Note on cloud and rain

I’m driving away from Middleton where I’ve spent most of the day surveying for otters. The weather has been clear and bright, with the sun bouncing off the river in glittering bursts. Joyous.

Now heading west towards Yoxford I can see the sky is darkening. When people talk about the heavens opening I have always pictured some kind of celestial trapdoor dumping lakes of water in a matter of seconds. But over the ploughed fields and industrial farms of Suffolk it looks like the cloud itself is reaching down, tendrils of teased iron wool, a smoky cumulus finger. Ratty-haired strands of rain.

It’s two miles before I’m in range. At first the rain leaves delicate paw-print patterns on the windscreen but the rhythm quickly grows until each drop explodes like a water balloon lobbed from on high.

I slow the car. The roads are already soaked, it has clearly been raining for some time. I wind my window down hoping for that spring smell of hard rain on warm land. The water tracks down the inside of the door and splashes pin pricks of cold on to my hands.

Tracks and treasure at Knettishall Heath

This is a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine

When I first saw the Exmoor ponies they were more murmuration than herd. Galloping hard across this ancient furzy heath, they formed a twisting, athletic ribbon of dun browns and treacle blacks; their hooves pounding through the heather and into my ribcage. In truth, I think I lost my heart to Knettishall Heath that day.

The Exmoors are now grazing in winter pasture at the bottom of the river valley and I am walking around their enclosure with Suffolk Wildlife Trust ranger Samantha Gay. She is telling me about the work being done to remove fences and open up this reserve to allow these hardy ponies to roam over most of its 434 acres – a mini Exmoor in the west country of Suffolk.

The ponies look at us, but with little interest. One raises a foot and stares through chalky spectacles, steam rising from his nose and flank. Sam points them all out, telling me their names, their characters and their social standing.

These ponies are the barrel-chested engineers of Knettishall, tasked with maintaining this tapestry of habitats; grazing back the years of plantations and effectively turning back the clock to the Bronze Age. We check the corral where the ponies will be held before being “set loose” at the end of this month and Sam nods towards a neighbouring stable where barn owl and at least one little owl roost.

The stable door is painted with guano, a tar of sticky blacks and emulsion whites, while the floor is littered with armfuls of pellets. I pick up a little owl pellet and turn it over in my hands, the light catching the emerald green of beetle wing cases and the polished jet of serrated legs. It’s hard to believe this dusky mirror ball of indigestible insect was coughed up by a bird rather than hewn from the earth. It’s a rare treasure.

The barn owl pellets are almost twice as big. Fat thumbs of hair and bone. Fleshy geodes that can be prised open with gloved fingers to expose a jigsaw of shrew and vole; leg bone connected to jaw, and pelvis to tooth by twisted tendons of dark fur.

This is a time of change and becoming at Knettishall but Sam also wants to show me what has already been achieved. We leave the ponies and walk down to the river. Once heavily dredged and lifeless, the Little Ouse has been transformed. As her meanders and flow returned, so did the wildlife – water vole, kingfisher and otters.

Within metres of walking the bank we find a spraint. A wet jasmine-scented cigar of scales and tiny bones carefully placed on flattened grasses at the side of the river. It’s fresh. I go closer, poking, sniffing. I have never seen a wild otter in Suffolk and the thought of being so close to one now is exciting. We peer through fringes of teasel and reed, hoping to see what we know we will probably not; the low profile of an otter in the water, head held high, tail ruddering against the current.

We scan the bank for tracks, for the tell-tale webbed prints among the mish-mash prints of dogs. I give up but Sam spots one at the point where water meets land. It’s big. Maybe a dog otter. I imagine him watching us from close by, huffing with soft disapproval as we prod and examine his business.

Note on snow

The snow is coming down diagonally. Driving hard. Gusts of wind swirling fat bumblebee flakes round road signs and street lights before hurrying them away into the dark. The cat appears at the window, doing its best to look pleading. He wants in.

Seconds later he is in front of the fire drying off, nose tucked under tail. A fox on the rug. The logs bought at Lackford hiss and pop gently as the fire burns through each ring of growth. It reminds me of a passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, the one where he traces history with the progress of his saw.

