Open and Shut

Back road across the fells

With the whole country living through the first week of official lock down, due to the Corona virus pandemic, millions of us are practising ways to survive the consensual suspension of everyday life. Not easy. Especially if confined in cramped accommodation in town or if elderly, infirm or otherwise vulnerable. Not being able to venture out or exercise without good cause is perhaps even harder to bear. ‘Don’t fence me in’ we cry. Trying times which bring out the best and worst in us. Luckily for society at large the overall positive reaction, driven by enlightened self interest if not by morality and ethics, still prevails…For now at least.

Green Laning: Library Image

Convivial catch ups held at the required distance with our farming neighbours over walls, on horseback or quad bike keep us in the loop on what’s happening locally and we get a sobering reminder about negative behaviour. Most Sundays at home we hear trail bikers and other off road vehicles go by and our hearts sink for these are mainly non local men out from town, heading for the nearest designated BOAT. The acronym stands for Byway Open to All Traffic, a legal loophole in access legislation which allows motorised traffic to traverse green lanes and unpaved byways. Each to their own and the greater the diversity and range of outdoor activities open to all the better but it is also obvious that the law here is being systematically exploited nationwide by small but determined groups of bikers and 4×4 drivers who willfully flout the Country Code with impunity, ruining these shared byways for walkers, cyclists and horse riders in the process. They churn up lanes and lonnens (tracks), transforming them into treacherous sloughs; displace or break down ancient boundaries; leave gates open and picnic without permission on farm land and off load rubbish in their wake to blight the landscape and endanger stock. The most publicised cases of misuse happen in our precious National Parks, like the Lake District and Peak District, while lower profile rural areas like ours on the edge of a national park are under even greater pressure by this category of ‘leisure’ user. The chances of police tackling law breakers are virtually nil so farmers and landowners remain frustrated in being unable to prevent abuse unless they take matters into their own hands; and that is a high risk strategy of last resort. Last Sunday our elderly neighbour at Southridge had finally had enough and confronted the latest posse of hard core scramblers piling on to his land up the farm lane. He boldly stood his ground, blocking progress to the track, pointing out they were flouting the government’s emergency provisions by congregating en masse and potentially leaving Corvid-19 virus on gates and footbridges. In return he was foully abused verbally and threatened physically. Our old friend held firm and, knowing they were in the wrong and could be reported to police, the trail riders reluctantly withdrew, cursing and revving engines to the max as they retreated to the regular highway. A small heroic victory in a seemingly never ending struggle. Our friend’s wife however, though relieved, was concerned the more vindictive of the riders might return under cover of darkness to set fire to the barn, vandalise equipment, or worse…

We are conscious of our great good fortune at the corner house in having a large garden plus a four acre field to occupy and exercise us as well as the minor road between valley and forest to walk or cycle along. Oddly of late there seem less delivery vans than normal plying to and from the nearby forestry hamlet. The postie still calls (and picks up) and log lorries continue their comings and goings on what must be officially classed as essential business. Down in our neighbourhood village all is quiet and superficially calm. The post office / newsagent / shop still operates while across the way the butcher sells vegetables and deli goods and has put on a delivery service. We all observe the physical distancing rules, lining up outside waiting our turn in the welcome Spring sunshine and so the conversation flows and anecdotes are exchanged. I then drive up to the valley’s largest village to drop empties at the bottle bank and extend the search to top up on essentials. The three village pubs and three cafes are all shut, as decreed by the PM on Monday. One pub though has a chalkboard outside. ‘We’re all doomed!’ it declares ‘But takeouts are available from 11am’.

The co-op food market, hardware shop, chemist, butcher, garage, baker and greengrocer are still trading, though entrance and exits are regulated. Staff at the latter business cheerfully take your order & payment at the door. Waiting in line outside the co-op (only 5 shoppers allowed in at a time) a Police 4×4 vehicle swings into the square and parks. Enforcement trouble? No, the officer simply joins the queue to get her shopping. In the hardware store one can get nearly all domestic needs plus extras like animal foodstuffs and – much to my joy – veg and flower seeds, onion/potato sets, artificial fertilisers and feeds. (Extra seasonal requirements we missed out before garden centres and nurseries were ordered to close) But, of course, this is what it’s like to live around here in the heart of England’s least populated county. An old capital settlement far enough from the big towns to retain individual non-corporate businesses that service the essential needs of a huge rural hinterland in the ‘open’ times; continuing to sustain it in the ‘closed.’

