Sunday, 5 June 2016

Richard Jefferies

Unlike electronic mail, there is a certain excitement of expectation as a white envelope flops onto the doormat; what will be revealed inside?  I'd just returned from a recording trip in Wales, reporting on sheep shearing when seizing the post I noticed one from the Richard Jefferies Society.  Opening up the envelope inside the Summer Journal. 

I'd known of Jefferies writing for years, though to my shame never became familiar with all his output. Then a few years back having been asked to be a Trustee of his Museum near Swindon I joined the Society... a steal these days at only £12 a year. For that members receive a newsletter and the Journal on a regular basis.
I love receiving the Journal as it gives an insight into Jefferies I would not have been able to educate myself on otherwise. Jefferies was a journalist at heart, who wrote in a way that his words passed down the generations long after the scribbling's of other journalists of his day have been forgotten. Partly because he wrote in a more creative way than a news hack, partly his works were then bound up into books for public consumption. Many Victorian novelists serialised their work prior to book publication; Jefferies though wrote from the heart, often campaigning against agricultural or rural ways. Not in a sentimental way, but always looking forward by understanding the past and present.
The summer Journal above contains an insightful summary of Jefferies the Journalist, by Barry Sloan, a printed version of the Jefferies Birthday lecture he gave last year. In those 10 pages, a life in prĂ©cis,  I feel closer to Jefferies than ever before, and though sadly no longer able to fulfil a role of Trustee for the museum, feel my understanding of Jefferies the man is increasing, over and above Jefferies the author. Yet the words of Jefferies the author have as much a clear message today and they did over 100 years ago. For as many don't realise who come to Jefferies through his countryside prose, Jefferies was one of the first, if not the first environmentalists.
Read After London and you'll see what I mean! 
The Richard Jefferies Society - founded in 1950 to promote the appreciation and study of Jefferies works.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Abandon hope all who enter here

Nature can both enrich and destroy.

Today it's capacity for failure has been aptly demonstrated by the abandonment of the blackbird nest I wrote of recently. Two weeks ago I sat in the garden enthralled by to-ing and fro-ing of the female blackbird building a nest in the garden. Two weeks ago the promise of new life into this corner of Somerset was all around us. Today after not seeing any activity in the garden or around the nest by either the male or female blackbird I checked it with my camera on a pole - 5 beautifully marked eggs but no bird. I gently felt the eggs, stone cold and they plus the nest were soaking wet after the frost we had last night. Having not seen the female around the nest for 4 days now, I fear that's that. There will be no new life in this corner of the West Country this year.

In a way I'm not surprised, just saddened. On Tuesday, the last day I saw the female an unknown black cat had come into the garden and was looking up at the nest hidden in a clematis. It then walked along the fence the clematis is attached to and peered in before leaving the garden following my protestations. But I have often seen this and another cat in the garden by the bird feeder. Was she killed by a cat maybe? I can't say the cat had anything to do with the abandonment but the female blackbird was especially tame and would hop around the garden while we worked in it. She'd happily fly into the nest too seemingly unaware we existed. Too trusting possibly?
We also have regular visits by magpies and carrion crows, in fact a crow has just arrived on the shed as I write this, all sleek and glossy, a killer king in a black mantle? Maybe but often they would rob the nest of eggs, rather than attack the parents. The eggs are still there, cold as stone, jewels hiding their macabre story of abandonment. We do have a regular sparrowhawk too, but there is no evidence of blackbird remains. Why then the nest was abandoned? I just don't know.

I've long loved nests and eggs. Since a child that joy of discovering a nest and peering carefully inside to see perfectly formed spheres of creation. In many ways finding nests in the winter is just as thrilling. I remember discovering a long tail tit nest in a dense blackthorn hedge in the middle of a snowy walk in December. That beautifully crafted tennis ball dome stood out as a reminder of warmer days which felt a lifetime ago. Gently pushing my finger inside the dome I could feel the soft interior, which possibly housed ten or 12 pompoms of life all squeezed in tightly vying for space as the warm spring sun warmed within.  

Rooks nests out of season fascinate me too, they look so precarious on the outer branches of trees, just a ragtag and bobtail structure of sticks swaying in a winter storm; but no matter the weather they remain relatively undamaged all through the year often to be repaired and used again in the following March. Even in the height of nesting season, winds can whip the trees into a flagellating frenzy but the nests remain; although in severe gales at this time of the year young can be hurled to their death below. The illustration below from The Collins Guide to Nests and Eggs I have mentioned before fascinated me as a child as it simply illustrates the differences. Rooks, social and build on the very edge of the tree, which is of course why the nests are stable as the branches are a vertical foundation structure to the nests. Carrion crows build lower down, singly and usually in the more stable Y or fork of the branch - their nests being more of a platform. And magpies. I love magpie nests one of the few instantly recognisable nests with it's mezzanine floor above the main nest to protect eggs and young.

