Keats’ ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is giving us stunning views, thick fog and, lately, plenty of mists. London and the South East of England have been fogbound for the last two days. Further west in South West England and West Wales we have been somewhat luckier. The problem with fog is its unpredictability. Sunday started misty but developed into the warmest November day in the UK since records began (22C/72F).
With a decent forecast for Monday and a deterioration predicted for the rest of the week, my daughter Heather and I decided that if we wanted any photographs of Exmoor’s famous Red Deer as the Rut came to a close, it would have to be Monday. Monday dawned with thick fog and we headed west more in hope than expectation and the gloom continued even as we reached Exmoor.
Sometimes you have to keep the faith, as we crested the hill between Minehead and Porlock shards of sunlight burst through the valley mist and we had an inkling that something special was going to happen. We headed for the high ground as quickly as was prudent before the sun started to disperse the low cloud.
As we emerged from the top of the cloud into sparkling blue skies the early start and dubious optimism were immediately rewarded. The hilltops of Exmoor’s highest hills peaked through the top of a sea of marshmallow clouds. This white blanket stretched out across the sea to Wales and the tops of the Brecon Beacons mountains were also visible above the clouds.
What had purported to be a wildlife photography day was now a dual purpose shoot – scenery and wildlife. We crossed our fingers that the wildlife would ‘play ball’ as well as the scenery had! Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor is usually reliable for catching a glimpse of Exmoor’s native herd of Red Deer and is also famous for its stunning views. The obvious destination.
Dunkery didn’t disappoint scenically so now for the deer!
The deer turned up too. What a fantastic day. Memories enough to last through the long winter months!
So the big question is; would it be feasible or viable to rewild the United Kingdom?
Knowing the definition of ‘rewilding’ would help. To my mind ‘rewilding’ is the reintroduction of lost species and allowing/encouraging natural habitat to regenerate. The call for this to happen is becoming ever louder.
The landscape of the British Isles is very, very different to the one you would have seen 6000 years ago. This is the point at which the ‘hunter gatherer’ decided to stop the nomadic lifestyle, tie himself to a piece of land and start farming it. Vast tracts of forest were cleared for cultivation and moorlands became managed landscapes. The hand of man (in the form of hunting and redevelopment of the land) have further denuded the landscape.
During recent years there have been small victories; principally reintroductions of birds such as the White Tailed Eagle and the Red Kite. It’s fair to say that these top predators were not welcomed unreservedly by fishermen and gamekeepers!
Other successful reintroductions have included the return of the Great Bustard to Salisbury Plain and the Common Crane to the Somerset Levels.
These species reintroductions are a source of great joy and each represents a little victory, a small step forward and should be applauded. Much of the value is symbolic; it is possible to save a species, it is possible to reclaim a habitat. The cynic in me (and he is very strong) tells me that these (comparatively small) high profile successes tend to insulate ‘Joe Public’ from the unpalatable ecological reality.
So, what else can we do?
Many environmental commentators advocate the introduction (reintroduction) of keystone species. My definition of a keystone species is one which will change its environment for the benefit of other species. Examples include beaver, lynx, wild boar, elk and……..there’s no way around mentioning it……..the wolf.
There have already been some very successful reintroductions of beaver in the UK; some planned, others not. Beavers slow the flow of rivers by building dams and in many circumstances are a positive force in flood control.
Wild Boar are a very successful keystone species. They have, effectively, reintroduced themselves. They’re far too smart for us to keep them fenced in and they’re out there in numbers in places as diverse as Exmoor, Surrey and the Forest of Dean. Their scratching and wallowing opens up the forest floor. We have recently had the first fatal car crash between a human and a wild boar. This will certainly put the Boar on the radar for the wrong reasons.
So the Lynx is on the list of keystone species and would be a suitable top predator. A typical range for one Lynx is 250 square kilometres (a box about nine miles by nine miles) they are elegant, solitary and do not have any ‘folklore baggage’. Are we ready for the Lynx effect? Probably!
