NATURALLY THINKING

By Margaret Waddingham

Articles published in the Caundler Magazine
This April was an unusually dry month and we were beginning to listen anxiously to the weather forecasts.

When the forecasters mention that another dry day is to follow, I wonder why it is that they always mention gardeners but not farmers. Surely it would be better to mention them a bit more often?
To the average gardener what the weather does or does not do is merely an irritating interruption to a very pleasurable hobby, whereas farmers depend on it for their livelihood.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, what the weather did over the winter and early spring this year, everything is looking wonderful now.

And did you see the bluebells? Every year I think they can’t get better, yet once again this year, I think they have been the best yet.

My daughter and son-in-law took me for a drive all round the villages near Bulbarrow one day just when they had reached their peak of perfection. It was a perfect day, not so bright that you couldn’t see things because of the glare, but rather that perfect light that glowed through the lanes of lime green tunnels of leafing trees. There was one lane in particular that had become an avenue of wood anemones that fringed the verges, framing trees and bluebells.
A sight I won’t forget in a hurry.

Out on Genevive one afternoon one day, I stopped to watch an enormous bumblebee working on a yellow rose that peeped through someone’s picket fence.

It was very heavy for the rose, which was a gorgeous buttery yellow single one. It stayed on this flower for what seemed like ages, not tucking any of the pollen away in a pollen sac, because it was probably a male, but gorging on each tiny stamen until – I kid you not – it tipped over backwards and almost fell off!
I like bumble bees, especially the really large, nice cosy, hairy ones that are harbingers of spring and the one I was watching was one of those, called Garden or Rural bumble bees.
Apart from a few birds and butterflies, that was the only thing that seemed that seemed to buzz, creep or fly down the lane, yet when I got back to my garden it was humming with things – bees, bee flies, beetle-y things, some butterflies, including a small blue one, and tiny moths.

My big pond is home to dozens of tadpoles and frogs.

Whilst sitting by the smaller pond, a slow worm made its way around the plants that border it just as something jumped out of the water and vanished from sight amongst some flowers.
Added to this, there are lots of signs that a hedgehog, possibly in the plural, is a regular visitor.

I was so delighted early one morning before 8 o’clock, to hear a cuckoo at our end of the village.

That same day (May 9th), there was one in Stalbridge Weston. I wonder if it was the same one.
The house martins are now serious about nesting instead of just flying round and round their old homes under my roof.
I also have great tits nesting in my nest box on the fence. Their family has now obviously hatched because I can hear them squeaking and both birds are on a non-stop treadmill of going back and forth to feed them.
I have watched them pecking at all sorts of plants, including the roses, helping to decrease the greenfly population I hope, although they are hopelessly outnumbered.
They were also obviously finding tasty infant food around the house martins’ nests and under the guttering.

One day a large ginger cat appeared, perched on the top of the nest box, peering into the hole.

I shouted at it but I only have a very small shout these days and it just looked at me.
I looked round for something to throw. In the end I flung a clothes brush roughly in its direction but I can no longer throw either so it ended up about 6 inches away from my feet.
In the end we stared each other out and finally it moved off, in a very leisurely way, into the apple tree and then, by means of walking on top of the fence, disappeared from view. Fortunately, the great tit parents were back very quickly, but not before I had planned the worst sort of end for all cats that visit my garden.

PS: I’m right off cats.

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Injustice to Starlings

Late last autumn, I found my peanut holder on the lawn – again – its contents spilt all over the place.

Blow those starlings, I thought, because I always blame starlings for any garden mischief.
However, I was doing them an injustice because a moment later a large crow arrived and inspected the feeder closely. Then it turned it over and hoovered up the nuts on the ground.
I watched it for a moment then said to my daughter ‘That crow is moving the nut container round by the handle.’
So we both watched and, sure enough, it was grasping the handle, not just randomly seizing any other bit it could get hold of.
My daughter went out and returned it to its hook on the arbour before most of the nuts had been lost and we carried on chatting. A few moments later I glanced outside again and the nuts were once more strewn over the lawn with the crow feasting on them.
‘I think it’s that crow that’s knocking them off’ I said, so Fiona went back and hung them up once more.
Then we watched. We didn’t have to wait long because almost as soon as she had come back inside, there it was again.
And this time we could see quite clearly that it wasn’t just knocking the holder off – it was actually sitting above it and lifting it off the hook with its beak.
Fiona said, ‘Right, this time I’m going to tie it on.’
So back she went with a length of string and tied it on to its hook. ‘That’ll fool it,’ we said smugly.
Not a bit of it.
In no time, the crow was back again and we watched, open mouthed with amazement, as it proceeded to unpick the knot with its beak!
She retied it with extra knots, but next morning it was back in a near empty state rolling about on the lawn. I told Nikki, who did the garden for me. ‘Right,’, she said, a hint of battle in her eyes and off she went armed with a length of garden twine, tying it in such a way that even those who kindly refill it for me couldn’t get it off without the aid of a very sharp knife. But even that didn’t deter the persistent crow. Later that day he was back, trying to untie it, using both claws and beak.
But at last he was beaten.
His friend turned up to give him a hand (or beak and claw) and while he rested on the shed roof, his friend had a go. Eventually, they both gave up and flew off over the fence. I was telling Chas all about it, thinking that I had seen a wonderful, once in a lifetime feat of nature that I alone had seen. But ‘Oh good,’ said he, ‘you’ve put into words what’s been going on here for months.’ Claude (the crow) hasn’t been back since, so I think Chas has him back in his garden attacking his peanuts. Ha!

