The Visitors

The Vikings have invaded again. They have come from Scandinavia, crossing 1200 miles in a potentially deadly journey, alighting at our shores ready to plunder once more. But these aren’t the fearsome warriors who have come looking to lay claim to land or steal Christian gold, they are in fact fieldfares and the treasure they seek are sweet, rich berries.

The large thrushes overwinter here in the UK, arriving from October. They could be mistaken for mistle thrushes but are slightly smaller and are identifiable due to their pale blue-grey heads, white bellies and yellow rings around their dark glass eyes. Around 700,000 fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) come across the North Sea to winter in Britain from Norway and Sweden, however only two pairs are thought to breed here. The winters in Scandinavian countries are too harsh for the birds to cope with, so they choose the milder weather here in the British Isles where they know they will still be able to find food.

In Sweden, the birds are known as ‘björktrast’, but the British common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘feldware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. Handy advice really because to find them, looking in fields is a good place to start. They enjoy open spaces where they can spy insects or picking through hedgerows around pastures where they can pick off berries. Hawthorn is a particular favourite, the berries an important food source during the scarce winter. Hawthorn has a long history as a plant which can help to protect your heart. Rich in antioxidants and minerals, it was thought to have been a staple in the diet of those in the Neolithic times. It has been recorded as the herb to strengthen the heart, as well as aid with gastrointestinal issues, when eaten raw or brewed into a tea. In fact hawthorn is one of the oldest known medicinal plants and was prescribed by the Ancient Greeks and Native Americans for those with heart problems. Here in the UK, the Celts also held the tree in high regard, linking the plant to luck and romance, believing that couples would fall in love beneath its canopy. Some people would place sprigs on their doors to attract love and luck into their households. At the festival of Beltane during the spring, hawthorn flowers would be used in decoration to thank the gods for the offerings provided by the earth.

But spring and the delicate pink-white blossoms are far away and as the temperature drops in the UK, the berries of the hawthorn are already starting to dwindle. Thankfully, the ground is still soft enough to pluck fat, juicy earthworms from. When the weather does plummet and the ground becomes hard, fieldfares will flock into urban gardens, competing with the local sparrows, blackbirds and blue tits for the scraps laid out by human hands.

I have taken to making own fat balls for my own garden visitors; seeds or dried mealworms mixed with left over oils or fats into reusable pots. I place them out on the table and leave the garden. When I return the small pots are empty, only beak-shaped scrapings made at the bottom hint that there was once anything inside. And whilst many of the birds are not visible, the tell-tale shaking of the trees and bushes around me let me know that the residents are here and waiting for their next feed.

I wonder if I will be lucky enough to have a fieldfare grace my garden this winter? For now, the resident robin’s presence will have to suffice.

*If you eat hawthorn berries, please be aware that the seeds are full of cyanide, like apple seeds, so spit them out and don’t swallow them!

maky orel
Fieldfare on hawthorn (picture by Maky Orel) 

In the bleak midwinter

A bunting of autumn leaves is still draped across the trees. 

These are all that are left, a remainder of the year slipping away. The rest now lay on the ground, the once-rich colours fading, trampled beneath the mud as they slowly become part of the earth. An entanglement of brambles line the woodland floor, the berries have long over-ripened and rotted away. The leaves of the bracken fronds are dry, crisp and curled. 

The woodland has slipped its winter coat on.

But whilst many species are heading into their long sleep, others bring life to the landscape. Up high in the eaves red berries are gathering amongst the spikes of the holly bush. They are joined by thick clusters of ripe hawthorn berries which dominate the woodland edges, and the rich, dark blackthorn sloes promise a delicious, wintry tipple. It is quiet now but the woods will see a myriad of visitors to feast on these delights; blackbirds, thrushes, long tailed tits and Scandinavian visitors in the form of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings, the latter’s 80s glamrock hairstyles and Adam Ant-style face-paint making them instantly recognisable. Today, a lone robin flits between the empty branches, chest bright against the stark backdrop as its hunts for insects along the bark.

Despite the wealth of berries on offer, I’m here after one in particular; mistletoe. The plants hang in huge balls amongst the branches of other trees. At this time of year the female plants produce translucent-white berries, favoured by blackcaps and mistle thrushes. They enjoy the fatty flesh but leave the seeds, allowing grow new plants to grow.

