V is for viper, V is for Venus: A tale of snakes, love and femininity.

The general rule of thumb in my part of the world, is that weather permitting, the adders will start to emerge from hibernation within a fortnight of Valentine’s day. I’ve found this to be true in each of the years I’ve been observing them, bar 2018 when the Beast from the East threw things out of kilter somewhat.

Following the local adders became an integral part of my life several years ago when I was a young woman. I became completely captivated by them. To the present day, no matter how many times I see this species, I find it just as enthralling as the electrifying moment I first clapped eyes on it. It was a warm September evening when two large females unexpectedly crawled by within whiskers of my feet. That moment almost seems too dreamlike to be real now, too fleeting. One zigzagged ribbon followed by the other, vanishing into obscurity. I was hooked. They were like medicine.

The following Spring, something happened to me, and the adders were symbolic of that. I began to stir from the apathy I felt towards my life. I simply started to bore of feeling hurt and wallowing in my broken, tattered heart. I wanted to start living. This sense of renewal was buoyed by my having a car for the first time. Being able to go wherever I pleased whenever I liked was a golden novelty, and I revelled in the new freedom.

And so on a warm February day several years ago, I came out of hibernation along with the vipers. And there marked a pivotal time in my life.

I felt a strange optimism that morning, and headed up onto the meadow. I padded around the edges of thickets with soft rolling footsteps, creeping like a bittern peering for eels. Then my heart leapt, as I happened upon a perfect viperine coil, hugged by rank grasses at the edge of a blackthorn bush. I discreetly sat myself down beside it at a few feet away, studiously immersed in this new found enigmatic world of cold blooded animals. He knew I was there, and we simply basked together, in mutual respect and curiosity.

Over the ensuing weeks of that Spring, I spent days up there combing the place for them. I found many more. I came to recognise individuals by knowing their unique head markings. I learned that the spot where I found the first of the season was an emergence site; other individuals emerged from around the thicket, meaning there was a hibernaculum there. I carried out formal surveys of them, there and elsewhere around the county. I came to make friends who also loved the adder, on the common. I even met the love of my life because of them, and our first ‘date’ was spent creeping around searching for them.

Every year since then, no matter what has been going on in my life, I’ve been ‘checking’ on the local population at various points in the reptile season. I developed a huge sense of personal custodianship over them, which many people may find eccentric. Even when I took on land management roles of nature reserves which held populations of adders, my ‘home’ adders were always the ones that were ‘mine’, rather than the ones that I ‘catered for’ at work.

This sense of guardianship of course brought with it some worry, like a parent worries for their children long after they’ve grown up.

Adders in the UK and parts of wider Europe are in peril.  I began to ‘realise’ this on a more personal level a couple of years ago when I acknowledged that the changes in my records, sightings and encounters with them were making me uneasy. The following notion is bordering on romantic of me to cogitate on, but I still find it compelling.

Theory has it, that women are more in tune with reptiles than men are. Apparently this is particularly the case at certain times during a woman’s cycle, when a woman can spot or detect snakes quicker than a person typically would on average. This is supposedly due to the influence of hormones, bringing about a heightened ability to detect ‘threats’ to the foetus in utero. In all mammals, nature dictates that for the preservation and continuation of life, a carrying mother must be able to protect her charge in every way possible. Perhaps there is grounding in this; I couldn’t say for sure, since I am only aware of one study (from  Nobuo Masataka of Japan’s Kyoto University) on the theory.

I can only offer my own experience, in response to that information. I am highly adept at locating lizards and snakes. Ever since I knew where to look for them, I could often find them quicker than my male counterparts could. In spite of having a hearing impairment and being short sighted, I can detect an animal and often identify which it is, by the flash of sound it makes, fleeing through the undergrowth. I can often tell whether I’m going to have a productive time searching or not. It could all be bollocks for all I know (I don’t think it is, however). And of course, I could in fact simply have seriously badass fieldcraft skills, but my perrenial scatter-brain and clumsiness convinces me otherwise, frankly. Who really knows? Maybe vipers and women are mysterious in exact equal measure.

