The sitter still

I realise I haven’t updated this since my book came out, it’s all been a little bit chaotic. But driving into work this morning I caught a glimpse of a hare (always a moment of magic) and remembered this piece I wrote for the Suffolk Magazine.

The trees behind Brooke House where I work for Suffolk Wildlife Trust were cut back this winter and for the first time in years it’s now possible to see across the fields of Ashbocking. Neat, green rows of winter barley stretch away to a brown hedgerow in the distance. The land feels featureless. Drilled, cropped and lined. But today, there is a lump. A beautiful smudge. A clod of earth, but breathing. A hunkered hare.

It is Steve, whose desk is by the window, who spies her first and soon the whole office is lined up to catch a glimpse: bringing up binoculars in wobbling arcs over the young crop to where she sits, crouched low and still in a dip in the ground. Hares, unlike rabbits, don’t use burrows, but live a more nomadic existence. They scrape a shallow depression in the earth, a form, to shelter from wind and rain. Their young, leverets, born fully-furred and with their eyes wide open, have forms of their own, places to wait up in safety while their mother leaves to feed. I focus the binoculars again, taking in the long ears now pressed flat against her back, the slight movement of wind-ruffled fur.

The hare was one of the first creatures I encountered on moving to Suffolk from Brighton. We rented a small cottage five miles away from Hadleigh, chosen because its gardens ran onto open fields. The owner said hares could often be seen “boxing” in March and April, the female standing on hind legs to fend off the male’s amorous advances with a flurry of rabbit punches.

After living in the middle of a city, the space of the Suffolk countryside was a tonic. In a strange way, it felt as if once again I could sense the world turning; could appreciate the land, the sky and the cycle of the seasons. The hare was definitely part of that.

Shortly after I dug out a small vegetable patch the hares started to come off the field, making the most of the new shoots that pushed through the earth. First they kept their distance, lolloping off on stiff-looking legs if they spied a movement from the kitchen window. But soon they grew more confident. One, a teenager, a knock-kneed hobbledehoy, would gamble right up to the back door, grazing on young grass and allowing us a good view of ears whose tips were as dark as burnt biscuits, and of eyes rimmed with a wild fire.

Later in the day I drift back to the office window, expecting the field to be empty again. But the hare hasn’t moved. Not for buzzard, dog walkers or the rude boom of the gas gun. Her stillness equates to invisibility. Only when a predator gets really close will hares unleash the speed contained within its long legs and powerful haunches, accelerating to a blistering 40mph and zig-zagging over the ground. A transformation from statue to Britain’s fastest land mammal.

Standing there I can’t help but think of The Names of the Hare, a poem written in the late 13th century in Middle English and translated by Seamus Heaney. It contains 77 different names for the hare: the stubble-stag, the hedge-springer, the race-the-wind, the dew hopper, the wild one, the skipper, the rascal the racer, the skidaddler, frisky legs, the quick-scut.

Another one seems more appropriate today. The hugger of the ground. Or, perhaps, a new name altogether: the sitter still.

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Starlings on the Fen

This is a piece I wrote for the wonderful Caught by the River

I drove past four starlings on the road to Redgrave & Lopham Fen. Rhinestone-coated ruffians, perched on a telephone wire in a conspiratory gaggle. Black shapes hunched against the pink, mackerel-striped evening sky. It seemed like a sign. An omen. But now I’m here, in a national nature reserve where I have come in the hope of catching a glimpse of a starling mumuration, there are none to be had.

I decide to walk west towards a spot where I have seen them gather before, close to where both the River Waveney and the Little Ouse bubble up through a mixture of chalk and peat. The path, raised up slightly above the reeds and dark pools to my left, skirts the fen. The weather has been cold this week and the landscape seems to have reacted. This whole place feels tightened and battened down. Still. Even my footsteps, cushioned by spongy black earth, are silent. The sun low in the sky, hangs, heavy and yellow over the trees that mark the reserve’s boundary. A giant, fresh yolk: ready to be pricked, split and run into darkness. As the light changes, the senses shift. Smells, taste and sounds gain prominence. I get tangs of iron, peat, vegetable and rot. The eyes adapt too, moving from retinal cone to rod. The sharpness goes and the colour drains, giving way to grey-scale and black. The light though, doesn’t so much as disappear but thicken and buzz: the rising dark almost tangible in the air like motes of dust.

The quiet is broken by the laugh of a duck. A cock pheasant, flushed from a patch of scrub, makes me jump as he claps off noisily overhead; heavy-chested and struggling to gain height, his call an uncomfortable throat-catching hiccup.

I check my watch and keep going. I can’t help thinking the starlings should have put in an appearance by now, swooping and diving as their merging flocks move from field to roost. It’s thought the winter murmurations happen for more than one reason: the birds, whose numbers are boosted by migrants, come together both for warmth and communication. But the displays are also about pure survival. The acrobatic synchronisation of the starlings’ flights is hypnotising not only to humans but also to predators: it is hard for a sparrowhawk or a peregrine to single out a bird from the rotating mass.

Walking through the patch of woodland that separates middle fen from little fen I can hear something. Beneath the call of corvids that are beginning their own call to roost is a bubbling chatter. Water on stone. An upwelling of noise, befitting any river source. Through the trees the sound is louder. The reeds hum and twitter with bird noise. The starlings, it seems, are already in bed. Two or three people, muffled against the night’s creeping chill, are standing around listening and filming with their phones. They say there was no show tonight; the birds diving straight into the reeds. As they talk a few stragglers demonstrate their point, arrowing straight down, their wings a whispered purr.

The sun has gone by the time I turn back. The afterglow faded and the night rising towards the last patch of brightness in the sky. The path now only lit by the white glow of birch bark. I am almost back to the car when I see the latecomers: a group of maybe 500 to 1,000 starlings coming across the fen. I can only just make them out. They pack close and expand in a heartbeat, the sudden changes in direction making it seem as if the birds are splitting and multiplying in front of my eyes. Iron filings whirling in response to some unseen magnet. I pull up my hood and watch them pulse and pull away from me towards the roost. Their movements a boneless caterpillar crawl of wing and petrol-soaked feather, disappearing into the gloom.

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.