Friday, 30 March 2012

An Easter break

No blog today, I'm afraid. The Easter school holidays are upon us! As of tomorrow I will be re-assuming my role of full-time mother, companion, chauffeur, cook and sparring partner to my nearly-teenage daughter for the next two weeks. I find this leaves me little time or brain space for much blog writing, although I'm hoping we will have some small (but perfectly formed) adventures together that will give me some good material for when I return.

In the meantime, many thanks for visiting my blog. I'll be back at the keyboard from 15 April - at the very apogee of spring!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Rage against the dying of the light

A few months ago I still thought Tweeting was something celebrities did via their mobile phones to tell the world about their last cup of coffee. Now I know better.

The first surprise was that you could Tweet on a computer. The second was that people who actually had something to say - journalists, conservation charities, even governments - do it. I am now a Twitter convert. I use it even day to keep up with the news I'm interested in, to find out what informed commentators think about it and, occasionally, even to tweet myself.

Three things attracted my attention today, which in a strange way were all connected. The first was the news that starling numbers seem to be falling in Scotland - down by 17% since 2002, according to the results of January's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/310431-falling-stars-of-the-garden. How easily our wildlife ebbs away without us really noticing. Starlings - one of our most domestic birds, and yet disappearing before our very eyes. We get them in the village of course. In winter they perform our very own, very tiny murmuration as they collect to roost at dusk. As the days lengthen they perch on the tv aerials and telegraph poles commentating on the latest bird arrivals - curlew calls, swift screams, even the resident tawny owl is flattered by imitation. We'd notice if they weren't there. But we don't notice because they are.

Then I took the Twitter link to Michael McCarthy's excellent wildlife column in the Independent - Nature Studies http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/nature_studies/nature-studies-by-michael-mccarthy-where-is-the-elegy-for-the-mountain-blackbird-7594939.html. He was writing about another disappearance. Ring ouzels are becoming a rare sight on the mountains, and have gone completely from some of their English haunts. I've only seen them a couple of times - they looked like giant dippers to me - whizzing up a heathery glen instead of a splashy river. Mr McCarthy's point was that not only is the loss of another bird species a tragedy, but one for which we have no mechanism to mourn. For once I disagreed with him. The fact that we are still losing species, in this -2012 for God's sake - is not something just to mourn but to rail against. Rage, rage against the dying of the light - as Dylan Thomas so succinctly put it. Surely the right response is for those who care - and surely that should be everyone - to express their outrage that this could still be happening.

And that brings me to the third item that caught my attention. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has begun a new campaign called 'Inspiring Generations' http://inspire.wwt.org.uk/write-a-letter-and-win/. They're using the original text from Robert Falcon Scott's final letter to his wife as the starting point, with the famous line 'make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games they encourage it at some schools – I know you will keep him out in the open air..'. They are then asking people of all ages to write their own inspirational letter to future generations.The best 100 will be sent by Scott's grandson from Antarctica to the chosen recipient. It seems to me to be a very good campaign. If Scott's letter to Peter led to him becoming one of the world's foremost conservationists - founder of WWT and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - who knows what 100 such letters might achieve.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Camels in the air?

There's been an explosion in Ashfield. It happened on Sunday. The light was blinding. The heat was intense. And when I stepped outside to see what had happened I found that we'd been hit by a heatwave. In the space of a few hours the natural world had exploded into summer.

After weeks of grasping for the first straws of spring - oystercatchers, celandines, butterburs, bees - as they seeped inch by inch into the landscape of the new season, they had now erupted in the blink of an eye. Buttery celandines are now spread thickly over the fields; the air is dense with bee-hum; and while on Friday I had rejoiced at the single peacock butterfly, by Sunday they were everywhere, dancing in the spotlight of the bright sun.

I've thrown caution to the wind and cast my clout well before May is out. It's wonderful to feel the sun on my peely-wally arms and legs for the first time since last August.  It will end in tears of course - at least for me. The heat can't last, and I will find myself one morning shivering in shorts and sandals in an icy north wind. And others may suffer too. Early breeding birds and invertebrates, emboldened by the warmth, may well pay a heavy price for their joie de vivre.

We should all know better. How often this happens! We have been schooled by stories and poems to expect the seasons to gradually morph one to the other, the temperature to gently warm as the days lengthen. Instead our seasons go two steps forward and one back - although the current heat wave feels more like ten steps forward - it's been 19C instead of the average of 10C for March. Apparently hot North African air is being sucked north. 'You can smell the camels' - according to one weather forecaster! It's caught us all out. We didn't expect camels in March.

