January 2020: The revenge of the persecuted
I saw something by a Suffolk road the other day that would have been inconceivable only 20 years ago. There were three scavengers contesting a road-kill. The first was a buzzard, once common throughout Britain, but after relentless persecution by gamekeepers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries its range had become restricted to Wales and the West of England; later attempts to recolonise were further restricted by the deadly effects of myxomatosis in the 1950s (so decimating its staple prey of rabbits) and by the impacts of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s (from which all raptors suffered by being at the end of the poisoned food-chain, as exposed in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring of 1962). It wasn’t until 1999 that the buzzard was finally re-instated as a Suffolk breeding bird and now they are a familiar sight again. Indeed, they have now overtaken kestrels as Britain’s commonest raptor.
The second scavenger was a red kite, a similar story, though a more extreme one. In the Middle Ages they were protected by Royal Decree as they kept the city streets free of carrion and rotting food. But from about 1600 they were persecuted as inimical to game interests, and by the mid-twentieth century the remnant Welsh population had been reduced to just a handful of pairs. They were finally rescued by a large-scale re-introduction programme in the 1990s that has seen them spread back to many of their old haunts, with the difference that they haven’t (yet) become city scavengers again, thanks no doubt to improved public sanitation.
The third bird in my little tableau was a raven. This charismatic corvid, the much larger relation of the carrion crow, has been slower to return, after an even longer period of absence. The last breeding record in Suffolk until 2018 was in 1869 and it was virtually unseen in the county throughout the twentieth century. Now at last they are moving back eastwards across England; occasional sightings are being reported here and there and one or two pairs are breeding again in the county. Ravens of course are birds of myth and legend – the first bird to be sent out by Noah from his Ark and the traditional Guardians of the Tower of London, whose departure would presage the fall of England.
All these three species are now protected by law and it was wonderful to see them together in one spot. But I now need to identify the road-kill they were feeding on to complete this story. It was a pheasant, one of the many we see killed by cars at our road-sides every day. Some 60 million (yes, 60,000,000) of these non-native birds are released annually into the British countryside so that they can be shot, and it was mainly for the protection of this (scarcely wild) human quarry that the three native species above were systematically slaughtered for so long. Perhaps what I witnessed, therefore, was an ironic historical revenge of a kind?
16 January 2020
It’s only the first week of February as I write this, but I’ve just had to cut the grass. So, I think I’d better bring forward my ‘spring’ nature note by a month. Grass starts growing again at about 10°C (50°F) and you can track the movement of that isotherm across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, a green wave travelling north each day at a steady four kilometres an hour –so, pretty much at walking speed, if you fancy a long-distance hike in perpetual spring. We long for spring each year, the joyful sense that the chilly dark days of winter are finally going, soon to be replaced by light, warmth and growth. A feeling of abundance and renewal. Who wouldn’t feel the spiritual sap rising at such a time? And it’s exciting to be seeing the ‘first’ of everything again each year: the first butterfly (usually a floppy yellow Brimstone gliding along a hedge), the first bumblebees, the first shoots of green on the hawthorn, and of course the first swallow, freshly in from southern Africa. Swallows have always been the definitive sign of spring. ‘Famed herald of sweet-scented spring/ Blue swallow’, sang the poet Simonides way back in the sixth century BC. And Gilbert White, patron saint of English nature writing, greeted the return of swallows to his parish of Selborne on 13 April 1768 with the short but ecstatic diary note ‘Hirundo domestica!!!’ (his exclamation marks – you could still be emotional in Latin in those days). I feel a similar jolt of adrenaline when swallows appear here on cue again, an annual reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes said, ‘that the world’s still working’. I always look for our first swallows in the village high over the barns behind Great Thurlow Church and confidently expect them there again this year.
