Yesterday was not the right time of the year for birdwatchers to visit the Scillies — too late for migrants and not enough wind for blown-in vagrants.
But yesterday was exactly the right day to travel to the Scilly Isles — not a breath of wind, brilliant winter sunshine and water like a millpond.
So catching the train to Penzance before dawn,
we piled onto the Scillonian III with lots of other followers of the weather forecast. The islands are about 30 miles from the tip of Cornwall.
Unlike many other ships. On our outward journey Bill regaled me with tales of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a mate of Marlborough (his hero) who lost four ships on the rocks around the Scillies in 1707, with the loss of nearly 2000 sailors. This may have been due to the problems at the time in plotting longitude, though 80 years later it was rumoured to have been due to the Navy’s failure to listen to a seaman, native to the Islands, who told them they were heading for the rocks! He was hanged for trying to incite mutiny. This may or may not have been true or may be an early example of how we edit history according to our own prejudices!
Yesterday the islands looked tropical.
The beech was patrolled by a little platoon of ducks and one or two people were swimming without wet suits. We did see some birds:
As we head back along the south coast of Cornwall, the passengers all gather on the aft decks and despite an increasing chill, gaze as one at the mesmerising sunset. No one looking at their phone or scanning the sea for more dolphins — as man has done for ever, we watched the sun go down.
The trouble with Nature is that it runs away with you!
You give her, Nature that is, a small area of hillside to play with and, before you know it, she has barricaded herself in with thorny thickets and hidden earthworks, molehills under layers of slippery bracken and ankle breaking, knee jarring pitfalls made by rabbits and badgers. (Did I tell you I’ve just had a new knee.) The whole area is now dense undergrowth, criss-crossed by looping, flailing brambles and willow whips.
Ah, you say, that’s nice — good for diversity!
But is it — it’s not as simple as that!
So concerned were we that we called in an expert — Super-eco-man, a conservation hero —
He’ll know what to do.
And he did — we slithered and scrambled up and down our precipitous banks as he introduced us to species of which we had been oblivious. Pleased to meet you! He showed us how to distinguish between our six common ferns, and to start to make sense of some of our mosses, not easy as they mainly have Latin names, now recorded in my roughly dried notebook — it will be fun giving them proper English names — shaggy christmas tree moss and less shaggy christmas tree moss.
Most importantly he showed us what we might lose. In our emerging woodland, already we are losing the avenues of open ground for butterflies and moths, insects and bats. The paths that remain are steep sided — like canyons through the trees without the gently sloping edges needed by butterflies and pollinating insects — there is a lot to do.
The overgrowth of bracken is alternately shading and insulating the great anthills on the sunny bank so that our ancient neighbours, the huge colonies of yellow meadow ants cannot so efficiently control their temperature as they have done for thousands of years.
Our carefully placed owl box overlooks dwindling areas of decent hunting ground for barn owls as the vole habitat is being eroded by blackthorn — probably the reason they haven’t used it of late.
Our mature oaks, it turns out, are only 100 years old, adolescent almost, not nearly gnarled and hollow enough to provide adequate nesting for all the bats, like the ones currently breeding in the bathroom ceiling and the pied and spotted flycatchers that come looking for nest sites every spring. Our new barn will need a large well insulated roof space to deal with the housing shortage! A new owl box is planned for the old barn and a safety rail for the swallows and martins as the roof purlins are too steep — the nests tend to fall off.
Seems I’ll have to start production again. Did you know that spotted flycatchers like to nest near buildings.
Now I’ve got to go and plan the new pond, we know exactly where to put it and its adjacent compost heap and en-suite woodpile. Our lizards need somewhere to bask with an air raid shelter, we’ve got just the rocks we need.
Seriously we found the exercise very helpful, now we realize that managing an area for wildlife is not a passive exercise. Those who think that any form of re-wilding threatens the rural lifestyle had better think again — even though we might only be cutting some of our hedges every other year (to get more berries) we will be generating lots of other activity.
We’ve been asking ourselves increasingly what we can do for wildlife.
Yesterday a neighbour caught me interfering with the bank of withering meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) outside the Presbyterian Chapel. Public spirited, he came to investigate — my sins had found me out. No, no, he reassured me… Helping ones self to seed is acceptable foraging — recycling and green.
Armed with this intelligence later in the day I foraged a few red berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis from Ynes hir — all in a good cause. As I passed I remembered the deafening buzz of honey bees that emanated from the Cotoneaster that climbed over our shed in London and where my elder daughter, then about 5, opened her first Bumble Bee Hospital. It was she who made me read the books of Dave Goulson, evangelical champion of bees and the planet generally.
We have been thinking about pollinators, insects, food chains, berries and burrs and, of course, birds.
As far as providing for the birds is concerned, we seem to be doing quite well in the berry department, especially this year.
A very good year for Rowan, and plenty of blackberry and elderberry, though the birds have already made great inroads into the latter.
We have copious sloes on the blackthorn, haws on the whitethorn, hips on the dog rose that rambles in the hedges and sticky honeysuckle fruits on the woodbine and the birds are already harvesting the large crop of tiny apples — they are welcome. Not so to the few damsons — I need those for my gin.