I worry that climate change will be like this. We expect things to gradually warm up. We expect governments, and their people, to gradually come round to the fact that things need to be done, and to gradually decide to change our lifestyles. But from everything I now read, it isn't going to be like that. 'Feedback mechanisms' mean that, just like in the current heatwave, changes will be explosive. Melting ice caps will reveal dark land and sea that will absorb heat much more efficiently. Melting tundra will release millions of tonnes of methane that will accelerate the greenhouse effect. Warmer seas won't be able to absorb as many greenhouse gases. So I think it's vital that we try to spread the message that the changes could be sudden, exponential - and unstoppable.

I'm enjoying the current blip in the climate - even sniffing hard to try to find the camels. But I don't want to wake up one day in a few years time and find them sitting on my doorstep because climate change has taken 100 steps forward overnight.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Barbeques and butterflies

I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday. It was a peacock, bouncing around in a small, scrubby patch of hedgerow as if it was on a bungee cord. They're nearly always the first species I see, those and small tortoiseshells. They steal a march on most of their competitors by overwintering as hibernating adults, rather than as larvae or eggs. It means they're ready for action on the very first warm day of the year, taking advantage of the early spring flowers to feed up, so they're ready to mate.

There's another butterfly that does this too - the gloriously named brimstone. But sadly it's not made it this far north yet. It was one of my favourite butterflies when I lived down south - a flying primrose. Seeing one skitting down a sunny woodland ride on a late February morning would light up my day, and I feel a pang of envy when I see reports of the first ones emerging each year.

In fact I miss those coppiced woodlands too. I miss the rides lined with oxlips, the bright patches of sun among the green shade of the hazel and chestnut stools, and of course the butterflies. Coppicing isn't something that really took off in a big way in Scotland. In many places people went into a wood and cut as they felt the need, rather than having an organised cycle of cutting sections of the woodland for charcoal, firewood, tools and hurdles as there was down south. I say was, because the ancient practise of coppice management has been abandoned in many woods due to lack of demand for its products. That's a shame, because butterflies like brimstones, peacocks, and many rarer species, thrive where woods are managed this way.

And so, when I went to Sainsbury's today I took some vicarious pleasure in buying a bag of barbeque charcoal. This, as they say, was no ordinary charcoal, this was charcoal made by a small producer in a small coppiced woodland somewhere in England.  It's distributed by BioRegional, a social enterprise that helps sustainable businesses. It's supported by Butterfly Conservation, because every bag of charcoal that's sold helps keep another piece of coppice woodland from neglect or the bulldozer. And that means more butterflies.

Ironically, while coppicing for charcoal creates valuable habitat in the UK, natural forests in other parts of the world, especially Brazil and South Africa, are clearfelled to make the other 95% of charcoal that we in the UK burn each year, destroying the habitats of thousands of species in the process. And to add insult to injury  transporting it to the UK chucks out many tonnes of CO2.

So if the recent sunny weather makes you feel like throwing caution to the wind and getting out the barbie, please try to buy the local stuff. Even if I can't be in the woods myself, it would be nice to think they'll always be there to revisit.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Waste not, want not...

Around here the dog's mercury is just coming into flower on the railway embankment and by the streamsides. It obviously hasn't read the textbooks that describe it as a woodland flower - a plant of shady places. Perhaps there used to be trees where it grows - it can be an indicator of ancient woodland. Whatever. It persists in pushing its sharp-green stems and spiky leaves through last year's bleached grass stalks, oblivious of the incongruity. Tassels of tiny green flowers catch the spring sunshine as the shimmy in the breeze, tempting the pollinators to pay a visit. They provide another vital early food source for the pollen-eaters, despite their name.

Because 'Dog's' usually means 'useless' when given to a plant. 'Dog' violet, for example, lacks the strong scent of its sweet cousin. In the case of dog's mercury it's useless because you can't eat it - in fact it's extremely poisonous. That must have been very frustrating for folk living before the age of the all-year-round supermarket salad bag. Dog's mercury is one of the earliest leafy plants to emerge after the winter, when people would have been desperate for green stuff. Who knows how many died agonising deaths trying to consume their five-a-day before the plant was given its warning name?

