The badger is the true king of this land

The badger is the true king of this land

Badger by Eileen Soper

Badger by Eileen Soper

Reposted from 21 July 2011

One of the most magical experiences of my life was an encounter with a badger.  So it pains me that the government has finally made the decision to go ahead with a badger cull.  The Guardian has a concise, reasoned editorial on the plan here: ‘At the end of the exercise, England’s dairy farmers will still be no better off, and the wild landscape will be a great deal poorer. Crazy seems too mild an epithet’.

Brian May’s e-petition can be signed here.  The 38 Degrees petition against the cull can be signed here.  There’s been a big debate among 38 Degrees members about these culls. Some believe killing badgers would be wrong under any circumstances. Some believe that if the science really proved that shooting badgers could make a real dent in the cow TB problem, it would be a tragic necessity. But 87% agree on this: the government’s current plans to shoot England’s badgers simply don’t stack up. The government’s own scientific advisers warn that it won’t solve the problem of TB in cattle, and could even make it worse.

Government scientists say that if a cull isn’t carried out ‘in a co-ordinated, sustained and simultaneous manner according to the minimum criteria, then this could result in a smaller benefit or even a detrimental effect’.

The arguments surrounding the cull are weighed in this piece by Damien Carrington in The Guardian.  It doesn’t look good for the badger,  the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’ as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe‘.  Carrington writes that,

The proposals consulted upon by the government, amount to a DIY cull by landowners: they will self-organise into groups and then shoot free-running badgers. At the time, the proposals were described as “scientifically among the worst options they could have chosen” by the leading UK’s leading badger ecologist, who worked on the biggest trial ever undertaken.

He concludes that,

The most obvious alternative is already being implemented by the National Trust: trapping and vaccinating the badgers against TB. But, it’s expensive and the government has cancelled five projects to test vaccination, leaving just one. In the medium-term, an oral vaccine, which can be given far more easily and cheaply in food, seems ideal. But will not be ready for use until 2015.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, responded to the government announcement with this statement:

The decision by Defra to give the go-ahead for a barbaric slaughter of badgers in our countryside shows a shocking disregard for animal welfare – and flies in the face of scientific evidence on the spread of bovine TB.  The belief that badger culling represents an effective solution has already been disproven.  After a nine year randomised cull trial which cost the UK taxpayer £50m and destroyed 10,000 badgers, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.  Even the Government adviser responsible for a 10-year experimental cull in the 1990s, Lord Krebs, has now rejected the method.  Perhaps it is this lack of evidence to support the policy that has made Defra so reluctant to publish the results of its consultation.

Eighty per cent of bovine TB transmission is thought to be caused by cattle-to-cattle infection.  Given that it is a respiratory disease, this high rate can be attributed to the trend towards intensive dairy farming, in which cattle are kept in crowded conditions. Rather than cruel and ineffective mass culling, restrictions on cattle movement and contact between badgers and cattle should be given high priority, in addition to greater efforts to introduce a vaccination programme.

Queen guitarist Brian May has campaigned against the cull for many years.  In a  recent Guardian feature he stated:

I don’t really love badgers because they are furry and good-looking. It’s not about that. They are appealing, there’s no doubt, they are like little bears, especially when they are young. To me they are fascinating and rather mysterious because they have been in the British Isles longer than humans and they have their own social ways, not all of which is understood by us.

I can’t help but have a sort of awe for all wild creatures who have survived even the awfulness of what we have done to the world. We are the vandals in this world, there’s no doubt about it.”

Despite being the first wild animal to be given legal protection in Britain, in 1973, the illegal “sport” of badger baiting and digging still goes on, and this year killing badgers is set to be sanctioned by the government – which wants to authorise farmers to trap and shoot them to reduce bovine TB. May is convinced this is the Conservatives’ political sop to the countryside lobby because, locked in coalition, they lack the numbers to repeal Labour’s hunting ban. “It’s a panacea that is being offered to farmers, look we are doing something, we are on your side, we’re going out and killing things,” he says.

Bovine TB led to the slaughter of 24,899 cattle in England last year, costing £63m. Farmers insist the disease is a genuine crisis, and argue it has increased with a burgeoning badger population and that disease hotspots correspond to high badger populations, particularly in the West Country. May insists that it is still unproven that badgers pass TB to cattle (it is proven that cattle transmit it to badgers) and unproven that a cull would help.  He quotes the conclusion of a 10-year culling trial in which 11,000 badgers were killed: culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of TB.

Badger and Owl by Carrie Akroyd

In ‘Coming Down Through Somerset’, the unsentimental Ted Hughes wrote movingly of an encounter with a dead badger:

I flash-glimpsed in the headlights — the high moment
Of driving through England — a killed badger
Sprawled with helpless legs. Yet again
Manoeuvred lane-ends, retracked, waited
Out of decency for headlights to die,
Lifted by one warm hindleg in the world-night
A slain badger. August dust-heat. Beautiful,
Beautiful, warm, secret beast. Bedded him
Passenger, bleeding from the nose. Brought him close
Into my life. Now he lies on the beam
Torn from a great building. Beam waiting two years
To be built into new building. Summer coat
Not worth skinning off him. His skeleton — for the future.
Fangs, handsome concealed. Flies, drumming,
Bejewel his transit. Heatwave ushers him hourly
Towards his underworlds. A grim day of flies
And sunbathing. Get rid of that badger.
A night of shrunk rivers, glowing pastures,
Sea-trout shouldering up through trickles. Then the sun again
Waking like a torn-out eye. How strangely
He stays on into the dawn — how quiet
The dark bear-claws, the long frost-tipped guard hairs!
Get rid of that badger today.
And already the flies.
More passionate, bringing their friends. I don’t want
To bury and waste him. Or skin him (it is too late).
Or hack off his head and boil it
To liberate his masterpiece skull. I want him
To stay as he is. Sooty gloss-throated,
With his perfect face. Paws so tired,
Power-body regulated. I want him
To stop time. His strength staying, bulky,
Blocking time. His rankness, his bristling wildness,
His thrillingly painted face.
A badger on my moment of life.
Not years ago, like the others, but now.
I stand
Watching his stillness, like an iron nail
Driven, flush to the head,
Into a yew post. Something has to stay.

Badger - RJ Lloyd

Badger by RJ Lloyd

In 1984, in his ‘fable for the young’,What is the Truth, Ted Hughes has the poacher speak these lines:

Main thing about badgers is hating daylight.
Funny kind of chap snores all day
In his black hole-sort of root
A ball of roots a potato or a bulb maybe
A whiskery bulb he loves bulbs he’ll do a lot to get a good bulb

Worms beetles things full of night
Keeping himself filled up with night
A big beetle wobbling along nose down in the mould
Heavy weight of night in him
Heavy pudding of night solid in him and incredibly heavy
Soaking out through his beetle-black legs
Leaving the hair-tips on his bristly back drained empty
And white and his face drained stark-white
A ghost mask really a fright mask
I know night-shift miners
Are very pale but he’s whitewashed

Like a sprout’s white I suppose underground
He sprouts his nose slowly
Surprising to see it sticking out of the ground
To sniff if the sun’s gone-soon he comes rolling out
A fat bulb with a sniffing sprout, a grey mushroom
Just bulging out of the ground and sitting there on top of it
Scratching his fleas sniffing for stars

His sniffing around is a bit like a maggot
Then he’s of following his sniff
With his burglar’s mask on and his crowbar
Under his moonlight cloak
And all night he’s breaking and entering
Deadlogs wasps’ nests hedgehogs, old wild man of the woods in his woad
Crashing about, humming to himself

Amazing physique he has Eskimo wrestler
Really like a Troll bristly gristly
Armpits like an orangoutang when you examine him
And a ridge on his skull like a gorilla
Packed in muscle a crash-helmet of muscle
His head is actually one terrific muscle
With a shocking chomp and sleepy little eyes
To make it seem harmless. But he’s harmless enough
Even if he acts guilty. And he makes you smile
When you see his back-end bobbing along in the dawn-dew
With the sack of himself bouncing on his gallop
Just like a sack of loot. My Dad said
Kill a badger kill your granny. Kill a badger never see
The moon in your sleep. And so it is.
They disappear under their hill but they work a lot inside people.