Anyway, if factual, this feminine serpentine-sensing means that in sweet irony, this defence mechanism works in reverse in women like me, who seek – rather – than avoid reptiles. I’m not a maternal person, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I have the same biological mechanisms as any female. I can, perhaps turn this to my advantage in field-herping. The feminist beauty of this? It is a defiant victory-fingers-up at the society-bound expectation of all women to want to birth babies. I don’t want to bear life, but I want all life to thrive. I am a woman, and it is in my nature to nurture. All women may well have a ‘biological clock’ in the most basic sense, but it ticks in different ways for different individuals. Such is my theory.

Long live the viper, for she is one and the same as me, in a different body. She symbolises life, survival and feminity in all forms.

 

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Balance. A tribute to the badger.

I went out on a long drive tonight. It’s not something I make a habit of really, driving long distances in the small hours but life has been a bit unpredictable lately. This year of huge change and transition has brought me sorrow and joy, security and fear, control and oblivion. I feel lost and found. The only predictable thing I find at the moment is my insomnia. I just cannot feel quiet inside enough to sleep soundly.

So, still not feeling sleepy at 11pm, I got out of bed and got dressed. And I drove, and drove. That roaring adrenaline fighting with the sound of trip hop thudding, trying to drown out the noise in my head.

Driving through rural Surrey and Sussex in Summer night time only overstimulated my mind even more, as large geometers fluttered around my windscreen. Rabbits and foxes flashed here and there. And I can’t remember how many owls and woodcock ghost-floated over me, one time narrowly missing my car.

By the time I was on my way back home, I finally started to feel tired, but not in a nice way. I felt tired in a frightened way, uneasy.  I started commentary driving, to calm myself. I know my advanced driving skills well.

“Blind summit.”

“There’s a bend 100m on the left.”

“Oh look another owl.”

I turned the music off and put LBC on, so I could be calmed by nocturnal bickering between my fellow anonymous insomniacs and a weary host. I think one caller was drunk, and I burst out laughing at the ensuing exchange.

God, I was tired.

As I drove towards town down the very last ‘rural’ road, I sped past a poor specimen in the road. We see so many deceased RTA wild animals, so it’s nothing ‘remarkable’. However, this beautiful creature made me turn around and go back. I don’t know why.

It might have been because part of me wondered if he/she was still alive, and needed my help. I was near the wildlife hospital and had a car, mobile phone, and the know how to help, if it had a fighting chance.

The long straight road was deserted. I took a u-turn and put my hazards on, and crept up to the beautiful sleeping animal.

She was dead, and my heart dropped. I wanted to try and cry but my tears have dried up recently. I came close to see if any of her was still with me. I so wanted her to be alive, to save her. She’s only one of many road victims, but she mattered to me right then.

A badger that has ANY life left in it at all, no matter how gravely hurt, will fight until the bitter end, so I knew she was gone. She would have been struck dead as I drove through the night, in my own weird survival pursuit.

I placed my hand on her face, and stroked her body, with my sadness flooding the air. Her fur was coarse but soft, and her rigor mortis was only just starting to enfold her body.

Seeing the beautiful, magical creature laid dead in the road put my sadness back into some sort of logical sense like a thundercrack. And as I stroked her one last time, she absorbed all my loud, exhausting chaos, and returned calm to me like a breath of cool air.

I felt quiet with her. And resigning myself to cold hard reality, I drove home, finally calm. In her death, she gave me some saviour.

I slept.

Drive carefully everyone, for all animals and people

xxxx

 

 

 

 

 

High Spring

Life is moving faster with each passing year. It tends to do that as you get older(!) It is now almost June; Spring gave way to the creeping in of Summer in seconds. The bluebells came and went in an eye blink. I feel as if I missed a lot of Spring’s offerings since I have been running around like a blue arsed fly for many weeks now.

Yesterday was the first time in a while I slowed down and just had a walk around looking at plants and stuff. I’d had a sedentary day, so decided on an impromptu hike around the local downs.

The first thing I wanted to do was check on the corn gromwell that grows along an arable margin above the village. Many plants were starting to come into flower, and although I neglected to count, they were scattered along around 200m of the field edge.

gromwell

The corner of the field had the beginnings of field madder and sharp leaved fluellen starting to show. Along the bottom of the hedge were the usual cleavers and bedstraws.

I spotted and disturbed several cream wave moths, as I walked along the hedgeline before traversing the barley field down towards the farm buildings. epsomdowns56

I wandered into the fields across the driveway to see what was coming up there. The patchy arable ground is starting to fill with sprawling arable annuals, though the landscape won’t be in its full colourful splendour for a few more weeks yet, I expect. The first few common and rough poppies are just starting to appear. The very understated field pansy was numerous.

