Searching for river ghosts

This piece appeared in the Suffolk Magazine, as part of a collaboration with photographer Sarah Groves. Her wonderful images and blog can be found at the bottom of this entry. It was written in February but I like to give the magazine some breathing space before posting here.

The moon is beginning to sink as I drive away from my house. Low on the horizon and waxing towards full. A gleaming fish belly with an otter-sized bite taken from its left side. On the radio the World Service is on, delivering news of cancelled elections in Nigeria and trade disputes with China. I turn it off and wipe sleep from my eyes. The clock says 4.15am. There’re not many things that can drag me from my bed at this time but the chance of seeing an otter is one of them.

 I can’t remember when I first fell for otters: started seeking out their tousled tom-cat heads; dreamt of watching their hump-backed gambol over land; their ruddering through water.

Perhaps it all started with Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. Growing up, I read and re-read it. It was a story that I felt, in a very peculiar and intense way, was mine alone. Although I lived in suburban Essex, Maxwell’s remote cottage in West Scotland was my home. I roamed Camusfearna in my daydreams. I played with Mij, Edal and Teko: delighting in their games, grieving at their deaths.

 As an adult, a deep love of otters stayed with me. In fact, it grew. Most of my honeymoon was spent inside a wooden hide on the Isle of Skye where I scanned the wrackline and kelp-covered rocks for the dark outline of otters. My wife, Jen, ever patient, sat beside me, trussed up against the November cold, quietly reading her copy of Vogue.

My daughter is even named after an otter: a beautiful wide-eyed orphaned kit called Eliza, who we sponsored through the International Otter Survival Fund. Her photograph is still stuck on our fridge, jostling for space alongside paintings and drawings created by Eliza 2.

Yet for all the looking, all the years of yearning and searching, I can still count my sightings of otters on my fingers. Five or six of them on the Isle of Skye (not a single one from the hide); a lithe rope of an otter swimming in the Devon river that shares its name; one more in a mist-filled Galloway pool and another – my only sighting in Suffolk – a dog otter carrying away a fish by the visitor centre at Lackford Lakes.

Most of the time, the encounters have been down to chance, rather than fieldcraft. Even on the Isle of Skye, it was only when I gave up hope of ever seeing an otter that I saw one. Checking a map at the side of the road as we headed to a restaurant, one skittered past just a metre from the car window. He stood on the rocks for a heart-stopping second, giving us a glimpse of water-webbed whiskers, a broad head, deposited a derisory spraint and then was off.

Part of me wonders if it is the challenge, the rarity of clear sightings, which is part of the attraction. Otters, nocturnal and easily spooked, are illusory, liminal creatures, haunting land and water, half-glimpsed in the half-light. To see one is like receiving a gift from the river. But as I pull into the car park at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hen Reedbeds, I still have a flutter of hope. After all, today, I won’t be looking alone.

My friend Sarah Groves, who lives nearby and has spent many hours photographing the land and skyscapes of Hen, arrives five minutes later. It was one of her pictures, a shot of otter tracks leading across the moussey-mud plains of the River Blyth’s estuary, which prompted this trip. I love Sarah’s work. She really sees the land and as a result captures it in a way that feels rare. Her aperture doesn’t just let in light, it lets in something else. Salt, mud, earth, reed. It sounds hackneyed, but she captures an essence. A feeling.

The twilights are beginning to melt into each other as we walk towards the River Blyth, bleary-eyed but otter-hungry. Astronomical makes way for nautical, the highest points of the sky blueing from the rays of a sun which is still hidden beneath the horizon. Light bleeds slowly down, is reflected up by the river and creeks, which also cradles the bright, white spots of Venus and Jupiter: glinting like sewing needles half pushed through dark denim.

The river here is beautiful. The Blyth’s name comes from the Old English “blithe”, meaning “gentle or pleasant” and there is certainly a gentleness here. A soft coming together of water and mud flats accentuated by the pre-dawn light. The tide is low and it’s hard to see what is water and what is shimmering mud, the course of the river lost in an archipelago of salt-crusted land and briney, winding creeks.

We move as quietly as we can down the path, which although foot-fretted and muddy, is still stiff with frost. Our conversation, already barely above a whisper, stops completely as we go further along the river wall. Instead Sarah communicates by pointing: there a mole hole in the path; there a slot from a water deer; and there a channel in the grass where an otter has slipped on its belly into the river.

