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An Array of Hedgehogs

A few months ago I posted a blog about Henrietta and her urchins. The story had ended on rather a low note when I found a dead hedgehog by the roadside. However, I’m pleased to say that we still have an array (the technical term for a group of hedgehogs) thriving in our garden and, although it’s difficult to be certain, one looks very much like Henrietta.

Over the summer we watched two young hedgehogs coming out at dusk from their nest under the shed and running playfully around on the patio. One in particular seemed intent on running laps for several minutes before stopping for food. We put out cat food (jelly-based and meaty) garnished with a few mealworms. We had been advised that too many mealworms are not a good idea as the hedgehogs seem to get addicted and this can cause huge problems. The following information has been copied from the Hedgehog Street website:-

‘Rescue centres up and down the country are seeing increasing numbers of their prickly patients with metabolic bone disease, which is linked to feeding large amounts of mealworms. Metabolic bone disease is a very distressing condition which basically robs their bones of calcium and leaves them so weak that they are barely able to stand up.’ 

Another issue is overfeeding which results in a hedgehog too fat to curl up and defend itself.

Our hedgehogs grew and seemed to thrive. Some kind neighbours fed them while we were away at the beginning of September and had fun sitting in the dark watching the antics of the young hedgehogs who would come and nibble their shoelaces!

Around the end of September, things seemed to change. The energetic lap-runner didn’t appear at his usual time and we’re wondering if he’d reached sexual maturity and had gone off to new pastures. We decided to put a camera out at night to monitor the activities. This showed at least two hedgehogs are still in the garden.

We have two commercially made hedgehog houses and one homemade one. We provided straw and piles of dead leaves and were pleased to see at least two of these houses are being used, as well as a compost sack half full of earth which has been topped up with leaf litter by an enterprising hedgehog to make a cozy nest!

In the last week or so every scrap of the food is disappearing overnight and we think this is because the hedgehogs are fattening themselves up ready for hibernation.

Our near neighbours have created hedgehog access holes in their fences and gates. The whole village is becoming more hedgehog-aware and reports have come in of hedgehogs in several gardens nearby so we’re hoping our hedgehog population will be booming next spring.

 

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Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Water Meadow Walk

The countryside is wefted by the winding trails of animals. Old footpaths tell the story of human wanderings and everyone has their favourite walk – a ritual of travelling the same route several times a week. Although the route is the same, it is always a different walk with the changing seasons and chance encounters. My regular walk is through the water meadows which surround the village, through the next village and back along the footpath which runs parallel to the main road.

I set off today under a pewter sky, no sun, through a field of sheep. Seeding thistles dotted grass which had that dark green tinge that comes with cooler days. As I reached the stile at the end, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the chalk stream – the reflections looking like an abstract painting. Dead nettles and lush stinging nettles edged the narrow path, the innocent pink of Himalayan balsam belied its invasive nature. White bramble flowers glowed among sputnik-like ivy flowers, dusted with stinking lime green pollen.

Blackberries, Snowberries, Hips and Haws decorated the hedgerows. An inky cloud was now covering the northern sky and, as I glanced up, a Little Egret flew beneath it, white as a paper dart. I stopped on the bridge and leaned over to look at the water. A moorhen was dabbling about downstream and a couple of mallards were causing a splash as they took off from the surface. Then, beneath me, a kingfisher swooped out from under the arch of the bridge making me catch my breath. A blue streak lingered in my eyes long after it had gone.

Back along the cycle path, past seeding hogweed and teasels. Spiders’ webs draped the hedge. A scattering of pheasant’s feathers lay on the verge and nearby, at the edge of the road, the sad corpse of a fox cub. I walked home via a friend’s house to collect some huge green cooking apples. Next time the same walk will be different again . . .

Water blog

We sailed under Weymouth town bridge with nine inches to spare, not waiting for it to be raised as we wanted to catch the tide. A cardboard cup blew off the table as we headed for the Shambles, east of Portland Bill. There were three of us aboard, bound for the Isles of Scilly in a motor yacht, Moonlight Dancer. We were going to see my daughter who was working there for the summer. It was my first real sea voyage.

For a while I had been in emotionally uncharted waters and it felt good to be planning a trip meticulously and to know my destination. However, I was apprehensive about how I would cope with rough seas and had a supply of ginger sweets just in case. We gave the notorious Portland Race a wide berth, but the seas were very rocky and it took a while to round the Bill.

As we entered Lyme Bay off the Jurassic Coast, a watery sun tarnished the lumpy waves. A gannet swooped past in a flash of yellow, black and white then a fulmar skimmed the bow, dipping one wing in the water as it passed. Soon we were surrounded by a flock of fulmars, guillemots and black-backed gulls. I stood on deck with a sense of being cocooned in their weaving flight as they moved effortlessly between air and water, equally at home in either.

By late afternoon we sighted Start Point. We had the sun in our eyes and were negotiating three-metre waves. We decided to head for Salcombe to shelter overnight, but would be entering the harbour at low tide over the sand bar across the entrance. The sun went down and it became grey and murky. My feet were numb as we finally tied up in Salcombe. We could see the pub on the harbour side among the huddled houses, but had to be content with imagining its comforting warmth and good food.

When you see waves coming onto a beach, they seem orderly – all lining up and taking their turn to roll in. Out on the sea it’s a different matter – they seem to come from all directions and flow together in a chaotic mix of peaks and troughs. It makes for a relaxing night’s sleep however, being rocked about continuously.

The next morning was colder and windier. A weak sun glittered across the harbour as we had a cooked breakfast. We set off into a swelling sea, punching tide and doing 12 knots. About mid-morning a pod of dolphins appeared and swam along with us, playing around the boat for about ten minutes. I wondered if they could sense our pleasure and excitement at seeing them. I tried to take photos without success – all I got was a splash or two as if the camera was a net, from which they were trying to escape.

