Saturday, 10 November 2012


Writing in the 1920s, soon after the Great War and the loss of her husband, Helen Thomas recalled a trip that they had made together to the Wiltshire downs. From her description of the cottage in which they stayed and the natural world around it, it is clear that this experience of the countryside made a very great impression on Helen. One particular passage resonates with me and provides perhaps the best description of the silence that the countryside delivers. Helen wrote ‘No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it…’

For me, such words capture the true strength of the countryside and its stillness. It is not a silent world but one in which natural sounds enhance the sense of peace and welcome comfort. Helen’s husband to be, accompanying her on this first trip, was Edward Thomas, a poet, reviewer and writer on nature and the countryside. Edward, like Helen, was a great walker. Prone to bouts of deep melancholy, he would sometimes stride from the house angry and bitter to seek relief through long hours spent alone, pacing through the countryside. Edward Thomas found peace in nature, the welcoming stillness of the countryside allowing him to battle his inner demons.

The countryside has changed a great deal since that time and the sounds of human activity reach even the most remote parts of our small island. Traffic noise insinuates itself throughout much of the day and passenger jets add a deeper background rumble. Neither, however, is as intrusive as the roar of military planes flying low and fast or the sharp retort of sporting guns. Such abrupt sounds penetrate the calm in a manner that cannot be ignored.

It is only during the hours of night that a sense of stillness can truly be felt, as our activities dwindle though never quite ceasing altogether. Then, even in the middle of a town as dusk slips towards dark, the stillness descends, the evening song of robin and blackbird becoming more resonant, deepening the silence. The air feels heavier; you begin to pick out other natural sounds and feel more at one with your surroundings.

As individuals we benefit from the stillness of the natural world and the opportunity to settle within its embrace. It provides space for reflection, increases our sense of place and, importantly, is free from the sounds that would otherwise claw at our attention. We are so busy filtering out the artificial, day-to-day sounds of the world around us, that we lose sight of the natural world and, by doing so, lose the all-important bond that helps to keep us rooted.

Friday, 9 November 2012

A nutty problem

It seems that many of us have noticed that there seem to be more squirrels around this autumn, with individuals turning up at sites, like Lakenheath Fen, where they are rarely seen. According to correspondence and comments made in online forums, the numbers of squirrels using garden feeding stations across the county are also up, with individuals raiding bird feeders and hanging fat balls in a sometimes troublesome manner. Our personal observations are supported by data collected through the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch survey (, whose systematic records also show a substantial increase in squirrels this year. According to their figures, the use of gardens by squirrels is currently a third up on the same period for previous years.

So what is behind this increase in sightings? Is it a case of the squirrels having had a good breeding season, such that there are simply more of them around, or is a shortage of tree seeds forcing them to travel farther afield, delivering more of them into our gardens and urban parks? It might be a combination of both of these things, the increase having started fairly early in the year but it certainly seems to be the case that seed crops have been poor this autumn, with beech mast in particularly short supply.

The lack of tree seed has been having an impact on other species too. We have seen many more Jays around this autumn, struggling perhaps to find acorns and having to cover more ground. It is even possible that some of these birds will be immigrants from the continent. There have also been some big movements of Woodpigeons (a species that makes good use of the autumn beech mast crop) along the east coast. Additionally, many people are reporting Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Chaffinch appearing in greater numbers in their gardens than is usual for the time of the year.

It is also worth mentioning those birds that feed on berries, since these also seem to be having a hard time this autumn. Included with these, alongside the more familiar thrushes and Starlings, are rare visitors like Waxwing, a species that has already begun to arrive in northern Britain in growing numbers this autumn and which is likely to push south in the weeks ahead. I would expect to see some of these stunning birds feeding on the berry-producing shrubs used as amenity planting in supermarket car parks and new housing estates later in the winter.