So who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf? Plenty of people I suspect. This species would doubtless do the job required but I can’t see much public appetite for a reintroduction.
Why do we need top predators?
Historically areas such as the Scottish Highlands were cleared for sheep. The reason that these landscapes have not recovered to native woodland is the excessive numbers of deer which eat the saplings. Why is there an excessive deer population? They have no natural predator. The only deer management is by man. The Highlands are not the only area with an excess of deer. The Thames and Chiltern area, on London’s doorstep. is overrun by deer, as is much of central and southern England. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
So it’s that simple then?
Absolutely not. The issue of rewilding is going to bring enthusiasts into direct conflict with farmers, sporting estates and other rural enterprises. Nobody has a monopoly on correctness but the conversation needs to take place and the more informed voices taking part the better.
Don’t wait for the conservation ‘establishment’ to do it for you. I find myself agreeing with Chris Packham (this doesn’t always happen) that the conservationists in the UK have, in many cases, got too involved in politics and have become timorous. I fear that they are so tied in to local government and fighting for budget share that they’ve lost sight of the fact that they should be fighting on another front altogether (and seeing a much bigger picture).
I grew up on the coast. For my first twenty years I could look out of our back window straight on to a tidal estuary with sailing boats bobbing at anchor.When we headed down to the river we would be carrying oars, an outboard motor, fishing tackle or a bait-digging fork. Sometimes all of these things!
When I left home and made my way in the world, I lived in a number of lovely, landlocked places. Beautiful but far from the sea. Joni Mitchell really got it right; ‘you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone’. Today I was due to do some filming on the coast of West Somerset and I went to bed excited about seeing the sea in the morning. This morning ‘something had come up’ and we couldn’t make the trip. My sense of disappointment was acute, much more so than it would have been had I cancelled a trip to a non coastal location.
Nowadays I am fortunate to be able to visit coastal regions as diverse as England’s South West, the south coast of England, the west coast of Wales, Cumbria, Yorkshire and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They are all beautiful and all have their unique geography, geology, flora and fauna. But there’s more to it than that. The people tend to have that stoic humour – the kind that tells you ‘we’ve been battered by storms before and we’ll be battered by storms again (and it won’t get us down)’ and there are a wealth of local traditions; a good example being ‘Obby Oss’ in the small fishing port of Padstow every Mayday.
Chesil Beach, Dorset
Being an island race the British have a tremendous love for the sea. Even those who glimpse it rarely. There can’t be a family which heads for the coast on holiday where the competition in the car isn’t who’s first to see the sea. What I find encouraging is that all of these people are so thrilled with their visits to the coast; because if it thrills them and they love it, hopefully they’ll show it some love and be motivated to look after it. If the British people hear about pollution events at sea, it’s not something that they have a ‘disconnect’ with. This is someone messing around with their formative childhood memories, the experiences that they want to share with their future offspring and it makes them angry. So long live the Great British Seaside Holiday – one of the ecologist’s trump cards!
Due south of London is an unspoiled landscape which has been awarded National Park status, England’s newest National Park in fact. The landscape consists of rolling chalk downland which reaches the sea at a series of dramatic cliffs.
I recently had the pleasure of leading a small group of walkers based in the medieval village of Alfriston.
Our first day’s walk took us along the coast from Birling Gap over the Seven Sisters Cliffs to Exceat with its distinctive Ox Bow lakes and then along the Cuckmere estuary to Alfriston (stopping at the excellent Plough and Harrow Inn at Littlington for refreshment).
Our second walking day took us through beechwoods and over rolling downland to the village of Jevington. Bizarrely, Jevington was the birthplace of Banoffi Pie! Nestling in a fold of the landscape Jevington is a delightful village with an excellent pub, the Eight Bells which we duly visited. Beyond Jevington our objective was one of the South Downs iconic landmarks; the Wilmington Long Man.