Isn’t this good news, then? It can’t be bad to enjoy the pleasures of spring a month or two earlier, can it? But suppose we are losing the familiar distinctions between the seasons altogether? Swallows are now arriving earlier and leaving later than ever before. Suppose with global warming they started to stay all year round – to avoid the risks and rigours of their epic migrations. What would that then do to our deep-seated responses – to swallows, seasons and the spring? Perpetual spring would actually mean no spring at all. These seasonal rhythms are hard-wired into our history, our culture and indeed into our biology. They give us our bearings in the natural world. I’m not sure I’d want a bland, uniform climate in which the cycles of growth and rebirth had been flattened out or erased, even if it was a bit more comfortable. California in Suffolk? No thanks. Nor do I want to be mowing the grass all year …
21 February 2020
Do you know what the commonest British bird is? Not, as you might have guessed, the wood pigeon, the house sparrow, the starling or the robin. There’s probably one in your garden right now, in fact, but it’s a bird more often heard than seen – in an inversion of the rule that Victorian parents tried to apply to their noisy children. It has a loud, piercing song out of all proportion to its tiny size, full of pulsing trills and stuttering exclamations. Locate the source and you may catch a glimpse of a dumpy little brown bird with a cocked tail flicking busily through the undergrowth. Yes, it’s a wren, and there are some 10 million pairs of them in Britain.
It’s a good month to see them, because this is the time of peak activity for nest building and mating. Imagine knitting together something as complicated and perfect as a bird’s nest in about two weeks, using only your mouth! And wrens make it even harder for themselves. The male may have to build up to ten different nests for his potential mate to select from. The female tours these properties, and if she is attracted by one she chooses that as her family home; and only afterwards, as a secondary matter, does she also choose the cock bird that produced it to be her partner. They then mate and rear their family. But the male’s multiple DIY efforts are not entirely wasted, since all those extra nests offer him scope for other assignations. In short, he tries to fill his vacant properties with as many females as possible to maximise the numbers of his offspring, however tiring the efforts and the consequences.
When I was working in the USA years ago, I made friends with a New York birdwatcher with whom I used to compare American and British birds in our rambles round Central Park, NY. We once talked about the differences between our two wrens, which are basically the same species in both countries but are monogamous in the USA and polygamous in the UK. I remembered this conversation when my friend later told me about a literary competition in a New York magazine for a bird poem in the form of a clerihew. Now, a clerihew is a sort of satirical poem with a particular rhyming scheme like this:
Edgar Allen Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome
So, I submitted the following:
The bold British wren
Is a man among men.
He can service a dozen
Unlike his Yankee cousin
My friend said I would become an overnight sensation, but this doesn’t seem to have happened.
I took my usual daily walk yesterday, rambling along familiar paths and enjoying the sights and sounds of another spring. Everything was the same, but nothing was the same.
First there was the bird song. From a blackthorn clump a blackcap was singing– a lovely clear fluting, as pure as a mountain stream. In the background was the softer trill of a tree-creeper, rounded off with a sweet little flourish at the end, like a signature. While high above me, a skylark was unfurling its silken chain of song in never-ending spirals. What was so wonderful was how distinct and well-defined all these and the other bird songs were, with no traffic, mechanical or plane noise to mask and muffle them. Recent research has shown that some birds can no longer breed close to motorways, for example, because they simply can’t hear their own songs. But in this new, pre-industrial silence they are pouring their hearts out.
But it’s not just the birds that are benefitting. Toads are now slithering their way over country lanes to their spawning ponds without risking the usual mass carnage from commuter traffic. Hedgehogs too can scuttle across to the nearest garden in safety. In big cities like London, the greatest and almost immediate change is in the improved air quality, now that we’ve temporarily stopped pumping tons of noxious carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. And we read that in Venice the waters in the canals are running clear for the first time in living memory and shoals of fish are re-appearing in them, while swans glide serenely under the famous bridges. In the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno, wild goats have come down from the hills and are wandering through empty streets to browse in the town parks. Even our Nature Reserves are closed to Homo sapiens and really will be ‘reserved for nature’ for the duration. Wildlife everywhere is flourishing in glorious abundance in our absence. ‘Full many a flower will bloom to blush unseen/ and waste its sweetness on the desert air’, as the poet Thomas Gray put it. Yes, so they will, but ‘waste’? I don’t think so. One can sense the whole earth breathing again with relief.
What about us? Will we be re-wilded too? A lot of people are certainly finding great solace and delight in nature, often for the first time in their busy and distracted lives. But will we remember this when it’s all over? Silver linings come with golden opportunities. This crisis has bought us some time, but the next one will soon be upon us. We know what it is and we know it’s coming – it’s the climate crisis. It will be more gradual in its effects but even more devasting in the long run.
So, will everything stay the same or will something change? It will be a different world when we emerge from all this and we will have a rare opportunity to make it a better one.
