Whatever Next? 

A personal review of weather & wildlife in southern Britain during the first half of 2013  

Late springs are nothing new.  We had a run of them in the late 70s, a scatter during the 80s, a few in the 90s and a couple during the 00s.  But we hadn’t had one since the miserable Foot-in-Mouth spring of 2001 and, most recently, 2006.  Since then we have had a run of early springs, all of which ended in tears – the tears of seemingly endless summer rain, culminating cataclysmically in widespread flooding during the Hose Pipe Ban Summer of 2012. 

At least 2013 has ended the run of early springs that lead to dismal summers.  Also, mercifully, no one has forecast a barbeque summer (as in 2009) or banned hose pipes, the latter being the only effective rain dance yet devised.  In late May, however, Public Health England issued a guidance leaflet on how to cope with heat waves.  The disillusioned may feel that this may inspire the coldest summer on record. 

Whatever happens, it cannot be as bad as 1816, the ‘year without summer’, when much of the northern hemisphere was obscured by volcanic dust generated by the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia.  That year widespread crop failure led to food riots in nearly every European country.  It was the first of a sequence of three dire years wherein the seasons all but merged into one.  It inspired Byron’s poem Darkness, which begins: ‘I had a dream, which was not all a dream, / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/ Did wander darkling…’.  No, don’t let’s go there… .

There’s an even more apocalyptic passage in Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2 Scene 1, within Titania’s famous ‘forgeries of jealousy’ speech, which includes the lines:  ‘the spring, the summer,/ The childing autumn, angry winter, change/
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,/ By their increase, now knows not which is which’.  Sounds familiar?  Even in Shakespeare’s day there was concern that the seasons were merging into one. 

Copy of P1090508


Spring Weather, 2013

This year, winter was loath to let go.  It’s always hard to remember anything much about winter, especially in high summer, but for the record we had a ten day spell of severe cold in late January followed by a cold but dry February, which led to the second coldest March on record (after 1962).  March was also horribly dull, though in its defence the previous two years had brought superb Marches, so we were due a difficult one.  This March produced frosts most nights and snowy spells around the 12th and 22nd.  April began with a bitter, incisive wind, but was then mixed, including a ten day warm spell which ended on the 24th, before ending with a cold frosty spell.  

May was, yet again, a disappointment, though after a most promising start – the first week was glorious, only for the jet stream to jump south on the 8th.  Incredibly, both bank holiday weekends were sunny and fairly warm – repeat, both bank holiday weekends this May were sunny and fairly warm – in stark contrast to the rest of the month, which was cold and cloudy, and periodically wet and windy.  Frosts occurred in many districts right up to the month’s end, burning off bracken fronds and young leaves on ash saplings, and there was only one mild night all month.  But garden vegetation was so far behind that damage there was restricted largely to unheated greenhouses.  In all, spring (March to May) was the coldest since 1962.

June started well, with a ten day long anticyclonic spell, but the blue skies were tempered by a moderate to fresh north-east wind.  Then, a wet spell commenced on the 11th, with an autumnal gale (which wasn’t as bad as the one we suffered at the end of the first week of June 2012).  Twice June tried to right itself, only to wobble, before ending quite strongly.  It was, though, a windy month, with many cold nights.  Away from the north and far west it was relatively dry.

Most wonderfully, there were no floods during the first half of this year, anywhere. 


Impact on Our Wildlife

All this meant that spring and then summer itself got seriously behind.  Some aspects failed altogether.  For example, frogs and toads failed to breed in many places, including my garden pond which never warmed up enough during the relevant period.  The vegetation developed late, well behind on recent years.  Some plants had amazingly long flowering seasons, notably snowdrops, which flowered from mid January into the second week of April, and daffodils, which persisted well into May.  Primroses began late and lasted late, into the third week of May, dandelions peaked three or four weeks late, in early to mid May, but bluebells came rather from nowhere to peak in most places during the third week of May.  Farmers were worried by the slow start to the grass growth season, though May rains then generated yet another strong grass growth season – which will impact on habitat quality for many species.   

