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.

Notes on a dawn flight

From where I’m sitting I can see the wing of the plane flexing. I watch as the panels move up and down, the final stretches in preparation for what will be a juddering sprint down the runway and into the air.

My six-year-old daughter is sitting next to me in the window seat. She points to the metallic strips running from the tip of the wing towards the curved body of the plane.

“It looks like parcel tape. Is the wing held on with parcel tape?”

She smiles at the thought as I lean past her and follow her gaze, cupping the back of her plaited head in the palm of my hand.

“No, just Cello tape” I say, “This is a budget flight.”

The plane takes off from Dublin at about six, dawn still unbroken. The air outside stiff with cold.  I hardly ever look out of the window when I’m flying, least of all when we’re taking off. Although I understand the rough science of aeronautics – I know it works and why – there’s a part of me that simply doesn’t believe it. It’s easier to suspend my disbelief when my eyes are closed.

Eliza though is braver than me in so many ways. She pulls me back to the window and points at the orange glow of cars, homes, businesses and streets lights. Whole neighbourhoods and road systems mapped out with electricity. A circuit board of life.  We continue to climb, moving away from the city centre, and the surrounding towns and suburbs becoming little more than cobwebs of orange, like silky fibres gleaming on a dewy morning.

The sea finally brings the dark, broken only by the plane’s strobing wing and overhead lamps. We are a phosphorescent tube of bad air, bad coffee and cramped legs. The man to the right of me has finally surrendered the arm rest and is now sleeping noisily. He gives off a curious smell. A mix of stale breath and new leather.

I turn back to Eliza and the window. She’s busy looking for stars but there’s none to be had. They’re either wrapped up in cloud or not visible because of the curve of the porthole. In the distance another plane is winking at us. A cheery, twinkling morse code, passed between two early birds.

“Look! I’m flying.”

“I’m flying too”.

The UK coast line arrives in a string of orange light, like lazy Christmas decorations or the luminous side of some terrible deep-water fish. Further inland the patches of light grow denser. No longer isolated webs but a bed of glowing embers, as if the earth has cracked open and is now sparkling with volcanic heat rather than humming with the shimmering ghosts of burning ancient forests and long-dead sea creatures.

It is Eliza who sees the dawn first. A shy blue light seeping into the aubergine black. Shaming the man-made orange glow with its purity, its subtlety. Its shifting sublime beauty.

Violet to aqua; milk to elephant grey; hard peach to dusty charcoal. This is the slow death of night and the birth of day. No it’s more. I hold Eliza’s hand. It is the birth of this day, never to be repeated.

Oak hearts

Near the entrance to Old Broom is the first of the old oaks. Its heartwood exposed and ridged like a giant mammoth’s tooth. The children jostle each other with their elbows as they huddle into the door-shaped space, running their fingers around the raised lip of the bark and the exposed surface that marks more summers and winters than any of us will ever see. Then they’re off, their shrieks and footfalls muffled by a deep carpet of leaves and the butter-soft wood of fallen branches.

It is only the second time I have walked in this wood. The first in spring through fists of buds and now as autumn gives summer the cold shoulder; the season changing with a quiet sigh and a confetti of leaves shaped like dripping hearts. But for me, the shift and the colour of the seasons is only part of the soft beauty of these places.  Like a river source that forever wells from the past and into the future, woods possess a sense of timelessness, with roots that snake over more history than humans can comfortably imagine – the long years captured in pulsing syrupy sap and long laid down rings. John Fowles described the feeling of walking in woods as a haunting kind of “waitingness”, something that cannot be captured by writers anchored and hamstrung by tenses.

We pad round the trail, my friend James bolting after the kids who are trying to shin up the smaller trees, while Jen, Anna and I walk slowly behind, inspecting the elephant skin of the oak pollards that stand like sentinels here – guarding this fragment of wood pasture. It is centuries since these trees were last cut, a management technique that provided wood for fuel and building and kept the oaks in a state of almost perpetual youth. Left alone they have rocketed into grand old age, arching boughs shooting like thick fingers from the arthritic knuckles that mark the path of the woodsman’s saw. The official term for these whirled swellings is bollings, a lovely rounded word that dove tails beautifully with the other names of pollarding, lopping or cobbing. In fact I can’t think of many words associated with woods that don’t have a quiet earthy magic to them. Even saying the names of the trees themselves; ash, birch, oak, hornbeam, beech, hazel, lime, is enough to give me a feeling of deep humus-y pleasure.

The path leads us past other trees, unpollarded, but contorted into curious shapes. One, named the stairway to heaven by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust wardens that manage this wood, has a trunk bent into perfect steps, while another twists like a corkscrew into the ground.

Nearby is a birch that that has seeded into the crumbling heart of an oak, its silvery flanks shooting twenty feet or more into the canopy.  This is one of Old Broom’s nursery trees, nature’s very own matryoshka doll, a giant wooden joey inside the sawdust-filled pouch of old mother oak. It is though a relationship that can’t last. One day this birch will grow too big, either toppling from the weight of its own crown or forcing the trunk that nurtured and sheltered it to slowly explode.

The strain is already beginning to show. A yawning crack stretches from the top of the oak’s trunk to near its base, exposing the umbilical red tap root of the birch. It is the line between life and death.

Looking for dormice

This is a piece, again for the Suffolk Magazine, looking for dormice in an ancient woodland. The surveying was carried out under licence. Many thanks to Hamish, Alison and Dave for being such patient hosts.