15 April 2020
The sign of summer
Spring has seemed particularly precious this year. I think people everywhere have been turning to nature as a solace in this time of great stress and uncertainty. We’ve found some reassurance in the fact that life in the natural world, at least, is continuing as normal. There’s a regular annual succession in nature’s calendar which gives a framework to the season: from the first daffodils to the early butterflies, next the bluebells, and then on to the first swallow (bang on schedule again this year on 15 April). But there is still one more migrant to come, as I write this, one that always seems to me to mark the point at which spring segues into summer. It’s the swift. I get swift-neck at this time every year, scanning the skies to catch my first sight of that black profile scything through the upper air. The poet Ted Hughes always took their safe arrival each summer as a sign that all was still well with the world:
They’ve made it again
Which means the globe is still working
The creation’s still waking refreshed,
Our summer’s still to come
Sometime around the 10th of May you’ll see and hear them, literally screaming overhead as they chase each other over the roof-tops, then whirling up into the heavens, only to bank and dive again at wing-shuddering speeds. They are the most aerial of all our birds. They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing, spiralling high into the sky to take the avian equivalent of cat-naps. Sometimes pilots of planes (remember them?) report seeing swifts at great heights, in a stratum other birds never reach. Incredibly, when the swifts that breed around here have reared their young and leave their nests built in crevices in church towers and the like, they don’t touch down again until they return next year. Their whole lives are spent in the air. They therefore don’t have, because they don’t need, feet that can grip and perch the way swallows can. In fact, if swifts ever land on the ground they find it very difficult to take off again. Their scientific name is apous, meaning ‘footless’. But once in the skies, they are in their true element and are designed with a perfect aerodynamic shape to cut through the air with minimum resistance. A truly charismatic bird – and quizzers might like to remember that as far as I know it’s the only British bird whose full name is an adjective: swift by name and by nature.
Let’s hope they return on time as normal, because there’s no ‘normal’ in the human world now.
PS They made it on 8 May!
a close shave
When we were plunged into lockdown on 20 March we were told we could take one walk a day. I’ve been making mine a long one, and I think I’ve explored the countryside round our villages more thoroughly than I ever have before. It’s been an extraordinary spring – extraordinary both for its remarkable weather and for the worldwide pandemic (respectively the best and worst of their kind in my lifetime). A poignant conjunction that has highlighted for many people I’ve met on my rambles the beauty of the natural world we have been fortunate enough to be able to enjoy as a solace.
I came across one quite unexpected delight the other day. I was walking on the grassy footpath that runs on the ridge from Great Thurlow to Great Wratting, ¬when right in the middle of the track I saw a most striking plant. It had a shortish straight stalk with a rosette of leaves at the base and two more clasping the stalk higher up like a sheath. The flower blooming on top was a gorgeous confection of sculpted blooms, looking for all the world like a bee. It was a bee orchid. These flowers are not as rare as their exotic appearance would suggest, but I’d never seen one here before. They sometimes shoot up like this in one year, only to disappear the next.
The flower had itself had a stroke of luck, in that the path had been mown by the Council a couple of weeks earlier and they had beheaded all the flowers emerging then – speedwell, forget-me-not, trefoil and vetch. You’d think that in the current crisis they’d have better things to spend our money on. Perhaps I should wrote to my MP, who happens to be the Health Secretary … Anyway, it was a close shave, as you might say, and the orchid delayed its appearance just long enough to avoid the grim municipal reaper.
This fantastical flower has evolved to mimic a female bee – a cunning device to persuade male bees to alight on the fake-female and so pollinate the plant. It’s a double-fake now, though, in that the plant itself has become self-pollinating over time, so no longer needs this external assistance. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful to see, or indeed to touch, because the deception is completed with a sumptuous velvety lip, and the flower even produces a fragrance mimicking the smell of a female bee. What chance does the poor male have? The scientific name Ophrys, however, interprets the shape of this lip as an ‘eyebrow’, and women in the ancient world were said to use them to exctract eye shadow. Don’t you dare pick one for that purpose now, though. Apart from anything else, it’s the country flower of Bedfordshire and we’re learning that you have to be careful not to desecrate public symbols.
