers over a particularly glutinous patch, though one now lurched at an angle, requiring some tricky footwork to cross dryshod. We were fine as we came prepared with wellies and waterproofs - it's not a route for trainers. There's very little waymarking - without the leaflet and some local knowledge we'd easily have lost the way. But we eventually came to the Reserve entrance - where there was, at last, an NNR monolith and a small interpretation board.

It's a glorious place. The narrow path winds its way through the woodland fringes of the loch. Oak at first, grading to alder, birch, holly and ash as you move east. The light followed suit, paling from a warm, golden glow under the autumn-yellowed oaks to a cool green haze below the hollies and birches. A jay shot out of the trees ahead of us, a vulgar cackle belying the tasteful pastels of its blue and pink plumage. Not a bird you see that often in Scotland, thanks to the shortage of oak woodland - acorns are its food of choice - but common enough around Loch Lomond. We saw three during the morning.

We could also see a lone great crested grebe floating some way off in the loch - another Scottish scarcity - especially in inland waters. At the last count just 1500 overwintered in Scotland, with most keeping to the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde. I took them for granted when I lived down south. Now I see them for the exotic, elegant birds they really are, with their long, sinuous necks and subtle, mocha headdresses.

As the path emerges from the woods the full drama of the view unfolds as you look north along the length of Loch Lomond over its wooded islands to the mountains of the Highland Boundary Fault. To the east there are the broad, ochre wetlands at the mouth of the Endrick Water, home to rare species like Greenland white-fronted geese, brook lampreys and Scottish dock (none of which we saw, sadly). The route on the map ends at the Endrick Viewpoint, but we continued on a rougher path along a bund at the edge of the wetland.

It was hard to square this watery, tawny, wide-open sky landscape with the woodlands and mountains with which Loch Lomond is synonymous. Much of the path was a few inches underwater, increasing the feeling that we were in, rather than on, the Reserve. Waist-high (what I took to be) reeds (but was told were actually grasses) on either side hissed and whistled in the slight breeze, reminding me of walks through East Anglian reedbeds. No marsh harriers here, but we found snipe and woodcock, reed bunting and mallard, long-tailed tits and wrens.

At the end of the bund we had to pick our way, pathless, though wet woodland, over barbed wire fences and through more muddy fields before we found our way back to the village. We saw no-one else during our walk around this beautiful NNR, which indeed boasts some of the best wildlife in Scotland.

I wonder what the budget for this gateway is?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Scotland's shame?

What would the words ‘Loch Lomond and the Trossachs  National Park Gateway Centre’ conjure up for you? A place to find out about the stunning wildlife and habitats of the park? A starting point for daily guided walks and activities? A scene-framing, mood-setting haven?

How about, as I now find the website boasts: ‘Cafe on the loch, a childrens’ play area, and a superb gift shop.’ The strapline for the site, which also includes the adjacent, vast shopping centre which is Loch Lomond Shores, and a Sea Life Centre, is actually: ‘Shop, Eat, Play (with picture of an exotic fish attached).

My other half and I headed to Balloch, at the south end of Loch Lomond, early last Friday to get an outboard motor fixed. As we found the marina was closed until 10am I suggested checking out the Centre, which I’d never visited. Misgivings began as we turned off the main road into the car park – a vast labyrinth of tarmac, dividing into bays with neatly trimmed, suburban hedging and street lights. I didn’t feel as if I was being led to the entrance to one of the most spectacular and wildlife-rich national parks in the country. I felt like I was arriving at an out-of-town shopping mall – which I was.

Compare that with the vision of the architects who designed it:

‘… the Centre acts as a symbolic gateway to the woodlands along the shore beyond the development and, hence, to the National Park itself. In contrast to many other visitor centres, the transparency of its construction suggests that the main exhibit is the world outside’. So said Bennetts Associates. They must be turning in their zero-carbon office spaces.

To be fair, the Gateway Centre was actually also closed, so I couldn't go inside. It was ironic indeed that it was those transparent walls that allowed me to see the large multi-coloured ball pit of the children’s play area rammed up to the glass, the café, and the extensive gift shop packed with geegaws and trinkets – which were all obscuring any view I might have had of the woodlands, the loch, and the world outside.

There is an unfinished temple on the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, built to honour the dead of the Napoleonic Wars, which is known as ‘Scotland’s Shame’ because they couldn’t raise enough money to finish it.  I think it now has a competitor for the name.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Preferential treatment?

Hypocrite that I am, I was excited to see an unusual bird on the river today. I was doing my daily mooch round the field with Jake, who as usual bounded ahead along the river bank, following an intricate trail of aromas - probably dead fish and dog poos mainly - that only he appreciates. I heard a clatter from the water, and looked over in time to see a dumpy grey and white duck fly past, wings beating like football rattles, and land behind me, hidden under the bank.