Nowadays, in this country at least, foraging for food is something we do for fun - nettle soup, elderflower cordial, blackberry jam et al. But not that many generations ago gathering food from the wild could make the difference between life and death, health and sickness, for many people. Knowing what was good - and bad - to eat would have been vital. It's ironic that I'm now reading a book called Waste, by Tristram Stuart, which points out that in the UK we now throw away almost a third of the food we buy without eating it. Most people have become so detached from the process of foraging, growing, harvesting, and even cooking food that it's not surprising that it has completely lost its value - and that people don't know what's good, and bad, to eat without being told. This waste is hastening the destruction of habitats, wildlife and other people's livelihoods worldwide, as well as costing consumers millions of pounds.

Is it me, or does this phenomenon sound remarkably similar to the lack of value that people now invest in the natural world as a whole. Get people to reconnect with reality, and maybe we could make the world a richer place for everyone.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Guilty by association?

We found a pygmy shrew in the garden this morning. Dead of course. The live ones are too quick and too small to reveal themselves that easily.

This shrew had been killed by one of our two cats, teeth marks on the belly and head betraying their guilt. It had been bitten - but not chewed. Apparently shrews don't taste good to cats - they hardly ever eat them. These tiny mammals pack a punch, a toxin in their saliva, which may affect the flavour - though it doesn't put off the owls, stoats and foxes that usually predate them. We're obviously spoiling the cats.

Besides the shrews we get the occasional mouse, vole (or even bird), brought in as an expression of affection or prowess. Of course I'm always sad to find these little presents on my doorstep. It seems such a waste. But it does give me a chance to get a close look at animals that are usually just glimpses of movement or colour out of the corner of my eye.

I've never seen a live pygmy shrew, for example. But today I could hold it in my hand, the smallest mammal in the UK, and feel its dense, satiny fur. It was donkey-brown above, with a pale, creamy-grey belly, needle-sharp claws and that long, pointy snout. Its eyes looked too far forward on its head, as if they were perched on the sides of its nose, and its mouth and teeth sat on the underside of the snout like a tiny vacuum cleaner. But it was exquisite.

I'd read that the tips of its teeth were red - a deposition of iron to toughen them up to get through the tough carapaces of the beetles and other invertebrates that they consume in vast quantities. I peered closely, using my inverted binoculars as a makeshift hand lens, but they looked brown to me. Their teeth need to be tough. Because they're so tiny pygmy shrews need to eat their own body weight in food every  24 hours. And they're too small to hibernate, so they have to do it 365 days (and nights) a year.

When I'd finished looking at it I put it back in the hedgerow opposite the garden. I hope that something that appreciates the perhaps acquired taste of pygmy shrew will find it, and make its demise a little less pointless. And I hope that by sharing what I saw with you I can also atone in a very small way for the sin of owning, and  loving, cats!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

One day flit...

I'm moving for a day!  I am a guest blogger on Mark Avery's excellent blog Standing up for Nature, at www.markavery.info. For anyone who hasn't come across him before, Mark was the Head of Conservation for the RSPB for many years, and is now an independent commentator and writer on conservation issues. The link to my guest blog - 'Where are all the women?' - is http://networkedblogs.com/vc1u8. It would be great if you could leave a comment.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

If celandines are the Cinderellas of spring flowers (see Monday 5 March), then surely butterburs must be the Ugly Sisters.

Around here the big, sickly-green flower spikes erupt like alien acne in shady, wet places from late February. There are several patches of them in the horse fields north of the village, clustered under the low, bare branches of the willow clumps that punctuate the riverbank. They remind me of underripe pineapples.

Of course no plant is really ugly - you just have to work harder with some than others. Take a closer look at a new spike of butterbur and you will find that it's actually made up of bunches of smaller, star-like flowers, pale pink and delicate, nestled within the larger, yellowy-green sepals. As it grows the flowerhead will turn from that slightly sclerotic green to a rich pinky-purple, and the flowers will spread and separate to form a tall, strong spike.

Butterburs have the distinction of being one of the few native plants that are dioecious - that is to say the flowers are either male or female. Apparently most of the plants that we see are male, and spread vegetatively through rhizomes. We do get a few female plants in Scotland, but not further south. Indeed botanists think many male butterburs may have originally been planted to provide an early pollen supply by beekeepers. Only the sterile flowers - of which the males have most - provide nectar.

