Mammals (10 species)
Reeves’ Muntjac or Barking Deer
Grey Squirrel (and black sub-species)
European Water Vole (heard)
Note: During the year I saw no shrew, mouse or dormouse, nor other deer, bat or vole, nor badger (although there is an active sett in the district). This is surprising to say the least.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Butterflies (12 species)
Birds (59 species)
Great Crested Grebe
Snipe or Jack Snipe
Tawny Owl (heard)
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Out of 331 bird species reported for the county of Cambridgeshire, the meagre 59 that I positively identified in this district during the year is woeful indeed.
December 31st, 2010. Misty, mild, damp and dull. A dismal winter’s afternoon for a final walk. I go north. On the edge of the village starlings whistle from treetops. Collared doves fan their pale wings and croon. A heron lifts off from a garden gnome-pond, majestic against the paltry, painted statuary. Each time I look up, lines of gulls furrow the cast of grey high above – all flying northwest, as they do at this hour each and every day. Still they come. Far out in the foggy fields, gunshots empty the afternoon. There are few creatures about. The way is muddy, black with sodden leaves. No snow remains, and only the deepest ruts still hold ice. From a hidden coppice an eruption of jackdaws crackles like fireworks and subsides just as suddenly. The Detention Centre lies desolate behind barbed wire and playing fields, closed down, the seekers of succour sent elsewhere or back home, where they least want to be. A graveyard of dreams. No more the sound of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan and Somali tears and laughter here. Mute wood pigeons roost in leafless trees like strange grey fruit. The hedgerows too are silent.
I reach the guided-busway, busless still, two slick concrete tracks curving off into the dimming afternoon, a swathe of folly through the countryside. Somewhere far off, a pheasant hiccups into life then winds down, answered by others across the track. On my right, the old airfield, fenced and forbidden. No Northstowe new town yet, thank God, a brief reprise – there is perhaps one more skylark spring to come. The flashing orange light of a security truck creeps past in the gloom, defending the ill-gotten gains of the land-grabbers. On my left, from the curl of the stream beyond, an excitement of ducks breaks the silence of the fast-falling dusk. First one, then two, three and four parties of mallard, five to nine in each band, fly west, overhead, dark duck shapes pinned against the sky. Spring’s last wild brood.
A year has passed since I first set out on this journey round the village fields. A year to discover what was here, and what was not. We’ve come full circle now, the seasons and I, back to the beginning, where we started. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”. Knowing nothing when I first set out, I had few expectations, and I can say that now I know a little for the first time. I had prayed for some special encounter, some final revelation, some hope to end the journey but this has been one of the emptiest, most uneventful walks of the year. It is as it should be, for I do not want to give the impression of a place brimming with beauty and light and life, although, at times, it did briefly seem so. This poor patch of England, let’s face it, is an undone place, impoverished, bereft of almost all that is wild and worthy and free. The natural has for the most part been emasculated, suppressed or banished altogether. It has been replaced by the bland and unbeautiful, an ersatz and infertile reality. Only fleet remnants remain, caught out of the corner of the eye, when least expected. It breaks through, despite the weight of arrogance and ignorance and greed. It will abide. But for now, it is a flight of ducks against a darkling sky. That’s all.
December 20th, 2010. Mid-morning. A 4-mile loop up the feeder brook to Histon and back along the medieval trackway. Dead still, dense fog, very cold at – 7°C. Snow on the ground. I step out into a wonderland. Each twig and sprig and stem is ermined in white, velveted like deer horn, wrapped in a soft fur of frost quite unlike the spikes of ice that bristled from every surface a few days ago. Above the main trunk, trees are all white. The weeping tracery of birches and willows is draped anew in frost-foliage. Each leaf of holly and ivy is rimmed with a perfect band of silver. Beyond the snow-covered foreground, beyond the white lattice of branches, there’s nothing – no distance, no horizon, no sky at all, only fog all around and above. The world has no edge. It disappears altogether at two hundred yards. I don’t expect to see much.
