Water Meadows

Mouldywarp

Black hillocks have replaced the snow drifts. All across the meadows erratic lines of molehills are appearing. Once you’ve started noticing them, they’re everywhere – on grass verges, tidy lawns, playing fields and even a stone’s throw from the beach.

It is rare to see a mole in action as they are usually nocturnal. However, as a small child I remember seeing one popping up in our garden. My father had been brought up on a farm and saw moles as pests. I’m sorry to say he dispatched the little bleary mole before I had time to wonder at this blind digger with its pink spadey hands. To console me, my father said he would make me a purse from the mole’s skin. For weeks the velvety skin was pinned out on the coalbunker to dry. I would inspect it sadly as it dried to a stiff crispy shadow. It never was made into anything.

John Clare wrote about the mole ‘I see little mouldywarps hang sweeing in the wind/on the only aged willow that in all the field remains’ This desolate image highlights the contrast between the much-love mole of Wind in the Willows and the farmers’ desire to eradicate this little creature perceived as a destroyer of crops.

I have a book on British Mammals dating from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It contains this description of the mole, ‘It has a plump, rounded body, with small eyes and ears embedded in silky fur, and short legs, armed on the front pair with five remarkable claws. It is thus splendidly equipped for tunneling and digging.’

Moles become very thirsty while digging and are said to dig little well shafts. Its tunneling can help to create drainage in meadows Soon after the beginning of the year the mole creates its nesting earth, usually under a bush or shrub. This ‘earth’ is larger than the ordinary hillocks. The actual nest is about a foot below ground and is lined with dead grass and leaves. Five to seven young are usually produced. I once saw some – they are pale brown or grey with pink-tipped snouts.

Moles have been around for a very long time as fossils have been discovered of their remains.

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Notes from a green planet

Early morning on a muggy day – no wind and a canopy of blue-grey cloud. Biblical rays of sun breaking through here and there. Light rain stippling my skin. The church clock has stopped at midnight when the jackdaws jammed up the works with their nest.

A mayfly spiralling upward towards a swallow on the wire. I could hear swallows under the railway bridge and think they have nests under the dark ledges, but can’t see them. A froth of cow parsley lines the verges like umbrellas at a wedding. Mallards taking off with splashing sounds from their reflections on the stream.

Frisky Friesians were in the footpath field so I chose the lane. Past a badger’s sett no longer in use, the white chalk greening over. Beeches and sycamores crowd up to the edges of the lane creating a dense green tunnel. Does green have a smell? I think so – a peppery, garlicky, sagey sort of scent. It has a sound of quiet rustling. Large rain drops are now landing on big leaves with a tapping noise.

Some places seem to be discrete environments where outside influences don’t exist. Here in this green place there is a profound silence only broken by birdsong. It’s like being in a dream – a deep green planet spinning off on its own. Muddy puddles reflect the trees, creating a watery liminal woodland beneath my feet.

Out of the dream and into the open lane with the sound of the stream the other side of the hedge. Snails like humbugs and spat-out boiled sweets slither over stems, some crushed like eggshells on the tarmac. Plantain with coronets of white flowers, dog roses displaying perfect rain drops, buttercups, dog daisies, comfrey, campions – all attracting insects from cow-pat coloured flies to bees like tiny golden bears. The elderflowers smell like honey.

The rain is ponderous now and the cow parsley has an antiseptic hospital-white smell. There are seven swans a-swimming on the river and a single swallow dipping overhead. A clump of ox-eye daisies on the edge of the road defies passing traffic, the sound of the rush-hour is starting and I’m getting wet …

Floods and Flowers

Three months ago the countryside looked very different. The meadows had been under water for weeks. Herons and little egrets took over, inhabiting the liminal layer between rain and floodwater. They seemed to swim through the air half-fish half-bird. Clouds and sky were the same silvery-grey as the flooded fields, trees shape-shifting as gales mixed the air and water to a homogenous whole.

Dog walking was restricted to the lanes and, even here, streams had overflowed across the road, carrying stones, weeds and mud, depositing the debris in hieroglyphic patterns on the tarmac – a liquid language. The banks exuded a dense earthy smell and grass had been combed then left to dry in hanks on the sides of the lanes. Bridges had collapsed, drains were overflowing and sheep huddled in groups on small islands amongst the overspill.

Catkins had dropped and lay in brown shoals in puddles. Buds on the hedgerow stayed closed in defiance of the cold winds, leaving the branches stark against a backdrop of blue ruffled streams. I noticed an anglers’ hut had been built beside the river – a timber and thatch construction that looked like a Hansel and Gretel cottage. A fisherman in khaki oilskins stood motionless waiting for a tug on his line trailing in the water. Further upstream another fairytale shelter had sprung up with another angler attempting to blend with his surroundings. We walked on hoping for a kingfisher. As the river curved round the head of the meadow beneath arching willows, I saw a heron standing still on the edge of the water, outlined sharply as though etched against the background. The beak pointed skyward then downward, spearing the water before I had registered movement. Slowly it took off, a fish hanging from its beak.