I retraced my steps, keen to get a look before Jake lumbered back into view and put the bird up again. It was a male goldeneye, partly in eclipse plumage. Its bold black and white summer plumage seemed to be blurred together into shades of grey, though it still wore that distinctive white beauty spot beneath its eye. I'd love to let you think I knew this as soon as I saw it, but actually I had to wait until I got home to check in the Collins Bird Guide and see what it was - though to be fair to my birding skills I suspected goldeneye was a top contender.

They have a great scientific name - Bucephala clangula - resounding bull-head!  With their oversized heads, black wings and white chest, these curious little ducks have an almost puffin-like look to them in summer, while the resounding bit, I'm guessing, has something to do with the incredibly loud whistle they make during their courtship display. It's meant to carry for over a kilometre.
This one was almost certainly a visitor from further north, one of over 30,000 that winter here. The Forth estuary, a favourite wintering ground, is just a few miles away from here. Forty years ago I'd have been absolutely sure of that, but since 1970 a few goldeneye have stayed on to breed in the Highlands - 200 pairs at the last count.

They usually breed in tree holes in the northern forests of Scandinavia. Conservationists here started putting up nest boxes for them in the Abernethy Forest in the late 60s, and by 1970 the first pair had taken up residence. This troubles me slightly. Isn't this tantamount to introducing an alien species? I can't find any reference to their breeding here in the past. Don't get me wrong - I think they're beautiful birds and it's wonderful that they're now here all year round, but I'd be intrigued to know the rationale behind their introduction - is this a case of preferential treatment?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gather ye rosebuds...

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same bird that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
(With apologies to) Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674)

I realise that I saw two red-listed birds of conservation concern, and one amber-listed, this morning. They were starling, house sparrow and dunnock. All seen from my living room window while I sat sipping my second coffee of the morning.

The starlings were perched on the telegraph wires that cross our garden, impersonating curlew, tawny owl , dog whistlers. Not rough approximations, but perfect copies. I should have been amazed. They were silhouetted against the sky, so I couldn't pick out their smart, purply-black speckled plumage, just their slim, almond-shaped outlines and their thorn-sharp beaks.

The house sparrows came in twos and threes, their grey and dun plumage reflecting the colours of the morning. They arrived in the hedge at the bottom of the garden and gradually worked their way up to the bird table, calling encouragement to each other. After a quick snack they moved on to see what the next gaden had to offer. I should have gazed in wonder.

The dunnock comes regularly to feed on the seeds we put out (I assume it's the same bird). Usually ground feeders, this one seems to have learnt to avoid the easy pickings that fall from the plastic seed hopper - we have two young cats. Instead it perches on the wide plastic skirt we have installed below the table to discourage our nimble grey tabby from jumping onto the platform. The bird teeters over the edge, leaning out as far as it can reach to grab a single seed. It scuttles round the rim with its prize, scanning the garden for danger before returning for another titbit. I should have been awestruck.

Now I know their status I will of course look at the dunnock, the house sparrow and the starling with new appreciation - they're threatened, they might be on their way out. But what about the other 'common or garden' birds - the tits, finches, robins, blackbirds et al that I also see most days. Of course I enjoy seeing them, of course they're beautiful and fascinating, but if asked if by a birdy type if I'd 'seen anything interesting today' I'd probably have said 'just a blue tit, only a chaffinch...' Do they really have to be on the list before we stop taking them for granted?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Short rant - long story

A blog of two halves. I have something I need to get off my chest. As a thank-you to any of you who read it I've included a longer piece than usual to follow.

Short rant

Over 80% of people in Scotland love wildlife, according to a Scottish Natural Heritage survey I read a couple of weeks ago. They cherish birds in their garden, otters and salmon in the rivers, rare grassland birds, woodlands, butterflies.

And yet ..... Seabird numbers are declining in parts of Scotland at an alarming rate, according to an RSPB report I read the day after the SNH survey; hedgehog populations have tumbled from 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million now; farmland birds figures have halved since the 70s.

Why have we not heard four million voices raised in protest? Where are student marches, the letters to the editor, the questions asked in parliament?

Bring on the Recession I say. If people have less money to spend on filling their lives with stuff they might start to look out of the window more often and appreciate the value of the real world that's disappearing before their eyes - and DO something about it.

Long story

Until my daughter went up to High School this August, and started getting the school bus, I used to walk her to primary school most days. I really miss those walks, the talks we used to have, and the amazing things we saw so often. I've written a piece about them to help me remember how good they were:

Most weekdays I walked with my daughter Holly from our village to the local primary school in the town - about a mile and a half each way. From our small, stone, terraced cottage it’s a short distance to the wooden bridge that spans a deep railway cutting – the main line from Stirling to Inverness. The steep banks are thick with scrubby trees and tall grasses – purple with rosebay willowherb in July. From April the spring-sharp songs of willow warblers and whitethroats drift up to us as we cross, though they are master ventriloquists and we can hardly ever spot their hiding places. Our marmalade cat, Guillie, sometimes follows us for this first part of the journey, trotting in line behind us, stripy tail straight in the air like a ginger ring-tailed lemur. But his courage is easily thwarted, and he quickly slides under the Network Rail fence into the thick undergrowth if anyone else is coming along.