Back at the house, shopping mission accomplished, the dry stone garden walls highlight the welcome lines of bright yellow of our roadside daffodils. Lent Lillies, symbols of death and renewal, flowering profusely for all travellers, even the motorcycle mobs, to see and enjoy in their brief passing.

Ins and Outs

The first day of Spring today. In these unprecedented times it’s more vital than ever to get out and about, as and when we can, to be comforted and reconnected to open spaces nature and the countryside. On Sunday Kim & I took ourselves off the high ground of home into the wide dale where the two Tyne rivers meet. Started our gentle ramble outside the Victorian town Hall on the long wide main street of the village of Newbrough. It stands on the Stanegate (stone road) an east/west highway the Romans built to link the citadel ports at Newcastle and Carlisle. Where once one of their mile forts stood, just outside the borough, there is now the parish church. A holy well lies beside the old churchyard. Our path took us through a steep wooded gorge up to a lane. Here we stopped to admire the cattle crush (pictured). A simple hold and release mechanism at one end of a wood fenced race to pinion a bovine to be medicated or otherwise inspected. Loved its incidental artistic proportions and weathered rusted texture.

Following the clear stream to another moment of wonder. This is classic estate topography (Georgian grand house and home farm ahead). Simple, graceful arched bridge over a canalised course of stone walls and flagged course bearing the sparkling waters away at speed. Or rather, it would have done if it were not being effectively diverted, slalom like, by a series of split log ‘speed bumps’ which we concluded must be some sort of recent flood prevention work. Entranced by the play of sunlight off sinuous shallow rills.

Further downstream, another rivulet joined this one to run on down through mixed plantations of deciduous and conifer to eventually reach journey’s end in the big river. Just a hint on the nose of prolific shoals of ransoms, interspersed with splashes of yellow flowered, glossy leaved celandine. We stepped down, under the low bridge carrying the railway, and found ourselves on the wooded banks of the South Tyne River. Its speed a wonder, akin to a galloping horse, cresting and swooping in its rapid descent from the high pennines, gathering tributary force as it goes.

Library Image: Dog’s mercury, Mercurialis perennis, in June.

The narrow belt of woodland between cottage walls and river was thick with freshly sprung Dog’s Mercury working its way skyward. Named after the god who supposedly discovered its medicinal properties the dog appellation is a reference to the plant having no edible qualities. Dog’s Mercury is a sure indicator of ancient woodland. Eventually, by May, when full grown it can carpet whole forest floors. Surviving in this protected strip it was yet another poignant reminder of lost wildwood. Further on and our now sandy paths fingered their way through flood margins with combed stands of resilient alder and willow clinging on to tangled islets of earth and rock with their tenacious roots. At a turn of the pathway on the higher bank path two sycamores had grown together, merged, and grown apart again. On the opposite bank, where the deepest channels run, scouring flood waters had extended the river’s more recent reach across a long arc of bend, folding over field edge as easily as the plough would a furrow. At the end of this wide bend a whole swathe of mature trees lay wrecked and leafless, stark witnesses to the deluge’s awesome power. When we finally turned away from the flow, by a railway crossing and cottages, my eye was caught by a gleam as from new coins. Delighted to discover the treasure to be the first modest flowering of Coltsfoot emerging from lush grass. We crossed the railway and walked up a lane between floodplain fields littered with stones. At the foot of straggly gappy hedgerows, clusters of emergent primroses and clumps of fading snowdrops marked the seasonal handover.