We stop to look, following the channel to the river with our eyes. One of my favourite poems is, unsurprisingly, about an otter. Ted Hughes describes a “four-legged yet water-gifted” animal, whose nose, eyes and ears are all perfectly adapted for hunting under water can “outfish fish”. The otter, he writes, does not enter the river, but melts into it; it transforms from land-lubber to liquid muscle.

I stoop and run my hand over the pathway. To see an otter in water is to forget that it can make an impression on land. This slipway down to the creek, looks like it could have been made by the passage of water rather than the movement of flesh and fur. The otter, the river wolf, is a river ghost. A life flow that is of the water rather than in it.

It seems almost beyond belief that England’s otters nearly became a ghost in a very real sense.  The twentieth century was a tough time for the otter: persecuted, poisoned by pesticides and made homeless through the destruction of wetlands, an animal that was once widespread was pushed to the brink of extinction. Thankfully, following the banning of a range of pesticides, including the now notorious DDT and efforts to improve water quality and habitat (this reserve is itself man-made, created to help rescue the bittern), the otter is back on every river catchment in the country.

We decide to head to one of Hen’s hide, opening the wooden shutters and wincing as they creak on the hinges. Sarah takes one side, wiping away condensation from the window and scanning the river wall, while I fix my eyes on a reed-fringed scrape. All is still. There are no birds to shout about the presence of a rudder-tailed predator, no silvery skein of bubbles suggesting an underwater hunt. The only movement comes from the reeds, which reflect from water that continues to brighten with the coming dawn.

The sky is burning now, a litmus paper of colour, the east horizon acid red, moving through orange to the white, blue of the upper reaches. It won’t be long before the sun rises. We return to the slipways to look for footprints, but the ground is too hard to have recorded any recent tracks. But there is spraint. Deposited on grass, twisted into a peak by ottery paws, to give it due prominence. A greyish-black communication poo, rammed full of scales and fish ribs. Think roll-mop dipped in an ash-tray.

While the land is still frozen, the rising light reveals a mass of tracks on the mud of the creek. Egret, curlew and other waders have left starbursts of footprints over the mud flats. Skirting round them and then sticking tight to the bank are those of an otter. The prints, characteristically asymmetrical, are fresh and purposeful. While many prints will only show four toes, here all five are clear: the soft mud even capturing a hint of webbing. It is as if the otter becomes more of the water the closer to the river it gets.

These prints won’t last for long. The tide is already creeping along the Blyth, the water is visibly rising at a second-hand tock, coming from both ends of the crescent-shaped creek. We watch the river rise and reclaim, over mud, around island, the footprints filling up then disappearing. The otter melting away again.

We sit and drink tea, listening to the sounds of the birds growing as the sun finally hefts up over Southwold, heavy with red light. The curlew calls are joined by skylarks, their songs a scribble of sound connecting heaven and earth.

Sarah thinks the otter whose tracks we saw is probably still close. Perhaps, she says, he’s watching us now. It makes me look differently at every bubble popping to the surface, every shift of water, every scrap of seaweed. But there is a calmness too. It is enough to know that otters are here.  There will be other days. There will be other otters.

Please check out Sarah’s blog and photos here

Outfoxed

A piece written for Suffolk Magazine’s Wildlife Diary

It is over 12 months since I last saw the foxes here. A cub that fixed me with orange eyes, ears pricked in perfect triangles almost too big for her head, before disappearing back down a path that curves into woodland. That must have been in late spring.

I watched the foxes at Nowton Park, or at least tried to, for a whole year. Crouched in scrub and bushes, I patiently waited for the orange bloom of dawn or the gathering dark; those between times when foxes tend to emerge.  I had heard gekkering squabbles, snippy alarm calls and the blood-curdling, baby-murdering call to mate. I saw the dog fox hunt, his cat-like slope viewed through a night vision monocular that turned the world green and grainy. I staked out the natal den for days, falling asleep in bramble and nettle patches. I found kills and caches, a pigeon wing waving sadly from the side of a path, it’s body half-buried. I followed trails and runs, inspected their scat, looked for the rime of fur left under fences that suggested a fox regularly passed through. I wanted to understand them, their habits, their patterns of movement, how they interacted with each other. I wanted to be a part of a world, a landscape of scents, signs and smeuse, that overlapped my own.