The ivy is coming into bloom to produce lots of berries for the winter.
According to Mr Goulson we could do with a firethorn (Pyracantha — not strictly native) which I have always thought more appropriate for a suburban garden though Bill tells me one once saved his life when it enveloped him in its bouncy, interiorly-sprung prickles when he fell from a ladder!
Less alien might be a wayfarer tree and I know where there is one with lots of berries — at Rutland water — must go and find my balaclava!
The town on the eastern end of the border between England and Scotland was fought over for centuries.
With the eventual peace (I hope I don’t speak too soon) a road Bridge was started in 1610 by order of James I of England (VI of Scotland) and finished in 14 years. It cost £15,000 and was to carry the Great North Road, later the A1, between London and Edinburgh and it still carries traffic, albeit one-way but was closed for repairs when we visited recently.
I don’t know if it is because I spent a lot of my childhood in Welwyn Garden City but I really like towns that have been designed as ideal towns — one man’s dream — models of social engineering. I sense it the moment I enter — the street lay-out, the civic pride — the avenues of trees — the fountains!
Welwyn Garden City was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). He founded the Garden City movement that spawned Letchworth and WGC, probably in an ornamental pond surrounded by flowering cherries! He had a utopian vision — people living happily in harmony with nature, tamed by an enlightened municipal workforce — that is pretty well how I remember it as I grew up there.
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) also had a vision (I don’t know enough to examine his motives), but I wonder if Ebenezer ever visited the cardinal’s hometown in Indre-et-Loire, France. The moment we blundered into the small town which carries his name, we knew it was no ordinary place.
It reflects the social order of its time — there was a massive palace nearby that was demolished by 1805 when times had changed. The town though survives with its surrounding canals servicing the artisans dwellings and the centrally placed town houses built for the bourgeoisie (currying favour with Richelieu, the man). He was Louis XIII’s first minister — cardinal, politician, patron of the arts — a very powerful man who died of tuberculosis at the age of 57.
I am reminded of all this by our recent sojourn, birdwatching, in Grantown on Spey. As we drove into the town along its wide central vista with its impressive central buildings I thought “this is an ideal town!” And it was.
Sensibly he started with a linen mill to provide employment — this thrived and bought other trades and services to the town. By 1860 when Queen Victoria visited and stayed, as we did, at the Grant Arms, the population was about 1300. With the advent of the railway the town became a centre for tourists visiting the Highlands, made popular by the Queen.
If I couldn’t live in the country or a walled medieval hotchpotch, I think I might like to live in an “ideal” town.
You know who you are! The bird watcher who dismisses starlings or corvids (except ravens or choughs) or the bird that is ‘just a gull’.
When we start looking at nature we are drawn to the conspicuous, the brightly coloured, the easily identified and as time goes on these become mundane and we start to look for the unusual. So, when you can recognise all the 59 species of UK butterfly it is time to start on the previously dismissed moths! Here’s a moth for beginners — easy to recognise because of the face hidden in its markings — can you see it.
See the profile of Mrs Punch or Mother Shipton after whom it is named — the Mother Shipton Moth. One of the 133 larger, day flying moths to start spotting. It shows some of the features which usually distinguish them from butterflies: resting with it’s wings flat; antennae feathery or rod-like, curved and without a knob at the end; and back and forewings linked together.
Once you’ve checked out all the larger, day-flying moths you can start on the tiny ones and the hundreds of marvellous night fliers! When someone says “it’s just a moth!” ask which one!
Duke of Burgundy Butterflies are rare these days but thanks to the communal spirit of another amateur lepidopterist we find them easily and in return point out an equally rare corn bunting, singing his heart out trying to be noticed.
Nearby was this beautiful flower that likes to have its feet wet — it is said to be common but I’d never seen it before —
Despite recent sunny weather it seems to have been a slow year for butterflies but in the last few days Painted Ladies have arrived all the way from Africa, one of only two migratory butterflies that we see in the UK. No Clouded Yellow as yet.
You can tell a lot about a place when you visit its more intimate corners.
I was recently caught short at Braemar Castle in the Highlands of Scotland.
Overlooking a magnificent stretch of the River Dee one could imagine a member of the royal family fly fishing in these beautiful waters. Location, location, location! The 17th century interiors were closed to us due to Covid but the downstairs, outside loo had kindly been left open by the community charity which leases the building from the Farquharson clan leader and works to maintain its fabric. They must all work very hard — in lots of places the rendering is parting from the underlying higgledy-piggledy masonry which is crumbling in the elements — one can feel the old place sucking up all the money and efforts of the volunteers that tend it!
Down in Fife in the town of my ancestors (and Bill’s youth) we visited the museum and public library.
Here we enjoyed the magnificently renovated basement lavatories with their tactile, sensuous mahogany seats and splendid door furniture. All resplendent in an aura of chlorine and civic pride.
The gents was equally spectacular though my companion was reluctant to photograph the facilities. The librarian swelled with pride as we congratulated her and admitted that because it is a listed building it had been a meticulous and very expensive refurbishment (£2,500,000 from Fife Council).
The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.
As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.
There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.
There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.
The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.
Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.
They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.
The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.
On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.
As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!