For us, mistletoe symbolises Christmas and a stolen kiss, briefly part of the festivities before it is forgotten again come January. The link to romance is another Nordic import, an old folktale linking the goddess Frigg with the berries, claiming she produced tears of the tiny pearls of fruit when she cried for her son, Baldr, after his death by a spear of mistletoe. She decreed that the plant should represent love and peace instead having negative connotations.

But we too once held mistletoe in high regard. Pagan druids felt that mistletoe was sacred. Mistletoe is parasitic, growing on other plants such as hawthorn, oaks and apple trees. The druids, who worshipped oaks due to their size and longevity, would cut mistletoe from ancient oaks with a golden sickle and distribute it amongst the people to help protect them against ‘evil’ and keep them safe throughout the dark winters – something we could all do with after the year we’ve just had.

Despite wandering the woods with my eyes trained above me, I havent been successful – there is no mistletoe here. So I make for home empty handed, instead I plan to stop off at the local garden centre to select a large sprig to take home with me. I’ll hang it above my front door, hoping it will bring a little luck in darker times.

On the path back to the car the robin reappears and launches into song. I stop to enjoy its music, enjoying a front row seat at one of the few concerts we are allowed to attend right now. It’s music is uplifting, the notes almost echo between the trees, filling the silence with a moment of joy.

This year has been difficult, but the one place we have been able to seek solace is in nature. From the sunny days spent on socially distanced walks or relaxing in the garden during the first lock down, to the comfort of the colours and mist-filled mornings of the second, nature has supported us.

As the landscape settles into its winter rest, it is easy to see things as bleak. But we need to look at it through nature’s eyes; it is taking a break, a breather, time to rebuild. Because beneath the frosted woodland floor, seeds will be waiting for the springs’ warmth and sunlight to begin pushing up and start their life. 

And with the new year comes new hope, and a reminder that everything will, eventually, bloom again. 

Lockdown lift

The evening is cool; the cloudless night letting the day’s heat seep into the atmosphere. I pull the woollen blanket tighter around my shoulders to keep in the warmth as I sit on the little wooden bench. Above my head, bears, lions, and a crustacean silently meander across the sky, bringing with them the familiar lights that have aided travellers for thousands of years. But no one is being guided, not for now. Tonight, they simply bring comfort to those like me.

The sky is bright, despite the moon waxing. Gemini has also made an appearance, and the irony of the constellation’s story of the strong desire for two people so desperate to be close to one another that they are immortalised in the night sky is not lost on me. Of course, if the Greek God’s were still believed to decide our future, it would be Oizys at play; the goddess of anxiety, grief, and misery. Times are hard for all of us right now, but there is one place you can always seek comfort, solace and calm: nature.

It is this need for consolation and a lack of sleep that have brought me out here again in the dead of night. There is a dampness to the air, a pleasant petrichor-like smell radiating off the garden. During the day, this space is abuzz with birds in the trees and insects flitting between the wildflowers, but for now it is still. I get up to wander around, taking in the differences the lack of light brings.
I can see the slight gleam of the honey-coloured flowers of the yellow archangel, already blooming. I bend down and delicately reach for one of them in the dark. Apparently, their Latin name, ‘Lamium galeobdolon, translates as ‘smells like weasel’, a theory you can test by squeezing one of the butter-yellow flowers. I abstain. As I stand back up, I get a slight fragrant waft from the buds of the blackcurrant bushes branches above. Large bumblebees are repeatedly drawn to them in daylight, despite the fact they are not fully blossoming. Soon the bush will be full of gorging insects; first on the pollen, and then later, on the sweet, sticky fruit. I try and dodge the dandelions standing starkly out of the lawn. Many have already gone to seed; fluffy heads waiting in anticipation to be carried away by the wind, providing the goldfinches don’t get to them first.

As I wander, taking in the garden by night, I sense a sudden movement over my head, a fluttering of black contrasted against the indigo sky. I try to decipher the maker in the darkness. Bats. My spirits lift: they are back. I assume them to be pipistrelles, our most common bat species in the UK, likely here to feast upon the moths that are attracted by the wildflowers or the mosquitos that dominate the small pond.They will have only left hibernation a few weeks ago and will be needing to gain they have weight have lost, feeding on up to 3000 insects a night to build themselves up before they think about mating in the coming weeks. I love that they are here in my garden at their time of need, using my space as support, not realising what they are doing for me in return.

Outside of lockdown I would normally travel to a nearby field at sunset and park by the rough track, watching a large colony disappear and re-emerge through a tunnel of branches where the oaks meet in an archway over the road. Marvelling at their twilight acrobatics until the night seeps into the sky, fading it to an inky black. For now, these two will have to do.