The complexity of nest building in the birds world is fascinating, and all from a beak and a bit of avian design flair. Not all birds build nests of course, the cuckoo just pops by like a difficult older sibling while you're out, raids your nest, leaves a present you didn't really want and disappears until next year. The guillemot and many other seabirds just lays an egg on a rock, the egg itself is the wonder, designed to roll around not off the cliff face. But as with the unhelpful term seagulls to describe anything white and flying along the coast, the term nest fails to enthral the casual observer.
Rightly nests and eggs are protected by law from destruction, harm or wilful disturbance during the breeding season, I only checked this nest being certain it had been abandoned and after days of discrete distance observation. But later in the year when rebirth has been completed on that country walk, if you find a nest, stop and take a closer look at the miracle of its building, it's form, structure, shape and function is unique. As is every species' nest.
All is maybe not lost. As I sat here writing this memorial to avian abandonment a dark shape caught my eye. It is a female blackbird carrying nesting material from the garden and over the wall into a shrubby area next to the lane. In the time it has taken me to write this she's been back and forth half a dozen times. The male blackbird is perched on a shrub beside where this female is flying in and out of. To be honest this female looks darker than the one nesting in the garden who had a distinctive pale ruff across her chest. Is this male blackbird one with female blackbird 2? Only one thing for it, to stop writing this, make myself comfortable and as all naturalists do, sit quietly and observe.
Observation is what enriches our understanding of nature, and, maybe there will be new life in this corner of the West Country this year after all.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The beauty of blackbirds

As I write this posting a female blackbird is wearing herself out building a nest in the garden. I've been in Northumberland for a few days for work and pleasure (sat in the garden of our house there watching more greenfinches than I've seen in years - the males almost lime green in their breeding plumage) and have returned to witness the building frenzy of a blackbird in our clematis. Blackbirds are such wonderful birds.
On Thursday I stayed in Julie's house in the Northumberland National Park and having a quiet half hour sitting looking at the stunning view of the moorland which is just the other side of the fence, I was joined by a very friendly female blackbird. I had some Aberdeen Angus sandwiches with me so threw her a morsel. That was gratefully accepted as were the other half a dozen beef crumbs. It was fabulous to be accepted by this animal and although we had never met, she accepted my presence and I felt a bond developing. She'd chink chink, I'd throw a bit of beef, she'd land and take it, fly off to the fence, and the whole process began again. To my right a neighbour feeds the birds and there were a couple of dozen sparrows, chaffinches, the aforementioned greenfinches, cola tits, blue and great tits and a pair of courting dunnock who entertained me with their mice like run and hop pairing behaviour. Beyond the field a woodpecker drummed and a raven cronked overhead.  Absolute bliss. A man needs nothing else.

Aberdeen Angus morsels loved by this female 
Our neighbours garden and the feeder with Harbottle Crags beyond.

But back to the main story. This inconspicuous piece of foliage hides the beginnings of new life, or will do so soon. On Saturday morning I kept seeing this female blackbird on the lawn but couldn't see where she was going. Armed with a pint mug of tea I watched her. And to my amazement into the clematis she flew, then again two minutes later. I had a quick look from a distance and sure enough a half saucer of dried grasses was beginning to be built. Fantastic. We worked in the garden yesterday and she made no attempt to avoid us, in fact she just ignored our activity often flying over our heads to get to the nest construction site. Once again I'm amazed at how nature is trusting of us humans if we just leave them alone.

Having the camera to hand I tried to take some telephoto shots of her activity. They sort of work but it was a dullish day and so getting the ISO levels high enough made it a bit grainy. But a nice sequence of images nonetheless.

I like this shot as it was as she was about to leave so just caught her.

Watching her antics for an hour is one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a while. On average she came to the nest about every two minutes. Between nest visits, hopping over the garden wall to a bit of unkempt land behind which is full of straw, grasses and twigs. I could almost predict her behaviour.  Out the nest, perch on the wall, a quick cheep then drop down the other-side. Two minutes later she'd land on the wall, beak crammed with nesting material, hop along the wall, drop down onto the grass, then fly up into the nest from there. Often she was only hidden by the clematis for 20 seconds then out she'd fly, onto the wall, and away we'd go again. Occasionally the male appeared, sang a short 'pink pink' refrain and then flew off somewhere. He'll be watching her somewhere out of sight but for the moment keeping out of the hard work.
I've left her to it and will keep a close eye on the next phase which will be lining of the nest with mud before the final soft grasses are lain down prior to egg laying.
According to my beloved Collin's Guide to Nests and Eggs, after laying, incubation by the hen is 13-14 days and fledging 13-14 days later. So by my calculations if the nest is finished next weekend, we should see fluffy blackbird chicks in the garden by the first week on May... can't wait.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Corvid Cornucopia

