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.

A note on a Hebridean boat trip

The boat is swinging like a skidding car as it makes it way down a channel lined by dark grey cliffs. I can hear the engine is gunning but progress is painfully slow. This is where currents meet, two powerful columns of water crashing and somersaulting together in a washing machine of briny muscle.

The surface of the water is taut, occasionally breaking into an angry swirl or rising into sharp spikes like the hundred black dorsal fins of fish stranded by the tide. The engine revs again and we are free, surging towards the turquoise stillness of the lagoon with its bright, white-shell sand and rocks holding waving seals.

Intrigued they slip their sausage bodies into the water, their heads bobbing to the surface closer to the boat, whiskers webbed with water and dark eyes you could almost drown in. They are mermaids with the faces of labradors.

Later we hit the swell of the sea proper. Greasy lumps of water shrug the boat into wallowing troughs, the spray hissing and leaping over 90ft cliffs.  We manoeuvre into a sea cave, the walls petrol-washed with star bursts of metallic ore that burst through a powdered mist of cormorant shit.

We shout to try and hear the echoes but the sea, always louder, shouts back.

Brock star

This was a country diary piece written for the Suffolk Magazine about Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide.

Dusk is falling as we arrive. Birds are bidding an explosive farewell to the light while owls ke-wick in greeting to the dark. They are marking a changing of the guard, that special time of day when the human order is replaced by the wildness of the night watch.

There are eight of us sitting in Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide, perched on padded seats, our faces glued to the large front windows. Even the four children, wound tight with a combination of anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a late night are no longer drumming their feet on the floorboards – their energy channelled into the gloom, trying to pull a badger from the sett with willpower alone.

The bank below us is a sandy moonscape of craters and holes, shelving down through thickets of scrub and trees to a glinting ribbon of stream. When everything is still the eye is drawn to the slightest movement and it’s not long before we’re watching our first visitors. A wood mouse, then a rat, scurry out from cover to snaffle some of the peanuts we scattered for the badgers. They sit on their haunches under a cluster of nettles, munching from tiny hands. The children squeal in delight.

Then, to gasps, comes the badger. I expected a bumbling old Brock. Curmudgeonly, slow, bull-dozing through brush; magnificent, yet lumpen. This creature is anything but. Sleek and elegant he jogs in little bursts, sucking up peanuts at a terrific speed, his pink tongue dabbing repeatedly at the ground. His face is a thing of absolute beauty. Thick wedges of black run from the neat triangles of his ears to a wet squash ball of nose. The trademark white stripe almost glows in the low light.

I feel my daughter’s hand slip into mine. She’s entranced, but also full of cold. She tries and fails to stifle a cough. The badger freezes. Stock-still he stares towards the hide, his eyes like the darkest of currants.  Our whispers fade to silence, a collective breath held.

The badger shakes his head and moves off again, hunger overcoming caution. I’ve heard that recent visitors to this hide were lucky enough to see 12 badgers, including several stocky cubs. Not tonight though, the low-level hubbub must be too much. This lone animal must be the bravest or the deafest in the sett. He ambles closer to us now, huffing and nosing the soil; heading towards a badger lollipop of honey slopped onto stick.

He never reaches it. A tawny owl swoops noisily into the clearing and the badger is off and running, his coat rippling around his legs like cuttlefish frills. Even in flight he retains an air of elegance, like a Victorian lady hitching up her skirt, greying lamb-tail bouncing cheerfully behind.

There is real power to his movement too. He’s like a locomotive charging down these well-trodden tracks, before popping out on the opposite bank of the stream some 30 seconds later. He looks back at us once and then is gone.

Our night watch is over.

Beaked angels

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in the Suffolk Magazine

I am talking to wildlife photographer Jamie Hall about watching urban foxes in Norwich when he mentions the owls. Regular visitors, they arrive at 6pm every night, quartering the field and coming into land on old fence posts at the edge of his garden.

The pair are also surprisingly tolerant of humans, not reacting to Jamie’s flash bulb, and even allowing him to walk about as long as he stays behind the headlight beam of his car. “They’re here right now,” he says. “They’ll probably hang around until dawn.”

I look at the clock on the wall. It’s 6.05pm. By 6.07pm he’s sent me a picture of the back of his camera. Sitting side on, the barn owl’s face is lowered with only one dark eye visible, the whiteness of her lightly spotted chest contrasting with the sunburst of gold and graphite covering her back and folded wings. It is a beautiful shot.

Three days later and I am bumping down a muddy track to Jamie’s house. We’ve decided to watch the owls before heading out for the foxes. But I am late. The sun was already setting when I crawled over the Orwell Bridge 25 minutes ago and now I’m worried I’ve missed the show.

Arriving I can see that Jamie is already in position, sitting inside his car – a make shift bird hide for the night. He signals to me and as I clamber in next to him he points out two gnarled posts, jutting from long tussocky grass.

“There have been three of them here tonight,” he says without taking his eyes away from the posts. “I’ve never seen so many barn owls at the same time.”