I’ve always thought that pigeons look rather odd!

With their small pinheads perched on their outsized bodies, and they have a ridiculous nesting habit of laying eggs on precarious platforms where eggs are quite likely to roll off and smash. Now a pair has landed in the ivy on the fence in the back garden. One of them seems to be sitting in it in a very purposeful sort of way, whilst its mate has been scratching around nearby on the ivy, in a hen-like manner. I’ve never seen pigeons behave this way before. There is something even more odd than usual about these two.
Meanwhile I have just been watching an example of perfect marital co-operation with a pair of blue tits. The male seemed to be in charge of DIY, pecking away at the hole in their nest box, whilst the wife was darting in and out of the ivy, collecting – who knows what? She then sat on top of the box for a moment or two, watching and probably giving advice, before he flew off and she disappeared inside. She was obviously in charge of interior design and decoration and every now and then her little head popped out, probably to check whether he was back when he said he would be, before disappearing from view again. When the male came back, off she flew back into the ivy. They each seemed to have a specific job to do and it was fascinating to watch how they worked together, preparing their home for very small newcomers. I’ve only seen this sort of thing on David Attenborough’s programme and it was fascinating to watch it for myself.

I do like blue tits, there is something so purposeful about them.

When we lived in Devon, I was walking round the pond on the Lower Moor one day when I was attracted by a lot of small tweetings. I could just see through the undergrowth a row of five little fluffy blue tit chicks all huddled together, whilst mum and dad flew back and forth constantly stuffing each gape with tasty little insects. They had obviously come out for a picnic. I felt very privileged to have seen such a sight.
On another occasion, still in Devon, Brian had spread out a surplus supply of apples in a shallow crate in the barn. One day, he called to me to come and see something. There was a little blue tit staggering around on top of the apples. As we watched, it fell over, feet akimbo. Horrified, I said, ’Is it dead?’ but Brian said, ’No, just dead drunk on a rotten apple’ He laid the little thing in a safe place, opened all the barn doors and we left it to sleep it off. I’m pleased to say that it must have woken up soon after, because there was no sign of it. Bet it had an awful hangover though.

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Richard the Robin has a lion heart and a crusading spirit

The sky had been stormy all morning, black, streaked with gold. Then the sun squeezed through a hole in the clouds and rain fell. But what rain!

It was blown at an acute angle across the lawn – golden rain that was so heavy that it fell, not in drops but in iridescent chains made up of links of shimmering diamonds that shrouded each blade of grass, encased the orange and pink rowan berries and lit up an ordinary world making it extraordinary. For perhaps thirty seconds it fell like that and I couldn’t move because I was caught up by the extraordinary beauty of it.
Then the moment passed. The sun vanished and rain fell, ordinary sheets of rain. But I shall never forget those moments when nature showed me something I had never seen before, the time when rain was so much more than ordinary.
That happened the week before the village’s spectacular and devastating rain that flooded several properties, including our beloved pub. Even my carer couldn’t find any way out of the village, having been able to get to me only three quarters of an hour before. It hasn’t caused so much chaos for over 50 years I’m told. In the face of such events, and together with others all over the world, how can anyone deny that we have already entered a dangerous phase of climate change?

But it’s mid-November and it will soon be Christmas so let’s think about something more cheerful. Let’s think about robins instead.

I have my own robin. I suppose everyone says this because we all get possessive about the one bird that comes to share our garden with us. You may possibly remember Mr Bocellii, a blackbird that Brian and I claimed was ‘ours‘. He was with us for three years, each year introducing us to his latest family, during which time he tapped on the window to remind us to put out some raisins on our door mat if they weren‘t there already. He stayed with us until he died when we found his little skeleton in the hedge right outside our garden doors. Since then I haven’t had such a friendly attachment with anything in the bird world.
Until now.

He is Richard the Robin

So called because he has a lion heart and a crusading spirit when it comes to fighting for what he believes in, ie., seeing off all competitors.
I have assumed he is a male but I could be wrong of course for male and female robins are almost identical. Mine however, just looks very masculine. I first noticed him in very early autumn when he was still a youngster with a speckly chest. He would sit nearby on the ramp and watch me with his bright, beady eyes, head to one side. Then his chest began to lose its speckles and gradually turned, first pale orange and then deepened to its familiar robin redbreast colour. He still sits on the rail of the ramp but is more likely now to be on the edge of a tall wooden trough that is closer to the window and trills away. A lovely sound when most birds are silent. He is quite recognisable because he has one white feather on his right wing.
Some robins, particularly female ones, fly to the continent at this time of the year where the food is more plentiful and there is less competition from others of their kind. Those that stay prefer the slightly milder climate of the west and, although insects are less easy to find at this time of the year, there is usually plenty of food for them in the hedges, hawthorn and ivy especially giving them plenty of energy. There are also plenty of gardens with bird feeders. Not that Richard uses the feeders even though he sometimes tries, but beneath it is a very useful place to scavenge for all those bits that have been dropped by others.