Once over the bridge we enter a field of rough sheep pasture. The landscape here was once buried under many hundreds of feet of ice – the whole valley ground out by a glacier in the last ice age. Its legacy is a field of drumlins – huge heaps of gravel and sand deposited by the retreating ice, long since grassed over. The heaps now form dips and hillocks only fit for sheep grazing in a farmer’s eyes.

Near the gate into the pasture is a series of small, shallow, reedy pools. In summer a nesting colony of black-headed gulls takes up residence around the ponds. The birds lift in bad-tempered flurries when we walk past, making mock dive-bombing raids if we move into their space.

Winter rains swell the pools and offer refuge for ducks - mallard and teal mostly. A mute swan occasionally sits incongruously in the middle of the largest pond like an oversized water lily. When the freeze comes we detour from the path on our return journey from school to ‘skate’ in our wellies on the larger expanses of ice. (This is not irresponsible – the deepest pools that we glide across are only a foot deep at most). Come the thaw and we can still have fun. The meltwater drains away beneath a crust of remaining ice and it’s like walking over the top of a giant crème brulee – though the explosively-loud crackling of the breaking ice would certainly cause a stir at a dinner party. Sometimes Holly lifts the big shards of ice to create Goldworthy-esque sculptures that glint and glow in the low afternoon sun.

Spring comes and the hunt is on for frogspawn at the margins of the pools. Leaving spawn here is a high-risk strategy for the frogs. In dry springs the ponds can easily disappear before the tadpoles have time to develop into tiny copies of their parents to escape from their shrinking nurseries. Walking round the edges of the ponds as we search we sometimes surprise a jack snipe – in fact it surprises us - exploding from the tussocky grass and zigzagging away like an escaping Spitfire.

Once past the pools the path rises over the line of drumlins and down into a dip where a tiny winterbourne crosses the field. From early spring we nearly always hear a skylark high above us here – the challenge is to pinpoint its position – a needle in the haystack of sky and cloud. Easier to spot are the rowdy oystercatchers making their ungainly flights to and from the wet meadows on the other side of the village to the secret tussocks where they are preparing to breed.

Tunnels in the rough grass and burrows in the sandy hillsides explain why we often see kestrels and buzzards quartering the field, hunting for the mice, voles and rabbits that make them. Meanwhile the ubiquitous corvids – rooks, crows and jackdaws, often accompanied by groupie starlings – strut around, poking about for juicy titbits in the ground.

Come autumn and skeins of greylag and pink-footed geese pass up and down the strath of which our field is a tiny part. Very occasionally we hear a sound like pumping bellows that makes us look up. A phalanx of whooper swans going over – they are bigger and lower than we ever expect. More often it’s the streamlined shapes of a pair of goosander, or a rush of teal, that draw our eyes. Once in a while a red kite strays from its usual haunt on the other side of the hill from our village onto our side, its lazy, floppy wingbeats making it easy to distinguish from the purposeful flight of the commoner buzzards.

Once out of the field gate we are faced with a half-mile stomp alongside a minor but still busy road, which crosses the dual carriageway on a wide metal bridge before coming to the edge of town. Much of the animal life we see on this part of the walk is of the flat variety: hedgehogs, rabbits, pheasants and the occasional crow, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time under somebody’s wheels. But the road is fringed with woodland – young birch and rowan on one side, conifers and mature beech and ash on the other. Parties of rooks often fly to and fro above our heads. They have established a rookery in some of the older, taller trees set in an odd triangle of land bounded by the dual carriageway, our road and the slip roads. The same triangle can sometimes harbour roe deer, which graze in the sheltered meadow at its centre. A pair of buzzards has also found a place for a nest here. Strange that the same roads that snuff out so many have created a refuge for others.

We pass a mini-roundabout then turn into a narrow footpath and wriggle our way through alleys and past back gardens. On humid summer afternoons, sheltered by the tall fences from any breeze, the smells of creosote and rose, barbeque and honeysuckle, mingle with the drone of bees and lawnmowers in a heady mix. The alleyway emerges onto a leafy suburban street that leads to the school. Big, modern houses with perfect, barren lawns and exotic shrubs line the pavement. But, as David Attenborough has said – ‘even here there is life’. Behind the houses mature woodland remains. We hear snatches of chiffchaff and blackcap, rook and pigeon between the engines of the passing cars dropping children off at school.

For the final few hundred metres of our journey we take a path across a swathe of green – a wide expanse of grass behind the houses, which surrounds a children’s playpark. Some is mown but much is left to grow wild during the summer months – a deliberate council policy to attract wildlife into the heart of these tidy suburbs. Meadow browns and orange tips, peacocks and small tortoiseshells – butterflies arrive and scatter most untidily among the tall grasses on warm, still days.

After rain the ground turns marshy. Small muddy pools collect on both sides of the tarmac path. Here too misguided frogs leave jellied masses of spawn in spring. Noisy muddles of schoolchildren fresh out of class gather round the puddles, at once repulsed and fascinated by the spawn. Sometimes an unruly child throws handfuls of dripping jelly at his – or her – shrieking companions. It would have dried out anyway, I suppose, but it always seems a shame to throw life away and I have to bite my lip. Perhaps it’s a new take on natural selection.

