Monday, 20 February 2017

The Secrets Of The Land, And How To Read Them


Around 90% of England isn't built on. Before those of us who love wildlife and wild places rejoice, let's remember that much of that 90% is fragmented by infrastructure: roads, fences, railways, industry, shops, houses divide and parcel the land, restricting the free movement of wild things; that the brown field sites are polluted; that the farmland is largely monoculture treated heavily with chemicals; that many of the rivers are polluted or still constrained by hard engineering and that the woodland is not ancient and natural, but farmed coniferous or newly planted. All these things reduce the wildlife value considerably.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Wildlife is good at adapting and hanging on in the margins, and even here in heavily managed Hampshire you don't have to go far to step into a wild world where nature is everything and the modern world fades away into the silence of the Earth.

Often, we're too busy to notice the signs, because they are usually small and discreet, wild things having learnt through millennia of evolution that that's the best way to survive. Looking and noticing is what lets you into this world, noticing the small. It's a world that steps you back in time to when the ice sheets had not long retreated and the ancestors trod the earth, when the world was fresh and new......


Start with the simple. It's always the best place to begin. Here is a field with an old hedge on one side. You know it's old because it has mature oak trees in it, and natives like field maple, hazel, ash, blackthorn and holly. All trees that have been here since the ice sheets went. The land is farmed (monoculture crop grown with sprays) and there are houses along one side. But on the hedge side, a tiny tiny strip of headland has been left uncultivated. Mainly because the farm machinery can't get right up to the hedge. It's not in great shape, it could be a lot better, but it's better than nothing. It offers the hedge some protection from the sprays, it allows a few hardy 'weeds' (not my favourite word) a place to grow, and it provides space for field signs.




Like this deer slot. In this part of Hampshire it could be Roe, Muntjac or Fallow. It's too big to be Muntjac, too small to be Fallow. The shape (curving inwards), the size (length about 45mm) and where it is (in the field away from cover) make it more likely to be Roe.



On the margin of the field, close under the hedge I found these....



Piles of ash seeds. They weren't under an ash tree, and there were several of them. Had they been gathered? Yes, most probably by mice, who collect large stores of seeds in sheltered places to see them through winter.

Further along the hedge I found these.....



A series of small, shallow pits dug into the earth, fairly close together, some containing poo like this one....


They're a badger latrine. Badgers are incredibly clean, tidy and fastidious animals. Did you know they are the only mammal beside humans who dig latrines for their waste? A badger loo is situated on the edge of their territory. In the autumn the poo is often red with blackberries. Badgers are omnivores, and not particularly choosey about what they eat, although their favourite food is earthworms, which gives the droppings their characteristic grey sludge appearance. Much of looking for field signs involves poo, because the actual animal is often impossible to see. And you can tell a lot from poo :o)

So that's a Roe deer, mice and badgers all within a few metres of starting the walk, all within sight of the local houses and all out in a field used for monoculture.

Half a mile in and we come to the first Green Lane. Green Lanes are ancient trackways, some prehistoric, some later. This one tracks across three fields and has the feeling of an old, old place. Sometimes I don't walk down it, feeling that the Guardian of the Lane doesn't want company at that particular time. On this walk I get that sense so I miss the first section, walking down the field instead, along the hazel hedge where the catkins have unfurled and are dancing along the boughs like dangling lambs' tails, across the valley bottom, past the woodland strip with the badgers have their sett and on up the hill where the buzzards caw.

I pause here to listen, because ears are an important part of knowing the land. Here, in this open field, skylarks nest and last week they started singing. I stand for a good ten minutes listening to the song high above me, playing the age-old game of spot-the-skylark, which is nigh on impossible unless you've watched it rise from the earth and tracked it upwards...




Here's a test for you- how many other birds can you hear singing in the back ground? Answers at the bottom of the post.... :o)

We go on, through the hedge, down the Roman Road, right into the fields again, following the hedge beside the covercrops, Pop putting up a pheasant, Ted wistfully watching a rabbit that he knows is too far away for him to catch. Fieldfares cackle at us from the oaks and in the distance a flock of starlings is chattering.