By December he will not sing quite so much as he has already claimed his territory.

If it gets very cold he will have to go into full maintenance mode and feed almost non-stop from early morning to late afternoon. He is able to do this better than other songbirds because he has such large, beady eyes. Even so, and even though he appears to have started the winter well fed, he could die of cold or fall victim to one of his many predators. He has only an evens chance of surviving until the following spring. Fingers crossed for Richard.
But for now here he is again, his image reproduced on so many millions of Christmas cards, pert, plump and as symbolic of the season as mince pies. Why? I wondered. Why robins? Well, he is much more noticeable from autumn on when other songbirds are silent and many are out of sight for much of the day. My little book says that when the custom of sending cards to celebrate birthdays and Christmas first began in Victorian times, postmen wore bright red uniforms and so earned the nickname ‘Robins’. As a consequence, the bird began to be reproduced on Christmas cards and was often depicted with a letter in his beak. Our present day postmen don’t wear bright red uniforms but post boxes and the vans still do.
There are numerous other reasons, many of them religious, but whatever the true one is, his appearance on our Christmas cards and almost everything else that is Christmas connected, he is as popular as ever.
May I wish all of you a very happy Christmas and, dare I say it? A much brighter new year than the previous two.

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I’ve been watching the hogweeds

After drifting along with the clouds for most of August, we suddenly found ourselves trying to find some cool, shady spot for three whole days just when the schools returned, and then, just as abruptly, we were again under cloud canopy.

At least these clouds produced some welcome rain otherwise we would all have been crying ‘drought, drought’. It has been recognised as a wet summer so I wonder why it is that the water table seems so low. Surely, in days gone by gardens didn’t flag and fields didn’t crack so quickly after a wet season? I suppose it’s all due to climate change.

Down Rowden Mill lane, I’ve been watching the hogweeds because they remind me so much of the moor when we lived in Hatherleigh.

I had at that time become particularly interested in why different insects seemed to prefer different parts of the plant and so I searched back through my notes of the time to compare them with what I saw now. Sure enough, in August 1991, I had recorded how one hogweed plant had played host to a variety of insects and which particular bits they were interested in. On the top of the flower head there were half a dozen yellowish red soldier beetles and two little yellow striped hoverflies that hovered on or just above it. Below that were several elongated beetles with scarlet wings and a black head, later identified as click beetles, and below that was a very large web stretching from one of its leaves to a nearby gorse bush. At the very base were three small black slugs. I was intrigued by the part that the hogweed was playing in the lives of all these little insects. The soldier beetles are carnivorous so presumably they were snapping up all those harmful little bugs that might drop by and eat the flower. The hover flies feed on aphids amongst other things, so presumably they caught anything that the soldier beetles missed and, in addition, pollinated the flowers. The click beetles enjoy a good feed on rotting vegetation so they help to keep the plant tidy, whilst the spider grabs anything else that is foolish enough to fly too close. Little black slugs are omnivores and I suppose eat anything left over by the others. Their menu can include fungi, little earthworms, rotting vegetation, dead plant material and dung, in other words, they would protect the plant from quite a lot near its root. With all those sentinels protecting it, it’s small wonder that the hogweed is one of the successes of the plant world. It still doesn’t explain why each seemed to keep to one particular territory
though. Down Rowden Mill Lane, I did see a couple of soldier beetles on the top of one, together with some large flies and a few bees round several but if any had that same army looking after them, I missed them.

I have been entertained by the families that gather round the bird feeders.

As soon as the querulous adult goldfinches flock in, their offspring arrive too, usually sitting on top of the feeders looking pathetic and hoping their parents will remember that they are still not able to work out how to cling to the feeders. They never do. Fair enough, they have to learn how to fend for themselves and ignoring them is the probably a bird’s best way to do it. After a while, the youngsters, their backs well coloured in their goldfinch livery but their fronts still fledgling pale, line up under the feeders gathering up what falls down. This is the signal for other families of ground feeders to join them – chaffinches, sparrows and the occasional young robin, not yet red waist-coated. The tit families are much kinder to their youngsters. They seem to feed them until they can hang on upside down themselves.
There are still some late nesting house martins under my gutters that haven’t yet managed to coax their offspring away from their nests, though every morning I see bigger and bigger numbers of them circling round, feeding on the insects that will help sustain them on their journey to the warmer climes of Africa. The swifts, of course, being the first to arrive, were first to leave and did so long ago leaving the church tower strangely silent.

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In June I went up my usual lanes with the purpose of counting insects

One fine, warm day in June, I went up my usual lanes with the purpose of counting how many insects I could see.