Copy of Wild Daffs 23.3.12

Trees were about three weeks late in coming into leaf.  Horse chestnut and sycamore, two of the earliest to leaf, only started to leaf up in late April.  Beech hedges remained brown, retaining last year’s leaves until the end of April.  Oaks failed to produce any leaves until early May.  Spring-flowering shrubs were also three or even four weeks late, with lilac flowering at the end of May.  Apple trees, both the wild crabs and those in gardens and orchards, only started to bloom in late May.  Some blossomed during a cold, wet spell, but many delayed flowering until the start of June.  There should be quite a good crop of the later varieties of apples, and also of holly berries, as most holly trees flowered during fine weather in early June.  Even the horse chestnut held back from flowering until late May, whereas nowadays it flowers in late April or early May. 

Birds, by and large, must have had a very difficult time, not least due to food shortages.  The bitter north-east wind at the turn of March led to the death of many seabirds along the east coast of Scotland and northern England.  Some 3500 puffins died in a horrific ‘puffin wreck’, seemingly of starvation, along with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags.  But spare a thought for the summer migrant warblers, which are largely insectivorous and arrived, largely on time, to a countryside seemingly devoid of insects.  No wonder that one of the BTO’s radio tagged cuckoos arrived back from west Africa, took one look at conditions here, and flew back south over the Channel!  That may have been a warning sign, for cuckoo numbers seem to have crashed horrifically down south this year, judging by the number of people who have not heard one (I have heard ten and seen one).  The martins, swallow and swifts must have struggled to find airborne insect food, they virtually disappeared when the weather was particularly cold.  Birds dependent on caterpillars or other crawling invertebrates seem to have suffered similarly.  Cirl bunting, for example, has had a poor breeding year. 

Copy of Linnets Nest Hod Hill

But 2013 seems to have been a superb year for rookeries.  Rooks seem to have been unusually productive, given the abundance of young rooks in early June.  Perhaps the increased amount of spring ploughing, caused by farmers having to re-sow weather-damaged autumn crops, had produced rich pickings?  The rooks started to build, as always, in mid February, around St Valentine’s Day.  Then, the rookeries remained wondrously prominent until the trees finally leafed over during the second half of May.  Rooks keep their own time and are not moved around by early or late springs.  Swifts are similar, always arriving on cue.  The ash does the same, coming into leaf in mid May, whatever.  We should be grateful for these constants. 

Copy of Rook

Finally, winged insect populations must be more influenced by the vagaries of the weather more than any other elements of our wildlife.  Certainly, butterflies been very scarce, away from some high quality habitats, which is hardly surprising as last year was the worst butterfly year on record.  Other insect groups have been equally poor, or even worse – and very late to boot.   Away from the more sheltered spots, moths have perhaps been even scarcer than the butterflies, which is hardly surprising as nights have been either too cool, wet or windy for moth activity.  How many moths have you seen so this year whilst driving at night?  Butterflies are now emerging some two or three weeks later than in recent years, though still a little earlier than in the late springs of the 70s, 80s and 90s.  Individuals of many spring and early summer species are lingering on remarkably late: it may be a year for record ‘latest’ sightings.

Other insects have appeared late, and in pulses which have quickly been blasted away by foul and abusive weather.  Few spring mining bees survived into the good weather of early June.  The St Mark’s Fly, which is supposed to appear en masse on St Mark’s Day (April 25th), failed to show up before May 18th, and then only weakly, before finishing early. 

Copy of St Marks Fly

Hoverflies have been particularly poor, especially those whose larvae are predators of aphids.  Some of the common craneflies, particularly Tipulids, appeared in numbers, probably as a result of last year’s wet conditions.  For the same reason there may be a plague of clegs (small grey horseflies) this July.  But what has happened to the may flies and their aquatic cousins?  The anglers would like to know. 

No, the air has not hummed with insects at all so far this year, and is unlikely to given the paucity of larvae around (oh, the state of the nation’s caterpillars – they’re late and scarce!).  Currently, insect-wise we’re in the doldrums: spring and early summer insects have all but finished whilst those of high summer have yet to begin.  All this is bad news for our insectivorous birds – the hirundines (the swallow family), warblers and cuckoos, and even for resident birds like tits that feed their young on insects. 


Hope Springs

But hope springs eternal, though sometimes one wishes it didn’t – in which case we could simply give up and descend unreservedly into Byron’s darkness.  The last decent summer we had, 2006, came in on the back of a poor, late spring (a foul March, a cool and indifferent April, and a May that started well only to fall totally from grace).  Then there is the tale of the great summer of 1996.  That came in on the back of a spring every bit as late and non-existent as this one, culminating in the second coldest May on record (after 1902).  Then, on Thursday May 30th the weather changed: the wind blew strongly from the deep south, burning off the Stygian gloom and ushering in a massive immigration of migrant Lepidoptera, including thousands of painted lady butterflies.  A wonderful summer ensued.   Interestingly, May 30th also fell on a Thursday this year. 

