There isn’t any creature much cuter than a squirrel!
I saw my first red squirrels in Formby which is a wonderfully unexpected area of sand dunes, pine trees and sea very close to my childhood home in Liverpool. The story of their survival is the first wild life story that I really remember. Grey squirrels are an American import that has apparently driven out the native red squirrel from most of England.
However, as with most stories of alien invasion, it is more complex than it first appears. Apparently grey squirrels don’t compete for the red squirrel’s food, as the red squirrel is much more dependent on the seeds from pine trees, but greys can eat all manner of foods ( especially peanuts from bird feeders!). Unfortunately they carry a disease which is transmutable to red squirrels and this is the real reason why reds do not thrive in the presence of grey squirrels.
The first place I really watched red squirrels up close was in the central parks of Almaty in Kazakhstan. The length of the tufts on their ears made me laugh out loud, as they seemed improbably transgressively punk, leaping amongst the carefully managed trees.
The photos here are from just over the border in Germany, but red squirrels are at home here in France and I once saw a buzzard pluck one from a branch and fly away with the little helpless little bundle in our local woods.
Before you get too dewy eyed about red squirrels, it is thought that the fashion for red squirrel fur collars was responsible for introducing leprosy into Europe during the Middle Ages. The scourge of leprosy has been tracked down to squirrel furs imported from Scandinavia into Britain , but it may also have arisen in many other places before colonials exported it to the Americas and beyond.
These beautiful ferns stay green all through the darkest months of winter and when they make new leaves in the spring, the slowly uncurling fronds look like the soft tongue of a female deer – a hart.
I decided that the world had gone to hell in a hand basket when I saw a venerable old pub in the Cotswolds had changed its sign from that of a deer, to that of a cheesy looking gold heart and of course the spelling of the name was changed from the Golden Hart to the Golden Heart.
I have since realised that there are other things more worthy of getting angry about in the world and so I enjoy watching the ferns unfurl in the late spring and imagining that a real deer might even lick the rain from their glossy surface.
I fall asleep to “Just William “ books. Gentle escapism of the most perfectly dated nature allows me blot out the world and while I sleep, the moths reclaim the night.
The first wonderful specimen is an emperor moth. It is the only European member of a family which is much more wide spread in the tropics. The huge eyes are to scare away birds and other predators and when it flies in the day, it is often mistaken for a butterfly.
The second moth perched on my finger is a purple thorn . It’s Latin name is tetra luna which refers to the four half moon shapes that just catch the light from the window in this shot (at the top edge of the jagged wing.)
The third moth is a peach blossom. The improbable pink blotches on the wings look like the delicately coloured flowers of that fruit tree.
The last moth is most prized because it is new to me. It is called a pine beauty and I had great difficulty in identifying it as I was mistakenly convinced it was a type of swift moth ( due to the way it sits) . Unsurprisingly, it lives in pine trees and it’s gingered, pink appearance apparently allows it to hide in yellowing needles ( though I find that hard to believe!)
So while we sleep, some beautiful things fly free, even if it is just our dreams!
If you are a masonry bee, finding love needs some patience. These amorous bees have taken up residence in my bee houses and are very obvious at this time of year, but I really understood very little about their life and love cycle ( and probably still don’t!)
In March, apparently, the male grubs hatch and bite their way out of the mud blocked bamboo canes . They are distinguishable from the females by their white hairy faces. They then have to wait for the females to emerge and often back right back into the hollow canes to wait for their date. A line of these whiskered bees reminds me of impatient bearded blokes waiting for their girl friends outside of the ladies’ changing rooms in a clothes store .
When the long awaited ( and larger) female bee finally emerges, they buzz around each other and finally mate, sometimes wrestling her to the ground and fighting off other males. She then gathers as much pollen as she can and makes a bright yellow bed of pollen food onto which she lays her fertilized egg. This bed is then laid in the empty bee “ room” of the bee “hotel” and grub slowly eats its own bed as it grows in the quiet safely of the plugged up tube.
Some times there is no room in the hotel and the female needs to find somewhere else to lay her egg. I have been most perplexed to find myself unable to put on a gardening glove sometimes and found that the fingers of the glove were blocked by something. When teased out, the blockage was bright yellow and I now realise that I had inadvertently evicted a masonry bee lava and his tasty bed of yellow pollen.
