Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Suburban Sightings

I bought my house just over three years ago. At first glance it’s nothing special, a standard 1980s semi in the suburbs of south Birmingham, but the bricks and mortar aren’t the reason I live here. Not even close. I knew from the first time I viewed the house that it oozed potential, although unlike many prospective buyers I wasn’t thinking about the opportunity for renovation and profit. I was excited by the potential for wildlife encounters, and the reality has surpassed even my most optimistic expectations.

There is a theory about the existence of life on earth that describes the ‘Goldilocks zone’. This theory posits that the conditions that allow complex life to exist are due to the earth being far enough from the sun that it is not prohibitively hot (hello Mercury!), and yet not so distant from the sun that water and other key elements can only exist as ice (hi Uranus!). On a much smaller scale, I think my house exists in a Goldilocks zone of its own. It’s the perfect distance between the concrete jungle of the city to the north and the open countryside to the south, and is located at the confluence of a number of really interesting habitats. These include an extensive allotment site abutting the back garden, a large nature reserve of woodland, grassland and open water within a hundred metres, and wooded canal and river corridors within easy walking distance. It sounds obvious, but the opportunity for adventure increases exponentially when the right conditions are present.

To borrow an iconic piece of dialogue from an iconic film, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”. I’m not referring to attack ships off the shoulder of Orion though. I’m talking about something much more exciting that that. Allow me to describe a few observations made from within the confines of my house and garden, you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s start with the most exciting encounter of all. After about six months of living here it became very obvious that we had a regular guest that delighted in digging a series of small holes in the lawn. Our first suspicion was one of the numerous grey squirrels that loiter within a large mature oak tree just beyond the hawthorn hedgerow that marks the edge of our back garden. These plump beasts certainly spent a lot of time in the back garden teasing various members of the local cat population, and they’re famed for their tendency to bury nuts and acorns. The squirrels were prime suspects until a particularly extreme instance of lawn remodelling that was clearly beyond the abilities of our grey friends from across the Atlantic. Either we had a mutant squirrel the size of a Labrador, or the culprit was someone else entirely. I decided to solve the mystery once and for all by installing a trail camera on the patio to capture the vandal in the act. Imagine my surprise and delight when our nocturnal gardener was revealed to be a large, hungry badger. Much to the chagrin of my partner I actively encouraged the badger to return, enticing it into the garden with a feast of peanuts and new potatoes. This had two main outcomes. Firstly, I was able to capture some remarkable footage of the badger (imaginatively nicknamed Badgie) feeding and running amok in the shrub beds. Secondly, I managed to whip the badger into a peanut-fuelled frenzy that resulted in most of the flowers in the garden being uprooted and ‘rearranged’. Needless to say this wasn’t well received, and I was advised to stop encouraging the badger with immediate effect. I haven’t seen any evidence of the badger for a few months now, but I’d like to think it’s still out their somewhere embarking on a spree of garden-based terror.

The badger certainly isn’t the only mammal that shares our little postage stamp of suburban space. Foxes are regular visitors to the garden and have created a number of access points from the allotments to the north. So far all of my encounters have been with adults, but I always keep my eyes open for cubs. Despite their undeserved reputation as vermin, a fox cub is one of the most sublime and beautiful things you could ever hope to see. I’ll find one soon. Aside from the foxes and squirrels a host of small mammals call the garden home. We were briefly joined by a brown rat that lived beneath the shed and foraged vegetable scraps from the compost, however this particular guest soon relocated when security around the compost heap was increased to Fort Knox proportions. House mice and field voles have also been seen sporadically, as have small numbers of bats that regularly forage back and forth along the back gardens of my house and the neighbouring dwellings. I’ve only ever recorded two bat species in the garden, common and soprano pipistrelle, however there are a few other species that could feasibly occur. The bats have recently taken to depositing droppings on my car, which I believe they’re doing on purpose. No hedgehogs yet, but I live in hope.