It's been a cold grey old weekend, ideal for staying indoors and watching the rugby yesterday. Today however I began to develop cabin fever, just as the clouds parted. Blue sky began to eradicate the grey blanket and sunshine filled the early evening sky. Thus just as the clock struck 4pm I headed over to the village for an hour.

I've been meaning to do this for a week or so as the rooks are in full nest building mode now. They're moving about the village this year, not sure if they've been disturbed or just fancy a change, but some quite young trees are being colonised quite rapidly. Driving through every day to work I've watched five nests occur in trees over the road in just a week and a couple of singles now occupy outlying trees, like sentries to the main garrison. I have a soft spot for all corvids and in those brief minutes as I cycled around the village, camera and binoculars swinging precariously, I managed to spy a good number of rook and jackdaw, carrion crow, 6 magpies together in a flock and a raven, which took me by surprise. We don't get many jays in this part of Somerset as most trees are ash and sycamore on the wet moor grassland but no matter, I was in my element.

There have been two rookeries around the village for years, about half a mile apart. One by the village hall (above and below) and one by Cedar Farm. A lot of activity today, jostling, calling, flying in with twigs, back out again to plunder,  with about half and half rook and jackdaws in the trees. I was surprised to see so many jackdaw pairs in amongst the rook nests but they offer mutual protection and as the jackdaws aren't nesting yet, why go elsewhere. Conserve your energy.

There were ten nests here and it was lovely to see the jackdaws noisily wheeling over the rookery too.
Just a few hundred yards away the new nests are being built and as I stopped my bike underneath the trees which can only be 20 years old, they noisily chastised me for disturbing them.

I cycled on into the village and passing Cedar Farm I hear a strange guttural sound, almost like someone is being strangled call. I recognised it instantly over the rooks relentless caw cawings... a raven. I watched a pair of ravens repeatedly barrel rolling last weekend over a copse at Tyntesfield and can therefore only assume they are nesting more frequently all around this area now. Ravens were always present in winter as they loafed about the coast a couple of miles away but in spring usually disappeared to the Mendips of South Wales both about 15 miles away as the raven flies.  Anyway this one was in the huge cedar that stands guard over the farm. As I listened the more familiar cronk cronk emerged from the dense foliage and it was off over the fields - just time for a quick record shot before it headed over to the coast. I heard it again ten minutes or so later but didn't see it. That cedar would be a perfect nest platform for the raven, whose nest is absolutely huge. My fingers are crossed.

Cedar farm is to the left of this image and the rookery, if that's the right term for a succession of nests that straggle out over three trees in the hedge line to the right (one of which as seen in the second image below)

What a lovely way to spend an hour on the Sunday of the Spring Equinox. In total I counted 33 rook nests. Back home I quickly sketched a map to show their location. The two single nests intrigue me as they are both about a quarter of a mile from any other nests. Outliers? young birds unsure of their position in the flock? I hope they do okay as one in particular had a carrion crow observing it. It's safety in numbers now that spring has arrived.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


It has been many years since I have posted a blog entry like this. Pure indulgence having visited somewhere. Although this set of images is as a result of a purposeful visit. The location in question is the National Trust property Tyntesfield, located a few miles outside Bristol. Home to four generations of the Gibbs family it was saved for the nation by the National Trust in 2002 and after many years of conservation, not least to make the roof watertight (over £4 million was spent there), this property is a jewel in the Somerset portfolio. And I have begun to volunteer there.

Having looked for an outlet for my energy and having long loved the work of the National Trust, in November 2015 I applied for and was accepted by the Trust as a "visitor services" volunteer. Still early days but my Sunday mornings are a treat as I meet and greet the public before sending them on their way to purchase a ticket and visit the house. Although I'd visited Tyntesfield for work, I'd never done so for pleasure and so it was recently that I pootled over there as a 'paying guest' to learn for myself what made this estate so important, what makes it tick now and what I could learn myself of the house history to aid my meet and greet persona. I learnt a lot today from the lovely house stewards, especially some of the not in the guide book facts that make a visit extra special. All stored away now for my next volunteer day but for now some photos taken on a glorious early spring day when the estate was almost empty. 