The guns are out today. Pheasants at hand are shaken by the muffled pop-pop of shooters at least a mile away. All the pheasants in the district are on the move it seems, and I see more today than ever before. One mad-eyed cock pheasant sprints past in front of me, leaning forward like a cartoon road-runner, tail feathers streaming behind. Two cocks and three hens muddle around in the middle of a field, uncertain where to go. How do they know they’re being hunted? They’re well away from the killing zone, yet they’re flummoxed with fear. Ghostly squirrels bounce through the air on invisible branches and send down a shower of crystals. A travelling troupe of long-tailed tits, at least four of them, follow in Indian file and alight in a bush to perform acrobatics for me. They always delight, these diminutive black, white and pink performers, spending most of the time upside-down. Always busy, always on the move. I don’t believe they ever sit still. Later, a mile further up, I come across another party of them, seven strong, working the branches, but I think they must be the same birds, moving southward.
The brook here is a sunken ditch, still running, but in a straitened channel between parallel ice-shelves. A white apparition flies out of the fog on big wings, nearly three feet across, and alights in the ditch. A Little Egret. I am screened by trees, and creep forward to get a close look at this bird which I’ve seen in the locale several times during the year but always from a distance. It is hunting. It moves slowly upstream, in the freezing flow, lifting each yellow foot clear with each step. It scrutinizes the water, then stabs with its black 8-inch stiletto. It catches something, but whatever it is, it’s small and gone in a gulp. The bird occasionally ventures into deeper water, but is clearly reluctant, testing each step, and quickly retreating. I approach too close. It starts, and flies, trailing black legs and distinct yellow feet. It is not pure white, as all the books say, but has an orange-buff tinge to its back. It settles 50 yards up, and searches the water again. Long plumes trail from its chest. Its crest plumes will develop later, in the breeding season. These plumes were once more valuable than gold, fetching £15 an ounce or 28g (about £875 at 2000 prices), each Little Egret producing about 1g of plumes. My 1987 field guide gives the bird as a rare vagrant from southern Europe. Not any more. They have colonized the south of Britain. They are here in the snow-fields of Cambridgeshire, in the harshest of winters.
The fog lifts a little. I walk back along the ancient hedge-lined track. Blackbirds flit ahead. They are ubiquitous now. It’s a blackbird winter. They like nothing better than to hurdle the hedges, just skimming the top, black against white, with tangerine eye-ring and beak. Fieldfares and redwings accompany them, but alight on the high branches and hedge-tops. The redwing is misnamed – the only red in its plumage is the orange-red stain on its flank, like a seeping wound. A dunnock skulks in a snow-covered thicket of bramble – a small, plain, retiring bird but only the second I’ve seen in the district all year, and for that, as precious and as interesting as an egret or long-tailed tit.
December 17th, 2010. 7.30 a.m. Clear and calm, but very cold. Day-old snow, refrozen overnight, holds the land in its bite. All is arrested, freeze-framed. I walk north. On either side, the white fields of winter are flattened under a huge weight of sky, empty and still. Trees and bushes are etched black against white, all bare save for the oak. At eight, a simmering sun pushes above the south-eastern horizon, then cools and creeps low into layering cloud. I turn east along the droveway to Rampton. There are birds here but they are reluctant to fly. Fieldfares burst from the bottom of hedgerows, in ones and twos, holding out till the very last moment. There are dozens of them. They whirl away, whimpering quietly. When the sun breaks free, they station themselves in the hedge-tops, catching the meagre heat in their breasts. Redwings, too, though less numerous. A pinch of goldfinches fidgets and flies. Out in the shining fields, the winter flocks gather. Wood-pigeons, in their hundreds, crouch like smooth grey cobblestones in the frozen surf of the ploughland. A spangled necklace of starlings garlands the sunny side of a field hedge. A black army of rooks musters beyond. A single, small, white-rumped wader rises up from a ditch and flicks away silently to land further up. It’s a bird new to me, and I follow. It flies again on rapid, shallow wingbeats but I glimpse only a white underbelly and longish bill. It could be a green or curlew sandpiper, but I’m guessing.