We turn right at the hawthorn hedge at the bottom. This hedge is a remnant of an older time when thorn hedges were the staple means of keeping livestock in one place. Although the farm is now arable, I know because there are a number of thorn hedges on the farm that it's history pre-war contained livestock not crops.

Here we pick up the green lane once more, and disappear into its darkness. It's hard to tell the story of the land from fields; so many of the clues have been eradicated by modern farming. But in green lanes the story is easier to pick up if you know what to look for. Plants are one of the best and most reliable of our natural story-tellers.

You see the dark green spiky plant growing on the edge of the lane in the photo below? This is Butchers Broom. It's an ancient woodland indicator plant, meaning that it grows in old forests. It's presence here tells us that the green lane once wound through a forest. It tells us that the land now covered in green fields beyond it was once woodland, and an old woodland at that. I checked the maps and the flora doesn't lie- as little as fifty years ago, these fields were covered in a huge wood which stretched for miles around. It was cut down wholesale after the war as part of the drive to grow more food....




Further down the lane and the soil had been scratched clear, small threads of white roots unearthed....



Hmmm. This is the work of badgers, looking for food. The small, heart-shaped green leaves are celandines, which will soon be out, their bright yellow flowers cheering up the woodland floor. I checked the tree beside the scratched out earth area because badgers also like to sharpen their claws on tree trunks, or rub their backs against them making a shiny area. There wasn't any evidence of that here but it's worth checking for hair caught in the bark or for scratch marks if you find a bare patch of earth near trees.

Badgers aren't the only creatures who find food along the green lane: this is a type of Jelly Fungus known as Jew's Ear, edible for people. It's meant to taste quite rubbery. I left it on the tree.




Hazel catkins are in full flow now. The long, dangly and more familiar ones are male and they appear on the tree in October, seeing winter through before unfurling properly in February when the less familiar female catkins also appear (bright pink tufts on the end of what look like buds, close to the male ones). This branch caught my eye because Dormice are closely associated with hazel and ecologists will tell you that they are so arboreal that they never deign to tread the earth, so branches like this one linking one side of a hedge to another are crucial for them if they aren't to become vulnerable to extinction by being trapped in one small area. I'm not convinced by this argument. I suspect they'll cross the earth if there's no branch conveniently placed bridging the gap. Still, if you're out in a managed woodland and you see two trees close together leaning over a path, or a branch hanging over from one side to another you'll know it's been left that way deliberately, for the Dormice...



Identifying trees in winter from their buds or bark is a useful skill to have. Trees tell the story of the land, they also provide food for people as well as animals. The rings in this bark tell me the tree is a Cherry. If I come back in Autumn they'll be fruit there for me...



Further down the lane Lords and Ladies (another ancient woodland indicator plant) are emerging. We've already established that badgers like to snack on roots. Here they've located the plant and known that if they dug a little way into the earth there would be a juicy treat waiting for them. Half the bulb has been eaten. I don't know whether that's enough to kill the plant or not, I'll check on it again later.




Beside the Lords and Ladies is further evidence of the heritage of this landscape. These straggly looking green things are Dogs Mercury, another ancient woodland indicator. They're growing on the bank but must once have gone right out into what is now green fields...



Also in the bank was this...



Possibly a mouse hole, but I think it's more like to be a Bank Vole front door. It looks the right size and shape. Bank voles are bigger than mice and rarer than field voles (which we get in our garden- you can tell them apart because they make runs through moss and grass), but they are common in hedgerows and woodlands which fits the habitat here. They also have a much shorter tail than the stubby version on the field vole, should you happen to glimpse one and wonder which it is. Knowing the landscape helps narrow down the animal ID because some are more specialist in their preferences for habitat than others. All these clues can be read with a little learning.

All of these signs were found here, in the right-hand side of the photo where the strip of hedge/ woodland is. The green lane is tucked between the edge of the field and the tall trees. It doesn't look very auspicious, does it? Yet all that life is hidden away in here, if only you take the time to look for it.




And here is the other half of the green lane. See how the field follows the curve of the lane? This shows that the lane has been here much, much longer than the field....



I hope you enjoyed that little foray into a secret world. Next time you're out its worth having a poke about and seeing what you can find. There is much knowledge to be had by looking at The Small Things.