These birds and mammals may well be facing challenging times this winter and so any helping hand that you can spare may be particularly worthwhile. In return you might be treated to the sight of a garden full of visitors.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Marine wonders

I could tell that Harriet was hooked on the marine world by the glint in her eye as she described her most recent dive, made on the chalk reef that sits just off the North Norfolk coast. The enthusiasm underlined that this was a new experience, a first glimpse of the diverse community of organisms that lives below the surface of our coastal waters. Harriet Mead is a sculptor, president of the Society of Wildlife Artists and recent recipient of a diving bursary from The Wildlife Trusts. This bursary has been given annually for the last five years to highlight our marine communities and the threats that face them. Harriet was diving the Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds, often referred to as the Cromer chalk Reef, sketching the wildlife she encountered before creating the wonderful sculptures that are now on display at the Mall Galleries in London.

You may well have come across news of this chalk reef through features on local television or in the EDP. The reef’s important contribution to our marine ecosystem has only recently come to light and, quite rightly, it has been recommended for Marine Conservation Zone status. The first of these zones was designated around Lundy in the Bristol Channel in 2010 and others have since been designated or put forward as candidates through the Marine Conservation Zone Project, a partnership bringing together people who use the sea for their livelihood or leisure. The extent of the chalk beds and the range of creatures that they support is being catalogued by local divers who are discovering new things all of the time. The beds could prove to be Europe’s largest chalk reef and they have already revealed species new to science, most notably a new species of purple sponge.

The reef, with its boulders, stacks and arches, provides an array of microhabitats for the many different creatures that live on it. From delicate sea slugs and pipefish to robust crabs and beautiful worms, the reef is rich with life. Harriet’s sculptures deliver a taste of this underwater world; recreated from scrap metal we see the solidity of a lobster, claws raised in defiance, and the curves of a baby cuttlefish – the size of a bumblebee – that squirted ink and then dropped to hide in the sand. Such works provide an insight into this marine community and raise the profile of the important efforts that are being made to secure the reef’s future.  I suspect that Harriet will be diving the reef again and again, delighting in this new experience and the creatures with which she is sharing it. Information on the Cromer Shoal Chalk beds can be found at and Harriet’s work can be seen at

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Traveller of the fields

The harsh dry calls of passing Fieldfares have become a feature of my early morning walks, the distinctive notes resonant in the half-light. An upward glance and I can just about make out the shapes of these larger thrushes, newly arrived from Scandinavia, as they flick by overhead. I am equally likely to stumble across these birds later in the day, perhaps flushing a flock from a berry-covered hedgerow or a quiet pasture.

Good numbers have arrived this autumn, perhaps a little later than in recent years but I suspect that we will see a sizeable population wintering here. Fieldfares tend to remain on their breeding grounds for as long as there is food available. Rowan berries are favoured and once these are gone the birds move on elsewhere, often in the company of other thrushes. The movements are nomadic in nature, the birds responding to both food availability and weather conditions. Flocks will often feed on insects and earthworms taken from farmland fields. During the hardest weather, when the ground is frozen and soil-dwelling invertebrates unavailable, the birds have to turn to opportunities elsewhere. It is during the worst of the weather that they will turn to gardens, raiding berry-producing shrubs and windfall apples. Orchards may also be used during the autumn and winter, from soon after the birds have first arrived until the fruits have gone.

The Fieldfare is a striking bird; larger than a Blackbird this is a robust thrush, boldly marked with a grey head and rump, a chestnut back and chestnut and black wings. The breast is washed buff and marked with dark spots that become larger in size down the flanks. The name itself comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘feldware’ which literally translates as ‘traveller of the fields’ a reference to both its nomadic nature and preference for open fields.

Although a gregarious species, the Fieldfare may sometimes use its size to defend a food resource, such as a berry-producing shrub or a single windfall apple. This form of food defence is also seen in the Mistle Thrush. Unusually for a thrush, Fieldfares often nest together in a loose colony, where they can then work collectively to see off would-be predators. The birds will dive at the predator, calling loudly and defecating on the intruder, a behaviour that is usually enough to drive the predator away.