There is also the story of 1986.  Winter was deep and lingered long that year, March stuttered and failed, April was the coldest since 1922, May was cool and windy, and all told it was one of the coldest springs on record.  June saw little respite – until mid month when, suddenly, the weather improved, giving a reasonable summer and, better late than never, a long Indian summer and the most memorable autumn I’ve known. 

There is always hope.  The sukebind, that most mythical but essential of plants, may even flower this year – albeit three or four weeks late.


Copy of MW m VG Swellshill 27.6.13


On Wednesday and Thursday this week an expedition took place in search of Large Tortoiseshell larvae on NT land around Newtown on the Isle of Wight.  It is unlikely that anyone had actually looked for the gregarious larval webs of this butterfly anywhere in the UK since at least the early 1950s.  No one has been that mad, you might think, but as butterflies habitually push limits so butterflying must follow suit, and there has been an impressive scatter of sightings of the butterfly on the Island in recent years – enough to fire up the more determined of butterfly enthusiasts.  This is my 50th year of butterflying, and I am not doing mundane things during it. 

The annual butterfly & moth report of the Hampshire & IOW Branch of Butterfly Conservation indicates that the butterfly has been seen on the Island annually since 2005, when a singleton was recorded on Midsummer Day.  The following spring one was seen in West Wight.  Then something rather extraordinary happened in 2007: a few were seen in early spring, then a small influx seemingly occurred on 20th June, with perhaps another, small immigration occurring in early July.  Early in 2008 six individuals were seen in widely scattered places, mainly along the SE coast.  In 2009, no less than 19 were reported, including five on one early spring day in a privately-owned wood near Wootton.  A few were also seen in that wood in 2010, and two early spring adults were recorded elsewhere followed by two more in high summer.  In early 2011 several were seen in the Wootton wood, including three on 7th March, and two singletons were seen elsewhere, followed by a couple of fresh specimens in high summer.  In 2012 none was seen near Wootton but at least four were seen in Walters Copse, part of the NT’s wildlife-rich countryside estate at Newtown.  Two or three males were again seen at Walters Copse this spring, and on 23rd April I saw a female nearby in Newtown Meadows and another a mile away at Elm Hill.  Hence yesterday’s expedition. 

Though earnest, yesterday’s expedition was clearly doomed from its inception.  For a start it was forced to take place at the beginning of the annual IOW Music Festival, an event which always attracts foul and abusive weather.  Sure enough, a gale blew.  Then Neil Hulme, the luckiest butterflyer in Christendom, pulled out – ostensibly so that he could go up north for the Mountain Ringlet.   Without its talisman the expedition was reduced to two: Oates, who will undoubtedly get Sectioned at some point, and Patrick Barkham, who as an author and journalist was smelling out a rich tale. 

No sign of the Large Tortoiseshell was found, but Patrick and I gave it our very best.  On Wednesday, we scanned aspen, crab apple, sallow and what little elm there was along the rides and glades of Town and Walters Copses.  On Thursday, we searched all but the exposed western extremity of the extensive hedge system in Newtown Meadows, and also cast our eyes over various orchard trees and a lot of roadside elm, even up at Elm Hill, south of Shalfleet.  In the hedges we concentrated on the abundant English elm scrub, plus crab apple, broader-leaved sallow, mature sloe, bullace and orchard fruit trees.  We also looked on aspen in the woods, though the tall aspen stand in the meadows was moving so much that searching was impossible.  Sallow in exposed places was equally impossible, and we didn’t look on hawthorn. 

We can almost certainly conclude that the butterfly is not breeding in Town & Walters Copses.  I am confident we would have found larvae had any been present there.  Likewise, I very much doubt it is breeding in the elm hedges in and around the meadows, or on the more sheltered sallows there.  The problem is that our area of search was a relatively small, though rich, part of a large area of landscape full of copses and hedges possessing much English elm in the 3-10m height range.