Vole Event

Went to a talk last night given by Kelly Hollings from Northumberland Wildlife Trust who is heading up the ‘Restoring Ratty’ project here on our doorstop in Kielder. She told us about their award winning five year water vole re-introduction project; made possible by Heritage Lottery Fund and run in conjunction with partners on the ground, Forestry England and Tyne Rivers Trust. Some 1,200 of these endangered native species have now been successfully released in different sites in the forest around Kielder Water. Three short videos were at the heart of her powerpoint presentation; one about the creature itself, the second on its conservation, the third made by schoolchildren participating at the various sites covered in the first two videos.

The water vole was made immortal in literature as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Graeme’s Edwardian children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Once a common site on our waterways, the largest member of the vole family has been in steady decline for many years. The process was drastically speeded up after WW2, with the loss or fragmentation of habitats and predation by American mink who had discovered the perfect substitute for muskrat. Mink – escapees from farms where they were once bread for fur – are small and agile enough to enter the vole burrows and exterminate whole populations. Voles are prolific breeders, with up to five litters a year, and healthy numbers in the food chain are key to the survival of all the other creatures (mink apart) that feed on them. Restoration projects to stem the recent disasterous decline are taking place all over the UK and the Kielder team has drawn its pioneer breeding stock from the strongholds established in parts of Scotland and the North Yorkshire Moors. They’ve used late litter animals otherwise unable to face winter conditions when they would die of cold and starvation. Just as importantly these creatures are genetically suited to northern habitats. These young voles overwinter in ideal captive conditions at a specialist ecological facility on a farm in Devon before being returned upcountry for ‘soft release’ into the forest park. The role of volunteers has been crucial in every practical time consuming and patient process; transporting, monitoring, initial feeding, recording etc.

Kelly in her talk pointed out that these fascinating creatures were originally not aquatic in habit but have been gradually adapting to life in water over many centuries. Hence ears that are bedded down in water repellent fur. Yet their feet are not webbed nor do their long furry tails have a rudder shape. They don’t use feet to excavate burrows but instead utilise their long curved teeth. it’s thought they gradually took to the water for safety’s sake as man and predator presence grew. We also learnt that they will eat up to 227 varieties of plant; prefer shallow narrow channels of slower moving water to fast rapid watercourses; need soft earth banks to burrow into, above high water levels, with at least six metres of unshaded bankside vegetation to provide sufficient food and cover. Highly territorial during the breeding season water voles then hunker down in family groups underground attempting to last out the winter.

If further funding can be secured Northumberland will be teaming up with Durham Wildlife Trust, public and private landowners after this project ends in 2021 with the aim of building on its success and ‘break out’ to the lower river courses and catchments of North Tyne, South Tyne, Wear and Tees, in order to restore vole populations there too. The success of the continual battle to eradicate mink is clearly crucial in securing the re-population of these much loved and highly valued species.

Wet wet wet

A rare fine day this February with beef cattle on rough pasture down the lane

Living on a ridge between two tributary streams exposes us to wind but relieves us of flood worries if we were burnside. What we didn’t anticipate when the road was re-surfaced last year was the problem it would cause through run off. The big hay field is saturated after a month of rain and water spills over onto the smooth tarmac which in turn hits our curb and flows into the front garden where it pools before eventually soaking away. I’ve been filling hessian sandbags and putting them roadside to divert the overflow past the gate onto the verge. Meanwhile our farming neighbours struggle to get hay and silage to the ring feeders for their sheep in the fields, the gateways everywhere a churning mass of mud. A neighbouring mixed flock of ewes – cheviots, texels and mules – display yellow raddle marks on their backs where they’ve been tupped (put to the ram), reminding us that Spring and lambing time is not actually that far off.

The westerly wind pushes the rain sideways during the latest westerly blow. Suddenly water is dripping into the living room hearth from the chimney above, so buckets get put between log burner and wall to catch the drips. The slates rattle in the bedroom at night and the window leaks. Even the water in the toilet bowl is oscillating, affected by the many small draughts driven by the storm.

We sit out one evening on the back porch, for the first time since before Christmas, and are delighted to be joined by a pair of wrens whirring in. Fleeting acrobats in the fierce wind, settling for seconds just feet from us before zipping off again, in and out of the ivy or feeding through the gravel garden walks. Notice in the gloom the tell tale whiteness of droppings on the lip of an abandoned swallow’s nest under the top beam of the veranda. The wee things cluster for warmth while roosting in winter and this will be one of their seasonal hide outs. The birds high pitched chirruping an alarm to mark our unexpected intrusion into their night time feeding routine.