I leave my daughter at the school gate, or wait in the playground at the end of the day for her to emerge blinking into the light after her hours of incarceration in the classroom. On the walk home we sometimes feel like divers slowly rising up from the deep sea into the freedom and light of the open air. Yes, there is still much to wonder at and appreciate in the streets and alleys. There is still colour, movement, sounds, smells - wildlife. But it is all somehow muffled by the enclosing houses, the ubiquitous tidiness. Once over the dual carriageway and back in the field again we can feel the full force of the wind, hear the birds uninterrupted by the rumble of traffic, breathe again – and enjoy the messiness.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Welcome invasion

It's been a stonking, sunny day today - autumn at it's best. I celebrated by putting the washing out on the line this morning for the first time in weeks (you have to get your pleasures where you can when you live in a small village). My daughter's dandelion-yellow bedding is now flapping and twitching in the breeze like a hen in a dust-bath, soaking up the warmth.

The sky has been full of birds that also seem to be making up for lost time. The ubiquitous jackdaws have been joined by skeins and skeins of pink-footed geese gossiping loudly as they fly overhead. The village sits under the Strathallan flyway, an aerial motorway for birds heading to and from their roost sites along the valley.

Flocks of fieldfares have been passing through for weeks. But today, as they move between the hawthorns and rowans on the railway embankment opposite our cottage, they look like gangs of rowdy football fans on a pub crawl after a big win. Perhaps I'm not investing them with the dignity they deserve. The spaniards call them Zorzal real, the royal thrush, and with their steely-grey heads, dark eye-stripes and russet-brown backs they do have a certain dramatic presence about them. But their raucous 'chock-chock' calls give them away for the Viking marauders they really are. Over half a million of them come over to the UK from Scandinavia every year to pillage our autumn crop of berries and rifle our pastures for invertebrates. They stay until the worst of the Northern winter is past and then head back again to breed in the woodlands of Norway and Sweden.

Here in the village they are welcome invaders as far as I'm concerned - bright, sparky birds to ward off the long, dark winter that's bound to come. With the clocks going back it already gets dark here by 4.30pm - and counting.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hello for wildlife?

While I was on the loo yesterday morning I watched an otter lying on its back in the sea gnawing at a fish. And it wasn't on the tv.

My family and I spent the last few days at our time-share -  a tiny stone bothy on the west coast of Scotland. It sits on a grassy raised beach 100 metres from the shores of Loch Linnhe, facing north to the grizzled, lumpy, starkly beautiful hills of Morvern. It's 40 minutes rough walk in from the nearest road. There's no electricity, no sanitation, and the water is piped from a stream on the hill behind us.

It's not quite as basic as it sounds. We have a wood-burning stove, a gas cooker, matresses to sleep on. And it's not totally remote. A road runs along the opposite shore of the loch, a couple of miles distant. At night we see headlights prowling along the base of the hills. And there are a few houses too - only visible in the darkness, picking out the shoreline like cat's eyes. We feel immensely privileged to stay there - but I suspect few people envy us. They literally don't know what they're missing.

I read the other day that 90% of people in the UK now live in an urban environment. It made me feel like giving up writing about the natural world as I see it - as I value it. Living in a small, rural village, relishing opportunities to get even further from the 'modern world', can what I experience have any relevance for most people? But then again, how relevant to most people are the lives of the celebrities whose stories plaster the newspapers and magazines? Magazines like Hello encourage readers to aspire to be like the celebrities - 'buy the handbag, wear the make-up, you too can get a slice of their lives' - even though most people will never live like them.

You could say celebrities appear almost daily at our bothy: the otter I saw dining at our exclusive restaurant; whopper swans flying south to their winter holiday homes; porpoises partying 'til the small hours. Perhaps we need a Hello magazine for them?

Friday, 4 November 2011

What's in a name?

You may have noticed that I like to find out the scientific names of the species I come across. Let me explain why.

Last spring I watched two beautiful, tiny, lemon-breasted birds being ringed. Cradled in the ringer’s hand in turn, their necks held gently between giant’s fingers, they looked almost identical. Both had custard-yellow eye stripes, olive-grey backs, sharp, slender beaks for catching summer insects. They each weighed about the same as a good teaspoon of sugar. Had they sung, I would have been able to tell immediately that they were in fact different species. One would have sung a sad melody of soft, descending notes, lifted at the very end by a hopeful trill; the other a syncopated two-tone repetition of its name. As it was I had to rely on the expert birders I was with to point out that one was a willow warbler, the other a chiffchaff.

Those names were the keys that opened a store of other information about these birds that I have learnt over the years. One of these scant teaspoons of trembling life and feathers – the willow warbler – had flown thousands of miles to be here on that cool spring day. It had crossed deserts, mountains, and seas from its winter home in sub-Saharan Africa to breed here in Scotland. The other tiny scrap, the chiffchaff, had made a shorter crossing from southern Europe – still many hundreds of miles. Put into this kind of context these birds’ survival seemed almost unbelievable – I felt as if I were looking at a miracle.

