Saturday, 10 March 2007

The song of the land

The countryside has a tremendous wealth to offer. Being in the countryside, immersing yourself in the nature around you, is spiritually uplifting and emotionally restorative. You only have to look at our rich literary heritage to witness the strength of emotional response that authors and poets display in those works that draw on the countryside and the wildlife it supports. You don’t even have to understand how it all fits together; you can just plug yourself in and appreciate its existence. These thoughts struck me the other day, not while I was out in the countryside but while I was watching a new short film by Norfolk filmmaker John Snape. The film portrays our countryside through music, poetry and writing, picking out some of the most poignant and engaging prose as it does so. From Meredith’s description of a hunting barn owl “..lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping…” through to Francis Harvey’s heron that “… settles wrapped and murderous… the hermit who daily petrifies himself in the reeds…”  the poems draw out memories by adding carefully observed description to scenes that I too have witnessed over the years.

Part of the film focuses on the life and poetry of John Clare. Clare, born in 1793 to virtually illiterate parents, enjoyed brief success as a poet in his lifetime but it is only more recently that his true greatness has been acknowledged. Working as a farm labourer, Clare was no mere observer of the natural world around him. Instead he was immersed within it and his intimate knowledge of birds, plants and animals sets him apart from other writers. The influence of being within and part of the countryside can be seen in Clare’s poetry. His early works are a joyful celebration of nature, with his subjects stirring strong responses in this peasant poet. Yet his later works take on the increasing sense of loss that Clare felt as he witnessed the countryside disintegrate with enclosure and agricultural improvement. Such loss weighed heavy on this sensitive man and he ended his days in an asylum. It seems to me that the binding interaction between the countryside and those that seek to immerse themselves within it is a double-edged sword. Moments of sheer joy, like the pleasure derived from listening to a nightingale, are balanced by the heartache of seeing the countryside despoiled as we place greater demands upon it. However, such is the vitality of nature that there will always be some small thing with which you can engage to generate an uplifting emotional response. John Snape’s film provides many such moments and is well worth a viewing (Telephone John on 01263-768599 for more details – proceeds to Norfolk Wildlife Trust).

Friday, 9 March 2007

The messenger of spring

The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine are one of the first woodland blooms of the year; their rich golden yellow petals mark them out as members of the buttercup family. Lesser celandine is well distributed across Norfolk, and not just within woodland. It is a familiar plant in gardens, appearing in quantity around many Norfolk villages. There are two sub-species, each slightly different in habits and form. One, known as sub-species ficaria occurs in more natural, less disturbed sites – notably areas of ancient woodland. The other, bulbilifer prefers the disturbed ground that is found in gardens and other areas marked by Man’s activities. This form is also a more aggressive plant, able to spread and form carpets of rich yellow and green in areas of heavy shade. Lesser celandine regularly throws up unusual colour forms, including those with white, pale yellow or even orange flowers. However, these do not persist and are soon lost.

The timing of flowering has given rise to a now largely defunct local name of ‘spring messenger’ but it is for another local name that the plant is better known. This name is ‘pilewort’, highlighting the herbal qualities attributed to the plant. The similarity of the tuberous root to the appearance of haemorrhoids led to the plant being used to treat piles. This principle, common in early medicine, held that if something in nature mimicked the appearance of an affliction, then it would serve as a cure for that affliction. Such primitive, and potentially superstitious beliefs, were exploited by commercial herbalists during the 17th and 18th centuries through the Doctrine of Signatures. The doctrine held that all plants carried some physical clue, formed by the Creator, as to their medicinal use. The leaves and roots of lesser celandine were crushed and then boiled in unsalted buttermilk, which, once cooled, could be applied to the afflicted area. The plant is still promoted as a treatment for piles, either to be used as an ointment or drunk as an infusion. It has even been promoted as a treatment for jaundice (because of the yellow flowers) and in Wales it has been used to treat warts.

Lesser celandine has to be one of my favourite blooms, perhaps because it provides a splash of colour so early in the year. It was also Wordsworth’s favourite flower, stimulating the poet to write three separate poems proclaiming its beauty. So strong was his association with the flower that, upon his death in 1850, its image was to be carved on his tomb. Unfortunately, the flower which appears on his monument at Grasmere is greater celandine which, despite its English name, is unrelated, being a member of the poppy family.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Majestic menace

For many, the mute swan is the most graceful and serene of our birds. At this time of the year, however, a different and less pleasant side may be seen. The lengthening days initiate the urge to breed and sexually mature swans begin to establish territories within which to raise a family. Pair formation is a slow and serious business for the mute swan, beginning when individuals are still in their grey-brown juvenile plumage. At this young age they may engage in recognisable courtship greetings, interacting with potential mates within the winter herd (a group of swans is known as a herd, rather than a flock.) Over the following months, young birds increase the degree of courtship behaviour so that by the time they reach their second summer they will have acquired a mate. Even then, they typically do not breed, but instead go through an engagement period before finally breeding at the age of three or four. At this stage, they will establish and defend a breeding territory of their own.