Dry and warm indoor activities bring the greatest pleasures now in the dark quarter of the year. Early in February I went singing with the valley’s community choir up at the national park’s landscape discovery centre, by the Roman wall. It was to mark the ‘Lost Words’ touring exhibition featuring Robert Macfarlane’s words & Jackie Morris’s images. Surprisingly good acoustic in what is a clinical and angular modern setting. We sang our celebratory songs of the elements from the balcony and later at reception level as guests mingled and socialised between the public spaces.

This week I gave the table quiz I had set on behalf of the countryside charity, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) at a hotel in our market town. Full house in the nicest of pub venues and a very happy evening all round. Eight teams fought it out amicably over 48 questions and a picture round on a theme of ‘England and the English Countryside’. (Kim my ace support on the adding up front!) Everyone delighted it went down so well as a novel social event, a first for the county branch.

Spending time in the kitchen is special in winter too of course. We made this year’s batch of marmalade when the Seville oranges were about in January and I’ve gone back to making oat, rye and beer bread which not only smells wonderful but retains its fine flavour as toast…. Perfect in fact with home made marmalade!

Wasted

What is…unattractive, contaminating, negative, degrading, a danger to wildlife and costly to get rid of? Yes, you’ve guessed it, litter. In town or country it’s a blight on the environment. I’ve taken to picking up every can I find when out walking or cycling along the winding C road a mile or so either side of the house. To be fair, it’s not a big problem in this sparsely populated corner of the land, but the sight of it – in our case mainly discarded soft drink tins – spurs me on to pick up & pop in our recycling bin.

comprehensive According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) men aged 18-25 often see it as cool to drop litter but hauliers, smokers, users of fast food outlets too are prime littering groups in society. Official figures show that England’s local authorities spent £56 million removing chewing gum from pavements and another £50 million clearing fly tipping. In town there are still people paid to pick up litter, but in the country the chances of a bottle in a hedgerow or ditch being picked up are virtually nil. Apparently last year some 60,000 volunteers took part in litter picks around the country. (I count myself an auxillary in this citizen army). The introduction of a charge for plastic bags nationwide has been a great success and a bottle deposit & return scheme could be the same, if the political will is there to set it up. There are many behavioural and economic buttons to be pressed to get our throwaway culture to change. A greater emphasis on re-usability for instance.

The Great Spring Clean Poster

Litter is the end of a process of production, consumption and disposal. How ironic that the multi-national corporations whose products head up the drop list – like Mars Wrigley, Pepsi & Coca Cola – are the principal sponsors of charity Keep Britain Tidy in their worthy efforts to clear up. CPRE argue that producers of packaging and fast food companies should be paying the cost of clear up and not local authorities, who have suffered drastic government funding cuts in recent years and have reduced environmental services accordingly. We Brits are Europe’s largest consumers of food and drink on the move so no surprise that cans and food containers are the most numerous discarded objects in any roadside litter pick. Will anything change over the next few years? Let’s hope so!

Tit bits

Blue Tit on Feeder: Library Picture

Writing here at my desk by the porch window I hear a low rat a tat tat noise somewhere. Turning I see at the garden window the familiar form of a blue tit doing something decidedly unfamiliar. Seemingly feasting with its needle bill on what to me are invisible specks of food on the glass. Either that or it’s trying to tell me to put more fat balls in the feeder that hangs there on its metal crook pole. But no, the little birds constant foraging are at the heart of the matter. Lack of observation on my part means am late to discover what the tribe of them have been up to out there. In refilling the feeder I suddenly see the damage they’ve done to the wooden window frame around those small panes. Tranches of wood excavated in the search for insects or larva. Another repair job for the next spell of dry weather. I promptly move pole & container further off, repositioning it in the arc of studio bed recently cleared, weeded and mulched with bark by Kim.