Mammals are just one facet of the broad array of life that I share my home with. Birds are one of the most visible and enjoyable species groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some very interesting species within and above the garden. Perhaps the most impressive bird sighting occurred last summer when I observed a peregrine falcon circling lazily above the house, easily avoiding the unwanted attention of two rather irritated black-headed gulls. The peregrine, the fastest animal in the world no less, remained overhead for five minutes or so before flying purposefully away to the south, most likely in search of a meal. This iconic species has been one of the real nature conservation success stories of the past few years, and birds are now found breeding in almost all towns and cities in the UK. Birmingham and its surrounds are blessed with several pairs, and long may their success continue. Other birds of prey recorded from the garden include the buzzard, kestrel and my favourite of all, the sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are impressive and fascinating, and are extraordinarily efficient hunters of small songbirds. Nothing moves quite like a sparrowhawk, which is why they are most often witnessed in the garden as a brief flash of brown as they appear from behind a garden fence and plunge into the crowds of small passerines within our short section of hedge. They do everything with panache and at great speed, which is probably what makes them so exciting. A further species that I’m exceptionally lucky to share space with is the tawny owl that breeds annually within the nature reserve area to the south. During the summer months, when laying in bed with the windows open to escape the stifling heat, we are often rewarded with the distinctive calls of female and juvenile owls, which seem to move from tree to tree to the rear of the house. Male owls are heard less frequently, however this week I had a stunning encounter whilst leaving for work at around 3am. A male owl was sat on the tv aerial of an adjacent house, calling loudly and not fearing my presence at all. We were equals, equally fascinated by one another. These are the experiences I live for.

Aside from the raptors the garden has rewarded me with sightings of herons and egrets, ravens and cormorants. Within the garden itself the hedgerow is well used by house sparrows and blue tits, with the latter species having bred within a nestbox fixed to the shed for the past two years. Sights of starlings, thrushes and corvids are commonplace, and this year a pair of magpies successfully bred in the big oak. Interestingly I’ve never seen many finches in the garden at all, indicating that the assemblage of untidy shrubs offers little appeal to this family of seed eaters.

Reptiles and amphibians are often overlooked when considering garden species, but I’ve been lucky enough to find both. I must admit to cheating slightly by claiming reptiles as a garden species, however I have seen slow-worms on the unmanaged front lawn of a house about 50 metres away, and I’m certain that they occur in the adjacent allotment site. Reptiles are generally quite sparse in the Birmingham area, so I was delighted to find them. I’m determined to lure them into the garden at some point! Common frogs and common toads occasionally turn up in the shrub beds despite the absence of any ponds within 100 metres or more. They often seem to want to head toward the road, and I’m regularly picking them up, turning them around and popping them through the hedge into the allotments, but they probably just turn back and begin their quest anew, driven by the instinct to return to a pond long since destroyed by the house builders. Every year I promise to dig a small pond in the back garden, and so far it hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps this year is the year.

I’m not much of a gardener, which is useful because untidy gardens are often the most interesting ones. I have, however, planted a few shrubs and sown some wildflower seed in a bid to lure pollinating insects to the garden. After a slow start last year it’s starting to show some promise, and I’ve already been rewarded with a good selection of butterflies, day-flying moths and bees. The secret is to try to plant things that flower at different times, so that the insects have something to feed on from spring through to autumn. I’ve also installed a small ‘bug hotel’ that is attached to the side of the shed and provides refuge for solitary bees and wasps. A lot of people either ignore or actively dislike invertebrates, however I think they are endlessly diverse and intriguing. They’re also incredibly important, playing a vital role in our ecosystem by pollinating plants, decomposing organic material and oxygenating the soil. I’m no expert, and I’ve resolved to learn more about this collective of weird and wonderful species, but they certainly deserve our respect.

Overall I feel very fortunate to share such a tiny space with so much diverse and brilliant life. It’s sometimes easy to forget that humankind is just another species, albeit an astoundingly influential one that has shaped the earth according to its needs. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Next time you’re in the garden, look around you. You might just find something exciting. You might even meet Badgie.