They speed past me, just above my head, circle around the shed and head back again. They jerkily dance over the telegraph wires, where the first swallows of the year sat earlier chatting to each other as I watched and imagined them swapping stories of their recent 6000-mile long journey. The bats are a lot less communicative, their dialogue inaudible to me even in the silence.
I lose sight of them in the shadows as they head towards the old town gaol which looms not-unpleasantly over my neighbours’ garden. I wonder if this is where they hibernate over the winter, sneaking into the tiny crevices of the stone building, the same place I saw the sparrows slipping into earlier. The upper floor of the prison has now been converted for human habitation, but downstairs still stand the original 19th-century cells, wrought iron bars over the windows and large locks on the doors. In here, there would be plenty of places to tuck up into and avoid the cold, undisturbed for months.

I wait a while, scanning the sky, but they don’t return, and it is just me again, gazing up at Venus. It is easy to feel lonely during this strange and troublesome time, but it’s a comfort knowing nature is always here to provide support and a warm embrace, even on the chillier nights.

For the Fallen

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Amongst the poppy fields there blows

The souls of those lost long ago.

Each blossom dances upon the grave

Of a brave soul that could not be saved. 

 

Behold in Flanders, fields blooming red

Flowers standing tall to mark the dead

Nature’s honour to those left behind

In soil-wrapped tombs, their spirits entwined.

 

Those who never chanced to grow old, 

The rest of their lives just stories untold

A promise from us to never forget;

Always cherish these fields bathed in deep red.

 

For every loved-one and Unknown face, 

Will always be remembered 

By this 

Sacred 

Place ❤️ 

 

By Alexandra Pearce-Broomhead

One Foot in the Grave

Lanyon Quoit 2
Photograph taken during a later visit to Lanyon Quoit

The sun begins to slip beneath the clouds causing rays of light to undulate across the surface of the road. In the layby, the Cornish stone wall is enveloped in wildflowers leaving only the lattice of the stones peeking through the clumps of green; cornflowers, meadow buttercups and red campion nudge through the spikes of the gorse that swathes over the structure. I pass the overgrown National Trust sign and hop over the stone style and into the field. The structure of Lanyon Quoit is immediately ahead, imposing on the raw, wild landscape it sits in. Somewhere from beneath the thicket of ferns surrounding the ancient monument, a pheasant squawks.
I approach the quoit, also known as a dolmen, and run my hands along the rough stone slabs, fingers rising and falling with the uneven surface which is now encrusted with mosses and lichens. I walk slowly around the structure before slipping between the stones, feeling a rush of claustrophobia as I duck beneath the huge, formidable capstone.

The truth about the quoits, which are thought to have been constructed 3500 – 3000 BC and typically pre-date Stonehenge, is that historians don’t know a great deal about them; what they were used for, how they were constructed. However it is presumed they were linked to death and ceremonial burial. One belief is that corpses would be lain out on the top stone for the birds to pick the bones clean. Once this was done, the remains would be buried underneath the dolmen in a communal grave. Due to the acidity of the moorland soil, many of these remains will most likely have been lost to the earth, so this remains unproven.
This might sound like a heathen way of treating a loved one who has passed on but allowing nature to deal with the remains of a life has always been believed to be a sustainable, practical way of dealing with the dead, as well as a way of respecting nature.

In fact for some communities, such as the Buddhists in Tibet, this practice is still common. Known as ‘sky burial’, bodies are placed atop mountains to allow the elements and animals to strip the corpses down to bones, the soul of the dead long gone, the body taking its place in the circle of life once more as it is given back to nature. One of the main creatures to reap the benefits of sky burials are vultures, however some species found themselves victims as modern technology interfered with the ancient practice unchanged for thousands of years. The Parsi, a religious community in India who also partake in sky burials as well as relying on vultures to dispose of the bodies of cattle that pass away, found themselves in serious trouble back in the late 90’s/early 00’s. The introduction of diclofenac, an anti-inflammation drug given to cattle, turned out to be fatal for the vultures that were helping to keep their world in balance. Cattle treated with the drug caused the near extinction of the local birds. In fact its believe that 95 – 99% of Indian vultures have lost their lives to the drug leading to near collapse of a system which had been in place for thousands of years; corpses were left to rot in the open, attracting hundreds of wild dogs (some carriers of rabies) to the community and increased of the risk of disease. Despite being banned in 2006 after the research was revealed, the drug is still in use and the future of the vulture remains hanging in the balance and the Parsis community finding themselves turning to cremation as an alternative to dealing with the dead, another stark reminder that our every interference in nature is ultimately a threat to ourselves.