While I’m scouring the fields though binoculars, I become aware of being watched. I turn and glance up the track. There, not fifty yards away, is a vixen, staring straight at me, caught in mid-stride as she crosses. She doesn’t move. And neither do I. She is lean and light, winter-hungry. Her fur is not as deeply-coloured nor as dense as I expect, her brush not as bushy. She is on high alert, wired, but I find no fear in her face. What does she see? Perhaps she is young, and this her first direct encounter with Man. We hold holy communion for a full ten seconds, then she breaks free from my gaze and disappears into a hedge between fields. I try to follow her progress, checking both sides of the hedge through the lenses, but she is nowhere to be seen. No birds scatter, no grasses part, no rabbit screams.
I turn into the old rutted trackway and leave the birds behind. They seem to prefer these lower northern fields today, and become fewer and fewer as I walk south, slightly uphill, into the pallid light of a faltering sun. I am accompanied only by the squeak and crunch of my own rhythmic tread, the hollow ring of puddle-ice, and the shatter of crystal as I break through the surface. The frozen, whipped mud is as jagged as lava. In three miles I see little. A covey of red-legged partridges, seven of them, scurry between furrows, then flush into flight and descend in a long, low glide to the other side of a field, landing at a run. The rusty spikes of willowherb, thrust through the snow, tremble with a trio of dunnocks picking through the last of the seedheads. This is the first time I’ve seen these unremarkable but now rather rare hedge sparrows – small, brown-streaked birds with mouse-grey heads and breasts – and it is a small triumph that they have appeared in this place at this time. A kestrel sits atop a dead stump with its red back to the sun, but before I get within two hundred yards it launches into the freezing air and takes a long, unhurried flight over the wimpled snow-fields, the still black cut of the brook, the copse, the church-tower, the village of men, the streaming highway and on over the fenland farmland, far into the north.
December 4th, 2010. 4.30 a.m. 7 miles, at least. It’s surprisingly mild after a very cold week… damp in the air, damp underfoot, thawing. There’s a metallic taste to the air. I make for new ground, a lake – probably an old gravel-pit – about a mile outside my usual territory. It’s very dark, stars and moon blotted out. The lights of the city to the south, and from the villages round about, project a dull glow into the low crumpled cloud. I walk up the concrete strips of the guided busway – it’s too dark to take a path or farm-track. The going’s not easy. The packed snow and ice, partially melted, is especially slippery. I walk past high chain-link fencing crowned with barbed wire – a food-processing plant, humming and steaming through the night, arc-lights blazing, steel hoppers, silos and flue-pipes gleaming, ranged barrels stacked high. There’s no-one about. Then under a road bridge, graffitoed and sour, smelling of old tyres and asphalt. Out into open country again, past coppice and plough. Not a bird, not a creature abroad. I cut across pastureland. It’s like walking through tundra – low hummocks of grass set in a bog of crackling ice and snow. Beyond, the glint of water. But between me and the lake are a hedge and a spiked angle-iron fence. In the icy conditions there’s no way I’m going to try and climb over. Not at six in the morning. I track the fence until I come to a gap just wide enough to squeeze through. Open water, willow-fringed, hard up against the embankment of the A14, grinding with a never-ending flow of container-trucks to and from the east coast. But it’s too dark to see anything on the water. I wait for the dawn. It’s a long time coming. In fact, it never really arrives. Imperceptibly, over the course of an hour and a half, the dark turns a few shades paler. Then it’s day, as good as it gets.