My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.

An Urban Ramble

I went for a short walk on Saturday, as I often do on weekend days when the sun is shining. I live in the suburbs, and I’m very fortunate to have access to several different areas of green space within walking distance from my front door. On Saturday I walked my favourite route, which took me along part of the River Cole and around the old mill pond, before heading back home. It’s not a very long walk, but it’s often richly rewarding.

The River Cole is one of the city’s best kept secrets, a green motorway connecting the suburban fringe to the heart of the metropolis. The entire route is accessible to the public, however most visitors are drawn to a few hotspots, leaving a few secret locations that are seldom visited. I walked the whole route once, although admittedly I then twisted my ankle and had to get the bus home. Not very dignified…

The river is typical of many watercourses in urban settings, in that it is a strange mishmash of the natural and manmade. My favourite section is an area where the channel is divided into two, separated by an area of interesting swamp vegetation that simply teems with dragonflies during the summer. There are several clues that this divergence in the channel is not a natural phenomenon, not least the presence of metal sluice gates that can be opened and closed in response to periods of heavy rainfall to stop the nearby roads and houses from flooding. I’ve never seen the sluice gates closed, but the the cogs and handle that sit atop the graffitied brick plinth are always well greased and ready for action. I like the thought that greasing the sluice gate cogs is someone’s job. I also like the idea that someone is the custodian of the special metal crank, designed to mesh perfectly with the fixed metal workings that bring the simple mechanism to life.

The flora and fauna that inhabit the riparian corridor is rich and interesting. Strong lines of mature alder, willow, poplar and ash sit astride a central mosaic of rush, sedge and reedmace. Small pockets of beautiful things can be found in every direction: yellow flag, meadowsweet, marsh marigold and many more. The riverbank itself is somewhat less diverse, and is under the dominion of an unwelcome guest from distant lands. Himalayan balsam is ubiquitous along many urban waterways, and it’s sweet, sickly aroma thickens the air during the summer months. First introduced into the United Kingdom in the early Victorian era, this impressive annual was soon to ride roughshod throughout the country, it’s clusters of pink and white flowers becoming an increasingly common sight along riverbanks and areas of waste ground. The River Cole is thick with the stuff.

The diversity of bird life along the river corridor is impressive, with a wide array of common garden species supplemented by a few wetland specialists. Notable breeders include song thrush, bullfinch, whitethroat and reed bunting. Kingfisher also breeds along the Cole, and keen eyed observers are often rewarded with a brilliant flash of azure and amber. The habitat is the kind of place that you would hope to find a lesser spotted woodpecker, however there don’t seem to be many of these beautiful birds anywhere anymore.

Over the past few years numerous grey herons that frequent the area have been joined by their continental cousin, the little egret. Last winter over 20 of these compact and brilliant white herons could be found along the Cole valley, and even now in midsummer a couple of stragglers are still hanging around. It’s a striking example of how our avifauna is changing – a similar number of little egrets just 20 years ago would have had the national press descending on my little patch of wilderness. The thought that these birds might choose to breed locally is very exciting, although I haven’t found any evidence yet.

The River is eventually culverted beneath a small road, where it enters a heavily engineered section with yet more sluices and a couple of weirs thrown in for good measure. This short section, which is very shallow and frequently filled with paddling children, is the gateway to a strange and wondrous land, the mill pond. The term ‘mill pond’ conjures the image of a small, serene pool, perhaps with a lily-pad or two, but this pond is anything but. To refer to it as a pond is generous, for this is a vast concrete-lined monstrosity filled with a murky green soup that is more bread than water. This glorious piece of deformity is the very archetype of an ‘urban pond’, and a circuit of the surrounding footpath never fails to be of interest. Come with me as we take a tour. Anti-clockwise I think…

We’ll start at the southern end of the pool, where the banks are thick with cherry laurel. The path takes us in a northerly direction along the eastern bank, with the river corridor beyond the path to the east. This part of the river corridor is especially interesting in spring, when thick beds of wild garlic add their rich aroma to the ever present hum of stagnant water and dog mess. For the rest of the year the nettles and balsam win out, but in spring the garlic reigns supreme.