I walk away from the quoit and sit beneath a lone tree, looking back towards the megalithic tomb. Above it, circling beneath the clouds, a large brown shape with a bright yellow beak nestled between hooded, brown eyes gazes down at me. The buzzard turns it head and scans the landscape below. I think of the pheasant which is secreted somewhere beneath the vegetation. It had better stay hidden or it may find itself with an unexpected invitation to lunch. The buzzard soars above me, catching the thermals it rises and falls, all the time keeping an eye on the moorland floor. In times gone by, the buzzard would have been exactly the type of bird that would have visited the dolmen. Whilst these birds do prey upon small animals, they will also consume carrion and thousands of years ago this bird could have been one of many gathering to watch as the bodies of our Neolithic ancestors were lain out as an offering.

Today, some treat British birds of prey as a nuisance, even going as far as to kill them to prevent them from preying upon game birds. I watch as the buzzard swoops in circles that veer east, and contemplate how we have lost our care for the creatures that sustain us. How times have changed but not, it seems, for the better.

Lanyon quoit
Photo taken during this visit to Lanyon Quoit

Prints in the sand

sand martin holes
Sand martin nest holes

The corrugated roof of the recently abandoned Winniaton Farm has become inhabited for the evening. The metal canopy, which has been heating up all day in the spring sunshine, is now covered by a congregation of companionable birds; herring gulls, starlings, woodpigeons and sparrows are amongst the faces huddled together, enjoying the warmth on their feet. Soon, they will be joined by migrating swallows that use the tiny gaps underneath the farm roof to nest in. Along the hedgerows which surround the estate, stonechats temporarily break their song to mutter alarm calls to one another about my presence as I head towards the rocky beach.

Like much of Cornwall, this area has a long history with smuggling. The caves here are said to be linked by a series of tunnels where contraband would be dropped off, leading to different safe locations in the area. Shipwrecks are also thought to have been frequent due to rocks offshore. A Spanish ship carrying several tonnes of coins is thought to have been lost a few miles out to sea and some claim that the money washes up over the years, making the beaches name, ‘Dollar Cove’, seem very apt.

This coastline is laden with riches, but it isn’t historic gold coins that I am referring to. Instead, I am on the beach looking for burrows containing treasures of a different kind. On the north-west facing sandy cliff, a flock of birds are flitting around several holes and my heart leaps at the sight of them. These sand martins have recently undertaken the 7,500-mile journey to summer here on the Cornish shore. They arrived in late March, taking up residence in the cliffs, as they prepare to welcome their young in June. I love to watch them in the summer, taking turns to leave the nest to gather food as the chicks get bigger, sometimes lots of tiny brown faces all poking out of one nest, appearing as though they don’t quite fit. Then, usually around September, they are gone as quickly as they arrived and the cliff is quiet again, only the empty holes serving as a reminder of what has taken place here over the warmer months.

This site attracts around 50 birds, although at other locations there can be hundreds in one colony. It is a joy to see them; circling and swooping around the cliff tops, sometimes clinging to the side of the rock face before disappearing down a burrow, leaving a trail of sand behind them as they excavate it for their nest chamber. In the summer, you can see their outlines as they skip over the waves, the pink sun setting behind them. Every year it feels like more of an honour to see them, especially as there has been a decline in sand martin populations over the last few decades due to droughts in their winter home of Africa. Extended hot periods mean that the damp habitats where they usually reside have been struggling and insect populations have decreased, meaning the birds are finding it increasingly hard to find food. Here in Cornwall however, food is plentiful; the washed-up seaweed rotting in the midday sun attracting a plethora of insects to feed upon.

I watch for a while as the birds fly up and down the coast before a black shape appears overhead, sending the birds into a sudden panic. They flock towards the sea as the female kestrel swoops closer to the cliff. This kestrel is a familiar face to the area, often perching on the flags at the golf course, waiting for small mammals to break cover at dusk. Her youngster, a male who she had two years ago, has the domain directly next to hers, choosing a life on the cliff edge where he looks for small birds and mice in the long, tussocky grass.

The female kestrel sits motionless, her frame a shadowy figure perched atop the cliff overlooking the nest holes. A brave sand martin circles back towards her, screeching as it does so, getting closer and closer before it finally it is near enough to have an effect and the kestrel takes off backwards towards the graveyard.