Up Holt Lane I spotted a tiny iridescent beetle, one bumble bee and several butterflies. Down Rowden Mill Lane I found about six bumble bees and several little brown butterflies, probably gatekeepers.
I was, of course, only counting what I could see on the nearest edge of the verges and probably if I had been able to actually walk on them I might have seen a few more. Even so, it was rather depressing. I mentioned this to a friend I met on the way back saying that I seemed to have many more in my own garden than I had seen that afternoon.
He said that perhaps we are now becoming so conscious of planting lots of flowers with insects in mind in our gardens that anything that flies has moved on mass away from verges.
A few nights later, I couldn’t sleep so I put the light on and read for a while. My curtains were not completely closed and the windows were wide open. It occurred to me that the room would soon be full of moths but there wasn’t one.
Some days later another friend drew up beside me in her car. I said ‘Oh good, your windscreen is smothered with dead flies.’ She looked at me sadly as though I had completely lost the plot and I explained that I had been searching for insects, dead or alive. She drove off shortly after that. I can’t remember whether it was because we were blocking the road or because she doubted my sanity. When I got home, my garden was noisy with the sound of bees, but they were all bumble bees of several sorts and various hover flies. Only two honey bees. Still, that was better than nothing, but oh Tim, if you still have some,please direct them to my end of the village! By mid July, numbers have increased but nothing like the numbers that should be buzzing around. I found the top flowers of hogweeds that had quite a lot of little orange beetles doing their bit and one afternoon after a morning of rain, the garden was once again filled with all sorts of things that buzzed, flew or fluttered.

However, numbers everywhere are down and it is a very sobering problem.

40% of insects are at present declining and one third of this number is dropping faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. At this rate, they will vanish completely by the end of the century.
I couldn’t bear to read any more – ostrich-like I prefer to bury my head in the sand, continue, like many of us. to plant as many nectar-rich plants as I can in my garden and hope there will be a miracle to turn the forecasted tragedy around.

I thought my big pond – the one Steve dug for me last year – had a leak.

The water level seemed to be going down at an alarming rate, and even allowing for the strength of the sun these days, I was beginning to think this must be due to something more serious than evaporation. I had to keep asking people to fill it up for me.
I still had quite a lot of tadpoles with minute back legs developing and I was putting their slow rate of development down to the effect that the tap water was having on them as it was so constantly being
added to their watery home.
One day at the beginning of July, the level seemed to drop even faster and having asked for it to be completely filled to the brim one weekend, by Thursday I found to my horror that there was no more than a couple of inches left in the deepest part and the pump for my bubbling rock was making a most alarming noise. By the next day when Steve came hurrying round to see what was happing, there was just a very small puddle left.

Steve looked at it and almost immediately said, ’I think I know what the problem is.’

I had allowed some self-seeded mimulus to have their wicked way just beside my rock. They looked very pretty, full of flower and getting bigger by the day. The trouble was that, unseen by us mere mortals,
the wretched things had spread their roots further and further beneath my rock, taking soil, stones, and even chunks of clay with them until the water was re-directed to the bed behind the pond instead of back into it. Steve yanked the whole lot up, refilled it and it’s been full ever since.
It will be interesting to see whether it drops dramatically when it stops raining, but I doubt whether it will. What’s more, six of my minute little tadpoles have survived their trauma. Resilient little things, aren’t they? I do hope they finally become frogs.
I have learnt my lesson – no more self-seeded anything will ever be allowed to stay anywhere near my bubbling rock.

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The miracles of nature

Who says that insects have no brains?

Well, I did, except that I always thought that spiders had a bit more than most, working out how to make those intricate cobwebs and all that.
One day at the end of March I saw something in my kitchen that confirmed this.
I was about to go to the fridge to get one or two things out for breakfast when I noticed that the corpse of a woodlice was swinging gently from the bottom of the freezer door, which is beneath the fridge.
As it was swinging in rather an odd way, I looked at it harder and saw that a minute spider, whose body was about the size of an elongated pin and legs so tiny that I only knew they were there because I could just see that they were moving around the woodlouse.
Then it climbed up its little silken ladder and vanished for a moment somewhere in the cavity beneath the door’s overhang, at which point the woodlouse began to swing gently again.
I was so intrigued that I abandoned breakfast and watched this little drama instead.
The spider was very methodical. He came down an almost invisible thread of silk, spun a little more of it around the body, and then he disappeared out of sight – again and again and again.
By this time it was obvious what was happening and I wished, not for the first time, that I could draw cartoons because I could just imagine it sitting in its lair out of sight and heaving on its web like someone playing a salmon. Eventually, I had breakfast and by the time I had finished the woodlouse was out of sight.
The whole operation, from the time I had first spotted it, had taken the little spider about an hour to haul its meal from floor to its lair, a distance of about two and a half inches. I wish I could put this into some sort of scale.
About a week later, a dried corpse appeared – I suppose it was the spider’s compost – on the floor beneath the freezer door.
Woodlice seem so very unfleshy and unappetising that I am really curious to know which part of it that spiders enjoy.

The ash is very late coming into leaf this year.

Curious to know why it is that some years the oak is first and at others it is the ash, I googled it and this is what I found. Usually the oak comes into leaf from late March to early May and is temperature sensitive. This, by the way, now comes into leaf about 7-10 days earlier than it did 30-40 years ago. However, I seem to remember a sudden bit of a heat wave in March as well as very welcome sunshine. It didn’t last long and when April arrived, we had record sunshine but accompanied by frosts. So now this May, the ash, which is dependent on the sun, is hanging about a bit until it can be sure that both sun and warmth are here to stay, whilst the oaks are in leaf. I can’t help feeling the trees are as confused as we are.
The oak seems to be adapting to climate change but the wild life which depends on it, such as the oak caterpillar moth that the Great Tits feed on, hasn’t quite caught up. Hopefully it will sort itself out soon and food will again be around for those that rely on it to feed themselves and their young.