At the southern end of the pool is an island covered with trees and shrubs, which is the favoured hangout of the numerous ‘clown ducks’ that are permanent residents of the pond. These strange beasts are a diverse menagerie of ducks of suspicious origin, cross bred so many times that it’s hard to recognise the species that they originate from. The ‘clown ducks’ don’t seem to be able to fly, and the pure breed ducks keep far away from them, but they seem happy enough with their lot.

The northern edge of the island is perhaps the most interesting part of the pond. Here a number of fallen trees lie in the water, forming semi-submerged stages that are used annually by coots and great created grebes for the construction of nesting platforms. Both species seem to breed successfully every year, and the humbug heads of the juvenile grebes never fail to amuse. Moorhens, mallards and a pair of mute swans also breed here every year, however the most interesting residents of the southern pond zone are rather more exotic. During the blazing summer months a pair of terrapins are regularly seen basking on an emergent log. I first saw them about five years ago, and can only assume that they are unwanted pets that were covertly released into the wild at some point in the past. They may even be relics of the terrapin boom of the late 1980 when, inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many thousands of terrapins were purchased as pets and subsequently abandoned or flushed away. If this is the case then their resilience earns my grudging respect, even if they are nasty buggers who eat anything they can catch, ducklings included.

The terrapins are not the only alien inhabiting the grotesque bready soup. Beyond the island is an area where fishing is prohibited to protect the core area used by nesting birds, and naturally it is within this area that the majority of fishing takes place. I recently overheard a fisherman yelling frantically “I’ve caught a fucking crab!”. He hadn’t caught a fucking crab, of course, but what had latched onto his bait was an impressively large signal crayfish. These burly invaders from across the Atlantic have rapidly spread through the waterways of the United Kingdom to the severe detriment of our native white-clawed crayfish, and sadly the River Cole is no exception. They’re fascinating creatures, but they shouldn’t be here.

Beyond the island is an area of open water where most of the wildfowl hang out. During the summer months mallard is the most numerous duck species, and by mid July most of the males have shed their iridescent hoods and opted for their more demure eclipse plumage. During the winter months, however, the mallards are joined by a range of other duck species including the starkly contrasting tufted duck, the russet headed pochard and occasionally the beautiful goosander. All three are divers rather than dabblers, and the goosander is the most special of all. This large, streamlined duck is a member of a family known as the sawbills, and breeds in the northern and western parts of the UK. It is much more commonly seen during the winter where birds turn up on a wide range of waterbodies and watercourses throughout the UK. The males have a black and white body that is strongly contrasted against a head of British racing green, whilst the females (known as redheads) are a beautiful blend of grey and rich brown. Goosanders and other members of the sawbill family have a faintly prehistoric look, and they never fail to thrill me. They also nest in holes in trees, which is bizarre and wonderful.

At the far northern end of the pond, and along part of the northeastern edge, is where the geese tend to accumulate. I’ve counted upwards of a hundred Canada geese using the area at any one time, and their numbers are swelled annually by the arrival of numerous goslings. The Canada geese absolutely dominate this part of the park, and have grazed much of the surrounding grassland to nothing more than bare ground. They also have a tendency to wander into the adjacent road en masse and stop the traffic, which I’m almost certain is intentional. They’re generally a decent bunch, although as with all crowds a few arrogant bastards tend to give the rest a bad name. Their behaviour probably isn’t helped by the sheer amount of bread that the public pump into them. On more that one occasion I’ve witnessed a well-meaning pensioner empty entire loaves of Mother’s Pride into the water with a resounding plop, whipping the geese into a frenzy of avarice. Recently a small number of greylag geese have taken to joining their larger cousins, their striking orange bills easily visible amid a sea of back and white. Although few in number the greylags are capable of being equally as obnoxious as their Canadian relations. I’ve concluded that it’s just a goose thing.