I travelled further afield to see more urban foxes with wildlife photographer Jamie Hall, watching them creep from the city’s shadows as the lights in homes winked off; slipping through car parks and streets, even running across bungalow roofs. But it was always the foxes at Nowton Park I returned to; to the vixen whose yip I could recognise anywhere and the dog with his broad head and hint of blackness to his brush.

In the end though, it was my human world that took over. Family, work and writing projects that involved travelling far away from the fox-stalked acres of the park. My habits no longer meshed with theirs.

Then last week, as I was driving home past the park, I saw a fox. Young, perhaps from a new litter, he skittered from the roadside and into the cover of darkness. I could feel the pull again.

I arrive at Nowton a good hour before sunset to find the right spot, walking across paths of chipped bark, through trees that are both native and exotic. Cherry. Redwood. There has been a storm today and the woods are heavy with fragrance, the air scented with pine and the soft pepper of wet nettles. The sky is washed out from the rain, the lightest of blackbird egg blues.

There is no sign of foxes at either of the natal dens. No footprint or bones. No twisted knot of scat. I sniff again. No musky sweetness. I decide to go to a place where I know the dog fox patrolled, putting down a tarp on knee-high grass and lying on my front. I read a book while I wait for the runners and dog-walkers to leave. Each one re-sets the fox clock, I know he will stay holed up for an hour or so after the last one has padded past. He is cautious, a memory of cruel persecution ingrained in a species.

By half-eight the light fuzzes like an old TV, hazy and low, flickering with flies and mosquito. The sky darkens with rooks before the sun really starts to dip. They fly in loose bands above me, black as bonfire smuts, heading to the line of lime trees that leads up from the park’s entrance to the crumbling brick wall of the nursery. The sky pinkens at the edges, like a pinched cheek. The few clouds high and thin, like feathered icing, blue as cigarette smoke. A blackbird rattles out an alarm call and a female tawny makes the first enquiring call of the evening. Kewick. Kewick. The grass stands still. Nothing moves or rustles, it’s as if the world has stopped spinning.

There’s a crack in the wood behind me. A fat bottomed pigeon maybe, getting comfortable; their blown milk bottle calls replaced by the ragged, sawing cries of yet more corvid. It’s a voice that slashes through the heat of summer and the brittle ice of winter. I watch them heading over, their wing flaps slow, almost out of time with the speed at which they are travelling. Oily arrows with bills of whittled bone.

The pink of the sky spreads, a slow blush to violet and then darker; aubergine, the midnightsea. The tarp is damp with dew. To the east, Venus has risen. He should be here by now. I check my watch.

Then I hear him. A swallowed bark coming from behind the wood, where rabbits zig-zag through the rough grass with scuts of burning white that bob like flash lights. He must have changed his route. I’ve been outfoxed again.

 

Swifts

A piece I wrote on swifts for the Suffolk Magazine. Already looking forward to their return.

My wife is in Africa. A twelve hour flight across sea, mountains, time zones and desert. She’s tired when I talk to her. Hot and caked in red dust from the loose roads of the Rift Valley. The air itself, she says, is taut with heat. I can almost hear it in the crackle of the phone line. She tells me about the elephant corridor close to her hotel, a passage trampled through brush and scrub, swept clear by tusk and trunk in the march towards water. In the villages where she is working she has seen flocks of petrol-blue superb starlings, some tame enough to be fed by hand, while hornbills, sunbirds and firefinches filled tinder-dry trees. It all feels…well…a world away.

I make tea and carry it out into the garden, heading up the path towards the veg patch. The early afternoon sky is a soft blue and the clouds that previously threatened rain have gone.  I pick up a fork, digging into the soil and turning it over, listening to the scolding tuts of a blackbird perched in the apple tree and the stop-start thrum of a lawnmower two or three houses down.

Then, I hear something else. A scream. High-pitched, almost nasal; it rolls and swings over rooftops and walls, down pavements and paths. Swifts!  I watch as they finally race into sight, shooting between the houses and over the garden; joyriders, pulling handbrake turns with more Gs than a fighter pilot, breaking the peace with their party. I shade my eyes with my hand. I can see six, no, seven, no, eight of them, cutting through the air on scythe-like wings, their sooty brown bodies tar black in silhouette. They race off, gaining height and disappearing from view only to return less than a minute later, still travelling at speed; their tails like arrow vanes, nocked and released by some heavenly bow.