15 June 2020
One positive thing about lockdown has been realising how much foreign travel you can do very close to home. No need to go to Majorca or Marrakesh – or even Margate. Just set up a moth trap in your back garden overnight and you’ll see the most exotic sights in the morning. The brindled beauty I caught last night, for example, is just what it says on the tin, though the ‘beauty’ here is not an obvious one. It’s not brightly coloured but has a very subtle combination of textures and patterns that might have appealed to the fabric designers who were leading lights in the Aurelians, the society of moth and butterfly fanciers in the 17th century when many of our moths were given their current names. It’s the same with some birds. Who could improve on the beauty of a wryneck, woodcock or nightjar, each patterned from a palette of browns, greys and black to provide perfect camouflage in their natural surroundings. Subdued in one sense, but just gorgeous when you see them close-up.
And talking of fabrics, another specimen in the catch this morning was a muslin moth, a male one. There’s an unusually marked difference between males and females in this species: the females are a superior ermine-white with just a few scattered black spots to add a further touch of class; but the male is a drab, sooty colour, which perhaps accounts for its scientific name medica ‘beggarly’. Apparently, the males are only active by night and the females by day. Presumably they just meet for breakfast/supper (? brupper), though I can’t quite see the evolutionary advantage in that.
An even more striking discovery was a poplar hawkmoth. This is a huge moth, which you’d think couldn’t look more conspicuous. The patterning is again very beautiful, but it’s all there for a purpose. The orange patch just visible on the hindwing can be flashed to startle enemies. The wings themselves look like some advanced aeronautical design, but the function is one of camouflage not speed. The forewing is semi-detached from the hindwing, so in its resting posture on a branch the moth perfectly resembles a bunch of dead leaves. Finally, it hangs around like that because it has no functioning proboscis and can’t feed. It lives off the food which it accumulated and enjoyed when it was a caterpillar last year, and which was then stored in its system while it overwintered as a chrysalis. When the moth itself finally emerges in the spring it doesn’t need to eat because its only purpose in life now is to live long enough to mate, lay eggs and perpetuate its genes. So, its cycle is eat, sleep, breed … and goodbye.
When I release the moths in the garden they flutter to the nearest bush and disappear without trace, like a fading dream. Magic. Such extraordinary creatures – and a whole world you can to explore without leaving home.
11 July 2020
sounds of summer
I have a wonderful childhood memory of high summer – just lying in the long grass, looking up at the blue bowl of the sky and hearing the sounds of crickets and grasshoppers chirping away endlessly all around me. This came back to me the other day when I found a splendid Roesel’s bush cricket actually sitting on our back gate. The bush crickets are a special group, considerably larger than most grasshoppers, and make very loud and distinctive sounds. Whereas grasshoppers produce these by rubbing their wing-cases against their legs, bush crickets do it by rubbing their wings together. An expert can distinguish all their different ‘songs’ just as easily as different bird songs, though alas they are so high-pitched that once you’re over 50 you start losing them. I do remember the Roesel’s song, however: an extraordinary crackling like the sound of overhead electricity pylons. Naturalists have had to resort to equally bizarre similes to describe the other species in the stridulation section of this insect orchestra: the great green bush cricket ‘like the sound of crystal beads dropped in a stream down a crystal stair’; the cone-head ‘a quiet sewing-machine purr’; while the alarmingly-named wart-biter cricket produces a rapid burst of short clicks; and the oak bush cricket uses his long hindlegs to beat out a tap-dance ‘like the sound of soft rain’.
Grasshoppers have inspired some human music, too. Benjamin Britten composed Two Insect Pieces for piano and oboe, where the bounding gait of the grasshopper is contrasted with the angry buzzing of the wasp. And John Keats celebrated the cricket chorus in a lovely poem that begins, ‘The poetry of earth is never dead’, making the point that you could hear crickets all through winter as well as summer. Or you could then, when the cricket on the hearth, immortalised in Charles Dickens Christmas Story, was a cheerful presence in many households. It is said that you can use the house cricket’s chirps as a thermometer. The formula for a centigrade reading is: count the number of chirps in 14 seconds, add 25, divide by three, then add four. So, if your cricket chirps 112 times a minute it should be about 20°C outside. Check it out, though you may have to listen for your house cricket in a boiler room nowadays.
