Saturday, 10 December 2011

Landscape and Loss

A couple of Saturdays ago I attended a conference that was held in the small church at Helpston, a village just outside Stamford in Lincolnshire. Many know the village because of its association with the poet John Clare. One of the conference sessions, which was titled ‘landscape and loss: inspirations from John Clare’, had particular resonance because Clare’s grave lay just beyond the thick walls and stained glass windows of Helpston Church. Clare had witnessed the ‘loss’ of great chunks of countryside to enclosure and many of his poems stem from the impact that the act of enclosure had on his relationship with the landscape with which he was so intimately associated.

Helpston stands in the Soke of Peterborough, bordered on three sides by river and on the fourth by the Great North Road. It is an area to which enclosure came late but for a sensitive poet, born of the labouring classes, it brought great sadness expressed in wonderful verse. Much of our greatest nature writing has been fuelled by the same sense of loss and it is a theme that weaves its way through the works of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Eric Ennion and Richard Mabey, for example. Reading these writers individually reveals the painful sense of personal loss that they felt in response to changes in landscapes dear to them. Reading them as a whole reveals a much deeper sense of loss, however, as each writer becomes a chronicler for part of a larger narrative; this narrative affects us all.

Our lives are short within the grand scheme of things. We are not endowed with the ability to gauge the true impact of changes that act over long periods of time; subtle changes are easily missed, their full meaning lost all too easily. That we find John Clare’s sense of loss relevant today underlines that the changes heaped upon our landscape are continuing. Should we read John Clare simply as one of our most gifted poets or should we shift our attention to the messages that his beautifully crafted verse delivers?

There is a danger that we, the audience, are reluctant to hear messages that speak of loss, messages full of negative news and lacking the all-important glimmer of hope. Clare’s landscape has changed, in most cases dramatically so. What remains is predominantly bleak arable, missing the species he would have recognised, but there are patches where work to ‘restore’ landscape is producing tangible and positive results. I think that we need the reassurance that these restored landscapes provide but we must not accept them too readily, lest they cheapen what has been lost; better to prevent loss than recreate a poor copy.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A changing palette

It’s early, though only if you judge the day by the time of its dawn. These short late autumn days give me longer in bed in the morning, the dogs stilled by the lingering dark outside, but soon after first light I am out in the forest. In many ways these December mornings are richer, the colour palette firmly based in deep blues and a raft of browns now that the dominant greens of summer have been sloughed. Although weakened, there is enough strength in the rising sun to draw out the tanned chestnut browns of the beech and soft yellows of the birch, leaves that have clung so late this year.

On days when rain waits in close approach the sky is a deep paynes grey. This dramatic backdrop frames the stand of beech, less than a dozen trees deep, that separates the forest block from the road beyond. The air is damp and holds within it the richly rounded scents of earth and wood. The resinous smell of freshly cut pine reveals some recent felling, a windblown giant cleared from the main track. At my feet, the rains from earlier in the week have rearranged the soil’s surface. A dark, serpentine shape has been revealed, as water has found the path of least resistance, carrying off the lightest grains of fine sand to expose the darker, more solid geology beneath.

Elsewhere in the forest, on the scruffy triangle of land where the Willow Warblers had their nest, the bracken has collapsed upon itself in a great seething mass. Its rough undulations give the appearance of a flooding torrent, swollen with browns of varying shades. Where the bracken has grown up through the scattered hawthorn it takes on a more dynamic form, appearing as waves of decaying fronds breaking up against the hawthorn.

On the duller mornings the colour palette is much reduced, pared back to simple tones: soft brown and charcoal predominate. The landscape feels flat and, at times, almost two-dimensional. On other mornings, when dawn breaks following a clear night, frost tints the forest white. The once straw-brown stems of grass now glisten. Fallen branches from which the bark has been lost take on the appearance of polished bone. Curiously, the presence of a light frost seems to enhance the few patches of green that remain. There is, it appears, some fresh growth even at this season; opportunistic plants that have exploited the unseasonal warmth. Even the grand conifers have toned down their greens, the bright green of summer growth now hardened into darker tones. It is a more brooding palette, one that suggests a land hunkered down and waiting. Come spring, the palette will change again.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Things that go screech in the night

Foxes are a bit thin on the ground around these parts, no doubt a reflection of the game-rearing interests and their need to protect naïve pheasants released for the shoot. Although this pattern is repeated over much of the county there are places where foxes seem to be doing well. One of these is Norwich, where an urban fox population has become well established. In some parts of the city foxes can be seen abroad in daylight; nonchalant in their habits, they can be seen wandering down the quieter suburban streets, stretching out on sun-drenched lawns or scavenging discarded food.