The lake is disappointingly empty of bird-life. I was expecting to see some new waterfowl but only half a dozen pairs of mallard scull round the edges, like couples out for a walk. A peninsula of ice juts out into the water, and right on the edge sit perhaps one hundred gulls – mostly young black-headed gulls with a dark spot behind the eye, and a few larger lesser black backs and juvenile herring gulls mottled brown. They are mostly quite still and silent. Strutting and skidding between them are moorhens. The ice looks too thin to take all their weight. Out in open water, removed, are two black cormorants. One is fishing, sitting very low in the water. It tucks its head close into its long bent neck before diving, and then goes straight down. It stays under for about 15 seconds before emerging not far away. I watch it dive several times but it doesn’t appear to catch anything. The other is perched on a buoy in heraldic pose, with wings limply held out in a hands-up position, or held out to dry. It looks primordial, with a strange stump of a tail and ragged, greasy plumage. A prototype bird, reptilian, unbeautiful. These are, no doubt, the same cormorants I’ve seen flying over, three miles to the north. Now I know where they’re headed, and some of the passing gulls too. A snipe, or a jack snipe, propels from the bankside and whirs away at speed on a blur of short, pointed wings.
It turns colder, bleaker. The long walk back, though, is a warm feast of birds – song thrushes, unsinging, and plenty of skittering blackbirds; solitary robins; chaffinches; magpies; a pair of pied wagtails; great tits, blue tits, a party of long-tailed tits, and the glimpse of a coal tit. A charm of goldfinches – at least 50 birds – swirls overhead, uncertain where to go, finally dropping down into an alder just up ahead. They work through the female cone-like catkins, extracting the seeds. I’ve never seen so many goldfinches. The tree sparkles with little gold flashes. Then, for the first time, a single goldcrest, picking through ivy – a tiny, nervous jewel of a creature, twitching and flicking so rapidly I can hardly see it move; it just appears in a slightly different position each time, like old jerky newsreel.
Other birds come in threes today – I encounter three jays, three green woodpeckers, three kestrels, and three little egrets, each and all in different locations. One jay rattles harshly, raising and lowering its crest. The green woodpeckers mostly keep to the ground. I follow a kestrel along a row of bare horse-chestnut trees. Sleepy and cold, it is reluctant to move. I get within 15 yards of the bird. Through binoculars each and every feather that makes up the intricate spotting and barring and rich coloration of its beautiful plumage is revealed. It stares straight down at the ground from on high, watching intently. From time to time it turns its head to look directly at me, reproachful, as if I was intruding on some intensely private affair. Which I am. It tolerates me for a while, then with a shrug, launches into a long glide, and it’s away.
The three little egrets stand in the midst of a sprouting field a little to the south of where I last saw one, very white against the snow-furrowed earth. They are preening. I’ve not seen two together, or three, in these parts. Later a pair of them fly past me, low, on big slow wings, and settle into a ditch up ahead. A passing dog-walker flushes them into the air and they double-back to where I first saw them. I follow the ditch down to its junction with Beck Brook. From the stream, unexpectedly, another little egret rises at my approach. Is this one of the three I saw earlier, which had somehow slipped by me, or is it a different bird? They seem very exotic to me, these little egrets, belonging more to African swamplands than wintry Cambridgeshire fields, and it’s good to know there are at least three in the neighbourhood. A few yards further on, a grey heron lifts off from the brook with a slow whump-whump of wing, majestic, nearly three times the size of the egrets, and fearsome, with glaring eye and snake-like neck. It wheels away into the cold mists of the morning.
December 2nd, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A four mile pre-breakfast ramble yields little. I step out into a murky dawn, the lightest of powder-snow falling. The brook is black and still, as dense as oil. Two-day old snow stipples the wide, empty fields, clods showing through. We missed the best of it here. Only the tracks and paths show pure white, packed by the passage of tractors and feet. Gulls float overhead, silently, making for their feeding grounds in the south. Away in the shrouded woods, a jay shrieks once…twice, and a blackbird pinks on and on in distress. The sky brightens imperceptibly, turning pearly grey, opalescent, in reflected snow-light. The crunch of my footfall is loud and disturbing. Fieldfares flee from the harbouring hedgerow, and a green woodpecker makes a dash for the trees, torpedo-like when it folds its wings close between rapid beats. The snow is falling a little more thickly now, coming out of the east at a very low angle. Visibility’s poor. Nearby, from an overgrown hedge dividing two fields, a magpie chatters loud in alarm. There’s always a reason. It breaks cover and flies up to a telephone wire, long tail streaming, then a flash of brown hawk scythes low over the field and jinks into an orchard, settling into an old apple tree. I can’t tell what it is, but I can just make out its shape in the branches. I double back to the field entrance to get a better view, but it’s away at the blink of an eye, a fleet shadow against the diminishing morning. The snow turns almost to sleet, and it’s a dreary day out in the fields.