I am not in the least downhearted, or even disappointed.  It was always a long shot.  I am, though, a trifle disappointed not to have turned up Purple Emperor larvae, though only a few of the sallow trees looked properly suitable.  

The Large Tortoiseshell is now unlikely to win my annual Butterfly of the Year award.  That may go to the Chalkhill Blue, given the unusual abundance and lush growth of its foodplant, Horseshoe Vetch.  As examples, the south-facing slope of Afton & Compton Downs was more than ever awash with uncommonly luxuriant growth of this plant, whilst the top of Tennyson Down was almost as yellow as an oil seed rape field.  Several Chalkhill Blue colonies exploded last year, following lush foodplant growth.  Perhaps others will do likewise in 2013? 

And of course, we also visited the Compton Bay coastline, the heartland of the Glanville Fritillary.  The annual early spring count of Glanville Fritillary larval webs by IOWNHS produced a horribly low tally this year.  Apparently only 13 webs were found, and then mainly around Compton Chine.  However, on Tuesday, Patrick and I saw about 40 fresh Glanvilles there, only 4-5 of which were female.  The butterfly should be at peak season at Compton next week, remarkably late by modern standards. 

Here’s what the weather was like –

Copy of P1090508




In 1968, when the world was young and heady, the 19th of May fell on a Sunday, as has been the case this year.  Spring that year was slow, but sure, and gave the impression that sooner or later something mighty was going to erupt within the world of Nature.  It did, on May 19th

 But May 19th 1968 began with school chapel, which dragged on till 10am.  It was, of course, compulsory at boarding schools in that era – on pain of severe pain.   Between chapel, and the equally compulsory but utterly inedible Sunday lunch, was an opportunity of less than three hours to go butterflying.  Consequently, I ran, in heavy school shoes, dressed as a penguin in full school uniform, the two and a half miles to Marlpost Wood.  I entered the wood at the zenith of spring, with the heady scent of bluebells in the air, stuffed my school coat under a bush – and crossed rapturously into a new dimension, the real world.

 There, to an eternal delight that must now be shared, I saw my first Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and what was then known as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary.  It must be confessed that I still refer to the latter as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary at every opportunity, for butterfly enthusiasts fall for the names they first learnt – and, as Aslan himself put it: ‘Once a king and queen in Narnia, always a king and queen in Narnia’.  The Pearl-bordered was undoubtedly the most beautiful thing I had seen in fourteen years of life, on account not merely of the juxtaposition of colours, but of the grace with which it flies.  The magic is compounded by its affinity with the exquisite blue of its beloved bugle flowers.  The Burgundy was evidently a living jewel, and a butterfly of strong character. 

 Both butterflies occurred around a few acres of young plantation, where rows of oaks had been inter-planted with lines of Norway spruce, as a nurse crop, next to a broad sunny ride bedecked with clumps of bugle and stitchwort.  Speckled yellow moths were hatching, and flopping around amongst bracken fronds old and new, fair weather cumulous clouds were drifting lazily above, for atmospheric pressure was rising, and a distant nightingale sang snatches of some Elysian song.  Will people who do not believe that Paradise exists upon this earth kindly revise their views: it does, only it tends to be transitory and intensely episodic, and you have to be in the right place at the right time.  Moreover, human nonsense, such as compulsory chapel, is forever getting in the way of it. 

 A horribly soppy and naïve song by a group called The Honeybus, who mercifully had only the one hit, was riding high in the charts in May 1968, and was in my mind throughout and beyond that visit.  Years later I rewrote I Can’t Let Maggie Go, slowed it down and removed the annoying falsetto parts, and attempted to give it some decent lyrics.  This heavily revised, near-paganised and unrecognisable version is my song of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, but like so much of what one holds dearest is inappropriate for open communication.  We dare not come out at that level, I know not why. 

 After an hour and a half in Paradise I ran back to school, in time for the compulsory lunch.  But I had left something behind in the woods, part of me.  Instead, I had taken something with me, not merely a couple of specimens of each species, which I set that afternoon, for people collect memories and forge relationships with places.  Marlpost Wood has changed unrecognisably since that day (most of it blew down in the Great Storm of October 1986), and so have I.  But we remain intertwined, and her Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered fritillaries dwell still within me, not merely within my mind, or my imagination, but within my soul.

