Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

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 …

Chapel Coppice, Long Bredy

I couldn’t wait any longer for the weather to be perfect – it was time for my nature diary. A thick grey fog lay like a dust sheet over the landscape, the only colour the fluorescent yellow of oil seed rape which glared defiantly through the drizzle. The puddles on the road reflected this colour, looking like pools of spilt paint.

Not the best day for a trip to my favourite bluebell wood but I was determined to go. I was heading for Ashley Chase near Long Bredy in West Dorset. We used to visit Chapel Coppice when the children were little and they thought it was a magic wood. It is one of those places that seems to shape-shift – sometimes it is easy to find and other times it seems to disappear. This makes it even more special.

I parked just off the road and set off downhill on a stony track. Although high on the hills above Long Bredy I couldn’t see anything but fog. A strong smell of cows hung in the air. Strangely shaped trees loomed out of the mist like mythical beasts – the overgrown remnants of a laid hedge. One tree looked just like a stag lying down with antlers spread against the sky. As I descended the hill, the fog thinned out leaving a dewy sparkle over the verges. I noticed bluebells, pink campions, bright yellow gorse, early purple orchids, faded violets and primroses.

After about a mile I reached the gate into Chapel Coppice. Complete silence except for birdsong fluting through the trees – robin, blackbird and pigeons. The track through the wood was very muddy and I skidded precariously along. Sometimes I grabbed at mossy branches for support. These felt like sinewy arms clothed in threadbare tweed, enhancing the spooky feeling I always get in this wood. I was alone in this ancient place and speculated about the 13th Century Cistercian Monks who had created a chapel in the depths of this coppice.

Surrounding me was an amethyst sea of English bluebells among waves of lush green leaves. A small stream wound between the trees in a deep cutting with mossy sides. This provided a faint background sound like someone talking to themselves. The birdsong had vanished and I was conscious of the noise of my clumsy steps on the muddy path and my stumbling progress over small makeshift bridges across the stream.

At last I came across the remains of the chapel deep in the wood. The silence became even more profound as I stood still beneath the ruined arch. Ferns snaked up from the moist ground, bright green moss crept insidiously over the grey stone and sinister-looking fungi nestled like black eggs in the leaf litter. A deep ravine bordered the area. Suddenly a mechanical sound nearby made my heart race – a woodpecker drilling a tree trunk.

I emerged from the wood into watery sunshine and trudged back up the hill, the retreating tide of fog billowing over the horizon. Towards the sea the trees twisted tornado-like away from the wind.

Two walks on the Wild Side

Notes on a Walk – Beaminster


Buzzard soaring on brindled wings, primary feathers fanned against a blue sky. A faint mewing sound carried on the breeze. We were on Horn Hill high above Beaminster with a buzzard’s eye view of the landscape below us as far as the sea, hazy in the distance. A Yellow Brimstone zigzagged by – a scrap of spring sunshine.

We stepped out of the sun into Clay Coppice, following a narrow muddy path between the trees. A Tortoiseshell butterfly, mottled in woodland shade, led us further in. Wood anemones glowed like white stars on the dark ground. Clumps of celandines, sharp and glinting, grew next to soft pale primroses.

All the time we were walking uphill, eventually emerging on to Common Water Lane. It was like a riverbed, rutted and strewn with rocks, water seeping out from hidden springs then trickling down the steep lane between the stones. It had an ancient feel to it and I found out later it forms part of the pre-Roman Wessex Ridgeway and the Monarch’s Way, associated with the route Charles II took in 1651.

From there we walked downhill with a sharp wind blowing towards us. A magpie was hopping clumsily around in a bare hedge looking for nesting twigs.


Notes on a Walk – RSPB Radipole Lake


A soft-focus day – grey skies, slight drizzle and swathes of reeds creating a muffled sensation. The silence was suddenly shattered by what sounded like a tambourine being shaken in my ear – a Cetti’s Warbler. An indistinct grey shadow flitted off only to surprise me once more with its shattering outburst.

On the water, two pairs of Great Crested Grebes drifted in a slow ballet mirroring each other’s movements. Tufted Ducks and Mallards dipped and dived in the silky grey water. A Coot made a noise similar to a rusty gate. On a rock in the middle of the water a young Cormorant’s sharp silhouette – motionless.

In the distance two Shelducks like painted china ornaments posed in front of the reeds. A strong scent of honey filled the air – a Bay Tree in flower. We spotted a pair of Pochards – their red eyes visible through the binoculars. A Dunnock was singing in the Blackthorn. Spring had arrived right on cue in Radipole Nature Reserve with the change of clocks!

IMG_5598Tufted Duck at Radipole