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Wandering back up the hill towards the woods, I spotted this lovely treble bar moth at roost on a fencepost.

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The birds – most noticeably song thrushes and blackbirds – were starting their evening chorus up on the edge of village. As I neared the end of my walk, I found this great spotted woodpecker’s nest. There was no missing it to be fair, very loud babies were squeaking from within! I made a hasty getaway to let the family be.

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How not to drive like a twat in rural areas; helpful guidance for middle class townies, intended to help and amuse but not offend.

After a long, ambling drive through deepest rural Surrey (well, as rural as Surrey gets) yesterday, I felt compelled to write a slightly cathartic but hopefully helpful thing about rural road etiquette. I’ve seen too many people in flashy vehicles tearing around tiny rural lanes lately. I’m irked.

I find that most local drivers in very rural areas of the UK (think Exmoor, South Shropshire, and the like) are generally sensible, sane people on the road. Most of them are, in all fairness, more in touch with the ways of modern rural life. So perhaps I ought to cut the middle class townies of Southeast England some slack, and advise gently instead of berate.

Surrey is a hotchpotch of a county, being one of those we call the ‘home counties’, nestled feverishly underneath London’s crotch. The most wooded in England, interspersed with arable and livestock farming, spattered with large urban and suburban settlements bustling with all sorts of people, from the nouveau riche to working class yokels(!) like me.

This modern, busy juxtaposition brings with it some hair raising encounters on our rural roads, high numbers of road traffic incidents, and frayed tempers; all in my opinion, totally unnecessary. So without further ado, here is a hopefully helpful, well balanced – mildly sardonic – guide to driving on rural roads, by one exasperated urban fringe rural woman.

(Warning: this guide is written in highly ‘agricultural’ language. Look away now if you’re a wet lettuce of a person.)

Disclaimer: most of this shit just boils down to one thing; SLOW DOWN, KEEP YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU and simply CO-OPERATE with all other roads users.

 