Yet there are people who claim that knowing species’ names is not important. ‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, they quote. Romeo’s desperate words in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet have been called on many times by those who argue that expecting people to learn the common names of animals and plants, or heaven forbid their scientific names, gets in the way of their appreciation of the natural world, even puts them off exploring it at all. I disagree.

It was Juliet’s surname that Romeo wanted to ignore – the name of his family’s arch rivals – because with it came all the baggage of her family history, where she lived, to whom she was related. Her name brought tragedy to the lovers. Species’ names also come with this baggage, and much more. But their names bring with them drama, intrigue, romance and history – elements that only add to the experience of seeing.

Yes, they can be complex, at first unfamiliar words to get your head round – but so are Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane. Familiarity with them will breed not contempt, but acceptance, understanding. We don’t find it surprising that six-year-olds can reel off the scientific names of a group of animals that went extinct many thousands of years ago. We don’t think it’s being over-demanding when a football commentator mentions the exotic names of its heroes – we know the fans will recognise the names, make the connections, understand the story.

Now remember the willow warbler and chiffchaff? Their scientific names are Phylloscopus trochilus and Pylloscopus colybita, respectively – I don’t know that by heart but with the wonders of the Web or a field guide it takes two minutes to look it up. The names tell us that both birds are leaf-watchers – phyllo is Greek for leaf, scopus Latin for a watcher. That explains where they look for their insect food. Trochilus is the Greek for a small, wren-like bird. A perfect description. Whoever chose the scientific name for the chiffchaff thought the jangling notes of its identity tag sounded like coins rattling together – colybita is Greek for ‘money-changer’. From now on I will hear that quintessential summer-woodland music with new ears.

Of course not everyone will want to spend the time to discover so much about a species. But if you introduce someone to a new acquaintance the first thing you offer is their name, in the hope that they will want to get to know each other better. Surely we owe it to our wildlife to give them the chance of making new friends.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

How to be an abysmal bird watcher

I put up three snipe today when I was walking through the Big Field. I know they were snipe, as opposed to jack snipe - because I looked them up when I got home.

Three dumpy, streaky-brown birds (I couldn't see their beaks because they moved too quickly) jinked away from me, swearing as they went. They kept low over the tussocky margins of the pond, then lifted high into the for-once blue sky, and disappeared into the distance.

Jack snipe don't do that - apparently. They lift off at the last possible moment, just as you're about to step on them, and silently skim a short distance just above the reeds before diving for cover again. A good birdwatcher would have known that. But I'm not even one of Simon Barnes' bad birdwatchers (though I've read his book on how to be one). I'm abysmal at picking up jizz, recognising calls, identifying little brown jobs.

There are lots of other differences between snipe and jack snipe. Jack snipe are only here in the winter; they're smaller, and shorter beaked, for instance. But the point is it doesn't matter. Even if I hadn't known they were snipe they were beautiful birds, they added drama to my day,  and finding out about them later got me one step nearer to being a slightly less abysmal birdwatcher.

Monday, 31 October 2011


I escaped from under the blankets yesterday. Seeing me hunched under the weight of the ongoing gloom my other half suggested the family headed east for the day, to the coast - and the sun.

Sure enough as we drove out beyond Edinburgh on the A1 we emerged blinking into the warm, coppery light of a perfect autumn day. Aberlady Bay, our destination, sits on the southern shore of the Forth Estuary, just a few miles east of Edinburgh. Low tide reveals a goblet-shaped inlet of mud and sand - a magnet for waders and wildfowl in the colder months. At its mouth the sand spills over into impressive dunes and beaches facing out into the wide entrance to the Forth.

We walked out onto its eastern flank across a long, narrow, rickety wooden bridge, stopping to watch the curlew and redshank probing about absent-mindedly in the sun-glossy mud. We were heading for Gullane Point, where the bay meets the North Sea. The way slowly morphed from muddy track to loose, sandy path across the dunes. A poster at the entrance had advertised a work party to help clear the sea buckthorn that is encroaching onto the species-rich grasslands here, but today it looked magnificent. Huge stands of it bordered the path, sprays of branches studded with lines of apricot-orange berries exploding like fireworks against the grey-green leaves.

At the point a perfect strand of pale gold stretches east to the point. A few couples, families and dog walkers dotted the beach, playing in the sand or dawdling along holding hands. We were halfway along it, Holly and I barefoot, enjoying a last taste of cool freedom before the winter, when Dave pointed out a dark bird sitting incongruously among the gulls at the shore, 50 metres ahead of us. It was an Arctic skua, donkey-brown against the sun-brightened white of its beach-fellows. I expected it to move away as we got closer, but as we approached it lifted, harried by the gulls, and flew directly towards us - passing within a couple of metres of our heads. I've been this close to Arctic skuas before, last summer on Fair Isle in the Shetlands. Then they were harrying me, driving me away from their young. Now this bird was the unwelcome interloper.