November 28, 2010. Late morning. Cold, clear and sunny. No snow last night, but a very heavy frost. A sparkling high-definition winter’s day, with everything at its sharpest and most intensely coloured. The horse pasture below the church is a white sheet of crystals. A jay flies low and settles on the ground. Not often encountered this year, though for the past week or so a pair has visited the garden, ever-wary and off at the slightest of movements. This must be one of them. The light is behind me and for the first time I see its true colours – both deep and pale pink, black and white, and that flash of sky in the wing, a pure azure more perfect in blueness than all other blues.
Beck brook is partially frozen over, as translucent and flawed as old glass. The feeder from Histon is sealed across, though further up, a clear stream of water flows between shelves of white ice. On the ground each blade of grass is a colony of towering crystals, and each leaf a crisp, curled shard of colour that shatters under the boot. Beyond the brook, in the middle of a winter-wheat field, the green just breaking through, is a solitary little egret, slender and white, hunched at the shoulder, standing on one thin black leg in the sun. Perfectly still, it doesn’t even swivel its head or long bill, as if frozen solid. Last seen, in this same vicinity, in early June. An hour later, when I have looped around, it passes overhead, towards the north, long neck tucked back, legs and yellow feet stretched out behind. It flies on stiff concave wings, never straightening or flexing them, holding the curve of the air. That each species has its own distinctive wing movement and flight pattern, as one would expect, is still endlessly fascinating, still wondrous to me.
In the patch of woodland along the brook, blackbirds aplenty scuffle through litter, and fly off with a protest into the undergrowth. There is a steady, slow-motion falling of leaves from above, a reluctant descent of minerals through air, from field maples and oaks. A couple of squirrels, in different locations, retreat to the biggest trees and eye me from on high, their thick, soft tails arched forward over their backs. I am on the lookout now for our local tribe of black melanistic squirrels, though these two show no sign of the tarbrush. I tarry for some time at the brook where it curves round to pass under the road-bridge. The sun has brought out the birds. On the bankside, robins, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, and a solitary redwing, with blushed flanks and a striking pale supercilium through the line of the eye, pass back and forth over the water, here clear of ice. These last are usually highly gregarious. A moorhen picks through the shallows. The clear light transforms this sombre, uniformly dark bird into a creature extraordinary, for it is exquisitely, subtly two-toned – deep grey-black above and paler slate-grey below, separated by a wavy white line; in front, a small red bill, behind, the double white tail, jerking incessantly. Then an unexpected delight. A kingfisher alights on a thin branch arching over the water, as kingfishers do. Facing away from me, I see only the iridescent turquoise-blue back but as it flashes away downstream it reveals its orange-red underparts. A little winged jewel. I’ve not seen one since mid-July.
Walking upstream I put up a male mallard. It flies high in a big sweeping arc and as it turns back towards me, five others, two drakes and three ducks, in tight formation, wing fast overhead in the same direction. It soon catches up with its crew, and off they go, united. A flight of mallard against a big winter sky – what could be more evocative, more symbolic, of an English winter, except perhaps the scent of woodsmoke? A single lapwing flies west on broad rounded wings – strange to see one on its own. Then five minutes later, half a dozen follow suit. Reaching the big fields beyond, hazed green with young blades of wheat, I find dozens more, scattered evenly over a wide area, working the frozen earth. Green-black bodies, white below, with distinctive wispy black crests, they look small against the great expanse. White gulls wheel lazily above, landing occasionally. The hedgerow harbours several dozen fieldfares which abscond one by one as I approach, making small noises of discontent. They keep looping forward into the next tree along, blue-grey and rust-red in flight, flashing white underparts and black tail.