I have put up more “hotels” this season and I hope that all the bees emerging this year will find a comfortable space to start the next generation again!
This Tom cat, in the quiet church yard , was fixated on the mice in the ivy below. The gravestone on which he perched was oddly blank . I assume he would engrave it eventually with the names of his quietly rustling victims!
An ermine ran across our path, dived into a jumble of rocks and then sat straight up to watch us stop and stare back.
The morning smelt of spring, but this twist of life was dressed for deep snow or a coronation. It was so totally white with a tail dipped in black ink that it was impossible not to grin.
Then it was gone and I spent the rest of the day reading about stoats ( or short tailed weasels ) and marvelling at the ludicrous link between this vicious shape shifting “rat” and the royalty of Europe.
Ermine are the winter colours of stoats. As the days shorten their coats whiten and the unremarkable brown rabbit killer metamorphoses into this royal creature. Our ancestors were so impressed by the cleanliness of their fur in a winter world of brown mud and sludge, that they decided that ermine would rather die by hunters than foul or besmirch their clean coats. To hunt an ermine all you had to do was lay mud across the entrance to their den and they would rather die than be dishonoured by dirt. This gave raise to the death before dishonour mottos and their purity became linked to the idea of royalty. Having a cloak of ermine pelts with the little black tails dotted against the fur become the badge of kings, queens and emperors throughout history. The most recent European coronation of King Willem-Alexander of Holland saw both King and his Queen wrapped in swathes of ermine to signify their royalty to all the world.
It is of course bad luck for the stoat, but the fall from grace of fur in fashion is bound to be reflected in coronation regalia very soon. Most ermine fur came from Russia though the very name ermine is supposed to be corruption of Armenia where the Greeks considered the ermine to be from.
I wish I had a great photo for you, but I have nothing but the memory of it to share with you. An “ Armenian rat” that cloaked the shoulders of kings and trimmed the crown of queens.
Ploughed fields and bare trees in the sleety rain. The clouds are full of snow that doesn’t fall and sun that blinds momentarily and is then gone swallowed by a slab of racing grey .
We are counting red kites for the LPO ( French bird charity) Red kite survey. They are rare in the Alsace outside of the Vosges Mountains and just where we live on the edge of the Jura Mountains. I see one most days from the garden and more when they move through on migration in spring and autumn.
I am glad to be in the car, as all the various hunts are out this cold Sunday and the chance of being shot seems abnormally high.
Over two days of watching we have seen 13 red kites ( Milan royal) all together, but a few may have been the same bird counted twice.
There have been a few blackbirds, crows a raven and a kestrel and then thousands of little birds flowed over the brow of the hill. Chaffinches and bramblings poured over unexpectedly and covered the bare trees like so many leaves against the sky.
Empty gardens turn my eyes to other things and I am always delighted to see life in the oddest places . My bird table has a lichen on its roof and it flares pale green in the wintry light .
This is probably Parmotrema perlatum and it is indicative of cleanish air. Lichens are a very ancient symbiosis of an algae and fungi combining the abilities of both to create an organism capable of living in virtually every place on the planet and colonising the most unpromising surface for life .
There are two other types of lichen just on this little bit of wood. I can’t identify them with confidence but their compact, complex beauty astounds me.
The post of the bird table is streaked with green algae and it seems fluorescent on this dark day. At the foot of the table is an up turned slab that is being slowly smothered in moss. I have thought of brushing it off, but for what reason? Why would a bare concrete slab be more lovely than this moist moss garden that I like to hope harbours mysterious tardigrades clambering slowly through like teddy bears?
Oh and the sparrows come for breadcrumbs and scraps everyday on the table of the bird feeder. They harry me with indignant squawking should I forget them and dare to step out of the house empty handed.
They are not however the only life here, the table it’s self is almost more extraordinary, if a deal quieter, than the hungry birds themselves!
There are so many environmental problems facing the world that I have to admit to feeling often overwhelmed . The news gives us the big picture and our own eyes and ears show us the reality in our own backyard. My safe place is the garden and so I nurture it and I celebrate it, but it is so very small .