The last sand martin, its duty done, then disappears around the coast with the others. As I wait for the birds to return, the sun begins to drop behind the horizon and the cold sets in, finally forcing me to leave without another opportunity to see them.

As I walk, I pass the farm again. The roof is now mostly vacated.

 

Sparrowhawk 1
The female kestrel who hunts over Gunwalloe

A trip to Withan

The Germans have a word which doesn’t quite translate into English: Waldeinsamkeit.
It roughly describes the feeling of being alone in the woods; forest solitude; of being engulfed by nature.

Frenchman’s Creek provides the perfect real life example of this definition; a stunning part of the Helford River made famous by the Daphne Du Maurier novel. The story may focus on smuggling but it’s hard to conjure up that dark world when wandering along the river bank today. Instead the area is quiet, except for the hum of the birds as they flit between the tree tops and the gentle sound of water lapping at the muddy banks.

Despite the sun shining, the air serves as a reminder of last week’s storms; suffused with petrichor and I taste salt every time the breeze blows across the estuary. The floor is already a thick carpet of ramsons, permeating the peaty breeze with their garlicky smell. Some plants already have their delicate white flowers peeking out through the large buds and on the sloped banks the thin green bluebell leaves are already well established.  A silver birch shows tiny buds peeping through the crisp brown leaves that still cling to branches. Hazel catkins are plump and creamy button fungi peek out from thick clumps of bright green moss. Wild primroses cluster together in spaces where light sneaks through the tree canopies, delicate snowdrop flowers and the occasional bright yellow face of a daffodil bringing light to the dark green floor.

The still-bare limbs of the trees reveal the otherwise hidden woodland birds. Above my head, a group of long tailed tits chattered their familiar “prrrt-prrrt” to each other as they hopped from branch to branch. Most will be paired up already and will have been building their nests for several weeks, collecting features and cobwebs to weave a large next g in thick bramble. They are curious birds because they aren’t technically tits at all and are one of the few avian species who engage in coordinated parting; supporting other parents in the rearing of their chicks when their own don’t make it.

As I walk, flashes of pink and blue catch my eye as bullfinches and blue tits hunt for insects. Oak woodland is the ideal place for tits to nest and they have found the perfect spot right by the Helford. The woods surrounding the river are mostly made up of sessile oaks and those here have been labelled some of the best ancient oak woodland in the UK. In fact, sessile oak trees are sometimes nicknamed the Cornish oaks due to the sheer amount of them found in the county; with pedunculate oaks dominating in the rest of England. Oak trees are the most common tree species throughout Britain and played a huge part of daily life historically. The wood is strong, perfect for use in building andwas particularly favoured in the fabrication of boats; the irony of the small punts moored in the centre of the estuary, surrounded by the ancient fathers of those felled to make their bones not escaping me. Oak wood not used in construction would have produced slow burning firewood, the charcoal heralded as the best for swordsmithing. Oak galls were traditionally used to create ink due to the amount of iron sulphate they contain and the bark was the favourite choice to tan leather. Oak produces strong, hard-wearing leather that is worth the long process required to make it. The bark would be stripped from the trees during spring and summer then kept for several years to dry out. It was then ground into pieces around 2 – 3 inches long which are then soaked, the colour draining into cold water, a bit like making a cup of tea. Pelts are then soaked for around a year before they can be worked into clothing. Today this process is no longer used, except by J & FJ Baker in Devon; the only tannery to do so. It is sustainable, natural and beautiful.

The track I walk is overgrown, meaning fewer visitors opt to visit. I slip through the brake, hop over a fallen tree trunk and out onto the expanse of Withan Quay. The space, which first appears on records in the 1880s, is the perfect spot to take in the tranquility of the river. Evidence of the local otter population is scattered about my feet; the shells of muddy cockles cracked open and left open and empty in the midday sun.

On the bank, I spot some winter cress, also known locally as ‘cassabully’ from the Cornish kas beler, meaning ‘nasty cress’. I don’t know how this nickname came about; especially as the flavour  is similar to the cress we are familiar with, except with a slight lemony tang to it. Its scientific name, Barbarea vulgaris, named after St Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Her plant was said to be able to heal the wounds of those she cared for, so the unpleasant attitude of the name surprises me. It is bright and pretty, resembling a rape plant. I rub a leaf and inhale, detecting mustard.

I decide to take a moment and sit on the edge of the estuary, bathed in the warm spring sunshine. I lean back against a stump, listening to the wader’s calls echo along the river and watch two swans glide silently into the distance.