Outside the breeding season these birds head south beyond the Equator to Africa or even South America. Strange that a bird that chooses some of the coldest, harshest parts of the world in which to breed should seek out the sun every winter. Maybe the gloom gets them down too. The gulls were keen to move it on because Arctic skuas make their living by mugging other birds. They chase and mither their victims in the air until they regurgitate their last meal - then eat it themselves. That explains their less than flattering scientific name, Stercorarius parasiticus - parasitic dung-hunter. When the Arctic skua got its name 'dung' meant anything that came out of orifices at both ends!

Once we'd watch the Arctic skua disappear over the dunes we finished our walk at the Point, perched on the rocks looking out to sea at the rafts of eider ducks and common scoters lifting and dipping on the swell. Not satisfied with the surprise view of the Arctic skua, Holly stared intently across the Forth through her binoculars, trying unsuccessfully to spot the pomarine skuas we'd been told were about. Me - I was happy - I'd had my day in the sun.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Weather blues

Up here, on what we affectionately call the Ashfield Tundra, we had a cold, grey summer, which is now being followed by a similarly miserable autumn. There have been few days when it's stayed dry. Even fewer when a malicious wind hasn't strafed across the fields from the south west, keeping the trees around the village in constant, swaying motion, like bewitched dancers. And of course, no sun. Days of lowering clouds like army issue blankets draped across the sky. The dullest summer since 1922 - I can't believe autumn will be score any better.

I wonder how the sun-loving, warmth-seeking butterflies and moths have fared. I've seen very few on the wing this year - where do they go? How do they feed when the rain and wind make flight impossible for these tiny aeronauts? Do they huddle under the dripping leaves, grumbling about the weather like I do? I remember a line from D H Lawrence:

'I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.'

Perhaps I should take a leaf from their book.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Village lovers

If I had to choose one sound to describe this village it would be 'chack'. A raucous, echoey, many-voiced 'chack' that explodes from rooftops, trees, even telegraph wires, whenever I'm walking round the village.

Jackdaws live here, roosting in the tall trees that surround the play park, nesting in the chimneypots of those whose fires stay unlit, and hanging about on rooftops like bored teenagers waiting for some action. The British Trust for Ornithology says they love living in villages - near to people, but also near to fields where they forage in unruly groups for grassland invertebrates.

Like arable weeds jackdaws get little attention. They're too common - with over 500,000 pairs in the UK at the last count. But just like many arable weeds they are quite stunning. I watched a flock of them this morning, feeding in one of the horse fields to the north of the village. Spearing the ground with their short, spikey beaks, they were searching for breakfast. They moved across the field like clockwork toys: walk, stop, probe, look about... walk, stop, probe, look about... The field guide describes they gait as 'jaunty', but it looked more purposeful than that to me. More like a military goose-step, I'd say. From a distance they appeared to be black, but through the binoculars I could see the steely grey, lawyer's wig on the nape of their necks that marked them out from the bigger crows they were feeding with.

Away from the fields I sometimes see them from the skylight window above my desk, sitting in the top of the sycamore opposite in couples, preening or daydreaming. Apparently they pair for life, and stay in their couples all through the year. Even the usually very proper Collins Bird Guide describes them as looking 'amorous' when they sit like this, so I don't have too many qualms about sounding anthropomorphic.

Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, means 'raven that eats money', a nod perhaps to their reputation as thieves, stealing jewellery and money to decorate their nests. This trait may have been the origin of the Greek myth of Arne of Thrace, who was turned into a jackdaw after she shopped her country to Minos of Crete in return for a bag of gold. It's a great story - far from being commoners and rogues, we are surrounded by Greek princesses in disguise!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Gone fishing II

I've been reading about salmon farming, and the disastrous effect it can have on wild salmon populations. It's depressing. Farms sited in the wrong places, with the wrong management, can cut a wild population in half, by spreading disease, parasites (especially sea lice), chemical waste, and nutrient loading. Sorry to start in a such a gloomy vein. There seem to be so few fish going up the river this year. Perhaps I'm being alarmist. It may well be just the high water levels here masking their progress.

As it's getting to the end of the season for the salmon run I walked down to the weir again this morning to see if there were any fish still coming through. I'd checked the SEPA website, which reported that the river was at 0.7m. I've no idea what that means really, except that the angler I met the other day said 0.4m was ideal - so I knew I'd have to be lucky to see any. It had been another stormy night - rain cracking on the windows, blown by the stiff south-westerly, and keeping the water levels high.

By the time I ventured out the rain had cleared and the wind had dropped to a softer breeze, though the skies to the north were still low and dirty. Birds seemed to be taking advantage of the lull, scattering along the hedgerows as I walked past, too quickly for my untutored eye to identify them. Nice though, whistling and calling to each other like schoolchildren.