Wytham Woods Nesting Box in Spring

This event revived awed childhood memories of the ravages inflicted by tits on our doorstep delivery of gold top milk bottles of a winter morning. It also reminded me of something I’d come across much more recently: references to one of the longest ecological studies of marked individual wild animals in the world, here on our national doorstep. Wytham Woods is an extensive ancient broadleaf woodland donated by a local land owning family to nearby Oxford University during WW2. This ‘laboratory with leaves,’ run by the department of Zoology, is also open to the public at set times during the year. The university’s scientists have been methodically studying 40 generations of the titmice family and the interdependent ecological community in which they live since 1947. There are now 1,000 numbered nest boxes throughout the woods and every nestling is tagged. In the autumn and winter a grid of feeders operate twice a week and all birds visiting are recorded and logged on camera. Perhaps the most significant discovery made by this extraordinary study relates to climate change. The birds now breed three weeks earlier than they did in the 1960’s. Spring arrives sooner than it did and oak trees are coming in to leaf earlier. Caterpillars feed on the emergent leaves and the birds predate large numbers of them to feed their large brood of nestlings. The parents, the study also shows, can adjust egg incubation depending on the glut or scarcity of the caterpillars. Another fascinating aspect of social behaviour concerns bird interaction when moving in flocks on winter forage. Come breeding time they will choose to site their nests nearest those who have already proved good neighbours; respecting territorial boundaries or who best co-operate in dealing with predators. The official website has links and extracts from TV news or features about the study. http://wythamtits.com/#what-is-the-wytham-tit-project


Full Moon

The first full moon of the new year is known as a ‘Wolf Moon’. Wolves are breeding now and their night time howls are part of that mating ritual. The nearest we got to seeing predatory activity in the middle of the night was at this time last year when Kim, on her way to the bathroom, caught sight in the full moonlight of a dog fox elegantly acing through our yard. It is said that their rabbit kill rate tends to increase with greater illumination, though I also think their prey must be better placed to see them coming and have a better chance of escape! In Buddhism, other eastern religions and native north American folklore rabbits or hares replace the European ‘Man in the Moon’ interpretation of lunar surface markings.

This year’s Wolf Moon over Somerset: Library Image

The ancient association of odd behaviour and mania with the waxing moon is of course well known. ‘Lunacy’ derives from Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon, who rides her silver chariot across the heavens each night. Kim & I seemed to be subject to more disturbed sleep patterns than normal on the night of the most recent lunar eclipse (10/11 Jan). Waking early I mistook moonlight seeping in around window blind and skylight shutters for the early dawn so prepared to rise, only realising otherwise when I was sufficiently awake to check my bedside watch. Never mind, the views from the garden windows, of utter stillness in highlighted definition, brought a calming sense of wonder, an eventual return to bed and renewed slumber.

Flyers

Imagine the scene. The night before D-Day, June 1944. Standing with ground crew by the hangers your eardrums threaten to explode with the noise of 20 C-47 Douglas aircraft taking off from Station 479, a US Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their task is is to spearhead the allied invasion by dropping paratroops, supplies and equipment behind German lines in Normandy. For months these same aircraft, flying just above the waves of the channel to avoid radar, have been systematically dropping navigational equipment at key locations in preparation for this moment, the greatest sea borne landing in military history.

Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019. The only noise you hear is the constant though subdued drone of the AI, out of sight beyond the forest’s western edge. From time to time you also hear gunshots; game is being hunted somewhere. Our airfield was built rapidly, to a standard pattern, during 1943 and handed over to the US 9th Air Force whose pathfinder squadrons were based here; some 3,000 personnel living in huts and tents at one time. Closed at the end of hostilities in 1945, the base was handed back to the RAF who used it to store munitions. RAF North Witham closed for good in 1960 and the land was given over to the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) who gradually replaced woodland that had been cleared to make way for the airfield in the first place. Oak, beech and other native species now proliferate alongside stands of pine. Colonising birch has made inroads into the concrete and tarmac runways while willow and alder are well settled in bogland by the original perimeter road. Big rectangles of concrete that make up Runway 30 remain fully exposed and the whole expanse remains deeply impressive when its vanishing point is obscured by today’s atmospheric grey mizzle, framed by bare trunks or swags of distant conifer.

