Nature Notes: A Quick One

Looking after our grandson yesterday afternoon, we did an impromptu picnic on the lawn after he helped out pulling up weeds and couch grass from the borders.

We’d laid out an old sleeping bag and were chatting away when I spotted a creeping critter like the one in the image, making its way steadily under my wife’s legs. It’s not one I’ve noticed before as I’m sure I would have done given its bright colour and distinct red tail. It was about half the size of my little finger, the yellow of a highlighter pen, with black lateral markings which only appeared when it stretched forwards in motion. It was fairly hairy all over but it had four stiff looking tufts, like tiny shaving brushes, along the forward part of its back. It looked designed for dangerous intent, despite its size.

Ironically, the adult moth it would become is a most inconspicuous one. It is the Pale Tussock Moth, a moth whose grey colouring is perfect camouflage against tree bark.

The caterpillar was likely looking for a place to pupate. It does this under old leaf litter where it overwinters. A nice fact I found is that the caterpillars sometimes feed on hop leaves and the old hop pickers of Kent, in SE England, knew them as Hop Dogs.

The hairs are rumoured to cause skin irritation though I didn’t know it at the time and felt no ill effects after rescuing it from a potential picnic blanket tragedy.

I had no camera available so this is a stock shot, sorry, the best I could bear to find on google.

More Stoats (nature notes)

What did I say?!

It had been a strange and frustrating journey home this evening. I set off in good time but my fellow drivers had other ideas:

First, there was an HGV struggling up a very steep hill. No problem on most days as it’s served by a dual carriageway. However, a guy two cars in front, driving what looked like a perfectly able car, barely managed to go faster than the trucker.

Secondly, I came across an unexpected tailback. It was caused by a stationary horsebox – not the trailer type but one of those pantechnicon things which always seem to be driven by a middle-aged, mumsie-looking woman in a gilet and head scarf. Sure enough, a woman seen matching that description – though minus scarf (it was warm) -could be seen on the other side of the road waving down traffic. God knows what that was about; maybe she’d misplaced her nag.

Following this, I managed to get behind slower-than-the-speed limit no. 2 but after a few twisty bends, the road opened up enough to pass. A couple more twisty bends and I was behind an old banger – slower-than-the-speed limit no. 3. It was an MG open-topped death trap, emitting a stench of two parts burnt oil to one part raw fuel, each time the driver shifted gear.

Finally, we hit another straight stretch where I passed safely. All in vain: around the next bend was a Romanian HVG barely touching 30. The speed limit for the road is 60mph.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too far from the cut through, a narrow country lane, where I spotted a stoat a week back. I turned into the lane and cruised about a mile from where the stoat was seen when I saw a group of animals scurrying along in the distance, tight into the verge.

I took them for partridge initially as there is a lot of game bred in these parts. I slowed right down as I approached them as birds are unpredictable, but then the group suddenly turned a right angle and I could see they were definitely stoats. One hundred percent.

Four of them, running across the road, leapfrogging, and playing what could have been stoat tag. I’m guessing they were siblings. What is the group noun for stoats? What do you call them at birth? A litter? A kettle? I don’t yet know.

The lesson of this tale to take away is not to get irritated by delay. It’s just time’s way of presenting an different experience. Had I not been held up, I’m sure I would have passed by long before the stoats happened to cross. It was a rewarding sight.

Nature Notes

It’s a funny thing I’ve found when noticing nature: as soon as you see an unusual animal, or plant, and identify it, you begin to see them all over the place. And a good thing about my drive into work in the mornings is spotting wildlife (and other animals).

This week, a stoat crossed my path (I don’t know if that’s ominous, like a black cat or something). Now I think I’ve seen the likes of this critter cross my path many times before but usually in a flash, and I’ve supposed it to be a weasel; a small, thin brown blur and it’s gone before you know it, into the grass or hedgerows.

The difference between a weasel and a stoat.

My country uncle once explained it to me:

“While weasels are weasily identifiable, stoats are stoatally different.”

Luckily this time my stoat decided to stop halfway across the road to look me over. The thing I noticed most about it in those couple of seconds was the black bushy end to its tail. When I had a chance to google it, I found that the black tail end is the surest way to tell the difference between it and a weasel. Weasel’s tails are stubby and hardly noticeable, and no black bits.

The weasel is the UK’s smallest carnivore so I’ll assume the stoat is our second smallest carnivore being just a couple of inches longer at around 10″, nose to tail. Even so, it preys on rabbits and can tackle an adult, no problem. Another significant difference between them is that stoats tend to hunt during daylight hours, though I’m sure I’ve spotted weasels during the day too.

So, now I’m on the look out for stoats and I expect to see thousands of them all over the place. See if I don’t.

image: Margaret Holland via Wildlife Trusts

The Road Gang

We are settling into village life more and more and I received a nice email thanking me for my participation in the village tidy up. There were about a dozen of us meeting up last Saturday morning. We each had a pair of gloves, a hi-vis tabard, a plastic sack and one of those extended picker devices operated by a trigger so we didn’t have to keep bending down. Then we scattered to different points of the compass to pick litter.

The last time I went on litter patrol was at school. Then, it was seen as a punishment for some trivial felony, like refusing to wear a school cap or picking one’s nose in religious education. Although there was the ecological and aesthetic benefit to school, the purpose behind it was more humiliation.