Every battle is won before it is fought.

kh
At 334 metres high, Kit Hill is the highest point in the Tamar Valley. It sits just on the Cornish side of the Cornwall-Devon border and was previously ‘gifted’ back to the Cornish in 1985 by Prince Charles when William was born.

The hill’s name comes from the Old English word ‘kit’ meaning birds of prey and is due to the fact that various species roam the area including buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks. As I climbed Kit Hill on a grey afternoon passing the signs that warned dog walkers of adders, the rain fell fitfully, the clouds slightly obstructing the views over the surrounding landscape. Kit Hill is different to the surrounding area due to the fact the land is so rough. The surface peaks and troughs, water cuts through the soil, old mining ruins are heaped around in broken moss-covered clusters and much of the space has been devoured by gorse, heathers and bilbury. The ferns, which will be green and lush come summer, were brown and sodden with rain, the ends curled and crisp. The gorse bushes were in flower, however they are sparse compared to the bright yellow blooms on the West coast, which delicately waft coconut as you pass. Underneath the structure of Kit Hill, Neolithic long barrows have been found, reiterating the importance of the area.

Despite the wind, the air was mild. An occasional stonechat tapped from the bushes as I walked, but other than that it seemed I was alone. At regular intervals I looked into the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of a buzzard, on par with where I am stood hundreds of meters up, catching the thermals as they search for mammals below. But as I reached the summit, the sky was sparse. I walked around the stack erected at the peak of the hill during the height of the mining boom. Beneath it, a Bronze Age burial ground is hidden, the spot once considered almost holy, now reduced to bricks and aerials. On a clear day, the views stretch for miles and in the distance I could see the dark outlines of Brown Willy and Rough Tor, the peaks slightly clouded by fog.

To the East, I had views over Hingston Down, which sits around three and a half kilometres away. This area was made famous due to its historical significance and the fact that Kit Hill was gifted by the future King of England (and Britain) to the Cornish people makes the site all the more interesting. In 838, the Cornish, led by King Dungarth (also known as King Doniert), joined up with an army of Vikings to battle King Ecbert of Wessex. Very little is known of what really happened and is greatly debated by historians, but it is said after a lot of  bloodshed, the West Saxons took the victory, ending nearly a century of warfare between the two sides. Hingston Down was the final battle to take place in Cornwall but also marked the last King of Cornwall. King Dungarth drowned later in the Fowey River and whilst there is very little information surrounding this, it was recorded in Ireland at the time as a Saxon punishment for combining forces with the Norsemen.

After some time enjoying the claggy views, I made my way back down the hill, stopping momentarily to take in the view from the upper car park. As I looked around me, a flock of birds in a field to the left caught my eye. I watched as the small group rose into the air and then landed again just meters away in the middle of the field. Seconds later, a large red bird followed, flying low before disappearing behind a bush. Another large bird of prey, lighter in colour, was hot on its heels. I stalked down the hill to get closer to the action, ducking low behind the bushes but peeking over the top to try and get a decent view. The field was awash with molehills. They were everywhere, little black mounds of freshly dug soil. These, mixed with the rain, must have bought earthworms and other grubs to the surface, the birds relishing at the opportunity. The red kite was over to the far right, its feet sunken into a small heap of earth. A buzzard was running across the grass, stooped over, legs outstretched, stopping every now and again to push its beak into the loam. In the middle of the field was a mixed flock of birds; fieldfares, redwings and a small dark species I could not identify from the distance. As the buzzard ran, the flock launched into the air and resettled down a few metres in a different direction, staying together to protect themselves, remaining at a constant distance even though the large birds had no interest in them. In a naked tree at the back of a field I spotted a second buzzard, its white ruffled neck giving it away against its camouflaged background, watching over the other birds below, surveying the scene as though a ruler watching its subjects.

As I watched, I realised how appropriate this scene was. The Scandinavian visitors working alongside the local birds for the same end; the chance of survival. A new battle of Hingston Down was taking place; but this time, both the Nordic and the Cornish would be the victors of the spoils, and the potential English threat left without a sound and made her way back to her car.

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Halcyon Daze

It started with an old box of books.

My parents dropped it off to me during one of their visits; a relic from the idyllic youth I had spent under their roof. As I opened it, the smell of aged-paper hit my nostrils as it curled up from the battered spines, memories flooding back as I recalled the places I had purchased each book, the times I had poured over their words. For that evenings’ entertainment, I settled on an antiquated copy of ‘Greek Myths and Legends’, somebody else’s name and the date ’1989’ etched in pencil inside the front cover. I dove head-first into the Olympian world.