What must it be like to live in a limitless environment like the sea instead of being tethered to rooms, houses and towns . . . The cohesion between this family of dolphins formed an entity stronger than any manmade city. The collective fluidity of the creatures was like the sea itself – a harmony of living that seemed so much more sophisticated than our own muddled existence.

The dark curves of the plunging dolphins shed water like memories leaving bubbles of laughter on the surface of the sea. The way they moved seemed carefree, exultant yet purposeful and organised. I wondered if they were aware of the stick-like creature standing on the deck cheering them on.

Just off Fowey five warships loomed menacingly out of the fog, then two more dolphins swam reassuringly beside us in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. By 2pm we had covered fifty-two miles and had forty-eight to go before we arrived on Scilly. We passed the Lizard then Lands End and saw the splendid isolation of Wolf Rock Lighthouse as the seas became very rough, and there was no leisure to do anything but try to keep the boat on course.

Scilly emerged from the distant horizon – a collection of fragmented rocks no bigger than seals. On a clear Summer’s day the Atlantic waters would be turquoise, each island surrounded by a frill of white sand, but this evening the archipelago seemed more sea than land, grey and indistinct. We set a course for St Mary’s and went slowly on a low tide down Crow Sound to the Quay where my youngest daughter waited – a sleek silhouette against the setting sun – as we came alongside.

Roman Road

Hot tarmac dwindling away.
Air thick as a swarm of bees.
I breathed hay and salt
husks and seeds as I drove.
Then the sky broke and
shards of rain fell on the road.
Steam-wraiths rose up
writhing beneath the tyres.
The hills either side
fell away to blankness,
whiteness.
I went slowly on through
chalk-light up a stony track.
A hare leapt from nowhere
jinked ahead –
a bone-raddled
automaton
leading me on.
I drove transfixed by
vein-marbled ears
moulded skull,
by limbs
loosely sleeved
in grey-brown
rain-soaked fur.
As it ran before me
the hare glanced back.
I saw its ancient
beckoning eye –
and would have followed
anywhere.

Time Lapse

The South Dorset Ridgeway lies like a dinosaur’s tail parallel to the Jurassic Coast. I was walking along its spine which is crenelated with tumuli and the broken vertebrae of ancient earthworks. A male skylark was singing like a recording from u-tube and bumble bees seemed to be crashing into things. Tortoiseshell butterflies spread their wings on the chalky path, bonking beetles bonked on the sour-smelling cow parsley and poppies grew surreptitiously among the barley. Overhead, swifts were swimming in a watery sky which merged with the sea in the distance. I could see the curve of the earth all around. I imagined the ancient people plying their trade along this route, bringing granite quern stones from Cornwall and exotic goods from further afield. In those days the slopes of the Ridgway were densely wooded. Ambush must have been a fear for the lonely traveller. Suddenly a spaniel appeared, charging round the bend towards me – we both jumped, startled out of our separate reveries.

  

  

  

   

South Dorset Ridgeway – Martinstown

On Sunday I walked west on the South Dorset Ridgeway. A sea mist thick as wet sheep’s wool clung to the hills. There was no view and I walked along looking at the ground, stepping over a litter of flints on the chalky path. The cut surfaces of the flints glistened, but those encrusted with white, looked like broken bones. Some were as big as skulls with cavernous sockets.

There was no colour except for a few vivid dock leaves on the edge of the way and the occasional stripy snail. A lacy spider’s web, beaded with moisture, was slung between grass blades. In the centre, a tiny ginger spider. There was no sound except my feet knocking the loose flints. Then I heard a skylark singing through the fog – an uplifting sound that pierced the white gloom like an audible sunbeam.

The mist thinned and a roe deer appeared then vanished before I had time to register its presence. Seeding heads of dandelions formed a milky way along the verge. The air was dense with the odour of a large manure heap. Suddenly an apple tree in full blossom caught my eye – incongruous in this open landscape. It made me think of an old village called Orchard which was an ancient settlement near by, now vanished entirely.

As I turned to retrace my steps the mist lifted and, in the distance, a sliver of sea shone and gulls wheeled overhead.

The following Tuesday I revisited the Ridgeway near Martinstown. This time I walked east. A hot sun shone in a cloudless blue sky. The chalky white path stretched out before me bordered by dry stone walls. Thorn trees clung to the edge of the hill, contorted by the wind off the sea. The adjoining fields were full of fluorescent oil seed rape. I breathed its intense honey smell and started sneezing. In the distance a bright green tumulus rose humpbacked among the surrounding landscape.

Wild flowers grew alongside the path – buttercups, cow parsley and red campion. Pairs of tortoiseshell butterflies danced through the air. The South Dorset Ridgeway was an important route in pre-history, connecting settlements in Dorset with others as far away as Cornwall. Trade was plied along this road and materials transported. The countryside spread out either side of this high path – the sea to the south and the valley of the River Frome to the north.

Swallows were swooping over the ground then off again. I saw one stop and seem to hover, facing the strong wind. I realised it wasn’t a swallow. It was about the same size and the head looked similar in profile, but there was no forked tail. The sun was low in the sky and right in my eyes, so the bird was a silhouette most of the time. Occasionally I caught a glow of reddish brown, but it wasn’t a kestrel. It hovered about twelve feet off the ground for about five minutes while I stood and watched. Then it suddenly dropped into the winter wheat. In seconds it was up in the air again, wings beating fast to keep its position, head into the wind. Then off it went. I can only think it was a merlin – a rare sighting, but not an impossibility.

Salt Cedar

Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.

A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.

Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.

This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.