After goose planet has been successfully navigated the path loops around and heads southwards along the western edge of the pond. This area is the most popular with dog walkers and is my least favourite part of the walk, although it’s not without it’s charms. Along this side cormorants are occasionally seen drying their wings, and the path takes you past a brick substation surrounded by sycamores where the mistle thrush breeds. Mistle thrushes are amongst the most aggressive and territorial of all the British bird species, and are most commonly encountered chasing off other birds whilst emitting a harsh alarm call like a demented football rattle. This edge of the pond is also the best place to watch gulls, if you’re into that sort of thing. Three species generally frequent the pond, although rarer visitors are occasionally reported.

The final point of interest along the western side of the pond is on old oak stump that functions as a rudimentary bird table. Robins and dunnocks are the most frequent visitors, feasting on the nuts and seeds that the public leave for them. It’s certainly an improvement over full loaves of the white stuff!

At this juncture we run out of pond, and the path leads us out onto the road and back into the real world. I continue to find this walk fascinating and enjoyable, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it too. Urban biodiversity is often overlooked, but if you find the right place there are a vast array of habitats and species to enjoy. Some of them might not be rare, might not even be welcome, but if nothing else they’re incredibly interesting!

 

Fantastic Fungi

I’ve been obsessed with fungi ever since I heard the mushroom joke as a small boy. I was exploring my dad’s record collection, and through the hiss and crackle of a warped 78 I distinctly remember Lonnie Donegan singing about toadstools and dustbins. I was immediately hooked.

For Christmas the same year I begged my parents for a book about fungi, and I can vividly remember the excitement I felt as my small hands unwrapped it. It was the Observer’s Guide to Mushrooms, Toadstools and Other Common Fungi, a tiny tome packed with photographs, drawings and fungal facts. I can still remember every inch of the minuscule dust jacket, red text above a photograph of fly agaric. For the uninitiated, fly agaric is a fairly common woodland mushroom, but to a young boy in the urban waste of south Birmingham it was the stuff of legend. A shiny red cap flecked with patches of white sat above brilliant unblemished gills, the creation of a madman’s fevered dream. As a teenager I would learn that it is also one of the fabled ‘magic mushrooms’, which made it even more exciting.

It was the names of the mushrooms that drew me in. To the serious mycologist (a fungi expert to you and me) English names for mushrooms are a contentious subject. Just like the hardcore botanists out there, most are of the opinion that English names are an unnecessary dumbing down of perfectly good Latin and Greek binomials. They’re wrong though, because the English names are what make an otherwise impenetrable group accessible to the amateur enthusiast like me. Many English names for fungi were deliberately coined in order to pique the interest of the lay observer, and they range from the whimsical to the horrifying. A few personal highlights include the powdery piggyback, lemon disco, the pretender, dewdrop dapperling, hairy parachute, funeral bell, vampire’s bane, destroying angel (eek!) and the flirt. My favourite was, and still is, the amethyst deceiver. Not only is it an evocative name that makes me think of fantastical worlds, it’s also stunning. Seriously, just look at it.

I’m not a mycologist. I’m not even that good at identifying different types of fungi, but I adore them. That’s part of their beauty, you don’t need to be able to identify them to appreciate them. Another great thing is that you can find them anywhere, even in the winter when many other flora and fauna are engaged in senescence or sleep. There are over 15,000 species in the UK, although admittedly this number includes a large number of species of rust and yeast that don’t entirely tickle my fancy. Fly agaric though…

A final fascinating fact is that the things that most of us thing of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting bodies, responsible for the production and delivery of countless tiny spores. The really clever stuff happens below the ground, or within whatever medium the fungi is growing within. This is where the mycelium live, incredibly complex networks of delicate microscopic threads that take in the nutrients that give the fungi life. Many of these mycelium are vast, covering a much larger area than the visible fruiting bodies. In this way fungi are very much the icebergs of the terrestrial ecosystems.