There is heavy rain forecast for later, but at the moment the sky is perfectly clear, moonless and freckled with stars. A slight glow from Jamie’s house and a slick of light from distant towns illuminates the now empty perches. I glance at my phone. I know we’ve got a narrow window here before we have to make a move – a drive of more than an hour ahead of us.

When the first owl arrives, it seems almost to burst out of the night in front of us. It materialises with a silent flap of white, a beaked angel with a vole clutched in a yellow knuckle of talons. I make out the ink spray of black spots on the chest that suggest the owl’s a female before she moves off again. A slightly smaller barn owl, perhaps a male, follows behind, occasionally making half-hearted but acrobatic challenges for the food. They fly over the car and away towards the nest boxes at a church nearby.

I grin at Jamie. It wasn’t long ago that barn owls were really struggling here and the chances of seeing any in an evening were few and far between. In 2005 the county’s population fell to under 70 breeding pairs as a combination of Dutch elm disease and modern barns squeezed nesting opportunities. The launch of the Suffolk Community Barn Owl project, an initiative supported by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, has to date seen 1,800 barn owl boxes installed in the county. The project has left owl numbers at around 400 breeding pairs, the highest since records began.

It is gone 1am when we drive back into Suffolk and the rain is hammering down. Windscreen wipers barely make a difference and the wheels are dragging through deep, dark puddles that have formed at the side of the winding B roads. Suddenly Jamie stops and lowers my window. Hunkered in the branches of an oak, almost within touching distance, sits a barn owl stranded by the downpour, a lack of waterproofing the payment for the power of silent flight. He stares moodily at us with liquid black eyes, mottled caramel wings battened down and hunched against the weather. His face is the perfect feathered heart.

Foxes Unearthed

The good people at Elliott & Thompson Books asked me to review Lucy Jones’ new book, Foxes Unearthed A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.

It’s the fox that has cast its spell on Lucy Jones.  An animal surrounded by myth, controversy, complications and conflict. It captivates her; whether glimpsed in the countryside or sensed as an “intriguing flash of bright-eyed wildness” in the city.

Yet it would be a mistake to think this is a book just about foxes. With ancestral links to hunting and journalistic experience of the deep passions the fox debate stirs, Jones’ book is a distinctly human story.

Natural history and science are used to burn off the misty half-truths of perceived wisdom and paint a vivid picture of a predator that is at heart an apex opportunist – capable of exploiting a huge range of habitats and environments. But by the book’s conclusion the fox has become more than just an animal, it is a symbol; a ruddy-haired motif in a narrative that is ultimately focused on our relationship with the natural world.

This is no bad thing. It is in the chapters dealing with the hunters and the saboteurs that Jones really finds her stride, her impartial approach getting under the skin of one of the ‘big issues’ of the modern age. Through spending time with those who would lay down their lives for a fox and those who range from appearing non-plussed to hell-bent on bloody extermination, Jones brilliantly (and often bravely) captures two uniquely British subcultures.

Being buried in these opposed worlds, enables Jones to fuse her talent for research with journalistic reporting. Facing down a hunt with a group of saboteurs her account is as gripping as it is tense:
“’Look back every dozen steps,’ I was advised, again. ‘They target women so just keep looking back.’ Adrenaline pumped through my veins. What the hell was I doing here?”

Such experiences also neatly capture her own complex relationship with hunting, quoting philosopher and hunt supporter Roger Scruton as she describes how she is “transfixed” by the beauty of the horses and the foxhounds. It is a scene that presumably evokes her own childhood memories of the countryside and a late grandfather who “had a fondness for hunting.”

The theme of class is never far away when it comes to hunting. While one former saboteur laments what he describes as the increasingly political motives of the animal rights movement, others are less apologetic. During an interview about a recent film, Ricky Gervais tells Jones that hunting is a “sick” activity carried out by the “privileged few”, or as he later calls them, “posh twats.”

The charting of the change in the media narrative around foxes is also interesting. Clippings from the 1940s to the mid nineties reveal that newspapers have traditionally held foxes in high esteem. In 1994 even the Daily Mail ran a story called ‘In praise of the unbeatable fox’. Jones explains how this would soon change and the balance tipped against the fox with the first reported incident of a child being attacked. Again the politics emerge, with both fox expert Stephen Harris and other academics finding a correlation between the political affiliations of newspapers and whether they publish anti-fox reports.

It is also worth mentioning Jones’ refreshing honesty. Paul Evans once wrote how it was essential to ‘keep it real’ to be a good nature writer and there is certainly no airbrushing here. After a conversation with Brighton University’s Dawn Scott, who suggests resentment of urban foxes ‘in our space’ is learned rather than natural behaviour, Jones decides to head to the beach. Surrounded by hungry gulls giving her chips the glad-eye she admits to feeling “oddly irritated” by their presence. “What”, she asks, “would it take for a fox to be too wild for me?”

Foxes Unearthed is published on 19 May, priced at £14.99

Fox, deer and bone-chilling cold

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in Suffolk Magazine

It’s about an hour before dawn and the fingernail moon is the brightest thing in the sky over Lackford Lakes. Although there is little sign of the sun, the darkness feels like it is softening and features of this meadow are slowly starting to emerge from the gloom. The oak tree, expanses of dark water around me and ink splats of scattered scrub are becoming sharper. Almost as sharp as the tangled bed of bramble I’ve been hunkered down in for the last two hours.