I wonder if these birds, the first wave of arrivals from Mozambique and Malawi, passed my wife’s plane in the air, riding the warm front into Britain. Our own little sun bird. The feat of travelling 10,000km – impressive enough for a creature that weighs just 40 grams – is nothing for a swift. The birds above me have probably spent every day on the wing since leaving these shores at the end of last summer. They feed and sleep in the air, one half of the brain always remaining awake to the danger of collision and the siren call of gravity. Even breeding takes place in the sky. The swift is the founder member of the mile-high club. It is only when nesting that swifts return to earth, or at least nooks in man-made buildings, wriggling in and out of holes like they were a pair of tight jeans.

For me, it feels like the sight of swifts has become even more special in recent years. I think I’ve noticed them; loved them more. Perhaps it’s because, growing older, I have a keener appreciation of the rhythms and pulses of what’s around me. I feel the ebb and flow of the seasons at a different level, the circles of life tighter, more meaningful. But then again, maybe my appreciation has deepened with the realisation that these screaming harbingers of summer are under threat. In the past 25 years Suffolk has lost almost half of its swifts. The traditional nesting places, the nooks and crannies that let swifts into our lives, have been plugged as part of humdrum roof repairs or modern improvements.

The birds’ decline, echoed across the UK, is worrying. But thankfully action, as simple as putting up a nest box, is being taken. Boxes erected in places such as Worlington (just a short swift flight from my garden) has seen a swift colony go from zero to 27 breeding pairs with 60 young in just seven years. The Save Our Suffolk Swifts Project – run by Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group – has been working since 2014 to raise awareness about the swift’s plight. They are now asking people to log their sightings of screaming parties and breeding behaviour to build up a picture of what is happening in the county. The results will help them to see where swifts are and, perhaps more importantly, where they are not.

I watch them go, careering off towards town, and turn back to the gardening; mounding earth around potato plants and bending to pull up the seemingly endless loops of bindweed.

The first swifts. The sun already feels hotter on my neck.

 

Wild swim at Knettishall

I run down the mud and gravel beach and into the water at speed, my knees raised and teeth gritted. When it’s not possible to jump, the only option is to sprint; to get in quick, before the scream of protesting nerve endings can turn the body around. The water is bone-chillingly cold as it reaches my waist and moves over my stomach. I take a deep breath, lowering my torso into the river and then, a spilt second later, floating my legs up in front of me. My breathing is short and fast; snatched shocked gasps, as I kick slowly away from the weir.

I’ve swum before in this pool, at the point at which the Little Ouse sweeps into Knettishall Heath. My kids taking daring jumps off the weir’s foaming step, shouting with joy and cold. Pink piglets to be rubbed back to squealing warmth with rough towels. But today it is just me. Even the dog walkers have gone.  A grey wagtail jinks along the weir, a skittering, feathery drop of lemon. I lie still in the water and watch him; enjoying his shell-shocked bobs and the flicking tail. In Japanese folktales the wagtail is a sensual bird of love, of passion. A bird that was sent to direct husbands and wives in their conjugal duties with its fluttering, dipping thrusts. Some men were even known to carry the delicate bones of this river cupid in boxes as love charms.

The air, sweet with pollen, feels loose. Relaxed. A breeze rumples the surface of the pool, pushing the water up into dark bars that fan out away from the weir and into the reeds. I flip onto my front and head for where the pool empties into the river, keen to explore further. I kick through reeds, enjoying the feeling of the banks closing in. I’m getting into my stride now, warmed by effort and the sun that scalds the surface, turning the soft greens and tannin browns to gilded, burning gold.

At the second weir I tread water, considering my options. It’s tempting to climb over and plop back in the other side but I can’t shake the slight nervousness of jumping into the unknown. I stand, feeling the river’s spongy bed; the silt swirling up into the water like plumes of black ink. I scramble up the bank and race around the other side, my feet slapping on the mud of the path before half stepping, half jumping back into the river. A crack willow has slow dived into the water. But the tree still lives.  Catkins, like insectivorous sundew, or tiny green bottlebrushes, thrust out from the water. The tree’s branches strain the river’s flow, collecting sticks and weeds; gluing them together in a sticky, beer-brown foam. I take a breath and sink below it, kicking out hard to head further downstream. My hands tinted green under the surface and flashing like fish.