 Suffice it that 45 years on, to the very hour, I rekindled first my relationship with His Grace the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary and then with the Pearl-bordered Fritillary.  The only significant difference was that Sunday May 19th 2013 was Pentecost Sunday (when the churches celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples).

My butterflying diary entry for yesterday –

Tues April 23rd   St George

Cloudless and very warm, 20C, contrary to an iffy forecast.  Calm till 2pm when a L-M W breeze developed. 

Walters Copse & Newtown Meadows, Newtown, IOW.  9.50-4.50. 

Long and largely frustrating day, though it became ultimately successful, in pursuit of the Large Tortoiseshell.  A small number of Large Tortoiseshells were seen here last early spring, only I failed to visit before the weather collapsed at the start of April.  Then, this last Friday one was seen and photographed by IOW resident butterflyer Peter Hunt.  Neil Hulme visited on Saturday and saw and photographed two males, and nearly trod on a probable third, larger specimen.  The butterfly was also seen here on Sunday, before the cloud came over at lunchtime, and between cloudy spells yesterday.  Neil may well have visited on the day of peak activity.  Nearly all these sightings were made in two coppice bays close together towards the middle of the wood (go along main ride from gate, turn left after 75m down first ride, look in the 2nd and 3rd of the 3 coppiced linear bays there).

Copy of Walters Copse 23.4.13

Today was hard work, with lengthy periods of inactivity and just a few brief appearances, most of which I unfortunately missed.  I ceaselessly patrolled the ride system here, hanging around in some of the bays for a while, and also spent an hour in Newtown Meadows nearby, from 12.30-1.30.  Four other butterfly people were present throughout my visit, and all told 15 visited in search of the butterfly. 

The first Large Tortoiseshell was disturbed on the ground ca 10.30, and promptly shot off in a huff.  This was in the 3rd bay where most of Neil’s sightings were made on Saturday.  No more sightings occurred until about 1.15, despite constant vigil by a small group of observers in bays 2 and 3.  Then, one worn and slightly battered male appeared several times in bays 2 and 3 over a period of some 25 mins, flying down to settle on the ride surface or in the litter of the recently re-cut bays, before flying up into the trees to the west.  He may have been disturbed by photographers, for this is a decidedly wary beast at the best of times.  I arrived in time to see his final departure – a speck flying up into the trees, with several people pointing towards him.  A few rather fuzzy photos were obtained, seemingly a worn but untorn male.

That was frustrating, not least because at 1pm I nearly trod on a much larger butterfly, which must have been a female, in the central area of Newtown Meadows, to the SW of Walters Copse.  It flew off in a fury, high and into the sun.  Such butterflies do not return.  This drama took place in a corridor between a large patch of flowering sloe and a block of taller woodland.  I’d visited the meadows to check for the presence of elms and sallows, on which the butterfly may be breeding. 

At 3pm two Large Tortoiseshells were seen in the bottom of the 3rd bay down on the favoured ride, settling to bask a metre or so apart, before shooting off and up.  One of these was photographed, an intact male in reasonable (unfrayed) condition, which I think was different to the one photoed at 1.30. 

At 4pm one male finally acceded, being active in recently coppiced bays off the main ride for 45 mins, some 200m from where all the earlier dramas had occurred.  This was a frayed male, missing much of his hind wings, behaving rather like a territorial male Comma.  I spent 30 mins with him here, by far the longest I’ve ever seen this elusive butterfly for.  He was basking on litter, sticks and a tree stump, wings open or nearly closed, and launching himself at various passing hoverflies etc – including, gloriously, chasing off a Great Tit.  He was very wary of Mike Gibbons and I, necessitating considerable respect.  At 4.30 he moved westwards into the next bay, where he had major altercations with 2 resident Comma males and a male Peacock.  These he pulverised, through aerial combat.  At 4.45 he flew up and off into the sun and was seen no more. 

Copy of LT m 2 Walters Copse 23.4.13

Copy of LT m 1 Walters Copse 23.4.13

I then left to catch the ferry.  This necessitated a detour as the A road at Shalfleet was closed due to a major dig up, so I had to head up towards Calbourne and then turn west through Newbridge.  All this was most fortuitous, as was the petty traffic snarl-up involving a horse box, something agricultural with a big bale, a displaced double decker bus, and various folk hastening towards the Yarmouth ferry.  What should appear in the midst of this chaos but a female Large Tortoiseshell, huge and bold, flying low along the hedge!  I leapt out of the car to see her fly up and off westwards through a garden near Elm Farm, SZ 423884. 