What a year for blossoms this has been.

The flowers of the apples seem to have been so tightly packed together that it’s a wonder that the bees have been able to squeeze in. The heavy frosts that we have had don’t seem to have affected it, so stand back and prepare for a bumper crop. In fact, there should be a bumper crop of everything from holly to sloes.
Like many in the village, I had a lot of visits from the little bee flies this year. Looking like tiny humming birds pausing to sip at the spring flowers with their long proboscis, they are rather delightful little creatures looking, as their name suggests, a bit like a bee with a round, fluffy back end whilst the front end is more like a fly. There are several different sorts – I rather think ours are the spotted bee fly, so named because of the spots on their wings. They are, to me, as special as the humming bird hawk moths which come out much later in the year, except that their pupaes’ favourite meals are the baby solitary bees who share the same underground homes in my front lawn. Those too are amongst my favourites of the insect world that I have around me, emerging like a blue haze on warm days at this time of the year. Still, I suppose you can’t have everything in this world.

It’s amazing what a difference two or three weeks make at this time of the year.

Having not gone out on Genevieve for that length of time, I dodged the showers and went down Rowden Mill Lane and Holt Lane the other day, to find that most of the cowslips had all but disappeared beneath the lengthening grasses. It’s pleasing to see that these flowers are gradually increasing in both of these lanes. The Red Campion too, which had been in bud on the previous occasion that I had been there, were now fully out, sturdy and rich, and misty Bluebells were growing at the foot of the hedges. The verges everywhere were frothy with Cow Parsley. This is a member of the Carrot family but if you crush the leaves between your fingers, the scent is faintly aniseedy. I do so love the red, white and blue and that special green of young grasses at this special time of the year.

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All that is needed to nature watch is to go quietly and pay attention to the surroundings

With two days left in February before it merges into March, I went down Rowden Mill Lane to see what was going on.

Lots of celandines, patches of primroses, a bit of cow parsley, a group of snowdrops and a tentative white deadnettle were flowering, whilst spikes of other things had pushed through, things like the leaves of lords and ladies. There were rosettes of thistle, silver with the morning dew even though it was nearly mid-day, and leaf buds swelling on the hedges. There were quite a few birds around: robins, a dunnock, wrens in full scolding mode as I passed, and as I neared the big field near the bottom of the lane, a harsh chattering came from a large flock that was just taking off to pastures new – fieldfares I think. A buzzard was very vocal near the river. I hadn’t heard him last year which had me a bit worried because they had been there every year since I had been going there in my walking days, so I was delighted to hear this one.
Tracks of animals going from one side of the lane to the other are easier to identify at this time of the year, claw marks of a badger or small hoof marks of deer clearly imprinted on them. Once, a few years ago, I found a badger latrine near a deep hole. Not only did it contain the obvious but a lot of old bedding in the form of dead bracken and other vegetation. I have never found one since.
A lot of bleached snail shells, large and small and different sizes, were lying in the mud of the verges, washed out of the grasses in the winter rains. It was a good indication of how many of them had been going about their daily activities in better days.

I am always interested in the hedges around here.

Every now and then there is a trunk that stands out from the rest, thicker and older. It is an indication of when the hedge was properly laid and some of them are really beautiful growing like sturdy, moss covered arms doing their best, even in old age, to prop up their younger companions.

This issue is all about nature watching.

I suppose I’ve done a lot of that in my time, and, like so many of us, I haven’t been conscious that was what I was doing.
Of course, it’s better if nature comes to you and happening to be in the right place at the right time helps enormously. I’m very grateful to the badger, leveret, grass snake (in the act of swallowing a frog until I startled it into letting it go), foxes, voles, field mice, slow worms and squirrels that have strayed into my garden, to say nothing of all the insects, birds, which once included a wryneck, an owl who came and sat near me one night as it was getting dark, and quite a few bats.

We are so lucky to live in such a rural and relatively unspoilt place.

When I lived in Devon, I couldn’t have been luckier to happen to pass an alder overhanging the River Torridge just when a mother kingfisher was feeding its little fledgling sitting on a branch below us. Often when I was just sitting on the bank or standing in the middle of the river fishing, there would be a sharp ’keek’ and a flash of brightest blue as one jetted past. Although I really wasn’t very good at fly fishing and hardly ever caught anything, I loved it because it gave me the chance of standing in the middle of the river without looking too daft. I often saw the v-shaped wake of an otter disappearing round a bend or heard the sharp ‘keek’ and a flash of vivid blue as a kingfisher jetted past. And what could have been luckier than the day when Brian and I were passing a salmon ladder as the salmon were leaping it to reach their higher spawning grounds? Or when we once saw female salmon making their redds? These are the nests which they create by furiously fanning their tails to create small depressions in the gravel in which to lay their eggs
Brian often used to go fishing in the early mornings and he had two interesting meetings with otters. One nearly knocked him off his feet as it tried to swim between his legs and on another occasion, having caught two beautiful wild brown trout and put them lovingly in cool, long grasses on the bank, he found, as he retrieved them a little later, an otter chomping its way through them. I would have dismissed it as a fisherman’s tale except that he brought the evidence home to show me!