Bovine TB causes tens of millions of pounds of damage annually, with affected farmers forced to discard milk, meat and other products from infected beasts, and sometimes to abandon livestock farming altogether (though many critics of the cull argue that bovine TB has spread as a consequence of intensive farming methods). In What is the Truth, Ted Hughes put these words into the mouth of the farmer:

The Badger in the spinney is the true king of this land.
All creatures are his tenants, though not all understand.

Didicoi red and roe-deer, gypsy foxes, romany otters-
They squabble about their boundaries, but all of them are squatters.

Even the grandest farm-house, what is it but a camp
In the land where the singing Badger walks the woods with his hooded lamp?

A farmer’s but a blowing seed with a flower of crops and herds.
His tractors and his combines are as airy as his words.

But the Badger’s fort was dug when the whole land was one oak.
His face is his ancient coat of arms, and he wears the same grey cloak

As if time had not passed at all, as if there were no such thing,
As if there were only the one night-kingdom and its Badger King.

Badger Studies by Will Taylor

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Canada Geese in Sefton Park

Canada Geese in Sefton Park
Goslings 5 June (photo: Francine Palant)

Canada geese are familiar enough birds around lakes and town parks, and there are usually a dozen or so on the boating lake in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. But, back in the spring a pair settled on the upper reaches of the Jordan stream that flows down through the park. Very soon it was clear that the female was incubating eggs on the island in the stream, and at the beginning of June three goslings had hatched.

Canada goose nest with eggs (Wikimedia Commons)

Though Canada geese are a familiar enough sight, no-one could remember a pair successfully rearing young in Sefton Park.  So it was interesting to watch their development, and the behaviour of the parents, as the weeks went by.

3 June (photo: Francine Palant)

Canada geese are native to North America, where they are migratory, but since being introduced to Britain in 1665 as an addition to the waterfowl collection of King Charles II at St. James’ Park, they have developed a permanent residence and remain here all year round. This pair first came to my attention sometime in April, and, passing by on the daily dog walk, I soon noticed that the famale was safely ensconsed on a nest on the island in the stream.  A female Canada lays up to five eggs in a nest which is little more than a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with feathers and soft vegetation. She incubates the eggs for up to 30 days while the male stays near.

26 June (photo: Francine Palant)

As May turned to June the tiny goslings made their first appearance.  Newly hatched (top), the goslings  looked much like ducklings with yellow and gray feathers and a dark bill.  Within a week they had grown to be rather awkward-looking, fuzzy grey birds. They grew at an astonishing rate – compare the two photos above, taken a fortnight apart.

12 July

But what has been even more remarkable has been the devoted behaviour of the parents who never leave their goslings unguarded. The male bird, especially, is always alert, long neck raised, looking and listening for any approaching threat. The five birds are never more than a few yards from one another.

The adult pair could often be seen standing their ground and facing up to a dog that ventured too close.  Canada geese are not especially aggressive birds, but they can be when protecting their young. Dramatic evidence of this is seen in this Daily Mail report of a YouTube clip that shows a fierce battle between a protective bird and an office worker who strays too close to his nest in a public park in Ontario. The clip shows the lengths to which one of these birds will go to protect their partners and young.

18 July (photo: Francine Palant)

Numbers of Canada geese in Britain remained low until the 1950s when they started to increase significantly. There are now estimated to be as many as 100,000 Canada geese resident in the UK, with around 190,000 wintering here from homes in the Arctic.

5 August

Canada geese are found on large inland bodies of water such as lakes, reservoirs and large ponds; as well as on seashores and rivers.  They are grazers, not fishers so are often found on grassland. Their diet consists of plant material such as roots, tubers, shoots and leaves.  As for humans eating them, Canada geese are reputedly amongst the most inedible of birds.

5 August
5 August

As their numbers have grown across the UK, Canada geese have come to be regarded as pests in some areas where they congregate in large numbers and cause damage.  A large  flock, defecating every few minutes, can deposit a great deal of excreta. The geese can be responsible for extensive fouling of lawns and other grassy areas, footpaths and lakes, causing an unpleasant nuisance. The droppings contain bacteria that may be harmful if fecal matter is inadvertently swallowed.

There has been argument and controversy over culls carried out in some places – and planned culls, such as a plan to kill 200 Canada geese on Lake Windermere earlier this year which has  now been abandoned. There, local landowners complained the birds were eating crops and polluting the water.  But when the move was condemned and a campaign launched to save them, experts reconsidered their decision. There are effective and humane methods of controlling Canada geese populations, including egg pricking or egg substitution.

A typical Daily Mail rant labelled Canada geese as ‘the most loathsome bird in Britain’ and went on to cast them as ‘unwelcome immigrants … winged thugs … lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbours out of town and notching up ASBOs around the clock’.

5 August

By nine to ten weeks old, the goslings had grown their flight feathers and look like slightly smaller versions of the adult.  By the beginning of August, they were barely distinguishable from their parents.

Canada geese usually pair for life, and have been known to pine to death at the loss of their mate, recalling the ‘Out of the Cradle’ section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  A young boy watches a pair of mockingbirds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at the bond that binds them. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy:

Once, Paumanok,
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air, and the fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this sea-shore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama—two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,
And every day the she-bird, crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great Sun!
While we bask—we two together.

Two together!
Winds blow South, or winds blow North,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.

And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea,
And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore!
I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

He call’d on his mate;
He pour’d forth the meanings which I, of all men, know.

Yes, my brother, I know;
The rest might not—but I have treasur’d every note;
For once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes,
Following you, my brother.

Walt Whitman’s poetry was a great influence on Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing.  Silenced by Mao’s regime for 21 years, from  1957 to 1978, Ai never lost his respect for Whitman, deepened by what Ai saw as a mutual concern for the afflicted, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless. It was during this period that Ai wrote a poem of similar delicacy and sympathy for a bird in pain, ‘Water Birds’, which describes the injury of a bird by a hunter while the mate flees in fright, leaving the injured bird struggling on its own to gain a hiding place amid crevices of stones, sadly and hopelessly waiting for the return of its companion:

At the moment
Amidst crevices of stones
With its own beak
The bird caressed its wound,
And in its sorrowful moaning of solitude
Expecting the return of its soul mate.

Two years ago, we experienced our own local tragedy when a female swan in Sefton Park was attacked by a dog and died as a result of her injuries.  The male swan remained, attentive to the needs of their six cygnets.

15 August

Yesterday the geese were gone.  After months of seeing them, always within a few yards of the spot where the female had sat patiently on the eggs, their absence seemed to leave a melancholy silence. Where did they go?  If these geese were in Canada or the northern United States, in the autumn, as soon as the young were strong enough for the journey, they would begin their migration south to the southern states or Mexico.  The young  learn the migration route from their parents and follow the same paths north and south in subsequent years.

But the Canada Geese in Britain are, in the main, sedentary birds.  They don’t migrate, but soon after their young can fly they move a short distance to join up with a larger flock nearby.  They spend much of the year in large flocks but disperse when they need to find breeding sites where they can raise their young.  This pair probably left a flock somewhere nearby in the spring and identified the Jordan stream with its secluded little island as a suitable place to breed.