And that's the true beauty of the butterbur. Bees love it. The patches that I found today in the field were hooching with bees, getting their strength up for the long season ahead. And not just bees. There were flies, beetles, gnats. The place was literally humming with life, while the rest of the field still had some of that winter silence about it.

So I take it all back - butterburs aren't the Ugly Sisters, they're just another kind of Cinderella, this time in disguise.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Bringing spring to life

For someone (allegedly) obsessed with the coming of spring, it was I suppose inevitable that I would feel the need to report the news that the season is now definitely, incontrovertibly with us here - I have found my first frogspawn of the year.

It was on Saturday. It was drear, cold and windy - not very springlike. I found two clumps of spawn in a large, muddy puddle at the bottom of a dip that the farmer drives through in his pick-up to feed the sheep. They looked revolting - covered in a grey-brown silt that reminded me of the scum you get on the top of cheap, instant coffee. Not an auspicious place to choose as a nursery for your offspring. There were lots of cleaner, larger puddles and pools. Who knows why they chose this one.

But I still felt the urge to collect some of it. I know removing frogspawn isn't encouraged these days - red leg disease and over-zealous collecting in the past have put the kybosh on it. But for many of us who grew up in less constrained times collecting frogspawn was one of the rites of spring. Despite the vernally-challenged circumstances I was tempted to rescue some of the spawn and put it in a tank so that we can watch the tadpoles develop yet again. I think it unlikely it will survive in the very temporary morass that its parents have mistakenly picked, so surely it's OK in this case?

I suppose it's a bit like bringing the catkins and the sticky buds inside. It's a link with the real world. A tie with the seasons. Richard Louv, in his excellent book Last Child in the Woods, wrote about today's children suffering 'Nature Deficit Disorder', but I believe it goes much further than that - I think a large proportion of the adult population are suffering too. Despite the millions that watch Springwatch on television, there seem to be very few people out walking - actually looking for, smelling, touching, and most of all living, the real thing. I don't know how to change that. But I do think that if passive watching triumphs over the joy of real living and action we are soon going to be bringing children into a world not disimilar from the frogspawns' muddy puddle.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Who needs mead?

I got my wish today - a walk in the sun! It had been raining all morning, and I was resigned to another dour outing. But at lunchtime the clouds melted away, the sun came out, and the mercury hit 14C - the warmest day of the year so far.

And if yesterday was all about shapes and patterns in the air, today was a day of sounds and songs. No geese this time, but perhaps something even more special for being less common. A flock of 32 curlew were feeding in the field across the river when my other half and I took a post-prandial stroll. He spotted them first (I told you he was a better birder than me), then I heard a tell-tale call. The unmistakeable sound of spring.

It was a pre-breeding flock, the birds heading from winter feeding grounds on the coast to the upland moors and grasslands where they will split up into pairs. Each year one or two pairs stay around here to breed, though local farmers have been improving their grassland, and the birds may decide the accommodation is no longer up to scratch. It will be a sad day if they do.

Curlew are flighty birds. That may be because until relatively recently they were hunted for food. They were only taken off the quarry list in 1981. So they soon lifted as we approached, pale underwings flashing as they banked round as one and headed away from us. They disappeared from view, and we couldn't see where they had settled. Their cryptic, mottled grey-brown plumage is a perfect camouflage. But they can't hide that call. It came bubbling out, as if from the earth itself, and we tracked them down to another field to the north.

While we were looking for the curlew I became aware of another, softer, yet equally spirit-lifting sound. A skylark was doing his 'Hey! Look at me! I can fly really high and sing an amazing song at the same time' routine. The male skylarks started singing for a mate around here a few weeks ago, but the sun seems to really get them going. If I'd been a female skylark I'm sure it would have been lust at first sight. As a human, it just made me feel really happy.

The ability of bird songs to evoke an emotional response in their human listeners is apparently a very ancient one. While reading up about curlew in Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's brilliant book, 'Birds Britannica', I came across this quote from a poem called 'The Seafarer'. It was written down in 1000AD, but was composed even earlier. It says it all really:

'I took my gladness from the cry of the gannet
And the sound of the curlew, instead of the laughter of men.
In the sceaming gull instead of the drink of mead.'

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Rescued by birds

It's a classic March day. Dreich and cold, with a blustery wind and squally showers of drizzle that made me hunch and huddle as I walked the dog. The sky is a uniform, dirty-washing grey, though strangely I could see it moving, leaving a dusting of thin snow on the hills behind the village as it brushed over them.