Sometimes I suddenly came across something quite different.

One day during a very hard winter, the river was freezing over in places and I was stopped in my tracks when I heard a musical clanging sound. It was floating ‘icebergs’ that had been washed into a small bay in the river and were all clanging together. That same day a mass of them collected beneath the bridge further downstream, completely preventing the flow of the water. By morning temperatures had risen enough for them all to have floated away.
Perhaps the most amazing stroke of luck was that we moved to our Devon home near the edge of Dartmoor and found that the town had its own very precious piece of culm grassland with its wealth of flora and fauna which gave me my most precious insight into what went on there and should be going on in other places if only we hadn’t inadvertently messed things up so much.
All that is needed to nature watch is to go quietly and pay attention to the surroundings. We are so lucky to live in a rural place where nature is all around us. Long may it last.

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In the middle of a dull winter’s day, it’s nice to think of summer

Good heavens, Christmas is almost upon us again.

And since the last few months have gone past in a bit of a haze and I haven’t been able to get out very much, it seems a good time to think back to a heady day in summer.
Forgive me if you were expecting something a bit holly and ivy-ish but sometimes in the middle of a dull winter’s day, it’s nice to think of summer, so here goes.

We amble a great deal, Genevieve and I (Genevieve being my mobility scooter for those who don’t know me

Especially during the warmer months, and it can easily take us an hour to go to the bottom of Rowden Mill Lane and back. One afternoon during the last week in July I was doing just that, pausing every few inches to look more closely at the verges and hedges. Most of the more showy flowers were over by then and many of the grasses gone to seed, but the Great Willowherb, which has leaves that are more grey than the Rosebay Willowherb, lined the hedge bottoms near what would have been a damp place if we had had more rain.
In Devon this flower is called ‘Codlins and Cream’, perhaps because the colour of the flower resembles a cooked codlin apple mixed with cream. There was some Meadowsweet about still, an almond scented flower that used to be picked in great bunches and strewn before a bride. It was also used medicinally because it has the same properties as aspirin.
The hedges, the darkening green of mid to late summer, were festooned with white Bindweed, whilst spattered amongst the grasses of the verges were little white and pink Field Bindweed, looking like abandoned tutus. These are all of the Convolvulus family. Many of their much better behaved cousins are quite pricey in garden centres.
Also festooned on the hedges was wild Clematis whose creamy flowers turn to little grey mopheads, known as Old Man’s Beard, in the autumn, and garlands of Bryony whose green berries turn to gleaming sealing wax red.

Now and then I stopped to listen and look.

I keep hoping to see hares but they are all out of my range of vision whilst sitting astride Genevieve. I like to listen to whatever birds there are around. Several little flocks, probably of meadow pipits, danced ahead of me from one side of the road to the other, but at this time of the year not much else was singing apart from yellow hammers. There were two of them that day, one nearby and one further away, both seemingly to have forgotten the last bit of their song so that it came out as ‘little bit of bread and no’ without the ‘cheese’ bit at the end. Meadow brown butterflies, gatekeepers and small whites took off continually, sometimes confusing Genevieve for something that she wasn’t. No other butterflies at that time of the day though.
I like to listen to the wind when everything else is silent.
Much as I admire Rupert Brooke’s poetry, I have never actually heard the breeze sobbing in the little trees which was how he described it in his lovely poem about Granchester. Sighing, rushing, moaning, sometimes whining, but I can’t honestly say I have ever heard it sobbing. That probably says more about me than it does about Rupert Brooke.

Anyway, that particular day it was sighing pleasantly, a particularly satisfying sound on a warm afternoon.

About half way along the lane there were more low growing flowers: dainty little Vetches scrambling through the grasses, a stray Buttercup or two, white Clover and several clumps of white Deadnettle. Thistles abounded, mainly two sorts – big, handsome fellows which I think are the Spear Thistle and a much more slender one with several heads, which may, or may not be the Slender Leaf Thistle.
I am open to correction because, as you might have guessed, thistles are not my strong point.
Here and there were the occasional fading stems of Hemp nettle and, at the bottom of the hedge were stiff little Lords and Ladies with their closely packed berries just on the turn to orange.
Some of the bottom berries had been nibbled – insects or mice I wondered?
In the gateways there were big patches of white daisy-like flowers of Scentless Mayweed. I wonder why they seem to prefer gateways? Perhaps because there is less competition from other things.
On one side of the road there is a narrow patch of Pineapple Mayweed, nothing like the other. It is insignificant and low growing and prefers to be almost on the road itself. It smells strongly of pineapples.
At the back of the verge Burrs and Teasel stand proud, and almost hidden from view in a tangle of grasses were some dainty yellow Meadow Vetchling. Down by the bridge the lovely blue Chicory still flowered.
All this but not a sound of an insect – no grasshoppers madly stridulating or bees humming.