Most recoveries of ringed Canada Geese in Britain have found that the individuals concerned were within about 30 miles of the place where they were originally caught (although some do move further – including some quite long distance movements within Britain to join flocks, and a few movements to the continent).

Pink-footed geese on Martin Mere

But there are geese that pass through the British Isles on migration routes that bring them south from the Arctic.  According to the RSPB around 700,000 geese arrive in the UK from overseas every year. The geese travel thousands of miles from their breeding grounds across the Arctic circle, Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland.  They migrate here to escape the harsh weather and to feed on salt marshes, estuaries and farmland.  England hosts extremely large flocks of migrating geese across various sites. One of the most notable of these is in the north-west at Martin Mere, twenty miles north of Liverpool.  There, overwintering flocks of Pink-footed Geese, usually around 20 to 30,000 strong,  arrive from late September through to mid-October.  Martin Mere also hosts a smaller population of Greenland white-fronted geese.

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Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world

Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world

‘Back to winter’ they say in the Co-op in Brodick.  Lowering cloud, a chilly breeze: it all looks decidedly unpromising for a day’s walking.  But as we set off  up Glen Rosa, the valley that pokes a finger from Brodick Bay into the mountains of the north of Arran, things are starting to look brighter.  By the end of the afternoon we will have had another brilliant walk, shedding layers as we go, as the sky clears and hot sunshine breaks through.

The walk up the glen is fairly flat and undemanding, gaining less than 200 metres in altitude before the final sharp climb to the ridge called The Saddle that overlooks Glen Sannox.For the first couple of miles the track leads past grassy meadows and wooded hillsides.

Soon, though, the valley becomes more bare of trees and shrubs, a consequence we learn later of grazing by deer and sheep that have rediced what once was extensive tree cover to small remnants.

Glen Rosa Water rushes along beside the track, crystal-clear water spilling over rocks and stones. To our right, the valley is overlooked by Goat Fell, the highest peak on the island, though it’s not possible to see it from the glen.

After a mile or so the glen turns to the north and the path crosses a bridge over another very busy stream that flows down the steep hillside in a series of waterfalls.

Now the valley ahead is dominated by the jagged peaks of Cir Mhòr which rises to 799 metres (2621 feet) and is sometimes called the ‘Matterhorn of Arran’. Its Gaelic name is translated into English as ‘Big Comb’, a reference to its resemblance to a cockscomb.

The landscape becomes increasingly wild and majestic,with bog cotton (common cottongrass) and wild orchids flanking the path.  Yet, amazingly, this landscape is little more than two miles from the nearest supermarket.

It’s here that we think we identify a stonechat.  At least, the bird we see seems to live up to its naming: it sits on a stone and chats, energetically and at great length.  Norman MacCaig painted a vivid portrait of this bird, ‘a bright child throwing a tantrum’, in ‘Stonechat on Cul Beg’:

A flint-on-flint ticking – and there he is,
Trim and dandy – in square miles of bracken
And bogs and boulders a tiny work of art,
Bright as an illumination on a monkish parchment.

I queue up to watch him. He makes me a group
of solemn connoisseurs trying to see the brushstrokes.
I want to thumb the air in their knowing way.
I murmur Chinese black, I murmur alizarin.

But the little picture with four flirts and a delicate
Up-swinging’s landed on another boulder.
He gives me a stained-glass look and keeps
Chick-chacking at me. I suppose he’s swearing.

You’d expect something like oboes or piccolos
(Though other birds, too, have pebbles in their throats –
And of them I love best the airy skylark
Twittering like marbles squeezed in your fist).

Cul Beg looks away – his show’s been stolen.
And the up-staged loch would yawn if it could.
Only the benign sun in his fatherly way
Beams on his bright child throwing a tantrum.

By the time we stop for lunch, the sun is beating down. After, I take the dog and make the ascent to The Saddle: what is it about getting to the top to see what’s on the other side?

The climb is steeper now, but its only in the last few yards that it becomes a scramble.  We reach the top, dog and I.  Was ever a climb worth it!  The views are spectacular, despite the heat haze.  A small King Charles spaniel looks back down Glen Rosa with some astonishment, perhaps, at her achievement (top).

The view down Glen Sannox to the sea is breathtaking.  Both these valleys were sculpted into classic U-shaped valleys during the last Ice Age, when the glacial ice flowed downhill to carve deeply into the rocks.  There’s a poem by Norman MacCaig, ‘Humanism’, that meditates on the work of these glaciers millenia ago:

When the glacier was defeated
in the siege of Suilven and limped off
to the East, it left behind it all that
burdened its retreat –
stones, the size of
sandgrains and haystacks:
abandoned loot of Glen Canisp.

What a human lie is this. What greed and what
arrogance, not to allow
a glacier to be a glacier –
to humanise into a metaphor
that long slither of ice – that was no more
a beaten army than it was a horde
of Cinderellas, each,
when her midnight sounded,
leaving behind her
a sandstone shoe.

I defend the glacier that
when it absorbs a man
preserves his image

Well…it was a tough climb for a small dog.  We pause to rest awhile before heading back down the glen and watch a chaffinch sing lustily on a nearby branch.  On the way down we pass a man who asks if we’ve seen any adders – they have been plentiful this season, he says.

Part way along is the Glen Rosa Enclosure, a section of the valley fenced off from sheep and deer in order to allow the natural regeneration of woodland to take place and to increase wildlife diversity.  It’s certainly having an effect: this enclosed area is rich in tree saplings, shrubs and heather largely absent beyond the fence.

It’s a pleasant walk back to the metalled track at the beginning of the glen.  The sun is still warm, and as we pass the campsite young lads are plunging into the river.

Friday was our last day on the island, and we woke to steady rain – rain that had been forecast as a depression headed our way.  But it was the cold that made the weather distinctly unseasonable: it was 10 C – or worse, with the wind chill factor in a stiff breeze.

After lunch, though, the rain moved off for a few hours, and we decided on a walk up Glenashdale to see the waterfall.  For the most part, at least, we would be sheltered from the biting wind.  The walk along Glenshdale begins at Whiting Bay, and follows the burn through mixed woodland, rich with the smell of wild garlic.  The woodland floor was carpeted with the leaves of wood anemone and wild garlic (now over; it must have been a superb sight a few weeks ago).

When I saw this truck, with trees and shrubs growing through it, I was reminded of a scene in Werner Herzog’s recent film Into the Abyss, in which Herzog, probing the circumstances of a triple murder, chances upon the Camaro stolen by the murderers during the crime.  A tree has grown up inside the vehicle during the decade it has stood in the police station parking lot.

A noticeboard along the trail informs visitors that Arran is one of the remaining strongholds of the red squirrel.  There are no grey squirrels on Arran, which is the only Scottish island with a resident red squirrel population.  So vigilance against any incursion by grey squirrels is of primary importance to safeguard red squirrels.  Red squirrels seem unable to survive in the presence of greys, though the reasons for this are not fully understood. There is no evidence that grey squirrels aggressively chase out red squirrels, but grey squirrels seem to be more successful competing for food in different types of habitat – and they brought a disease, parapox virus, with them from America to which they are immune but which usually kills red squirrels.

Glenashdale Falls were a spectacular sight: it was easy to understand how this waterfall  is regarded one of the most impressive waterfalls in the West of Scotland.  The path to the area has been improved over the years and a viewing platform now juts out over the falls to give a clear view of the double drop.

The waterfall descends over 140 feet in two falls to a plunge pool, and then over another ledge to the river below.