The river at the weir was calmer this time. The ocean rollers at its base had been replaced by fast-moving, foamy whirlpools and rapids. It was ten minutes before I saw a fish. A faint pattern appeared in the churning water - a line of lumpy ripples heading in the opposite direction to the flow. A grey, submarine shape sketched below the foam. It was there for two seconds at most before disappearing in the flume.

It was my only sighting. There may have been more - I didn't have time to wait any longer. That might be it then, four fish for the entire season. Some years it's been hundreds. I really hope it is because the river's been so high.

Note to self:  find out more about farmed salmon - and only buy it if I'm sure it's OK for the wild fish.  Advice welcome please!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Second-class plants?

On most weekdays I take Jake, my friends' young, excitable collie, for a lunchtime comfort break while they're both at work. We usually take a turn round the field to the north of the village, a small triangle of old arable land bounded by the railway line on one side and the river on the other. Jake runs ahead while I mosy along behind - checking what's about, when I'm being good and concentrating on the now - but often drifting off into my own parallel world of things-to-do lists and other mental doodlings. I'm embarassed to admit that I sometimes get back to the village and realise that I remember hardly anything of the 15-minute walk.

But there are times when this tendency to mind-wander can reap some rewards for my work - Friday was one of them. As I walked through the field I was vaguely aware that it looked different. A candyfloss-pink haze hovered about a foot above the sodden, green tangle of weeds that carpets the field. I looked more closely. The haze was made up of thousands of licorice allsorts - the ones with the clear jelly inside, coated with tiny, pink sugar balls - except that they were oval instead of round. They were redshanks (or maybe redshank - do plants keep the singular like groups of birds?) - persicaria maculosa. It's a tallish plant with reddish stems and small pink flowers that you can find in many damp overgrown fields at this time of year. An arable weed - a plant paria to most farmers and a second-class citizen to many wildflower lovers. But it was beautiful in a drift like this.

So I looked more closely at the 'weeds', and spotted something different. A patch of plants with delicate, frondy, lime-green leaves. Some kind of dead-nettle, I guessed. The flowers were amazing. They were large, cream and yellow orchid-like blooms with dark maroon spots on the top lip and purply-red lower skirts - quite stunning. I had no idea what they were called, so I walked on, making a mental note to look them up when I got home. Then the drifting started.
Why don't I know the name of such a striking plant?
Because arable weeds don't get a mention.
Why don't arable weeds get a mention?
Because we think they're common, and because farmers think they're a pest.
I must find out more about them....

So I got home and looked up the mystery plant in my field guide. Large-flowered hemp nettle. Very prosaic - probably an indication of its place in the hierarchy of plant-sexiness. I went further. Looked it up on-line. The links led me on from large flowered hemp nettle to arable weeds in general. And I found out something far less prosaic. Something I didn't realise. Something I think ought to be better known.

There are 150 plants described as 'arable weeds'. Of these seven are counted as extinct in the wild, but there are another 54 - over a third - that are counted as 'threatened' by Plantlife, including the lovely large-flowered hemp nettle. Are arable weeds going to be the next passenger pigeons? So common as to be overlooked; so unloved as to be undervalued, until they've ben wiped from the earth? So I've put them in my blog - one microscopic step towards raising their profile with people who might care enough to notice them on a walk - if they're not mind-wandering too much.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Wild list

Even though I tell myself that going out into the natural world is part of my job, if I'm serious about making some kind of career (maybe that should read 'life') as a nature writer, it still feels like skiving. It's hammered into us pretty early on, isn't it, that unless what we are doing has some clear and immediate output, or is something we don't really like doing, it doesn't count as real work.
Thanks to my e-mail provider crashing yesterday I managed to supress the guilt long enough to escape for an earlier than usual walk. I returned an hour later feeling that, if I was looking for material, I hadn't been very successful - nothing on the river, no unusual encounters with wildlife, a grey, average sort of day. But in the spirit of  my new role I have decided to start making notes each day listing what I have actually seen. Guess what? I saw loads. I heard amazing things. As artists are often banging on, I found the extraordinary in the everyday. This is my list.
Bird sounds. Not the cacophany of a spring morning - in some ways better for a not-so-good birder like me. I heard individual birds, well spaced apart. A robin - easy - one of the only birds still singing as opposed to calling at this time of year. Skylark flying overhead, singing just the first note of its summer song like a stuck record. Long-tailed tits, calling to each other as they moved from tree to tree: 'I'm here'; 'I'm here too'; 'I'm over here now', all in their high fluty whistles. Rooks and crows cawing to themselves as they made their arrow-straight flights across the sky, like black-suited businessmen muttering to themselves as they rush to a meeting. Skeins of greylag geese (or maybe pink-foots, I can't tell yet) yelping like husky teams mushing through the air.
I saw the first ice of autumn, stretched like cellophane around the edges of puddles and pools, sometimes suspended between short tufts of grass like torn clingfilm. Flooded meadows. The rushy hollow at the edge of the sheep field is a lake. Earlier in the year it was full of drifts of rushes, reeds and grasses in shades of ochres, yellows and russets, like one of those chic minimalist gardens they feature at Chelsea. Now it's back to being a wild, messy, marsh, the haunt of teal and mallard (though there were none there yesterday).
In fact, I could have gone on. The list, as they say, was endless. I'm sometimes teased about my propensity for list making - shopping lists, to do lists, holiday packing lists - but yesterday I think I proved that lists have their uses.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gone fishing