.Our other walks took us from the Jack and Jill windmills at Clayton to the historic town of Lewes, home to dissident and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, and scene of the historic Battle of Lewes
‘Eryri’ (literally translated it means ‘home of the eagles’) is the Welsh name for the Snowdonia National Park, a wild region of dramatic, soaring peaks, surging rivers and tranquil valleys. A stronghold of the Welsh language, the region is a mecca for hikers, climbers, kayakers, cavers, mountain bikers and adrenaline sports enthusiasts.
The mountain which gives the region its name, Snowdon (Welsh: Yr Wyddfa), is the highest mountain in Wales or England and, therefore, receives the lions’ share of visitors. There is a ‘park and ride’ service to the trailheads from the nearest village, there is even a cog railway up the mountain and a bar near the summit. At the height of the holiday season and on sunny summer weekends thousands of walkers and train riders visit the mountain each day. It is very tempting, in the light of these numbers, to turn your nose up at Snowdon but it does have some magnificent ridge walking and scrambling and some very challenging rock climbing. The view from the summit is awesome, if you happen to be up there on one of the few days that it isn’t shrouded in cloud!
If you do visit Snowdonia in the high season, why not use this mass obsession with Snowdon to your advantage. Snowdonia is a sprawling area dotted with a large number of spectacular mountains and wild areas. The Moelwyn mountains offer wild, lonely walking and stunning views.
At busy times, I head straight for the Ogwen valley, a steep sided valley sandwiched between the ‘Glyders’ and the ‘Carnedds’. The most striking mountain on the Glyders is Tryfan and the higher Glyders are accessed by ‘Bristly Ridge’ which is just how it sounds!
Hidden from view and nestling in the shadow of the Glyders is Cwm Idwal, a glacially sculpted ‘hanging valley’ containing a picture perfect lake (geologically speaking, a Tarn) Llyn Idwal. A path snakes its way up from the lake to the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Glyders, but if you look carefully there is a fissure, the Devil’s Kitchen, with a rocky staircase up through it. If you’ve just watched ‘the Hobbit’ this route might concentrate your mind. In 35 years, I have yet to meet a dragon!
On the other side of the valley, across Llyn Ogwen, is the forbidding steepness of Pen yr Ole Wen but once you have reached the top of this particular bastion you find yourself on an undulating whaleback ridge with several peaks of 0ver 3000 feet and beautiful sea views. Do the whole thing and you can end your walk in historic, medieval Conway (Welsh: Conwy), with its stunning castle. Ah yes, as well as all of the adventure sports and spectacular scenery, Snowdonia is absolutely crammed with history and is home to some of Britain’s finest castles; Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech to name but three.
Since the end of World War II some 97% of the wild flower meadows in England and Wales have disappeared, it’s high time we reversed the trend. Some people are already making the effort.
Last week , accompanied by my daughter Heather, I had the privilege of visiting Highgrove House. Highgrove is the home of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. We had the opportunity to look around the gardens, in particular the reintroduced wild flower meadows, and then to listen to a talk by Dr Trevor Dines of the charity Plantlife.
What’s important about wildflower meadows? A fair question. Wildflower meadows typically contain between 150 and 160 species of plant; a modern, intensively-farmed field typically contains fewer than 10. Obviously we have a world to feed and intensive agriculture is necessary but, as we are teetering on the brink of a huge extinction event, we have to make some provision for biodiversity. These meadows support huge and diverse ecosystems.
In Golden Jubilee year, 2013, the ‘Coronation Meadows‘ scheme was launched. This scheme encourages people to identify suitable meadows in their area and for communities to establish new wildflower meadows by effectively using the established meadows as ‘seed donors’ for these new projects.
Gardeners can plant wildflower areas but should be wary of seed mixes containing only annual varieties. Packs of seeds containing perennial varieties including ‘yellow rattle’ are more suitable.
Another major refuge for these dwindling wildflower species are the roadside verges, regrettably a number of county councils are cutting these verges before these flowers are able to set seed. There is an online petition encouraging councils to delay the verge cutting (other than in positions where road safety would be compromised).