Roger Deakin, in his great ode to wild swimming, Waterlog, called the breaststroke, the naturalist’s stroke. It was, he said, a position that provides a frog’s-eye view of the world. Borne by the river it is a new perspective on everything from water vole holes and otter slipways, worn smooth by the passage of furred chests and ruddering tails to the silver glow of skudding fish. But I also know there’s so much more to see. Last week, while Knettishall’s ranger Sam Norris and I looked for the brook lamprey that are thought to have spawned in this restored river, we netted all manner of life: caddis fly larvae in sleeping bags of twig and stone; shrimp the size and colour of fingernails and Pan-headed damselfly nymphs with antlers like thorns. I think about how it won’t be long before the nymphs crawl from the water to shed their skins and transform.

I swim on; eager now to reach my own changing point, the dipping platform where I’ve left my towel.

Toad song

This was a piece for the Suffolk Magazine, published back in spring.

It’s hard to tell where one toad ends and another starts. It’s a throbbing knot, a slowly revolving mass of arms and legs. Male toads, smaller than the female, often hitch a piggyback to the breeding pond, sometimes riding pinion for three days until they fertilise long strings of gelatinous eggs. But this is a total bun fight, a slippery scrap for a single female whose legs have completely collapsed from the weight of lusty toad flesh.
I carefully pick them up, the male toads cranking up their calls, and shout out to Olly, who’s working further down the road.

“Five…six…no, seven more”.

“That’s 85 now”, he shouts back. I watch him walking slowly, the torch search-lighting across the ground in front of him.

We arrived in West Stow half an hour ago, keen to help out at one of the many toad crossings in Suffolk. They are places where asphalt and concrete have cut through the ancient song-lines of sex that still pull toads to breed. An already perilous journey has been transformed into a deadly game of chance with the odds heavily stacked against survival.

This crossing was set up by Pat and Ian Ward. They moved into their house 18 years ago, and were left horrified by the number of toads that were killed on the road. A canvas wall is now erected every year: staked into the grass verge to stop toads scrambling into the road. Brought up short, they sit and wait to be scooped up by volunteers and carried across the tarmac to be released under dark pines.

By being here tonight we are giving Pat and Ian a much-needed night off.

Ian explains: “I always feel honour-bound to walk the barrier at least once a night and start again at 5am. The barrier is generally up from mid-February to the end of March, so life stops for six weeks!”

The crossing obviously benefits the toads but it has other uses too, providing an insight into the health of toad populations. The number of dead toads collected from the road has dropped significantly: from 1,299 in 2008 when records at West Stow began to just 109 in 2016. But more worryingly, the number of live toads has also declined. In 2010 volunteers shepherded 9,053 toads across the road. Last year that number fell to just 1,239 – the lowest on record. The decline mirrors the picture across the country, a result of shrinking and fragmented habitat, climate change and other unknown factors.

I keep walking, taking my time with each toad, admiring their colours and textures – running my fingers over warty bumps the size of mustard seeds. I can hear Olly talking to his too, a low soothing chatter in reply to their startled oinks. The toads really are captivating, fascinating, and strangely “other”. In medieval times their bones were said to have unusual powers, while even Shakespeare bought into the belief that toads carried “a precious jewel” – a “toadstone” – in their heads. For centuries they have been associated with witchcraft, cast as familiars: a supernatural being that assists evil, magical acts.  Squatting in the darkness their reluctance to move can be slightly unnerving. Their eyes are dark; hypnotic and rimmed with gold.  Those that aren’t sitting, waiting for a female, inch forward. They don’t as much as hop as slowly sprawl; a languid commando crawl that reminds me of a climber tackling a vertical rock face.

The barrier stretches for what feels like a kilometre and now my ear is in I can hear them calling all along the road, a strange metallic scraping plink, like a high-pitched swan bark. Preeep-preep, preeep-preep; it is the whistled cat-call of the frustrated and amorous toad.

A Sweet, Wild Note

The good people at Elliott & Thompson asked me to review Richard Smyth’s new book.

I was at a conference last year when one of the delegates balked at the idea of being called a nature writer. To be one of those, he suggested, would put him outside of nature: a false god looking down on creation, rather than a being of flesh and blood intricately linked to – both affecting and affected by – the surrounding environment.

In some ways it is this issue that Richard Smyth is setting out to explore in A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When the Birds Sing. After all, as Smyth himself explains from the outset, this isn’t a book about birdsong, “it’s about the places where birdsong and human culture overlap, and interact.” There is, he suggests, a gap “between the noises the birds are making and the songs we’re hearing.”

