With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.
It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.
The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.
Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.
I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.
Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.
Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.
Huge areas of England are hollow. Hard to believe, looking across mountains capped with snow and heather, lined with dry walls and wandered by idling sheep. But there is so much more beneath.
Britain is, for its size, the most geologically diverse area in the world. We have collapsed volcanoes, cliffs that crumble amongst dinosaur bones, and chalky hills that support an incredible diversity of flowers. Beneath it all, a new and exotic landscape awaits.
The Pennines are England’s backbone, running from Derbyshire up to the Tyne Gap. But like real bones, they are not solid. Water has scarred them, carved them, painted them with ghosts of lost rivers on the ceilings of caves.
Derbyshire has a sparkle about the edges. It is almost the only place in the world where Blue John – a type of fluorite – occurs. Some is still mined and turned into jewellery, but other specimens are left in the rock for visitors to ponder.
It is old, very old. It was here when the abbeys of Yorkshire were full of human life.
It will remain here as water whittles the hills afresh.
A quiet witness, like the snow that is transient in the Dales.
Remember the snow?
Now the hills are waking up, shaking off wintry lethargy with a sprinkle of early flowers. Wild primrose is amongst the first, brightening road verges and old meadows.
But mostly, this is the moment of the violet. We have a purple carpet this year, tiny exquisite flowers marking nearly every patch of undamaged grass.
‘Undamaged’ being the operative word, of course. Once, most of the UK had traditional meadows that supported abundant native plants and animals. Nearly all of them have been destroyed by modern agriculture, and while the laws have improved over time, things could still be better.
Patches of old grassland also occur on private land – in particularly old mature gardens. If you have a mossy lawn, please be kind to it. It’s more interesting than a flat, bland bed of rye grass and supports far, far more life, including rare fungi. Avoiding fertilisers and unnecessary tilling is key.
Back on the hills, animals are also waking up. Roman snails are Britain’s largest species and are strictly protected. This one might have appreciated a little rain to wash its shell.
It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.
Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.
Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?
Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.
But there is a ray of hope.
Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.
Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.
I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.
And maybe – just maybe – some of these.
Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.
All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.
My original blog on the much-missed Opera Community was called ‘The Sitting Fox’ in honour of a vulpine cliché: when watching something that they’re not sure about, they sit down.
But outright relaxation is not unknown. This vixen from the Across the Road Group dozed peacefully in the garden last week while her mate and a low-ranking male raged in mock battle – biting the hedgerow, half-chasing, talking with their tails like cats.
It didn’t turn violent. The younger male even turned his back on his rival between their squabbles.
The vixen hardly batted an eye. We’re coming towards the end of the breeding season, and she is almost certainly pregnant by now. Her mate is the Dun Male, here on the right. Apologies for the quality of this picture; it’s a still off the movie camera.
The Across the Road Group. Of all the fox groups in my village, they’re the ones whom I know the best. Six years of drama, and no sign of slowing. So many unforgettable characters have lived in this group: the original Vixen from Across the Road, who raised her cubs despite losing half her territory to builders; the White Socks Vixen, tiny, nervous and unquenchable; the Cavalier Cub, White Socks’ son, whose domineering, bombastic personality disrupted the fox territory network in multiple streets.
Let’s hope these two have some cubs and we can see what chapter comes next.
White Socks Vixen – 2017
Cold: the frost is as thick as grease. Windows feathered into impossible patterns. Soil like iron. As the winter stars slide into the west, a red eye blinks.
The Earth is unique in the solar system for having such a moon of such proportions. Others are bigger, like Jupiter’s Ganymede, but their parent planet dwarfs them. Not our moon, which is about a quarter the diameter of the Earth. Cold, airless and silent, it circles us, amazing us, and just occasionally falling into Earth’s shadow. We had a full lunar eclipse last night, and it was well worth a very early vigil with the camera.
Luna chased the stars into the west, and left us; daylight began with frozen fog. By afternoon, it had burned through, and roe deer were wandering.
This is the only deer species that is frequently encountered in my part of England, and much less social than its bigger relatives.
I saw the male fox from the ‘courting couple’ of the sheep pasture, but he was in a rush and there was little chance for a photo. Slightly more of a view yesterday, when he trotted through the mist.
I haven’t seen the vixen, but no doubt she’s around.
I wonder if they saw Luna last night.
January has two meanings for foxes: the breeding season, and voles. Subzero days coax field voles into daylight foraging, and their predators hurriedly follow suit. Happily for the fox-watcher, they are highly visible while questing for lunch.
And when they’re not thinking about food, they’re concentrating on each other!
Foxes have a complicated social life. Groups consist of a breeding pair, their cubs, and sometimes offspring from previous years. They do not hunt together like wolves, but protect a common boundary. But between – and sometimes within – these territorial homelands are a significant number of free-ranging, nomadic foxes, including dispersers searching for a vacant home.
Moreover, many large males trespass freely during the breeding season, sometimes triggering fights. We’ve had an interesting situation here this winter with an exceptionally high number of big roaming males, most of whom I don’t recognise. Doubtless they’ll disappear again before the spring.
Meanwhile, the courting pairs stay close, more or less ignoring their neighbours in the pasture.
The sheep seem to care little about fox territories.
But the grass knows – foxes have scent glands on the edges of their mouths, transmitting information that other vulpines will note.
Hopefully this pair will produces cubs. We’ll find out in the spring.