When you live in an area as rich in wildlife as the Wylye Valley in Wiltshire you can’t turn your back for a minute, so much can change in such a short time. Go for a walk in a wildflower meadow near you. It’ll lift your spirits and feed your soul!
Having spent a very enjoyable four weeks away walking and hiking in the Cotswolds and on the coast of Cornwall, I returned to find the wildflower meadows of the Wiltshire Downs to be awash with colour as attractive butterflies and moths skipped around a profusion of wild orchids and other wild flowers. Wiltshire has a huge proportion of what’s left of this threatened habitat, ‘unimproved calcareous grassland’ (meadow and pasture on limestone or chalk which has never been sprayed with chemicals), which is now protected.
This year’s show of orchids (especially the rarer varieties) is the best I’ve ever seen.
With all this profusion of plant life, it’s no surprise that the parasitic Broomrapes are out in numbers. They are brown, no chlorophyll required as they tap into the roots of other plants for nutrients, but an attractive oddity in their own right and all part of the natural order of things.
So keep an eye on nature reserves and rare habitats around your area, you might have a chance of being there when Mother Nature has her annual explosion.
It’s been a while since my previous post, but I haven’t been wasting my time. I’ve been leading two great groups of hikers on walking adventures in the Cotswolds, Cornwall and places in between such as Wells and Bath.
If you enjoy pastoral scenery, picturesque villages, wildflower meadows, drystone walls and old buildings the Cotswolds are for you.
If, on the other hand, rugged coastal scenery is what you crave, head for Cornwall. Craggy cliffs teeming with bird life and all the wildflowers, small animals and insects to support a vibrant ecosystem are waiting for you.
The pretty fishing villages are worth a look too.
So whether you enjoy soft and pastoral or something much wilder – Go West!
The Pennine hills are known as the backbone of England; rising in Derbyshire in the very middle of England and meandering northwards to cross the border into Scotland north of Hadrians’ Wall. For those who are up for a challenge, there is a hiking trail along this chain of hills – the Pennine Way. Renowned as England’s toughest National Trail (no arguments from me on that score), British walkers are celebrating its fiftieth annivesary. In 274 miles of wild walking there will be emotional ups and downs to go with the topographical ones. This is a description of my favourite stretch. I’ve walked and hiked all over the world but very few of those walks come close to touching this.
This magnificent stretch is around the half way stage on the route and, for many, provides that lift to the spirits which silences those little voices suggesting that you might quit (many do on the Pennine Way).
Our walk starts at the very traditional Northern town of Middleton-in-Teesdale, a great place to refresh, have a beer and a meal, resupply and regain your sense of proportion. The next 25 miles are sublime. The Pennine Way follows the banks of the River Tees upstream through a limestone landscape filled with waterfalls, rapids and wild flowers.
This area was the last place in England to lose its glacier during the Ice Age and still boasts arctic flower species not to be found anywhere else in the Land. Given that it abounds with Alpine and Limestone species too, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a real hotspot for wildflower enthusiasts. The mechanisation in farming since World War Two has seen a decline in traditional hay meadows. The last few square miles are in Teesdale and are now heavily protected. A globally significant ecosystem teetering on the brink.
On reaching Langdon Beck (great little Youth Hostel here), the Pennine Way heads out of Teesdale, westward across to the Eden Valley and the pretty village of Dufton. We may be saying goodbye to gorgeous Teesdale with its thundering waterfall and carpet of wild flowers but the fun is far from over.
After walking across the limestone pavement at Falcon Clints the route takes you up the side of Cauldron Snout to cross the roaring water on a little metal bridge. A couple of miles of upland pasture and you reach the jaw dropping spectacle of the land dropping away below your feet at High Cup Nick.
You have crossed the Pennine watershed and the path takes you down to the pretty, almost picture postcard, village of Dufton in the valley of the river Eden.
There is a welcoming pub and a post office which serves teas at Dufton. Make the most of them. The next stretch is hard.