Crickets and grasshoppers are all members of the large family called the orthoptera (meaning ‘straight-winged’), which also includes the grasshoppers of folklore we now call locusts. Despite their destructive reputation, the Bible calls them one of the four ‘little things’ regarded as ‘exceeding wise’, along with ants, spiders and coneys (rabbits). You can find the reasons given in Proverbs 30.27.
the grail moth
Anyone with an interest in nature will be able to think of some charismatic species they have always wanted to see in the wild. Maybe it’s one you’ve only seen on television, or read about in a book or a travel brochure. It might be a glimpse of a pike lurking in thick vegetation in a stream, a golden eagle soaring over a Scottish mountain, a rare lady orchid blushing unseen in some secret woodland glade, or a gorgeous swallow-tail butterfly floating over a Norfolk reedbed. And when you finally see one of these ‘grail species’ you get a sudden adrenaline rush of excited recognition. Wow! Or even WOW!
I had one of these caps WOW moments last month with a wonderful moth I had long dreamed of finding. It has the magnificent name of the Clifden Nonpareil: Clifden after Clivedon by the Thames near Maidenhead, where it was first found in the eighteenth century (later famous for another reason as the trysting place of John Profumo and Christine Keeler – remember them?); and Nonpareil meaning ‘Incomparable’, which is exactly what it is. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a huge moth, the size of a bat or a small bird. When it has its wings closed it can rest perfectly camouflaged on a tree trunk, but when disturbed it flashes the wings open to reveal a brilliant violet-blue band, startling enough to confuse any potential predator. Hence it’s other English name of ‘Blue Underwing’ and its German name Blaues Ordensband (the Blue Ribbon). We have Yellow Underwing and Red Underwing moths that perform the same trick. They too are attractive and quite common. But the Clifden Nonpareil is in a quite different class, partly because of its size and exquisite beauty, but partly also because of its great rarity. It was never widespread in Britain, but by the 1960s it had become extinct here, following the replacement of the large stands of aspen and poplar in the southern counties with the conifer plantations favoured by the Forestry Commission at the time. The Nonpareil’s larvae (caterpillars) feed on the leaves of these poplars and depend on them, but no one thought about that, of course. For some fifty years, therefore, it disappeared altogether and it’s only recently that it has started to turn up again in small numbers, so adding to its special cachet.
Well, there it was in my moth trap one misty September morning. Large as life and unmistakeable. I couldn’t believe I’d finally seen one. I touched it tentatively with a finger. It flashed me a blue alert and off it flew, like a dream that fades on waking.
9 October 2020
Just as the first arriving swallows in mid-April marked the beginning of spring, so the flock I now see gathering on the telephone wires portend our autumn. There must have been some fifty of them there this morning, all chittering and chattering furiously, as if psyching themselves up for their long journey to come. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, they suddenly all take off together in what birders call a ‘dread’ (a habit that swallows share with terns); they freak out in a cloud of fluttering wings, circle around together for a few seconds, and then settle back again, but restlessly, as if waiting for their flight number to come up on the celestial departure board. Strange to reflect that these same swallows will soon be swooping over elephants and ostriches in South Africa. We think of them leaving home to spend the winter there, but it will be spring in South Africa when they arrive, so who is to say where their true home is? It’s a continuous cycle of arrivals and departures.
We’ve just been through the seasonal spring cycle ourselves, one with its own strange paradoxes. There were the contrasts between the record-breaking sunny weather and the looming climate crisis, and between relief in the wonderful new silences and the horror at the headlong progress of the pandemic. The national lockdown rightly imposed serious restrictions, but many people actually found it liberating to take up new interests or revive old ones. They lost themselves and found themselves in activities like gardening, music, art, physical exercise, reading, crafts and games. Nature too provided great solace as people saw and heard things close to their own homes they had never properly appreciated before. I certainly did, despite having walked round the Thurlows for nearly forty years.
As soon as lockdown was announced on 23 March, I agreed with two naturalist friends living in different parts of the country, Michael McCarthy (London) and Peter Marren (Wiltshire), that we would each keep detailed diaries of our experiences of this extraordinary Covid spring and then combine them to share with others our sense of the delight and inspiration the natural world can offer in a dark time of stress and anxiety. We made a book of it, which will be published in mid-October. The Consolation of Nature is the story of what we discovered by literally walking out from our front doors. I hope to have copies for sale at the Village Hall market in the first week of November, if you are interested in my own local diary. You might even be in it …
These seasonal cycles are just that, cycles in which the end of one season is the beginning of the next, which in turn brings us back to the beginning again, but not quite the same as we were before. Hopefully knowing more, caring more and more deeply grounded in the only world we have.
15 September 2020