In recent years this otherwise forgotten architectural remnant of war has been the site of a series of illegal mass raves, which explains the flat bed of an articulated lorry blocking the vehicular access by the official car park. We’d love to return in Summer as these woods are also home to two nature reserves rich in rare butterflies. Volunteers have registered sightings of purple emperor (dwellers in the deciduous tree canopy) as well as numerous sightings of silver washed fritillary and common blue alongside rare species like grizzled and dingy skippers. Those same spirited volunteers turn up every March in working parties to patiently clear scrub and saplings in the rides between woodland. These sheltering glades are the equivalent of wartime runways for butterflies and moths, securing their precious life cycles and enriching our own lives in the process.

Grizzled Skipper Butterfly

Nests & Nooks

The Summer nests uncovered by autumn winds / Some torn, others dislodged, all dark / Everyone sees them: low or high in a tree / Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark. (From ‘Birds’ Nests’ by Edward Thomas)

Well, not quite everyone….I was oblivious to many until recently. A good half dozen springtime homes now finally logged around the premises. One or two are remarkably complete, despite the ravages of rude weather. I particularly love this little cone shaped nest, lined with wool and flecked with moss, woven into an intersection of branches in the copse that shelters one side of our yard at the west end. Having observed pipits active round that quarter in the summer I thought it may have been one of theirs but on discovering both meadow and tree varieties are usually ground nesters have had to revise my opinion. Now believe they’re more likely to be the seasonal abode of a member of the tit family, as the other nests in the east copse – lodged in the dense branch framework of either pine or elder – are identical in construction. For the second year running all the usual small garden birds have declined boxes put up for them around the place, clearly preferring their traditional open air pitches…Clearly they know what’s best!

Meanwhile inside the house there’s an almost daily awakening of small tortoiseshell butterflies. Having secreted a winter berth to settle down in, either warmth or light has roused them out of hibernation. One will appear out of nowhere to flutter noisily around a lamp shade, crawl unsteadily over carpet or repetitively climb window panes. I gently capture them in a jam jar and remove each delicate torpid form to the garage workshop; hoping they will find the cool relatively undisturbed haven they need in order to fully shut down for the season.

Xmas Gift

40 tonne loads of timber pass our door on an regular basis. Extracted from the country’s biggest man made forest the stripped conifer trunks are on their way to be chipped for board or for burning in a new power station. Once a year though, since 2000, three specially grown trees from Kielder are spared this mundane destiny. A 45 year old, 40 foot high Sitka Spruce along with two smaller specimens are felled, carefully wrapped and loaded onto one of the local contractor’s flat bed lorries. The boss himself drives the precious load all the way down to London. Very early the next day he delivers them to officials of the Palace of Westminster. A crane then winches the biggest tree into its prominent place in the square outside Parliament, where it is decked with lights. The middle size tree goes into the great medieval hall while the smallest ends up in the Speaker’s apartment.

Trees from the forest also featured in another star turn last week. We went to see ‘Robin of Sherwood’, the mass cast Christmas show from our remarkably talented amateur drama company which they stage for four nights in the Town Hall of the biggest village in the valley. Both sides of the spacious auditorium were lined with conifers from the forest, while scaffolding on one side allowed the players to run through the dense greenwood above us. AV back projection on the stage allowed more forest to be projected while town scenes saw the rolling in and out of painted flats. Nottingham Castle being burnt down by Robin and his men was vividly created by fiery stage lighting & stage fighting. Unlike many other amateur companies nationwide there is no shortage of young men hereabouts willing to take roles and many children too had parts. Brilliant community production that created a memorable immersive experience.

I also loved the themed bar at the back of the hall that they used for scenes involving Friar Tuck. The tent like structure had beer taps dispensing a local brewery’s fine products, with names like ‘Merry Men’s Delight’ and ‘Friar Tuck’s Tipple’. Home made mini pies and pasties were also on offer. In the raffle at the interval we won one of the play’s spare props – a leather purse of gold wrapped chocolate coins! All in all a lovely heartwarming and laughter filled way to launch the Yuletide festival.