Spring-shine

The world is alive, and it is very beautiful.

Bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Bluebell 20 Apr 2018

Cuckooflower – Cardamine pratensis

Cuckooflower 20 Apr 2018

Wood-sorrel – Oxalis acetosella

Wood-sorrel 20 Apr 2018

Toothwort – Lathraea squamaria

Toothwort 20 Apr 2018

Wild cherry – Prunus avium

Cherry tree 20 Apr 2018

Hedgerow blossoming

Hedgerow blossom 20 Apr 2018

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The Living is Easy

Few people would consider it a compliment to be called a ‘parasite’. But there is more to the lifestyle than tapeworms and ticks.

This week, I’ve come across two of the UK’s strangest wild things, both of which are parasites of a sort. First up is a small wildflower that is easily overlooked in the glut of ground flora erupting in spring.

Toothwort 19 Apr 2018

It’s a toothwort, which is entirely dependent on other plants for its nutrition. It absorbs everything that it requires through parasitizing roots, often of hazel or beech. With no need to make its own food, it contains no chlorophyll, and pops out of the soil as a rather ghostly flower.

Toothwort2 19 Apr 2018

The second species appears even stranger to our land-based lives. Jawless, four-eyed and primeval, lampreys can be mistaken for eels at a glance, but their behaviour is very different. They latch onto fish and drink their blood like leeches.

Lamprey2

Lamprey1

A tad gruesome? Perhaps, but they’re only making a living, like everything else in the natural world. And lampreys themselves have predators, like this beautiful otter that I saw in Norfolk a few years back.

Otter with lamprey

The Returnee

RK1

Henry VIII was not a nice man. Apart from his well-documented personal life, he embraced a crusade against ‘bad’ British wildlife. He was hardly original – wolves at least were being exterminated by royal decree as far back as Norman times – but Tudor law eventually placed one of our most spectacular and harmless raptors firmly in the bounty hunter’s sights.

But most madness does end. The red kite – this forked-tailed scavenger that clears up carrion and delights birdwatchers everywhere – is once again widespread in British skies. Reintroductions have been highly successful in England, although rather less so in Scotland where illegal poisoning of wildlife sadly continues.

The North Downs has been adopted by kites reintroduced to the Chilterns. They follow tractors across the hills like outsized gulls.

Tractor and kite NDW 24 May 2017

Strange, really, to look at the kite through the eyes of a 16th century countryman who probably genuinely believed that it was harmful to livestock. In an era when there were so many real dangers, human nature seemingly demanded that people imagine more.

Today, kites make most people smile. I often meet hikers on the North Downs Way who pause in their long journeys to admire the acrobat in the sky.

Red kites3 14 Apr 2018

Red kites2 14 Apr 2018

The hills are a better place with them dancing above us.

Signatures

Snow is a bit like a mime: it has a lot to say, but speaks no words. Instead it is signed by creatures in passing, and the watcher guesses at their onward travels.

Fox tracks 27 Feb 2018

This is a fox, of course; their tracks are not hard to find in the North Downs in any season. Something about this scene intrigued me – a journey from barbed wire into the sunlight – but for the fox, it is simply another small moment on a winter’s day.

In close up, a fox’s tracks resemble those of a dog, but there are subtle differences. A fox’s inner toes are set well ahead of the rest of the foot, leaving a long, narrow track. Most dog prints are rounded. My video describing the differences in detail is here.

Fox track perfect 3 Mar 2018

Sometimes the story is more complex. This fox may have strayed too close to thorns – notice the drop of blood in the top right? Only a little, and the tracks lead away. Crossing them are the five-toed prints of a badger. Foxes and badgers rarely show overt violence to each other, although there is no question that the badger is always in charge.

Badger, fox, blood

And this is a roe deer, with a bird in attendance. Probably a magpie or crow.

Deer and bird 3 Mar 2018

Rabbits keep close to cover.

Rabbit tracks2 3 Mar 2018

And the sun keeps close to the seasons.

Snowy lane 27 Feb 2018

The mime has left us. We are close to spring equinox now and snow has been replaced by flowers.

The Painter

It’s all Russia’s fault, apparently. They say a giant painter was sploshing whitewash over Siberia and stopped to shake out his brush over Britain – or something like that.

Spring rolled into the calendar to be greeted with -10C (14F) and snow so powdery that it danced in the wind like leaves.

Snowscape2 3 Mar 2018

We have snow every winter in the North Downs, but this ‘beast from the east’ has been unusually greedy in swallowing the entire country just when the birds and flowers were coming alive. For the foxes, it is business as usual: dig up buried supplies and seek small rodents under the snow.

Fox 28 Feb 2018

They hardly seem to notice the fierce windchill.

Dun Male2 27 Feb 2018

Roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, and blend into the leafless branches.

Roe deer 28 Feb 2018

Snow is a beautiful challenge. It starts by painting the paths, and ends in waterfalls dripping through the trees.