I can’t even protect the hedgehog that feeds in it, or the blackbird that sings over it, as they need more space than I can ever provide . When they leave my garden they can be strimmed or shot or just go hungry. The moths that I identify so diligently need places to pupate and leaves to eat. The red kite that soars overhead needs voles to eat and the voles need rough ground to burrow in and the bats that weave the night together, need old trees to sleep in and safe roofs to bring their babies up in.
The sky and the earth do not belong to everybody, what ever magical thinking we may indulge in. The earth can be covered in concrete, sprayed with poisons and ploughed to dust. The sky can be emptied of the trees that should be swaying in it and the clouds can be full of unbreathable pollution.
So, shall I just plant taller hedges? Stay sane by staying small? Plug my ears to the sound of encroaching construction, chain saws and crop sprayers?
I have started with my husband and very knowledgeable neighbours to catalogue every hedge and tree in the village . We hope this might eventually stop the grubbing up and chopping down that happens on daily basis in the name of tidiness and profit.
As a child I always considered the cold didn’t start until after Guy Fawks and this year the weather seems true to a long time ago in Cheshire.
Flowers are hanging on where they have been spared mower and strimmer and I have seen a handful of poppies, some hard heads and a spray of harebells still flowering on field edges. In the garden petunias and marigolds and a few geraniums are still bright. The dahlias have been touched by the frost but not yet slain and some very late gladiolus are a spear of colour against the falling leaves.
When I started gardening in a real garden ( as opposed to my previous tiny international balconies ) I thought I needed to be true to all the gardening manuals I had read and to cut down everything and to tidy and clean up, ready for the winter. Then I lived with my garden for a few years and realised that a “ tidy” garden was in fact a very boring and a virtually dead garden for far too many months of the year. There was no where for the caterpillars to pupate, no corners for the hedgehog to forage in and no where for the birds to perch and peck.
So I have learnt to ignore the outdated gardening manuals and to leave the clearing up the garden for as long as possible. Yes, I am encouraging slugs and snails and things that will eat my flowers and vegetables, but I am also encouraging life and trying to live with it. I don’t grow things that cannot withstand a few slugs and snails, white fly, black fly etc etc . I don’t use weed killer or insecticides not because I love all insects, but because why would you spray poisonous chemicals around your own home when you don’t have to? The world is full of enough noxious ness without adding to it just to conform to a very misguided and outdated concept of “tidy” .
So my garden continues to harbour the last flowers, the hedgehog poo that shows she is still feeding in the weedy corners and the caterpillars looking for a quiet spot to dream the winter safely away.
This extraordinary scrap of life was slowly traversing the path.
It seemed to be a cross between a feather duster and a plastic cat toy: a pulsating gobbit of implausible life. The photo shows the pink tufts and psychedelic green body, but it does not show the strange black winking eye on its back. The eye appeared to open and close as the caterpillar squeezed along and no doubt this was evolved to frighten away a hungry bird. The bright hairs are to make the caterpillar inedible, if the winking eye was not enough to keep it safe through the winter.
Should this fearsome tiny fright makes it to spring time, it will be a pale tussock moth, grey and furry and quite unlike this wonderful punk adolescent caterpillar phase caught indignantly crossing the path this cold afternoon.
Worrying about the environment is such a depressing part of 21st century life that volcanic destruction seems like light relief. It is weirdly liberating to contemplate such spectacular destruction which is nothing at all to do withhumanity.
The eruptions on the Canary Islands are awesome ( in the correct use of the term!) and the larva spewing out over the land is extraordinary. This article deals with the larva going into the sea and how marine life is enriched by it.
Enjoy, for once, the power of nature that you cannot control or be held responsible for!
This short video is extraordinary. I have just been collecting the tiniest wild marjoram seeds to give to a friend and then I see this gigantic, intelligent mammal watching a human with obvious curiosity and I am star blown by the range of life on this beautiful planet!
Nature will push on through if we just give it a little space.
The Rhine is one of the most industrialised rivers in the world. It’s banks have unloaded the coal and the wood and the chemicals and the shipping containers from China for a very very long time. It is the scar line of Europe and it has been fought over and died for and its waters have been canalised and concreted, polluted and poisoned beyond recognition. But is still flows strongly and given a bit of space, it is returning to its wild abundance.