So, a few sightings of at least two (I think three) old males in Walters Copse today, a probable female a quarter of a mile away in Newtown Meadows, and a definite female in traffic chaos a mile to the south…  All this may suggest some loose population structure over quite a large area (with butterfly enthusiasts looking for it only in one spot). 

The males seem to behave at times like male Commas, occupying territories in sheltered warm spots.  But they are also absent for long periods, disappearing up into the trees (I searched hard for high-flying males today without success) – maybe moving from territory to territory over or through the canopy?

As it occurs at such low population density this species much have a highly sophisticated mate-location strategy (or strategies) – assuming it’s occurring on the IOW as a viable population in the first place.  Perhaps it’s overwintering, and perhaps assembling for courtship and mating, in sheltered wooded places like Walters Copse and Woodhouse Copse, where I saw it in 2011? 

But the real question is whether it’s actually breeding on the Island or not?  I suspect so, but whether it’s actually breeding in Walters Copse (and Woodhouse Copse) is another matter.  There is a scatter of tall sallows in Walters (and a few more in Woodhouse) but seemingly nothing else (unless it can breed on aspen, which is quite a ‘weed’ here).  There is a nice scatter of tall bushy sallows in Newtown Meadows, plus a nice avenue of scrub English elm just mature enough to flower.  I’ll come back in 5-6 weeks to search these trees for larvae… .

Rather a paucity of butterflies in the woods.  Paul Davies walked the transect route today and was disappointed by what he recorded.  No Speckled Wood, Orange Tip or Green-veined White (though one Green-veined White was seen in the nearby meadows today).  I regularly went 15-20 mins without seeing a butterfly, and several of the sunny, sheltered and primrose-bedecked coppice bays were all but empty.  Perhaps 6-8 individual Brimstone in all, including a female, active from 10am till about 3pm, and including a vista of 3 – but I regularly went 20-30 mins without seeing one.  Nectaring on the prolific primrose.  No buckthorns present.  About 10 Comma from late morning, with males in the Large Tortoiseshell territories during the afternoon, favouring the main Large Tortoiseshell territory in Bay 3 (three sparring there in late pm).  Good to see a female egg-laying on a small half shaded nettle patch, laying just two eggs at noon before wandering off.  Usual stuttering flight.  About half a dozen Peacock in the bays, including a couple nectaring on male sallow blossom.  At last my first Red Admiral of the year, a worn male feeding on sallow blossom.  I’d expected my first Orange Tip, Green-veined White and perhaps Speckled Wood today. 

Copy of Br m VG Savernake 20.4.13

Other insects: disappointed by the hoverflies (no Criorhina ranunculi or even Epistrophe elegans) – just myriad Eristalis.  Very few mining bees (too early for Osmia pilicornis which has been recorded here).  Loads of Bombylius major and a fair scatter of B. discolor.  A single orange underwing moth which looked like the ordinary one, though there is plenty of tall aspen for Light Orange Underwing. 

The Meadows were virtually void of butterflies.  Apart from stepping on a probable Large Tortoiseshell all I saw were singletons of Comma and Peacock, both on sloe, that Paul Davies saw a Green-veined White.  Delighted by the condition of the meadows – lightly and roughly cattle grazed, with superb hedge regeneration management work, and lovely sloe + sallow hedges.  Also the Golden Eye Lichen Teloschites chrysopthalmus in a hawthorn near the north middle gate, a recent (major) discovery here.

Copy of Golden Eye Lichen Teloschites chrysopthalmus Newtown Meadows 23.4.13

Birds from the ferry: a lone and late Brent Goose, a dozen Eider duck, some godwits, 2 sandwich terns on the way back and a Mediterranean gull. 

Above all, today was the launch of my 50th year of butterflying…  It was also National Orange Tip Day, only I didn’t see one…

Doings in and around Streatley and Goring on Thames today with fellow rook fan, Miss Camilla ‘Millsworth’ Oates.  We viewed a disparate rookery of 29 nests just west of Goring station and a fantastic scattered assembage of >50 nests around Streatley cross roads.  Best of all, on the way home a cracker just east of Hampstead Norreys, and something utterly mindblowing near Baydon which I’ll post another day. 

