The Second Frost

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.

Spring blossom 19 Apr 19

The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.

Bluebell dew drops 19 Apr 19

Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.

Khamsin in bluebells 21 Apr 19

I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.

Cowslip dew drops2 19 Apr 19

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.

Toothwort and little slug 19 Apr 19

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.

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The Hills are Alive…

Remember the snow?

Snowy winter Jan 19

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.

Wild primrose at Quarrydean1 Mar 2019

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.

Violet2 Mar 2019

Violet1 Mar 2019

‘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.

Roman snail Mar 2019

It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.

Canada: Christmas in September

September 2018

We’ve stumbled into a place of magic. Autumn and winter built a palace, and look at their art!

RMNP snow4

It’s quiet now, with skies lightening after last night’s snow. Spruce grouse wander the roads.

Spruce grouse Sept 18

…roads: pathways past miraculous beauty.

RMNP snow3

And – this!

Bears3 Sept 18

A bear! Three bears in fact; mama and two cubs of the year. They must be wondering who has repainted their forest, but seeing these wonderful creatures contrast the white is spellbinding.

Bears2 Sept 18

Black bears are a special species to me after all the time I spent with them out west. I’ve travelled so far driven by the hope of seeing one again, and here there are three! Christmas come early, I think.

A good moment. A special moment. The type of moment that makes you realise how precious our wild neighbours are.

Canada: Skylines

September 19th 2018

This is Canada: a canvas for small things.

Yellow butterfly

American red squirrel Spruce Lakes MB 19 Sept 2018

Autumn food

This is Canada, where the sky can swallow your thoughts. There are no trees here, or very few, just the raw horizon furred with autumnal grass, and the sky above it reinvents itself almost every minute of the day.

Prairie sundown 19 Sept 18

Six years was too many. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to Canada – 15? 20? – but for a variety of reasons this wild and perplexing country dropped off my radar after 2012. Coming back, remembering the sky, grateful for the air that is still flavoured with the crisp northern bite.

We landed last night at the heart of Canada, in the historic if climatically-challenged city of Winnipeg. There are no easy roads to the village of Val Marie; this time we’ve chosen to drive from the east, some 850 kilometres.

Prairie, prairie, prairie: mostly arable farmland these days, although just occasionally you catch glimpses of its glorious wildlife-filled past. Say ‘Canadian wilderness’, and most people visualise the western mountains or boreal forests – but the prairie held far higher numbers of wild things, once. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan protects the best habitat left, but on the way there, there are many surprises.

The Souris River, for one. At 700 km, it is small by Canadian standards, but is still longer than England. Like most of the prairie landscape, it is a nod to past glaciation – its basin was once filled by the now-extinct Lake Souris.

Souris River1

Canadian royalty, for another.

Bald eagle 19 Sept 2018

After a full day of driving, we still have many hours to go. Pulling into Assiniboia, we are greeted by a great horned owl perched on the grain elevator.

Great horned owl grain train 19 Sept 2018

Looking for rodents attracted to wheat being transferred to the grain train, no doubt. Some wildlife takes full advantage of its human neighbours.

But many other species need wilderness proper. Tomorrow, we’re back on the road and turning south east.

Bright as a Button

Autumn is my favourite season. The flowers may have largely taken their leave, but in the wake come things brighter and stranger.

Beech russula 15 Sept 2018

It’s a brittlegill, AKA a member of the Russula family. Something is eating the brittlegills; this is one of the more intact ones that I’ve found. My trailcams caught squirrels tucking into what appeared to be the much greyer charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha, but that is unlikely to be the whole story. Rodents, slugs and even foxes eagerly accept wild mushroom buffet.

Russulas are famously difficult to identify to species level. This could be a beechwood sickener Russula noblis, which might explain why the squirrels haven’t munched on it.

They brighten up the woodland floor, whatever they are. A small spider is resting on this one’s stem.

Beech russula3 15 Sept 2018

Jelly-ear fungi decorate branches.

Jelly ear Figgs Aug 2018

Mower’s mushrooms Panaeolus foenisecii add intrigue to the grass.

Fungus golf course Aug 2018

And bracket fungi of all kinds form shelves on the dead bones of old trees.

Bracket fungus Aug 2018

Autumn has much more to give. Most of the leaves are yet to fall.

Khamsin in the wood 15 Sept 2018

Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.

Fox-and-Cubs

The wild species commonly known as ‘fox’ has been represented this afternoon by One-Eye, who never needs a second excuse to recline on the patio.

One Eye2 14 Jul 2018

One Eye1 14 Jul 2018

Or peer into the house, for that matter. Foxes are profoundly curious creatures.

One Eye being nosy 14 Jul 2018

I should stress that he is not ‘tame’. I strongly believe that foxes should never be allowed to enter houses – one householder might enjoy it, but the fox is likely to repeat that behaviour with a neighbour. Indoor foxes cause bad press at best, and serious human-wildlife conflict at worst. One-Eye sits by the glass because he is highly intelligent and understands that humans and dogs cannot reach him even when they are inches away. If the door is opened, he backs off at once.

Anyway, we do have a second species of wild fox here, somewhat. It is orange and very furry, and in its own way, just as adaptable as its namesake.

Fox and cubs flower 14 Jul 2018

Fox-and-cubs is a member of the daisy family. It is not native to Britain but has lived wild here since at least the 17th century. It is quite tenacious and often grows on roadsides. This is the first one that I’ve found in my parish, and I will have to go back next year and photograph it before it goes to seed.

It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the other species of fox have changed by then.

One Eye3 14 Jul 2018