Robin on the steps

South View - formerly a Renaissance/Georgian mansion massively extended in neo-gothic Victorian splendour. And as used in the BBC drama, Sherlock

Walking towards the ha-ha and garden

Walled garden

Not a weed in sight

Does what it says on the blackboard... so I did go for a walk..

....... into the newly planted orchard and pregnant sheep.

The way to look after tools

Rhododendron in flower in February !!!!

Back to Home Farm where I work/volunteer

Newly sawn planks

Loved the timber, tree, solar panel combination view

After all that time for some apple crumble and lashings of custard.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Unexpected Pleasures

This week has been one of unexpected pleasures which culminated in a thought of how it is often the simple things in life which enrich a lifetime. Nothing new there of course. Vast libraries have been born; filled of self help, self analysis and instruction books written to aid the reader on how to focus on what is important in life. Such as the new book 'Everything You Need You Have' by Gerad Kite who states that we are actually fine the way we are and the stuff we surround ourselves with are not what is important (I'll look forward to reading more)  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03g0cxf

I mostly fail but for all of my adult life I try and fit in the simple things I observe or experience into my everyday routine; as such wildlife and the countryside is the core of who I am.

Recently I had an hour to spend on my lunch and decided as I was passing to have a quick visit to the Butser Ancient Farm in West Sussex  http://www.butserancientfarm.co.uk/ . Butser is somewhere I've known about for years and it was an unexpected pleasure to visit on a day when it was empty of people. Aside from a school visit (unseen giggling from children coming from inside a round house) I had the entire site to myself. It was cold, it was sunny. Woodsmoke from one of the fires swirled around me and because I explored the site in splendid isolation I could feel the presence of the past around me. Although in reality Butser was built here because there were no ancient settlements on this land, thus no such sites were damaged. It was a simple hour spent enjoying time alone, in reverie.

We all live in such a 24/7 environment these days it is a jolt to return to the passions that drive us to be whom I we are. Our drive to be ever occupied does not allow for thought, reflection and that wonderful sense of doing nothing. Boredom is the seed of inspiration. As children we have time to explore and be bored. Then, I filled my boredom with endless forays into the countryside, which is something I did yesterday, with the childlike enthusiasm of first exploring an area, unsure what I may encounter.

Near to where I live in Somerset is a very active local conservation organisation called YACWAG   http://yacwag.org.uk/ which stands for the Yatton and Congresbury Wildlife Action Group and recently I met one of their committee members through a recycling exchange scheme. For months he and I have been too busy to meet up and enjoy some of the areas wildlife, a sign of how I let work remove me from my actual needs and who I am. But having a free weekend I contacted Colin, better known as Higgy who kindly gave up an afternoon to take me on a tour of their reserves. Initially we thought about going on a birdwatching trip to the seawall nearby but as the tides weren't good, it goes out a long way here on the Bristol Channel, Higgy suggested would I like to see what YACWAG do, look at some wildlife along the way on a couple of their 10 reserves. These reserves are private and not open to the public, so it was an absolute pleasure to visit truly remarkable places.

No sooner had we arrived at an area known as Kenn Moor but we spied the azure flash of a kingfisher darting across the muddy flow of one of the many drainage rivers criss-crossing this northern area of the Somerset Levels and Moors.  If we didn't see any other wildlife then I'd have been very happy, but a real treat was in store. Littlewood.

Littlewood was purchased a few years ago by the group and stands as a beacon of mature woodland in a flat grassland landscape. An island refugia for the many species of wildlife which benefit from a woodland habitat. Just 6 acres in size it was planted up around 1830 to supply timber and products for the local landowner. Alder, ash, oak, willow are the main standard trees but what impressed me as I hopped out of his car to open the gate was a sense of continuity. As many landscape features change over time, small pockets of wet woodland like this are becoming rare. Most of the mature trees were presumably the original planting, with newer successional trees in areas. Growing on peat this is an acidic woodland which is even rarer. I say wet woodland but it wasn't  sodden underfoot even after recent heavy rain, but given this is a wet farmland area, water predominates the landscape in the form of rhynes or water channels which slowly drain this area.

Higgy is an enthusiastic wildlife devotee who by his own admission is self taught, though I'd never have guessed as he expertly guided me around the reserve. Evidence of fox there, do you see that tree there, should be a buzzard perching over there if you look - and there was. His enthusiasm and love for the site and the wildlife that is in here was evident. Walking with him I was transported back to my formative wildlife learning days as a child. I used to explore pockets of woodland like this as a child. Looking for birds nests, marvelling at the plants which had miraculously grown out of bare earth since my last visit and all without really knowing what I was doing. Forty odd years later I am still as eager to discover new places and learn from the likes of my mentor and guide.

