Tag Archives: water vole

raindawn62

August 6th, 2010. 4 a.m. I walk out of the village through wet and deserted streets, King of the Road. It’s raining steadily. A low blanket of cloud covers the sky and eclipses the dawn. Except for a faint glow to the south from the lights of the city all is dim, as murky as pond water. A week of showers has softened the land and I can once again smell the earth, the odorous earth. I linger awhile beside Sparrowhawk Copse but there’s not a sound, not a peep. In the far distance the lights from a delivery truck strobe through a  hedgerow.

I walk up the guided-busway to Histon then along puddled tracks to my now favourite place, the scrubland. A single, disembodied kraawwk is shouted down from the cloud, close overhead, startling and pleasing. Who could deny that this is a greeting – from one creature to another, crossing paths in the wet, lonely dawn. It was a heron perhaps, for not long after I disturb one from a ditch and it flies low and slow up the black line of water, shedding raindrops. A cock crows somewhere far away. That’s it for the dawn chorus today. Ten Canada geese fly out of nowhere, heading south, very low and in close V-formation, uncannily silent. Out in the overgrown scrub I gather plump, glistening blackberries, oval blue damsons, ‘the plum of Damsacus’, and round cherry-plums full of juice. These last fall into my cupped hand with the lightest of touches. I am soaked through of course, but no fruit tasted better, wild and rain-washed and straight from the bush.

I make my way homeward. The rain eases off and the clouds disassemble, revealing clear blue sky high above. At my approach mute woodpigeons spill out of each tree in turn, in twos and threes. Their quills thrum with the first few wingbeats then ease into silent flight mode. As I pass Beck Brook, at one of its widest spots, a full four feet across, there are a couple of sploshes, loud in the dawn, and a V-shaped wavelet ripples the channel between blooms of pondweed – the bow-wave of a water vole, ever-elusive. Sometimes all we are offered is a glimpse or a trace – of vole, or sparrowhawk, or the divine. It is enough for now, enough to whet our appetite, to ramble on, seek further, drink deeper.

hedgerow harvest - blackberries, damsons, cherry plums

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rainwalk43

June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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buttercupwalk42

May 19th, 2010. Evening. After a cold snap since the beginning of the month the weather has warmed over the last few days, with some fine sunny spells. Today is mostly overcast, but I can at last walk out in the evening without jersey or fleece. I follow a route I’ve taken many times before, up the B-road towards Cottenham, branching southwards along the medieval trackway here called Gunn’s Lane, then through the meadows and woods of Abbey Farm at Histon and back along tiny Histon Brook to Oakington.

It’s a fine walk, with the countryside at its freshest and greenest and densest. Spring at its height, just before summer sets in. The season of green, in every hue and depth and texture. All trees in leaf at last, though some oaks and others are only just so. Foliage is still whole and pristine, unblemished yet by insects, disease or decay. Hedgerows are dense, unseethroughable, paths and watercourses encroached, vistas curtailed and horizons lie just round the corner… the world’s close at hand. Short-cuts I used before, or field gaps I slipped through, are now overgrown with nettles. Few birds are to be seen though the hedgerows and coppices are full of alarm calls and cadences, most of which I cannot identify because I can’t see the singers. Birds have a trick of throwing their voices. Your ears pinpoint the source of a song in a tree or bush but you will search in vain for the bird, which is invariably some feet away, sometimes in a different place altogether. Anyone who has sought out birds will will have been frustrated and puzzled by this cunning display of ventriloquy.

I meet Mrs. Botanical, with whom I cross paths now and then. Local girl, who’s walked this district since childhood, noticing nature. A real naturalist. It turns out she is the daughter of the wild-gardening couple who were so welcoming on one of my earlier walks. I should have known… of course. They have infused in her their wonder of the wild. A very precious gift this, from parent to child, it seems to me…. better by far than a trust fund. She tells me of her own recent encounters – just this last week, in the little brook/ditch that runs from Histon to join our Beck Brook at the coppice, she has come across water voles, then the largest grass snake she’s ever seen, then some eels. She is so thrilled that it’s as good as seeing these creatures with my very own eyes. And it confirms my earlier sightings of grass snake and eel. The presence of the fast-declining water vole here is an unexpected surprise. Even though I regularly scan the banks of our various watercourses I have never even seen their tell-tale holes, just above the waterline.

Hawthorn blossom, though still not fully out everywhere, adorns the hedges and banks and woodland edges …. in fact the whole green countryside, wherever you look, is splashed with white. It reveals itself as the dominant hedge tree round here by far, with blackthorn less common. When hawthorn grows naturally, without hacking and topping, it throws out long arched sprays of blossom, with flowers all the way down to the tips. The red hawthorn seems later and is just breaking bud. Horse-chestnuts still in flower, lit with great, upright pinkish-white cones, evenly spaced over each tree. But the season really belongs to the wild flowers and flowering grasses, which are now in a rush, coming too many and too fast for me to identify. Sometimes their foliage is more interesting than their flowers. Lacy white cow-parsley, up to four feet high, is dominant now, along with the feathering grasses and uncoiling thistles. Big ox-eye daisies or moon daisies, two inches across with gold eyes, each one on a tall slender stem, have come up in the disturbed ground along the guided-busway. They are the loveliest of flowers and I want to gather them up and take them home, they’re that sort of flower. But of course there are too few about to pick even one, they might even be endangered, and it’s probably illegal.

At the ancient Abbey Farm, adjacent to Histon church, are retained some small pieces of old woodland, meadow, and an overgrown scrubby tract – some of the few places in the neighbourhood that are a little bit wild, or not overly managed at least. Sauntering some 50 yards in front of me, on a footpath winding through the latter, is a muntjac. Yes, it’s just the sort of place I would expect to see one, with plenty of open grazing close to cover. It trots like a dog, and curls its broad tail upwards, flashing the flat white underside like a banner. It disappears into a thicket. I emerge onto a broad sloping meadow, ungrazed and uncut, full of flowers, especially the buttercup. I’ve never seen so many buttercups – a field of buttercups. Not good for grazing stock perhaps, but perfectly harmless when cut and dried in the process of hay-making. I walk back along Histon Brook, with the setting sun in my eyes, looking for water voles. But nothing disturbs the water, which lies black and still and silent.

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