Copy of Goring Sta rookery

Which 8 species of British bird would you take to a desert island  in lieu of utterly useless gramophone records?  The correct answers are 1) Blackbird, 2) Nightingale, 3) Rook – and this is why:

Copy of Goring Sta 2

Copy of Streatley High Street

Copy of Streatley Rooks 1


Copy of Rook

And if you’re still not convinced, beware of this:

Rooked car

Or worse, Miss Camilla Oates (4′ 8″) + Toby (6′ 4″):

Copy of Mil & Toby 29.3.13




I first perused In Pursuit of Spring in my penultimate year at school, naively attracted by the title.  I had found a copy in the school library, but I could relate only to the paragraphs based around my native Somerset, including the final chapter The Grave of Winter.  I knew Thomas as a minor First World War poet, in the shadow of Owen and Sassoon, but was hugely impressed by his rural descriptions and by his profound love and knowledge of nature.  It took me years to discover him properly as a poet, even though I lived within his East Hampshire heartland for 20 years.  His is my favourite poetry – and here I am certainly not alone, for it seems that his poetry is growing in popularity almost monthly. 

 But I fear that his rural prose is underrated and in danger of becoming neglected.  The South Country (1909), In Pursuit of Spring (1914) and its precursor The Icknield Way (1913) are classics in English rural prose, every bit as memorable as Adlestrop and As the Team’s Head-brass, his two best-known poems.  Thomas’s rural writings could follow those of his mentor Richard Jefferies and friend WH Hudson into relative obscurity.  That would greatly devalue British natural history – by severing it from its literary roots.

 The Radio 4 series came about when two streams of consciousness converged.  I submitted a tentative proposal to Radio 4 to celebrate the book’s centenary, only to find – joyously – that my friend Andrew Dawes of the BBC Natural History Unit (radio) was thinking along similar lines.  Of course, the BBC is gearing itself up for the centenary of the First World War anyway. 

Originally, I aspired towards following Thomas’s route, on cycle, but today’s traffic – and Thomas detested the traffic levels of 1913 – would erode any vestige of poetic experience from that.  It would be purely a physical, mechanical pilgrimage, under bombardment from traffic.  No, a faithful re-enactment would not work.  At one point, live transmissions were considered, involving a network of radio stations, but that was rather over-ambitious and would have proved too costly.  I am, though, visiting some of the more tranquil sections of his route over Easter.

In the event we found Thomas such a rich seam, with so many dedicated and scholarly admirers, that we ended up recording rather more than we originally intended.  Much had, of necessity, to be left out, including The Other Man (Thomas’s alter ego which makes a series of curious interjections in the book) and the remarkable responses I received from asking contributors what they felt poets are actually for?  That question would actually make a good programme in its own right. 

In Pursuit of Spring, a tribute to Edward Thomas, is presented by Matthew Oates and produced by Andrew Dawes.  Readings are by Robert Macfarlane, with contributions from Richard Emeny and Colin Thornton of The Edward Thomas Fellowship, Sophie Lake of Values In Nature & Environment (VINE), Justin Shepherd of The Friends of Coleridge, Rebecca Welshman of The Richard Jefferies Society and Lucy and Sophie Milner, Edward’s great and great-great grand daughters. 

Episode One is on Radio 4 at 3.3opm on Good Friday, Episode Two at 3.30 on Easter Saturday and Episode Three at 2.45 on Easter Sunday.  Also on BBC R4 Iplayer.  See  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rgm2t 

See Also the Edward Thomas Fellowship website  http://www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk/ 

Copy of Rookery, Salisbury Plain


A Eulogy to the Rook

I’m suffering from Rookitus – a developing and utterly uncontrollable passion for Rooks.  In this I am not alone: ornithologist and nature writer Mark Cocker has written an entire book on the subject (Crow Country, 2008), perusal of which may convert even the deepest of sceptics.  Indeed, there seems to be quite a Rook Fan Club out there, only individual members don’t yet realise it exists and that they belong to it.  But we can go further than merely establish a fan club, which is easily done these days through social media (a Rook Blog would be an obvious starting point).

Rooks in early spring are one of the nation’s top Wildlife Wows!, and not just in rookeries, for their antics in the open fields and elsewhere are also quite amazing at that time.  We don’t properly realise their wonder then because we are too obsessed with rare and declining species, and under-value the more commonplace – until it starts to vanish.  The goal is quite simple, we need to develop Rook Tourism as part of the rural diversification programme, and raise the profile of this under-rated and much vilified bird within our culture, and establish the Rook as a recognised cultural icon, alongside the Nightingale and Skylark.