It is at this time of the year that some of these urban foxy goings on may attract the attentions of the city’s human residents. The fox mating season is underway, and will continue through into March, with peak activity from December to February. Fox courtship is a noisy affair, the characteristic triple bark now accompanied by a blood-curdling scream. Once, during my student days in Southampton, I returned home to discover that my housemates were about to call the police. Being a mixture of geologists, engineers and media students, they were unfamiliar with fox vocalisations and had mistaken the ‘scream’ for that of someone being attacked on the rough patch of ground that bordered our house!

Foxes are territorial, typically living in family groups that share a joint territory. Under certain conditions, such as where there is an abundance of food, subordinate individuals may also be present. These tend to be young from the previous year and they may help to rear the dominant vixen’s cubs. Fox society varies according to habitat, so the patterns seen in the wider countryside often differ from what is seen within urban areas.

Courtship is centred on the female’s reproductive status. Although she undergoes a single period of oestrus, lasting for roughly three weeks, fertilisation appears to be limited to a much smaller three-day window. Because of this the male shadows his female very closely, the male adopting a characteristic posture in which he holds his tail higher than usual. Contrary to popular belief, successful matings can occur very quickly, perhaps lasting just a few seconds. However, pairs can become ‘locked’ together, adopting an uncomfortable looking position that may be held for an hour or more. The resulting pregnancy lasts for roughly seven and a half weeks, delivering young just as winter releases its grip. It will be another month, however, before the cubs will first show themselves above ground. They will then remain with their mother, developing their hunting skills, for several months, making the most of summer’s bounty before reaching independence with the approach of autumn.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A late season

Up until very recently, it has felt as if the mild damp of autumn would never relinquish her grip. Warmer than average temperatures, trees reluctant to drop their leaves and a scattering of late summer migrants has blurred what should have been a clear shift in the seasons. It has been a strange autumn and now, with bare trees and clear night skies, we still have the odd day that feels more like a herald of spring than a harbinger of winter.

I am not alone in being caught out by the warmer, brighter days. Great Tits, thrushes and Blackbirds all engage in song, a cheerful chorus that will halt abruptly once the weather systems shift around to their more characteristic positions. A lingering Swallow on the East Anglian coast, together with a late tern and at least one Common Swift, are echoes of the summer that should, by now, be a distant memory. One thing that has remained unchanging, however, is the reduction in daylight hours. While it is mild enough to work in the garden with pleasurable comfort, turning over ground that is still loose and pliable, the short days slip rapidly into darkness from mid-afternoon.

The generally mild conditions leave garden bird feeders unused for days at a time, only for a sudden spurt of activity off the back of the occasional cold night. On such nights, it is reassuring to feel the bite of falling temperatures and to gaze up into the clear sky and watch the stars. On one such night the other week, I was surprised to make out the white form of a Little Egret passing low overhead. The lateness of this bird made me wonder if it had been spooked from a roost or had it continued feeding, as many shorebirds do, under the light of the autumnal moon.