As you might expect for such a nomadic species, the Fieldfares that you see here this winter may have spent the previous winter somewhere else entirely. Birds ringed in Britain have, for example, been found in subsequent winters as far away as the Po Delta region of northern Italy. This could make your garden quite a cosmopolitan destination this winter. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Sea duck makes a rare appearance

I don’t make a habit of rushing off after work to look at rare birds but on this occasion I made an exception. After all, the bird in question had turned up on the nature reserve at work and was the first of its kind to put in an appearance in nearly two decades of my working here. The slightly foggy conditions, coupled with fading light, did not provide much of a window to take the bird in but there it was, a common scoter, sitting quietly alongside the local mallard and tufted duck. The fact that the common scoter is a sea-duck means I rarely get a good view of one anyway, so a bird sat fifty feet away on the flat surface of an old gravel pit was welcome whatever the conditions.

This was a male, jet black in colour with a splash of bright yellow across the bill, and rather smart in appearance. Although common scoter are present off the Norfolk coast throughout the year, it is in the winter months that we see peak numbers with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 wintering in flocks, known as ‘rafts’, in those areas where the sea is fairly shallow. The association with shallow water underlines the scoter’s foraging requirements, diving to feed on molluscs, like the blue mussel, found on sandy seabeds.

Inland records are uncommon and usually involve birds that are simply resting, taking a break from overland passage. Nationally, such inland records tend to come from our largest waterbodies, particularly more northern reservoirs, so the presence of one on a relatively small gravel pit in the heart of the Brecks was a little unexpected. Mind you, the pits sometimes attract Smew in the coldest winter weather, another sea duck with a rather smart appearance. This bird stuck around for a few days, which again is unusual as most inland records involve birds that are gone within 24 hours.

There is a small British and Irish breeding population, restricted to the north-west fringe and breeding by remote Scottish lochans and Irish limestone lakes, so most of the birds that winter off the Norfolk coast will be from other populations, most likely those breeding in Scandinavia and east into Russia. As is the case with certain of wildfowl, scoter undertake a moult migration, with individuals drawn from over a wide area gathering together at favoured sites to undergo their annual moult. Many will make a substantial overland crossing so the origins of the male that dropped in at the Nunnery Lakes could be many thousands of kilometres from here. Having such a bird arrive on my local patch underlined the pleasure of watching a local site.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Making a living alongside humans

Stillness descends over the town’s margins in the hour before dusk. The paths down by the river fall quiet and no longer echo to the hollow ring of footsteps or the chatter of young voices. This is one of my favourite times of the day and one that delivers a sense of transition, not just from day to night but also from the human-dominated landscape to a more natural one. This is the time when the ducks, Canada geese and swans begin to settle and the rats emerge. All along the footpath, but particularly in those stretches where we humans sit to eat our lunch, the rats can be seen foraging and scavenging. Some seem wary but others, perhaps those that are old hands at making a living alongside people, allow a closer approach.

Rats have a bad press, a legacy perhaps of earlier times when they competed for our food and were associated with the spread of devastating disease. Despite this, I have a soft spot for them and I admire their adaptability, tenacity and success. These are common rats. Although sometimes known as brown rats, their colour is variable and some individuals are very dark, almost black, prompting confusion with the very much rarer black rat, a species now confined to a few isolated and often transient populations within Britain. The common rat is thought to have originated in the vast steppes of central Asia, spreading west across Europe via trade routes and reaching Britain in the early 1700s. Once here, the species spread rapidly, displacing its smaller relative and occupying just about any habitat where natural foods were augmented by those associated with human activity.

Rat society is somewhat more complex than you might at first imagine. Common rats tend to live in colonies, loosely structured affairs that appear to be comprised of small groups, known as clans. Each clan usually comprises of a male or a pair, together with a harem of other individuals. The clan maintains a territory based around a burrow system and one or more food resources. Territory size decreases as the density of rats within a population increases and this leads to a clear dominance hierarchy. Those individuals towards the top of the hierarchy gain greater access to food resources.

The spread of sizes among the individuals that I see by the river indicates a thriving colony and, most likely, one that has had a good year. Breeding takes place throughout the year, the young females sexually mature at just eleven weeks of age, so it is easy to see how this colony has been able to develop and to take the opportunities afforded by our wasteful practices and grubby habits.