  1. Always give way to other vehicles. Narrow roads are often single track, so make use of two things; passing places and your car horn. Use your horn for what it is actually meant for – letting other vehicle users know you’re in the vicinity. Your car horn is not for getting aggro with other road users when you’re pissed off with them, nor is it for flagging your mate’s attention when you spot them on their way to Tesco. Obviously don’t slam your fist on the beeper and scare the shit out of local farm cats; just a light tap on the horn will let unseen, oncoming cars know you’re nearby, so they can use a passing place if there’s one there. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for other cars coming; don’t have your music too loud. You’re in Bedfordshire, not the Balearics. My parents taught me this stuff when I was six, for goodness’ sake.
  2. Don’t be snitty about tractors and other agricultural machinery/vehicles on the road. Most of them do no more than 25mph; if they went any fucking faster they’d tip over. Any of us who you see driving a tractor on a public road know what we’re doing, so trust us and don’t drive like a prick near us. No cutting us up, no driving too close. Be patient. We are obliged to pull in WHERE POSSIBLE to let a queue of other vehicles past. If there is nowhere for us to pull in to let you pass, get over it, there’s nothing we can do.
  3. Slow the fuck down on minor roads and country lanes. This point covers multiple road users. You should drive carefully anywhere, it goes without saying, but this is especially pertinent on rural roads. More people die on rural roads than on A roads and motorways, in part because people get complacent, thinking rural and agricultural areas are sleepy, quiet places, where there are barely any vehicles around. But there are hazards everywhere, around every bend. I mentioned tractors and suchlike on the previous point, so revisiting that; there is potentially agricultural plant/machinery around every corner, and you do not want your corsa getting into a fight with a John Deere monster. You’ll hurt yourself, and the tractor operator. At the other end of the spectrum, there are hikers on rural lanes, and it goes without saying they are incredibly vulnerable road users, along with cyclists. In fact I will make a separate point dedicated entirely to cyclists….keep reading. On another note, the roads through woodland especially can be very winding with multiple blind spots and you don’t know what other idiot is coming around the corner taking up both sides of the road, high on the fresh air of the country. (Townies suddenly released into open spaces can be like dogs suddenly let off the lead.) People (including children) on horses emerge from bridleways onto the roads, and horses are not vehicles – they are animals, so they can be unpredictable.
  4. On the previous note; horses still use the roads. Get over it. It might seem old fashioned, but horses are part of life in the UK whatever your beliefs about racing, horse riding, hunting or any other horsey things are. They exist in working class cultures, middle class cultures, sports, and traveller cultures alike. Horses are here to stay, probably. So stop fucking whingeing about horse shit on the roads. It is NOT the same as dogshit; it is not the same biohazard and does not have a stomach turning smell, like carnivore cack does. It all crumbles away fairly quickly, besides. So untwist your knickers; you won’t skid in it – not if you drive sensibly anyway.
  5. Another equine note; If you must drive a flashy, sporty car around narrow winding woodland lanes (think of those around Abinger and Leith Hill), stay sensible, keep your bloody wits about you and have your music turned down and slow the fuck down when you see/hear horses anywhere remotely near you. It is the height of arseholery to go haring past horses with drum ‘n’ bass blaring from your audi. GO PAST WIDE, SLOW AND QUIETLY, at the safest opportunity. Most people who put horses on the road do so with a lot of due care and attention; but at some point any horse is new to the road. And again, refer back to that thing about any animal being unpredictable.
  6. Leading on from horses; other ‘domesticated’ animals on the road; be patient! In ‘proper’ rural areas of the UK, sheep are moved between land parcels via stretches of road. That’s just the way it works, over short distances. Don’t be a knob and get impatient. Nothing is so important that you – in your daily driving life – need to act like a prick over a flock of sheep ambling along a quiet rural road on their way to their next pasture.
  7. Other animals on roads; the wild varieties. Because our wild animals in the UK are generally small and benign, our rural roads aren’t fenced for mile upon mile like they are in say, Montana or Wyoming. (In THAT part of the world, they have to be, in order to protect both wild animals themselves, as well as motorists. If an elk hits your car along the freeway… it doesn’t bear thinking about, for both parties.) Driving carefully on rural roads of course extends to respecting wild animals. Us humans are only one species that live on the earth, and we take up so much fucking space with all our stuff as it is. Anyway I digress… the animals which are likely to be an accident risk in the event of a collision are badgers and deer. Badgers vary in size but a large male can be a hefty, stocky beast. Deer, usually roe deer in certain parts of the country where there are high numbers of them, can often leap across roads individually or in groups of two or three very suddenly, and that can be horrific for both animal AND driver. If you hit any animal with your car, please don’t beat yourself up about it if it wasn’t deliberate. Yes it is horrendously sad and upsetting, but it is often unavoidable, even when we are the most sensible drivers on the road. DO NOT attempt to rescue an RTA injured animal, unless you are an actual wildlife rescue specialist. You risk worsening the injury of the animal, causing it more stress, and injuring yourself very badly. It’s always handy to have the phone numbers of local wildlife rescue centres in your car if you drive on rural roads a lot. If you need to phone a rescue centre, only do so once you have found somewhere to safely park your car. Google is your friend. Owls and woodcock are often victims of RTAS, as well as the usual rabbits, pheasants and foxes.
  8. Coming back to cyclists. Cycling in the countryside has risks, but is good for people’s health and good for the planet. Don’t fucking get angry and resentful of cyclists being on the roads, they’re doing a good thing. Yes, they should abide by the highway code and be considerate too. It goes without saying. But as a road user, you can do a lot to keep them safe. Don’t be in a hurry to overtake them. Don’t try and overtake them at bends, blind summits, or anywhere it isn’t toally 100% crystal clear. Don’t be rude to them and swear at them out of your car window, like a coward. When you overtake a cyclist, bear in mind how wide you go past them. Overtaking only narrowly with a couple of feet to spare is not wise because if a bike topples at the same moment you are overtaking, which way does said bike usually go? Sideways. Think about the mathematics of that. And that is also why you should only overtake when the road is totally clear way ahead; so you can allow the cyclist safe space.
  9. Moving radically on from other people and animals; fuelling your car. This I feel is a slightly silly point, but maybe one some take for granted. Keep your tank full of fuel, and don’t play that silly game of “oh, I’ll wait ’til the next petrol station, I’ve still got a quarter of a tank left.” In parts of North Wales and the far Southwest, petrol stations are few and far between. Lots aren’t open all hours like you’re urban Tesco express, and some are shut on random days in very small communities. Keep your car sensibly filled up! Don’t risk your sanity and safety by getting stranded on a rural road. And make sure you’re registered with a roadside assistance service. Keep your RAC/AA/whatever card handy, along with at least one mobile phone. (Said mobile phone should be shut in the glovebox when you’re driving – don’t be a moron and do anything with your phone when driving.)
  10. On the subject of fuel consumpton; try not to idle for no bloody good reason belching out unnecessary Co2 into the environment. The earth is suffering as it is without needless pollution. Most of us have to drive cars, especially if we work, live or play in rural areas. But please minimise your impact by not idling when you don’t need to, and also by driving economically; no arsing about in the wrong gear. You can even have lessons especially in eco-driving now, for fuck’s sake.
  11. Dont drive on certain roads of you’re unsure, especially if it’s winter. listen to road signs advising you not to drive on certain roads in certain conditions. I once drove up the Long Mynd in Shropshire, and it was one of the scariest fucking things I have ever done. I will never do it again, to be honest. I’ll park in Church Stretton and bloody well walk up it, if I want the magnificent views. Don’t try and be brave. If a road looks terrifying, don’t drive it. Many single track roads in mountainous or upland regions of the UK are surprisingly dangerous, with few passing places and they don’t need the unncecessary traffic from inexperienced tourists. You DO NOT want to have to reverse all the way back down a winding, single track lane with no safety barrier at the edge, if you meet another vehicle comign the other way. Trust me.
  12. Leading on from that, don’t drive in adverse conditions unless you really have to. Heavy rain, heavy snow, high winds. Stay home, for your own safety as well as that of others. Remember emergency services are overstretched as it is. As an arrogant 24 year old, I stacked a ford fiesta on the A3 because I didn’t bloody listen to someone who told me not to go out driving in a fucking storm. It was a really shitty day, because of that.
  13. Finally, emergency vehicles – not advice necessarily, more something to be aware of perhaps. Emergency services take a lot longer to reach people in rural areas, for obvious reasons. That is one reason why road traffic collisions in rural areas are more deadly. BE SAFE, DON’T TAKE UNNECESSARY RISKS AND ALWAYS HAVE YOUR MOBILE PHONE CHARGED UP AND IN YOUR CAR.