I was really grateful for the birds today, rescuing me from gloom by breaking the monotony of that grim sky. They seemed intent on making patterns on the clouds - almost like children drawing pictures on steamy windows. It started with a big flock of greylags that appeared over the brow of the hill behind the village - there must have been at least 150 of them. They weren't in their usual rough, V formation. They didn't have that straight, purposeful 'we know where we're heading' flight that I see most days as they go to and from their roosts. Instead they moved more like a flock of starlings, coalescing and dispersing like a dark amoeba, moving backwards and forwards across the sky. All at once they turned back almost the way they had come and settled in a field I couldn't see. Then just as abruptly took off again and headed in the opposite direction. No idea what was going on, but it looked amazing.

Later it was the turn of the oystercatchers to keep me amused. They seem to be getting used to people now, sitting tight much longer as we approach. I was nearly opposite them (with the river between us) before they bottled out today, and instead of lifting gradually, one by one, as they used to, the whole lot got up at once, more like a flock of cocky gulls than flighty oystercatchers. They rose above me in a wide arc before shooting off in twos and threes like a black and white firework rocket, lighting up the sky as they went, and brightening my day.

But I still hope it's sunny tomorrow.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A little piece of sunshine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.


from To the Small Celandine, by William Wordsworth

Today I came across the first real spring flower I've seen around here while I was walking by the river bank in the sun. It was a celandine - a lesser celandine to be precise - its halo of glossy, butter-yellow petals wide open as if to soak up those first bright, warm rays of the year. On duller days it seems to radiate that sun again, shining golden against its deep green, arrowhead leaves.

Like Wordsworth I've never understood why celandines seem to be the Cinderella of our spring flowers. Apart from being beautiful in their own right they often appear well before the much more celebrated primroses and violets, making them the true heralds of spring. Maybe its because most gardeners see them as weeds, spreading inexorably through the herbaceous borders with their tenacious, underground tubers, resisting all attempts to tame them. Or perhaps its because in the past they had a less than romantic common name. 'Pilewort' was perhaps unlikely to inspire literary ecstasy in poets less in tune with the natural world than Wordsworth.

In the 17th and 18th centuries herbalists signed up to the questionable practise of the 'Doctrine of Signatures'. This meant that they believed that if a plant looked like something you could use it to cure that problem. Thus lungwort was believed to be good for your lungs because its leaves looked like diseased lungs. Nipplewort was used as a poultice for breasts because of the shape of the flowers buds. And pilewort was made into a paste for haemorrhoids because the tubers on the roots looked like - yep, you guessed it.

Happily not many people know it by its old name these days - and presumably even fewer use it medicinally! So, just like Wordsworth, I'm trying in my own small way to raise the profile of the humble lesser celandine. They're democratic plants, flowering in all sorts of habitats from woodlands to gardens, wasteland to riverbanks, though they often prefer the shadier places. If you see one tell a friend - spread a little sunshine.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Tunnels of love

I've noticed a strange phenomenon in the sheep fields surrounding the village over the past few weeks. They seem to be suffering from a sort of pastoral acne - and it's getting worse. Dark brown pustules are appearing over them, running in lines in all directions across the newly-greening turf.

They're molehills of course, but this year they seem to be appearing at an unprecedented rate. Apparently its the mating season, and the males are on the rampage, hunting for females by smell, frantically digging their tunnels of love. I'd love to see one - alive. I've found the odd one crushed at the side of the road, and felt its uber-velvetty fur. (The hairs of its coat - so I found out on the internet from a piece by Chris Packham in the Sun, of all places - go in both directions. This is because the mole needs it to lie smoothly when it goes backwards as well as forwards, and that's why it feels so amazing.) But as they spend almost all their lives in the underworld I'm unlikely to get my wish. The males will find the females, mate, reproduce, and carry on digging with those massive, fearsome claws of theirs, without me even getting a glimpse.

But then I suppose it's like that with a lot of wildlife. I've seen otter footprints in the sand on the banks of the river - but only once caught sight of his dark, slick shape disappearing into the water. I've spotted many pine marten spraints, purple with bilberries in the nearby forests, but never seen a ruddy, yellow-bibbed rogue making his mark. And every day I hear bird song, but many times find the bird that makes it elusive. Yet often those signs are enough. Enough to let you know there's life out there. Enough the make my day anyway.