Walked through the woods, over the footbridge and along the far bank of the river to the weir yesterday, to see if I could see the salmon leap on their autumn run upstream. 'Run', I thought as I walked along, is a strange word to use of a fish - why not 'swim'? As I got to the bottom of  the steps down to the bridge I caught sight of four goosanders huddled on the opposite bank in an eddy of the river, and out of the churning flow. The river sits in a deep, rocky cleft here, and when, as now, we have heavy rains it swells to cover the red, sandy beach that normally edges the river below the bridge. The slim, elegant ducks I saw looked like females, with cinnamon heads, grey backs and pale bellies. I checked when I got home and found that they could have been males in eclipse, the casual, 'not-on-the-pull-at-the-moment' plumage they adopt outside the breeding season. Had I been a better bird watcher I would have known to look for the large, white patch on the wing which would tell me they were males. Too late now. As soon as they caught sight of me they shimmied into the flow and bobbed away downstream like plastic ducks in a race.
Once over the bridge the path doubles back along the top of the opposite bank, some twenty feet above the river. I walked through a narrow corridor of woodland and crossed a stile that led me down the steep slope, slippery with beech mast, to the edge of the weir.
It's a strange place to be. The weir is almost like a door between one world and another. Above it the river is a broad, tranquil sheet of water, glossy and black, except where the breeze shivers its surface to a nap. The only intimation that it's moving comes from the light scattering of foam across its surface, which heads towards you at surprising speed when the river is in spate. But as the water breasts the weir it changes completely - as does the landscape through which it flows. Soft, gentle wooded banks give way to hard, rocky outcrops and cliffs. The water crashes over the concrete, creating metre-high waves that seem to be trying to get back up the weir. The river becomes a narrow, stormy, mud-brown sea lurching between the rocks.
It's through this maelsrom that the salmon have to battle to crest the weir and get to their spawning grounds in the calm, gravelly pools further upstream. I didn't really expect to see a fish with the river so high. I was ready to move away when I spotted a dark shape that lifted from the water for an instant. I thought it was a salmon. Anyway it made me wait a little longer. As I watched a dipper zipped across my vision heading downstream on a mission. Then another shape in the water. No doubt this time. Caught it hovering horizontally in an arc of spume in front of the face of the weir. Then another, even better sighting. A salmon launched itself out of the water and crashed sideways into the concrete of the weir before being swept back down.
I was suddenly conscious of another presence and looked round to see an angler studying the water. 'Seen any?', he asked. 'Three', I said. He seemed surprised, despite carrying a rod ready for action. 'Thought the river would be too high, though it is dropping. 1.6 metres yesterday, down to 1.3metres today, according to SEPA's website. Tomorrow will be better. Still, worth a try.' And he headed off to a spot above the weir. I didn't know what the figures meant, but resolved to check out the SEPA website and find out, if it helps me choose good days for my own fishing expeditions - strictly without a rod.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

SAS bird

The other day my 12 year-old daughter and I braved the heavy rain and ventured out for a walk. We headed south from the village, through a meadow, under the railway bridge and back into what we call the Big Field. We walked around the edge of The Pond - the weedy, reed-fringed pool in the centre of the field. A moorhen sat in the middle, but tail-twitched an exit into the reeds on the other side of the pond as soon as it detected us. We stayed still, hoping it would reappear. Suddenly a sharp, high-pitched piping came from the reeds on our side, followed by a querrulous screech. 'Sounds like a water rail', said my daughter, who's pretty knowledgeable about these things, 'but I'm fairly sure we don't get them round here'.
We followed the piping, but as we got closer to the source of the sound it went quiet. Stalking isn't easy when you're picking your way through thick, tussocky grasses and marshy rafts of reeds and rushes. We got as close as we could to the edge of the more open water - my daughter close enough to fill her wellies with pungent, marshy water - and waited.
As I looked across the thin, green porridge of weed-blanketed water, one of the larger lumps of weed lifted a couple of inches, trembled, then slowly subsided again. I thought I saw a dark shape underneath it - a frog maybe. It happened again. This time I had my binoculars on it - and to my amazement saw the head of a moorhen rising out of the water like a freshwater Neptune, its head crowned with dripping emerald weed. It looked around gingerly, spotted us and slowly sank again beneath the surface, like an sinister diver in a James Bond movie, waiting to make his move.
This happened several times, until the bird obviously felt the coast was clear enough to blow his cover, shake off his weedy disguise, and swim back to the opposite reeds. At the same time another, smaller moorhen appeared on our side of the water, behaving in just the same way. It gradually worked its way over to the other side, camouflaged as a lump of weed. The moorhen had been on an undercover operation to rescue its chick.
Mission accomplished!