At the bottom of the lane I can go no further than the house which stands alone and, still being empty, I turn here and pause.
At present I enjoy the liberty of sitting on this drive and looking round. On the far side, there were big stands of Purple Loosestrife by the river and a small pear tree heavily laden with fruit.
It was a warm, sunny spot and I watched two robins going backwards and forwards between the grass and their nest hidden in the nearby hedge.

There is a small, neat rabbit hole in the bank beneath this hedge.

A baby rabbit sat on each of the warm little hummocks on each side of the burrow, dozing.
The ears of one of these were constantly twitching backwards and forwards and now and then it briefly opened its eyes. It finally hopped away through the hedge and not long after, the other followed it. All young animals have a charm but there is something about a baby rabbit that is especially appealing, though I’m not sure farmers share my opinion.
It was a satisfactory end to that day’s amblings. By now, of course, the hedges have lost their leaves, though still clad with grubby looking Old Man’s Beard and only seed heads remain to show the glories gone by. Even so, there will still be things for the careful watcher to see.

While trying to come to terms with the diagnosis of Parkinsons for her husband last year, my daughter walked in a wood where brightly coloured leaves were falling, ripe nuts were everywhere and fungus of all sorts was growing on fallen trees, and she thought, ‘Autumn isn’t the end of things, it’s the beginning of the birth of something new’.

May you all have a very happy Christmas in spite of everything and let’s hope that we may all look forward to the birth of something new.

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Birds can be hugely entertaining.

My peanut holder, hanging on one of the posts of the arbour, is visited regularly by the greater spotted woodpecker, parents and their two off-spring.

Unfortunately, it is also the favoured drop-in centre for a very large family (maybe even two or three families) of noisy starlings. Because there are so many of these, they sometimes try to get on to the holder at the same time during which a fight ensues resulting that the top be- comes loose and the main part, including peanuts, falls onto the ground.

If a woodpecker gets to the feeder when the starlings are around, they line up on top of the arbour and scream abuse at it

But it doesn’t take much notice, just gives them a dirty look now and then.
One day the woodpecker left for a short while but when it came back the holder was on the ground. It tried feeding there for a moment or two, but, preferring to take its meals in the proper way, i.e. well away from the ground, it climbed the post, got to its usual spot, pecked at nothing and looked around in surprise. From then on I could almost see think bubbles come out of its head. It pecked at nothing, looked round, pecked at the top which was still hanging from its hook, looked all round again. ’Where’s it gone? I know it was here earlier.
Am I in the wrong place? Is it here? (Looking to the right) Is it there? (Looking to the left) that’s surely not it down there? I’ll go and sit in a tree and think about it.’ So it had a little ponder in the neighbouring ash, then gave up and flew off somewhere else to find a meal in a decent place.

I’m so pleased with my Covid pond

Like Billy in the last issue, my pond has been dug, developed and inhabited during the lock down and watching what comes and goes to my bubbling rock that keeps the water on the move is fascinating. Sparrows, chaffinches, gold- finches especially love to balance on its rounded, slippery surface and drink from it, and, like children playing in a hose on a hot day, they line up to rush through the gently bubbling jet to have a quick shower. I’m so pleased with my Covid pond which has already attracted not only frogs (with thanks to Ray), damselflies and no end of little squirmy things, but at least one baby newt.

At the end of June, Genevieve and I were ambling along Holt Lane when I spotted two single stems of corn cockle.

At first I thought I had been mistaken but, although it was at the back of the verge and at first glance thought it was a bit of mallow, the more I looked at it, the more distant memories of childhood said, ‘corn cockle.’ I checked when I got home and it certainly fitted the description.
It was a deep pinky purple, shading to white in the centre, and I wished I could have got nearer to see more detail of both flower and leaf. However, it was quite unlike any other flower around and I’m 99% certain what was it.
It’s an interesting flower, originating right back to the Iron Age so it is said, but now only occasionally found on the margins of hay meadows, roadsides, railway lines and open ground. It began to decrease rapidly in 1952 after being seen as a pest by farmers for hundreds of years because it is toxic to cattle. It finally died out as result of seed cleaning and herbi- cides. It is now almost extinct and is on the Vascular Red Plant Waiting List, which is a list of endangered, threatened and near threatened plants. (Found that on Google – I’m really not that clever).
So how, if it is indeed a corn cockle, did one little plant end up in Holt Lane?
No idea.
Perhaps the seed remains in the soil for years or maybe it has always been there, quietly lurking away among the grasses. Anyway, thank goodness that part of the verge es- caped the ravages of the mower a few weeks ago. When I went to look for it again in mid-July it had disappeared. It had either gone to seed or I was just having a rather nice dream.

I am similarly delighted with another beautiful flower by the little bridge near the bottom of Rowden Mill Lane.

There are two of them growing adjacent to each other, and now so tall that they are at the toppling over stage.
This is chicory.
It has quite large, bright blue daisy-like flowers, and belongs to the dandelion family. My book says it is quite common in Southern England but it’s quite hard to miss and I haven’t often seen it. It’s in full bloom now if you want to have a look, though it seems to pause every now and then before it bursts out again. During the war its roots were often used as a coffee substitute.
I wouldn’t try it if I were you unless you want to be put off coffee.

Whilst on the subject of lanes, I’m fascinated by the way we are told we can date our hedges.