Anyway, happy driving. Enjoy all that the British countryside has to offer. It is beautiful, eccentric, colourful and there is nowhere on Earth like it. Co-operate with ALL road users; be it cyclists, walkers, equestrians, working people, or wild animals. The outdoors is good for us, and for many of us the countryside is where we belong. Just don’t be a twat on rural roads. Slow down and use your brain.

Pretty pink parasites

It was fairly late by the time I got round to seeing common toothwort in flower last year, May in fact. There was plenty of it about, but it was largely starting to look a little wan, and flaccid. It’s very much a Spring flower, at its peak in April. I wanted to check back on that same colony a lot earlier in the season so I could see it looking voluminous and pink-infused. I suspected it would be just getting started by now, and I was rewarded with the sight of lots of stunning specimens along the lane from Sheepleas.

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beautiful common toothwort

As plants of the English countryside go, common toothwort is one strange looking beast. It has no clorophyll so can’t photosynthesise, growing parasitically from the roots of hazel, alder and beech. Around Surrey it mainly seems to grow on hazel. More specifically, growing on larger trees, so it’s fairly typical to find stands of it trooping around thick old coppiced hazels. Such trees are numerous along the winding lanes of the North Downs in Surrey. It’s always worth a look in April to May for these weird and wonderful plants.

I think it looks pretty alien, I like it!

 

 

 

 

Back on the North Downs

Having recently moved back to live in my home town full time, I find myself with more time to ramble over the local countryside, exploring and generally nosing around in the field.

I spent many hours combing the fields, woods and verges of the North Downs near home last Summer, discovering the botanical riches on my doorstep. So I wondered what I might find around now in early Spring. I’d not given the area much attention this early in the year, plant-wise.

I drove up onto Epsom Downs, along the road where the bastard toadflax and sainfoin grows. I’ve found all sorts of nice plants up there, but hadn’t initially planned to stop there to have a wander around today. Glimpses of things sprouting from the turf were catching my eye, so I parked up on the golf course to have an amble around.