Looking out of the window, the snow is still coming. I imagine the tracks out by the den that could be waiting for me in the morning. A dot-to-dot map of the foxes’ nightly movements – completing the story I’ve spent numerous cold nights and mornings trying to understand.

The cat gets up, stretches and flumps back down again. He knows as well as me that the snow will have gone by morning.


A squelch that becomes a river

This was a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine written after a visit to Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave & Lopham Fen

The water is welling up under my boots. With each footstep it oozes out from great sponges of sphagnum moss and washes over my toecaps; sometimes crystal clear, sometimes coppery, sometimes peaty black.

I tramp on, squelching through a landscape of reed and sedge, towards a line of oak that marks the eastern edge of Redgrave & Lopham Fen.

The path is bordered by grazing ditches and turf ponds, home for the rare fen raft spider – first discovered here in 1956 and now the subject of a recolonisation project.

I peer into some of the pools. I know, despite the lingering unseasonal warmth, the spiders will be hibernating. But the chance of seeing a palm-sized creature standing on the water as it waits for its prey – long legs pricking and puckering the surface – is just too much of a temptation.

The water is spider-free and almost perfectly still; moving only with the harder gusts of wind and the reflections of clouds. The world feels somehow smaller; battened down for winter.

Moving off eastwards again past a waving stand of saw sedge, the ground sucks and gasps as I pick up pace. Today, unusually for me, this is a walk of purpose.  I’m not here to track spiders, but a river. Or more accurately, the source of a river – what Roger Deakin described after visiting this very site as “a tear duct of the earth.”

I check my map. This is it. The start of the thin blue line. The ditch in front of me is the source of the Waveney, while on the other side of the road is the upper reaches of the Little Ouse. Those broad-backed rivers that run east towards Diss, Beccles and the shuck-stalked banks of Bungay and west through Rushford, Thetford and Brandon start here.

Of course, the shimmying spirit of these waterways is not contained within the steep sides of this manmade channel. Yes, this may be their uppermost reaches but river sources, like all truly wild things, are hard to track and anticipate.

There is a sense in which this whole reserve is the river source, with springs and seepages welling up from chalk aquifer through deposits of peat to come together like raindrops chasing down a window pane.

Clinging to a branch, I dangle a booted toe in the water. It seems strange to think of what this water will become, of how just a few miles downstream I have – again following Deakin – swum in its flows; enjoying a “frog’s eye” view of the world; a waterscape of soft browns and algal greens; of muddy feet and chattering teeth.

Clambering back from my precarious position, I can well understand why explorers dedicated their lives to chasing river sources. The fascination isn’t just about becoming – about how this ooze in the ground, this wet patch with aspirations becomes a strong and defined course – it is also about the past.

The source of the Waveney and The Little Ouse is both young and old; the birth of a river and a process that has continued ever since the ice rolled back all those thousands of years ago. Nan Shepherd, writing about the Wells of Dee, perhaps put it best.

“Water… one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

I walk back the way I came, downstream; through a squelch that becomes a river.

Dingle Marshes to Doggerland

This was a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine.

It is a day of bluster and blow, of boiling sea and blistering spray. A time when the coast is truly alive; its shingle pulse roaring and racing with the tide.

I’m walking into the wind and on to the shingle ridge that forms the seaward edge of Dingle Marshes.

To the left of me, is the heaving North Sea, to the right, a wild mosaic of marsh, reedbeds and heath. Beyond I can see the dark brow of woodland that I left behind me almost an hour ago.

The shingle is deep and noisy. Walking here demands exaggerated footsteps and I tack up and down the bank towards the exposed and solid sand of the beach to try to rest my ankles. Globs of foam scud past as I pick up round nuggets of brick and glass – tumble-polished and buffed smooth by the waves.

Holding them in my palm I think about Dunwich, just a mile or two down the coast. It must have been on wintery days like this that it slid inch by broken inch into the sea, a transition from rotten borough to capital of Doggerland – the now sunken landscape that once connected Britain’s east coast to the Netherlands, west Germany and Jutland.

Just two years ago the sea came calling again, this time for Dingle Marshes. The storm surge of 2013 saw torrents of salt water breach the ridge on which I am walking, overwhelming saline lagoons and at its peak lapping into Dunwich Forest at the back of the marshes.