Towering above Dufton is Cross Fell, at a shade under three thousand feet the highest point in the Pennines. Cross Fell has another distinction too, the Helm.
A comparatively small island sat in the North Atlantic, let’s make no bones about it in Britain we get wind. We’re so ‘matter of fact’ about high winds that we don’t bother to name them; no Mistrals, Scirocco’s or Levanters here. The weather phenomenon unique to Cross Fell is the only wind we give a name to – the Helm. To simplify a very complicated thing; a cap of stable air sits above Cross Fell and when strong winds blow down from the East they are channeled through the gap between this and the top of the hill, the wind then accelerates down the hill and hits the villages in the valley. Whilst doing all this the moaning and wailing sound is extraordinary. I’ve been caught out twice and on one of those occasions had to crawl off the summit plateau. A truly wild place.
In the United Kingdom we don’t so much have a climate as a lot of different weather; sometimes ‘all four seasons in one day’. With the gulf stream bringing warm water and mild air across the Atlantic Ocean from the west ; cold Northerlies blowing down from Iceland and Easterlies straight from Siberia and mix those in with the occasional hot Southerly straight up from the Sahara and you have weather which is notoriously difficult to predict. The weathermen certainly do get it right more often than not these days, but on occasions they have got it spectacularly wrong. It doesn’t help their cause that when this happens countryside dwellers and folklore exponents nod sagely over their cider and mutter things like ‘the bees weren’t flying, it was obvious bad weather was on its way’.
Red sky at night, Sailors’ delight…….
This certainly has its roots in scientific fact. The vast majority of the UK’s weather arrives from the west (off the Atlantic). If there’s nothing obscuring the light of the sun as it sinks in the west, there’s a very strong likelihood that the weather will remain clear overnight and into the morning.
Rain before seven, sun before eleven……
This one is probably correct more often than it’s wrong. Most of our rain comes from the west and is blown through on stiff Atlantic breezes. It generally takes three or four hours for a weather front to pass through.
Ne’er cast a clowt ’til ‘t May is out………
Great advice if you can understand it! Allow me to translate; don’t put away your warm clothes until the May is out. The May in question is the ‘May Blossom’, predominately Hawthorn. In these days of climatic uncertainty we should probably add; and dinna throw ‘oot the sunblock ’til December.
When clouds appear like cliffs and towers, the earth will be washed by rain and showers………..
True. The towering cumulonimbus clouds definitely herald rain, but light or heavy? If the clouds are ‘bubbly topped’ and look a little like candy floss they are unlikely to give much more than light rain. If, however, the top is flattened and wispy it points to there being ice in the atmosphere and there is the real likelihood of a heavy storm.
Mare’s Tails and Mackerel Scales make tall ships carry low sails………
Pretty much true. The ‘mackerel scales’ are Cirrocumulus and are composed mostly of ice. They herald unsettled, squally weather. Mare’s Tails are a little more complicated – if they are pointing up cloud is descending, which generally is not good news. There is another rhyme;
‘Mackerel sky, Mackerel Sky, Never long wet, Never long dry’.
If woolly fleeces bestow the heavenly way, be sure no rain shall come today…
If the clouds look like fluffy sheep or small cushions of cotton wool, it’s your lucky day. These scattered cumulus really are fair weather clouds and indicate a settled weather pattern.
Beyond the sayings and the ‘old wives’ tails’ a little bit of commonsense advice…….
Always take a rain jacket. It’s also windproof and, if the weather gods are have really smiled on you, it will come in handy as a picnic rug!
A good practical method for predicting the weather for the next few hours whilst you are out; stand with your back to the wind. If the clouds are travelling with the wind, you’re in for pretty much of the same. If they are moving left to right, stand by for a deterioration.
Thirty years as a mountain leader has taught me a lot. If you don’t have the odd thirty years to spare I can recommend Tristan Gooley’s book; ‘the Walker’s Guide To Outdoor Clues and Signs’ isbn: 978-1-444-78008-6 or check out his website