We continued past the waterfall on the circular walk that takes you to the Giants’ Graves, neolithic graves that, at 5000 years old, pre-date the Egyptian pyramids.

Rather than being the final resting place of giants, as the legend says, the graves contained the bones of several people. Massive stone slabs, jumbled together in the turf, are all that remains of this large Stone Age burial cairn.  There was once a forecourt, defined by large upright stones, with a rectangular burial chamber entered from the forecourt.  The chamber was roofed with large slabs and enclosed in a stone cairn.  Most of the smaller stones were removed long ago for walls and building materials.  The cairn was excavated in 1902, and some burnt bone, pottery, flint knives and stone arrowheads were found.

Before they were placed in the cairn, bodies were left in the open to let the ravens remove the flesh from the bones, and different parts of the skeleton may have been placed in different parts of the chamber.  People were sometimes buried with decorated pots, stone arrowheads and knives. The cairns were not permanently sealed but were used again and again over many years. The cairns were built using simple tools and required considerable communal effort. They were intended for the remains of the community’s ancestors, not just for individuals.  The forecourts may have been used for rituals conducted during burial and in remembrance of the ancestors.

It’s a wild, windswept location, on a headland offering superb vistas of Whiting Bay and Holy Island.  Looking down at the bay, we could see the waves, whipped up by the stiff wind, breaking on the beach below.

All that remained of our week on Arran now was the packing and the leaving.  But, as Norman MacCaig observes in his poem ‘Landscape Outside and In’, we may leave the place behind, but the song of the landscape continues long after:

My rough ground lies under,
my scrub trees rise over
a tangle of grass half drowned
in a dazing wash of bluebells.
Four things, making a perpendicularity.

Beside them the loch water provides
the horizontal. It itches
with waterboatmen
and dimples with trout.

On top of all, on the high branches
I’m divided into birds, all singing.
How often do all my selves
sing together?..

You pick up a piece of wood,
a water sculpture; and we go to the car
and make for home.

We’ve left behind the bluebells
and the water. But all my selves
are still singing. They make no sound
but you hear their every note.


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Ragged Robin: scruffy but unpretentious

Ragged Robin: scruffy but unpretentious

I noticed the splash of brilliant colour from a distance: walking with my dog on Childwall Fields this afternoon, I encountered a patch of Ragged Robin, a favourite flower from childhood.  It’s a plant that likes damp places like boggy meadows, marshes and ditches, and the reason I was able to get close enough to take these photos without getting my feet wet was that the recent hot, dry weather had dried out the boggy patch where they were growing.

The reason for the flower’s name is obvious: the ragged bright pink petals have a tattered appearance and, as Sarah Raven writes in her recent book Wild Flowers, they:

look a bit dishevelled, like a skinny dandy after an all-night party.  So many flowers are exercises in perfection and prettiness, but Ragged Robin is cooler than that: a Red Campion that has been through a shredder.

The American writer of children’s poetry, Laura E. Richards, picks up the theme of scruffy unpretentiousness in a pretty awful poem, ‘Ragged Robin’, which begins:

O Robin, ragged Robin,
That stands beside the door,
The sweetheart of the country child,
The flower of the poor,

I love to see your cheery face,
Your straggling bravery;
Than many a stately garden bloom
You’re dearer far to me.

For you it needs no sheltered nook,
No well-kept flower-bed;
By cottage porch, by roadside ditch,
You raise your honest head.

The Ragged Robin has acquired many nicknames – in different parts of the country it was once called Meadow Spink, Polly Baker, Crow Flower, Shaggy Jacks, Thunder Flower, Bachelor’s Buttons or The Cuckoo Flower.  The botanical name is Lychnis flos-cuculi; the first part – ‘lychnis’ – from the Greek for ‘lamp’ (the bright pink flowers were thought to stand out in the landscape like a lamp) while the second part – ‘cuculi’ – translates as ‘the flower of the cuckoo’ (from the observation that it comes into flower when the cuckoos first call).

It was good to see Ragged Robin flourishing in an urban setting like Childwall Fields since the frayed flowers are an increasingly rare sight in the wild. Developments such as the drainage of land for agriculture and the loss of ponds, has resulted in many of the UK’s wetlands disappearing. Here, though, they flourished alongside yellow flag in a boggy area by a pond.

See also

In search of the asphodel

In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

– ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  […] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. […] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. […]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

– ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie or town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.


The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

– ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

These are the mornings when I pull back the curtains and light floods into the room as if overnight there has been a sudden, heavy fall of snow.  It’s the magnolia in the front garden, planted nearly thirty years ago that for a week two in spring is clothed in dazzling splendour, the creamy white flowers like candles, touched with pink blush.

It never lasts long; after their couple of weeks of glory, the petals fall and carpet the garden as if snow has fallen. Richard Lambert’s poem, ‘The Magnolia’, speaks of this:

Will you watch the wind blow
white blossom from the tree,
will you watch it blow,

the branches strained with love,
the garden stained with white,
will you watch the wind?

A blackbird leaps into the height
and sings; sky is blue.
Will you watch it blow?

The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.

Old hippy that I am, it’s usually a tune by The Grateful Dead that sings in my head as I gaze at the tree:

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care …

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine

And those blissed-out lyrics seem just right for these days of fine weather, warmer than southerly parts of continental Europe such as Barcelona, Nice and Majorca.  As if we’ve skipped a season and plunged straight into summer.

Magnolias are, I learned from Wikipedia, truly ancient.  Named after a French botanist Pierre Magnol, they evolved even before bees appeared, the flowers developing  to encourage pollination by beetles.  Fossilised specimens of Magnolia have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the family Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago.  A primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals.

This reminded me of  the recent BBC TV series presented by geology professor Iain Stewart, How to Grow a Planet.  Branching out from rocks and volcanoes, he set out to demonstrate how plants are the ‘silent power’ that has shaped the Earth as much the geological processes he usually describes.

As recently as 130 million years ago plant life was so limited in its evolutionary journey that the part of a plant we prize above all else – the flower – didn’t exist at all. Stewart went on to show that in the geologically short time they’ve been around flowers have brought about the single most powerful transformation in our planet’s history:  they kick started an explosion of diversification in the animal kingdom – that ultimately lead to homo sapiens.

It was all to do with sex.  All organisms have to reproduce to survive, and that’s what a flower is for, of course.  But before flowers the plant kingdom consisted of  conifers and ferns, and they relied on something completely random – wind and water –for reproduction.

But flowers are basically super-efficient sex organs which, by forming all kinds of partnerships with animals, were incredibly successful, transforming the planet and helping  to steer evolution of animals at the same time.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how and why flowers appeared – there’s some evidence they share genes with fir cones, or evolved from adapted leaf structures. What’s remarkable is that flower fossils all start appearing around the same time – 140–130 million years ago. Darwin called this sudden appearance an ‘abominable mystery’.

Iain Stewart explained that flowers emerged at a time of geological transformation:  the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea was breaking up and new habitats and niches were being formed. Flowering plants evolved a survival ‘toolkit’ that made them better adapted to colonise a changing planet.  Above all, the reason why flowers were so successful was because they harnessed animals to reproduce – flies, beetles, and above all, bees.

As bees evolved they became perfectly adapted to collect pollen from flowers. Their whole bodies became covered in hair, so that the pollen would stick when they landed on flowers. They developed special antennae to smell out nectar,  and their sophisticated compound eyes, each made up of up to 6000 tiny lenses, were perfect at spotting flowers. While we are all familiar with the idea that flowers use colour to attract insects, Iain Stewart demonstrated that insects can also see ultra violet markings on plants – patterns that are indetectable to the human eye.
The magnolia in our garden has been around for close on thirty years, but its kind have flourished on this planet for a few million years longer.

