Books

Fowl!

Ideal gift for a football crazy grandchild.

A charming story written by Shaun McMahon, a Northamptonshire school teacher, suitable from about 6 years of age, younger if read to, and an equally good read for the adult reader. Suspend your preconceptions and go with the flow as Bert, a likeable young chicken follows his dream to be a footballer, aided and abetted by an eccentric farmer and his good mate Harry, a Shetland pony. Lots of challenges along the way with each chapter just right for a bedtime story. Made me think that we might have found the successor to Dick King-Smith.

Well written and deserves to do well — can’t wait for the film!

Fowl by Shaun McMahon, published by Matador ISBN 9 781838 595166 £7.99

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Ecology, Wales

Special trees!

Encountered by chance at Plas Newydd in Anglesey — reminded me of the power of rain and light.

Monterey Cypresses — native to California but thriving in Anglesey. Bill for scale!

These specimens seem so much more robust that the ones in pictures from California but I suspect this has to do with the wonderfully consistent rainfall in North Wales and careful arboriculture since they were planted in the 1950s — just look at the carbon they have sequested in my lifetime!

When we planted our 7000 trees in 2006 we didn’t really realise we were replanting a rainforest — but all the clues were there.

Here is some of the evidence of the rain forest potential of one of the wet western parts of Britain in which we live:


Trees dripping with mosses.
Mosses and ferns blanket the moist peat of the woodland floor.
Rainfall of up to a couple of metres per year — I stopped measuring it because, until this year, it really didn’t vary much.

Ferns and lichens and mosses taking advantage of every surface.

Forest floor before the explosion of all the other plants in the spring.
And a few weeks later.

Shamrocks, violets, wood anemones and blue bells scrambling to catch the light before it is stolen by the bracken or the tree canopy.

This cool, damp, verdant place bursts with life — these boletus fungi appeared all along the path between aspen and oak in the few days we were away, does anyone know what sort they are?

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Democracy

Fiddling…

‘Twill all be over by Halloween — we will have a new leader and the doors to the underworld will swing closed again, though maybe not in Ukraine, or Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, or the Horn of Africa, or Nigeria or any of the other disaster areas that our mainstream media choses to ignore this week (and most other weeks). I don’t talk politics — I’m the silent majority.

But I’ve discussed it with my daughter’s dog who is visiting — he is practicing his ghastly howl just in case. Myself, having observed British politics for a long time and the habit, when in doubt, of electing rank outsiders — I’m off out first thing in the morning to put ten quid on Kemi Badenoch, who actually appears to be made of the right stuff — so who knows?

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nature

Island Sanctuary

We didn’t actually fly in to Brownsea Island in our sea plane.

Aerial photograph displayed in NT Visitor Centre

We arrived by boat, crossing Poole Harbour which is a large natural inlet on England’s south coast. Brownsea Island sits in the middle and affords unique protection to the species that live there.

Arriving at Brownsea quay.

This is what we came to see.

Red Squirrel at British Wildlife Centre by Cameraman (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Disgorged from the first boat of the day, almost immediately we are aware of frenetic activity — in the treetops, up and down the trunks and bounding across the grass — foraging red squirrels.

Small and very lively — difficult to catch. Thriving, away from predators and disease, in this more bio-secure environment.

At the north-east corner of the island is a large brackish lagoon, built in the mid 19th century as a polder to reclaim land from shallow sea for agriculture — it was flooded in the 1930 and has remained flooded since. Though the water is shallow, suitable for dabblers rather than divers, it is sheltered and protected and has a colony up to 72 spoonbills which now breed on the island.

Distant view of spoonbills on the far side of the lagoon.

Spoonbills disappeared from the UK in the 1600s with the loss of their habitat, due to draining of wetlands for agriculture, and because of hunting. They have only recently returned and are still rare but are breeding in several locations helped by various schemes to recreate the sort of conditions that they find at Brownsea.

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Writing

That’s Me — Before

The innocent girl on the cover, bewildered by the strangeness of post-war Britain.

And After

Read the events that changed the way I see the world. You don’t have to be a genius... published by Clinical Press, available on-line and as a Kindle book. Would make a good Christmas present!