Incidentally, the mushroom joke is:

“My dustbin’s absolutely full of toadstools”
“How do you know it’s full?”
“Because there’s not mushroom inside”.

In hindsight it’s a terrible joke.

Fickle

They love the bees yet they hate the wasps,
They adore the butterflies but they can’t stand the moths,
It’s flying ant day, got to keep the kids away,
Even though they’ve got nothing to fear.

Stag beetle good yet dung beetle bad,
Ladybirds happy but mosquitos sad,
Thrilled by the dragonflies, bitten by the horseflies,
There are thousands at this time of year.

Ants on the patio and fleas on the dog,
Woodlice and centipedes beneath the rotting log,
Grasshoppers and crickets in meadow and thicket,
Their music a treat for the ears.

Each has a purpose, no matter how small.
Some people hate them, but I like them all.

The Artist

The artist stood in the shade of the new wooden bridge, built last autumn when the old bridge succumbed to time and wuthering. The waterfall was one of her favourite spots, and she imagined angry water sprites barging impatiently over a flight of weathered sandstone steps. She was drawn to this place time and again, finding it changed and new at every visit. Today the dappled sunlight penetrated the shroud of birch, oak and larch, creating rainbows in the spray that filled the air. Her busy pencils etched beauty onto the thick paper of her sketchbook.

She’d lived here for almost ten years, at the edge of the national park in the shadow of the wooded crags. The scenery in this area was her muse, the Meurent to her Manet, inspiring her to capture its majesty with ink, charcoal and paint. The simple line drawings were her favourite, because they allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps. Her imagination was the only thing that came close to recreating the splendour of a landscape that made her heart burst.

The inspiration and the urge to create was almost overwhelming at times, and she found the diversity of perfect views disorientating. Within an hour’s walk she could find silent, secret lochs with untouched sandy shores. She knew the shallow braes, the forest glens and the rocky streams where the dippers frolicked. She felt a solemn sense of responsibility, as though the land had chosen her as its advocate. It was a pleasant burden to carry.

Hours passed. The sun wheeled slowly across the sky as she drew, lost in concentration. Vapour dampened her sketchbook, but her focus never wavered. The result was a sublime rendering of the vista that awed her, the waterfall seeming to tumble and shimmer on the page. She had talent, although she would never admit it.

The artist finally packed her pencils, sketchbook and flask into a sturdy satchel and began the slow walk down the valley side. Today’s efforts were already forgotten, her mind busy planning tomorrow’s adventure.

Microcosm

The trees, grasses and herbs assert their hegemony over the wild places, but diminutive actors stage a quiet rebellion. Lay botanists refer to them as ‘lower plants’, an unsatisfying epithet for a world of indescribable beauty and complexity. Under scrutiny of the surveyor’s hand lens they reveal their infinite secrets.

A specialist, a bryologist no less, would describe to you a world in miniature, an elfin form of the ecosystems and biomes that make up our planet. Arisen from the primal stages of the Silurian era, a vast collective of green and brown jewels occupying every ecological niche imaginable. They favour the damp places, of which the earth has many.

To most, moss is a singular term, describing the springy carpet that ruins turf and clogs the mower. It is so much more. Many hundreds of species inhabit the dank and dewy spaces, from cityscape to mountaintop and all in between. So many forms, from tiny facsimiles of forests to vast rafts of spongy emerald, each industriously working to produce the spores that give life.

The liverworts and hornworts, the lesser know cousins, are arguably more alien and magnificent. Ranging from the diminutive and dendritic to brown smears on clay that rank among the rarest of our flora, each is a testament to the quiet magnificence of simple life. These are the leafy and thallose relics of ancient times, the blessed meek that inherited the earth long ago.

The bryologist’s world in miniature is there for us to appreciate and enjoy. We just have to open our eyes and find it.