There were very few golfers around, perhaps on account of the tremendous wind. As soon as I stepped out of my car my hair was billowing in all directions. Goodness knows what I looked like creeping along the verge, crouching to peer at tiny leaves.

The most abundant flowers were red dead nettle, filling the roadsides and roundabouts with splashes of burgundy. By now, white dead nettle was springing up in places too. These plants are key nectar sources for early insects, particularly bumblebees. Less conspicuous were the various little annuals along the verge. Shepherd’s purse, hairy bittercress and common field speedwell dotted the turf. The easily overlooked but underratedly beautiful early scurvy grass formed many little carpets. It’s not an uncommon plant, but I love finding things like this because it’s one of those species that has found a niche away from its traditional haunts due to human activity.

In its original setting, it’s a coastal plant. To be more specific, it’s a salt loving one – a halophyte ie; it grows in salty environments. Over time it has spread further inland, with the advent of winter road gritting, hence its appearance along roadside verges. It’s certain that the roads up to the downs receive a lot of gritting in winter, as they can be icy and receive a fair bit more snow than the lower lying roads in the area. Its profusion and expansion along roadside verges is aided further by the action of passing cars on the seeds. Cars whizzing past at speed disperse the tiny seeds in the wind they create. So it’s not surprising I found so much of the stuff.

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early/Danish scurvygrass

It’s a beautiful, delicate little plant, but it’s also been a very useful one in human history. It is high in vitamin C, so was commonly chewed by sailors who harvested it in readiness for long periods at sea. Foodstuffs with any nutritional value were sparse onboard ship, so scurvy was a common malady in seamen. I plucked a small plant from the verge, to sniff it. It has a sharp earthy but peppery scent typical of crucifers like this one. I don’t expect many people pick it for consumption now, since scurvy is so incredibly rare even in people with very poor diets.

After my fill of crouching along the roadside eyeballing tiny flowers, I picked my way back to the car and headed off in an aimless sort of direction, simply enjoying the winding lanes around Kingswood and Walton on the Hill.

I did eventually stop at Shabden Park, wondering if I might find the beginnings of moschatel in a small patch of woodland near the golf course. Following my nose up the hill I found countless roman snail shells, the skull of a badger, and a well worn animal run scraped away under the stock fencing.

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Shabden Park, Kingswood
roman snail
one of many vacant Roman snail shells

Early dog violets were a pleasant sight as I entered the woods, and the ground in some spots was cloaked in swathes of dog’s mercury. That stuff can become quite dominant in some woods.

The leaves of assorted plants were creeping over the ground, ready to paint the ground in spots of colour before the canopy closes over later in the year. This little plant in the photo below is ivy-leaved speedwell (yet to flower), I believe.

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probably ivy leaved speedwell, yet to flower

The delicate little flower moschatel is at its best around mid April from what I understand, but I was curious to see if I could at least find the rosettes so I would know where to come back to look later on. Alas, I found none. More searching is needed, another day. Apparently the dense carpets of it are quite conspicuous when it’s at its peak, even if the flower itself is very short in stature.

The following day, curiosity was pointing me in the direction of Mickleham Downs. Local botanists had found wild candytuft in flower in the area, so I gleaned instructions on where to look. Apparently it grews at a few locations in the Mickleham area and nowehere else in Surrey, so it was another rare gem I was very keen to see. I was also intrigued by its flowering so very early in the year, since I had only read of  it being a Summer flowering plant. What had brought this about? Is this a habitual occurrence when there has been a mild Winter?

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Dense woodland on Mickleham Downs
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the view over the valley

I had no idea whether I’d actually find the plants in question, since I didn’t even know if I was in the right place, but the views across the valley below were beautiful, and I didn’t encounter another soul up there, so I enjoyed the walk. There was just myself and the occasional ‘sneezing’ of marsh tits.

When I did spot the wild candytuft, I was pleasantly surprised at how conspicuous it was. It was right along the path edge, the tiny petals glowing crisp white against the muddy chalk. Its location seemed quite true to descriptions I’d read about it favouring disrturbed chalk scree. Numerous other plants of wild candytuft dotted the pathside, so it will be worth going back in Summer to see their progress.