Back at South Stack: choughs and puffins

A week after walking at South Stack, the cliffs near Holyhead on Anglesey, I’m back again, this time with birdwatching friends armed with bins and a scope.  And we hit pay dirt: a spectacular display ten feet from where we stand of a fledging chough beating up its parents for food, and, through the telescope, my first-ever sight of puffins, pottering about outside a burrow on the cliffs.

Though R and I had seen choughs before, wheeling above cliffs in Pembrokeshire, the chough is a rare British bird and it is even more rare thing to see such a piece of distinctive  behaviour  close up for several minutes. These are crops from photos I managed to snatch on my pocket camera – not wonderful, but they do capture the aggressive performance of the young chough (though not the bombardment of cries that accompanied it):

This is a considerably better photo of a chough taken at South Stack by Jim Almond from his Shropshire Birder website:

There are estimated to be only 450 or so breeding pairs of choughs in the UK – mainly in Wales.  The RSPB site states that:

The female lays 3-5 eggs at 1-3 day intervals in April. The female broods the young almost continuously for the first two weeks with the male supplying all the food. Both adults bring food later. The young are fed on regurgitated food consisting of a variety of insect matter, especially ants.

The young fly at 6-7 weeks of age. They are able to feed themselves three weeks later, but remain with their parents for a further 1-2 weeks. Once the young are independent, they join a flock of other immature birds, sometimes many miles from their birth place. They only leave the flock when ready to breed themselves. There are occasional reports of a helper at the nest of an established pair.

The first six months after fledging are dangerous for the young birds, and many of them perish. The birds reach maturity and breed for the first time when they are between two and four years old. Birds that get this far can expect to live for a further three years.

This red-legged, red-billed member of the crow family earned itself the name ‘Cornish chough’ because of its close association with the county for several hundred years.  But, for various reasons by the mid-20th century the chough had virtually disappeared from the county.  The RSPB site records the end:

The year 1947 saw the last successful nesting attempt in Cornwall. An ageing pair of choughs lived near Newquay between 1960–1967 but one of the pair was found dead in March 1967. Its partner patrolled the cliffs alone until 1973 when it too, the last of the Cornish choughs, was seen no more.

Chough was originally the alternative onomatopoeic name for the jackdaw, based on its call. The similar red-billed species, became known initially as Cornish chough and then just chough.  It’s called chova in Spanish , but Crave a bec rouge in French, while to the Dutch they’re Alpenkraai and for the Germans Alpenkrahe.

There was more excitement as we descended the steps to South Stack lighthouse. There were already birders of several nationalities gathered, staring intently at the cliff face opposite.  We learned that, in amongst the thousands of razorbills and guillemots, there were a very few puffins to be seen.

Through the telescope we were able to get a really good view of two or three puffins poking around outside a burrow halfway down the cliff face.  My camera did not have a long enough lens to capture the scene – these photos of puffins, razorbills and guillemots at South Stack were taken by Dave Cullen:

Funnily enough, although R and I had never seen a puffin before, they are much more common birds than choughs – the RSPB estimates there are over 580,000 breeding pairs around the UK coasts. You don’t need to be an ornithologist to recognise a puffin – its colourful and slightly clown-like appearance is well known.

The puffin’s short wings are used for ‘flying’ underwater in search of fish; large wings would be a disadvantage but small wings make flying in air rather more difficult and the birds must beat their wings rapidly to stay aloft.  Puffins spend the winter far out to sea and return to their nesting sites in April, gradually building up in numbers as the egg laying season approaches. They nest underground in burrows, preferring nest-sites close to the cliff-top since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them.

Both parents bring food to the chicks – the commonest item being sandeels, which the parents catch by diving.  Probably the commonest image of a puffin is of the bird with its beak stuffed with sandeels:

Recently there has been concern that a decline in puffin numbers is attributable to a decline in the sand eel population due to intensive fishing, often to produce feed for salmon farms.  The RSPB is campaigning for the protection of sandeel populations.

Towards the end of July, when the chicks are ready to leave, they are still not fully-grown but can fly reasonably well.  However, they are still vulnerable to attacks by predatory gulls, so they leave at night, working their way down to the cliff-edge and taking off in the darkness. They go by themselves and are out of sight of land by day-break. Thereafter, they are on their own and receive no further parental care.

As the sun set over a glistening sea, we turned and headed for home, stopping for fish and chips in Holyhead before we returned to the A55.

On the last leg of the journey back to Liverpool we called for a pint at the Wheatsheaf Inn, hidden deep in the heart of the Wirral countryside at Raby.  It’s a 16th century thatched inn that has been a watering hole for nearly 400 years and has a reputation for its wide range of well-kept ales. There are nine to choose from, including the award winning Trappers Hat from Brimstage Brewery on the Wirral.

Holyhead before the ferry

This is the view looking across Anglesey from South Stack towards the distant mountains of Snowdonia.  While waiting to pick up R from the ferry after an Irish ancestry expedition, I took a walk along the cliffs in the South Stack RSPB reserve above Holyhead on an afternoon of hot sun and glorious views.

It’s a breathtaking place. The sheer cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds in summer, and there were plenty of birdwatchers about, armed with formidable telescopes and binoculars. High on the cliffs is Ellin’s Tower (below), built in 1868 as a summer-house and restored in the 1980s as an RSPB visitor centre where birdwatchers come to see puffins, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills.

Further along, 400 steps lead down to South Stacks lighthouse, and though its a steep climb back up, it’s worth making the descent for two reasons.  Firstly, because you can look back at the cliffs it provides superb bird watching opportunities: at every turn of the stairs there were men and women with telescopes focussed on the birds nesting  on the cliff ledges opposite.  One was kind enough to let me take a look: I saw razorbills, guillemots and gulls feeding their young, but, disappointingly, no puffins.

The razorbills spend winter out in the Irish Sea and come to the cliffs in May to  lay eggs.  They are smart looking black and white birds with a distinctive white stripe on their beak.   They stay here until mid July rearing their chicks, and then, even though they can’t yet fly, the chicks  jump off the cliffs at dusk and land in the sea. Their parents escort them out to sea where their wings will grow, and where they will be taught how to dive for fish. Guillemots are similar to razorbills, and like the razorbills, they winter are out at sea and then return in spring to nest. They only have one egg, and take it in turns to go out to sea to catch food. Guillemots mainly eat sand eels, and are fantastic at diving.

The second reason for descending the steps to South Stack lighthouse is to see the remarkable folding in the cliff face. These cliffs contain some of the oldest rocks in Wales, dating back nearly 600 million years to the Precambrian period. The extensive folds in the cliff face are evidence of the gigantic earth movements and forces that have shaped Wales. The layering of different materials making up the rocks is clearly visible (below). The sandstone (brown-orange) and mudstone (lighter grey) layers have acted differently as they’ve been folded.

South Stack lighthouse has warned passing ships of the treacherous rocks below since its completion in 1809. It was designed to allow safe passage for ships on the treacherous Dublin-Holyhead-Liverpool sea route. It provides the first beacon along the north coast of Anglesey for east-bound ships.

I walked further along the coast path – passing a radio station, an old look-out and a series of freshwater pools – before looping back to the RSPB’s South Stack cafe for a mug of tea.  Walking in this direction, the views towards the peaks of Snowdonia were stunning.