That night I dreamt of war and shipwrecks, of love and devastating loss, of folly and deception, and of a bird that nested by the water’s stormy edge while the gods calmed the seas during her brooding. This was the Halcyon bird, now better known as the kingfisher.

The next morning, I woke before the sun, my mind swirling with blue and gold. I had only seen kingfishers in glimpsing moments; flashes of navy moving so quickly that I barely had time to register them before they were gone, and I was left with nothing but a knot of disappointment in my stomach. But I had awoken wanting more, so spurred on by the enchantment of the Greek myth, I gathered my things and headed straight to a nearby estuary with only one thing on my mind; wanting to have my own fabled moment with the species.

The Helford estuary is an ancient woodland, made up of sessile oak trees which surround a beautiful river. This river has an exciting history; water that was once sailed by great ships, Romans sending traded Cornish tin away to Europe or Tudor smugglers arriving in the dead of night with their French rum and lace, trying to evade the excise men. These days the river is more familiar with the pleasure boaters telling stories of Daphne Du Maurier or oyster men hauling their seaweed-laden dredges up, hoping that the native shellfish haven’t lost their ongoing war against the invading Pacific’s. But it also attracts an array of bird enthusiasts due to the biodiversity the area provides and that day, I was one of them.

Reaching the water’s edge, I scooted myself down a muddy ledge and found a quiet spot to nestle into. The tide was low, and I could see grey mullet just inches below the surface, creating ripples as they attempted to catch the insects skipping over the top. The water flowed gently out, the mesmeric sound broken by the occasional call of a curlew or redshank further down the river. This area would soon be awash with waders, picking through the thick mud to find ragworms.

The day was calm, the sun hazed through cloud-crowded sky gently touching the world below, a soft breath of wind rustled through the autumn-curled leaves. A fat robin landed near me and dipped its head inquisitively. I shrugged back by way of apology; I had no mealworms with me.

After a couple of hours of waiting, and several debates about ‘just 5 more minutes’, out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of blue through the hues of orange and brown, and involuntarily sucked in my breath as the sound of my heart thudded in my ears. I waited for split second, before adjusting my position. There, through a tangle of branches, on a piece of stark grey wood sat a kingfisher, its iridescent back toward me. It watched the water’s surface, looking at the stickleback or minnows below. After some time, the bird launched itself from its perch, bright orange legs tucked up into its copper breast, wings flapping at a sharp angle, beak pointing towards the water like a sword held high by a warrior charging into battle. The bird broke the surface, then came back up again before diving once more. The second time it appeared it had been victorious; a slither of silver tucked between its beak. It returned to its perch, the vibrance of its feathers stark against the dull deadwood. It began quickly flicking its dappled head, bashing the fish against the branch in a series of sudden movements before swallowing it whole.

As I watched, I understood why the bird inspired such folklore, such tales of wonder. He was the ruler of the river; adorned in his cloak of blue and gold, quietly surveying his kingdom below, his powerful spear as iconic as Poseidon’s own mighty trident.

The encounter, though salient to me, only lasted a few minutes before he spread his wings and took flight down the estuary, disappearing into the distance as the sun sparkled off the water.

Piece included in the Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 book

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The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn

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In 1217, the unrest which had led to the creation of the Magna Carta had not yet died down. The Charter of Liberties had failed to stem the civil war. King John’s reign of terror was over and the new king, Henry III, was aged just nine years old. The rebels were sick of the Crown living well whilst they suffered at the hands of poverty; the rich ignoring the laws that had been agreed to, but were not being enforced in the favour of the poor. The Charter of the Forest, which had originally been part of the Magna Carta, was drawn up and signed in the November as a complementary chapter to the main document. It gave the common people access to the Royal Forests. These areas were not just woodlands but included heathlands, grasslands and wetlands; they had their own laws and were used as hunting grounds. The Charter reduced the sizes of Royal Forests, meaning the spare land could be turned into farmland, supporting the ever-growing population of England.

Somewhere, hidden inside this charter, a special tree is mentioned; the Darley Oak. And this wasn’t the first time this tree had been referred to in life-changing literature; it was named in the Domesday Book in 1030 too. When I first heard about this pedunculate oak, which stands on the outskirts of Bodmin, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and very early one morning I found myself making my own pilgrimage just to see it.