I'll leave you with a Song Thrush who was sitting in the trees in the photo above. It's only 50 seconds or so but captures the brilliant phrase-repeating song that song thrushes are known for. There's also a short bonus of Ted and Pops mooching about in the hedge bottom at the end.




Wishing you all a Good Week,

CT :o)

Other birds on the skylark video I could hear were: Carrion Crow, Green Woodpecker, Blackbird, Robin, Song Thrush, Dunnock. Could you hear any others?

39 comments:

  1. I will try, I find that fascinating, a wonderful post. I like brownfields by the way, eventually plants get a hold, good for butterflies too. Sadly they are often temporary and get built on, we've lost a couple of really nice ones here recently.

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    1. Good point about brownfield sites- we have grayling on one near here.

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  2. Thank you for that interesting walk. I agree it's so important to stop and look carefully. So much to see. I've been learning a lot from 'The walkers guide to outdoor clues and signs by Tristan Gooley. Wish I was better at identifying bird song. Thanks for the videos. Enjoy your week. B x

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    1. Birdsong is practice and going out with someone who can teach you x

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  3. What a FANTASTIC post CT, LOVED it. I went out on a bird survey with a very experienced birdwatcher on Saturday, it's amazing how much she points out that we would otherwise have missed. She found a little owl in a tree only about 50 feet away, pretending very hard to be part of a branch. He was absolutely delightful, we watched him for ages. I spotted a woodpecker which made me happy, and there were at least two drumming away on the trees, a fantastic sound. We heard skylarks as well, down by the river and also yesterday up on the common. Wonderful. CJ xx

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    1. In a nutshell, that's why having an experienced guide makes all the difference. How wonderful to see a little owl- haven't seen one in a year or so xx

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  4. Hey CT,
    Fascinating post. I would love to take a walk with you. What a fabulous guide you would be. I learnt so much, especially about the plants that indicate ancient woodlands. My Mum and sister's house back onto a railway embankment, right in the middle of Bristol. It is a haven for wildlife, and lots of it appear or pass through their garden. Lots of bird varieties, foxes and lately a badger that stares in at them through the patio doors at dusk!
    Leanne xx

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  5. It just goes to show that it's all there if you know how to look. Great post. x

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  6. i agree with Leannne...you would be an excellent guide on a woodland ramble.

    i should tell you, before i was one paragraph into this post, i paused to retrieve my notebook and pen and started taking notes! an ancient hedge features in my novel-in-progress....;)

    i so loved reading this! it's such a truth....the resilience of nature and the million adaptations it makes. it does the heart good to see that they carry on regardless. ;) well, most of the time anyway.

    and now i have this lovely visual of dormouse bridges across laneways....:)

    we've had a mild spell the last few days and things are starting to wake up....i think there was a skunk convention this morning as i saw about three of them on my way to work. sadly, also, a possum and a raccoon that didn't make it across the road...



    xoxoxo

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    1. I shall expect a credit in the published article 😁 Xx

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  7. Great text and lovely, green photos.
    I can almost smell the woodland air. :)
    Thank you for the bird song videos!

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  8. What a great post - I really enjoyed it. I can remember finding Wood Sage growing on the Burren in Ireland - in the cracks amongst the big limestone slabs, so that must have been woodland at one point. I've not noticed any Dogs Mercury yet, but the other usual suspects are about. Do you get Saxifraga oppositifolia in your area (or whatever they renamed it a few years back - it is the only wild flower I know by its Latin name). We have masses of it here as it likes boggy woodland and damp ditches.

    Keith and I were listening to a Thrush at the end of our walk in Dinefwr park yesterday. He was right at the top of the tree, singing his little heart out.

    I could only pick up the Skylarks on your first recording - I think the sound is duff on this computer.

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    1. Had to look the saxifrage up. I haven't seen it here x

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  9. I so enjoyed this post, it's just my kind of thing to do, take a walk and notice the little things that tell so much. I'm jealous of your kingfisher! I'd be surprised to see one from my house but I often see/hear them at the various gravel pits and along the river, not too far away. Always a treat. Glad to hear your knee is improving too. My HM is in two weeks' time, my race pack has just arrived! Exciting!