This time the waves also healed, pushing shingle back into the holes and leaving Dingle as a largely freshwater reserve once more. But then, maybe I shouldn’t think of it in terms of healing. After all in a place of nature and natural processes like this, a storm surge isn’t damage it’s dynamism. The land of the bittern becoming a habitat for avocet, redshank and brine-loving starlet anemone.

Pocketing my finds I clamber back up to the highest point to gauge how far I have come. In front of me a female kestrel is hanging above the marsh, her pointed wings fanning the air in butterfly strokes while her chestnut head remains dipped low and freeze-frame still.

The same wind that rushes off the sea and now pushes at my back is giving her lift, the splayed tail harnessing each stinging gust. I watch as the black and tan wings flicker and pause.

But instead of kiting on the wind, the kestrel falls into a shoulder-hunching dive towards the edge of a saline lagoon below – eyes locked on something I cannot see.

I crane forward hoping to see her; imagining the ultra-violet world of reflected traces and tracks that allows her to missile to the ground with such deadly accuracy.

But already she is back up, almost springing off the ground and back into position, this time slightly further away.

Whatever it was she saw, it has got away. I shoulder my backpack and start walking again.
A narrow squeak, I think.

Morning fog

A morning of fog. The temperature feels colder, but still not bitter. The air is sweet with sugar beet, its turnipy fug clinging to my car as I creep towards the A14.

The road is busy and slow.  Headlamps, brake lights and shifting layers of ground-scraping grey.

By the time I reach work the sun is beginning to burn through, its patch of pure white growing bigger in the sky with each passing minute.

Watching I can’t help but think of the hold this kind of weather has on our imagination, inspiring folk tales and horror films. A mysterious world of will-’o-the-wisps and “Boys, keep off the moors”.

But there is also beauty here. It’s a time when the world in which we move is made smaller, when we can walk among the clouds.

Washing away the old year

My five-year-old daughter enters the river first. Elbows pumping and knees lifted high, she dashes in, her excited shrieks turning to loud yelps of surprise as the chill shoots through her.

I follow close behind, my feet instantly numb as they plunge into the tannin brown water. I find myself laughing with my daughter; laughing off the cold; laughing off the decision to go swimming at the turn of the New Year.

Grinning wildly she turns back towards the muddy beach and my wife and son who are sitting with their chins sunk deep into parkas – cradling hot chocolate and cheering us on.

I keep moving. Pushing towards the small waterfall that brings the Little Ouse into the northern edge of Knettishall Heath; my body gasping involuntarily as the water reaches my stomach. This is the slow torture of gradual immersion. I hold my breath and sink down, my shoulders and face tingling and burning with the cold. I know it’s probably just seconds, but it feels longer. Minutes. Hours even. A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.

I stand quickly and walk back to the bank, picking my way around heron tracks that I missed in my rush to get in.

Two dog walkers are returning to their car; stamping their feet in the cold. I can see them looking over as I gladly take the towel from my wife and wrap my hands around the mug of hot chocolate. My feet ache from the cold, but I’m happy, waiting for the glow to start – the delicious post-swim feeling that lasts a whole day; an earthy cosiness that makes your own skin feel like a duvet.

If we value hares, we shouldn’t shoot them all year long

This piece first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in response to the selling of hare locally. I’ve since had some criticism from the NFU about not mentioning hare coursing.

I didn’t touch on the subject of coursing here as it is something that is thankfully illegal and – judging by the number of listings on various magistrates courts in Suffolk – relatively well policed. As such, I don’t believe that such illegal activities, while obviously barbaric and wrong, put the same direct pressure on hare numbers as legal shoots.

The argument that farmers are killing hares to prevent hare coursing taking place on their land is not, or should not be, an argument to continue shooting with no close season.

Anyway, here is the piece:

The hare is running along in front of us, its flecked haunches and black-tipped ears visible in the headlights. It’s young; still a leveret really; its lean limbs long and awkward. A hobbledehoy, dazzled by the light.

Already driving at walking pace, we slow the car. The hare jinks one way and then the other as if to shake off a predator before veering sharply sideways under a gate and into the darkness.

I always think with a hare you somehow get a sense of the wild. Yes, rabbits may have that wide-eyed, cotton-tailed cuteness, but it is the hare with its gawky angularity, its poise and spring-like muscles that win me over every time.