Perfectly paced, Smyth’s writing bubbles along, itself like birdsong; the occasional unexpected wry note adding a layer of wit to an exploration of how literature, music, science and even concepts of national identity have been shaped by the birds’ quivering syrinx. For Smyth, birdsong should “belong to the birds” but the history he sets out demonstrates the repeated attempts by humans to make it their own. Poets, musicians, artists and emperors have all laid claim to birdsong, either through interpretation or, with speciest conceit, through bids to improve it.

But it is when birds are allowed to keep their song at the expense of freedom that Smyth’s book becomes truly captivating. His account of chaffinches being blinded by hot needles (to improve their singing) or lured by Victorians onto sticky lime, is a chilling example of the cruel disregard with which we have treated our fellow creatures.

It is such recklessness that continues to worry Smyth. As he continues to navigate the relationships between birds, people and landscapes, he wonders if attempts to unpick and isolate birdsong – the recordings, the music, the poems – has fostered a sense of “As long as we have a Works of Wordsworth on the bookshelf, we’ll have cuckoos”. Such complacency not only misunderstands the dynamic nature of birdsong and the environment more generally, but at a time when many species are suffering devastating declines, it is as unthinkable as silent fields, hedgerows and trees.

A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott & Thompson on April 13.

Working the woods

We follow the tractor and its fishtailing trailer along the track, making our way slowly towards where the woodsmen have been working for the last two months. The sun rose red over Bradfield Woods a few hours ago, but in amongst the coppices the night’s cold still lingers. Puddles splinter and crack underfoot and the piles of felled timber are sugared with frost. Freshly cut ash glows cream against boot-churned mud.

For now, the chainsaws are silent. The group works in hard, quick bursts to sort and stack wood that has already been cut. The guys make it look easy, flicking three metre logs over their shoulders or using timber tongs to drag the wood to the right pile. Best ash goes here; there best hazel; that one to firewood. Stacked knee-deep and several metres wide, efficiency is a watchword.

Giles smiles at me huffing and puffing as I try to re-position a piece of ash, attempting to keep the pile neat for the crane that will later collect it.
“The secret is not to touch anything twice, you’ll knacker yourself out,” he says.  Pete, who has worked in this wood for 36 years, before it was even a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve, shouts out his mantra from another wood stack a few metres away.
“Take your time and hurry up.”

The team chant it back at him, grinning. There is a lot of laughter here. Shared anecdotes, jokes, gentle ribbing and even impressions; Neil sending a passable tawny owl call wobbling into the coppices. But there’s always an ear to the wood, a sensitivity for its song. At one point Pete breaks off mid sentence and holds up his hand. We listen. It’s the ascending treep, treep, treep of a nuthatch.

We stack hazel tops into brush hedges, driving the ends into the mud: creating budded pikes to stop deer leaping into this clearing – the “coop” or “cant” – and browsing on the freshly coppiced stools. It would, Pete explains, be a nibble to the death.

During a tea break we talk about the history of Bradfield. There has been wood here since the Ice Age and the mix of species includes small-leaved lime and crab apple, reflecting the trees and shrubs in the wildwood from which it evolved. But this is a cultural space too. According to the records from Bury St Edmunds Abbey, coppicing was taking place in Bradfield from 1252. The late, great Oliver Rackham, who helped save this wood from being grubbed up during the 1970s and studied it in depth, was certain some of the ash stools were even older, possibly dating back 1,000 years; their footprint sprawling for metres in the understorey, furred in moss and memory. They are the oldest living things in Suffolk, deeply rooted in human history.  A cathedral of trees, in whose cloistered rides it is possible to feel a connection with all those who worked here centuries before, using the same techniques and similar tools. Probably telling the same jokes.

Giles lies with his back to an alder, his eyes half closed against the winter sun, his tea steaming by his side. I ask him if it is being part of this story – feeling this unbroken tradition of at least 800 years – that makes working in Bradfield Woods so special.
“Absolutely. It’s an honour. I think you need to feel that passion, to have that connection to work here. To feel it in your blood.”

The nuthatch calls again, signalling the end of our break. We pull ourselves up and head back out to the coop. I watch Pete, Giles and Neil pick up their saws, ready to take their place in history.

This was a wildlife diary written for the Suffolk Magazine.