But on this occasion it felt good and worthy. It helped that the morning’s weather was mild and sunny, and my stretch of road offered high views across the fields where there were sheep and lambs and cattle.

It was a big sack and I was worried I’d not fill it and look like a worthless newbie on my debut. So I busied myself with every speck of paper and dog end I could spot while my companions strode forth and were soon almost out of sight. I needn’t have worried; a little past the village welcome sign, I found all sorts of discarded detritus. Mostly, it was the expected soda pop cans, coffee cups and drink cartons, occasionally a takeaway container and a burger meal bag. I did find the broken remains of a car accident which filled up the sack to breaking point – I knew then I wasn’t to fail.

The oddest things I picked up in the space of an hour were, a large medicine bottle with a prescription label, an empty economy bottle for hair conditioner, a plastic box for small tools – the places for pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. were clearly indented – a race competitor’s number label, 106 – I hope she or he wasn’t disqualified for losing this – and a pair of cut down denim jeans.

I got the hand of the extended litter picker eventually but I will say a thank you to all those considerate individuals who crush their cans before throwing them out the car window. Crushed cans are a lot easier to pick up with an extended litter picker than uncrushed ones – these tend to slip away as soon as they’re clamped. So, thank you crushers! A little thoughtfulness in a world of mindlessness makes life a little better.

Yeah, right.

One hello and two goodbyes

I have written before how I could become in time one of the last sons of Middlesex. I mention this because recently I have seen photographs of this once agrarian county of England being consumed by the creeping tide of a London expansion. Suburbia was to be its new crop, perennial and unyielding, though eventually showing signs of going to seed. Looking over these photos of precise grids of similar houses, of clean, barren streets between orderly rows of little shops, I feel sadness even though I never knew its countryside. I imagine the farms and the people working the fields, and the villagers, self-contained and neighbourly, and their children playing in the streams and brooks, under a broad, open sky.

Samuel Johnson once said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life“. But I bet he never lived or worked in its suburbs.

They say that the entire human population can be housed in average sized family homes, with a small garden, in a suburb not much larger than Texas. I think this would be a good idea. And we could all go to work in Oklahoma, leaving the rest of the planet to be “rewilded”. Or at least managed in a sustainable, close to natural way.

I, myself, had a desire to leave as early as ten years old but had to endure it a further fifteen years. Yet, after a further quarter of a century in my adopted home, I can see the invasiveness of urban culture around me. Expansion seems inevitable, grace, peacefulness and beauty is discounted and up for grabs. Our government has promised 300,000 new build homes each year to solve a “crisis”; it’s not clear for how many years.

Idealist, or fantasists, I’m not quite sure, talk of going to Mars. It may come to that and I feel as sad for that generation to come as I do for the generation I imagined in the old photos, losing their lifestyle, their future and their culture. For progress.

Written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #65.

Middlesex was an English county, known as a “Home County” for being close to London, the capital and traditional seat and home of the monarchy. In 1965, it was divided between Greater London and neighbouring counties; it ceased to be although addresses containing Middlesex were valid until the introduction of national alpha-numerical “post codes” made this inclusion unnecessary.

The name derives historically from the domain of the Middle-Saxons, the collective immigrant/ invaders/raiders (along with the Angles and other Germanic peoples) who came to rule some time after the Romans, around the 5th Century and up until the Norman conquest in the 11th Century.

The radical north-west suburban expansion into what was coined “Metroland” on account of the above ground extensions of the London Underground rail networks, began in the early twentieth century. Further sprawl was partly contained by the “Green Belt”, a narrow ring of permanent countryside, though this is continually under threat.

In Samuel Johnson’s day, London more or less finished at about Hyde Park.

A Bit of Englishness

In Winter months, on occasional weekends, we like to have a traditional roast in a country pub: moist, pink beef slices, roast potatoes, baked root vegetables, sour red cabbage, cauliflower cheese, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Delicious, bit really it’s all an excuse to sit in a pub on an afternoon and enjoy a decent English ale.

When the warmer weather comes, albeit unreliably and all too brief, a roast isn’t always agreeable, but the pint still beckons. Our considerations turned to the Ploughman’s Lunch, and here’s the thing: pubs don’t seem to be doing them much any more. Not around here, anyway. It’s either gastropub menus or sandwiches.

This lunchtime, we tried out the pub in the Cotswold village of Withington, about nine miles from us, though this was our first visit. Things were looking up as we entered the car park and found parking under some trees, out of the sun. We walked through the open garden which had plenty of tables, many unoccupied, and almost all with wide parasols. Inside the quaint, old building, on top of the bar, there was a small chalkboard on which was written: PLOUGHMAN’S LUNCHES – Stilton & cheddar or Ham & beef.

We sat in the garden, a table on the lawn by a babbling stream. The sun shone in a clear sky but the breeze was cool and gentle. A church wedding was in process – we’d seen it on coming into the village – and the church bells rang. Somewhere behind us, through some trees, there was a tennis court and when the bells paused, they were replaced by the softer puck, puck, puck of a tennis match.

The only thing the scene lacked was a vicar strolling along the lane and a bobby on a bicycle.

If only every day could be like this.

photograph: Pinterest