A small section of the Rhine has been allowed to flow freely. The meanders and shallows that should be there have been put back. Willows have been allowed to root and the swans have come back. It is one of the biggest rewilding projects in Europe, but it is still tiny in comparison to what has been lost.
There are kingfishers and dragonflies where there was just concrete and today there are fish in the shallows and 150 white storks feeding as they moved across the planet going south.
There are bird hides and wardens and ladies on bicycles astonished by the richness that they never knew was there. They didn’t know, not because they were unobservant, but because it didn’t exist before in living memory. It has been hugely expensive , better we never let it get so bad, but as we did, the restoration of this little elbow of the Rhine has been worth every euro.
When nature is given a little space, it floods back in all its exuberant fabulous beauty whether it is between the slats of a fence or the banks of great river!
This wonderful fungi specimen was growing on an old willow tree. Unmistakable, the Latin name Laetiporus sulphureus refers to its sulphurous colour and the country name chicken of the woods, refers to the taste of the flesh. Anyone who reads these blogs regularly will know my feelings about actually eating fungi . This seductive fungi can cause gastric upset in some people, but not often. If it grows on yew it can contain the poisonous chemicals of the tree.
This beauty was growing on a huge willow and willows give us the Salic acid from which aspirin are made. So, if you ate this chicken of the woods, could it cure your headache at the same time?
These unearthly things are greater horse tail spore bodies. They erupt out of the earth and look oddly like lawyers’ wig ink cap mushrooms.
They are in fact the last hurrah of a plant kingdom that once dominated the earth and towered over dinosaurs: tumbling down in their multitudes to form the Carboniferous geological layer that gave us coal and oil.
Now they are just one plant amongst many. A relative is an annoyingly tenacious weed in my garden and the silica in horse tail leaves made them handy pot scourers and wood polishers in other times. The greater horse tail likes damper places in woods and can indicate a spring line underground.
The spore bodies have no chlorophyll and die as soon as their ancient spores are shed. The leaves of odd whorls that inspired the concept of fractals come later and they can form great stands of plants.
They are oddities that momentarily surprise us before sinking back into the herbage
Maybe our reliance on the fossil fuels they left behind so long ago will seem equally surprising and unimportant one day. We can hope!
The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.
In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.
“Immortal bird” indeed.
Ode to a Nightingale .
John Keats- 1795-1821
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toil me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
I promised to tell you how my attempt to grow my own loofas went.
I bought the seed last winter when cutting down on plastic seemed the most important thing in the world. Well, the seeds germinated well and
the seedlings grew. I identified a good place against a wire fence to plant them out and watered them in. Then it turned wet and the cats were both sick and the slugs came out and ate the plants down to the ground when I wasn’t looking!
End of story.
What is astonishing about this little tale is that a whole year has gone by since I bought the seeds and the whole world has grown so strange since then.
I feel as if I haven’t been out of the garden or house since then. Time has folded in on itself so much since then that I am not sure I ever planted the loofa seedlings at all, or what I was hoping to achieve by growing them.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time this covid year staring at my two cats Winston and Pixie and marveling at their markings. They are brother and sister who were living in a neighbor’s greenhouse as kittens. We took them in and have always been fascinated by how many wild cat genes they might carry.
There are wild cats here in the edge of the Jura and I have seen cats on the edge of the forest with the tell tale fat banded tail and the black Pom Pom on the end.
Pixie has the classic wildcat tail, when she is being really agressive or scared, it quadruples in size and my little affectionate Pixie becomes a fluffy monster. Her larger brother Winston has some of the wildcat markings, but no where near as many as his sister, he has sleek velvety fur and classic tabby cat stripes. They both have wildcat cat ear tufts.
This useful illustration of the markings on a cats back is the best I have found for telling a tabby from a real wild cat.
It could be Pixie A (wild cat) and Winston B, ( tabby cat ) but as they are sister and brother I think all that it proves is that cats, just like humans are a bit of everything and wonderfully mixed up like us all!
Covid is raging across the world and life can seem to have shrunk to a penny piece, but there is still wonderful good news to hold onto.
Here on one of the busiest and most polluted rivers in the world , ospreys are returning to breed. A huge international rewilding project is returning a little bit of the river Rhine to its natural state and wildlife is moving straight back in to rebalance the world.
At the other end of our astonishing planet blue whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, are reappearing again after hunting was outlawed.