Afterwards, dropping down into Holyhead to wait for the ferry, I wondered what this place had been like before the ferry crossing to Ireland was established.  I imagined that, before Thomas Telford’s post road and the railway arrived in the 19th century there had been no settlement here.  In fact, there has been a settlement here for millenia.  The Romans built a watchtower at the top of Holyhead Mountain.  But they weren’t the first here.  They built their watchtower inside Mynydd y Twr, a prehistoric hillfort. And there is archaeological evidence that people have been sailing between Holyhead and Ireland for 4,000 years.

Today, the Port of Holyhead is still a busy ferry port handling more than 2 million passengers each year. Stena Line, Europe’s biggest ferry company, operates from the port which remains the principal link for surface transport from central England and Wales to Ireland.

Bluebells innit?

Bluebells in their full glory in Rivacre Wood, near Ellesmere Port on the Wirral this morning.  It felt more like blazing June than April – and May (hawthorn blossom) was out – at least two weeks early, I think?

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Medicinal uses of the bluebell bulb include diuretic and styptic properties. The Elizabethans called the flower Jacinth and used the sticky juice from crushed bulbs for bookbinding.  Because the bulbs contain toxic substances, the resulting glue discouraged attack by silverfish.

The toxicity may be the origin of the superstitious belief that anyone who wanders into a ring of bluebells will fall under fairy enchantment and soon after die. Other tales from a time when forests where forbidding places, people believed that bells rang out to summon fairies to their gatherings; unfortunately any human who heard a bluebell ring would soon die.  However, not all the Bluebell’s folklore is quite so gloomy. Some believed that by wearing a wreath made of the flowers, the wearer would be compelled to speak only truth. Others believed that if you could turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you would eventually win the one you love.

Although common in much of Britain and Ireland, Bluebell are rare in the rest of Europe and absent from the rest of the world. The populations in the UK represent about 30% of the global population. The species has greatly declined over the past 50 years and is globally threatened.  It is illegal to collect seed or bulbs from the wild. Landowners are prohibited from removing common bluebells on their land for sale.  This legislation was strengthened in 1998, making any trade in wild common bluebell bulbs or seeds an offence.

Reasons for the decline of the native Bluebell include habitat loss, particularly woodland and hedgerows; picking, uprooting and bulb removal, mainly for gardens; tipping of garden waste in woodlands and hedgerows; and competition from its close relative the Spanish Bluebell.

Weeds: the boundary breakers

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Turf, 1503

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with weeds. There have been many to clear on the allotment we took over last September with the arrival of spring and the sudden onset of hot weather this year.  In addition, I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s fascinating new book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilization and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.

Back in 1972, in his mid-twenties and working for Penguin Books in an area of urban wasteland near Heathrow airport, Mabey would spend his lunch hour walking from his office into what he later called the ‘unofficial countryside‘: abandoned and forgotten patches of the city where he discovered plants that thrived in the wasteland: ‘vegetable guerrillas that had overcome the dereliction of the industrial age’.

Now Mabey returns to dedicate a whole book to these ‘vegetable guerrillas’ (a concept captured brilliantly in Peter Dyer’s cover design).

Mabey kicks off, of course, by exploring the various definitions of what actually is a weed.  The simplest is ‘a plant growing in the wrong place’, which captures the idea of weeds as troublesome, obnoxious and of no practical value. The fiends sabotage our horticultural plans, deny our crops nourishment and form impenetrable thickets of thistles and thorns (the allotment last September!). From this perspective, which, he points out, goes right back to the opening chapters of Genesis when God kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden and into the wilderness of briars and thorns, weeds are a bad lot, and there is nothing to be said in their defence.

But Mabey counsels a more objective approach to ‘these outlaw plants’; he encourages us to think about what they are, how they grow and what is their exact relationship to human activity. Because, he argues, the story of weeds is a thoroughly human story: ‘plants become weeds because people label them as such’.  He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed this cultural aspect to what is considered appropriate or useful in the plant kingdom: a weed is just ‘a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’.  Or forgotten: large numbers of plants now condemned as weeds were once regarded as useful.  In a striking example, Mabey notes that ground-elder, the bane of the gardener, was introduced to Britain by the Romans, who valued it as a pot-herb and cure for gout.

Plants may have certain traits that lead them to be condemned – toxicity or ugliness, for example.  Poison ivy was immortalised by Lieber and Stoller as so pernicious that ‘You’re gonna need an ocean/Of calamine lotion’.  As for ugliness, Mabey notes that the city ordinances in Houston, Texas make illegal ‘the existence of weeds, brush, rubbish and all other objectionable, unsightly and unsanitary matter of whatsoever nature covering or partly covering the surface of any lots or parcels of real estate’.

The United States appears particularly prone to this botanical fundamentalism.  Mabey notes that there the ‘front garden’ is regarded as part of the public domain: across suburban America the space between house and road is almost always a lawn, with each property’s grass joining the next seamlessly.  He reveals that lawns occupy 50,000 square miles of the US, and that the pressures to conform to orthodox standards of lawn maintenance are huge, with vast amounts spent on chemical weedkillers.  Reading this brought back a childhood memory of when suburbia arrived in our small Cheshire village, in the form of a new Wimpey housing estate.  All the frontages were laid out, American style, as one continuous lawn.  But the English idea of the garden as a private domain soon prevailed – hedges went up and flower beds were laid.  It took urban planners another twenty years to come up with the concept of ‘defensible space’.

Mabey’s main point is that the persistence of weeds in our backyards is not accidental. They thrive in the company of humans.  They relish the things we do to the soil and flourish alongside our disturbances. As gardeners come to know, weeding encourages weeds as much as it deters them:  Mabey quotes many examples of weeds that can regrow from just a tiny sliver left in the ground.  Weeds are ‘mobile, prolific, genetically diverse… using multiple strategies for getting their own way’. In fact, concludes Mabey, ‘the species they most resemble is us’.

Weeds also have their benefits: they are willing to grow in the most hostile environments and bring wild nature into places that might be expected to be bereft of any life: bombed cities, industrial wastelands, rubbish dumps and the rest.  The classic example is Rosebay Willowherb, once a rare flower of rocks and ancient walls, now a prolific denizen of man-made habitats. It burst into national consciousness on the bombsites of wartime London and other blitzed cities, where its blossoms sprang suddenly from the broken stones where human beings had lived.

A pressed specimen of Rosebay Willowherb or Fireweed collected in Holborn. From Flora of London Bombed Sites 1950, a collection at the Department of Botany, Natural History Museum London.

Mabey traces the emergence of a new humanistic attitude to nature in art and plant illustration.  There’s a superb passage where he writes about how Albrecht Durer’s remarkable 1503 painting, Large Piece of Turf (top) broke through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of  its time, discovering ecology three centuries early:

The structure of the painting couldn’t be simpler. It is the structure of vegetation itself, as if Durer had stuck a spade at random in the ground and used the slab of turf it lifted as his frame. In the foreground are three rosettes of greater plantain, a weed that has so closely dogged human trackways across the globe that it was also known as Waybread and Traveller’s-foot. They’re surrounded by wisps of meadow-grass. Two dandelion heads, some way past flowering but still topped with yellow, lean leftwards. At the very rear of the painting – and its only concession to the less than commonplace – a few leaflets of burnet saxifrage are just visible through the mesh of grass leaves.

You observe this community of plants not from above, or any other conventionally privileged viewpoint, but from below. The bottom quarter of the picture is almost entirely devoted to the mottled patch of earth in which the weeds are visibly rooted. … It is a visually exquisite and scientifically correct composition. What you are looking at is a miniature ecosystem in which every component, from the damp mud at the base to the seeds on the point of flight, is connected.