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  10. Thank you CT for this wonderful post. I love my local patch too and here in Surrey my walks from home are mostly wooded (we are the most densely wooded county in England) but down in Hampshire the other day walking across farmland we disturbed two brown hares. This is only the third time in my life I have seen a hare within a few feet. Amazing. The skylarks are singing here too (our Common is famous as the place where Ralph Vaughan Williams heard the skylarks and then went home to compose "Lark Rise Ascending"). However, down at the plot a Roe deer is munching his way through leeks, garlic, tulips and anything else that isn't covered and every morning I see that the fox has visited to suck out earthworms from my beautiful clover-rich, mossy and celandine-studded chemical-free lawn. We had a lovely day in Hampshire, visiting Hinton Ampner for coffee and hares, then Mottisfont for soup and snowdrops and finally Winchester Cathedral refectory for a cup of tea and a beautiful sunset. And while walking along the river Test in the gloaming we spotted the kingfisher sitting on a post! How's your knee? I hope you're giving it lots of RICE and although I don't really understand how it works the magic tape really helped my fractured tibia knee (sustained jogging down Snowdon) and two separate torn shoulder muscles. I'm definitely wearing my body out, but better that than inactivity. Sorry for the long comment CT and wishing you a good week too!

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    1. Hi Sarah, we get hates here in the chalk so I'm lucky enough to see them most years. Sounds like you packed a lot in to your Hampshire visit. mottisfont is one magical place. Knee improving I think, thanks for asking xx

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    2. Hares. Not hates. Blooming auto correct! X

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  11. I'd love to go on a countryside walk with you, Poppy and Ted! I'm so rusty with all the nature, memories of what things are and not being sure. I am ok on bird song, generally, and LOVED your recordings. Thank you. Standing listening to a song thrush or skylark, a robin or wren is possibly one of the best things to do. Ever. It gets right to the soul, doesn't it? This is the most fabulous post, CT. Thank you. I know, I've said thank you twice... I hope your knee is bearing up. Sam x PS Just read Sarah's comment above - hares!!!! Lucky :-)

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    1. If only we lived nearer! There is nothing like song birds' voices. I get lost in them. Knee getting better thanks x

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  12. You are such a knowledgeable lady - I learnt so much from this post. Who knew that badgers are so fastidious? Well, you obviously! :) I loved the recordings of the birds. I listen to radio 4's Tweet of the Day but I can never seem to keep the songs in my head and am hopeless at recognising birdsong. My favourite piece of music is Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending' and listening to your recording I could see why he was inspired. Thank you for the tour. xx

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    1. It is an amazing song - they go on and on bless them x

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  13. CT your knowledge is fascinating...you know a great deal about the countryside. Spring is clearly on its way, little shoots appearing and everything tinged with green. Fabulous.
    Love the photos and the post. As your days turn to spring ours are heading into the autumnal chilly mornings and warm days...just superb.
    Happy roaming xxx

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  14. That was a fabulously informative post. Thank you. It's easy to miss things like the dog's mercury.
    Arilx

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  15. This was a sheer delight -- thank you! I hadn't realised dormice are arboreal, not having them here at all. . .

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    1. They're rare as hens teeth here now. I've been lucky enough to find them on surveys before. Magical.

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  16. What a fantastic educational journey you have taken me on. I have just moved to a new house and we have our own small parcel of woodland. It backs on to an ancient woodland which in turn leads up to a moor.
    I shall keep my eyes peeled in future and see what i can discover.
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

    Jean

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    1. I'm so envious of your wood, Jean. Fabulous! X

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  17. I agree with everyone, what a lovely journey to go on with you - thank you.

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  18. It's amazing what you find when you know where and how to look for things. Your post encouraged me to look more carefully and this morning I spotted what I'm pretty sure are badger foot prints where I dog walk most days, I'm so pleased :)

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    1. Fantastic! Well done. If I'm not sure of an ID I try and get a photo and check on line later. X

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  19. Lords and Ladies looks closely related to our arum lilies Zantedeschia? If so, I think it is happily adapted to being et, and will grow again from quite small pieces. Ours are eaten by porcupines. Perhaps if I was walking with you I would see an arum frog (they live IN the flowers)

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x