I know I am not alone. In Suffolk it seems the hare is close to being an emblematic animal. You can’t walk past an art gallery without seeing a sculpture or painting of a hare. Shops are awash with postcards depicting their rangy form silhouetted against a landscape of Suffolk fields or boxing away unwanted amorous advances.

They are an animal close to our hearts. But it is also an animal in decline, with populations falling by an estimated 80% over the last 100 years.

In some ways it is the same old sad story. In short, the intensification of agriculture has led to a landscape that in many places lacks biodiversity. The disappearance of swathes of meadow and grassland combined with an increase in winter cereals mean hares can be without food during the breeding season.

The scrubbing of hedgerows has also deprived them of shelter; something that is particularly important given one of their main defensive strategies – despite their 45mph speed – is simply sitting still.

But there is another worrying factor at play. Despite being subject to a Biodiversity Action Plan, a measure to improve hare populations in light of falling numbers, the species is still considered to be, well… fair game.

Although the 1892 Hares Preservation Act prohibits the sale of hare between March and July 31, the older 1880 Ground Game Act means they can be shot throughout the year, including in the breeding season.

Pregnant does (female hares) can be shot, as can those that are lactating – even if this means the leveret waiting for its single dusk feed will most likely starve to death. Indeed the hare is the only game animal that does not have a close season.

Every other species; deer, trout, and even birds bred simply to be gunned down, such as pheasants, partridges and grouse, all have a period of time when they can, at the very least, breed in peace. To leave out hare seems arbitrary, outdated and wrong.

In Suffolk, one of the species’ few remaining strongholds, hares are still regularly shot in large numbers by organised shooting parties.

According to the Hare Preservation Society, which is pushing for a change in the law to introduce a close season, it is estimated that between February and March large organised shoots in East Anglia can kill as many as 40% of the national brown hare population. A truly shocking statistic.

But perhaps more shocking still is that the rules which currently govern the shooting of brown hares, rules that shooting organisations insist are sufficient, were drawn up by – yes, you guessed it – the organisations themselves.

To the horror of wildlife groups, the government left the job of drafting a code of practice for “hare management” to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the largest shooting organisation in the UK, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Their work was supported by the Tenant Farmers’ Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Moorland Association, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance (CA). This last organisation went even further, suggesting (somewhat bafflingly) that a close season could lower hare numbers. 
So, the shooting and the eating has gone on.

Perhaps I should say at this point that I am not arguing against shooting per se – this 
is not an attack on the CA’s 
“rural ways of life”, if this 
really is the phrase best suited 
to sum up various ways of shooting and chasing things in the name of sport.

Nor am I saying that “pest control” should not take place. Farming is undeniably important and if there is evidence that food production is being threatened by an overly large hare population then of course a cull is something that could be considered.

Rather, I’m trying to make the simple point that the controls currently in place to regulate the shooting of this nationally scarce animal are not adequate or ethical. Furthermore, if we really do care about the future of this magical animal then it is an issue we urgently need to take up.

An otter of my imagination

The bats appear out of the twilight, like shadows made solid. Flitting and falling at tremendous speeds over the water, they melt into the evening sky before taking form again as they belt after the midges that form low-lying, nibbling clouds above the hide. As one makes a tie-fighter dive across our line of vision Sam suggests they could be noctules – Britain’s biggest bat. Fat as butter, but still small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

But we’re not here for the bats tonight; we’re looking for Lackford’s otters. Going inside the hide, the shutters creak as we open them, the low light from outside barely filtering past our faces. A perfect V of geese, possibly Canada, head straight towards us like heavy feathered arrows, the powerful whooshing strokes of their wings clearly audible.

Sam and Shaun point out widgeon and teal clustered by reeds, while further away other water fowl, rendered anonymous by the light, land with celebratory quacks. Not so much flying, I think, but falling with style.

Picking up the binoculars again I scan the water for the otter’s sleek profile, or for the tell-tale v of an otter pushing through the water. Several times my heart skips a beat before the promising silhouette I’m staring at in the distance changes direction, revealing itself as a coot or a duck.
Earlier, as we walked to the hide, the reserve had been relatively quiet but here at the water, there are endless calls, splashes and flaps. Too noisy, I think, to hear an otter.