It’s nearly the end of May and the world has changed out of all recognition. Now grass has replaced water, trees are cloaked in leaves and the roadsides are frothing with cow parsley, streaked with red campion, bluebells, buttercups and other spring flowers.  The cuckoo is singing non-stop and house martins are swooping over the thatch catching insects for their young.  I have been abroad for a week and, in that short time, things have changed again.  Tomorrow I shall go out and explore this new world.

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Nature Notes (water meadows, Stratton, West Dorset)

snail poem5.30am – flawless blue sky and the dawn chorus weaving a tapestry of sound over the silent village. I remember as a child being startled by the way the birds sang their hearts out early in the morning  – like children having fun with no adults around. Today, as soon as the kettle started singing, the dawn chorus subsided.

At the allotment, huge bulbous snails hiding under the carpet mulch, sliding off when the sun shines on their shells.

Walking past the water meadows – a black and white jigsaw of cows. Didn’t see the kingfisher, but several pairs of mallards sitting close together on the banks of the stream,– ying and yang.

Clear chalk-stream water – the occasional flash of a trout like a passing shadow

Along the lanes – sweet and sour smell of cow parsley and pungent wild garlic

So much white – small white downy feather on a leaf, white deadnettles, white cow parsley, white seeding heads of dandelion, white sheep and drifts of pale pussy willow on the path. White cloudy sky and tiny tight white buds of hawthorn.

Swifts swooping over the river where a miasma of gnats is hovering above the water. I sat on the bridge watching their fluid arcing flight – like an aerial ballet on an infinite stage.

At home, newly plastered nests of house martins cupped under the eaves.

Rain came as the sun set – I hope our wildflower seeds will show soon.Snails

Hedges and Edges

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In the sheltered valleys the matt greys and browns of winter hedges have been replaced by greens and silvers. Willows on the edge of the water meadows glow like candles. Even before leaves have appeared it is as if the sap is gleaming through the bark, as trees and hedges come back to life. Blackthorn, wild damson and cherry are flowering in a snowstorm of blossom – and now a traditional Blackthorn winter seems to be following with cold northerly winds.

In the last few days leaves have started to unfurl, as if plants have a built-in mechanism telling them when it is the equinox. Deep inside there must be light sensors weighing the daylight and triggering growth when day and night are equal. Even Horse Chestnuts are starting to come into leaf.

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However, nearer the coast, hedges have a different story to tell. Where sea spray had been driven inland during the winter storms, the hedges have been salt-burnt on their seaward sides. Gorse is brown and stunted. Conifers and other evergreens have shrivelled where the salty winds scorched their leaves. The only colour on the seaside hedges is bright green lichen, indicating the purity of the air.  Thorn trees are bent and arthritic, twisted from the strength of the gales off the sea. Spring is taking longer to arrive here on the exposed hills and coasts.

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Wild Cats and Catkins

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Saturday began with darkness and the howl of wind and rain. A power cut. We decamped to relatives in Portesham where, a mile from the coast, salt spray had frosted the windows. A pheasant and pigeon were battling over food in the garden and, despite the weather (or perhaps because of it) a great tit was investigating a bird box on the garage wall.

It didn’t get light all day. Snowdrops glowed like fibre-optics in the darkness of afternoon. As we drove home at dusk, an animal crossed in front of the car. At first we thought it was a fox, but the silhouette was wrong – and this creature seemed to float rather than run. It looked like a large wild cat. I have seen these a couple of times before in West Dorset.  I once saw one through my kitchen window. It was crouching in the long grass, feral and wary. We stared at each other for a long split second in mutual shock before it shape-shifted back into the undergrowth and vanished.

We drove on, headlights shimmering on the wet roads. Suddenly we saw a flare like a firework arcing through the darkness towards the ground. It was phosphorescently bright with a tail trailing behind. We concluded it must have been a meteorite – a brilliant end to a day of darkness.

Sunday however was a day of light – golden, green and blue. The sun reflected off floodwater, the silver bark of birches and the intense greens of ivy and grass. Golden catkins and daffodils shone out from the muddy banks. Little Egrets, like white paper cut-outs, dipped beside the river Frome. Low light gilded the Mallards’ green heads. Along the lane, white chalk cascaded from a badger’s sett. Drifts of snowdrops had covered the dismal roadside and, I noticed, among the bare branches of the hedgerow, the tiny exquisite white blossom of the Wild Cherry. In the distance, the hills seem to reflect light back to the sky, perhaps from the sheer white chalk which lies like a sheet just beneath the grass.

The storms had swept winter from the countryside leaving piles of dead leaves, branches, twigs and mud on the edges of everything. Now sunlight was filling the gaps.

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