Rule of thumb says multiply the number of species in a 30 yard stretch by 100 plus 30. Who am I to be so sceptical about this? It does make some of the hedges round here an amazing age but what about those mixed hedges that have been planted fairly recently?
However, a mixed hedge which contains field maple, hawthorn, spindle, bramble, holly, guilder rose and beech with bluebells and primroses growing in amongst it all, could well be ancient.
Leave it to you to work it out.

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The recent months have given nature a breathing space

A chance to see what the world would be like without the heavy hand of man putting his foot in it, if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphors.

Many birds, but especially those ground nesting ones, are doing better than usual.

We are much more conscious of bird song now that they don’t have to compete with the roar of traffic and planes. All over the country there is a growing movement of people who have become involved in gardening which benefits nature enormously.
Road kills have been dramatically reduced (very good news for toads I am told) and delays in verge cutting have meant that wild flowers are having an exceptional time, bringing an explosion of colour to the eye and pollen to the pollinators. Butterflies are doing rather well too, as are insects generally, perhaps because there aren’t so many windscreens upon which they can kill themselves. And of course, shrinking pollution belts everywhere have greatly improved the air quality giving us a glimpse of what things would be like with greatly reduced fossil fuels.
So when all this finally ends, could we possibly maintain just a small level of sustainability for this improvement? Perhaps more people will work from home lessening the demand for more and more roads and public transport. Maybe we will think twice before jumping into our cars to reach beauty spots and beaches but keep up with a newly found interest in cycling and walking. Maybe the airliners will have to prune back a little. Maybe.
Here in England we luxuriated in the warm and dry weather, of April, although farmers and growers were once again the losers. After the flooded fields during the wettest winter on record delaying crop planting, they then watched in disbelief as those same fields became cracked and arid.
We, on the other hand, enjoyed it, breathing in warm, clean air and revelling in the wealth of wild flowers. Everywhere things seemed to be in bloom all around us. My favourite outing for Genevieve and me (in other words my daily exercise) is up Holt Lane as far as the road will take me before it gives way to footpaths, then back again and down Rowden Mill Lane. The succession of wild flowers in Holt Lane was wonderful. One day towards mid-April I counted 21 varieties.
I came across Harry one day, tidying up the plastic sleeves around the sapling oaks that the Council filled in between the older ones, many of which had died. I asked if he knew who had planted the original ones, and he told me that it was Oliver Simon some 45 years ago. Can there be any better legacy to give a village than a whole avenue of trees?
The nice thing about Genevieve is that I am able to ‘amble‘, stopping frequently to catch sight of a particular bird or to examine the latest flower or insect. It is a lark filled place, filling the air with song. Holt Lane especially seemed to be alive with butterflies this year – yellow brimstones, peacocks, tortoiseshells, orange tips, holly blues, cabbage whites – sometimes they seem to get caught up in a stream of one way traffic and accompany me for several yards. And of course the views there are spectacular, with the distant hills of Blackmoor Vale rising up mistily and here and there glimpses of outlying homes and farms. I was delighted to find some milkmaids out in Rowden Mill Lane. – only a few but I’ve not seen them there before.
There are two places in the hedgerow where I have often heard a bird chattering away with a rich, varied and musical song. I have a feeling that it may be a siskin but I’m really not very clever on birdsong. I stop as near to it as I can and although I can place where it is coming from, I can never see it. People keep telling me that they have watched hares in the fields down here but they are out of range for Genevieve and me.
The house martins are back in their summer residences beneath the gutters at the front and back of my house. They make an awful mess once the babies come along, but I do love their friendly chatter near my bedroom window. I have only seen the occasional swallow and all who I meet say there are not nearly as many around as there used to be.
I haven’t heard a cuckoo either, but my Hazlebury daughter says that there has been one cuckooing away in the fields behind them every morning for days. She has also heard one in Piddle Woods, and a friend who walks on Lydlinch Common in the early mornings recently has heard one joining in with at least six nightingales.
It seems that whatever happens to us lot – humans, I mean – nature seems to be thriving on it. At least we have that to be thankful for.

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About Margaret

Margaret WaddinghamI was born in Middlesex in 1935 and educated at a convent in Rickmansworth. In 1954 I moved with my family to Cranleigh in Surrey where I met and married Brian. We have two daughters and five grandchildren.
For 21 happy years we lived on the outskirts of Guildford, moving to Hatherleigh in North Devon when our children had fled the nest to get on with their own lives.

My love of writing goes back many years but it was not until I retired from RHS Rosemoor Gardens in 1995 that I was able to devote more time to this and my other favourite pursuits, gardening and the countryside.

For many years I was a regular contributor of short stories, poetry, nature and other articles to three women’s national weeklies, periodical regional magazines and local newspapers. I also had a book of the history of a neighbouring village and a couple of books of poetry published.

One day our daughters phoned to suggest, very gently, that they couldn’t get to us quickly in an emergency and that’s how we ended up in Stourton Caundle.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place and although Brian sadly passed away in 2018, I have come to appreciate the village more and more.

Genevieve (my mobility scooter for those who haven’t met us) and I wander the local lanes, drinking in all that is around me and when I can no longer do this I will still have a small, peaceful garden to sit in where nature comes to visit me.