A few creatures have read some signal of the changing season. Harlequin Ladybirds have suddenly amassed in the corners of rooms and outbuildings, hunkering down ahead of the winter that will surely follow. The large wasp nest above the kitchen has finally fallen silent, the last of the increasingly drowsy workers now stilled, and it will soon be time to explore its extent within the small attic space it occupies. There is still some insect activity around the ivy, a plant that provides late season resources for birds and insects alike but soon this too will fall silent. A late Red Admiral butterfly, seen on the wing in town, most surely seek shelter before it is too late. It has been a surprising transition from autumn to winter and one that makes one wonder about our changing climate. Will this blurring of the seasons become the norm?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sticklebacks glisten

For the first time in several years of trapping Crayfish on this particular stretch of the River Lark, I have caught a sizeable haul of Sticklebacks and Minnows. While I might normally catch the odd individual here or there, the two smaller-meshed traps positively glisten with tiny fish this morning. Such small fish would be no match for the Signal Crayfish so it is fortunate that there are few of these voracious crustaceans in the traps today. I do not know why there should be quite so many fish this morning but seeing them here in such numbers brings back memories of childhood.

Like many budding naturalists I had my first experience of sticklebacks as a child, pond-dipping in some old mill ponds at the bottom of the hill below our house. I then read about them in biology text books, kept some in a tank and watched enthralled as the males built their delicate nests and wooed females with their bright red bellies and construction skills. It is perhaps unsurprising that the stickleback should be one of the most well studied fish in the world. One of the neat things about them is (in most stickleback species) the ability to live equally successfully in freshwater and the sea, two very different environments presenting different challenges.

Sticklebacks are small fish, typically some three to seven centimetres in length, with a series of short spines along the back from which they derive their name. The spines are modified fin rays; those on the back are erect and obvious, while those on the side less so and apt to catch out the unwary child, removing a prize fish from a shrimping net. The lack of true scales gives these little fish a rather soft-skinned appearance. They may carry a series of bony plates along their flank, although the extent of these may vary between individual fish, a useful feature by which individuals can be identified within the confines of a cold-water aquarium.

In weedy waters, Three-spined Sticklebacks tend to be solitary in their habits but in more open water, such as this stretch of the River Lark, they shoal. Shoaling provides safety in numbers, with more eyes alert to predators and an individual’s risk of being predated falling as the size of the shoal increases. Minnows often form part of these mixed shoals, so maybe I have just got lucky and attracted a shoal into the traps. Sticklebacks are visual hunters, with well-developed eyes, feeding on small invertebrates. Although short-lived (most will spawn only once), they are a successful species with a wide distribution. This, coupled with the relative ease by which they can be caught, may explain their attraction for children and researchers alike.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Being in the know

It was here, just as the track sweeps around to the left, arching along the shallow incline, that the Long-tail Tits nested over the summer. I am sure that if I looked I could find the nest again, assuming it has not yet been degraded by the weather or ripped apart by an opportunistic predator. Last year, it was a Whitethroat that nested here and the year before that a Blackcap held territory in the scruffy bit of bramble which now tumbles towards the track. Today, on this flat winter morning, the recollection of these birds brightens my walk and lifts my spirits. Having a regular beat strengthens my association with this place; it has become rich in memories and each new visit adds layers to an ever deeper connection.

This connection is important to me; even though this patch of plantation woodland is nothing special, it helps me feel rooted here. As well as being able to draw upon previous encounters, I can look forward to those that lie ahead; the Whitethroats and Blackcaps and Long-tailed Tits will be here again next summer, some of them on the same territories and nesting in the same bushes as were used this summer. Of course some of the individuals may change, and it may be young birds recruiting into the breeding population for the first time that take over these territories. Even so, the sense of continuity remains. As the poet Ted Hughes put it when describing the return of Swifts each summer, such continuity shows that the world is still turning.

There will be change though; in this case the loss of many of the traditional Whitethroat territories that ran in linear fashion along the old snag rows. This block of forestry has been cleared, the rows of dead stumps that were so well used by the Whitethroats are gone and the birds will have to seek opportunities elsewhere. The forest is ever changing, however, and just as old opportunities are lost so new ones will emerge for the Whitethroats. 

Other changes may be more subtle, taking place over more protracted timeframes, and these are certainly less obvious if you are simply comparing one summer with the one that went before. If I look at my notes, I will see that there were many more Willow Warblers here five or ten years ago than there are now. Their loss has been gradual, largely unnoticed but it reflects wider problems for this species across much of southern Britain.

Having a patch, this patch, is quietly comforting but I suspect that, in some small way, I have become possessive of it and the creatures that share it with me as the seasons cycle on.