For pairs that have already bred successfully, the establishment of a territory also requires them to see off any of their young that have yet to disperse. This can be a difficult process; the bonds between parents and young, so important earlier in life, now have to be broken, forcing the young to become independent. The primary means of seeing off young birds and would-be intruders is centred on a display of strength. This involves the bird adopting a characteristic posture (known as busking), with the wing feathers raised over the back to give an arched appearance. At the same time, the neck feathers are fluffed out – making the neck appear thicker and more solid, and the head and neck are coiled back. This swan will then swim at the intruder; the jerky nature of this motion resulting from the swan using both its feet simultaneously to force it forward in the water. Normally this is sufficient to see off the interloper but sometimes a more direct attack is needed, with the aggressor launching itself forward with powerful strokes of its great wings. In exceptional cases, the swan will actually see the attack through and there are instances where young swans, unable to escape, have been drowned by an attacker. The willingness to see attacks through highlights the value placed on securing a breeding territory. Interestingly, though, a small minority of pairs (such as those at Abbotsbury in Dorset) are colonial, nesting as close as 2-m together. Under such circumstances there is no place for aggression. So, while the busking display of a swan may seem majestic, it is worth remembering that this monarch means business.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Beauty and the industrial beast

The little ringed plover is an enigmatic bird, all the more so because of its scarcity and association with industrial land. This dainty wader is one of the earliest spring migrants to arrive in Britain, with individuals reaching favoured sites during the second half of March.  But they can arrive earlier, so it is worth keeping an eye out for them over coming weeks. Breeding sites include gravel pits and the settling pools of beet factories but they will also use a range of other industrial or agricultural opportunities. For them, disturbance around the nest, in the form of heavy machinery or workers, is the norm rather than the exception. Although this can, at times, lead to the failure of nesting attempts, aggregate companies and other businesses have proved to be sensitive to their needs, often becoming justifiably protective of their diminutive charges. Unfortunately, egg collectors still target the nests of this species, so fenced and patrolled industrial sites are probably one of the safest nesting places to choose. As such, the importance of industrial sites in the development of the little ringed plover breeding population should not be underestimated.

Little ringed plovers used only to be seen here on passage during spring and autumn, while they were on their way to and from breeding grounds elsewhere. However, a pair nested at Tring Reservoirs in 1938 and since that time the species has continued to colonise Britain, with increasing numbers of nesting attempts reported annually from industrial sites across the eastern part of the country. Nesting in Norfolk was first proved in 1960 and now some 30 or so pairs nest across the county – the gravel pits around Colney being one of the favoured localities. After nesting, family parties move off to the coast before departing from our shores sometime before the end of September, heading south for wintering grounds around the Mediterranean and into Africa.

The development and expansion of the breeding population has been charted by occasional national surveys, the last of which took place in 1984. Indications are that the increase has continued and it is now time for another national survey to see if this is really the case. The survey, being coordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), is taking place this summer and volunteers are needed to visit local gravel pits and other sites to search for little ringed plovers. The BTO is also taking this opportunity to assess the status of the closely related ringed plover, a larger and more widespread species. If you can spare some time this summer to visit potential breeding areas, then the BTO wants to hear from you. Contact Greg Conway on 01842-750050 or email him at

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The leaping hare

The brown hare holds a special place in my affections. Above my desk is a print of a hare by Suffolk artist Andrew Haslen. Pressed down in the autumn furrow of a ploughed field, the hare shown in the print captures those characteristics that, to me, define this magnificent creature. The alert eyes, large ears and bulbous nose reflect highly developed senses, alert to danger, while the lean athletic frame provides the power by which the hare can escape from predators. However, it is in the fields, rather than in print, that you really begin to appreciate the true essence of the brown hare. Hares are largely nocturnal in their habits but they can be seen at dawn and dusk from spring through into summer. During the day they will remain almost motionless, hunkered down in their forms. Unlike a rabbit, which will dash for his burrow as soon as he sees you, the hare will wait, watching you and remaining in her form until you are almost on top of her. Only then will she leap away, accelerating across the field with an elegant and controlled display of speed. If pursued, the hare will turn gracefully through wide circles. The whole manoeuvre has a feeling of control; there is not the sense of panic that you see in rabbits.