I am waiting for a fox. I know for sure they are in the area. The week before I stumbled on a kill while watching a barn owl that regularly ghosts across this field. Picking up black feathers that fluttered sadly in the grass and nearby hedges I could see the quills had been chewed rather than plucked by a beak. The remains themselves had been marked with a pungent scat; a skunky instant-coffee smelling message that screamed “Fox woz ‘ere”.

The first bark comes as I’m thinking about heading home for breakfast and the school run. Whereas before I would have sat tight and hoped to get lucky I have no time left to play the waiting game. The Hoover hum of the nearby road is already beginning to build. Rubbing the cold and stiffness from my calves I decide to investigate. The call seemed to come from behind the wall of scrub that connects the veteran oak to the dyke. I know If I walk round the other side, it’s possible I can get a view without making too much noise or getting torn to pieces by thorns.

I move off, disturbing a sheep who bumbles away at speed over tussocks of spiky grass, leaving flags of snagged fleece behind her. The bark comes again; deep like a dog fox. I can feel my pulse rising as I head for a narrow corridor that leads on to the clearing. He must be close. He must be.

But I quickly realise I have made a schoolboy error. The two muntjacs are clearly as shocked to see me as I am them. The smaller, a doe, shimmies first to the right and then to the left before she springs past me and through a bramble thicket, a whinnying blur of ginger and black. The buck, startled but defiant, is not moving. He stamps his left foot, once, twice, three times.

I realise I’ve never really appreciated the size of muntjac before. Although their tracks and traces are delicate enough, with tiny teardrop hoof prints and droppings that could have been piped from an icing bag, they are actually surprisingly substantial animals. This one is a barrel of a deer; an eating machine capable of chewing the heart from a coppiced wood in the flick of a powder puff scut.

Standing almost within touching distance I can’t take my eyes off his face. Dark lines run in a long V from midway between his eyes to the furred base of antlers that end in a prehistoric talon of bone. From his lips curls an inch of fang. He is a sabre-toothed deer; a teddy bear with tusks.

The buck stamps again and I back slowly away before turning and heading towards the gate and home. I hear him bark one more time, perhaps in warning, perhaps in defiance, but I’m happy to give him this victory. After all, he’s already given me mine. The two hours of bone-chilling cold and stiffened limbs hasn’t been for nothing.

Note on Mellis

A friend has offered to show me around Mellis. It’s a place I’ve read about constantly in Roger Deakin’s work, but shamefully never visited. I meet her by the Memorial Hall after sneaking a look at Walnut Tree Farm, or at least the flash of yellow wall I can see from the road.

The common itself consists of flower-strewn meadow, areas of rough grassland and dozens of ponds  – all fringed by pretty old houses and a church.  It is  beautiful and quintessentially English in a strange kind of way. After all, it’s hard to think of something as ‘quintessential’ when it is desperately rare, bordering on unique. There are only 6,000 hectares of grassland left in the UK.

Even Mellis is not without its problems. A desire for neatness has gripped some of the villagers. Allowed by by-laws to cut a metre of the common in front of their home, some have gone much further; trimming and topping until the roughness is gone. It is the smoothing of a diamond to dust.



Wildness and the impermeable bog

In a time of flint tools and real wildness, there used to be bear and beaver at Roydon Fen. Even now, when this fragment of marsh is framed by a cul-de-sac that echoes its name, it’s easy to imagine them, toothy and paddle-tailed. Gnawing through the alders.

I leave my car by the entrance sign and tick-tack along a narrow boardwalk that hovers over where it is too wet to walk. The path is bordered and lapped by water. Some clear, some dark, some orange-topped and rainbow swirled by the breakdown of vegetation.

Where the water has retreated there are patches of rich mud. Tree roots like thick eels squirm their way downwards and animals have rushed to make their mark. Among the slots of muntjac and roe deer are the mixed pads of dog and badger. It’s hard to be sure, but among the squidge and squelch  I think I find the non-symmetrical prints of an otter.

I step off the path to get a close up picture of a marsh marigold and my boot is sucked down, the ground farting noisily as I pull my foot away. I watch as the hole I made refills with the slow-slurping spring of sphagnum moss and dark water.

I know this is a rare and fragile habitat, but there is something defiant about this fragment of marsh. A sense that it is somehow resistant to change or submission; capable of consuming or shedding anything thrown at it. Even the chicken-wired pathways that brace its back are at risk of being floated off.

I guess it is the wildness of the place that is so affecting. I find it is always the case in marshes and bogs, where life just seems to bubble up from the earth. There is an expectation that it always has and it always will.

Flaneur, naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau sensed the same wild magic in wetland. Writing in his seminal essay Walking, he describes the “impermeable and unfathomable bog”  as “the jewel which dazzled me”.

Adding: “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its  presence refreshes him….Hope and future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, nor in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

I pick up some willow catkins and half expect them to wriggle off across my palm.