Path 27 Feb 2018

But the grass is returning. Spring is ready to restart.

Spain: Pieces of the Puzzle

Andújar practically means lynx to the travelling wildlife watcher. But wild cats can only stand balanced on top of an ecosystem. Lynx fall and rise in sync with their rabbits, and the rest of the natural web dances nearby.

Looking for wild cats is a painstaking, perplexing and humbling business, but as the hours pass in waiting, other stories whisper from the rocks. Look closer, and even in this thin carpet between cold rock and fickle sky, life wins a foothold.

Lizard

Lizard Sp 1

Natterjack toad

Natterjack toad 2 Feb 2018

Some of it is in the water – a carp of this size is a handsome prize for an otter.

Otter Andujar 6 Feb 2018

I heard it eating, eating, munching and crunching, long after it vanished from sight into the rocks.

Some of it is in the sky, on massive wings. Griffon vultures circle lazily in thermals, or rest with kingly distain on cliffs.

Griffon vultures1

Vulture in Andujar2

Some of it is more controversial; numbers of deer are artificially held at absurdly high numbers by deer hunting estates, which must be having a significant impact of the rest of the ecosystem through overgrazing. That is a political problem; it is hardly the fault of the deer. Magnificent red deer abound.

Red deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Fallow deer are also a common sight.

Fallow deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Just occasionally, a third hoofed mammal shows itself: Andújar is home to the mouflon, the rare wild ancestor of the ubiquitous domestic sheep. This ram was travelling with two red deer.

Mouflon and red deer

Their wariness is instinctive, but the real ruler of this ecosystem – the Iberian wolf – has sadly vanished despite strict legal protection; the suspicion has fallen on illegal killing by deer hunters.

But one more predator does survive in the mountains’ quieter corners. I put out a couple of trailcams on the off-chance, and was thrilled to catch an Iberian wildcat! This is related to the Scottish wildcat but is noticeably larger.

Snapshot_16

Spain clearly has serious conservation challenges, but the battle to save them will be worth the fight.

Spain: Land of the Lynx

Master of rabbits, slave of rabbits. Live by rabbits, die by rabbits.

The very word ‘Spain’ derives from the Phoenician I-Shpaniameaning quite literally the Land of Rabbits. Here and only here is the European rabbit native, in the dry southwest of our continent, along with a bit of Morocco and Algeria. They have become so familiar on golf courses and road verges in Britain that few of us stop to question what a rabbit’s real land looks like.

Storm rolling in

Or realise that it might be collapsing towards extinction there.

Introduced diseases such as myxomatosis and RHD have decimated the rabbits of Iberia; habitat destruction and intensive hunting have also hurt them. And if the rabbit falls, it takes an entire ecosystem with it. The mighty imperial eagle and the outsize Iberian wildcat are amongst the carnivores dependent on rabbit.

So, above all, is the pardel lynx.

It’s overcast today. We spent the morning in the cobbled streets of Marmolejo, a little town with whitewashed walls and orange trees. The road into the mountains winds away north, flanked with wintry meadows and hillsides speckled with stone pine. Vultures cruise lazily overhead; here and there a hoopoe flies.

That is all forgotten when green eyes shine in the grass.

Iberian lynx10a 5 Feb 2018

A pardel lynx!

I came to Andújar with the vague idea of huddling on a freezing hillside for hours – days – until I glimpsed one half a mile away with a spotting scope. And this cat poses like a lion!

Iberian lynx1 5 Feb 2018

I’ve crossed paths with 13 of the 40 or so species of wild cat. All are unique and precious; but this, the rarest of all, puts on the performance of a lifetime. For five hours we share his company. He sleeps, yawns, pads about and sleeps some more.

Iberian lynx8a 5 Feb 2018

Iberian lynx3a 5 Feb 2018

He is lucky; the Sierra Morena support the largest surviving population of pardel lynx. We have seen a few rabbits here, but fewer than I’d hoped.

And there’s question of where his cubs will live – crossing highways is dangerous. Andalucía asks anyone who finds a wounded lynx to report it to the mainstream emergency services; it has also undertaken an energetic programme of ‘watch out for lynx’ signs. I have been encouraged by the very positive local attitude towards the lynx. Reintroduction efforts have recently boosted their numbers elsewhere.

Iberian lynx4a 5 Feb 2018

There are four species of lynx. The smallest is the bobcat, and the biggest by far is the northern or Eurasian lynx, the spotted ghost of the ancient European wildwood. I’ve tracked that species, occasionally, in the timeless primeval woods of Poland. But the pardel lynx has no such wilderness. The fact that its numbers are creeping upwards is testament to its willingness to live in the human shadow, along with the human desire to save it.

And its rabbits. There simply is no lynx without them.

Iberian lynx11 5 Feb 2018

Long may they both thrive in these mountains.