A final epiphany thanks to today’s special light. Woodpigeons, as plump as college porters, sit in a pasture, larger than life, sunbathing. The commonest bird in these parts, easily overlooked, yet in coloration and marking, really quite stunning. That white wing bar in flight, for example. But up close, the degrees of blueness in the greys of head and wing shading into the magenta-pink barrel-chest, the splash of white and shimmer of purple and green on the neck, make this a most handsome bird.
November 27th, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A grey weight of cold hangs heavy over the morning. Everything is dusted with snow, the ground hammered with frost. There’s more light below than above. Ragged flights of gulls – common and black-headed – emerge out of nowhere, in twos and threes and dozens, sculling steadily overhead towards the dull bloom of light in the south-east. A pair of jays retreats into a thicket of hawthorn. A fox sees me first, and bounds away over the pasture, as if the ground was too cold for her paws, her thick brindled brush, white-tipped, almost as long as her body, flowing behind. At three hundred yards, she stops and turns to look back at me. For a few moments we are two beings conjoined. Now, at the beginning of winter, she is well-fed and in fine fettle.
It is very cold, cold and still. I am ill-dressed for the weather. My ungloved hands find cold comfort in pockets. The dense mesh of hedges and bushes harbour small birds – blackbirds, chaffinch, a greenfinch and goldfinch, I’m happy to see. But it’s too cold to linger long. Water in the ditch is frozen over, the ice powdered with snow and marked by the drama of slid prints, the larger probably rabbit, the smaller probably stoat. Cock pheasants strut gingerly across frozen ploughland. On the ice-rutted droveway, a young lad approaches, eight or nine, struggling with his bike. He stops, wants to talk, share his early morning adventure. We have a strange conversation.”Nice day, in’ it”? “Yes, very cold though”. “Not very nice if you have to bike 30 miles”. “30 miles? Where on earth are you going”. “Three times round the village”. More like 3 miles, but for him it’s probably closer to 30. “Why?” I ask. “I’m having a race with my friend”. “And where is he?”, I ask, looking up the track. “Oh, he’s still in bed”. And off he goes.
At the farmyard, Longhorn cattle bellow into the morning – foghorn cattle. They stare at me, pointed horns curving crazily in drunken asymmetry. Collared doves, as smooth as milk, purr round the barns. In the next field, Belted Galloways, black barrels of beef with white midriffs, as woolly as sheep, huff clouds of warm cow-breath into the cold. I walk a slippery road through Longstanton. On the gates of a house – NO COLD CALLERS. That counts me out, then. Back down the no-through road towards home. Out in the open fields, a buzzard is on the tail of a rook, not hunting I’m sure, probably just irritated by the smaller bird. They twist and turn a few feet above ground until the buzzard gives up the chase, flaring its great wings in a banking glide and settling onto a fence post. It broods… a brown, indistinct shape hunched against the cold haze.
In the hedgerows and trees I notice nests everywhere, betrayed by the fall. A branch trembles in front. Not six feet away a squirrel is easing through the dense tangle of stems and twigs. A large grey, wrapped in fabulous fur, with shiny black almond eyes. It swims through the thicket, sometimes over-reaching itself and swinging down on one hind claw, its tail entwined on a nearby branch. It slips into a briar, picks out a rose hip, and holding it in both paws gnaws at it tentatively. I watch closely. How will it deal with it? But it is not to its liking and it chucks it away. Further on, two more squirrels, smaller and paler, are wrapped, like lemurs, round stems of young ash-trees. They skip up to the very ends of the slenderest twigs to pick the last of the ash-keys and break out the seeds. I don’t see many squirrels round here. They’re a treat to watch, and worth a little more time in the cold.
It’s not a good idea to eat rose-hips straight from the bush! I have discovered what most people probably already know – attached to the seeds are fine hairs that can lodge in the lips, mouth, throat…. very irritating. To make a syrup or cordial you must strain the liquid through layers of cheesecloth and to make a fruit paste, puree or jam you need to remove the seeds first.