It was an early March trip to Salisbury Plain than finally made me see the light.  The 300 square miles of the Plain is one massive rook empire.  Never mind the scientific word metapopulation, this is a veritable empire.  Rookeries are frequent, almost commonplace in the river valleys that divide up and surround the Plain, especially around settlements.  Watching and listening to nest building in such places is a major experience, intellectually and spiritually.  Rooks reach the parts other birds don’t reach, through their uniqueness.  Consequently, I ignored the Goosander that flew past over the River Wylye near Steeple Langford, and several Little Egrets. 

Moving up to the Plain itself, Rooks abounded over the vast cornfield wastes, or ploughlands as they used to be called.  These arable expanses are nothing new, WH Hudson in his eulogy to old Salisbury Plain A Shepherd’s Life (1921) writes of a ‘desolate scene’, for ‘the land was all ploughed and stretched away before me, an endless succession of vast grey fields, divided by wire fences.’  Since his day the fields have expanded and intensified, and the arable weeds and wire fences have vanished.  But ask any Rook and they will tell you this is a feeding paradise.  Even better for them are the huge open air pig farms that are scattered about on the Plain.  There’s a particularly good one just off the B road just west of Shrewton.  Between Chitterne and Tilshead I ignored an ethereal of larks and my first Corn Bunting since last May – both outgunned by Rooks, and on Salisbury Plain’s artillery ranges to boot.

Above all, Rooks are an integral part of the immense sense of spirit of place that pervades throughout the 300 square miles of Salisbury Plain.  The Plain is a brooding place, with its own climate and frequent, sudden and often extremely loud military reverberations.  At times it threatens to produce mirages, like the great plains of Hungary and beyond.  WH Hudson, again in A Shepherd’s Life, records an intense feeling of ‘emptiness and desolation, which frightens the stranger’.  Edward Thomas, in In Pursuit of Spring (1914) goes further, describing The Plain as a ‘sublime inhospitable wilderness’ that is haunted by Rooks.  Thomas goes deeper still: ‘It makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatness of Time, Space and Nature.’  The Plain offers the modern naturalist a feeling of overwhelming loss, for it is our sole surviving tract of deep soil downland.  Elsewhere only steep slope downland and the odd isolated fragment survived the ravages of the 20th century agricultural revolution.     

But one beneficial change that has occurred within modern agriculture is that Rooks are no longer mercilessly shot.  As a child in west Somerset I was horrified, even frightened by the sight of Rook carcasses bedraggled on barbed wire fences, like platoons of troops hanging on barbed wire after the first day of the Somme battle, and by rotting rags of black feathers dangling like hanged men from farm string attached to poles angled into the ground.  This may have much to do with the cost of modern cartridges and the banning of cheap homemade versions, as with the recognition that Rooks do more good than harm, devouring the likes of the dreaded eelworm.  But it is nonetheless welcome. 

My own village rookery, a paltry affair when compared to the majesty on offer around Salisbury Plain, seems to be having a bumper year.  The apparently-rich banker who periodically blasted them out, perhaps mistaking them for pigeons, moved out of the ostentatious house he tenanted in a hurry, leaving behind unpaid bills, and the rookery is once again at peace behind the corrugated iron village chapel.  Last year the rookery contained 18 nests, this year the tally is currently 23, not out.  Rooks pervade.  It is time we recognised that.

One personal challenge is to help the National Trust to recognise its major rookeries and Rook and Jackdaw communal roostings, and develop them – sensitively – as visitor experience attractions.  The Trust knows where nearly all its rare species and habitats are, having vast data bases on these, but scarcely knows where its wider Wildlife Wows! can be experienced.  Sure enough, one can look down into rookeries from the keep of Tatton Castle and from the ridge of Crook Peak in the Mendips, and there are seriously profound rookeries at The Weir, a garden on the banks of the Herefordshire Wye, and at Attingham Park near Shrewsbury.  Also, the rookery at Acorn Bank purports to be the largest in Cumbria.  But we need to know where our most atmospheric rookeries are, for rookeries are often deeply atmospheric.  The one by Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales may take some beating here.  It is time we valued Rooks.