No one was to take such an intensely grounded view of mundane vegetation again until the early nineteenth century, when the poet John Clare ‘dropped down’ to marvel at the weeds he loved, and Goethe gave his painter hero Young Werther a transcendental experience while sprawled in the grass: ‘I lie in the tall grass and, closer thus to the earth, become conscious of the thousand varieties of little plants . . .’.

Another chapter explores the appearance of weeds in the work of three writers: William Shakespeare, John Clare and (previously unknown to me) Pehr Kalm.  For Shakespeare, it was natural to draw on the wild flowers and folklore of his native Warwickshire for imagery and associations. Mabey reckons that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘crackling with plant imagery’ – must be ‘the only play in the English language whose plot hinges on the potency of a weed’ (the love-in-idleness, aka heartsease or wild pansy, whose juice Puck squeezes into the eyes of the young couples while sleeping).

From a close deconstruction of the flowers on Titania’s bank –

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight

– Mabey concludes that Shakespeare’s ‘confident use of weeds as symbols suggests that their popular meanings aren’t (or at least weren’t) superficial, concerned purely with agricultural nuisance, but have cultural and ecological undertones that are built into the genetic structure of their names’.

Then (and this is one example of the fascinating detail that Mabey provides in the book), there’s the elegiac lines from Cybeline:

Golden lads and lasses must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust

Who knows these days that ‘chimney-sweepers’ was Warwickshire patois for ‘the wind-scattered, time-telling clocks that follow dandelion’s golden flowers’?

Dandelion clocks near Downe House, Kent

Mabey turns from Shakespeare to John Clare, celebrating his poems, ‘full of vivid and intimate writing about wild flowers and weeds’.  Like Albrecht Durer, Clare gets down to ground level to observe plants he regards as his equals, such as the ‘April Daisy’:

Welcome, old matey!
Hail, beauty’s gem! Disdaining time nor place
Carelessly creeping on the dunghill’s side.

And, as Mabey observes, Clare was responsible for what is probably the most extended passage on weeds in English poetry.  This section from ‘May’ in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) not only records the flowers and their cultural associations, but also the human interaction with them, as the weeding gangs move in to clear them:

Each morning, now, the weeders meet
To cut the thistle from the wheat,
And ruin, in the sunny hours,
Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—
Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,
Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;
And charlocks, yellow as the sun,
That o’er the May-fields quickly run;
And “Iron-weed,” content to share
The meanest spot that Spring can spare—
E’en roads, where danger hourly comes,
Are not without its purple blooms,
Whose leaves, with threat’ning thistles round
Thick set, that have no strength to wound,
Shrink into childhood’s eager hold
Like hair; and, with its eye of gold
And scarlet-starry points of flowers,
Pimpernel, dreading nights and showers,
Oft call’d “the Shepherd’s Weather-glass,”
That sleeps till suns have dried the grass,
Then wakes, and spreads its creeping bloom
Till clouds with threatening shadows come—
Then close it shuts to sleep again:
Which weeders see, and talk of rain;
And boys, that mark them shut so soon,
Call “John that goes to bed at noon:”
And fumitory too—a name
That Superstition holds to fame—
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are cropp’d by maids in weeding hours,
To boil in water, milk, and whey,
For washes on a holiday,
To make their beauty fair and sleek,
And scare the tan from Summer’s cheek;
And simple small “Forget-me-not,”
Eyed with a pin’s-head yellow spot
I’ the middle of its tender blue,
That gains from poets notice due:—
These flowers, that toil by crowds destroys,
Robbing them of their lowly joys,
Had met the May with hopes as sweet
As those her suns in gardens meet;
And oft the dame will feel inclined,
As Childhood’s memory comes to mind,
To turn her hook away, and spare
The blooms it loved to gather there! 

Clare was, of course, a keen observer of the changes then transforming the English countryside: the loss of commons and streams, old open fields and heathland as enclosures destroyed habitats.  In his second collection, The Village Minstrel, he lamented the eradication of the weeds:

There once were springs, when daisies’ silver studs
Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread;
There once were summers, when the crow-flower buds
Like golden sunbeams brightest lustre shed;
And trees grew once that shelter’d Lubin’s head;
There once were brooks sweet whimpering down the vale:
The brooks no more – kingcup and daisy fled;
Their last fallen tree the naked moors bewail,
And scarce a bush is left to tell the mournful tale.

Mabey’s third writer, Pehr Kalm, was a Finnish disciple of Linnaeus who travelled to England in 1748 to study the agricultural revolution.  He was especially interested in the work of William Ellis, an improving farmer in the Chilterns, who was experimenting with different methods of weed control and pasture management.  One of the things Ellis knew about was the nitrogen-fixing abilities of leguminous crops, including the despised ‘weed’, clover.  ‘Nothing better clears the ground of trumpery and weeds than a good Crop of Clover’, he wrote.

Mabey tells fascinating tales of the globalisation of weeds in modern times, consequent upon expanding international trade, Europan imperial expansion and the impact of seeds brought back by explorers and collectors.  Kew gardens in the 1840s was responsible for depatching Joseph Hooker to the Himalayas to collect plants.  He came back with the seeds of 28 varieties of rhodedendron.  ‘They were’, writes Mabey, ‘a sensationwith the gardening public…. No-one could have anticipated that some of them would escape to become one of the most invasive weeds of Britain’s western woodlands’.  Then there’s the Oxford Ragwort, possibly brought back from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna on the shoe leather of  someone on the 18th century Grand Tour.

Then there’s the modern traveller’s tale of Danish scurvy-grass, up to the 1980s only rarely found on salty clifftops and sea walls around Britain.Since then it’s become a common sighting on the edges of motorways and major roads, often closely-packed along the central reservations.  The explanation?  Salt spread on the roads during winter freezes.

Mabey devotes a chapter to burdock, which, he writes, is one of the least likely weeds to be credited with some kind of artistic beauty.  From the mid-17th century burdock began appearing in landscape paintings, never obvious but nevertheless having caught the artist’s eye.  The most notable example occurs in the work of Liverpool’s own George Stubbs.  Burdock appears in several of his paintings, most notably in A Lion Devouring a Horse (1769), where under the agonised horse’s right hoof, the bland, grey-green foliage of its leaves are picked out in detail (click on the image below for the detail).

In this century, the American photographer Janet Malcolm took Stubbs a stage further when she produced a portfolio of 28 close-ups of single burdock leaves in various states of  decrepitude.  ‘I prefer’, she wrote, ‘older, flawed leaves to young unblemished specimens – leaves to which something has happened.’

Apart from art, the burdock – or, more specifically, its clinging seeds, the burrs that stick to clothing and dogs’ fur – provided the inspiration for velcro fastening.  It was a Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, who, walking his dog in the 1940s, began to study the design of the burrs that clung to his dog’s coat with their mass of flexible hooks. After a great deal of experimentation, and using the new synthetic material nylon, Velcro finally reached the market in 1955.

Actually, my childhood memory of burdock gets no mention in Mabey’s book.  In the early 1950s, in the summer months, a weather-beaten guy leading a horse and cart would appear in the village selling beverages, including dandelion and burdock which he sold in large stone flagons.  Ice-cold to drink from.  Back then, it probably was made from actual dandelions and burdock roots.  These days it’s mostly artificial flavourings and sweeteners.

Mabey rounds off his survey with two contrasting chapters. The first is a brilliant survey of literary responses to the plants that entered deeply into the national conciousness as a result of two world wars – the poppy, the emblematic flower of the first world war; and the plant that was christened London rocket during the second, rosebay willow herb.  The latter seemed to have sprung from nowhere, in the sense that it had previously been regarded as a rare plant.  Mabey has an interesting discussion of a novel written in 1949 by novelist Rose Macauley, The World My Wilderness.