The tree is suspected to be around 1000 years old at least. For it to be mentioned in both the Charter of the Forest and The Domesday book, it must at that time have already been something to behold, as a mere sapling would not have been worth recording. In fact, oak trees don’t begin to even develop acorns until they are around 40 years old. So why would such a tree be so important to the people? Our relationship with the oak tree has ancient roots. Celtic Druids would meet beneath oaks, hallowed due to their growth rate and size, the acorns linked to new life. In fact, it is suggested that the word ‘druid’s etymological origin derives from ‘dru-wid’ meaning ‘knower of oak trees’. Their longevity was viewed as wisdom and strength. Mistletoe, which grows parasitically on oaks, was seen as lucky and would be removed and blessed, then hung for luck. And it wasn’t just our ancient culture that held the oak in high regard. The Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter are both linked to the species, which may have something to do with the fact that oaks the tallest tree species, but also because of this, oaks are often the ones who befall lightening, and both Jupiter and Zeus have tales embroiled in stormy weather.

It is easy to see why, even in god-fearing times, the Darley Oak would have been worth men defending. It stands in the centre of the small village of Darleyford on the outskirts of Bodmin Moor and is a sight to behold. It is tall; towering over the tiny hamlet below. Its trunk is thick and gnarled, and its presence reaches as high as its twisted branches. The acorns, which had long gone by the time I visited, were once kept as amulets for luck, especially by pregnant women for whom childbirth could potentially be a death sentence. The ground is raised around the base, the huge roots pushing their way under the soils surface, commanding the earth around it to fall to its will. The roots must expand for metres, giving the feeling that the whole dwelling has been raised on the life of this tree.

I felt a bit strange standing in the middle of the valley, not another soul in sight, camera in my clutches as I stared up at the tree, like a besotted teenager first spotting some pop-star heartthrob. But when I think about what this single plant has withstood, it amazes me. It has seen thousands of Cornish men march Northwards to fight the invading English. It has seen bombs fall around it, dropped by German planes. It has withstood the industrial revolution, habitat destruction, invasive species, disease, deforestation and construction. It has been cared for, climbed upon, hugged and overheard whispers beneath it, from religious chants to devious plans.
And all the while, it stands silently and watches on.

English oak trees (Quercus robur) create a rich habitat that is important to many British species. In fact, they support more life forms than any other native tree species. Hundreds of species of insect will live in and around them, meaning they are a great place for birds to hunt for food, as well as shelter under. The acorns provide food for mammals such as deer, hedgehogs and badgers. Purple hairstreak caterpillars rely on the leaf buds and in the autumn when the green leaves begin to decay and fall to the floor, they provide a rich mulch to support inverts and fungi.

But despite being seemingly numerous, oaks are under threat. The numbers of invasive species coming into the UK seems to be increasing and the destruction they are cause to our native flora and fauna can be devastating. The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) is native to countries in Southern Europe, but is controlled by predation from species which are not found in Britain. The caterpillars of the oak processionary feeds on oak leaves and whilst this may not pose a serious problem, trees which are regularly targeted by moths begin to suffer. It can weaken the tree, leaving it vulnerable to other potentially deadly issues. More serious however is Acute Oak Decline (AOD) and Chronic Oak Decline (COD). Both of these conditions, first noticed during the 1920’s, can cause canopy thinning, branch dieback, black weeping patches on stems and lesions underlying the bleed spots and eventually death, causing a decline in tree numbers.

Invasive species are on the increase due to climate change and also the exchange of foreign plants, so taking steps to reduce your carbon footprint and trying to stick to native species when planting can help to protect oak trees from further issues.

I spent some time with the Darley Oak, trying to commit it to memory. I longed to touch it, to run my fingers over its writhen trunk, but as it stands on someone’s private land, I couldn’t. The rain began to fall and in the hush of the valley, it softly drummed on the roof of my car. A robin swooped in and sat on one of the branches, watching me momentarily for signs of edible offerings, before breaking into a beautiful song which broke the morning’s silence. It was a moment I will treasure.

I think of what the druids would have made of such a deity, or how a medieval local may have even fought to the death for the land on which such a tree would have stood. It occurs to me, that we have the old saying wrong. Instead, it should be ‘Can’t see the trees for the woods’ because often when we see trees, we don’t really see them. We just see the wider landscape or a collection; we don’t often see the individuals; notice their shape, their texture, the world they have created.

Next time you’re out and about, take a closer look. Look at the individuals, the way they grow, the species they house. And remember that each tree is providing the bricks of life to us and we should take a leaf out of the druid’s book, remembering that we would not survive without such beasts and to always give them the respect they are due.