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Dragonflies

A Living Flash of Light

On a bright, clear morning the slow-witted naturalist has a chance at a half-decent photograph because the temperature is dropping.

Southern Hawker at Rutland Water last week.

As the year progresses, the remaining dragonflies are slowing up, getting up later, flying less frenetically and sitting around more — low in a bush in the morning sun, trying to warm up.

The only other chance is very early in the morning or shortly after they have emerged, as Tennyson wrote,

“…An inner impulse rent the veil

Of his old husk: from head to tail.

He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;”

Broad bodied chaser

The broad bodied chaser is common around our little pond in Mid-Wales — appearing early in the summer and active for a long time. The southern hawker is more dramatic and is aggressive, indulging in arial skirmishes with intruding males along the closely guarded stream-side territory along which he patrols. Passing by every few minutes, easily seen but almost impossible to photograph. “A living flash of light…”

I do my best!

The southern hawker (above) looks so alien with his “plates of sapphire mail” — it is only the fact of scale that prevents me running from this sci-fi inter-stellar gunship as he casts his sinister shadow then disappears in a flash to another dimension.

This pristine brown hawker was drying his wings at Woodwalton fen last summer.

Brown Hawker

Not to be confused with this rare bird!

The rare Norfolk hawker, with his green eyes and tell-tail little yellow triangle on the first abdominal segment, between his back wings.

We spotted him at Hickling broad this year while we were looking for swallowtail butterflies.

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Ecology, Farm engineering, Health and safety

Llyn Meurig Lake

If you notice an ordnance survey plane making passes over our valley, I can tell you that they are checking on the previously overlooked body of water below the ancient earth works on the hill.

You might remember that we got our friend to dig us a pond at the suggestion of the ecologist who came last summer. It has an en-suite compost heap and wood pile.

Day one

Well, it filled up in no time from ground water during the driest period anyone remembers.

Raising many health and safety issues!
Some risks have been addressed.

The septuagenarian who ventures down the bank to plant water mint and forget-me-not and flounders in the slippery mud will now be rendered unconscious by a heavy and over-engineered life-buoy chucked in after him or her by an over-anxious grand-child. As the grand-parent is likely to be heavier than any number of grand-children, a winch may also have to be purchased!

For this reason God is going to do most of the planting.

As always though, I can’t help interfering, We have planted hornwort, water lilies, frogbit, yellow irises and bog bean, the latter primed to take over in no time, but it is beautiful. Already much of the pondweed escaped down the overflow and had to be rounded up and marched back — it should have been weighted which we realised when we found the little weights in the bottom of the bag!

Fishes, a mixed blessing, have been spotted, tiny and darting about with their shadows.

Purple loosestrife — as it will look.
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Hill Farming, Sheep

Nemesis

We gave up sheep-keeping in our seventies to preserve our mental and, increasingly, our physical equilibrium.

Now the sheep that roam the land around our house belong to Lisa who is young and fit and has 2 tail wagging dogs schooled in the mystic art of ovine manipulation. She comes and does what needs to be done, shouting words of encouragement to her enthusiastic assistants which would raise eyebrows in the lane if anyone was there… No one is there. I watch nostalgically, bending to give my new knee a reassuring pat.

Here she is, counting them after tupping.
During the winter she and her dad laid a hedge and later moved the fence to the front of it to protect it — we cleared away the debris.

Those ewes all went home to lamb and have been replaced by yearlings

Here they are arriving

Come bedtime we hear a furious baaing — one must have got its head stuck in the fence again. I do not ring Lisa, I don’t go to bed and think “It’s a grown up — it’ll be okay and it’ll be easier to extract in daylight!’ By force of habit I grab my lambing torch and slip on my waterproof trousers over my pyjamas – (slip? That’s a joke — I wipe the sweat from my brow and look for my wellies.)