The novel tells the story of two teenagers who escape suburban tedium to live instead among the squatters, deserters and small-time criminals of the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s just after the War.

 They made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of  overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruin of defeated business men.

Macauley herself, with her younger companion Penelope Fitzgerald, had explored the bombsites, too, cataloguing the flowers and shrubs as they went.

In his closing chapter, Mabey blends a survey of postwar dystopian writing – with the focus on triffids – with an examination of real weeds that are almost as terrifying: kudzu (introduced into the US from south-east Asia in the 1870s), which can put on a foot in 12 hours, and Japanese knotweed, first noticed in Britain a century ago and now confirmed by the Environment Agency as the most invasive species of plant in Britain.  It spreads extremely quickly, preventing native vegetation from growing, and is capable of undermining building foundations, concrete and tarmac.

Despite ending on this terrifying note, in Weeds, Mabey has written a hymn to the marginal.  We get the weeds we deserve, he argues. We like to rigidly separate the natural world into the wild and the domestic.  But weeds are ‘the boundary breakers, the stateless minority, who remind us that life is not that tidy’.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’

Many weeds are here, states Mabey, because of the people we are, with our own histories ways of living: the ways we dig and mow, the walks we take, the holidays we go on. ‘But I still hoick them up when they get in my way’, he adds without sentiment.


There was no message

More peregrinations at Formby Point.  This time we arrived shortly after high tide: the air smelled strongly of fish, and thousands of birds were assembled on the beach and offshore, no doubt feeding off what had been swept in on the tide.

Lancashire’s mild maritime climate attracts large numbers of Arctic and northern European-breeding birds during the winter months, most notably Whooper Swan and Pink-footed Goose on saltmarshes and arable land and Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit on inter-tidal flats. Most come to flee the Arctic winter and return north in spring to breed.

Along the shoreline, particularly during the autumn and winter months, large flocks of several species of wader can be seen moving and feeding up and down the coast, including  Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Black-tailed Godwit.Yesterday’s large flocks were, to my untutored eye, more prosaic: Black-Headed Gulls onshore, with dense chains of Dunlin, I guess, flying just offshore parallel to the beach.

The coast, estuaries and dunes of Sefton and the rest of the Lancashire coast make it one of the richest ornithological regions in Britain.  Huge flocks of waders and wildfowl can be encountered anywhere on the coastline from Liverpool to Morecambe Bay but the largest concentrations occur in the Mersey Estuary, the Formby-Southport beaches – and inland at Martin Mere.

The Sefton Coast’s international reputation for its huge flocks of wintering wading birds and wildfowl has led to its designation as a Ramsar Site (for wetland protection) and a European Special Protection Area.  The woodlands at Ainsdale and Formby hold the largest number of species and the greatest number of birds , though largely composed of very common and unthreatened species.

Driving away from the coast as the light was fading, flocks of geese in V-formation flew above us, heading southwest  towards the coast at Crosby and Seaforth.

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
– Sandy Denny

The sky was good for flying

It was a sudden irruption of the world beyond the window, one of those moments when animal and human lives cross.  There was a crash of breaking glass, and I thought someone was breaking into the house. In the bedroom, glass daggers  had been hurled across the room and out through the door into the hall. Shards of glass were strewn across the bed and a pigeon lay gasping on the floor.  Outside a murder of magpies cackled triumphantly.  It had been a case of mobbing.

Les Murray wrote a poem about a similar incident, though it was a happier one in his case.  His bird – an emerald dove – survived being mobbed by a sparrowhawk; our pigeon died after a few minutes.

In his poem Murray visualises the incident from the dove’s perspective, imagining how humans would feel if something as bewildering happened to us, ‘plunged out of our contentment into evolved strange heaven’.

We ought to hang cutout shapes
in our windows.  Birds hard driven
by a predator, or maddened by a mirrored rival
too often die zonk against the panes’
invisible sheer, or stagger away from
the blind full stop in the air.
It was different with the emerald dove.
In at an open sash, a pair

sheered, missile, in a punch of energy,
one jinking on through farther doors, one
thrown, panicked by that rectangular wrong copse, braked
like a bullet in blood, a full-on splat of wings
like a vaulter between shoulders, blazed and calliper,
ashriek out of jagbeaked fixe fury, swatting wind,
lights, keepsakes, panes, then at the in window out, gone.
A sparrowhawk, by the cirrus feathering.

The other, tracked down in a farther room
clinging to a bedhead, was the emerald dove,
a rainforest bird, flashed in beyond its world
of lice, sudden death and tree seeds. Pigeon-like,
only its eye and neck in liquid motion,
there, as much beyond us as beyond
itself, it perched,barefoot in silks
like a prince of Sukhothai, above the reading lamps and

Modest-sized, as a writing hand, mushroom fawn
apart from its paua casque, those viridescent closed wings,
it was an emerald Levite in that bedroom
which the memory of it was going to bless for years
despite topping our ordinary happiness, as beauty
makes background of all around it.  Levite too
in the question it posed: sanctuary without transformation,
which is, how we might be,

plunged out of our contentment into evolved strange heaven,
where the need to own or mate with or eat the beautiful
was bygone as poverty,
and we were incomprehensibly, in our exhaustion,
treasured, cooed at, then softly left alone
among vast crumples, verticals, refracting air,
our way home barred by mirrors, our splendour unmanifest
to us now, a small wild person, with no idea of peace.
– Les Murray, The Emerald Dove

At the moment I’m reading Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne’s Essays, How to Live, in which she draws attention to Montaigne’s ability to see things from the perspective of animals – a corollary of his questioning of human superiority and desire to see all things from different viewpoints.  She channels Montaigne in these words:

Still we humans persist in thinking of ourselves as separate from all other creatures, closer to gods than to chameleons or parrotfish.  It never occurs to us to rank ourselves among animals, or to put ourselves in their minds.  We barely stop to wonder whether they have minds at all.  Yet, for Montaigne, it is enough to watch a dog dreaming to see that it must have an inner world just like ours. A person who dreams about Rome or Paris conjures up an insubstantial Rome or Paris within: likewise, a dog dreaming about a hare surely sees a disembodied hare running through his dream.  We see this from the twitching of of his paws as he runs after it: a hare is there for him somewhere….

In one passage in the Essays, Montaigne muses on the relationship he has with his cat, seeing it from the cat’s point of view just as readily from his own:

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her, more than she is to me?  We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks.  If I have my time to begin or refuse, so she has hers.

Sarah Bakewell comments:

All Montaigne’s skills at jumping between perspectives come to the fore when he writes about animals.  We find it hard to understand them, he says, but they must find it just as hard to understand us.  ‘This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs?’

We have some mediocre understanding of their meaning;  so do they of ours, in about the same degree.  They flatter us, threaten us, and implore us, and we them.

Montaigne cannot look at his cat without seeing her looking back at him, and imagining himself as he looks at her.

In his essay, Why Look At Animals, John Berger discusses how, in the centuries since Montaigne wrote, animals have become increasingly marginalized in the world of humans. He remarks how zoos have become virtually the last remaining places where humans go to encounter animals, yet –

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically.  They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.   Looking at each animal, the   unaccompanied zoo visitor  is   alone.  As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.

This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

Returning to my sad pigeon, I found a resonance in this poem by Louis MacNeice.  In reality it’s a poem whose context is the politics of the 1930s and forebodings of coming conflict.  But now, reading ‘The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold,/We cannot cage the minute/Within its nets of gold’ I recall the moment when ‘ashriek out of jagbeaked fixe fury’ the bird crashed through the glass.  The sky was good for flying.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

– Louis MacNeice – The Sunlight on the Garden

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote:

There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.