 

 

 

 

 

I was also very pleased to find several large specimens of stinking hellebore. This is a late winter flowering plantg which is hard to miss. Tall and bright green, it can certainly stand out amid the grey greens of winter and early Spring. I guess it’s difficult to tell whether these particular plants have a natural origin or that of garden escapees. It’s a native plant but widely cultivated, so who knows?

hellebore

So, there are lots of plants to check back on and sites to revisit in the coming weeks.

Fool’s Spring

Winter is not my favourite season. I grin and bear it. The short daylight hours make me sluggish, the low sun glaring through the windscreen of my car makes me curse, and the cold puts my head in my feathers a bit.

So it is indeed fortunate that Winter in the southeast of England is brief. It doesn’t get what I would consider cold until December, and the coldest weather of January soon gives way to Spring in late February to March. By April it is typically warm again. I think of parts of British Columbia or Alberta and shudder to know they are often very snowy, cold places from October until April.

It is late February and Spring has arrived here. It in fact crept in around two weeks ago, and the temperatures broke records in some parts of the country. It breached 20 degrees somewhere in the UK a couple of days ago. I sort of breathed a sigh of relief. I felt myself emerge from my winter dysphoria like the adder creeps from his hibernaculum.

But relief is not what I should be feeling as I ramble over the common in 17 degree warmth in mid February. The sun is warm and welcoming but perhaps it lulls us into a false sense of optimism. It distracts us from the very catalyst of these increasingly frequent freak weather events. The urgency of climate change.

Climate change has such quickly visible effects on wildlife. Species distributions shift and contract, and often the environment changes too fast for species to adapt in time. A classic example is the mountain hare. The snow in its upland habitat is increasingly melting off quicker than the animal can return to its grey-brown summer pelage, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in white, leaving it inordinately vulnerable to its predators. Its seasonal camouflage is what keeps the natural balance of hunted and escaped.

Sometimes the changes are far more subtle and complex. The white faced  darter, a charismatic dragonfly of peat bogs, is seeing a curious northward shift in its range, in spite of seeingly optimal habitat provision in its former haunts. Last Summer I had to travel as far as North Shropshire to enjoy the company of this exquisite creature, yet 30 years ago I’d have had a choice of sites far nearer home in the south. Something as violently simple as a heathland fire can also wipe out a population, sure. But I think the question has to be asked of where species like the white faced darter go when they are squeezed so far by the delicate and complex changes in environment, that they perhaps become sort of cornered, with few places left to thrive. And therefore they become even more vulnerable to events such as fires, since there are no adjacent populations to recolonise a was-damaged habitat when it recovers. The sensitivities and reactions they have to even the smaller subtleties of climate change may be greater than we yet know. But the distribution maps over the years should not be ignored. Isolation and contraction compound the effects of other pressures and problems in worrying comorbidity.

Climate change can also put things out of kilter on a broader scale across multiple taxa in one place. Nature revolves around timing and co ordination. Early emerging bees wake up to the warm late winter sunshine but may perhaps struggle to find ample nectar sources. Many queens undergo great stress and exhaustion in such events. Some birds may start nesting earlier and therefore the appearance of young mouths does not coincide perfectly with the abundance of caterpillars, and this could lead to higher than usual mortality. And then there is the issue of cold snaps after a period of early warm weather has stirred cold blooded animals from brumation. I wonder what effect and how severe, this has on amphibians and reptiles, even in spite of their adaptability. More so, I wonder of the effect on butterflies. The fact is, simply put, we need a ‘normal’ winter spell of frosts and cold, to regulate the balance of parasites and maybe even tiny microorganisms that may affect butterflies. Parasites are a normal part of many ecosystems, but without a typical winter, do parasites prevail at a rate that certain butterfly species cannot adapt to?

It is still February. Yet on my walk today I felt sweat prick my forehead and I got through my water bottle quickly in heat-thirst. 17.5 degrees, my car dashboard told me. Blackthorn has already started to spatter the hedgerows with its gorgeous white blossom, hawthorn is coming into leaf and I began to lose count of how many brimstones I saw yesterday. Red dead nettle is carpeting patches of roundabouts, grass verges and path sides. Just as well, if there are to be so many insects stirring. Some adders on the common have been out of hibernation since at least the 15th of February. Their emergence marks mine from my winter lethargy. So whilst I cannot deny my vernal optimism and seasonal sense of promise that Spring brings me, this inordinately warm weather also leaves me somewhat disconcerted.