"Look a treecreeper". We stopped in our tracks and there high above us one of the loveliest birds on this island, on an ash. "If I'm in here on my own" Higgy added "they often fly back down to within a few feet of me". As I craned up the trunk to watch this skulking bird feeding on insects, my mind reflected on the simple joy of an unexpected wildlife encounter. Just the two of us walking around the wood and this treecreeper. Is there anything else that I need to enrich the soul? If there is I'd be surprised.

We carried on; a flotilla of siskins flew high overhead, a lot of blue tits, blackbird and robin calling noisily in the undergrowth, then the cackle of a great spotted woodpecker. "sometimes there's even a woodcock" he said. Not today though but that didn't matter, I was in heaven. 6 acres isn't a huge woodland but it enveloped us and I was that 8 year old boy again exploring a new place for the first time. Peering through the trees the flat grasslands surrounded us. "That pylon there often has a peregrine" Higgy continued, "and if you look over there you should see many of the wintering mute swans".

Indeed there were, around seventy we thought, though the mild weather has dispersed them. We spent nearly two hours in this woodland and I listened with increasing fascination as Higgy told me of encounters with deer, how a sparrowhawk once came at him through a stand of blackthorns, missing him by inches and how if he comes here alone and sits, often there's a fox sunbathing in that clearing. I could feel his pleasure in this and the many encounters he has had here. Because I was having the same with this inaugural visit.

It may have been a late January day, but the woodland was alive with birdsong and that first awakening of the winter sleep, clematis in leaf burst and few arum's poking through, plus a delight of some snowflakes in flower, which apparently were naturalised here. It was easy to imagine how wonderful this place would be in spring and summer.

"I sometimes walk through here and there are clouds and clouds of damselflies". Higgy enthusiastically told me of the numerous butterfly species in the wood, how they're managing areas now to open up rides and glades for them. Dragonflies and damsel flies are abundant in the summer, and bats too, and that I must come back. Higgy hopes to run moth traps in some of the clearings in the summer, an ideal time for me to return and see what is brought in from the surrounding area.

As we exited the wood two newly planted trees stood guard. "that's my daughter's tree" he said explaining it was planted with her. Which is where all this continuity of wildlife management comes in.  Despite what the law may say, title deeds, and mortgages, none of us are owners of the land or wildlife we observe. We pass through on our three score years and ten before passing it on to the next generation, and getting that message across is something I'm increasingly becoming attuned to with local organisations like YACWAG. National conservation organisations can do a lot, but it is local conservationists like Higgy who are doing it on the ground, helping spread the message to the local people and in the guise of YACWAG doing so much. The trick is connecting all those local people together to provide a patchwork of wildlife conservation across the wider landscape.

If every local area had this drive and spirit, we would be in a good situation for wildlife across the British Isles.  I finished my day a lot more upbeat than I began it. The unexpected encounters with a kingfisher, treecreeper and siskin lift the soul. Spending a few hours in woodland just exploring with a childlike enthusiasm is what everyone should do or have access to. No guidance, no waymarking, no guided walking, no printed guides, just head off and see what turns up in an unexpected or haphazard way.  Truly Magical.

I shall remember my visit to Littlewood for many years to come and with luck I will return later in the year to see those clouds of damselflies, or inspect the mothing trap. Books like 'Everything You Need You Have'  may remind us of what we really need to be happy, but those unexpected pleasures only come from putting our boots on and heading outdoors, to reconnect our soul to the natural world, no matter the weather.

Traditional woodland and hedgerow management in Devon which I saw in December.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The 12 Project Days of Christmas - Field and Stream

Trying to catch up with this 12 images of Christmas now. I'll post two a day. Click on image to enlarge.
This first batch of 12 are the field belonging to Mr Green. What is interesting is that when I took the January image in my mind it would be a record of permanent grassland. Little did I know that during 2015 that grassland would be ploughed and maize grown as the farm moved from 100% dairy to beef and dairy. The countryside always changes.
                           January 2015                                      February 2015

                           March 2015                                        April 2015

                           May 2015                                           June 2015

                           July 2015                                            August 2015

                           September 2015                                 October 2015

                          November 2015                                 December 2015
 This river flows near the hamlet of Puxton. The images were taken on the bridge which is just wide enough for a single car to pass. Its a view I've long liked. And although a few miles from the sea, tides at Sand Bay will prevent it draining for a while which is why sometimes the level is high.

                           January 2015                                      February 2015

                           March 2015                                        April 2015

                           May 2015                                           June 2015


                           July 2015                                            August 2015

                           September 2015                                 October 2015


                           November 2015                                 December 2015