The brown hare has long been associated with spring; it is a symbol of fertility, of a new beginning and appears as such in many different cultures. In the myths of the Algonquin Indians, it is “michabo” – the great hare, who creates the earth. In Britain, the hare appears in the mythology of Easter, laying eggs like a bird and symbolising rebirth. According to Bede, the word “Easter” was adopted from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre (spelt eastre or eastur by other writers). This goddess was associated with the month of April, the “dawn month”, and the start of spring. Not all of the mythology surrounding the hare is so flattering, for there are many references which place the hare as a witch, or rather one of the forms a witch may assume. This association has ancient roots, most likely stemming from the rituals central to tribal hunter-gatherers. During ceremonies, certain members of the tribal group would assume the form of those animals important to these people, an association that has continued down through the years, changing its characterisation with time.  Such a rich mythology provides added interest, something to reflect on as you watch these wonderful creatures out in the fields.

Hares are their most obvious at this time of the year, the combination of lengthening daylight and short vegetation providing the ideal opportunity to watch the leaping hare.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Scolded by a restless bird

Yet another damp morning saw me out in the Brecks and on my way to my pair of crayfish traps. These are part of a monitoring programme being operated on the River Lark; the traps put in place for twenty-four hours, once every two weeks. On this occasion my walk in towards the river drew a series of harsh, scolding calls from one of the scattered bushes; each agitated call resonating and reminiscent of a pair of small pebbles being struck together. The source of such harassment was a male stonechat, resplendent in his finery – a black head, warm russet underparts and a beautiful white collar that curved down from his nape and around between the edge of his wing and his proud chest. This nervy little bird was a welcome sight on such a miserably damp morning.

The stonechat used to be a familiar sight over much of Britain, favouring the scruffy uncultivated habitats that made up a sizeable portion of the landscape in those halcyon days towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. Sadly, as land was claimed for agriculture and forestry, so the stonechat was squeezed out of its former haunts and vast tracts of eastern England were left without this delightful bird. Here, within Norfolk, that great champion of Breckland, W. G. Clarke, reported stonechats breeding on my local patch – Barnham Cross Common (just on the southern edge of Thetford). That was in 1937, yet by 1946 the species had been lost completely as a breeder from the whole of Norfolk. The cold winter of 1940 and the aforestation of so many Breckland heaths had both taken their toll; it was not until 1961 that breeding was again confirmed within the county. I mention severe winter weather here because the stonechat is largely insectivorous, something that is fairly unusual in a resident, and this makes it susceptible to periods of pronounced bad weather. Unable to find sufficient invertebrate prey, overwinter mortality can be high. Fortunately, with the capacity for three broods of chicks each year, the reproductive potential can help populations bounce back after a difficult period.

The recovery of the stonechat population within Norfolk, from its low point of the 1940s and 1950s, is something of a recent phenomenon and even now the population probably only numbers 50 or so breeding pairs. These are centred on the Brecks and on the coastal heathlands. While it seems unlikely that the species will ever recover its full former breeding range, there is every hope that the breeding population here in Norfolk will increase further. Maybe the scolding calls of this fidgety and restless bird will be heard more often from suitable patches of uncultivated land.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Happy returns

It is wonderful to have the house sparrows back. There was a period of nearly two years when our local house sparrows ceased to visit the garden and the hanging feeders stuffed with tempting food. I am sure that it was the removal of the tall bushes next door that stimulated their disappearance. House sparrows like to feed from cover and they would raid from over the fence, retreating into the bushes if they felt threatened. Now that the new owners next door have reinstated the bushes, the house sparrows have made a welcome return. Bushes also serve another important purpose in sparrow society, providing a venue for the noisy communal gatherings that were once a common feature in our towns and cities. Such gatherings may well have an important social function, perhaps helping to maintain the colonial structure of house sparrow populations.

While the loss of our sparrows was a temporary one, it did mirror a widespread and longer-lasting phenomenon. House sparrow populations have declined across much of the country, the UK breeding population virtually halving in a little over two decades. Worrying though such a decline is, the house sparrow has not faired as badly as its county cousin, the tree sparrow. This now rather scarce bird has suffered from the loss of over-winter stubbles and other changes in farming practices, with a population decline of nearly 80% documented since the 1970s. Such changes stem from the demands that we, as consumers, place on the farming industry.

The two species are fairly easy to tell apart; the male house sparrow with his grey crown, white cheeks and black chinstrap, the latter extending down onto the chest in the form of a black bib. Female house sparrows (and young birds of both sexes) are a light sandy brown in colour with brown and grey streaks on the back and the wings. In tree sparrows the two sexes look identical and can be distinguished from house sparrows by the warm red-brown crown and the black spot that sits within the white cheek patch. There is also a narrow white collar and the black bib is smaller than that seen in the house sparrow. The two species are granivores, feeding on large seeds including cereal grains, and both share the relative large bill that is a feature of such seed-eaters. These immediately distinguish them from another small brown bird that is sometimes, quite wrongly, regarded as a sparrow. This is the dunnock, known by some as the hedge sparrow, a completely unrelated insectivorous species. While the sparrows are happy to feed from our hanging feeders, the solitary dunnock creeps about on the ground below, moving in a mouse-like fashion.