The nest is tiny. Intricate strips of straw-thin bark, possibly honeysuckle, woven carefully into a ball slightly bigger than a child’s fist. A hazel leaf, still damp and impossibly green, is draped like a duvet over an end already decorated with a swag of freshly plucked sedge. I gently place my finger inside the nest’s opening, feeling its softness, the tight structure and the lingering warmth from the just-departed hazel dormouse.

I hand it back to David, part of a Suffolk Wildlife Trust team that has been monitoring the 50 nest tubes in this woodland site since March – recording everything from signs of breeding to the animal’s weight.  Unless, of course, the dormice spot the surveyor first. David explains, with some frustration, how he saw this one leave, rocketing off in a caramel-coloured blur before he could block the nest tube’s entrance with his wodge of kitchen sponge.

To add insult to injury she – I’m told the tidiness of the nest suggests the dormouse is female – didn’t go far, perching out of reach in the higher branches of the coppice and watching David’s movements through rain-soaked undergrowth with dark, unblinking eyes.

But to be honest, to get even this close to a dormouse feels like a victory. A creature of the woodland edge and understorey, dormice are shy, nocturnal and largely arboreal, going to ground in the autumn to hibernate. Once relatively common, a decline in traditional woodland management techniques has left them without vital habitat and under real threat of extinction.

In this Suffolk woodland – I’m not allowed to say which one due to previous problems with illegal disturbance – they now seem to be doing well. The long-established coppicing regime has allowed dense scrub to develop beneath the hazel stools, creating infinite routes for dormice (who rarely roam further than 100m) to forage for the pollen, berries, occasional insect and hazelnuts that make up their diet.

I leave David making notes on sodden paper that threatens to disintegrate under his pen and walk up the path to where I can see Hamish and Alison are taking it in turns to dive into thick cover. Hoods-up and protected by waterproofs they are still drenched from rain that clings to whipping branches and dribbles from leaves. Seeds spatter the fronts of their jackets and trousers.

Alison, an ecologist with the Trust, pauses to tease burrs from her hair – the result of a head-long search for a nest tube in a particularly dense thicket. She sees me watching and laughs. “It’s a glamorous job isn’t it? Unfortunately what is good habitat for dormice is not quite so good for surveyors.”

She wades back into the scrub to look for one of the last tubes, number 49, passing it carefully to Hamish. He lowers it into a plastic bag and starts to remove the sponge stopper.  “Feels heavy”, he says smiling. Before I can answer the dormouse is out and jumping; a tiny, almost unbearably cute bolt of ginger lightning, perfect tiny pads scrabbling against the grip-free surface. Once weighed, Hamish reaches into the bag and carefully scoops the dormouse up, allowing the pink, twitching nose and fan of dark whiskers to poke through his cupped fingers. He expertly flips the dormouse over and the team leans in to get a view of the nether regions and dexterous tail.

“Male”, says Alison, “and look, he’s been breeding.” She soberly points to grey patches of skin where the golden fur has been worn away and explains it is the result of prolonged amorous activity. I try not to grin. It seems it is not just the Trust that is working hard to protect dormouse populations.

The Badlands of Suffolk

This is a piece written originally for the Suffolk Magazine.

There are hundreds of eyes on me when I walk on to Wangford Warren. Herds of rabbits. They skitter away in heart-quickening gallops or stand alert like prairie dogs. Cotton-tailed sentinels in the shadows of the razor wire and fences of Lakenheath Airbase .

I have parked at the side of a road as long and as straight as any American highway and am now crunching across baked grass and sun-bleached clumps of reindeer moss. Beautiful grey corals that look ready to bounce away like tiny tumbleweeds.

The path stretches along in front of me. To the right are open patches of sand and an undulating line of mounds snaking all the way to the treeline. These are the remnants of the inland dunes that once reached from Lakenheath to Brandon. Now anchored by sedge, they once shuffled for miles across the landscape, dumping enough sand on Santon Downham during the 17th Century to bury homes and acres of farmland. Just decades ago, a wandering dune, whipped on by the wind, blocked the road leading to Wangford.

I change direction and huff and puff up one of the biggest dunes, its side sagging and leaking sand. It is now late afternoon and although the sun is no longer hot on my head, the heat is still pulsing out of the ground, bringing with it a faint scent of crushed pine – part of me had expected the tang of salt or the cabbage funk of seaweed.

I flop myself down to have a drink and pick up a bone-like shard of wood, light as a feather and cooked calcium-bright. This part of the country receives less rain than any other part of the UK and before now I’ve heard people wryly describe Wangford as Suffolk’s Sahara. The Badlands of Breckland.

But it’s not just the climate that has created shifting sands some thirty miles from the sea. The native forests that once stood here were cleared in Neolithic times by farmers who, unable to sustain crops on the thin glacial soils, were forced to continually move over the Brecks. The subsequent introduction of sheep and rabbits did the rest, nibbling grass to the root and exposing bare earth to the sun and the wind.

Writing in H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald described Breckland – which incidentally means something like “broken land” – as a “ramshackle wildness” where “people and the land have conspired to strangeness”.

Perched on a dune, I can’t help but be reminded of a golf-course, albeit one where the fairways and greens are maintained by an army of over-enthusiastic rabbit groundsmen who have created enough holes to sink a thousand balls. I stand up and feel the hour-glass fine sand sneaking into my boots and the turn-ups of my jeans. The dunes, I think, are still intent on moving by whatever means possible.