Shaun leads us to another spot. Like the last, a filled in gravel pit, it looks slightly like an ox bow lake. Otter spraint has been found not far from here. We peer out into the gloom again, but the dark is over-running us now – filling in the light patches of water with shadows. Even the bats have been swallowed back into the night. It’s time to leave.

Crunching down the path back towards the car park I glimpse a dark shape slinking across the gravel 50metres ahead; head down, hump-backed. It lollops into a field before I have time to react, time even to tell Shaun or Sam. I think about the ‘otters’ that had previously turned into coots. Maybe it was a rabbit, Shaun suggests playfully, just an otter of my imagination.

An allegory on asylum

This piece was first published in the East Anglian Daily Times as a commentary on the county’s and the country’s attitudes to asylum seekers. Some of those commenting below the line conflated the issue with immigration (as the Government has also chosen to) but there you go – you can’t win them all.

Oh those scrounging bee eaters.

I can’t help but be driven to the point of fury on reading that these colourful creatures have deigned to flap their way across the Channel and – whatever next – to feed and rest on our shores.

Ten of them were spotted last week flying over Minsmere before settling down to guzzle up lovely English insects. Yep, that’s right, effectively taking food out of our native birds’ mouths.

The jaw-dropping temerity of it all.

Thankfully scores of good East Anglian people soon arrived to document the event and presumably try to push them back towards Europe with rolled-up newspapers and a rousing chorus of the National Anthem.

And a good job too, no doubt they’d soon move in and start taking our precious nesting spaces – even though hard-working Mr and Mrs Blue Tit have been on a waiting list for the best part of 18 months.

From looking at one of the less sprightly bee-eaters, he was only here for medical treatment.

Perhaps, I think clutching my Big Book of British Birds, we need some kind of net that can be strung around the coast to bring this situation to a swift (no pun intended) conclusion. Maybe those bee eaters would think twice about scrounging from our bird feeders if their journey culminated in imprisonment, confusion and separation from loved ones.

Yes, that’s the way, stiffen the border, pull up the drawbridge, don’t let them in.

But… imagining the sound of feathered bodies thwacking into the coastal net or returning sadly from whence they came only to plunge exhausted into the sea, I can’t help but feel guilty.

Perhaps what is really needed is a big net on the other side of the Channel too, to stop any of those bee-eaters piling over here in the first place (although there obviously would have to be some kind of system to allow proper British birds like turtle doves and robins to reach their holiday homes safely).

It will also have to be a really fine net, because of course, they are not the only ones – we mustn’t forget about all the hummingbird hawk moths. The Daily Mail is probably reporting now on a family of them ensconced in a five bedroom mansion in Chelsea while our poor native moths have to make do with the sock drawer and banging into naked lightbulbs.

Of course, the real reason that these bee eaters make this treacherous trip is because of factors that are beyond their control.

If their oh-so foreign calls of “tree-tree-tree-tree” could be interpreted they would no doubt explain that man-made climate change has drastically altered their flight patterns. Perhaps they might even lament being pushed out of their homes by less tolerant birds – birds who threaten to lop off their heads and refuse to let lady bee-eaters go to bee-eater school or drive tiny bee-eater cars.

But, as we stand behind our newly secure borders, such complicated problems are easier to dismiss aren’t they?

OK long, drawn-out allegory over. But there is a serious point here, and one that does needs to be dealt with.

Because Britain, which has a proud reputation for caring and sheltering those most in need, is in danger of standing by and failing Syrian children and rape victims in what is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of a generation.

In a month that has seen the sad passing of Sir Nicholas Winton, it is now vital that the country revives the spirit of the Kinder transport that saved thousands of children (including those who were sheltered in Suffolk) from the horror of the Nazis and allow refugees to settle here in safety.

The Government has of course provided aid to the Syrian refugees, who are thought to number in the region of 4 million.

This is of course commendable, but a refusal to separate refugees and asylum seekers from a target-driven immigration policy (don’t get me started) means the Government have only accepted a measly 140 Syrian refugees via the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), which has identified the most vulnerable.

I find it hard to believe a country (both its Government and its people) that acted with such benevolence and kindness in 1938 could now stand behind fictional borders when so many people are in need.