There she is, by the light of the torch, not with her head lassoed by the fence but trapped between the newly laid hedge which is definitely stock-proof and the new fence. Proper examination reveals that she must have entered the woodland two fields farther up the 45 degree slope, admitted by a wobbly post — I think I will extract her by driving her back into the woodland by dint of my personality then down the hill and in through the gate at the bottom. Simple! Better open the gate first. What about the other 34 sheep. She is very keen to re-join them so I will pen them in the direction that I want her to go. I’ll do that first. Much re-setting of gates and rushing about ensues. By the time Bill comes out to see if I have fractured my femur yet, the other sheep are safely stowed in the field below the house, baaing occasionally and enjoying the excitement. The gate to the woodland is open.

From my side of the fence I drive her up hill to release her from the hedge — it works but she continues up hill. I climb over and drive her down, the other sheep baa and she heads towards them, re-tracing her tracks and forcing herself between the hedge and he fence again.

Now Bill involves himself in earnest. He rattles the fence and whacks the hedge with a stick. The young ewe turns and forces her way up hill again leaving much of her fleece hooked on the hedge. I am placed at the top end of the laid section of hedge ready to turn her as she escapes from its grasp and drive her down to the gate. I shine the torch, wave my stick and bellow — as she passes I drop my tools and lunge at her neck and we proceed, she with her four-wheel-drive, me horizontal, my arms clamped around her neck. The brambles grab at me but are no match for this determined yearling. We continue our down hill trajectory in the pitch black. I decide she should go alone and let go — she is after all going in the right direction.

I am lying in a hazel thicket quite comfortably below the low branches, I shout to Bill that I am alright and to tell him to position himself to make sure that the infuriated sheep that is hurtling towards him turns right into the field at the bottom and not left up into 6 hectares of dense woodland — not easy as I had the torch. I hear crashing undergrowth and expletives. It goes quiet. I retrieve the torch sustaining only minor head injuries.

Woodland, even woodland that one knows, looks very different at night — quite magical and strange. As I walk down though the woods the bracken and bramble give way to a mossy floor with darkness stretching out between the trees in all directions, there is the sound of bird’s wings as I pass and the occasional shriek and tawny owls are calling to each other around the margins of my perception. Bill is ominously silent now.

It is raining, he is sitting dishevelled on the bank, the gate is still open. There is no sign of my nemesis — she turned left! We turn right and retire to bed, leaving the gate open for her.

Next morning she is in the field behind the house asking to be reunited with her sisters — I close the gate to the woodland then re-unite them.

Nemesis — you can tell she has attitude!
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wild flowers

Nothing is ever just Black or White.

Do you recognise this plant? I didn’t.

Browsing the plant life near to the beach at Snettisham I found something unfamiliar — a large attractive flowering shrub growing in the midst of stinging nettles and thistles with quite leathery leaves. It was blowing a gale, black clouds were heaving overhead and I had no gloves to explore more closely. So I took some photos and made haste to the car park!

Here it is again, note the tendrils and the ivy shaped matt leaves. This is white bryony, Bryonia cretica — a climbing perennial related to squash and cucumber but is poisonous — deaths have been recorded. Even drinking milk from cows that have grazed it can be harmful. This one was climbing all over its neighbours, pretending to be a dense bush. Black berries in Autumn but not to be confused with Black Bryony our familiar hedgerow climbing vine which has red berries — is that clear?

Black bryony, I don’t know why they call it black, is also known as lady’s seal or black bindweed, Tamus communis. It is a member of the yam family, twining clockwise, some say ante-clockwise — I suppose it all depends which way you look at it, or whether it grows in the southern hemisphere! It has no tendrils, the leaves are heart-shaped and shiny and all parts are poisonous containing saponins. Intrepid or very hungry folk evidently eat the new shoots when cooked — not recommended, as even if it doesn’t poison you, picking it may bring you out in a nasty rash.

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lifestyle

Gastronomic Interlude!

Norfolk Edge beach cafe at Winterton, Norfolk

Amazing what you find while looking for little terns. Young men cooking marvellous food!

Skilled and efficient and rightly proud of their superb beach cuisine.

Here we heard the immortal words, “Does the dairy free still want truffle oil?” That’s what I call beach food!

If you are anywhere near North Norfolk — check them out!

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